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Fascist Formations in Ukraine

The Guardian published an adulatory feature on “The Women Fighting on the Frontline in Ukraine”.

One of the women profiled was “Anaconda”, fighting in the Aidar Battalion bankrolled by Igor Kolomoisky:

Anaconda was given her nickname by a unit commander, in a joking reference to her stature and power. The baby-faced 19-year-old says that her mother is very worried about her and phones several times a day, sometimes even during combat. She says it is better to always answer, as her mother will not stop calling until she picks up.

“In the very beginning my mother kept saying that the war is not for girls,” Anaconda says. “But now she has to put up with my choice. My dad would have come to the front himself, but his health does not allow him to move. He is proud of me now.”

Anaconda was photographed in combat dress resolutely holding an assault rifle in front of a rather decrepit van.

leeukraine1  The caption read:

“Anaconda says she is being treated well by the men in her battalion, but is hoping that the war will end soon.”

As reported by the gadfly site OffGuardian, several readers posted critical observations on the van’s insignia in the comments section of the piece.  One, “bananasandsocks”, wrote: “We learn from Wikipedia that the image on the door is the “semi-official” insignia of the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS…” and also pointed out the neo-Nazi significance of the number “1488”.

“bananasandsocks” seemingly temperate comment was removed by the Guardian for violating its community standards, as were several others, apparently as examples of “persistent misrepresentation of the Guardian and our journalists”.

But then the Guardian thought better of it.  While not reinstating the critical comments, it quietly deleted the original caption to the photo of Anaconda and replaced it with:

Anaconda alongside a van displaying the neo-Nazi symbol 1488. The volunteer brigade is known for its far-right links.

Problem solved?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s more like “Problem dodged”.  Specifically, the problem of the pervasive participation of “ultra-right” paramilitary elements in Kyiv military operations, which even intrudes upon the Guardian’s efforts to put a liberal-friendly feminist sheen on the debacle of the recent ATO in eastern Ukraine.

As to “1488”, I’ll reproduce the Wikipedia entry:

The Fourteen Words is a phrase used predominantly by white nationalists. It most commonly refers to a 14-word slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”  It can also refer to another 14-word slogan: “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth.”

Both slogans were coined by David Lane, convicted terrorist and member of the white separatist organization The Order. The first slogan was inspired by a statement, 88 words in length, from Volume 1, Chapter 8 of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

Neo-Nazis often combine the number 14 with 88, as in “14/88″ or “1488”. The 8s stand for the eighth letter of the alphabet (H), with “HH” standing for “Heil Hitler”.

Lane died in prison in 2007 while serving a 190 year sentence for, among other things, the murder of Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg.  David Lane has considerable stature within global white nationalist/neo-Nazi/fascist circles as one of the American Aryan movement’s premier badasses (in addition involvement in to the Berg murder—in which he denied involvement—and a string of bank robberies to finance the movement—also denied, Lane achieved a certain martyr’s stature for enduring almost two decades in Federal detention, frequently in the notorious Communications Management Units).

And David Lane was a big deal for the “ultra-right” & fascists in Ukraine, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Lane’s death touched off paeans from racists around the country and abroad. June 30 was designated a “Global Day of Remembrance,” with demonstrations held in at least five U.S. cities as well as England, Germany, Russia and the Ukraine.

Judging by this video, the march/memorial on the first anniversary of his death, in 2008, organized by the Ukrainian National Socialist Party in Kyiv, was well enough attended to merit a police presence of several dozen officers.  The sountrack to the clip, by the way, is an elegy to David Lane performed by Ukraine’s premier white nationalist metal band at the time, Sokyra Peruna.

There is a photograph of a shield inscribed “1488” at Maidan.

leeukraine2

More significantly, perhaps, the name of the armed wing of the Svoboda Party, C14, apparently invokes Lane’s “14 words” .

It should be said that Lane’s views, including those that inspired the 1488 tag, are esoteric even within the fascist/Neo-Nazi/white supremacist world he inhabited.

In a letter from prison, Lane wrote:

You know that the three greatest movements of the last 2,000 years have been Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Judaism allowed Jews to conquer and rule the world. I believe only a religious fervor can save our kind now. The 14 Words must be a divine command of Nature’s God whom we call Wotan Allfather.

As the 666 man, and the Joseph Smith of Wotanism my rewards will be zero. Death in prison, scorn from those with no vision, and hate from the stupid goyim and their kosher masters. But sometimes a man is condemned to a higher cause. And cheerfulness in adversity is still a virtue. Take care. 14 – 88

Lane composed his “88 Precepts” to instruct believers in the ways of white nationalism.  While apparently riffing off the 88 word Mein Kampf passage and “88=HH=Heil Hitler”, it also refers to Lane’s numerological/messianic preoccupations.

Ukrainian fascists’ admiration for Lane is a reflection of the pervasiveness of indigenous Ukrainian fascism, which looks for models and partners internationally while drawing plenty of strength and inspiration from its own profoundly deep historical and ideological local roots.

As I wrote in a piece for CounterPunch, Ukrainian fascism seems almost inevitable:

Ukrainian fascism is more durable and vital than most.  It was forged in the most adverse conditions imaginable, in the furnace of Stalinism, under the reign of Hitler, and amid Poland’s effort to destroy Ukrainian nationality.

Ukrainian nationalism was under ferocious attack between the two world wars.  The USSR occupied the eastern half of Ukraine, subjected it to collectivization under Stalin, and committed repression and enabled a famine that killed millions.  At first, the Soviets sought to co-opt Ukrainian nationalism by supporting Ukrainian cultural expression while repressing Ukrainian political aspirations; USSR nationalities policies were “nationalist in expression and socialist in essence”.  Then, in 1937 Stalin obliterated the native Ukrainian cultural and communist apparatus in a thoroughgoing purge and implemented Russified central control through his bespoke instrument, Nikita Khrushchev.

Meanwhile, the western part of the Ukraine was under the thumb of the Polish Republic, which was trying to entrench its rule before either the Germans or the Russians got around to destroying it again.  This translated into a concerted Polish political, security, cultural, and demographic push into Ukrainian Galicia.  The Polish government displaced Ukrainian intellectuals and farmers, attacked their culture and religion (including seizure of Orthodox churches and conversion into Roman Catholic edifices), marginalized the Ukrainians in their own homeland, and suppressed Ukrainian independence activists (like Bandera, who spent the years 1933 to 1939 in Poland’s Wronki Prison after trying to assassinate Poland’s Minister of the Interior).

Ukrainian nationalists, therefore, were unable to ride communism or bourgeois democracy into power.  Communism was a tool of Soviet expansionism, not class empowerment, and Polish democracy offered no protection for Ukrainian minority rights or political expression, let alone a Ukrainian state.

Ukrainian nationalists turned largely toward fascism, specifically toward a concept of “integral nationalism” that, in the absence of an acceptable national government, manifested itself in a national will residing in the spirit of its adherents, not expressed by the state or restrained by its laws, but embodied by a charismatic leader and exercised through his organization, whose legitimacy supersedes that of the state and whose commitment to violence makes it a law unto itself.

It’s not just a matter of historical sentiment or inclination.  Ukraine’s contemporary fascists share a direct bloodline with the fascists of the Soviet era, especially in the matter of Roman Shukhevych, the commander of Ukrainian nationalist forces fighting with the Nazis during World War II and also responsible for horrific atrocities while attempting to cleanse Galicia of Poles in the service of Ukrainian independence.   From my CounterPunch article:

In February 2014, the New York Times’ Andrew Higgins penned a rather embarrassing passage that valorized the occupation of Lviv—the Galician city at the heart of Ukrainian fascism, the old stomping grounds of Roman Shukhevych and the Nachtigall battlaion, and also Simon Wiesnthal’s home town—by anti-Yanyukovich forces in January 2014:

Some of the president’s longtime opponents here have taken an increasingly radical line.

Offering inspiration and advice has been Yuriy Shukhevych, a blind veteran nationalist who spent 31 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps and whose father, Roman, led the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against Polish and then Soviet rule.

Mr. Shukhevych, 80, who lost his sight during his time in the Soviet gulag, helped guide the formation of Right Sector, an unruly organization whose fighters now man barricades around Independence Square, the epicenter of the protest movement in Kiev.

Yuriy Shukhevych’s role in modern Ukrainian fascism is not simply that of an inspirational figurehead and reminder of his father’s anti-Soviet heroics for proud Ukrainian nationalists.  He is a core figure in the emergence of the key Ukrainian fascist formation, Pravy Sektor and its paramilitary.

And Pravy Sektor’s paramilitary, the UNA-UNSO, is not an “unruly” collection of weekend-warrior-wannabes, as Mr. Higgins might believe.

UNA-UNSO was formed during the turmoil of the early 1990s, largely by ethnic Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet Union’s bitter war in Afghanistan.  From the first, the UNA-UNSO has shown a taste for foreign adventures, sending detachments to Moscow in 1990 to oppose the Communist coup against Yeltsin, and to Lithuania in 1991.  With apparently very good reason, the Russians have also accused UNA-UNSO fighters of participating on the anti-Russian side in Georgia and Chechnya.

After formal Ukrainian independence, the militia elected Yuriy Shukhevych—the son of OUN-B commander Roman Shukhevych– as its leader and set up a political arm, which later became Pravy Sektor.

There’s plenty of indigenous fascism to go around. Interviews with Ukrainian ultra-rights reveal a welter of views befitting the country’s fraught and contested status in central Europe, ranging from “autonomous nationalists” (whose demeanour and tactics mirror on the right mirror those of European anarchists on the left); ultras who emerged from the football club wars; and determinedly theoretical scientific fascists.  The common thread of the diverse and syncretic Ukrainian fascist movement is the conviction that the survival of the Ukrainian people is under threat from a multitude of forces and mechanisms (Russians, Jews, the EU, democracy, capitalism, communism etc.), and can only be assured by autonomous armed force under charismatic leadership; and yes, apparently a shared belief that Adolf Hitler showed how it could and should be done.

Rooting fascism out of Ukraine’s cultural, social, and political matrix is going to take a lot of work.  Unfortunately, the opposite is going on right now.

The leading Ukrainian observer of Ukrainian ultrarights, Anton Shekhovstov, did not deny the presence of ultraright formations at Maidan, but tried to square the circle philosophically by characterizing the Ukrainian conflict as an anti-imperialist/anti-colonial struggle that might elicit and safely incorporate fascist activism.  Then, when the Russian threat had been dealt with, Ukrainian civil society could neutralize the fascist factor.  In January 2014, when Maidan was white-hot, Shekhovstov wrote:

Thus, a fight against fascism in Ukraine should always be synonymous with the fight against the attempts to colonise the country. Those who separate these two issues or crack down on the Ukrainian far right without recognising the urgent need for national independence will never be successful in their attempts to neutralise the far right. Moreover, they can make the situation worse.

However, Ukrainian fascists have not been disempowered and marginalized by the circus of defeat and dysfunction that is the current Kyiv government.  In fact, “ultra-right” is trending upward in Ukraine governance, as Shekhovtsov glumly observed in a recent post discussing the emergence of yet another powerful ultra-right formation:

[T]he electoral failure of Svoboda and the Right Sector [in the recent parliamentary as well as presidential elections] did not mark “the end of history” of the Ukrainian far right…

… The recent developments in Ukraine marked by the rise of the previously obscure neo-Nazi organisation “The Patriot of Ukraine” (PU) led by Andriy Bilets’ky…

… the PU formed a core of the Azov battalion, a volunteer detachment governed by the Ministry of Interior headed by Arsen Avakov. From the very beginning, the Azov battalion employed imagery such as Wolfsangel and Schwarze Sonne that in post-war Europe is associated with neo-Nazi movements…

The political perspective raises troubling questions: Why did Ukrainians elect a neo-Nazi into the parliament? Why did the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior promote the leaders of the neo-Nazi organisation?…

Shekhovtstov finds an explanation for Avakov’s footsie with the PU in the cronyism (and demand for extra-legal street muscle) that permeates Ukraine business and politics.  His conclusion is not a particularly happy one:

Conclusion

Avakov may consider the PU-led Azov battalion as his “private army”, but not everybody in the PU and Azov see the current cooperation with the Ministry of Interior as a goal in and of itself. The PU may benefit from this cooperation, but it still has its own political agenda that goes beyond this cooperation. The PU has also started advertising employment in the Security Service of Ukraine on their webpages. [emphasis added]

Further infiltration of the far right into the Ukrainian law enforcement and other institutions of the state will most likely lead to the following developments. First, the coalescence of the police and the far right who were engaged, inter alia, in the illegal activities will necessarily increase the corruption risks. Second, the growth of the far right within the law enforcement will lead to the gradual liberation of the PU from the personal patronage of Avakov that will likely result in the PU’s independent action.

While Svoboda and the Right Sector have failed in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the infiltration of some other far right organisations in the law enforcement is possibly a more advanced long-term strategy in their fight against not particularly well established liberal democracy in Ukraine.

One of the awkward facts of Ukrainian politics is that Ukraine’s fascists have the ambition if not yet the demonstrated capability of opportunistically using the current regime’s need—and factions’ desires–for effective armed formations to catapult the extreme-right into power.

And it seems that the West has zero strategy for dealing with this problem.  In fact, if disorder and discontent escalate in western Ukraine as a result of the US insistence on confronting Russia and the ethnic Russian opposition in the West, I expect the fascist problem will get worse before it gets better.

And it isn’t going to be solved by ignoring, downplaying, wishing away, or dismissing Ukrianian fascism as an irrelevant historical and political anachronism…or by discretely recaptioning some of its embarrassingly blatant manifestations.

It’s not just amusing or disturbing that the Guardian appears determined to graft a misleading liberal, Europe-loving image onto the fascist friendly Ukraine adventure; it’s downright dangerous.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and covers Asia for CounterPunch.