The roots of fascism in Ukraine: From Nazi collaboration to Maidan

Jan 4, 2018

Rioters face off with Ukrainian riot police, a shield displaying white pride and Nazi logos. Photo: Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty Images

In recent years Ukraine has popped up in the mainstream media due to explosive political developments. Starting with the “Orange Revolution” in November of 2004, to the Euromaidan coup d’etat that was carried out by multiple fascists organizations and was propped up and propagated by the US government.

With the recent surge in Ukrainian ultra-nationalism and the rise of fascist groups both within the Ukrainian political sphere as well as the upper echelons of military hierarchy, it is crucial to understand its historical origins, beginning with Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II. On June 22, 1941 the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began under the name Operation Barbarossa. The original purpose of the operation was to conquer the western Soviet Union to implement “Lebensraum,” or “living space,” for ethnic Germans to relocate and repopulate former Soviet territories. The Slavic people already living there were to be used as slave labor to aid the Axis powers and to seize the agricultural production available in this portion of the Soviet Union (Norman, 1973). The extermination and genocide of Slavic peoples, due to their designation as “sub-human,” was also to be carried out to facilitate the relocation and repopulation efforts of ethnic Germans in Slavic lands.

Operation Barbarossa was initially highly successful, with the brunt of the offensive being taken by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the beginning of the war the population of Ukraine was at 23.2 million however, in what could accurately be described as Ukraine’s own holocaust, by the end of the war 3,000,000 Ukrainians and other non-Jews had been executed, with an additional 2,300,000 Ukrainians being deported to allow for the “Germanization” of Ukrainian territory (Gregorovich, 1995).

Following the initial opening of Operation Barbarossa, on July 17, 1941 Hitler issued an official decree defining how Nazi-occupied Ukraine would be governed by a Nazi-appointed civilian regime known as the Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU) and overseen by Nazi Party regional East Prussian branch leader Erich Koch (Eher, 1946). The RKU was tasked with the pacification of Ukraine, the extermination of political dissidents and those who would interfere with the process of Nazi post-war expansion, as well as the general exploitation of the Ukrainian resources and people to further the goals of the Third Reich.

In addition to the establishment of the RKU, Heinrich Himmler personally saw to the formation of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (UAP) (Shapiro et. al., 2005). That UAP itself was split into two different categories. The first, known as the “Schutzmannschaft” or “protection team”, was tasked with carrying out anti-Jewish atrocities along with combating pro-Soviet partisan resistance throughout most of Ukraine. The second group was simply referred to as the “Ukrainian Police,” which operated under the guidance of the infamous Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) and was given special autonomy from the RKU (Bewersdorf, 2008). The UAP were the major perpetrators in the portion of the Holocaust that occurred in Ukraine. In the region of Volhynia alone, the Ukrainian police units exterminated 150,000 Jews in addition to the murder and deportation of countless other non-Jewish Ukrainian nationals (Statiev, 2010).

Lastly and perhaps most infamous in the history of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine was the figure of Stepan Andriyovych Bandera. Bandera was a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist born on January 1, 1909 in Austria-Hungary. Bandera served as head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in Galicia. In the early months of World War Two OUN leader Andriy Melnyk alongside Stepan Bandera were recruited by a Nazi intelligence organization to commit espionage and sabotage against the Soviet Union. They agreed to this work under the pretext that Ukraine would be given autonomy following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The OUN was even supportive of the extermination and forced relocation of Jews, Tatars, Roma people, and Poles in Ukraine (Mueller, 2007). With the arrival of Nazi soldiers in Ukraine following Operation Barbarossa, on June 30th, 1941 Bandera and the OUN issued the Act of Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood which declared Ukraine an independent state from the Soviet Union. This proclamation stated an independent Ukraine would “work closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany, under the leadership of its leader Adolf Hitler which is forming a new order in Europe and the world and is helping the Ukrainian People to free itself from Moscovite occupation” (Snyder, 2003). Despite all of Bandera’s crimes (not only against the Ukrainian and Jewish people, but humanity as a whole) and open collaboration with Nazi Germany, Bandera is still seen as a hero to the Ukrainian government and their far-right followers. On January 22, 2010 Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko awarded the deceased Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine (Economist, 2010) which is the highest title any Ukrainian citizen can receive.

It is within this context of Ukraine and Stepan Bandera’s history and the relationship of the current ruling junta to the RKU during the dark years of Nazi occupation, that today’s Ukraine must be understood. In February of 2014 a Ukrainian minority began protesting in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (this movement would become known as Euromaidan). There were three primary intentions behind these demonstrations: 1) to remove the democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovych from power (ignoring the constitutional process in effect); 2) to help bring attention to the possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union; and 3) to alter the constitution to restore it to as it was between 2004 and 2010. The first demonstrations promoting the message of Euromaidan began in 2012, but did not gain much traction until 2014 when right-wing organizations Svoboda (“Freedom”) and Right Sector effectively seized control as the militant tactical leadership of the demonstrations in Kiev.

Founded in 1991, Svoboda cast itself as a Social-National Party of Ukraine while spewing a hard line on Ukrainian nationalism and anti-communism, a stance which led many Russian, Jewish, and other international organizations to denounce Svoboda as a fascist organization (Stern, 2013). Directly following the success of Euromaidan, multiple Svoboda members would gain positions within the Ukrainian government (Stern, 2012). The Deputy Prime Minister, Agrarian Policy and Food Minister, Environment and Natural Resources Minister, governor of Poltava, Ternopil and Rivine ‘Oblast all were members of Svoboda while holding office in the Ukrainian government.

Svoboda took a strong leadership position in the Euromaidan coup that grew from a non-violent protest to a militant takeover of the country when far-right organizers began attacking, and eventually killing 17 while injuring nearly 300 law enforcement and anti-EU demonstrators. Since 2004, Svoboda has been led by a man named Oleh Tyahnybok. His career in Ukrainian politics has been one built upon a platform of hate (against Jews, Russians, Communists, all non-Orthodox Christians, and any ethnic minorities in the country) and ultranationalism. As of 2017, Oleh has submitted 36 motions to the Ukrainian parliament, all of them promoting hate. These include opposition to the adoption of regional languages, support for further recognition of Nazi collaborator groups during World War II, the regulation of political involvement for communist officials, and demands to make communism in Ukraine illegal (Shekhovtsov, 2011). His personal conduct, while unsurprising to those familiar with his politics, underscore his true loyalties as well; in 2004, while at the grave of a Nazi sympathizer of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Oleh made televised remarks such as “[You are the ones] that the Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine fears most” (Kuzio, 2004) and “They were not afraid and we should not be afraid. They took their automatic guns on their necks and went into the woods, and fought against the Muscovites, Germans, Jews and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state” (Shekhovtsov, 2011). Despite Oleh’s revolting history, he has still been welcomed with open arms by multiple American politicians, most notably and frequently U.S. Senator John McCain (Taylor, 2013).

The two foremost paramilitary organizations with close relationships to Svoboda and Euromaidan (and personally connected to those with Nazi sympathies during World War Two) are known as Right Sector and Azov Battalion. Right Sector is a far-right political party and paramilitary organization which arose after the merging of six Ukrainian nationalist, religious fanatic, anti-communist, and Eurosceptic organizations (Anderson et. al., 2015). United as Right Sector, the organization led the most violent street brawling against Ukrainian police during Euromaidan, recognizable due to their use of the symbols of Bandera and the RKU. Such Right Sector (and Svoboda) demonstrations visibly display numerous flags and photos featuring Stepan Bandera’s face in addition to the red and black flags of the fascist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (which now also serves as the current flag of Right Sector). The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was formed in November of 2013 by Dmytro Yarosh and on December 27, 2015 a majority of the group left entirely claiming that Right Sector had done its job ‘as a revolutionary structure’ and was no longer needed. Yarosh said that he didn’t support continued revolutionary rhetoric and didn’t want to push anything that might weaken or question the current Ukrainian government’s hold on power (Melkozerova, 2016). After the majority of Right Sector declared their mission complete, they would go on to join the fascist-sympathetic and largest volunteer battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces: the Azov Battalion.

The Donbass War arose in 2014 when the residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts took up arms against the Ukrainian junta and declared themselves independent republics (known as the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, respectively). As of 2017 this war is in a period of stalemate due to a tenuous ceasefire. This ceasefire, however, offers very little to the people of Donetsk and Lugansk. For instance, it has been documented that the ceasefire was violated 17 times on Sept. 7, 2017 alone. The Ukrainian government and its NATO allies continue to push the false narrative that the rebel combatants are entirely Russian regular infantry. This baseless position was actually refuted by the words of Ukrainian Chief of Staff Viktor Muzhenko, who acknowledged that “Right now the Ukrainian army is not engaged in combat operations against Russian regular units,” ironically proving the claims of both the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels and the Russian government.

With that all being said, Azov Battalion has taken part in numerous major battles and offensives in the Donbass War, through which it achieved particular notoriety. Azov Battalion was the only military unit that was able to defend itself against rebel advances on the Western front of the conflict, even with significant U.S. military aid in the hands of the entire Ukrainian junta. As a result of these successes, Azov Battalion acquired the reputation on both sides of the conflict as being the most effective fighting force in the war.

Azov has also gained itself a reputation far beyond its military exploits as a unit however. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR, 2016) declared Azov Battalion guilty of war crimes on multiple accounts. In 2014 Azov was documented engaging in mass looting from civilian homes in the down of Shyrokyne, as well as targeting civilian areas with artillery and small arms fire. The OHCR report also detailed the rape and torture of a mentally disabled man, claiming “A man with a mental disability was subject to cruel treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence by 8 to 10 members of the ‘Azov’ and ‘Donbas’ battalions in August-September 2014. The victim’s health subsequently deteriorated and he was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital.” In a later report from 2015, it was reported that a captured suspected supporter from the Donetsk People’s Republic was tortured via electrocution and waterboarding until he confessed to allegedly spying for the rebel governments.

Azov Battalion also has strong ties to fascism and uses neo-Nazi symbolism. Azov Battalion members were filmed displaying neo-Nazi and SS symbols and iconography, In one widely-circulated instance, the German ZDF television channel filmed an Azov fighter who had a swastika and SS symbol engraved into his helmet (NBC News, 2015). Azov Battalion has had so much coverage associated with their unapologetic following of Nazi ideology that in 2015 both the United States military and Canadian forces stated that Azov would no longer be directly trained by the two respective nations (Conyers, 2015). Tellingly however, these conditions were quickly removed when Azov became a regular military unit in the Ukrainian armed forces, as opposed to the militia status they had been operating under beforehand (Sokol, 2016).

With the overthrow of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became entirely independent in 1991, yet the complex and dark history of Ukraine is one that can be traced back decades. The shadow of Ukraine’s past is one that looms over the entire region to this day.

The evidence against the Ukrainian government’s internal fascist sympathies and support for fascism in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is undeniable. The only conclusion is for the workers of all countries to stand in solidarity against the crimes of the Ukrainian government, and say that we won’t allow fascists to occupy Ukraine as they did in WWII.


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