Is There a Reason to Worry About the Ukrainian Far Right?
An attempt at an objective view at the present-day Ukrainian nationalism from someone who has been living in Ukraine for all of his life, is familiar with the country’s social and political situation from the inside… and would never vote for a nationalist party.
There are basically three kinds of nationalism, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The first one is the intellectual, healthy nationalism. These are the intellectuals who shape the national idea. People like this stood behind national movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Without them many modern European states would not exist and Europe would still be divided between several large empires. These people do not necessarily join far-right political parties (actually, the nineteenth-century nationalism was often left-wing, enamored with socialist ideas), or any parties at all, and, again, they are a healthy part of a pluralist political system.
The second type is the narrow-minded nationalism. You know, these are poorly educated people prone to xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. I see a lot of such people in Polish, Czech and even German social media segments (which doesn’t mean they don’t exist in other countries — it’s just that I speak the respective languages and read these segments of the web). Russia is full of such people. And, of course, there are people like this in Ukraine, but their numbers are decreasing over time. This is an unhealthy variety of nationalism, but it can be gradually cured with education.
Finally, there’s what I call the “ideological” nationalism. These are passionate activists who firmly believe in far-right ideologies and often join political parties or informal movements. Neo-Nazism, as well as the original National Socialism, is an extreme case of ideological nationalism.
Ideological nationalism in modern Ukraine has multiple varieties. To start with, there’s what we can call the original “Banderite” movement: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (CUN, or KUN), the Ukrainian National Assembly — Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), Svoboda (“Freedom”), and some smaller groups. For historical reasons, this movement is primarily associated with Western Ukraine which wasn’t part of the Russian Empire and the pre-1939 USSR and thus was able to better preserve the national idea.
As the term “Banderite” implies, these groups are associated with Stepan Bandera (1909–1959), a controversial figure who is viewed by them as a hero. Let’s try to sort the wheat from the chaff. It is true that Bandera was involved in violent acts before 1939 — that’s why he got imprisoned by the Polish government. It is also true that, being a right-wing activist, he saw in Hitler a better ad hoc ally than the Soviets. Finally, it is true that some of his followers joined the German army.
But Russian propaganda — which often stands behind the boogeyman image of Bandera — fails to mention some other facts. He did not directly participate in World War II and spent almost three years (1942–1944) in a German concentration camp, even if in relatively comfortable conditions, which means Hitler did not view him as an ally. Most importantly, Banderites were not fighting for Nazism; they were fighting for Ukraine’s independence. After Hitler’s perceived betrayal, when it became clear that independent Ukraine was not in his plans, Ukrainian nationalists ended up fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Yes, collaborating with the Nazis was wrong. Committing violence when you’re not under attack is also wrong. But equating the Banderites or Ukrainian nationalists in general with the Nazis is not entirely honest. For some reason, people usually don’t do the same in the case of the Finns who also had to side up with the Nazis as “the lesser evil”.
Then, I have to mention the Right Sector separately. This organization, formed at the end of 2013, during the Euromaidan revolution, was originally made up primarily of Banderites from some of the organizations mentioned above. However, it had soon gained much wider scope and included numerous Russian speakers — and even some Russian citizens. By contrast, it’s hard for me to imagine a Russian-speaking OUN, UNA-UNSO or Svoboda member. This belies one of the theses of Russian propaganda about the Ukrainian nationalists’ — and the Right Sector’s in particular — “genocide of Russian speakers”.
It is even more so in the case of the notorious Azov which includes many Russian speakers. It was formed in 2014 and is now a military unit of the Ukrainian army and thus can’t have any “official” political ideology of its own. However, it does have a political wing, the National Corps party formed in 2016. The party’s political program is publicly available online, and it’s rather typical for a European right-wing organization: national interests first, family, traditional values, and so on. A remarkable thing is that, when compared to other Ukrainian nationalist parties, the program does not emphasize the language issue — which is understandable in view of the above — and postulates the freedom of conscience — it is known of Neopagans and atheists in the Azov — while for other Ukrainian nationalist parties the “traditional values” are firmly rooted in Christianity.
But, you may say, political programs are written for the masses. Sure, some Azov members are more ideologically sophisticated and base their views not on Bandera or classical Ukrainian nationalism, but on the foundation of traditionalism à la Julius Evola and the Conservative Revolution. As with the original German conservative revolutionaries, some of them may be critical of Hitler while others may approve of some of his views and policies, which is still not the same as being straightforward Neo-Nazis.
But if there’s no Neo-Nazism in political ideologies, can it be found in actual deeds? I don’t know of any racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic activism by the Azov or the other organizations mentioned above. There may have been some isolated incidents, but that’s not something that would happen at scale or with any regularity. The Azov and other Ukrainian nationalist organizations are known for their homophobia and attempts to disrupt LGBT marches, but homophobia is not the exclusive prerogative of the far right — communists are often homophobic, too, and Russia is a blatantly homophobic country (though I do claim that Russia is presently a fascist state).
So, are there any actual Neo-Nazis in Ukraine at all? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there used to exist some informal Neo-Nazi skinhead groups in various Ukrainian cities — interestingly enough, they were often influenced by similar Russian groups, — but most of those people were teenagers or young adults back then and later either became normal, law-abiding citizens, or renounced Nazism and joined other, less extreme nationalist organizations. It may be that some of them are now in the Azov and are still secretly admiring Hitler, but it’s their private matter and not the official party line.
Then, if you’re into extreme underground music, you may have heard of the Ukrainian NSBM (“National Socialist Black Metal”) and RAC (“Rock Against Communism”) scene. Again, many of those people grew up and moved on. Some of the bands associated with this scene (like Drudkh or Kroda) actually never had any Nazi (racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, etc) references in their lyrics, so the NSBM tag was a misnomer to start with. Others (like Nokturnal Mortum) switched to less extremist, patriotic topics. I know of only two exceptions (though I don’t follow the newer bands, but I don’t think there’s anything remarkable). The first is actually the infamous Russian band M8L8TH which migrated to Ukraine somewhere around 2015 (and now also includes Ukrainian members). The other is the band Sokyra Peruna which did switch to less extremist lyrics, but, from what I see, keeps including some of its old songs with “white supremacy” themes in its new albums.
Thus, the ideological nationalism can be dangerous in its extreme forms. It’s also dangerous in its imperialist variety like in the case of Russia — or even Hungary, right under the nose of Europeans who are for some reason more alarmed about the nationalism in Ukraine. However, even though I consider it not really healthy, in its milder forms it has its place on the political map of a pluralist society.
But does this ideological nationalism have any influence on Ukrainian politics? Not really. There was a spike in nationalism’s popularity in 2014, after Euromaidan and at the beginning of the war in Donbas, but at the latest election all the nationalist parties together struggled to gather 5% of votes. These parties are counted with, but they are really but a minority.
However, we should expect a new spike in nationalism’s popularity after this full-scale Russian invasion, for several reasons:
- Many people would want to pay homage to the Azov soldiers for their heroism.
- Many Ukrainians, including Russian speakers, are now starting to rediscover their ethnic/national roots.
- Those Ukrainians who found refuge in western regions like Ternopil or Ivano-Frankivsk ruled by the nationalist Svoboda party were warmly welcomed and saw that these are actually nice places to live, and some of them, even upon returning to their homes in the east, north and south, will be inclined to vote for Svoboda or other nationalist parties.
- There is some resentment in Ukrainian society over Europe’s lacklustre military support which is often reflected in anti-liberal commentaries, especially from the people who were unknowingly influenced by toxic narratives supported by the Kremlin.
That said, I don’t see how Ukrainian nationalism is a more serious reason to worry than Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, or Alternative für Deutschland and Neo-Nazi marches in Germany, not to mention Russia — the real threat to the free world.
But if Europeans are really worried, they should not stand by and watch how this conflict will unfold. They need to demonstrate solidarity — and this may include providing weapons. They need to convince those in Ukraine who still have doubts that the liberal West is better than the conservative East. They need to invest in education and remain active in Ukrainian social, cultural and informational space.