French Documentary Exposes Ukraine's Far-Right. But Can Europe Handle the Truth?
The activities of aggressive nationalist and neo-Nazi armed movements in present-day Ukraine are the focal point of Moreira’s documentary. Their existence is not denied by any of his leading critics in France -- even as they try to find excuses to justify their actions.
On Wednesday, 3 February, as I was about to start assembling this article on the very important documentary about the Maidan broadcast by the French independent television channel Canal + on Monday evening, 1 February, I was headed off by breaking news on Russia Insider, carrying links to the first half of the documentary in English voice-over and a couple of other key primary sources I had intended to work with. The second half was expected to come shortly. Although primary sources do not constitute reader-ready journalism, their apparent availability in English compelled me to alter my approach to the subject matter so as to ensure I would offer substantial added value through deeper research and comprehensive interpretation.
On Thursday morning, 4 February, the picture changed yet again. The half of the documentary on Russia Insider remained. However the complete file in French with English subtitles for the opening minutes had gone dead. A black screen explained that the video has been taken offline for violating the copyright of its producers Premières Lignes Télévision, of which Mr. Moreira is co-founder.
Was this a sign of censorship, suppression of the documentary and its elimination from public viewing as was demanded in the days just prior to the planned airing by the Ukrainian authorities? Or was it simple and normal exercise of intellectual property rights?
Some pointers to answering this question may be found on the Canal+ home page, which makes no mention of the offending video but offers a couple of excerpts from it. One is called “The Massacre of Odessa” and constitutes a 2minute28 second fragment. Another two minute long fragment is dedicated to the interview with the violent former spokesman for Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), Igor Mosiychuk, who died in September 2015 in police custody, though this is not mentioned in the film. But the integral video is not on offer from the broadcaster. At the website of the producers the video on display opens just to the trailer for the documentary, not to the documentary itself.
For these reasons I tentatively believe we are facing the issue of censorship. It also appears that the situation is very unstable with regards to pirated versions. As of today, 5 February, the link on Russia Insider, in fact takes you to the full original documentary in French with neither subtitles nor voice-over.
Though it will be little comfort to English speakers, there are things to learn from the original that were not picked up by Moreira and his producers, but are invaluable, so I urge those who can profit from it to do so immediately. I have in mind in particular the local speech that one hears fairly well in the French original of the video beneath the narrator’s explanations. That local speech of four of the five leaders of the Ukrainian extreme nationalists/neo-Nazis who are interviewed or otherwise featured happens to be….Russian, not Ukrainian.
The odd man out is Oleh Tyahnybok, chief of the Svoboda party, who comes from and whose power base is situated in the historical center of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, Lviv, in the Western Ukraine. Lviv was once the capital of Austrian Galicia, which tolerated and perhaps even encouraged the Ukrainian nationalists before 1914 as a stick to poke the Russians in the eye. It was the intellectual cradle of the Maidan movement. All the others interviewed or otherwise featured are speaking native Russian: Dmitry Yarosh and Igor Mosiychuk of Pravy Sektor; Andrij Biletsky of the Azov Battalion; and Mark Gordiyenko, a leader of Odessa paramilitaries.
This fact stands in contrast to what we hear in one segment of the film, presenting militants from Pravy Sektor on the street outside a courthouse where a trial is taking place against one of their peers. They denounce a Russian-speaker who passes them on the sidewalk, calling him a traitor for Moscow, a ‘shit.’ Meanwhile their top chiefs are…Russian speakers.
I introduce this observation not as some idle bit of irony or absurd touch. It is central to what is wrong with Ukraine today. The country is in the grip of extreme nationalists who seek to impose what the British scholar Richard Sakwa has called a monist view of nationhood, one which does not admit of minorities or heterogeneity. Rainbow Revolution is not what the Maidan is all about. Like the Communism which held power in Ukraine before 1992, this new extreme nationalism can impose its will only by violence or the threat of violence. It is by definition the antithesis of European values of tolerance and multiculturalism. All of this violence and intimidation is what Paul Moreira shows us graphically, frame by frame in his carefully constructed documentary. That it happens to take place under an ideology that incorporates elements of fascism if not Nazism is incidental but not decisive.
Since the continued availability of the pirated Canal+ documentary online is uncertain and it is, in any case, only French speaking, I will first provide here a brief summary of what Moreira shows on the screen. This is very basic journalism on the order of who did what. Then I will proceed to offer what I hope readers will see as higher added value journalism, setting the political context for this documentary by looking at how it has been received critically in France. From there I will conclude with some comparative remarks on the debate over Maidan in France as showcased by the Canal+ broadcast with a similar debate by U.S. print media that began in the months immediately following the 21 February 2014 coup d’etat in Kiev that installed extreme nationalists in positions of power.
Paul Moreira’s Scenario for Ukraine: The Masks of Revolution
Paul Moreira is a professional documentary film maker, not an area specialist. Like other successful journalists he travels the globe and has done films in Iraq, in Israel, in Burma, in Argentina to name just a few places. Like many of his peers, his philosophical outlook might be described as humanitarian leftist. He tells us at the opening of this latest work for Canal+ that he was drawn to the subject of Ukraine and the Maidan Revolution by what he saw at home on his television set. Like most everyone, he
“…felt sympathy for these people who demonstrated day after day on the streets in winter conditions. They wanted to join Europe, to move away from Russia. They wanted the corrupt president Yanukovich to leave. They hoped for more justice, fewer inequalities. But I was struck by one thing – the images of the American diplomat Nuland on Maidan distributing bread. The Free World, its cameras, sided with the insurgents.”
Remarking those discordant elements, and especially the presence of flags with neo-Nazi symbols unfurled at post-Maidan demonstrations, he decided to go to Ukraine and see for himself what was going on. This documentary draws upon his interviews with leaders of the paramilitary groups and extreme nationalist politicians. It draws upon film footage from the massacre which killed 46 Russian-speaking demonstrators against Maidan in Odessa on 2 May 2014 and his follow-up interviews with people on both sides of the conflict. It presents footage on the violent demonstration of nationalist extremists before the nation’s parliament to enforce Maidan policies on the legislators, and recent footage of the Pravy Sektor militias operating a blockade of the highways leading from Ukraine into what is now Russian Crimea all in violation of government policy from Kiev.
During the course of the film Moreira intersperses footage intended to show the controlling hand of the US both before and after the coup d’etat of February 2014 that overthrew Yanukovich. Twice we see US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland handing out cookies on the Maidan to encourage the demonstrators in December 2013. We also see U.S politicians including John McCain, Joe Biden together with the neo-Nazi Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok on a podium in Maidan.
A longer segment takes place in September 2015, at the annual Yalta European Strategy Meeting in Kiev where Moreira tried to get some impromptu interviews from American Masters of the Universe. Surely the field was tempting and included Victoria Nuland and former CIA boss General David Petraeus, author of the surge in Iraq and current strong advocate for sending offensive weapons to Kiev.
Moreira succeeded only in getting a sound bite from General Stanley McChrystal, who told him that the task of the day was to improve the militias and their links with the Ukrainian government. Moreira asked whether he was aware that the paramilitaries had attacked the Verhovna Rada the week before. With a dismissive smile before he made his getaway, McChrystal responded, “That’s a problem…”
One other relevant archival sequence shows Victoria Nuland testifying before Congress in May 2014 when California Congressman (R ) Dana Rohrabacher asked if she was aware that there were neo-Nazis in the demonstrations and street violence that led to Yanukovich’s removal. Rohrabacher went after Nuland when she was being evasive, asking again whether besides the mothers and grandmothers with flowers there were very dangerous street fighters, neo-Nazi groups. Nuland responded with more blather: “Almost every color of Ukraine was represented including some ugly colors.” For the record Rohrabacher concluded he took that to mean ‘yes.’ This segment all by itself would make it worthwhile for Americans to seek out the documentary to savor and share with friends.
Reaction to the documentary from Le Monde and other French journalists
On 31 January, that is one day before the release on Canal+ of Paul Moreira’s documentary, the leading Center-Left French daily newspaper Le Monde issued a stern critique of his work under the title “Paul Moreira gives us a distorted vision of the Ukrainian conflict.”
The paper’s reporter for Ukraine, Benoit Vitkine, says the extreme nationalists were only one part of the armed force behind the Maidan and charges Moreira with giving them far too great a role in the Maidan and its aftermath. Moreira shows them as major political force when in fact “their electoral results are laughable” says Vitkine. He also denies that they are ‘the new masters of the Ukrainian streets.’
The last point is debatable. After all Moreira gives us footage of paramilitaries demonstrating aggressively in the streets before the parliament to influence outcomes in the legislature. And we have scenes of their illegal blockade of the highway at the Crimean border, which is very literal control of the streets. The first point is wrong not because the extreme nationalists have done well at the elections (they did not) but because the interpretation of their low popular support misses the point. It in no way contradicts their power and influence over the policies of the Kiev government and parliament achieved by ongoing, never-ending intimidation. This equals a devaluation of the Ukrainian democracy that is so celebrated in the West.
He accuses Moreira of omitting in his film mention of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. This, says Vitkine, explains the radicalization of part of the Ukrainian population and the decision of Kiev to arm the battalions of volunteers. However, even if we were to accept the start of the story where Vitkine picks it up and not go back just a few months to the provocation that prompted Russian intervention on behalf of Crimea and the Donbass, Vitkine’s remark is only an excuse and does not deal with the resulting ugly reality. It does not provide a way forward.
Similarly Vitkine rejects the referendum in the Crimea that brought the peninsula into the Russian Federation, which Moreira took to be legitimate, and he rejects Moreira’s charge of US complicity in the installation of neo-Nazis to bring the Ukraine into realignment with its objectives.
In a word, Le Monde’s key reporter on Ukraine is attacking Moreira from the standpoint of a narrative written in Washington. In this sense, the French Center Left is no less under the spell of Neoconservative ideology than the majority of the American Left of Center ‘Progressives’ in the Democratic Party.
That being said, Vitkine does toss one bouquet to Moreira for his treatment of the “events” of 2 May 2014 in Odessa, and the deaths of 42 pro-Russian demonstrators:
“Even if he overestimates the role of Pravy Sektor and assigns responsibility for this drama too peremptorily, the film performs a salutary piece of work by dwelling at length on this episode from the post-Maidan days that is often neglected.”
Lest we become too attracted to Moreira, the review in Le Monde concludes with haughty condescension:
“Otherwise, Moreira’s pose as the white knight who is exposing past truths that have been passed over in silence just doesn’t work. This experienced documentary film maker has taken up a real subject. He has chosen to ‘see for himself,’ as he tells us. But he only saw what he wanted to see…”
Moreira’s response to Le Monde and two other critics, still before the airing of the film, appeared in French on the site blogs.mediapart.fr and in English translation on the website of newcoldwar.org.
Moreira cites the pressure which came from the Ukrainian authorities for Canal+ not to air the documentary, how he was denounced. But he insists that the paramilitaries are a great threat to Ukrainian democracy and says denial of their existence and of the danger they pose so as not to play into Russian propaganda “means to become a propagandist oneself.”
Moreira accuses Le Monde journalist Benoit Vitkine of ”unusually violent writing.” But what could one expect when the Left is attacking another sympathizer of the Left who seems to have lost his way and is leading others into confusion. Moreira’s answer to Vitkine and the various critics is point for point, restrained and confident.
After the airing of the broadcast, an “Open Letter to Paul Moreira” was published on the website of the French weekly Nouvel Observateur. Per Wikipedia, this news magazine “has been described as "the French intellectuals' parish magazine", or more pejoratively as "quasi-official organ of France's 'gauche caviar.'” This citation dates from 2006 and comes from a reputable American source who knows whereof he speaks, John Vinocur, reporter at the time for the Paris based International Herald Tribune. It is also worth mentioning Nouvel Observateur is 65% owned by Le Monde.
Seven of the 17 journalists who signed the Open Letter work for French state media – France 24 and Radio France International. In this capacity, they are hardly independent journalists with regard to a subject as politicized as Ukraine. Three are with the Center Left newspaper Libération newspaper. One is with Nouvel Observateur. Three are free-lance photo journalists.
The letter starts and ends with stinging reproaches to Moreira. But the contents go this way and that way. The critics raise serious weak points but also reluctantly acknowledge merits of the documentary. Meanwhile, without meaning to and notwithstanding the broad knowledge of the territory and its recent history to which they lay claim, they manage to demonstrate a seriously faulty understanding of what is going on in Ukraine and why.
Their letter is interesting for acknowledging the reality of the central issue raised by Moreira’s documentary: that there is a problem with paramilitaries in Ukraine. However, like Vitkine, they want to shift the discussion from that reality and find excuses in the war that rendered these paramilitaries heavily armed and a danger to the country’s future.
As rightful demonstration of their expertise, they call out Moreira’s mistake in calling the anti-Maidan forces “Russian origin Ukrainians” when in fact they are mostly ethnic Ukrainians who happen to speak one or another language depending on family tradition and geography. They fault him for failing to see that his interlocutors among the nationalist Ukrainians were responding to him in pure Russian. The signatories insist that Ukraine is a genuinely bilingual society across its geography. But they are willfully ignoring what I said at the outset: this is precisely why the implementation of a single notion of the nation, a single state language can be accomplished only by force, which is dehumanizing and destructive of European values.
Like Vitkine, the authors reject the results of the Crimean referendum, pointing to the presence of Russian troops on the peninsula. But they themselves ignore the repeated polls and news reporting by disinterested third parties in the past year validating the results of the 2014 referendum.
They acknowledge that the paramilitaries were a problem but say they were brought under control during 2015. This is a questionable assertion given the continuing political instability in Kiev and the apparent extremist influence on the Verhovna Rada, frustrating the efforts of the Poroshenko government to implement the terms of the Minsk II accords. They are silent about Moreira’s footage from the Crimean-Ukrainian border.
Most emphatically, the authors reject the “theory of overthrow of the government in February 2014 by the paramilitary groups of the extreme right.” In doing so, these journalists claiming expert knowledge of the recent history willfully ignore the substantial evidence indicating the snipers on Maidan and killings were false flags by professionals intent on enraging demonstrators and facilitating the seizure of power, not by the government’s Berkut forces. They overlook the critical role of Dmitry Yarosh and his forces in shredding the EU-Yanukovich written agreement on 21 February.
Like Vitkine, they salute the coverage by Moreira of the 2 May events in Odessa, but say vaguely it is not the only incident in Ukraine that has not been adequately investigated. And they say that the French and international press has covered extensively the atrocities in Ukraine. This is unconvincing.
We might conclude that these 17 journalists have written their Open Letter to safeguard their jobs with the French state media and their continued travel rights to Ukraine, which is essential to their careers. But the story does not end there.
One of the 17 signatories, Gulliver Cragg, who works for the France24 television channel, also published a very curious article on the Moreira documentary in other venues. Like all of the photo journalists and many of the other radio, television and print journalists in the list of signatories, he publishes on various platforms and for various audiences. His side essay was written for the Kyiv Post and put online by the still more unpromising stopfake.org, a website devoted to the “struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine.”
Cragg’s essay opens and closes with harsh words for Moreira. In the middle he has harsh words for the Ukrainian authorities, whom he blames for creating their own public relations disasters by misguided policies:
“…by naming a suspected neo-Nazi, Vadim Troyan, to be police chief in Kyiv region in Autumn 2014. Or appointing the Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh an official Defence Ministry adviser. Or allowing the Azov battalion, now integrated into the National Guard, to use the Wolfsangel symbol on their logo. Or failing, as Moreira points out in his documentary, to punish any Ukrainian nationalists for their role in the Odessa tragedy.”
Clagg acknowledges that this might lead outsiders to conclude that the far right has too much influence in Ukraine. Moreover, he blames directly President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for simply not understanding all of this and not changing their behavior and their appointments accordingly.
And while he comes back to his conclusion that Moreira is blowing things out of proportion, he agrees that the existence of far-right groups in Ukraine and their influence, their weapons should be a cause for concern and constitute “a legitimate topic for foreign reporters.”
One may assume that Paris-based Clagg has no particular plans to visit Kiev any time soon given his follow-on remarks to the preceding:
“Ukraine’s leaders and media should engage with this issue and encourage a national debate. How do we define far-right? Where does patriotism end and bigotry begin? Where do we draw the line between activist and extremist? Politicians should be addressing these questions and speaking out against those whose views are not compatible with the European values Ukraine claims to espouse. And, crucially, they should be heard doing so on foreign media.”
And so grudgingly, even some of his critics have come out of their hiding places and put forward constructive suggestions. By prompting this, Moreira has performed a praiseworthy service, whatever the factual errors and interpretational limitations of his documentary.
The Maidan as presented in US media
First, it must be said that nothing like Moreira’s documentary has appeared on US television. Dark sides of the Maidan and in particular the question of the role of neo-Nazi groups and other violent extremists in fomenting and achieving the coup d’etat of 21 February 2014 have been discussed and debated in the United States but almost exclusively in print media with relatively low circulation and in the alternative internet media.
From the very beginning and up to time present, the fight over interpretation of the Maidan Revolution in the East Coast establishment has been very one-sided. This is something I wrote about in April 2014 and published as the chapter entitled, “The uncivil war being waged in America’s East Coast-based liberal magazines of commentary’ in my book Does Russia Have a Future? I will limit myself here to several salient points.
From the moment demonstrators first gathered in Independence Square in the days following President Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU Association Treaty, Yale professor of history and active propagandist of Neocon political views Timothy Snyder led the band in celebrating Maidan, with its promised liberation of an entire nation from Russian oppression. He then brazenly denigrated anyone who suggested the Ukrainian revolution was tainted by a significant component of neo-Nazis.
Snyder’s most important soap box was the New York Review of Books, which is positioned as a Progressive bastion of humanitarian values and of American global hegemony as their special defender.
His reputation as an accomplished scholar and polyglot who published a widely acclaimed book on the Holocaust in the territories of Central and Eastern Europe which he dubbed the Bloodlands gave respectability to Russophobic and Ukrainophile rants that others writing in venerable peer publications of commentary like the liberal New Yorker, or the centrist Atlantic and frankly rightist New Republic in Washington. At the same time the editorial boards of the country’s newspapers of record – The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ensured that newspaper columns and op-ed pages set out the Washington narrative day after day. Opposing views were progressively choked off, finally getting no space whatever in mainstream. One of the few exceptions in Establishment print media was The Nation, where contributing editor and Professor of Russian History emeritus at Princeton and NYU Stephen Cohen delivered detailed critiques of the factual and interpretational errors, of the utterly unscholarly debating conduct of Snyder and his comrades-in-arms.
Otherwise heterodox views became accessible only to determined truth seekers exploring the alternative media portals. I name here in particular one devastating critique of Snyder that Jim Naureckas published at FAIR.
Needless to say, critical views of Maidan and its neo-Nazi components got almost no attention in broadcast media.
In general, the situation of the Left of the American political spectrum and the Ukrainian question resembles closely what we have seen above in the critical response to Pereira’s documentary in France. Publications which promote liberal, humanitarian values in domestic politics have largely assumed what is an essentially a Neocon agenda in foreign policy, with Russia-bashing as a central point. In this sense, there is nothing surprising that Le Monde and its daughter publication Nouvel Observateur are perfectly aligned with The New York Review of Books in blind admiration of Ukraine and its Maidan Revolution.
Nominally the United States does not have state controlled television and radio, unlike most European Union Member States. Its broadcasters are all ‘independent.’ Nonetheless, no American channel so far has shown the civic courage of a Canal+.
Much as I admire the courage and dedication of Paul Moreira and valuable as his documentary is for focusing on very troubling aspects of the post-Maidan political realities in Ukraine, he is an outsider to the subject matter who has missed some very relevant facts about Ukrainian society before his eyes. His critics have missed the same points due to their ideological persuasions or lacking analytical skills.
The fact is that the population of Ukraine is very diverse. The major split between native Ukrainian speakers in the West of the country and native Russian speakers in the East of the country remains unchanged. Add to this the very many minorities of other nationalities, including Hungarians and Romanians who are especially numerous in territorial pockets. The ambition of the post-Maidan government in Kiev and of the nationalist extremists who are maintaining pressure on it through intimidation by their paramilitaries is to forge a monist national identity. This can be achieved only by violence and threat of violence.
The existence of aggressive nationalist and neo-Nazi armed movements in present-day Ukraine was the focal point of Moreira’s documentary. It is not denied by any of his critics in France even if they try to forgive it by alluding to Russian aggression and the war in the Donbass. Their insistence that it is just a small part of the paramilitary battalions, not to mention the general population, as revealed by electoral results, is intentionally misleading. Their point would have relevance if Ukraine were a functioning democracy. The ability of these nationalist extremists to control parliament and operate illegal blockades as they do at the Crimean border proves that Ukraine is not a functioning democracy.
Those are the essential points which emerge from the Canal + documentary and its aftermath. For this we must express our deep appreciation to Mr. Moreira and the management of the television channel.
G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.