Yes, there are some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, both anti-Russian and pro-Russian. No, Ukraine is not in need of a “denazification.”
by Massimo Introvigne
*This article collects, for ease of reading, a series of articles published on this site in March 2022.
Ukrainian Nationalism and Antisemitism
A main argument of Russian propaganda in the current Ukrainian war is that Ukraine is under the decisive influence of “Nazis” and needs to be “denazified.” The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, which makes any claims that he heads a “Nazi government” paradoxical. However, the Russians insist that Nazis are a significant part of those fighting against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, and that Ukraine keeps lionizing those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. The Ukrainians counter that there are quite a few Nazis fighting “for” the pro-Russian Donbass separatists rather than against them.
The story is complicated, and rarely told with all the necessary details. I started paying some attention to the relationship between anti-Communist Ukrainians and Nazism in the 1970s, when as a college student I was introduced to the Ukrainian cardinal Josyf Slipyj (1892–1984), who lived in exile in Rome.
All those who met Slipyj will never forget him. He had spent eighteen years in Soviet Gulags, and not surprisingly hold very strong opinions on the history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union, some of which may now prevent his canonization by the Catholic Church, although the process has been started. For Soviet and several Russian historians, Slipyj was just a “Nazi collaborator” himself.
I learned from Slipyj how most Catholic Ukrainians perceive their own history. Subsequently, I was exposed to different views by reading books, visiting Ukraine repeatedly, first in Soviet and then in post-Soviet times, exploring the historical museums, and making friends there, and finally by living for some years in Lithuania, a country whose experience during World War II and in Soviet times was not identical to Ukraine but had some similar features.
As we will see, the Nazis active in Ukraine in 2022 are not Ukrainians who were involved with German Nazism during World War II. With rare exceptions, the latter are all dead. Modern neo-Nazism has largely different roots. However, to assess Russian claims of “Nazism in Ukraine” we should start from the start, i.e. from Ukrainian nationalism and World War II, which in fact first leads us to World War I.
I have no intention to discuss here whether Ukraine historically belongs to Russia, or perhaps—based on more ancient precedents—it is Russia that belongs to Ukraine. For the purpose of this series, it is enough to note that the cause of an independent Ukraine became popular among intellectuals, writers, and artists in the 19th century, and was embraced by a sizable part of the Ukrainian population.
World War I and the fall of the Czarist Empire seemed to open a window of opportunity for this project. In November 1917, a Parliament convened in Kiev and proclaimed the independence of Ukraine People’s Republic. A leading figure of independent Ukraine was a former Orthodox seminarian called Symon Petliura (1879–1926).
It is with Petliura that the problem of separating facts from propaganda begins. There is no doubt that during the period between 1917 and 1920, when Ukrainians were fighting the Bolsheviks to defend their independence, a horrific number of pogroms were perpetrated in Ukraine against the Jews. Some 40,000 Jews were killed.
Antisemitism was present among the Polish troops, which participated in the war in Ukraine, and even among the Bolsheviks. Modern scholars have reconstructed several incidents where Jews were killed by Polish and Bolshevik soldiers. However, they agree that most pogroms were carried out by the Ukrainian troops.
What is more controversial is the role of Petliura. One can find antisemitic statements by him, which were unfortunately common in both Orthodox and Catholic milieus in his time. On the other hand, he issued several proclamations that pogroms should be halted, and even had some who had killed Jews executed. On Petliura’s personal responsibility for the pogroms respected academic historians still maintain different views.
In 1926, when he lived in exile in Paris, Petliura was assassinated by Jewish poet Sholem Schwarzbard (1886–1938). In 1927, after a sensational trial, a French jury acquitted Schwarzbard, believing he had legitimately avenged the massacres of thousands of Jews.
Many Ukrainian textbooks today claim that Schwarzbard was a Soviet agent who assassinated Petliura following orders from Moscow, although there is no hard evidence of this. In fact, when news of Petliura’s assassination reached Ukraine, revolts erupted in all the main cities, which were brutally repressed by the Soviets who, according to most Ukrainians, had organized the murder in the first place.
Calling Petliura a Nazi is certainly anachronistic, but he has also became part of the controversy about history. In Russia, Petliura is widely regarded as a war criminal. Although less honored than other nationalist leaders, Petliura has streets named after him and monuments in Ukraine, which is mentioned by Russians as part of their evidence that present-day Ukrainians are not ready to repudiate their antisemitic past.
On the other hand, Ukrainian scholars both in Ukraine and in the diaspora acknowledge the crimes perpetrated against the Jews in 1917–1920, and the victims are honored by monuments and museums. It is on the responsibility of Petliura that controversies continue. While the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) compared Petliura to the Nazis, Rutgers University historian Taras Hunczak, in a work that is not uncontroversial but is based on previously unpublished archival documents, concluded in 2008 that “to convict Petliura for the tragedy that befell Ukrainian Jewry is to condemn an innocent man.”
The jury is still out, but the fact that modern Ukrainians (sometimes) honor Petliura is not evidence that they celebrate antisemitism or “Nazism.” The later nationalist leader Stepan Bandera is a different case, one I will examine in the next chapter.
Nazi Germany and Stepan Bandera
The main argument used by Russians to prove that present-day Ukrainians have Nazi sympathies are the honors officially tributed to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera (1909–1959). Putin’s Russia has inherited from the Soviets the use of “Banderist” as synonym for “Ukrainian Nazi.” The story, however, is somewhat more complicated.
First, there is no doubt that Bandera is celebrated as a national hero in Ukraine. There are literally hundreds of monuments, memorials, museums, and streets named after him. Only pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych tried to reverse this trend, and deny to Bandera some of the honors he had received. However, it would be false to state that Bandera is uncontroversial in present-day Ukraine. After the honors tributed to him were criticized by international Jewish organizations and the European Parliament, polls showed that in 2021 only one third of the Ukrainians had a totally positive view of Bandera.
As it often happens, the story may be told from different angles. As we saw in the first article of this series, the Ukrainians took advantage of the fall of the Czarist Empire to proclaim their independence, but they were defeated by the Bolsheviks who incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union. But the Soviets did not forget how strongly the Ukrainians had fought for their independence. The Ukrainians did not forget it either, and periodically revolts erupted.
This led Stalin (1878–1953) to conceive and execute one of its most heinous crimes. In 1932–33, he organized an artificial famine in a large area of Ukraine, with troops preventing Ukrainians from moving elsewhere. In Stalin’s mind, the famine should exterminate the Ukrainian small landowners, the backbone of the anti-Soviet opposition. The Holodomor, the Ukrainian holocaust by starvation, killed at least 3.5 million Ukrainians, and is now widely, if not unanimously, recognized as a genocide.
Those who want to understand the history of Ukraine should always consider the horrors of the Holodomor. I hope that one day it will be possible again for foreigners to visit the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kiev. Movies and pictures of some among the millions of children, women, and men who died of starvation make for a terrible, unforgettable experience. One can not even imagine how devastating was the experience for those who barely survived and saw their loved ones die.
This immense crime and tragedy explains the deep hatred for the Soviets and Stalin that prevailed among many Ukrainians after 1933, and whose consequences are still felt today. Those who had witnessed the horrors of the Holodomor were prepared to welcome anybody who would promise them liberation from the Soviet Union.
Ukrainians exiles had established in 1929 in Vienna the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Internecine quarrels split it into two branches, led respectively by Andriy Melnyk (1890–1964) and Stepan Bandera (1909–1959). Although Melnyk, a pious Catholic, was somewhat more moderate, both agreed that in the world war they saw coming they would side with anybody who would fight Stalin.
When World War II started, both Melnyk and Bandera, while in competition with each other, met Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1887–1945), then the chief of the German military intelligence (Abwehr). They agreed to recruit Ukrainians in the diaspora into units that would participate in Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. The presence of Ukrainian soldiers and the caution by the most well-known diaspora leaders of Ukrainian nationalism persuaded many Ukrainians that Operation Barbarossa would restore their independence.
In the wake of the German invasion, both Bandera and Melnyk proclaimed competing independent Ukrainian governments, with Bandera more emphatically celebrating Nazism and promising alliance to Nazi Germany and its new European order. However, the Ukrainian nationalists were quickly disillusioned. Nazi leaders regarded Ukrainians as part of an inferior race, and had no intention to grant independence to Ukraine.
Eventually, Bandera and Melnyk, who insisted on independence, were both arrested and in January 1942 Bandera was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His two brothers were deported to Auschwitz, where they died in 1942. It was only in September 1944, when a German defeat appeared probable, that Bandera was liberated and allowed to return to Ukraine, in the hope that his partisans would harass the Soviet troops. In fact, Bandera started cultivating again his dream of independence, and his guerrilla targeted both Soviets and Germans.
After the war, Bandera escaped to the West and lived in Germany, from where he inspired but did not control a “Banderist” guerrilla that in the forests of Ukraine continued to fight the Soviets well into the 1950s. He was assassinated in Munich in 1959 by the KGB, which, as documents and testimonies later demonstrated, had received orders to eliminate Bandera directly from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), who hoped to end the Ukrainian resistance once and for all.
When fighting the partisans in the 1950, the Soviets used “Banderists” and “Nazi collaborators” as synonyms. As mentioned in the previous article, Cardinal Slipyj was also sentenced as a “Nazi collaborator,” as were other Catholic bishops and priests. While preferring the Melnyk branch, which remained however a minority among the anti-Soviet Ukrainians, Slipyj and the Catholic Church eventually endorsed Bandera.
Bandera was more a “Nazi ally” than a “collaborator” in the usual sense. He believed, mistakenly, that Nazis would help him restore the independence of the Ukraine. Certainly the Nazis did not regard him as a Nazi. After having used Bandera for their own purposes, they took him to a concentration camp, as they did with his brothers who died there.
While Bandera was detained in Germany, thousands of “Banderists” fought with the Wehrmacht to the bitter end, although others took to the woods and fought both the Germans and the Soviets. There were Ukrainian collaborators who enrolled in the SS and served as guards in concentration camps, but they were not part of the Bandera movement, and in fact Bandera condemned them.
While not ideologically a Nazi, Bandera was antisemitic, although—as part of the inextricable contradictions of these times—some prominent members of his party were of Jewish descent or had married Jewish women, and at one stage he was accused by the Nazis of having saved some Jews by delivering them forged passports.
However, Bandera believed that a Jewish component was prominent in Russian and Ukrainian Communism, and his incendiary anti-Jewish rhetoric played a role in the pogroms that followed the German invasion of 1941 and in the participation by Ukrainians, some of them members of his party, in Nazi atrocities against the Jews.
As I reported in the previous chapter, I met more than once Cardinal Slipyj in the late 1970s in Rome. He had no sympathy whatsoever for Nazism, but he did not share the opinion prevailing in the West that the Soviet regime was somewhat less criminal than the Nazi, nor was he prepared to condemn those Ukrainians that had sided with Nazi Germany in World War II regarding it as the lesser of two evils.
Slipyj is a complex figure, but my impression remains that he might have lacked the cultural tools to fully perceive the intrinsically evil dimension of Nazism, and was also embittered by his feeling that the West was unprepared or unwilling to recognize the enormity of the Holodomor.
As for present-day Ukrainians, polls showing different opinions about Bandera confirm that most of them are willing to deal with their past and admit the evil nature of collaboration with Nazism, just as they denounce the evil nature of collaboration with Soviet Communism.
However, just as it happens in Lithuania where some of those honored as freedom fighters against the Soviets also had an embarrassing antisemitic or pro-Nazi past, this purification of historical memory is something the Ukrainians should come to by themselves. Pressures and manipulations by Russians, who repeat the old propaganda slogans that all those who were against the Soviets were “Banderists,” and all “Banderists” were “Nazis,” would only perpetuate in the Ukrainians a defensive attitude with respect to their past.
A Nazi Resurgence in Independent Ukraine
Ukraine became independent in 1991. By then, there were few who had been involved in significant ways in the Nazi German occupation of Ukraine who were still alive. Many had been executed in Soviet times; others had escaped abroad or died of old age. However, small neo-Nazi groups emerged, as they did in most European countries, among young people who had never encountered German Nazism.
In 2011, I was the Representative of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions. One of the OSCE’s activities are “country visits,” i.e., inspections to participating states assessing the situation of human rights. I teamed up with the OSCE Representatives for combating antisemitism and for combating Islamophobia for a country visit to Ukraine.
One of the main problems we discussed was, in fact, the presence of neo-Nazi activists. I attended meetings with NGOs representing victims of the Nazis, lawyers, police officers, politicians, and judges. It emerged that Nazis were indeed active in Ukraine, as they were in other countries. Although evaluated at some thousands only, they had committed serious crimes, including a few homicides. Their target were mostly the Roma minority, some members of which had been killed, African immigrants and foreign students, Jews, and Muslims.
Concern was expressed for possible Nazi violence connected with Euro 2012, the European soccer championship soon to be co-organized by Poland and Ukraine. In fact, as we ascertained during our 2011 visit and a celebrated journalistic investigation confirmed in 2012, several Nazis were recruited among the violent fringe of the fans of a particular soccer club, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Shakhtar is one of Ukraine’s two soccer clubs that can be considered European powers. Its violent fans clashed often with the supporters of the other European-class soccer club in Ukraine, Dinamo Kiev, who on the one hand are regarded as more leftist and inclined to celebrate the Soviet past (a time in which Dinamo achieved its most memorable successes), and on the other hand have a rival right-wing fringe that uses Ku Klux Klan and Confederate symbols from American Civil War. As an Italian, I understood the situation, since in our country there also connections between neo-Nazism and the most radical fringes of soccer fans.
Shakhtar Donetsk was, as its name indicates, from the city of Donetsk, in the Donbass region, although after the 2014 war it had to move to Lviv. 75% of the inhabitants of Donetsk speak Russian. When I discussed the problem of neo-Nazism in 2011, Russian-speaking Ukrainians were not mentioned among its victims. In fact, many neo-Nazis were themselves Russian speakers.
As in other countries, in Ukraine there were extreme-right parties, which sometimes tried to enroll the Nazi soccer fans, but judging from their electoral performances they were not very significant. In the 2010 presidential elections the extreme-right candidate, Oleh Tiahnybok, had gathered only 1.43% of the votes.
The oldest right-wing party was formed immediately after Ukrainian independence with the pretentious name of Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA). It remained a comparatively small organization, with 0.51% of the votes in the 1994 parliamentary elections (and one seat, plus two gained by members who ran as independent candidates), but it managed to create a paramilitary wing called UNSO (Ukrainian National Self-Defense).
While UNSO became notorious in Ukraine for assaulting political opponents, it also sent voluntaries abroad. In the Transnistrian conflict, UNSO sided with pro-Russian separatists against the Moldovan army. However, in the subsequent conflict in Abkhazia UNSO fighters sided with the Georgian army against pro-Russian separatists and in 2013–14 supported the Euromaidan. UNA and UNSO proclaimed their belief in self-determination of the peoples but interpreted it as they deemed fit.
A larger right-wing movement was founded in 1991 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), and re-organized in 2004 as Svoboda (Freedom), with Tiahnybok as leader. It had an electoral exploit in 2012, with more than 10% of the votes, but declined since. In its SNPU years, the party had adopted Nazi symbols, and has been denounced as racist and antisemitic even after 2004, the year in which Tiahnybok had promised to get rid of the neo-Nazis. Svoboda participated in the Euromaidan protests of 2013–14 that led to the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and in the subsequent post-revolutionary government. However, since the September 2014 elections it has failed to capture seats in the national Parliament.
Other tiny right-wing groups also participated in the Euromaidan, where neither they nor Svoboda represented the majority of the protesters. These small groups formed an umbrella organization called Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), whose leader Dmytro Yarosh acquired some fame during the Euromaidan. The Right Sector included several organizations, some of them Nazi and antisemitic, and some connected with organized crime. Distancing himself from these groups, Yarosh left the Right Sector in 2015, and later was elected to the Parliament as an independent candidate. The Right Sector declined after 2015, although its name is often used by Russian media to claim that “Nazis” have a prominent presence in Ukrainian politics.
When in 2004 Tiahnybok tried to convert the SNPU into a “respectable” right-wing party, Svoboda, it disbanded its paramilitary branch, called the Patriots of Ukraine. Their leader, a young man born in 1979 called Andriy Bilets’kyy, did not accept the decision and continued a paramilitary activity independent of Svoboda. Its followers were accused of several criminal activities, although whether the accusations were entirely true or fabricated against an anti-government movement was never entirely clear. Bilets’kyy is at the origin of the Azov Battalion, which we will explore in another chapter.
Eduard Kovalenko: A Pseudo-Nazism Created by the Russians
There is a propaganda war around neo-Nazism in Ukraine, and it is a war where intelligence services play their usual roles. Not many outside Ukraine are familiar with the story of Eduard Kovalenko, but it is a perfect illustration of how Russian disinformation works on this issue.
Eduard Vladimirovich Kovalenko was born in 1965 in Henichesk, a port city in Kherson Oblast of southern Ukraine. He introduces himself as an “entrepreneur” and the chairperson of the political party Social-Patriotic Assembly of the Slavs (SPAS), which exists mostly online (it still has a web site—in Russian).
In the second round of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who was then the country’s Prime Minister, was declared the winner. The electoral results were rejected by several foreign governments and international organizations, which regarded them as unbelievable and the result of a fraud. Many Ukrainians took to the streets in what was called the Orange Revolution. In the end, the Supreme Court annulled the elections and, when they were repeated, Yanukovych lost to opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and had to resign also as Prime Minister.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 should not be confused with the Euromaidan protests of 2014, which led to the removal of Yanukovych from the presidency he had gained in 2010, although the events of 2004 and 2014 were both inspired by pro-European feelings and distrust of Russia.
As usual, Russia presented this distrust as a sign of “Nazism.” The idea that “Nazism” was a main force in Ukrainian politics was a key theme of the propaganda supporting the Russian invasions of 2014 and 2022 but had already a role in the criticism of the Orange Revolution of 2004, as evidenced by the Kovalenko incident.
As opposite to Kovalenko’s pseudo-party, as mentioned in our previous article, the Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA) was a real right-wing organization, although it was never large. During the tense days of the 2004 confrontation between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, Ukrainian and international media started receiving pro-Yushchenko press releases signed by Kovalenko as “chairman of the Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA).”
What this organization was, was not immediately clear. Andriy Shkil, then the leader of the historical UNA, claimed he had never heard of Kovalenko. According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a leading scholar of extreme-right movements in Ukraine and Russia, Kovalenko “declared that he and his party would hold a march in support of Yushchenko as a presidential candidate.
Yushchenko’s office immediately replied that they never needed that support and did their best to distance from Kovalenko’s sordid initiative. Yet Yushchenko’s office could not hamper that march and, on 26 June 2004, Kovalenko proceeded.” “At the meeting that was held after the march, Kovalenko declared: ‘We, the right-wing nationalist party, are supporting the only one candidate from the right-wing forces: Viktor Yushchenko. One Ukraine, one nation, one people, one president!’ And he gave a Hitler salute.”
Shekhovtsov concluded that “Kovalenko’s task was simple: by giving support to Yushchenko under the Nazi-like flags, he was expected to discredit the democratic candidate in the eyes of Western observers. Luckily for Yushchenko, however, the Western media largely did not buy into that frame-up and ignored it. But some Western organizations did not.” In fact, some Western “antifascist” groups bought the Russian propaganda, and for years used it as evidence that the Orange Revolution had been supported if not organized by “Nazis.”
According to Shekhovtsov, Kovalenko acted upon instructions from Viktor Medvedchuk, at that time Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukrainian President Leonid Kučma. Medvedchuk is such a close friend of Putin that the Russian President is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter. Other sources claim that Kovalenko took his instructions directly from the Russian intelligence services.
That Kovalenko was a Russian agent was confirmed by Russia in December 2019 when, after a meeting between Putin and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an exchange of prisoners was arranged between Ukraine and the pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which in fact acted as proxy for Russia. In the list of prisoners that they wanted released, the Russians included Kovalenko, who had been sentenced in 2017 to a jail term of five years.
As explained by popular Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazanskyi, Russia thus claimed its “brilliant” intelligence move. “Russians hire a bloke in Ukraine to march under SS banners, make Sieg Heil gestures and stir up inter-ethnic enmity, and then point at him and shout ‘Look at Ukrainian fascism!’ And now they say, ‘Well OK, so be it, this was our bloke and we’ll take him back.’”
But why was Kovalenko in jail? After having presented himself as a Ukrainian nationalist Nazi in 2004, when the war erupted in Donbass in 2014, he reemerged as a “peace activist” inciting Ukrainians to refuse being drafted in the military and fight against the pro-Russian separatists. He had also tried, obviously following instructions by his Russian masters, to excite separatist feelings among the Bulgarian-speaking minority in Ukraine.
By the way, Kovalenko did not remain quiet after he was liberated as part of the 2019 exchange of prisoners deal. In 2021, he was caught in Kherson by Ukrainian intelligence officers who arrested him again as a Russian agent.
The Kovalenko case may appear as a minor incident. But it is important to show that sometimes Ukrainian “Nazis” are in fact Russian agent provocateurs, who pretend to support the Ukrainian cause only to be filmed with their Nazi symbols by Russian media and used as “evidence” that those who oppose Russia in Ukraine are indeed Nazis. Something to keep in mind in the present war.
Enter the Azov Battalion
Those who have heard of Nazis in Ukraine have certainly heard of the Azov Battalion, which is presented often by Russian and pro-Russian propaganda as the smoking gun proving that the Ukrainian government promotes Nazism.
The Azov Battalion really exists, and has an interesting story. In our previous articles, we have encountered an organization called SNPU, the Social-National Party of Ukraine, which did use some Nazi symbols, and was re-organized in 2004 as a “respectable” right-wing party, Svoboda, which promised to eliminate the Nazi connections. As part of this “cleansing,” Svoboda disbanded the Patriots of Ukraine, SNPU’s paramilitary wing.
We have also met Andriy Bilets’kyy, a young leader of the Patriots of Ukraine who was not happy with the 2004 reforms and continued the Patriots as an organization independent of Svoboda. In 2008, with other small groups, the Patriots organized an umbrella group called Social National Assembly (SNA).
As the main academic scholar of the Azov Battalion, Andreas Umland, has noted, the pre-2014 activities of Bilets’kyy and the Patriots are both understudied and controversial. Vyacheslav Likhachev, a well-known investigator of post-Soviet antisemitism, in 2014 collected statements by Bilets’kyy dating back to these years and expressing a racist position calling to violent actions against immigrants and other “enemies of the white race.” Bilets’kyy in 2015 claimed that the statements were false and had been fabricated by Russian propaganda. Umland tends to believe that most statements are true, and that by 2015 Bilets’kyy was trying to “cover his pre-Euromaidan political biography.”
Also in the decade leading to Euromaidan, Bilets’kyy was involved in violent actions against opponents and immigrants, in which he cooperated with Bratsvo (Brotherhood), an extreme Christian right-wing group that in 2004 had not supported the Orange Revolution and had publicly expressed his sympathy for Putin.
Bratsvo founder Dmytro Korshyns’kyy, besides having been (before 2014) a frequent participant in Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasianist and pro-Putin gatherings in Russia, came from the Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA), a group we mentioned in our previous articles, as did Ihor Mosiychuk, another friend of Bilets’kyy. Mosiychuk had his own small right-wing faction, and had been arrested as part of the so-called “Vasylkiv terrorists,” a group that conspired to blow up a statue of Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Boryspil.
For charges that were probably partly real and partly trumped-up, Bilets’kyy ended up in jail, but was released together with other “political prisoners,” including Mosiychuk, during Euromaidan, based on a law introduced by populist politician Oleh Liashko, a former journalist whose Radical Party is nationalist but not particularly right-wing, and in fact advocates economic positions normally associate with the left. In Spring 2014, Bilets’kyy and some other 30 liberated prisoners started meeting in the building of the old Kozats’kiy Hotel in Kiev, and also opened a “branch office” in Kharkiv.
In March, the office was assaulted by separatists, and on March 14 Bilets’kyy associates killed two separatists in Kharkiv. They were the first pro-Russian victims of right-wing nationalists, and as Likhachev writes, served the Russian propaganda as “the only remotely real basis for creating the image of a threat from ‘Bandera hit squads.’”
The Kharkiv police, on the other hand, did not have a negative view of the Bilets’kyy group. In April, it thanked it for its assistance in patrolling the city and repressing pro-Russian and separatist activities. Since Russia had infiltrated in Ukrainian territory masked soldiers in unmarked green uniforms who were called the “little green men,” Bilets’kyy’s Patriots called themselves the “little black men.” They also used the name “Right Sector of the East.”
In May 2014, some 80 activists from the group connected with Bilets’kyy at the Kozats’kiy Hotel in Kiev went to Berdyansk, a port city on the Azov Sea, to train on a shooting range there. This episode is connected with the official date of foundation of the Azov Battalion, May 5, 2014, although in fact it might have been founded some weeks earlier. The Battalion’s backbone consisted of Bilets’kyy’s Patriots, but it also included members of Bratsvo and of Mosiychuk’s group, and had the blessing and the economic support of Liashko, who believed that associating with anti-Russian voluntary fighters would pay an electoral dividend.
Even before the official foundation date of May 5, the Azov Battalion marched to the city of Mariupol, where the pro-Russian separatists had taken several government buildings, and expelled them after a bloody battle that made “Azov Battalion” a household name in Ukraine.
Most Ukrainians were thankful to the Battalion for their deeds in Mariupol, and glossed over the extreme right origins of the founders. They left a visual trace, as the Azov Battalion adopted as its symbol the logo of the old SNPU party, which had also been used by the Patriots of Ukraine and the SNA. It features a letter I partially covered by a letter N, whose stated meaning is “Idea of a Nation.” The logo is not identical with, but is a mirror image of sort, of the Wolfsangel (wolf’s hook), an old German symbol that existed before Nazism but was adopted both by some divisions of the SS and by later neo-Nazi movements across Europe.
The symbol also evidenced a significant difference between the Azov Battalion, or a part of its original members, and the old Ukrainian nationalism associated with the name of Bandera. While Bandera and his associates, many of them Catholics from Western Ukraine, presented themselves as defenders of Christianity, some of Azov’s first members were neo-Pagan and dreamed of restoring a pre-Christian Ukrainian religion, in parallel with the ideas of some right-wing extremists in other countries.
The original numbers of the Azov Battalion should not be exaggerated. In the summer of 2014, it had between 400 and 450 members. It was because of its bravery in Mariupol that it was incorporated by the government into the National Guard and its members grew to 800, and later perhaps to 2,500. Its leaders also capitalized on the fame they had acquired, and in 2014 both Bilets’kyy, as an independent candidate, and Mosiychuk, as part of Liashko’s Radical Party, were elected to the Parliament.
There has been also an attempt to convert the popular Azov Battalion name into a political brand by creating the National Corps party, which has gathered some 20,000 members and sympathizers throughout Ukraine and has created or sponsored various vigilante groups, most recently one called Centuria, which attacks pro-Russian politicians and organizations. The success was, however, limited. In the 2019 elections, right-wing Ukrainian parties, including the National Corps and Svoboda, formed a unified list in the hope of overcoming the 5% entrance barrier to Parliament but only gathered 2.15% of the votes.
The Azov Battalion today is part of the Ukrainian military as a regiment. This is used by Russian propaganda to claim that “Nazis” fight for Ukraine, a claim uncritically accepted by some Western media. Both before and after the 2022 war started, Umland, as the most prominent scholar who has studied the Azov Battalion, has been interviewed by several media. He insists that the Azov Battalion (now the Azov Regiment) “is not Nazi,” while “some of its founders and members are.”
Umland has explained time and again that, on the one hand, Bilets’kyy and others whose role was crucial in the foundation of the Azov Battalion had a “prehistory” in racist and neo-Nazi milieus. However, they are not claiming this heritage but try to hide it. Umland has written that Bilets’kyy and others “emerged as national politicians in spite rather than because of their older ultra-nationalist views and actions.” Certainly, the Azov Battalion logo, still used in the Azov Regiment, is a reminiscence of their extremist past, but is not perceived as such by most Ukrainians.
The same, Umland and other scholars believe, is true for those who joined the Azov Battalion after the initial 2014 events. Most of them, in Umland’s terms, are “militant patriots” rather than “right-wing extremists.” Most Ukrainians today perceive Azov just as an elite regiment, and would not even know of its origins if not for the Russian propaganda. Yet, there are Nazis within the Azov Battalion, including among the foreign fighters who came to help from abroad. They are a minority but, as Umland stated, they are the only one who are interviewed by some foreign reporters, and mistakenly presented as “average” or “typical.”
Pro-Russian Nazi Fighters in the Ukrainian War
Putin has repeatedly indicated that “denazification” of Ukraine is one of the aims of its war. One can ask, however, whether, before denazifying other countries, he should not put his own house in order. Neo-Nazism is not a peculiar Ukrainian phenomenon. It exists in all European countries, and Russia is no exception.
In 2015, a report by the Center for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (CERS) of the University of Leeds painted a grim picture of neo-Nazism in Russia. “Swastikas, ‘Russia for the Russians,’ ‘glory to Hitler’ and ‘SS’” have been painted on Jewish facilities. “Over 800 extremist websites give open space to leaders of neo-Nazi and extreme right organisations.” Even a “Miss Hitler competition takes place between Russian and Ukrainian female Nazis to determine who is the most beautiful anti-Semitic female.” Although its leaders denied it, Nazi trends were apparent within the political party Russian National Unity (RNU), which was banned in Moscow in 1999 but continued as the Russian National Socialist Party and even with the name RNU outside of Moscow.
As we noted for Ukraine, in Russia too neo-Nazis recruit among football (soccer) fans. CERS reported that “the neo-Nazi threat has not vanished from Russia and it is evident that many have joined with violent football fan groups,” particularly among supporters of FC Spartak Moscow, whose violent fans “join with neo-Nazis in a display of racial violence against those they ideologically oppose.” “It is evident, the report concluded, that Russia faces a severe issue involving neo-Nazism.”
It would be false to state that the Russian authorities did not act against neo-Nazis. Those who committed crimes, including homicides of non-White or non-Slavic citizens and immigrants, were arrested and prosecuted. For example, in 2011, five members of the particularly vicious National Socialist Society North were convicted of several homicides and received life sentences.
At the same time, reputable scholars regard as credible that FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency and the heir of Soviet KGB, has infiltrated and uses neo-Nazis for its own purposes. I have mentioned in the previous article of this series the studies of Vyacheslav Likhachev. In 2016, he published a study of extreme right and neo-Nazi activities in Ukraine. He suggested that in 2014 in Donbass neo-Nazi groups “were cooperating closely with the Russian secret services and were
used from the very beginning to spark off the conflict.” The founder and leader of the RNU party Alexander Barkashov visited Donbass in February-March 2014 and created a RNU branch there.
The first “People’s Governor” of the pseudo-“People’s Republic of Donetsk,” Pabel Gubarev, was among the members of the RNU in Donetsk. When pictures of Gubarev with the RNU emblem, featuring a swastika were published by Russian dissidents, he was first defended by Russia but then sidelined.
Likhachev also notes the role of the RNU in orchestrating the “referendum” on the “independence” of Donetsk in 2014. “In May 2014, he writes, A. Barkashov also instructed the local activists … about how and when they should carry out a ‘referendum on independence’ (the RNU’s leader’s instructions were followed to the letter).”
While, after the problems with Gubarev, the RNU swastika symbol was replaced by one without swastika among Donbass RNU-connected militias, which included both Ukrainian citizens and Russian volunteers, other emblems remained. Likhachev writes that, “The round eight-pronged swastika—’kolovrat’ (a neo-pagan swastika) appeared on the badges of the neo-Nazi ‘Rusich’ and ‘Ratibor’ sabotage-reconnaissance units within the ‘Batman’ Rapid Response Group, and the ‘Svarozhichi’ battalion within the ‘Oplot’ brigade.”
In the other pro-Russian pseudo-state in Donbass, Luhansk People’s Republic, certificates were given to volunteers with the number-slogan 1488. As Likhachev explains, “1488” is used by neo-Nazis internationally. “‘14’ stands for ‘14 words,’ a white supremacist slogan invented by [American white supremacist] David Lane [1938–2007] and ‘88’ stands for ‘Heil Hitler’ because ‘h’ is the eighth letter in the Latin alphabet.”
As mentioned in a previous article, Likhachev played a key role in unearthing the neo-Nazi past of the founders of the anti-Russian Azov Battalion, and had a very public conflict with its main leader Andriy Bilets’kyy, who even accused the scholar of relying on false documents. However, when studying the presence of neo-Nazis both in the anti-Russian and pro-Russian camps in Ukraine, Likhachev concluded that, “On the whole, members of far-right groups played a much greater role on the Russian side of the conflict than on the Ukrainian side.”
Likhachev published his study in 2016, and referred to the war started in 2014, but most of the neo-Nazi groups fighting on the Russian side he mentioned are still active in 2022. The scholar also found that pro-Russian neo-Nazi “activities on Ukrainian territory were coordinated with the Russian secret services.”
Russian propaganda sometimes emphasizes the fact that well-known Russian neo-Nazis moved to Ukraine and settled there. This is not false, and indeed some Russian neo-Nazis who had become Ukrainian citizens fought with the Azov Battalion in its early days. On the other hand, both Likhachev and Taras Tarasiuk and Andreas Umland (a scholar I have also mentioned in a previous article) report that some Russian neo-Nazis who had moved to Ukraine, particularly those connected with the RNU party, eventually fought in Donbass with the pro-Russian separatists. One of them, Anton Raevsky, tried to organize a pro-Russian insurrection in Odessa. One can ask whether they “escaped” to Ukraine or were infiltrated there by Russian intelligence.
The jury is still out in some cases, including Sergey Arkadyevich Korotkykh, who was born in Tolyatti, Russia (a city named after Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, 1893–1964) in 1974 but after the fall of the Soviet Union became a citizen of Belarus. He also became notorious as a leading Belarusian neo-Nazi, participated in several Nazi activities in Russia, and in Spring 2014 moved to Ukraine, just on time to join the then newly formed anti-Russian Azov Battalion, where he eventually became a commander and was granted Ukrainian citizenship.
In 2020, the Ukrainian NGO Institute of National Politics published a very detailed report, based according to Tarasiuk and Umland on “considerable research,” whose conclusion was that Korotkykh was, and had always been, working for the Russian and Belarusian intelligence services. Yet, no action was taken against Korotkykh. On March 4, 2022, Korotkykh gave an interview to an Italian journalist in a Kiev hotel, waving an Azov flag and surrounded by Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian volunteers, whom he claimed were waiting for the Russians to fight them.
It is also true that Western neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing volunteers fought in the early Donbass war and are fighting in the 2022 war, but on both sides of the fence. Italians are a case in point. As reported by the leading Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera,” the Italian security services are aware that some sixty volunteers, most of them right-wing extremists (although some come from the extreme left), are fighting in the current Ukrainian war. On both sides, although the oldest and more organized presence of Italian right-wing and neo-Nazi extremists is in the camp of pro-Russian separatists.
I have a personal memory of this curious underworld. When I criticized Russia for the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, I was violently attacked on social media by Andrea Palmeri, a fugitive from Italian justice who was (and is currently) fighting with the Russians in Luhansk. Palmeri is a textbook example of a militant soccer fan (of the Tuscan third-division team Lucchese) accused of violence and of being a neo-Nazi who lionizes Putin, spreads his propaganda (on February 24, 2022, he reported that the Ukrainian Army was “surrendering without fighting” and suggested that Russia might win the war in 24 hours) and fights with and for the Russians.
Are there neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian war? Yes: on both sides, possibly with a larger presence on the pro-Russian side. As for Putin’s “denazification,” an important scholar of European neo-Nazism I have already mentioned in this series, Anton Shekhovtsov, explained in 2017 what it means: “In a Russian rhetoric that dates back to the Soviet Union, ‘fascist’ simply means ‘enemy of Russia.’ If a fascist becomes a friend of Russia, then by definition s/he is no longer a fascist.”
Russian Propaganda Is Just Propaganda
It is now time to draw some conclusions from the six chapters I have devoted to the question of Nazism in Ukraine. They show, I believe, that Russian propaganda is just propaganda, and war propaganda is rarely informative.
The Ukrainian nationalism and the 19th-century movement for an independent Ukraine had an antisemitic component, but antisemitism was unfortunately common almost everywhere at that time. In a previous Bitter Winter series on the blood libel, the false accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in esoteric rituals, I discussed the Beilis trial of 1913. It was one of the worst cases of blood libel, and it happened in Kiev. But it was also true that a jury of common citizens of Kiev eventually found the Jewish defendant, Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874–1934), not guilty.
There were horrific pogroms in Ukraine, including in the short-lived independent Ukrainian republic of 1917–1920, but there were pogroms in Russia too. I am personally a Roman Catholic, and I am ashamed of the role Catholic bishops and priests, including in Western Ukraine, played in spreading antisemitism. However, this again was not a distinctive character of Ukraine, as Christians spread antisemitism in several countries. Russian Orthodox antisemitic activists fabricated the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and produced other antisemitic material that circulated internationally.
The post-independence history of Ukraine is dominated by the tragedy of the Holodomor, the artificial famine created by Stalin to exterminate Ukrainian small landowners. He suspected they would otherwise continue to support separatism and independentism. While covered by some media when it happened, the Holodomor, which killed three and a half million Ukrainians, was ignored for decades in the West, except by a few scholars. Many Ukrainians who were lucky enough to survive did so by keeping in their eyes for all their lives the terrible images of their elders and children slowly and painfully dying of hunger, while Soviet soldiers prevented them from moving to nearby areas where food was available.
This horrible genocide, which most in the West ignore, explains even if it does not justifies why a sizable number of Ukrainians, including political leaders such as Stepan Bandera and Catholic bishops and priests, sided with Nazi Germany when it invaded the Soviet Union. They naively believed that by fighting with Germany and proclaiming their loyalty to Nazism they would recover Ukrainian independence. The Nazis had no such intention, regarded Ukrainians as part of an inferior race, and once they had conquered Ukraine they arrested Bandera and sent him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (his two brothers were sent to Auschwitz, and died there).
Yet, most “Banderists” continued to fight with the Germans, regarded as the lesser of two evils, against the Russians. Shamefully, the old antisemitic impulse of Ukrainian nationalists reared its ugly head again, and some “Banderists” became accomplice in the Nazi extermination of the Ukrainian Jews. After the war, groups of “Banderists” took to the forests and continued to fight the Russians, until Bandera who lived in exile in Germany was killed by a KGB agent in 1959.
When Ukrainians today commemorate Bandera and the “Banderists,” they honor their fight for the independence and against the Soviets rather than their collaboration with the Nazis. As Ukraine becomes more integrated with European Union countries, a majority of its population according to polls is in favor of reassessing the role of Bandera and his followers, and of eliminating monuments and other tributes to those who acted as Nazi collaborators. Friends of Ukraine should encourage it in this necessary endeavor. However, pressures by Russia, which brands as “Nazis” all those who fought against the Soviets, makes the purification of historical memory not easier, but more difficult.
In independent Ukraine, as in all other European countries, including Russia, small extreme-right movements were established, some of them neo-Nazis. Rather than veteran collaborators of the Nazis in World War II, their leaders were young men who had never known the historical Nazism, and a significant number of their militants were recruited, as happened in other countries, among the violent fringes of soccer fans, primarily the mostly Russian-speaking supporters of Shakhtar Donetsk but also the right-wing fringe of the fans of Dinamo Kiev, who used American white supremacist symbols. These new Nazis did not target the Russian-speaking Ukrainians (since most of them were themselves Russian-speaking) but foreign immigrants and students, Jews, and the Roma minority. While reduced in numbers, they were surely dangerous, and committed various homicides.
Electoral results demonstrate that right-wing extremists never represented more than a small minority of the Ukrainians. When they managed to obtain some better results, and elected members to the Parliament, right-wing parties and candidates did so not because but notwithstanding Nazi and extremist connections, which they tried to hide, or repudiated. Real extremist movements should not be confused with false Nazi organizations created, when tension with Russia mounted, by agent provocateurs infiltrated in the right-wing milieus by Russian intelligence services, as the case of Eduard Kovalenko demonstrates.
The small neo-Nazi movements did not play any important role in the Orange Revolution of 2004, but had an unexpected opportunity when the pro-Russian attitudes of President Viktor Yanukovych led to the Euromaidan revolution of 2013–2014 and his ousting from power. Inter alia, Yanukovych tried to silence the commemorations of the Holodomor and claimed it was part of a famine affecting various countries and that “blaming one of our neighbors [Russia] for it is unjust.” As some scholars have noted, once again many non-Ukrainians failed to understand the enormity of Yanukovych’s claim for Ukraine. It was as if a president of Israel would join the camp of Holocaust denial.
Right-wing extremists, including some neo-Nazis, did participate in the Euromaidan, but did not represent the majority, nor even a significant minority, of the protesters. However, when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and created the secessionist pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which started the Donbass war, some neo-Nazis, who had a paramilitary training and were ready to fight, participated in the creation of volunteer units, including the Azov Battalion that distinguished itself for its bravery during the recapture of Mariupol. The Azov Battalion had 400–450 members at that time. It was then incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard, became a regiment, and grew to include some 2,500 soldiers.
On the one hand, some of the Battalion’s main founders had at least a Nazi “prehistory,” which they tried unsuccessfully to hide and which influenced the choice of the Azov’s logo, which has both neo-Pagan and Nazi associations. On the other hand, not all the original fighters of 2014, perhaps not the majority, were neo-Nazis. When the Battalion was incorporated into the National Guard and expanded, neo-Nazis came to represent a small minority of its soldiers, although they were not absent and its symbolism remained a liability. However, the leading Western academic scholar of the Azov Battalion, Andreas Umland, has insisted that calling the Azov Battalion “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi” is wrong.
As Umland writes, the new relevance of anti-Russian neo-Nazis “would not have occurred without the increasingly destructive Russian interference in Ukrainian internal affairs throughout 2014. The rising social demand for militant patriotism provided previously marginal far right activists with new political space.”
In an ideal world, the Azov Battalion, which many Ukrainians admire not for its neo-Nazi roots but for its bravery at war, may drop its insignia and perhaps its name, and take an argument away from Russian propaganda. However, this is unlikely to occur in the middle of a war.
Unbeknownst to many Western media, not all Ukrainian neo-Nazis, not all the Russian neo-Nazis who had moved to Ukraine, and not all the right-wing foreign fighters who came to Ukraine to fight in the Donbass war sided with the Ukrainians. Some sided with Russia, Putin, and the pro-Russian Donbass separatists. Although precise statistics are obviously difficult, the more so for the 2022 war, a leading scholar of Russian and Ukrainian neo-Nazism, Vyacheslav Likhachev, believes that in the Donbass war that started in 2014 “members of far-right groups played a much greater role on the Russian side of the conflict than on the Ukrainian side.”
All this is not to deny that Ukraine, as do many other countries, including Putin’s Russia, has a problem with a tiny neo-Nazi minority whose members have spread unacceptable racist and antisemitic ideas and committed serious crimes. It is, however, false that the government of Ukraine, whose President is a Jew, promotes or tolerates Nazi ideologies. It is absolutely false that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis, that Nazis are a significant percentage of those who fight against the Russians, and that Ukraine needs a forced “denazification.”
By the same standards Russia, who also has its percentage of Nazis among those who fought on its side in Ukraine both in 2014 and 2022, also needs “denazification.” While the question of neo-Nazism in both Russia and Ukraine deserves further academic study, using it as a pretext to justify a war of aggression against another country is just part of a propaganda that is both dishonest and dishonorable.