Those who are familiar with WWII reenacting know that every Wehrmacht or Waffen SS outfit always describes itself as “apolitical” or “non-political.” There are a number of good reasons for this. One is that in the US, reenactment groups often utilize fully automatic weapons or at least possess a number of firearms, and so it’s always good for Uncle Sam to understand that the group calling itself “1st Waffen SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” is nothing more than a historical reenactment group and not a group of armed men who engage in paramilitary training and really, really like Hitler.
Of course if your really familiar with the world of WWII reenactment and Third Reich militaria, you know that “apolitical” is often bullshit. This isn’t to say that those Wehrmacht and Waffen SS reenactors are all real Nazis. Many of these people unwittingly spread myths that glorify these forces without having any ideological motivation. When you talk about the “brave” Wehrmacht and Waffen SS saving the West from Bolshevism on the Eastern Front, you’re repeating Nazi propaganda even if you overtly condemn Hitler and the Third Reich. The real problem is, however, that if you were a real neo-Nazi, so long as you didn’t come out and say it you’d probably find yourself quite at home in such a community. In fact I’m quite certain a number of these individuals are both known and tolerated among some reenactment group so long as they don’t draw too much negative attention.
The point is that under certain conditions, people with otherwise odious ideologies can go unnoticed, spreading their own propaganda under the cover of something more “respectable.” For a more common example, take the subject of illegal immigration in America. In mainstream American political discourse it is considered legitimate to support increased restrictions on immigration based on economic arguments, however flawed they may be. But when the anti-immigration hysteria reaches such a frenzied level within part of the population, it becomes a perfect venue for those whose opposition to immigration stems from racial hatred. These people can navigate the movement with ease and seek out those who might be receptive to their message, especially in private. In short, there is fertile soil for ideas which can’t survive in the mainstream.
And so we come to today’s topic, and if you’re wondering whether it’s going to be Ukraine or Russia well…*drumroll*… It’s Ukraine. I wish I could say it’s good news but it’s not. The Jerusalem Post reports on accusations that authorities in Kyiv may be engaging in subtle Holocaust revisionism in regards to the memorials at Babi Yar, where around 33,000 Jews were killed in mass shootings over a period of two days, and about 100,000 Ukrainians, Gypsies, Russians, and other people considered to be undesirable to the occupation authorities were shot until they were forced to evacuate before the advancing Red Army. Jewish critics say this is an attempt to cover up the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the massacre. Oh and guess whose name pops up in this controversy? That’s right, our favorite fairy tale author Volodymyr Viatrovych!
For anyone who doesn’t know, Ukraine’s far right, much like that of Russia or many other countries, consists of “we’re not fascist” fascists. I’ve encountered such people from a variety of countries for years. Basically it works like this. They’re not fascists because they don’t call themselves fascists. Sure, there’s not a single pro-Axis fighter or leader they don’t admire in some way. Sure, they say Communism was far worse than Nazism and show respect to the Third Reich for “saving the West from Bolshevism.” Sure, they’ll engage in Holocaust denial. Yes, they drop antisemitic memes and statements left and right, but they’re really just “anti-Zionist!” Okay yes, they do express hatred toward other races, but really it’s about love for your own people! Of course they condemn gays and lesbians as degenerate perverts and want to confine women to “traditional” roles. Indeed, they do all this and more…BUT DON’T YOU DARE CALL THEM FASCISTS, YOU DEGENERATE CULTURAL MARXIST!
In the case of Ukraine, some apologists have tried to suggest that while certain Ukrainian far right organizations may have begun as such, they are much more moderate and inclusive now. It has been claimed that they have come to embrace a different national idea of Ukraine, where Ukrainian identity is rooted in citizenship and not ethnicity. While it is true that groups like Praviy Sektor and the Azov battalion are in fact not anti-Russian, there is ample evidence to show that these groups, particular the latter, are just as far-right as they were before. One of Shaun Walker’s articles contains a quote from an Azov fighter that provides a perfect example of the sort of views we’re talking about here:
“I have nothing against Russian nationalists, or a great Russia,” said Dmitry, as we sped through the dark Mariupol night in a pickup truck, a machine gunner positioned in the back. “But Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.”
And a bit further down:
“Dmitry claimed not to be a Nazi, but waxed lyrical about Adolf Hitler as a military leader, and believes the Holocaust never happened. Not everyone in the Azov battalion thinks like Dmitry, but after speaking with dozens of its fighters and embedding on several missions during the past week in and around the strategic port city of Mariupol, the Guardian found many of them to have disturbing political views, and almost all to be intent on “bringing the fight to Kiev” when the war in the east is over.”
Also the claim that these are just Ukrainian patriots who are inclusive of anyone who is for Ukraine and/or a Ukrainian citizen also goes against the facts.
While apologists for Ukrainian nationalists often try to downplay antisemitism, that weed never seems to go away for some reason. Researcher Jared McBride describes the horrors one goes through when trying to discuss certain topics in Ukrainian history, which in his case entailed “an esteemed member of the Ukrainian academy” using the term “Jewish scum” during a Q&A session. He relates how speakers would be asked about their ethnic background by members of the audience. I can relate. In my experience, failure to bow to the Bandera cult means you’ll probably be accused of being Russian, Polish, or, when debating with less worldly Ukrainian nationalists- Jewish.
Talking about the far right in Ukraine is no picnic. You can’t help but worry that some pro-Kremlin dupe or propagandist is going to cite your article as “proof” that Ukraine is run by a fascist junta. This is something you must learn to put out of your head. They’re going to label everyone in Ukraine Nazis regardless of what you say or right. What is more, these are people who make no effort to hide their connections with Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, and fascists of all stripes. Ergo when they condemn Ukrainian neo-Nazis real or imagined, they haven’t got a leg to stand on. These are people with relatively identical views on everything but a few trivial subjects. One must understand that for Ukraine to succeed, this conversation has to take place. The far-right is strong all over Eastern Europe, but Ukraine can rise above this in the way it deals with its own far-right and far-right ideas in general.
Unfortunately to date this hasn’t been the case. Cheerleading and fear of sounding like the Russian media has led many to tip toe around a problem that isn’t going away. Back when I was in Kyiv in 2007 and throughout 2010, there were a few tables on Maidan Nezhaleznosti selling nationalist paraphernalia, including books about Jewish conspiracies. In Moscow back then it was possible to find numerous people selling racist or antisemitic books on the street. When I returned to Kyiv in 2015, almost every souvenir stand I saw was selling something nationalist, from flags to t-shirts with Bandera on them. In one shop I even saw a small bust of Bandera for sale. I’m really sorry but this isn’t Russian propaganda.
As if that weren’t enough, my second time in Kyiv last year I was in line at the McDonald’s on Maidan and in front of me was a young, rather spindly looking skinhead. On one arm was a full color tattoo of a Nazi war flag. In spite of both his youth and size, he didn’t seem worried about getting any flak from anyone who might see that tattoo there, in the center of cosmopolitan Kyiv. Why is that the case? Later during that trip I overheard some young men outside a bar talking in Russian about David Lane, the infamous American domestic terrorist who is revered in American neo-Nazi circles and creator of the so-called “14 words.” On another occasion I observed a man, this time in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti underground market, wearing a German-style mountain troop cap with a 14th Waffen SS division badge on the side. This isn’t RT or Sputnik News; it’s real life.
And yes, I know you can find skinheads throughout Russia. I’ve seen some on the Moscow metro sporting what appeared to be the insignia of the collaborationist Russian National Liberation Army. Almost any historical festival in Russia is likely to have some neo-Nazis in attendance, and they aren’t shy by any means. In 2013 I was outraged to see neo-Nazis in St. Petersburg in a sanctioned march carrying a banner that read in Russian: “National Socialism – This is Order!” I’ve also done WWII reenacting in Russia and I can tell you that the “Germans,” who are often more numerous than the Red Army, often consist of shall we say, “method reenactors?” But that’s just it- this argument about neo-Nazis in Russia canceling out those in Ukraine is nothing but whataboutery. Wasn’t the whole point of Maidan to prevent Ukraine from going the way of Russia? Is Russia suddenly going to be the yardstick now?
Sure, most Ukrainian “patriots” have been swindled into believing the OUN and the UPA were nothing but patriotic organizations fighting for Ukrainian independence against the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. Last year I saw an exhibit that tried to place the UPA on the Allied side of the war, in fact. But ignorance as an excuse only goes so far, and though many of these people may be well-meaning and consciously opposed to the far-right, they are maintaining that fertile soil in which far-right ideas germinate so well.
If Ukrainian nationalism of the OUN variety is not fascist and inherently right wing, why do we constantly see these neo-Nazis popping up here and there? I think we all know what would happen if I showed up to a patriotic gathering wearing a red star t-shirt. Would the same happen if I had neo-Nazi tattoos? Ukraine’s government claims it bans both “totalitarian” ideologies. Viatrovych and his ilk claim that the UPA fought against the Nazis and Communists equally? Only the ridiculously ignorant, naive, or deliberately dishonest would suggest that Nazi tats would be treated the same as Communist symbolism by these “patriots.” I’ve seen how people react, or better said, don’t react, to neo-Nazi tattoos and insignia.
Covering up the problem or beating around the bush doesn’t help Ukraine, and it actually feeds the Russian narrative even more. Fortunately, and contrary to the claims of the Russian media, the “Western media” isn’t letting the Ukrainian far right slip away quietly. Unfortunately for doing so, many journalists like Shaun Walker get accused of being “paid Kremlin trolls.” This is infantilism plain and simple. If we don’t acknowledge and discuss the problem, the Kremlin media will be ready on hand to supply their narrative, and you’re not going to like it.
I’ve said it plenty of times- if Ukraine plans to rely on appeasing far-right thugs to win its war with Russia, it will surely lose. For then it’s simply a war of attrition and Russia has far more right-wing thugs to throw into the breach. And when the Ukrainian government continues to coddle the far-right and grovel before it even as its adherents threaten them and in one case, carry out a terrorist attack killing Ukrainian national guardsmen, it should be no secret as to where these more extremist neo-Nazis sprout from. They grow up in the fertile soil carefully tilled and fertilized by those who rewrite history and the people who cover for those who do. They’re nurtured by those who are too afraid to call out the far right out of an irrational fear of sounding pro-Kremlin.
Ukraine’s struggle to uproot the weeds of far right ideology from the soil is not simply about differentiating Ukraine from Russia, where the far-right is much more powerful, endorsed and backed by the state. It is also about standing out from the rest of Eastern Europe, much of which is mired in the same reactionary thinking. It is my hope that success in this struggle would make Ukraine a lighthouse in the midst of the darkness. Till this happens, all talk of “free Ukraine” is as much nonsense as the “freedom” the Kremlin offers its supporters. The only difference in that case is a matter of blue and yellow versus a tricolor.