In Background, Ukraine

By Stephen D. Shenfield, published in Left East, July 10, 2014


It is conventional wisdom in the West to describe the ‘Maidan’ that brought to power the current regime in Kiev as an anti-authoritarian mass movement guided by democratic ‘European’ values [1]. While not denying the presence of such themes in the Maidan, I wish to argue that the Maidan was and is primarily a mobilization on behalf of a specific variant of Ukrainian nationalism. This article approaches from a broader perspective issues that I raised in April 2014 in my essay ‘Ukraine: Popular Uprising or Fascist Coup?’ [2], which had the more specific purpose of assessing the role played by fascist or semi-fascist radical Ukrainian nationalists (mostly associated with the Banderite tradition) in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

This article has two secondary purposes. I wish to present evidence that considerable numbers of Western journalists and academic experts have been deliberately misrepresenting the nature of the ‘Maidan’. I also want to comment on recent manipulation of the ‘Jewish question’ by the radical Ukrainian nationalists.

Statement of the 41: Umland attacks Umland

I start with a ‘collective statement’ issued on February 6, 2014 over the signatures of 41 ‘experts on Ukrainian nationalism’ working in Ukraine and various Western countries [3]. The experts appeal to commentators on events in Ukraine not to claim that the Maidan ‘is being infiltrated, driven or taken over by radically ethnocentrist groups’ or that ‘ultra-nationalist actors and ideas are at the core or helm of the Ukrainian protests’ because these claims are false and provide grist for the mill of Russian imperialist propaganda against Ukraine.

The argumentation supposedly proving the falsity of the ‘claims’ is decidedly weak. The ‘proof’ boils down to the point that the Maidan is politically diverse – a point that no one denies. However, diversity is quite consistent with a scenario in which one element in that diversity acquires a preponderant influence. Indeed, Andreas Umland, who not only signed the statement but coordinated the whole initiative, bore witness to precisely that scenario in a report that he posted on the internet exactly one month before the publication of the Statement of the 41 – describing, for instance, how a Banderite slogan became the main motto of the Maidan [4]. By organizing the Statement, Umland was in fact attacking himself (among others).

Of course, Umland like anyone else has a right to change his mind, but he should openly acknowledge that he has changed his mind and provide a clear explanation of what led him to do so, especially on a matter of such importance.

The extreme weakness of the substantive argumentation in the Statement makes me suspect that the main concern of the signatories is not to provide grist for Russian propaganda. They seek not to determine where the truth may lie but rather to deal with the phenomenon of the Ukrainian radical nationalists in such a way as to do the least harm to the cause with which they sympathize. It is understandable that experts, like other people, will have political sympathies and antipathies, but when they speak and write as experts it is their duty to set political commitments aside and strive for the greatest possible objectivity. The signatories of the Statement have betrayed that duty.

The large number of signatories may create a misleading impression of consensus among ‘the experts’. In fact, quite a few experts did not sign the Statement, including well-known writers on contemporary Ukrainian nationalism like Andrew Wilson and Dominique Arel. Finally, about a quarter of the signatories are historians specializing in Ukrainian nationalism before and during World War Two; they are not necessarily well informed on current affairs.

Walking past armed men without seeing them

Descending for a moment into the grubbier world of mass journalism, I checked how the two main British television broadcasters, BBC and ITV, reported – or, rather, avoided reporting – the Right Sector (RS) massacre of anti-Maidan protestors in Odessa on May 2. When the RS burned their tents, the protestors took refuge in the trade union building, which was then set on fire. Some died in the fire, while others were strangled, knifed or otherwise murdered upon escaping from the building. There is video evidence of the RS systematically setting the fire: we see RS girls around a big table in the courtyard preparing Molotov cocktails and passing them to the boys for throwing [5].

The BBC, quoting a source identified only as Serhiy, concludes that Molotov cocktails were thrown by both sides, although it is unclear where those supposedly thrown from inside the building could have come from [6]. Not satisfied with merely obscuring the truth, ITV goes further and blames the victims for their own deaths: ‘pro-Russian activists were killed … as they were setting fire to a building’ [7].

On another occasion, freelance journalist Graham W. Phillips berated ITV’s Europe editor James Mates for his deliberate distortions. On his site he writes: ‘I watched James Mates walk past a mass of masked pro-Ukrainian men at a march, with gloves concealing weapons. He then described it as a peaceful Ukrainian march, before pulling out all the negative terminology for the Russian side.’ On a video we hear Phillips try to argue with Mates, who complains at Phillips ‘having a go at me personally’ and tells him to ‘go away’ [8]. Presumably Mates is following instructions from above and does not feel it fair to call him to account.

Relationship between the radical nationalists and the Orange mainstream

Despite the prominent role played by radical nationalist groups in the change of regime in Kiev, their social base remains narrow and confined to Galicia, so that in the course of time they may return to the margins of Ukrainian political life. However, an analysis of the nature of the Maidan must consider not only the relative size of these forces but also the relationship between them and the mainstream of the movement. What is perhaps most shocking is not the presence of ultra-rightists or even their numbers but the fact that (with few exceptions) they are broadly accepted as a legitimate part of the Maidan. Opinions differ concerning the value of their contribution, but the great majority of Maidanites do not draw a sharp dividing line between themselves and the ultra-rightists, whom they regard as allies in the fight against the Russian and Russia-oriented enemies of the Maidan.

If we assume that the Maidan is an inherently democratic movement, then we are bound to find this very puzzling. However, once we abandon this assumption and view the Maidan primarily as a nationalist mobilization it makes perfect sense. Both ultra-rightists and the Orange mainstream – as represented, in particular, by the All-Ukraine Union ‘Fatherland’ (Batkivshchyna) – are Ukrainian nationalists in the narrow sense of seeking to create a single, culturally uniform, Ukrainian-speaking nation (as distinct from the looser concept of Ukraine as a culturally and linguistically diverse community). Both therefore have more or less intensely negative attitudes toward the Russian-speaking population living in southern and eastern Ukraine [10].

One reason why we cannot draw a clear line separating ‘Banderites’ from mainstream nationalists is the success of the Banderites in gradually infiltrating the Bandera cult into the Orange mainstream. In 2009 a postal stamp was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bandera’s birth, and in January 2010 President Yushchenko posthumously awarded Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine [9]. By waging a campaign of defamation against Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, a German historian who has written about the dark side of the history of the Banderite movement, the Svoboda party gave him the reputation of ‘an odious figure’ [11].

A culture of mobilization

One would expect a democratic movement to overflow with substantive debate on a wide range of policy issues, with diverse opinions freely expressed and received with interest and respect. The impression that I have formed of the moral and intellectual atmosphere of the Maidan, on the basis of an admittedly limited exploration of relevant sources (speeches, articles, blogs, videos etc.), is quite different. The dominant values seem to be those of a camp of the ‘forces of absolute good’ mobilized against the ‘forces of absolute evil’ – unity and loyalty to the common cause. Differences (on policy toward the EU, for instance) are glossed over for the sake of unity. The vigorous expression of important differences, when it does occur, easily triggers violence [12].

Anti-Maidanites are often pilloried by their opponents as ‘Sovoks’ or ‘vatniks’ (Soviet-style quilted jackets) – that is, people still influenced by Soviet patterns of thinking. It seems to me that this label can be applied with equal justification to Maidanites. One obvious example is an excessive inclination to explain events as results of conspiracy by enemy secret services (Russian secret services in the case of Maidanite discourse). Another example is the constant repetition of set phrases, as in the old Soviet ‘wooden language’ (langue de bois).

The use made of one of these set phrases – ‘Ukraine’s European choice’ – is reminiscent of the set phrase ‘the socialist choice of the Soviet people’, which Gorbachev used in the late 1980s in his attempt to place limits on perestroika. In both cases the word ‘choice’ is actually used to deny choice. The choice has supposedly already been made and cannot be reconsidered, whatever it may entail. For instance, the ‘European choice’ entails, among other austerity measures, halving the pensions of working pensioners [13].

Manipulation of the ‘Jewish question’

Despite the efforts of helpful ‘experts’ and journalists, the presence of ultra-right forces in the Maidan and in the governing coalition is a serious PR problem for the new regime in Kiev and its Western backers. As these forces can neither be dispensed with (at least for the time being) nor completely hidden from sight, it is desirable that they should change their ideology and behavior in ways that will win them legitimacy and respectability in the eyes of world public opinion. The ultra-right leaders are themselves willing to take steps in this direction.

A fruitful area for this sort of manipulation is the ‘Jewish question’. It seems that both Tiahnybok, leader of the Svoboda party, and Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector, have made a decision to eliminate anti-Semitism from their ideology and practice. Yarosh has promised the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine to do all he can to prevent attacks on Jews and to liaise on a special hotline regarding any incidents that do occur [14]. The RS now pose as protectors of Jews, even helping to clean up anti-Semitic graffiti. The history of World War Two is being rewritten to present Ukrainians and Jews as comrades-in-arms against Nazis and Soviets.

This policy decision has considerable PR potential. Not only does it promise to neutralize the enmity of world Jewish opinion; it also makes the charge of fascism much less credible to the popular mind, which identifies fascism with anti-Semitism.

In fact, this identification is historically and theoretically incorrect. Anti-Semitism is central to National-Socialism (Nazism) but not to fascism in general. In its early period, before the alliance with Hitler, the Mussolini regime was not anti-Semitic to any significant extent: it accepted Jews as members of the Italian fascist party and developed close relations with the Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement (itself semi-fascist in orientation), even establishing a naval academy to train Revisionist youth. Historically anti-Semitism was part of Banderite ideology, but Poles and Russians were viewed as the main enemies; Jews were hated as perceived agents of the Poles and Russians. A radical Ukrainian nationalism in the Banderite tradition that is not anti-Semitic is at least conceivable.

In general, fascism does typically cultivate ideas of racial/ethnic separation, exclusiveness and superiority/inferiority, but the specific groups extolled and targeted vary from case to case. For the semi-fascist Ukrainian radical nationalists the main target of ethnic hatred within the country is Russians – or, more broadly, residents of Ukraine who prefer to speak Russian and are oriented culturally (not necessarily politically) toward Russia. This ‘Russian-speaking population’ includes people of various ethnic origins, including quite a few Ukrainians and also Russian-speaking Jews (who will continue to be persecuted, but as Russian speakers not as Jews). These are the people whom the Banderites compare with insect pests (‘Colorado beetles’ [15]) and seek to ‘Ukrainianize’ – or, should that prove impossible, to imprison, sterilize or kill [16]. The latest proposal of this kind comes from the new defense minister Colonel General Mikhail Koval, who proposes to imprison the citizens of southeastern Ukraine in special ‘filtration camps’ and then forcibly resettle them in other parts of the country [17].

Stephen D. Shenfield is a British-born specialist on politics and society in Russia and the post-Soviet region. He obtained his Ph.D. in Soviet Studies and Economics at Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies. For several years he worked at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. He is the author of The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001). He is currently an independent researcher and translator. He lives in Providence, RI.


[1] Thus, experts Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov start a recent analysis by defining the Maidan as Ukraine’s ‘third post-Soviet anti-authoritarian movement’ following the ‘Ukraine without Kuchma!’ campaign of 2000-2001 and the Orange Revolution of 2004 (‘Ukrainian Right Radicals, European Integration and the Neo-Fascist Threat’ [in Russian], May 21, 2014 at

[2] This essay first appeared on Johnson’s Russia List on April 4. A slightly different version was published in Issue 26 of The Libertarian Communist. The most recent version is that on my own website at

[3] The statement was published in English and Ukrainian at Twenty-one signatories are based in Ukraine, six in the United States, three in Canada, five in Germany, five in other countries of Western and Central Europe, and one in Israel.

Another critique of the statement is that of Volodymyr Ishchenko: ‘Ukrainian protesters must make a decisive break with the far right,’ The Guardian, February 7, 2014 (

[4] Umland’s report, first published on January 6 on the site of the Kyiv Post, strongly influenced my own view of the situation, and I quoted extensively from it in my earlier essay. Indicative of its content is the heading of the second section: ‘The Ethno-Centrist Slant of Ukraine’s Third Post-Soviet Mass Rebellion.’

For another useful assessment of the conservative nationalist nature of the Maidan, see Viktor Shapinov, ‘A Class Analysis of the Ukrainian Crisis’ at (translated from the Ukrainian website Liva [The Left] by Renfrey Clarke).

[5] This can be viewed on the video (published on May 12) starting at 4.30 minutes. The pattern of events was much more complicated than this, but here I focus on this central sequence.




[9] The award was annulled a year later by President Yanukovych.

[10] A report has just appeared of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk referring to Russians in Eastern Ukraine as ‘subhumans’ (nedocheloveki).

[11] Source: private correspondence.

[12] This is only an impression based on a relatively small sample of sources. It may be exaggerated. I hope that others with more direct personal experience will comment.

[13] Austerity plans of the Ukrainian finance ministry reported in March 2014 (

[14] Anti-Semitic incidents can be expected to continue to occur because some rank-and-file ultra-rightists may not understand or accept the new policy of their leaders. In particular, the Right Sector encompasses not only Banderite groups but also straightforward neo-Nazis such as White Hammer and other neo-Nazi skinhead groups, whose anti-Semitism is more deeply entrenched.

[15] There were reports of some of the murderers in Odessa tweeting about how good it felt to kill ‘Colorado beetles’ (colorados) – a common pejorative term that alludes to the black and orange St. George’s ribbons worn by veterans of World War Two.

Some anti-Maidanites regard the Banderites themselves as insect pests. For example, Sergei Shevchenko, head of the ‘House of Eternal Spring’ organization, recently declared: ‘We shall fight against all Nazism and national radicalism … but let us not burn and destroy our home in order to rid it of cockroaches!’ (

[16] Prominent Svoboda parliamentarian Iryna Farion wants speaking Russian to be made a criminal offense: Russian speakers are ‘degenerates’ and should be imprisoned (Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 25, 2014). In 2010 a pseudonymous contributor to the party’s official forum, alleged to be Tiahnybok himself, wrote: ‘To create a truly Ukrainian Ukraine in the cities of the East and South, … we will need to … physically liquidate all Russian-speaking intellectuals and all Ukrainophobes (shoot them quickly, without trial – they can be registered by any member of Svoboda), execute all members of anti-Ukrainian political parties’ ( A member of Svoboda living in Crimea (before its annexation by Russia) argued that it is impossible to Ukrainianize the residents of the city of Sevastopol; they cannot be killed either, as that might trigger an armed conflict with Russia; he therefore proposes that they be sterilized (

[17] Andrew Korybko, ‘Ethnic and Cultural Cleansing in Ukraine’,, June 18, 2014. The term ‘filtration camp’ was used for the internment camps used by the Russian army in Chechnya.


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