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Ukraine's Descent into Fascism and How the West Turns a Blind Eye

Ukrainian fascism is a rampaging reality. The West's refusal to acknowledge it may be setting the scene for genocide

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Vladimir Golstein is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages at Brown University, an American Ivy League university.

We  have decided to publish this article in full, since it is by far the best description we know of the rise of fascism in Ukraine.  

The author, who is a top US scholar, shows that Ukrainian fascism is not the fringe phenomenon that western governments and media say it is, but that is central to Ukrainian politics and is the key to understanding Ukraine’s political crisis and the way that crisis is evolving as the situation in the country worsens.  

He shows by drawing on the latest academic scholarship that the fascism currently loose in Ukraine is fascism in its classic form, identical to the fascism of that existed in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and that like that fascism it disguises its racist and genocidal agenda behind slogans of anti-communism.   He describes how the racist hatred that drives Ukrainian fascism is focused on Russia and Russians and expresses itself  with the same genocidal language against Russians that fascists of the 1930s and 1940s used against Slavs and Jews.

The author shows that western governments and media, their judgement already clouded by their hostility to Russia, have allowed themselves to be beguiled by Ukrainian fascism’s anti-communist slogans and insincere “Europeanism” so that they turn a blind eye both to its reality and to its actions, with potentially disastrous results as the situation in Ukraine worsens.      

How does one interpret recent marches of Ukrainian nationalists in two main Ukrainian cities, Kharkov and Kiev?

To an outsider, these marches look like Nazi bacchanalia intended to intimidate both local population and the government. Indeed, the marchers demanded the status of national heroes for the wartime Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) notorious for its violent extermination of thousands of Jews and Poles.

Yet, one would wait in vain for the N-word to be mentioned by Western press. BBC coyly reported that: “nationalists demanded that MPs pass a law to recognize a World War Two nationalist group which opposed Soviet forces.” UPA, the organization responsible for the murder of thousands is presented as “the opposition to Soviet forces.” The BBC’s squeamishness is very typical of western coverage of Ukrainian violence: as long as any group has challenged the evils of Stalin’s bolshevism , their Nazi collaboration is to be ignored. It is this privileging of anti-communism at the expense of anything else that enables the press to insist that “There are no Nazis in Ukraine-- it is all the invention of Kremlin propaganda.”

The western media, never squeamish about pointing a finger at Russian nationalism, or decry Russia’s covert and overt attempts to interfere in Ukraine, becomes surprisingly timid when describing Ukraine’s turmoil. Of course, it will admit the growing pains of Ukraine’s pro-Western democratic turn, including the activity of violent groups or parties, like Right Sector, that flaunt Nazi paraphernalia and expound bizarre and racist notions. But this acknowledgement is quickly modified by the insistence on the marginal nature of these groups. Rather than being marginal, these groups, however, constitute the tip of the ultra-nationalist iceberg that is going to crush the modern Ukraine.

The nature of this iceberg is simple: Ukraine is rushing headlong to create a modern day fascist society. It might try to disguise itself as pro-European liberal democracy, as the country eager to resist Russian control or Soviet legacy, but behind this double dose of Ukrainian spinning and western Cold War narrative, lays a very menacing reality. It includes pervasive rhetoric focusing on the myth of heroic Ukraine that must be restored, its champions honored, and its enemies vanquished. It also includes a forced imposition of such a myth upon the whole population of Ukraine resulting in the series of violent actions of genocidal character, be it the May 2 massacre in Odessa, or relentless shelling of civilians in the East of the country.

What remains hidden in the plain view of recent Ukrainian politics is a highly recognizable pattern shared by numerous fascist regimes.

A school of current historians of fascism (Emilio Gentile, Roger Griffin, George Mause, Stanley Payne, and Robert Paxton) has established generic features of the fascist phenomenon. Fascism for these scholars does not necessarily imply its Nazi variant with anti-Semitism, yellow stars, and concentration camps. It is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, a “cultural revolution in nationalist key” (Comparative Fascist Studies, Routledge, 2010: 114) as the result of which society embarks on a new mythic course. It “sacralizes earthly entity --the nation” (Gentile in Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 2004: 18); it re-imagines its past and articulates utopian future that remains out of reach only because some group serves as an obstacle. It also targets and utilizes the inexperience and alienation of youth by providing it with the sense of belonging, direction, and “destructive emotions against a hallucinatory enemy” (Griffin, Radical Right, 1999: 298). According to Payne’s A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, London, 1997: 487-95), in order for a country to embark on a fascist course, it has to exhibit a series of cultural, political, social, economic, and international elements. Majority of these elements are fully deployed in Ukraine: be it preexisting strong currents of nationalism; a comparatively new state; a political system that approximates liberal democracy but existed only for a single generation; economic crisis of dislocation or underdevelopment; politically neutralized military; fragmented or polarized party system, status humiliation (loss of Crimea) and the apparent danger from the left (cf. Self-proclaimed People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine).  

In other words, cultural, political, and social pre-conditions of fascism has already crystalized in Ukraine. In particular, it worth stressing the following: the political vision that drives violent youth organizations like Right Sector and that is being embraced by more and more Ukrainians, is the myth of a strong unified Ukraine located both in the past and in the future. It includes the embrace of mythic champions of that vision, such as UPA leaders, Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevich, who are supposed to inspire Ukraine toward its glorious future, while it is the enemy, Russians in particular, who preclude Ukraine from reaching its mythical paradise. During the last twenty years, the education in Ukraine, the teaching of history in particular, was organized as to drive home this simplistic mythology.

The civil war in the East, coupled with the loss of Crimea, only exaggerated Ukraine’s utopian thinking. The mythic enemy (Russia) has shown its claws, highlighting the urgent need for the unified force of so called “svidomye” –a new and important Ukrainian term, that describes the in-crowd, politically conscious nationalists.

It is these svidomye  who now constitute the backbone of Red Sector and other military organizations like voluntary National Guards, which are behind the most gruesome violence emanating from Ukraine. Condoned by the media, politicians, and the army, these svidomye encounter little resistance. Furthermore, just a few days ago, the leader of National Guard, Stepan Poltorak, was appointed as the Ukrainian minister of defense, signifying the fact that it is ultra-nationalists that are in control of the army, and not the other way around.   

The current Ukrainian ideologues are well aware that the West would hardly tolerate purely ethnic hatred, so they either deny the violence inflicted upon the population not willing to share their utopian visions, or –when it becomes impossible--do their best to obfuscate it. Kiev, in fact, found a very successful strategy of disguising its Russophobia as Sovietophobia, a brilliant move that guarantees the immediate support of Baltic and East Europeans countries, let alone the Cold Warriors of the West. Needless to say, practically all fascist movements of the twentieth century presented their genocidal violence as a political struggle against communism, bolshevism, or sovietism. The mainstream press, however, happy to detect rudiments of neo-Nazism in Russia, fails to recognize in Ukrainian rhetoric of anti-sovietism a camouflaged version of Nazi’s “Judeo-Bolshevism.”  

So while on the surface Ukrainian radicals attack Lenin sculptures, Stalin’s politics and left wing parties, what is seething underneath is hatred of all things Russian. (How else can one explain this ardor against Lenin or Stalin, whom nobody in Eastern Europe or Russia takes particularly seriously nowadays? Yet, equating Stalin’s brutal agrarian politics with the genocide against Ukrainians enables these ideologues to promote the myths of Ukrainian victimhood at the hands of its hated neighbor. Thus, we learn, as reported by Dmitri Kolesnik, that “Oleh Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion defines Ukrainian war as the conflict of ‘people with a European identity fighting with Sovietness.’” The very juxtaposition of such disparate concepts as ‘European’ and ‘Soviet,’ –skillfully implies that things Soviet are non-European and barbaric. Thus, the fight with Soviets becomes civilizational rather than genocidal project. Just a few days ago, a member of Ukrainian parliament, Tamara Farion, in the speech commemorating the heroism of UPA, declared that “the ideals of WWII Ukrainian nationalists who resisted Moscow should become universal for Ukraine… that everyone in Ukraine who lacks Ukrainian soul should be executed… and that Moscow has to be erased, for remaining irredeemable black hole European security.”

Relying on western publications and translations, the western public cannot perceive the depth of venom and hostility that pervades Ukrainian political discourse, be it through the mass media, blogs, FB postings, or YouTube videos. Aleksei Sakhnin, Russian political dissident arrested by Putin, and obviously, no fan of “Kremlin’s propaganda,”-- was shocked by what he saw during his recent visit to Ukraine. For him, the Ukrainian situation resembled a powder keg ready to explode. The animosity that emanates from Ukraine is so strong, that it even expanded abroad, as can be witness by the attack on the photograph exhibition at the Chelsea gallery in NYC.

The legitimating of fascism, its entering of the mainstream under the pretext of war with Stalinism and its Soviet legacy – became the main ideology in Ukraine, resulting in what Ukrainian journalist, Dmitro Manuilskii, called “legitimization of the fascist discourse.” In fact, such legitimization came into being, under the earlier Ukrainian president, Victor Yuschenko, with  his radical attempts to re-introduce nationalistic myths into Ukrainian psyche. This cultural shift generated a very articulate condemnation as early as 2008, when Ukrainian historians Georgii Kriuchkov and Dmitry Tabachnik published in Kharkov the collection of essays entitled Fascism in Ukraine: Threat or Reality. (Fascism v Ukraine: ugroza ili real’nost’.)

Whether Ukrainian mythic nationalism will result in some major genocide is unclear, but one can hardly doubt that the fascist discourse that took hold of Ukraine during the last twenty years will only get worse, fueled by depressed economy, destroyed industrial powerhouses in the east, and the local currency in the free fall.  Furthermore, the Ukrainian government is clearly dysfunctional; common people demand blood, there are fights in parliament, there are fights outside, there are lynching crowds who attack and beat up politicians. The interior minister, Arsen Avakov, has appealed to the crowd through Facebook post (Sept. 30) and asked them not to resort to lynching since it can ruin Ukrainian reputation “in Europe and even in America.” To which some members of his audience, replied that since Interior ministry proved to be ineffective in dealing with “pro-Russian” side, they have to resort to violence instead.   

Avakov should not worry about US reaction to Ukrainian lawlessness, however.   Beguiled by Ukrainian skillful spinning of their genocidal hatred in political terms, the American politicians prefer to concentrate on Russia and the need to challenge it. Thus, despite numerous reports of rising ethnic tensions, despite the evidence of disturbing invocations of Nazism (see the articles by Alec Luhn, Max Blumenthal, or Stephen Cohen), the White House refuses to modify its policy. In his recent speech at Harvard, Joe Biden insisted on the already familiar narrative that the events in Ukraine have to do with the US need to challenge Russia, while ignoring Ukrainian realities. For Biden’s Cold War mindset, sanctioning Russia into obedience appears to be the only goal: “But again, it was America’s leadership and the President of the United States insisting, oft times almost having to embarrass Europe to stand up and take economic hits to impose costs. And the results have been… the Russian economy teetering on the brink of recession... Putin has to make a choice. These asymmetrical advances on another country cannot be tolerated.” In short, Ukraine be damned, as long as we make Russia back off.

Biden demonstrates here a rather consistent pattern of American foreign policy: the fixation on a historical rival at the expense of the current mayhem. Think of Cambodia, for example. When the Vietnamese army decided to put an end to Khmer Rouge violence and invaded the country, US continued to condemn Vietnam and supported the Khmer Rouge regime. In the words of the historian Pierre Ryckmans, also known by his pen name of Simon Leys:

“After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Kissinger asked the foreign affairs minister of Thailand to convey to Pol Pot the friendly wishes of the American people, adding for his interlocutor’s benefit: ‘Of course, these people are murderous thugs, but this should not affect our good relations.’ The administration of Jimmy Carter – under the influence of Brzezinski, and notwithstanding the rhetorical emphasis which the president himself placed on human rights – pursued essentially the same line.”

This description of the myopic US policy aimed at containing an imaginary enemy while ignoring the unfolding genocide seems to apply to the current Ukrainian crisis as well. There is an improbably alliance created to contain the imaginary Russian threat; there is the American president, whose “rhetorical emphasis on human rights” brings him –as in the case of Jimmy Carter-- Nobel Peace Prize, and who disregards these very human rights in order to follow the pronouncements of the ubiquitous Brzezinski and other ideologues.

Of course, historical analogies hardly prove anything, so one hopes that Ukraine will fall short of genocidal record set by Cambodia. It is clear,  nevertheless, that Ukraine looks more and more like a country ready to devour itself, while its western cheerleaders, continue lecturing the world on the need to contain Russia, while ignoring the Ebola of fascism that has so thoroughly infected Ukraine.


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