Orange rosette, anyone?

Horatio Morpurgo on the far right movements in Ukraine.

January 2014, Maidan, Kyiv.

Ilya Varlamov/

Moscow was spontaneously ‘re-discovering’ May Day, after 23 years, as an orgy of chauvinist triumphalism. The event in Kyiv was lower key. Still, chestnut flowers were out, kiosks sold snacks and the day was bright as the crowd, a little tense but good-humoured, began to gather from mid-morning outside the Arsenalka Metro stop.

Watched by police, they collected round a monument to the factory workers who led Kyiv’s uprising against the Tsar in 1917. Bullet holes are preserved in a wall nearby. One man had even come as a Lenin look-alike, spicing the atmosphere with a blend of fancy-dress and political provocation.

If Lenin was expecting trouble, he got none. Neither did the woman distributing orange rosettes, each with a portrait of Joseph Stalin at the centre. I asked and she introduced herself as the editor of a magazine for Communist youth. ‘The real conflict in Ukraine,’ she explained, ‘is not between Ukrainians and Russians but between the workers and the oligarchs, the bourgeoisie.’ There might be truth in that, I said, and gesturing toward the rosettes I asked whether she thought Joseph Stalin had been a good Communist. ‘Of course.’ ‘How?’ ‘The country was weak. He made it rich and strong.’ ‘Which country?’ ‘The Soviet Union.’ She paused. ‘And Ukraine,’ she added. Another pause. ‘Both.’ She fixed me with a searching look. ‘And he defeated Fascism.’ To my inevitable follow-up question she responded with her account of the 1932-33 famine, for which the weather and the prodigal lifestyle of Ukrainian peasants were entirely responsible.

The language and arguments from the 1930s and 40s being recycled in Ukraine might seem improbable at first. The role of ‘Fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ in the ‘case against’ recent events in Kyiv has proved persuasive to many well beyond the Ukrainian Communist Party, whose line this distributor of rosettes was closely following. The charge has been ceaselessly repeated by Russian state broadcasters in particular. Indeed if, as Mr Lavrov claims, ‘Russian television is telling the truth in real time’, there would seem to be very little doubt about it.

'The real conflict in Ukraine is not between Ukrainians and Russians but between the workers and the oligarchs, the bourgeoisie’

In fairness, other things should not be in any doubt either. Such as the centrality of Hitler’s defeat to an often fragile post-Soviet Russian identity. This is especially true of ageing Russian men, like the ones currently in charge at the Kremlin. From the late 1950s, recognizing the need for ritual in an officially atheist state, ‘wedding palaces’ were built all over the Soviet Union. The first of them opened in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). At its entrance there burned a flame lit from the one which burned, and still burns, continually, at the city’s cemetery for its war dead. The resistance to and eventual overcoming of Nazi Germany took on, and for many Russians has retained, a quasi-theological status.

Notably absent from this narrative are the experiences of those countries between Germany and Russia, where the Red Army’s tanks were then parked (and taken on occasional outings) over more than forty years. Ukraine, like any other such country, has its own version of events, in some ways at variance with the Russian one.

From a Metro stop in the north of the city, my interpreter led the way through a crowded market, a dank underpass, along a thundering ring-road then over a railway line and down another street to the walled compound that is Right Sektor’s headquarters. A guard in a black uniform asked for my ID through a grille then opened the gate. The man we’d come to meet, the organization’s ‘Speaker’, told us curtly he had very little time then waved us into a large room with a long table and white walls. One of these was mainly occupied by two enormous flags, one Ukraine’s, the other that of the Second World War’s ‘Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ upon which was written ‘Right Sektor – Born on the Maidan’.

Tall, sullen and stooped, the Speaker took his place in a chair directly beneath the knot where the two flags met. Hands clasped before him, head lowered, he listened then answered my questions, mechanically, as if beginning each answer with an inward rolling of the eyes. ‘The aim of Right Sektor is to prepare the new Ukraine for independence from all foreign structures’, he said. ‘To support the family and national identity.’ What does Europe mean to him? ‘If we are to speak of the EU, it is an imperial creation. It is only here for what it can take out of the country. Its ideology is liberal, individualist, anti-Christian, evil.’ As my interpreter translates, he eyeballs this latest representative of decadent atheist Europe. And America? I ask. ‘The same.’ His answer to everything is infinite disdain. NATO? ‘It’s possible we might deepen the relationship with NATO but we do not want to work with people from outside Ukraine.’ What does he think of the accusation that Right Sektor is fascist? ‘Communism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, Fascism – these are ideologies. We are Ukrainian nationalists. We have nothing to do with them. They are enemies.’

The historian Giorgiy Kasianov tells me about his visits to Cambridge University and the London School of Economics as he drives me to a favourite café not far from the Ministry of Education and Science. ‘The Great Patriotic War is a central mobilizing myth for modern Russia,’ he tells me. ‘Russians as victors. This is part of the country’s official identity. For Ukrainians the Second World War was fought between Hitler and Stalin, between two dictators, not between the Nazis and the great Russian people. Ukraine fought against both these empires.’ Kasianov is tasked with helping to re-design the country’s education system. I ask him about Stepan Bandera, the controversial war-time leader, to whom monuments have sprung up, chiefly in the west of the country, in recent years.

‘For the Russians Bandera was a Nazi collaborator – which is true, by the way – until the Nazis decided he was no longer of any use to them and imprisoned him in a concentration camp. But what Ukrainian fans of Bandera talk about is not a real person. For them he is a symbol.’ How might his fans be introduced to the real person? ‘In secondary school, as the pupils acquire critical skills, I would give them the facts and the different versions. Tell them it isn’t necessary always to support one side. History is meant to teach you how to think.’

In Lviv, home to one of the largest of those new statues, I speak to Iryna Matsevko of the city’s ‘Center for Urban History’. The Center has been closely involved in a project to erect memorials, in and around the city, to the Jews who were murdered there during the Second World War. ‘There’s still a lot of local patriotism,’ she explains. ‘It’s true, Bandera is idolized by some historians here. And then there are other historians saying – let’s talk about this. He was partly guilty. At the start. It’s true that he fought for ‘his’ Ukraine, for its independence. But how did he do this? What instruments did he use? Do we want such heroes for our young people now? Maybe not. So many families here had grandparents who were in the UPA, who told us their stories. Some historians are already teaching this. That’s why we need a discussion now – to say to these people ‘your grandparents’ story is their story’. It’s time to listen more critically.’

At the Faculty of Journalism in the same city a recently formed ‘Discussion Club’, organized by students who participated in the Maidan, has organized just such debates, about Bandera and many other figures, the Russian nuclear scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov among them.

‘We need a revolution of historical knowledge, more research,’ Anton Shekhovstov, a researcher of Ukraine’s far right tells me. ‘There are already books by liberal historians in Ukraine or in the west, which tell you Bandera was not simply a national liberation fighter and that his idea for an independent Ukraine was far from democratic. But school text books in the west and centre of the country just don’t tell you he was a fascist. So people simply block this information. Or they see it as Moscow propaganda or liberal propaganda. That doesn’t mean people are still ‘for’ the 1941 pogroms or the anti-Semitism. It’s that the independence of Ukraine has become a value in itself, the highest value for some people. What kind of order or regime he wanted for an independent Ukraine, they don’t ask.’

Europe offers some prospect of a more reliable world than the one Ukrainians have been living in since independence

Ukrainian novelist Andrei Kurkov, who was born in Russia and still writes in Russian, places the emphasis elsewhere. ‘For a Russian politician it is very difficult to portray Ukraine as an enemy nation. They use these terms, like Fascist, to create in the Russian mind an image of the enemy. This is difficult because there are millions of Ukrainians in Russia. The Head of the Russian Federation Council, Valentina Matvlyenka, is Ukrainian! Putin is surrounded by ethnic Ukrainians who betrayed their people, became imperialists to further their careers. There is a long tradition of this. In Soviet times three out of six General Secretaries of the Communist Party were from Ukraine. Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Chernenko. Ukrainians were always trying to be more loyal to this party and they were appreciated.’

To him the idea of splitting Ukraine along a linguistic ‘divide’ is an absurdity. His view may not be universal but it is very widespread. A magazine editor from the east of the country, the half-Russian receptionist at my hostel, a young engineer still recovering from head injuries sustained last winter, all agreed. The so-called ‘language issue’ has been manipulated for political advantage at every election since independence, only to vanish the moment the election is over. The bulk of the population is as sceptical of it as they are of everything else about the official political culture which has ruled the country so cynically and so ruinously.

Lviv is a city portrayed in the Russian media as a city where Banderite thugs roam the transport system, assaulting Russian-speakers. Well, I roamed it too for several days and I didn't notice any Banderite thugs. In fact the whole city switched to speaking Russian for a day last winter, in an attempt to counter the way it was being misrepresented. The university’s Discussion Club hopes to debate via video-link with students from the east of the country.

It is true that nationalist sentiment was an active ingredient on the Maidan from the start. Everyone who was there attests to it. I’m suggesting this has more to do with Ukrainian history than sinister foreign orchestration. In interviews with members of Right Sektor, I found not one who had a good word to say about the EU or the US. The notion of these people as the CIA’s shock-troops is so wide of the mark that one can’t help wondering why those who insist on this thesis so publicly do so at all. If anything, American multiculturalism is even more distasteful to them than European federalism. That Right Sektor is being used, like Svoboda before it, by oligarchs, in order to control their opponents, is more plausible. But that theory assumes some elementary knowledge of Ukrainian politics, which immediately excludes many of those shouting loudest in the western media.

That the far right, more than any other group, defined the movement can be refuted simply by bothering to talk to any reasonable sample of those who were there. There were car-owners who organized transport and blockades, there were anarchists, there were socialists, there were football fans. All churches, with the exception of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, opened their doors to the protesters (the Orthodox Church has a Kyiv Patriarchate, too, which was supportive). A Jewish oligarch put his TV station at their disposal. There were romantic visitors and there were people who stayed the course. There were newspaper editors and philosophy teachers among the dead. It surely no longer needs saying that many different nationalities were present. As one of Ukraine’s best known counter-cultural figures, the poet Serhiy Zhadan, put it in an email from hospital, after being set upon by thugs, ‘A dictatorship is not normal, and people who don’t protest injustice, they have no future.’

What does it mean to describe a movement like this, in 2014, as ‘Nazi’?

The patronizing insta-expertise of certain western commentators has puzzled many. The bracing terms ‘coup’ and ‘junta’ are routinely deployed alongside ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’. The western public has shown a surprising appetite for all this vehemence, as if to keep in check the uneasy awareness of its own ignorance. Not incidentally, the accusation of Nazism is central to the way Russia sought to undermine the legitimacy of the interim government and Ukrainian state institutions in general, in the run-up to an election which was never going to return a Russia-friendly candidate.

'Somebody shouts ‘Nazi’ and we all drop whatever we’re doing and run to see if it’s true, which is just what the guy shouting Nazi intended us to do'

The resolutely know-nothing contributions of Seamus Milne or Simon Jenkins are two examples at random. But it is John Pilger who has emerged as heavyweight champion of Moscow’s right to slice chunks of territory off neighbouring states which have neither attacked Russia nor threatened to do so. One wouldn’t ordinarily think of these writers as having much in common. But one thing they share is that Ukraine is, for all three of them, a mysteriously difficult place to get to.

Pilger used to take his vocation more seriously and it is painful to watch him squandering his well-earned moral authority in this way. What would he say, I wonder, about a British prime minister who referred to Australia as a ‘dominion’? What would he call a journalist who described Australians, without needing to meet any, as incapable of determining their own affairs? Yet for Pilger Ukrainians can only be pitied, who persist in imagining that they deposed Yanukovich because he was a thumping crook and a murderer to boot. It wasn’t like that at all. The truth is Ukrainians were, and are, in the grip of a feverish CIA-induced delirium.

Exactly how much time has Mr Pilger spent in Ukraine since last November? How much time has any of these writers ever spent there?

Some of what Mr Pilger will find in Ukraine when he finally gets there will hearten him. He will find people on both the left and the right with very few illusions about the EU or the US. VAT exemption for medical and agricultural supplies has already been removed as the IMF and the EU set conditions for their loans. Mr Pilger will be surprised to learn that people don’t like that much. The price of gas is also rising fast as Russia sets about punishing Ukraine. That was never a trick Moscow was going to miss and Ukrainians know very well that IMF loans mean more pain to come. They know it and, for now, most of them think that turning towards the EU will help to phase in the rule of law, check the power of the oligarchs and offer some protection from Russia’s militant nostalgia for superpower status. Europe offers some prospect of a more reliable world than the one they have been living in since independence.

Thrilling talk of Fascists only serves to distract. Somebody shouts ‘Nazi’ and we all drop whatever we’re doing and run to see if it’s true, which is just what the guy shouting Nazi intended us to do. Shouting Nazi explains nothing about last winter and deliberately obscures the plural nature of the movement which overthrew Yanukovich. Shouting Nazi gets in the way of that grown-up discussion about Ukraine’s past which the country needs to have. Shouting Nazi distracts from the serious discussion about how, if at all, Ukraine can possibly cope with the conditions western financial institutions will set, while being simultaneously punished by Gazprom and manipulated by Russian TV.

Those in western Europe who also find Russian TV persuasive must have their reasons. Perhaps they feel, in Ukraine’s case, as a philosopher once put it, that ‘Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability’. The ‘Europe’ on which many Ukrainians are pinning such hopes is a project that ‘Europeans’ themselves hardly know what to do with. Take the British – successive governments have engaged in neo-imperial adventures, torture, spying on just about everybody, encouraging the rich who have never been richer, even as local hospitals ‘scale back’ and bus services are cut. From where does such a society summon up ‘moral support’ for people who want more of what we’ve got?

But just to shrug and call them names is to dodge the awkward question Kyiv has set. To endlessly disparage what Europe does (still) have is to cling to the complacent illusion that things cannot be much worse. Ukrainians know better and maybe they even have a thing or two to teach Europe about that, if it would only listen.

If you are ashamed of Britain’s recent foreign policy adventures – very good. You can show it by not backing the international bully this time. Express your support, instead, for a country which refused to be strong-armed back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Who precisely is better qualified to decide on that country’s future than those who faced down Yanukovich?

It’s true the country I’m talking about does not have the money for slick English-language ‘alternative’ news operations. But cackling about Ukrainian Fascists in 2014 is complicity in Russia’s longstanding effort to control the way its neighbour’s troubled story reaches the outside world. Even as an unhinged Joseph Stalin organized the famine in which more than three million Ukrainians died between 1932-33, he blamed Ukrainian nationalists.

Remember that before you help yourself to one of those orange rosettes.