I’ve written at length in the past about how Jacobin, like much of its Western leftist audience, just can’t get Ukraine. It seems the only time they get a voice that has actually been in the country, they choose one that tells them a story which confirms their personal prejudices- that Ukraine is overrun by right-wing fascists. It’s tempting to attribute all this to Russian propaganda, and it certainly played a large role, but the Russian propaganda machine didn’t need to expend much effort to cement their talking points into a large swathe of the Western left. All you need to do is show McCain on Maidan, talk about how the US is overthrowing a government to expand NATO, and many leftists’ brains turn to putty in your hands.
The over all thrust of today’s offending piece isn’t necessarily a bad one. It talks about how so-called decommunization in Eastern Europe has been used to justify authoritarian regimes both past and present. It also correctly points out how these laws are often hypocritical- claiming on one hand to criminalize both Communist and fascist symbols but with the ban on the later often poorly enforced. More on that later.
The piece starts off by describing the situation in Poland and Hungary. This is quite appropriate because Poland is currently ruled by an extremely nationalist, right-wing government that is so batshit insane they exhumed the body of their former president to “prove” Russia somehow engineered the plane crash that killed him. With its tireless vigilance against Muslim refugees who aren’t coming to Poland anyway, the country has in recent years become so associated with racist nationalism that it now rivals Russia as a…pole…if you will…for far right adherents worldwide.
Hungary just recently concluded an election in which the far-right Fidesz party and Viktor Orban won in a massive landslide. The past few years of his rule has been associated with a Putin-like crackdown on the free press and its conversion into a propaganda machine pumping out Islamophobic hysteria and conspiracy theories about George Soros.
And yet while those countries’ governments are currently in the solid grasp of their respective far right factions, guess which country Jacobin’s going to wail on in this piece?
Yep. Ukraine. The country where the far right does laughably poor in every election since Maidan. As soon as the writer starts in things go awry.
“In 2015, riding a wave of nationalist sentiment in the wake of conflict in the country’s east, Ukraine began an intensive process of decommunization.”
Oh what’s this? There’s a “conflict” in Ukraine’s east? Well where did that come from? Here we see one of the most infuriating sins of the Western left, the inability to acknowledge when a country that is not the United States or one of its allies or clients engages in an act of imperialist aggression. These are often the same types who are totally on the ball when the New York Times tweets something like: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the U.S. prepares to open its Jerusalem Embassy.” (To their credit they did change the headline of the actual story.)
But if it’s Russia engaging in aggression, well, a “conflict” just erupts somewhere. One in which an unusually large quantity of Russian citizens fight on one side, serve as military commanders, receive all manner of logistical support from Russia, and so forth.
The funny thing about that sentence is that it almost answers the readers’ own question about how this nationalism, specifically some of the more extreme forms they discuss further down, became so influential in Ukrainian civil societies if not in the upper echelons of state power. Put simply, they capitalized on the war that the Russians started.
But before moving past this point I need to point out that while some forms of nationalism have increased their visibility and influence thanks to the war, it is inaccurate to speak about a rise of nationalism in Ukraine as though it is inherently right wing. Since Maidan Ukraine has seen a kind of cultural revolution where its national identity is beginning to develop more freely. This is not in any way limited to ethnic Ukrainians either. The Crimean Tatars have been experiencing a cultural revival, and due to the annexation of Crimea Ukrainian society has been forced to confront the fact that in the past it failed to fully appreciate the Crimean Tatar plight, something it is now rectifying. Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Jews, and even nationalities not native to Ukraine or even the former Soviet Union are embracing what some people call a civic national identity (based on citizenship rather than ethnicity). The government, in its ever ham-fisted and inefficient way, has also been promoting this trend.
The reason I’m bringing all this up is because if you are a person who’s actually familiar with Ukrainian politics and Russian propaganda, you will understand that Ukrainian “nationalism,” in this vernacular, often has nothing to do with actual nationalism and certainly not right-wing beliefs, but rather everything to do with acknowledging Ukrainian culture as distinct and supporting Ukraine’s right to self-determination against Russian imperialism. I’ve often had pro-Russian commentators label me a Ukrainian nationalist and fascist despite the fact that this is an obviously radical leftist blog where I have routinely criticized right-wing Ukrainian nationalism, Ukraine’s memory politics, aspects of decommunization, and so forth. The point is that words don’t mean anything to these people. If you oppose their designs in Ukraine you are a Banderite and a neo-Nazi. If you oppose them in Syria, you’re a Wahhabist terrorist or at least a sympathizer. The point is, the Kremlin would very much like people to see that people wearing vyshivankas and speaking Ukrainian are “nationalists,” as though Ukraine has no legitimate culture save for what Moscow deems acceptable. For some reason I get the feeling that Western leftists ought to recognize this concept, and not indulge in it.
“Since then thousands of streets and hundreds of towns have been renamed, statues of Lenin have been torn down in every corner of the country, and political parties which are deemed too sympathetic to the Communist past have been banned — including the Communist Party of Ukraine, which regularly received millions of votes.”
The street renaming has at times been kind of ridiculous, not just because of poor choices but the fact that there are streets that have been renamed for years now and yet you wouldn’t know by looking at the signs. I spent half of 2017 in Kyiv living on Kikvidze street, even though it was officially renamed after Mikhailo Boichuk at the time (on Google maps this has since been rectified). As for Lenin statues, can someone give a legitimate reason for having hundreds of statues of a guy who has nothing to do with modern Ukraine in prominent places throughout the country? Sure, he had a big influence on the country’s political development, and not all entirely positive as well, but as we rightly argued against defenders of Confederate monuments- just because someone played a major role in a region’s history doesn’t mean they should have statues everywhere. In 1917 Ukraine had its own nascent socialist government, and could have developed in an entirely different trajectory were it not for Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ imperialist and colonialist prejudices toward Ukraine and other non-Russian parts of the empire.
Lastly I find the comments about the Communist Party of Ukraine rather funny because they mention how it regularly received millions of votes. Totally ignoring the the party’s actual legacy of rampant corruption and far right politics for a second, what amusing here is that one reason for the CPU’s failure and banning was the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of the Donbas. In fact, had Russia not initiated either, decommunization probably never would have passed and the Western nationalists would have been even more marginalized. But of course Putin doesn’t care- a big part of his strategy is trying to force people to choose between him and some unsavory alternative. So from the Kremlin POV, the more actual “Banderites,” the better.
Even Volodymyr Ishchenko, a leftist with whom I have many core disagreements, saw the end of the Communist Party of Ukraine as an opportunity.** One thing I can agree with is the fact that the elimination of this party definitely opens the field for a real left to form- but that left will go nowhere with the capitulationist “both sides” rhetoric of people like Ishchenko. Furthermore, Eastern Europe is often plagued by parties that use Soviet or Communist symbols as a brand. Make your logo a red star or hammer and sickle, and you’re a Communist or socialist party. By banning many such symbols, A real left movement can attract people based on ideology and dedication rather than nostalgia or fetishism.
Naturally we’re talking about Ukraine (and not the countries literally run by strong far right governments), so we must bring up the Azov battalion!
“The legislation that Ukraine’s Parliament voted on wasn’t exclusive to Communism. Its text promised to combat celebration of both “Communist and National-Socialist totalitarian regimes.” But in 2015, as these measures passed, Ukraine’s government was in fact institutionalizing fascist militias into its armed forces. That summer the Azov Battalion, founded by members of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly, was officially upgraded to a Special Operations Regiment of the Ukrainian Army. Its members celebrated with photos showing their SS tattoos, symbols which the government was supposed to have banned.”
It is correct to point out the fact that the law’s enforcement against symbols is very lopsided. For example, far more symbols are associated with socialism and banned (though plenty of exceptions exist), whereas when it comes to Nazism you practically have to name your party “The National Socialist German Workers Party” and fly the Nazi German swastika flag to get prosecuted under the law (apparently this has happened a couple times recently). The law has been roundly criticized by people both inside and outside of Ukraine, as you can read here, and here.
Again, while Poroshenko bears responsibility for approving the law and appointing Volodymyr Viatrovych to his post, this is just another example of someone taking advantage of Russia’s imperialist war and occupation to further their own ends. The reason this kind of thing goes over well in Ukrainian society regardless of people’s actual political views is because historically, and indeed to this day, Soviet nostalgia and symbolism is routinely used by Russian propaganda aimed at Ukraine, as well as by pro-Russian parties and organizations. And for many Ukrainians, this connection is also rightly associated with corruption and backwardness that has plagued the country since independence and the beginning of a neo-colonial relationship with Russia in 1991. It’s kind of dickish for millennial Western leftists who have never been to Ukraine to demand that people keep all these statues of a Russian guy around because this is somehow “progressive” or “leftist.”
But you came here for Azov, so let’s do Azov. Again. First of all there’s the claim of “institutionalizing fascist militias” into the armed forces. This betrays a woeful lack of understanding about what national guard/Ministry of Defense integration actually meant, and this is another one of those topics that I too misunderstood for a long time. The way a lot of people see it, there were these “fascist militias” and then the government said “Okay you’re official now! Here’s a shit ton of weaponry!” In reality the government was basically saying: “Great job, but we’re taking over now.” Commanders were replaced, what passed for military discipline imposed. The Azov Regiment is now firmly under control of the government, not Andrii Beletsky or neo-Nazi football hooligans. And one thing about integration that nobody seems to point out is that the offensive original logo was also changed after integration. Even a recent unusually sub-par StopFake article on this subject missed this point. Compare:
This may seem like a minor issue and the regiment’s press service has a typical bullshit-explanation as to why they changed the logo, but I think the real reason is pretty obvious- It was fashy. If the regiment’s explanation that a less cluttered design was needed, why not keep the wolf’s h- Oh I’m sorry…I mean the “Idea of the nation“* symbol…upright as before? Nah. My money’s on the national guard or Ministry of Internal Affairs deciding that the unit needed some image polishing. Now it looks like a weird little Z.
None of this is to say that the regiment doesn’t certainly attract a fair number of far-right recruits based on reputation alone, but since integration it has become basically another ordinary national guard unit, albeit with a logo that’s still fashy. More importantly, this unit has been more or less confined to its barracks for years now. So if you want to talk about the threat of the far right, it makes much more sense to talk about organizations like C14 and various political offshoots associated with Azov such as the National Corps party; the regiment itself poses no threat to society, whereas those other organizations arguably do. In the past the state has often turned a blind eye to the street activity of these groups, but there is evidence that the Ukrainian government is starting to appreciate the threat these groups pose and is slowly starting to address these issues in their usual, ham-fisted, incompetent way. This situation is by no means ideal, but it’s also not a fascist junta using heavily armed death squads to commit pogroms. It’s safe to say these groups are either criminal gangs or political projects designed to enrich their founders, and Ukrainian voters know this and steer clear.
Naturally the author goes into a lengthy rant about Bandera and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which would be perfect low-hanging fruit for a cultist like Viatrovych. I won’t get into details here because this piece has gone on long enough, but if you too want to fight OUN-cultists in Ukraine (forget the Canadian and American ones, they’re beyond all hope), you have to possess a deep knowledge of this not-too-accessible topic of Ukrainian nationalism. The cult has always benefited from their heroes’ obscurity. Most Ukrainians know almost nothing about Bandera or the UPA, so advocates fill their head with isolated factoids and canned arguments that become so laughably predictable I sometimes feel like I can actually control what an OUN-apologist is going to say next. If you demonstrate a much deeper knowledge on the topic than they have, it’s a lot easier to establish dominance. The truth is the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians don’t give a fuck about Stepan Bandera and a good portion, perhaps a majority, still see him as a negative figure. And that, mind you, is without several million people who now live under Russian occupation. Imagine how things would have been without the war.
Bandera in Ukraine is a talisman, a litmus test to see what side someone might be on, and to more sophisticated people, a meme, a joke.
Had the author been more focused and not got sidetracked telling horror stories about Ukraine, they might have come up with a better point. For example, it is certainly true that Ukraine’s current memory policies and the government’s poor record of reining in far-right activity ensures that said activity will persist so long as the war with Russia goes on. The Russia factor is also important because only a naive fool would think Russia’s intelligence services don’t have their tendrils in some of these groups, many of which share the same core values as their Russian “opponents” on the other side of the contact line. I’d also say that in Ukraine at least, decommunization is in many ways an thinly-veiled attempt to suppress leftist movements in service to Ukraine’s ruling class- the oligarchs and other business people. But on the other hand, it is a knee-jerk reaction to Russia’s typical propaganda tactic in the region of using Soviet symbols and history to promote its interests.
But there is one thing that the author does not ask at all, and it’s a question I had to struggle with a lot since 2014. One cannot ignore the very obvious fact that things such as anti-Semitism, xenophobia, clericalism, and radical nationalism have historically been much more prominent in the Former Soviet Union and former East Bloc than in Western Europe. There is a tempting delusion on the left, one which I was under for quite some time, that says this explosion of reactionary politics in the former “socialist” bloc was due to some kind of massive ideological upheaval where everything associated with socialism, even the good things, was demonized as evil and anything that opposed socialism, however bad, was suddenly rehabilitated and glorified. There is a kernel of truth to this formulation, but it is a fantasy.
Human beings are not robots that can be switched from one mode to another so easily. If socialist regimes really imparted to their populations progressive, universal values, it’s hard to believe we’d see things like the rise of neo-Nazism in countries like Russia, Ukraine or Bulgaria after the fall of the regimes. The fact is, however, that so-called socialist regimes were in fact quite conservative, and because they did not typically allow dissent, certain conversations and struggles didn’t take place. Since everyone was so happy in the Soviet peoples’ friendship, there was no need to address discrimination between nationalities, and when things go bad enough the only possible solution anyone could come up with was separation and often reactionary nationalism. The LGBT struggle never took place, so that today in Russia gay men are typically just referred to as “pedophiles.” In other issues, such as the history of Nazism and fascism, the state eventually portrayed them as evil simply because they were invaders and occupiers. State policy said not to identify Jews as a specific group targeted by the Nazis. In some cases, Soviet propaganda leaned on anti-Semitic tropes and images to support its domestic and foreign policy goals.
As for Ukraine the situation looks dim but if we’re talking about dealing with the far right I’d choose Ukraine any day over Hungary or Poland…or the United States for that matter. In Ukraine the real problem isn’t so much an all-powerful right but rather an extremely weak left, and that is largely the left’s own fault for not preparing or following false paths, and then not rectifying the situation when it was caught napping in 2014.
It’s also worth remembering that we’re all in the midst of a global rise in reactionary and far-right activity, and when you take that into consideration, along with the fact that Ukraine is emerging from a far-right neocolonial regime (Yanukovych) and fighting a defensive war against a colonial master that is also arguably outright fascist, there is little reason to single out Ukraine at all. The Western left will certainly not reach people there by regurgitating Russian propaganda while sounding completely ignorant of the situation on the ground, either in Ukraine or anywhere else for that matter.
So in conclusion:
YES- There is a far right problem in Ukraine.
NO- The main problem isn’t the Azov Regiment of the National Guard, but rather spinoff organizations and other far-right groups.
YES- Ukrainian memory politics under Volodymyr Viatrovych’s control is a problem. It is no better or worse than the situation in Poland or Russia in this regards.
YES- Anti-Communist hysteria is often instrumentalized by regimes in Eastern Europe for self-serving purposes (duh!). That doesn’t mean there aren’t logical historical reasons why these policies succeeded or at least weren’t vigorously opposed. Much of that blame lies with the Soviet government and self-proclaimed socialist regimes.
Everyone happy? No? Good- I did my job.
As for Jacobin- they really need to just get someone who has actually spent significant amount of time in Ukraine and who studies and investigates these issues with far more rigor than what I’ve seen so far.
Comrades, I’m available.
*The standard Azov boilerplate explanation of the logo is that similar designs were used on the standards of some Ukrainian cossacks and that the modern logo is formed of the letters I and N and stands for “Idea of the Nation” (Iдея Нації). The reason for the N being like our Latin N and not the Cyrillic Н is because supposedly this was the way it would have been written prior to reforms of Peter the Great. I’ve seen no convincing evidence of any of this. Azov’s founders claim their logo has no intended connection with the German wolf’s hook, but if that’s the case why didn’t they just go with something that is unmistakably Ukrainian. Like…I don’t know…Maybe the fucking national trident that you actually put on the first patch? Don’t expect logic from the far right though.
**UPDATE: Apparently Volodymyr Ishchenko takes issue with my portrayal of his position in The Guardian article. I think his characterization of the party was more or less accurate but in the end he did say people should condemn the banning of the party.