Tag Archives: Ukrainian nationalism


Usually when I talk about bad comparisons it’s a case of “whataboutism,” or maybe an inaccurate comparison of two things which share superficial commonalities but which are extremely different just beneath the surface, i.e. Putin’s Russia to the Soviet Union. The bad comparison I found this morning is something else entirely.

“Ukrainian-American political scientist” Alexander Motyl wrote a piece for Huffington Post(Why would anyone do that?!) entitled “Ukraine’s Donbas Is Like America’s Deep South.” Now there are a few things that need to be qualified before the guns open up. First, this comparison is not entirely off the mark, as I will show later. In fact it’s a pretty good analogy. He very correctly smacks down idiotic analogies which compare Russian-speakers in Ukraine to black Americans suffering discrimination. The problem, unfortunately, comes from his lack of American historical knowledge and a possible deliberate attempt to conflate two radically different, even contradictory movements. Then to top this off, his final conclusion is a bit of a mystery. This seems like a pro-Ukrainian article from a nationalist-sympathizer(very common in the US and Canada), and yet the conclusion seems to be that Ukraine needs to just sit there and wait everything out.

First of all I can personally attest to some of his comments about the Russian attitude toward other languages of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine. Deliberate suppression of the Ukrainian language in the Russian empire was real. Under Stalin’s Ukrainization, the state attempted to make many people speak Ukrainian, an effort which obtained some success but which  was met with hostility in mostly Russian-speaking urban and industrialized areas. Some of those city names are familiar to us today in this current conflict- Kharkov, Odessa, Donetsk. The problem with Soviet nationalities policy is that it often tried to draw clear lines where they hadn’t been before. The lines between Russian and Ukrainian were as blurry then as they are now.  Industrialization and the fear of the coming war were  major factors in the downfall of Stalin’s “localization”(коренизация) policy and the march toward a more Russian-dominated Soviet Union.*

The Second World War ended with the crowning of a Muscovite Russian-dominated Union which would increasingly alienate non-Russians.  During the war, propaganda glorifying Muscovite Russia, including its tsarist past, was allowed and promoted, whereas patriotic propaganda aimed at Ukrainians, Tatars, etc. were often still officially banned. The only exception to this which immediately springs to mind is the Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, an award proposed by Nikita Khruschev for exceptional service in the liberation of Soviet territory, specifically Ukraine. Of course this order existed alongside other orders glorifying tsarist commanders, the orders of Kutuzov and Suvorov. This in an army which at the same time(1943) adopted tsarist attributes such as shoulder boards and gold braid, and shortly after the war went from being known as the Worker and Peasants Red Army(RKKA) to simply the “Soviet Army.”(SA) The Soviet Union began to evolve into Soviet Russia, which is one of the reasons why so many Russian citizens today cannot grasp the contradiction between the USSR and the Russian empire. It’s treated as a sort of re-branding.

My experience is even more personal, having seen Russians who lived in Crimea talk about how horrible the Ukrainian language is though they were never required to speak it. Back in the spring of 2013, one girl in my course aged maybe 21-22 told me she was from Yalta and that she “hated” the Ukrainian language.  Russians constantly complain about non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation speaking their native languages. Some react with horror upon learning that some street signs in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, are in both Russian and Tatar. The attitude of these people can be summed up in two sentences. “If you’re in Russia, speak Russian! If we’re in your country, speak Russian!”  I should also point out that Motyl is probably telling the truth when he says that he doesn’t know of anyone facing discrimination for speaking Russian in the Donbas or Crimea since 1991. Kyiv, which Russians decided to magically assign to “Western Ukraine” after February of 2014, was always a mostly Russian-speaking city. That is based on my own personal experience and plenty of others can attest to the same.

So where does his analogy go wrong? Comparing the Donbas and Crimea to the Deep South, or perhaps the Confederacy, isn’t too ridiculous. They did secede and use force. They are, as he said, highly intolerant and illiberal. They also didn’t raise the topic of independence or joining Russia until they had lost power in Kyiv, much in the same way that the antebellum slave states weren’t concerned about states’ rights and “tyrannical” executive power until they lost their dominant position in congress and finally the executive branch in the election of 1860. Up to this point the analogy is solid. He should have quit while he was ahead.

Motyl totally destroys his credibility by then likening what he no doubt sees as “real” Ukrainians to black Americans, proving that he knows little of the latter’s history of struggle. Even more monstrously, he compares neo-fascist individuals such as Oleh Tyahnibok of Svoboda and the leader of the fascist-dominated “Azov” battalion to Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. Their movements are compared to the Black Panthers. At this point only two things can explain Motyl’s horrible analogy. Either he is extremely ignorant about history of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the civil rights movement, or he is deliberately lying, i.e. purposely trying to mislead people as to the nature of these Ukrainian nationalist movements.

The Ukrainian nationalist movements he inexplicably defends can only be compared to the white supremacist-manufactured caricatures of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Even today this mainstream myth persists, which portrays these figures and organizations as “reverse racists” who countered white racism with black nationalism. This is as idiotic as it is ignorant. For one thing, the Black Panther party was opposed to black nationalism and it was a Maoist organization. Last time I checked, Svoboda fans aren’t too fond of Communists. More over, anyone who follows the Ukrainian nationalist propaganda and trolls on the Russian-speaking internet can see how racist these people are. One of their favorite arguments against Russia is how non-Russian or non-Slavic it is. Svoboda and its allies’ solution to Ukraine’s problems is to impose their contrived “national idea” on Ukrainian society. This is a textbook fascist idea and it is word-for-word identical to the core concept of Russian imperialist organizations.  In fact Alexander Dugin himself, the man who exhorts Russians to kill Ukrainians and wipe that independent country off the map, also promotes this concept of a “national idea.”

This is why Motyl would have done well to at least Google the Black Panther party before making that idiotic comparison. The irony is that one of the most important Panthers ever, Fred Hampton, totally repudiated the kind of politics of groups like Svoboda when he said: “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.

No matter how much groups like Svoboda and their allies claim to oppose capitalism, their ideology is incompatible with socialism. There simply cannot be any accurate comparison with the Panthers. The nationalists’ solution involves raising one group above another based on arbitrary features and contrived identities. At the same time, people who are in the “correct” group are said to have a common interest with other group members, even when material reality says otherwise. Like Putin’s pseudo-intellectual circus, the Ukrainian nationalist ideologues promote fantasy over reality. All these things white supremacy did in America, and this is also what the Kremlin’s chauvinistic ideology promotes.  Most Ukrainian-speakers do speak Russian and are tolerant of Russian-speakers, even though the reverse is not true. Svoboda just aims to make Ukrainians as intolerant and monolingual as the imperialists of the Kremlin.

In the end Motyl reached too far and his analogy crashed and burned. The worst part is that he went out on a limb to defend organizations and parties which Ukrainians mostly rejected last October. Sure, they have not fully rejected some of those ideas, but they made it clear they don’t want Motyl’s bizarro-world version of Malcolm X ruling over them in any way. Poor Motyl. He was really onto something there with the Deep South analogy. Sadly, he went too far and ended up looking like a very white bread suburbanite trying way too hard to appear “down” with black America.

*For more information on “localization” and “Ukrainianization” I highly recommend Terry Dean Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-1939


Yes, this is still a thing

BBC brings us a story about a Swedish skinhead fighting for a Ukrainian para-military formation known for its nationalist composition.  No surprise there, considering that the leader of the battalion is also the leader of the National Socia- Oops! I mean Social National Assembly.  But when asked to elaborate by the BBC, he claimed it wasn’t a Neo-Nazi organization, but rather:

“The Social National Assembly is not a neo-Nazi organisation,” he said.

“It is a party of Ukrainian patriots who are giving their lives while the rich Europeans are only talking about supporting Ukraine.”

Usually I make this comment on the topic of Russian fascists, but here you can see that the mentality is 100% identical on the other side. To wit, when someone points out the fascist nature of an organization, someone will make the claim that they are “not fascists, but patriots!” Because fascists weren’t patriots, remember? They hated patriotism and always talked about how much their respective countries sucked.

Fascists? Oh my GOD! You must be listening to Putin's state run media! These are just German patriots trying to defend their country and liberate Ukraine from the Communists, who are the REAL fascists!

Fascists? Oh my GOD! You must be listening to Putin’s state run media! These are just German patriots trying to defend their country and liberate Ukraine from the Communists, who are the REAL fascists!

I’ve seen Maidan supporters claiming to be liberals or non-nationalists making similarly-worded defenses for groups like Praviy Sektor and Svoboda.  It ranges from flat out support to something along the lines of “I’m not a nationalist, but groups like Praviy Sektor and Svoboda are just patriots fighting for Ukraine!”  Yeah, I’m not racist or anything, but groups like the KKK are just fighting for America.  Brilliant fucking logic there, dipshit. Ukraine’s in good hands with Maidan supporters at the helm!

So is the Social National Assembly fascist? Well let’s take a look at some of their stated goals according to the BBC article.

“to prepare Ukraine for further expansion and to struggle for the liberation of the entire White Race from the domination of the internationalist speculative capital”

“to punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts that lead to the extinction of the white man”

This, according to experts, is a typical neo-Nazi narrative.

Uh yeah, no shit, “experts.” This is more overtly Nazi than most Eastern European nationalist organizations, especially those in Russia.  So how is it that organizations which put out shit like this can claim they aren’t fascist, neo-Nazi, or whatever?

One thing you need to understand about Eastern Europe, and particularly Russia and the Former Soviet Union, is that fascism isn’t really about ideology. It’s not a set of beliefs about the state, society, etc. Fascists are people opposed to you or “your” country. That is all. This is why you have Russians spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and who talk about the superiority of the “white race”(of which they weren’t considered a part for most of the concept’s existence) and yet still demand international solidarity for their “struggle against fascism.” This is why Ukrainian liberals can defend their own nationalists while screaming about the same behavior among the Donbass militias. It’s why Russian “leftists” can ignore cossacks with White Guard insignia who openly speak of creating a Russian, Orthodox empire, while jumping on a story like this about a Swedish skinhead fighting for the Ukrainian government.  Both sides adhere to a primitive, moronic worldview which tells them that only the fascist associations of their opponents matter, and that this somehow negates or cancels out their own.  If a Ukrainian can show us that a particular volunteer in Eastern Ukraine has an SS tattoo, this somehow invalidates the hundreds if not thousands of photos showing Ukrainian nationalists.  Yes, they actually think that way, and they are the same.  

I cannot stress that last point enough. Some people, even those with experience in Russia, foolishly buy into the notion that most Maidan supporters are actually more liberal, tolerant, and intelligent than the Russians who support separatism and who are currently railing against the Maidan movement. Nothing is further from the truth.  These people are the same in terms of mentality and their complete lack of capacity for critical thinking. Their mind can only conceive of political struggle as a sort of football match between their national team and a rival’s team. This may be occasionally peppered with meaningless bullshit jargon like “civil society” and other buzzwords gleaned from various NGOs. But make no mistake, the politically savvy, tolerant, liberal, intellectual Kievian hipster is a myth made up for Western consumption.  What these people say when they don’t think anyone is watching totally destroys that image.  In reality, these people are no different from the “Novorossiya” imperialists across the border in Russia.

Both Maidan fanatics and Russian imperialists are more than happy to lie to outside observers in a sociopathic manner, pissing on your leg while telling you it’s raining. That’s why the Social National Assembly’s leader told the BBC reporter that it’s not a neo-Nazi organization. He was not at all concerned that the reporter could easily check the claim via the internet, because in Ukraine as in Russia, saying things makes them true, even if you don’t believe what you’re saying. In recent times I’ve seen dozens of Russian “Communists” and anti-government Ukrainian “leftists” pull the exact same thing every time I showed them indisputable evidence of fascist, imperialist, and pro-capitalist behavior on the part of the “governments” of the unrecognized republics in the Donbass.

In a nutshell, if you want to understand Russo-Ukrainian lying techniques, you need to watch this clip where Louis CK explains how his daughter “hides” when playing hide & seek.

That’s what it’s like. They tell you they’re fighting fascists, and then you ask them why they are associating with fascists, and they tell you “They’re not fascists! They are patriots fighting for their country!” And at this point you want to scream at your monitor, “YOU KNOW I CAN READ RUSSIAN AND UKRAINIAN RIGHT? YOU KNOW I HAVE A VKONTAKTE ACCOUNT AND I CAN SEE WHAT YOUR SIDE IS SAYING? YOU KNOW I CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WROTE TO THAT OTHER GUY IN THE CONVERSATION RIGHT THERE?!”  

Alright enough of that. I just wanted to highlight something the BBC reporter felt compelled to include in his article.

Ukraine is a democratic state, which held a democratic election in May, where the far right and nationalist parties got hardly any votes. These views are not popular with the electorate.

This line of bullshit has been peddled by Maidan apologists since the elections in May, as if the loss of Crimea and an uprising in the East had nothing to do with the way people voted. Some have even taken results of the European elections, in which European nationalist parties apparently made significant gains, to support the equally idiotic claim that Europe is more right-wing than Ukraine.  Really? Remind me what Maidan was about again? Oh right- joining Europe.

Aside from those obvious logical problems, whether or not Ukraine is a “democratic” state is irrelevant here. Yanukovych was a democratically elected president. He got overthrown, largely thanks to the actions of those totally unpopular nationalist thugs. That means that if these nationalists should grow tired of Ukraine’s “democratic” regime, they have every reason to believe that they can easily replace that government via force, and Tim Snyder’s Diverse Rainbow Coalition of peaceful protesters can’t do shit about it. History proves again and again that small, organized groups willing to fight can decide major political matters in spite of their size.

Lastly, and most importantly, I dispute the claim that the ideas held by groups like the Social National Assembly are not popular in Ukraine, at least among the pro-Maidan side. See, when I saw Maidan succeed, my reaction was very different from that of the Russians. Rather than thinking, “Oh no they’re going to brutally slaughter all the Russian speakers,” I was thinking more along the lines of “Shit, now they will control the schools, the universities, the ministry of education, the media, etc.”  What do I mean by control? Well you see, while many Maidan supporters reject the ideology of nationalist groups, they share certain core concepts. Among these are the following-

-The only legitimate Ukrainian state in the 20th century was that which was declared in 1917. The Ukrainian SSR was an illegal occupation. Communism and fascism are the same.

-The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the UPA(Ukrainian Insurgent Army) were patriots who fought to liberate Ukraine. They fought against the Soviets and the Germans.

-All of Ukraine’s problems are due to Russia and Communists. The reason why things went to shit in 1991 was because the nationalist leaders were really former Communists who were secretly still Communists. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was supposed to deal with this but wouldn’t you know, it turns out that was led by former Communists too.  After a few more years of utter failure from Poroshenko, we’ll soon be hearing about how Maidan’s leaders, who promised to sweep away all the vestiges of the USSR, were actually all Communists.

-Wearing a piece of traditional Ukrainian clothing or a traditional hairstyle makes you a true Ukrainian like everyone else. It doesn’t matter if your personal wealth is literally hundreds of times larger than the average Ukrainian worker.

These are ideas which have permeated Ukrainian politics for quite some time and to date I have seen no attempt by Maidan supporters to sever their movement from their nationalist fellow travelers who hold the same ideas.  The only time Maidan supporters even make this attempt is when they get caught red-handed and it’s politically inconvenient, in which case the conversation quickly turns to whataboutism and the “Russo-Ukrainian Fascist Negation Principle,” whereby pointing out fascists in Russia literally makes Ukrainian fascists cease to exist.  With Maidan-linked parties fully in control of most of Ukraine, especially since the Russian imperialists seem happy to cede everything West of the Dnieper to them, they will control the means to disseminate information and subsequent generations of Ukrainian youth will be inundated with the mythology. Government failures can always be blamed on Russia, and Russia seems happy to play the part.

Getting back to the subject of the mythology, Maidan supporters, so vehemently anti-socialist despite the fact that socialism is the very thing Ukraine needs, constantly insist that Ukraine will somehow succeed if only it somehow manages to totally free itself from its Soviet past.  Well not all of its Soviet past of course. They still want the Crimea, the former Novorossiya territory, and I’m sure they don’t want Galicia going back to Poland. I’m sure they also want the road networks, the mines, the schools, the hospitals, and all those things. But aside from all that, Ukraine must emerge from the past and leave that old, backward Soviet legacy in the dustbin of history! And it will do this by fanatically embracing early 20th century nationalism and symbols of a traditional peasantry which lived in near-medieval conditions until lifted out of that poverty by… Uh…er…um…GOD! Yes, it was a miracle!

Dnieper dam. A vestige of  Soviet totalitarian occupation. We must keep it though. Necessary evil.

Dnieper dam. A vestige of Soviet totalitarian occupation. We must keep it though. Necessary evil.

Behold, symbols of the future for New Ukraine!

Behold, symbols of the future for New Ukraine!

The conclusion one should get from this is that like Russia, Ukraine suffers from a disease of “patriots” and ridiculous, ahistorical notions of a mythical past which never existed.  In the case of Maidan, there can be no doubt that the majority of supporters are not in fact radical nationalists and I’m sure many of them are decent people, but it’s clear that many of them still hold on to and propagate certain beliefs and this overall narrative becomes the soil in which more radical nationalism grows. This is very similar to the way Russian schools whitewash the history of the Russian empire and make claims that it was poised to become a world economic leader that could have equaled the US or Germany today had it not been for those damned Bolsheviks.

It’s very hard to explain how this Ukrainian nationalism works to Americans, but the best example I can think of is the Tea Party.  Do you get offended when you hear a Tea Party speaker referring to their movement as “real Americans?” Do you get angry that you might not be considered a “real” American because you don’t support the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, that abortion should be illegal or highly restricted, that marriage should be legally defined as being between one man and one woman, or simply because you don’t worship the military, bald eagles, NASCAR, or the NFL? Well you see that’s what it’s like being a Ukrainian who doesn’t buy into the national myth of Ukraine. I and others have said it before; this isn’t so much of a struggle between Russians and Ukrainians as it is between groups of Ukrainians who disagree on what Ukraine should be. Many Ukrainians speak Ukrainian and prefer to live in Ukraine if not a European Union affiliated Ukraine. But what they don’t want is to be told that grandpa was wounded twice fighting for an illegal occupation while collaborators who participated in brutal mass killings and ethnic cleansing are Ukraine’s heroes. They don’t want their kids hearing these things in school.  You could often hear this sentiment expressed by people in the Crimea prior to annexation or in the Donbass.  But the thing about Maidan is that you can’t object to this and still support independent Ukraine, oppose Yanukovych, etc. If you don’t buy into the myths, you’re a Russian, you’re a “vatnik.”

As I both feared and predicted, many of those Ukrainians began to identify with Russia, and this is what you’re seeing in Eastern Ukraine now. Both Russian imperialists and Ukrainian nationalists prefer this state of affairs. Ukrainian nationalists and their “liberal” hosts don’t want to accept as Ukrainian those who refuse to buy into their basic national myths. On the other side, Russian nationalists don’t want to tolerate signs or notions of a distinct Ukrainian identity, at least one which isn’t defined and shaped by Moscow. Ukrainian nationalists want to write off the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as an illegal occupation by Moscow, while Russian nationalists want to pretend that the Ukrainian SSR was no more than a part of a Russian empire masked under a red flag, and all socialist Ukraine’s accomplishments were but “gifts” handed down by the generous Russians rather than the product of labor on the part of the Ukrainian SSR’s citizens.

It is clear that for Ukraine to survive and advance, it is not the Soviet legacy which must be totally eliminated but rather the national “myth” that has plagued Ukraine throughout the 20th century up to this day.  Even if one blames Russia for destroying the territorial integrity of Ukraine and seizing its territory in the Crimea, one can’t ignore the fact that nationalists deliberately picked a fight with a far larger country with far greater resources and which is still considered a regional military power. That alone proves these people incompetent and incapable of properly governing Ukraine. Ukraine needs new ideas, and a new, inclusive sense of identity. It needs to reject myth and the love of superficial national symbols wielded by oligarchs who exhort the people to patriotism while robbing them blind and robbing the country of its future. And what about Russia? Yes, what about Russia? When Ukraine has managed to do what I have suggested, Ukraine may truly become an example which Russians can follow.  Kyiv, and not Moscow, may become the center of a new Russian culture that is again progressive, inclusive, and most of all free of the nationalist disease that plagues so much of Eastern Europe.  But until the cancer of football mentality politics and nationalism is fully removed from Ukraine, the country is doomed.