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Ukraine: Popular Uprising or Fascist Coup?

Torchlight march by Svoboda


Was the Yanukovych government in Ukraine overthrown in a popular uprising (as Western propaganda claims) or by means of a fascist coup (the official Russian version)?

The broad movement of social protest that led to the change of regime, called in Ukraine ‘the Maidan’ (meaning ‘public square’) or ‘Euromaidan’, was on the whole democratic and liberal in orientation. But it also included ultra-nationalist groups, the two main ones being the political party named ‘the All-Ukraine Union Svoboda’ – henceforth ‘Svoboda’ – and the paramilitary coalition that calls itself the ‘Right Sector’ (RS).

In order to answer the question in the title, we have to tackle three subsidiary questions:

First, how much justification is there for calling Svoboda and RS fascist?

Second, how crucial was their role in bringing about the collapse of the old government?

Third, how much influence do they have in the new government and over the general political situation in Ukraine following the change of regime?

I shall assume that the reader has a general idea of the regional division in Ukrainian politics between ‘Oranges’ (mainly Ukrainian speakers in Western and Central Ukraine) and ‘Blues’ (mainly Russian speakers in Eastern and Southern Ukraine) [1].  

Were the ‘Banderites’ of 1929—1953 fascists?

Both Svoboda and most of the groups that make up RS belong to what is known as the ‘Banderite’ tradition of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, which harks back to the activity of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) over the period 1929—1953 [2]. The OUN/UIA fought in Western Ukraine for an independent Ukrainian state at a time when the region was successively under Polish (up to 1939), Nazi German (1941-44) and Soviet (1939-41, 1944-53) rule. When German troops arrived in summer 1941 the Banderites proclaimed a Ukrainian state in Lvov in the hope that it would become part of the Nazis’ New Order, but it was promptly suppressed.

The Banderites were ‘organic’ or ‘integral’ nationalists, meaning that they imagined the nation as a single organism whose interests superseded the rights of individuals. Most students of fascism regard organic nationalism as essential to fascism but insufficient in itself to qualify a movement as fascist. Aleksandr Zaitsev argues that the OUN did not satisfy all the other criteria of fascism: in particular, it never acquired an effective leadership cult. Thus it came close to fascism and had the potential to develop into fascism but did not realize that potential [3]. Anton Shekhovtsov, by contrast, regards the OUN even in the interwar period as an example of fascism – specifically, ‘clerical fascism’ [4].  

Alexander J. Motyl views the fascism of the OUN as purely opportunistic. Like any other nationalist movement, its only fixed goal was to establish a national state. Ideology was just a means of gaining allies and therefore changed with the international situation, ‘adopting some fascist elements by the late 1930s and early 1940s and abandoning them by 1943-44.’ There is clearly some truth in this, but Motyl overstates his case. ‘Fascist elements’ were already present when the OUN was created in 1929, well before Hitler came to power. One of the three main groups that merged to form the OUN was the Union of Ukrainian Fascists, while Dmytro Dontsov – revered by the movement as its most important theorist – made no bones about his allegiance to fascism [5].

Nevertheless, the fascist reputation of the Banderites probably owes less to their ideology than to the atrocities they committed, whether in collaboration with the Nazis (a Ukrainian division of the SS, the Waffen-SS Galizien, was created in July 1944) or independently of them. Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe summarizes their achievements in this field as follows [6]. The OUN militia killed 13—35,000 Jews and the UIA killed 70—100,000 Poles in an effort to cleanse Western Ukraine of non-Ukrainians. The UIA also killed over 20,000 anti-Banderite Ukrainians, mostly people accused of collaborating with the Soviet regime after the re-entry of Soviet forces in late 1944.

Are today’s ‘Banderites’ fascists?

The Soviet security forces succeeded in suppressing all armed Ukrainian nationalist resistance by 1953. For the next third of a century the slightest manifestation of Banderite activity was crushed. Only the advent of Gorbachev’s perestroika and then Ukrainian independence made it possible to revive the Banderite tradition. Nevertheless, until quite recently neo-Banderite groups remained marginal, even in Western Ukraine.

Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to ask how much real continuity there is between the original Banderites and those who claim to be their heirs today. If such continuity is lacking, then the historical record is irrelevant to an assessment of the contemporary Ukrainian ultra-right.

However, significant elements of continuity do exist. The Banderite tradition was maintained among Ukrainians abroad. And even inside Soviet Ukraine the memory of the struggle for independence was secretly preserved within individual families. A few elderly survivors of that struggle were even able to join the new organizations.

Continuity is demonstrated by the return of old Banderite terminology and rituals. For example, the attempt to create a Ukrainian state in Western Ukraine in 1941 was dubbed a ‘national revolution’ – and this is also what the ultra-right call the recent uprising against the Yanukovych government. Or take the old OUN ritual in which one group makes a raised-arm salute and calls out ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and another group responds ‘To the heroes glory!’ In January 2014 Andreas Umland, a German political scientist based in Kiev, commented on the current revival of this ritual:

’The Euromaidan’s podium presenter, Yevhen Nyshchuk, an otherwise little known actor and a DJ in the Orange Revolution, has helped to make this slogan the protest movement’s main motto – repeated hundreds of times like a mantra during the last few weeks.’

The main ultra-nationalist organization in recent years, Svoboda, has made a continuing effort to conceal its (semi-)fascist roots. This effort dates back to 2004, when the organization that is now called Svoboda (Freedom) but then went by the name of the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) decided to adopt a less ‘ideological’ name and cultivate a ‘moderate’ and ‘respectable’ public image. The SNPU’s emblem – the Wolf’s Hook (Wolfsangel), used by the Waffen SS and popular among West European neo-Nazis – was abandoned and its paramilitary youth wing ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ was disbanded.

Specialists in ultra-right politics regard the shift as deceptive – a tactical ‘rebranding’ rather than a real change of heart. Many examples could be cited in support of this assertion. Let me just mention Yuri Michalchyshyn, one of the most prominent Svoboda politicians, who in 2005 established a ‘Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center’ but later changed ‘Joseph Goebbels’ to ‘Ernst Jünger’ (a German writer widely regarded as a precursor to the Nazis). Nevertheless, the facelift has been effective in giving the renamed party social acceptability and enabling it to make the breakthrough into mainstream national politics with a substantial presence in parliament (rising from 0.36% of the vote in 2006 and 0.76% in 2007 to 10.4% in 2012, giving it 37 seats) [7].

The rebranding of Svoboda has continued since its entry into parliament. It foreswore anti-Semitism and announced its support for the goal of joining Europe – a civilization that it had previously denounced as decadent. These moves enabled Svoboda to enter the new governing coalition and its leader Oleh Tiahnybok to meet eminent visitors such as US envoy to Ukraine assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland.

The newfound respectability of Svoboda opened up a political space to its right. RS moved into this space, attracting young people who felt that Svoboda was being too moderate in the confrontation with the Yanukovych government [8]. At least initially, RS did not try to appear respectable. It did not conceal its hostility to ethnic minorities and to present-day Europe and continued to display the Wolf’s Hook. Nevertheless, the leaders of the two organizations declare that they ‘share common values’. It seems to me that objectively there has been a division of labor between Svoboda and RS as parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces working toward the same long-term goals, although that does not exclude the possibility of a real rift emerging between them.


It may help the reader decide whether Right Sector is a fascist force if he or she watches a few videos. There are plenty of videos about the Right Sector on the internet (search ‘Pravy Sektor’). Some are overt propaganda from RS itself, appealing for support and recruits. Others are exposes by Russian or pro-Russian media. Yet others are of unclear origin.

Some videos are scenes of spontaneous incidents, presumably shot by bystanders. Others may have been circulated by RS without attribution as covert propaganda. For example, a police car is stopped at a RS checkpoint; the driver is intimidated by the RS man and forced to show his ID – that is, acknowledge the RS man’s authority. Circulation of this video would have helped intimidate other police officers.

Another video shows a large group of RS men surrounding a regional governor whom they regard as an enemy. They force him to his knees, kick him, and make him shout slogans and self-accusations (‘I shamed the nation!’) until he agrees to resign. This scene may also have been filmed for ‘educational’ purposes. It reminded me of how the Red Guards treated ‘capitalist roaders’ during China’s Cultural Revolution.

One video in the ‘expose’ category presents testimony about an incident that took place in Cherkassy region on February 20. RS men stopped several buses carrying unarmed citizens from Simferopol (Crimea). Passengers were dragged out, beaten, tortured and humiliated. Some were killed with baseball bats. The buses were set on fire [9].

A video probably recorded by a bystander starts with a couple walking along a street. The man spots a group of RS fighters across the street and yells: ‘Bandera was a pedophile!’ (an accusation made by his detractors). The RS men cross over and set upon the man while his companion screams.

Another video just shows a line of young RS men chanting a particularly bloodthirsty slogan: ‘Russkies [moskaliv] to the knife, Commies to the gallows!’ (‘Commies’ includes all leftists, anarchists, and even workplace activists [10].

Maidan: from civic protest to ‘national revolution’

Let us proceed to our second question – the role played by Svoboda and RS in the ‘Maidan’ and the collapse of the Yanukovych government.

Like all mass movements, the Maidan was a complex phenomenon. Different tendencies were discernible within it and to a certain extent they conflicted with one another. I would distinguish between a civic and an ethno-national tendency, and also between the grassroots and the politicians.

The ‘civic Maidan’ was a movement of citizens of all ethnic affiliations against corrupt, unresponsive, incompetent and oppressive government. As such it had the potential to spread from Western and Central Ukraine to the south and east of the country – that is, to become a truly nationwide movement. When residents of Eastern Ukraine were interviewed, they often expressed sympathy for this particular aspect of the Maidan. However, there was also an ‘ethno-national’ Maidan that opposed the Yanukovych government not because it was corrupt or violated human rights but because it was ‘not Ukrainian enough’ – and this Maidan was perceived as a threat in the Russian-speaking regions.

At the level of political parties, the civic Maidan was best represented by the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) while the ethno-national Maidan was represented by Svoboda, with Fatherland situated between the two. However, political parties did not play an important role in the Maidan: a poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that only 5.4% of protestors were mobilized by them.  

The grassroots Maidan was more impatient to achieve the democratic goals of the movement and less willing than the politicians to compromise with corrupt interest groups such as the oligarchs. Thus, grassroots activists were far from satisfied with the composition of the new government, which includes oligarchs (some regional governors), individuals known to represent the interests of specific oligarchs (the ministers of energy and finance are placemen for ‘Benya’ Kolomoyski) and individuals widely viewed as corrupt. Part of the popular appeal of the ultra-rightists is their hostility to the ‘anti-Ukrainian’ oligarchs [11].

Initially the Maidan was a completely peaceful movement (despite police brutality) within which the civic tendency was predominant. It seemed reasonable to anticipate a replay of the ‘Orange Revolution’ of November 2004 – January 2005, when sustained non-violent mass protest removed Yanukovych (he was reelected in 2010) and brought Yushchenko to power.

This time round, however, events took a different turn. First the ethno-nationalist tendency became increasingly salient. Later peaceful protest gave way to violent conflict between armed insurgents and the Berkut riot police. In January 2014 Andreas Umland described the ascendancy of the ethno-nationalist tendency in a post that is worth quoting at some length:

Svoboda and similar groups have managed to insert into the entire protest movement a number of their own specifically ethno-nationalist themes, symbols and slogans. This concerns above all the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s red/black blood-and-soil flag, more visible today than during the 1990 and 2004 protests, and the OUN’s battle cry “Glory to Ukraine! – To the heroes glory!” ...

‘Moreover, even such explicitly ethno-nationalist slogans as “Ukraine Above Everything!”, “Death to the Enemies!” or “Glory to the Nation!” have started to circulate on Independence Square – a fact explicitly criticized by the popular folk-rock singer Oleh Skripka among others. The spread of these mottos is probably also a result of their promotion by Svoboda and other ethno-nationalist groups over-represented on the Euromaidan, including the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, Ukrainian Platform “Sobor” and the Right Sector. In his speeches, Tiahnybok has used formulas like “national revolution” and “national state” to describe his vision of the nature and aims of the uprising. Before the current protests, Banderite slogans and symbols were heavily used only in Western Ukraine and played a minor role in earlier protests. Today, by contrast, they have become mainstream to the entire opposition protest movement, whether party-affiliated or not, and can be heard and seen all over Kiev as well as other Ukrainian cities’ [12].

The increasing ‘Banderization’ of the Maidan prompted a ‘protest within the protest’ in the form of a counter-demonstration by Kiev residents chanting (in Russian): ‘Order in the capital!’ Two of them told an interviewer from Russian television that they were ‘ordinary people wanting to live a normal life’ and did not like to see armed and masked men marching about [13]. 

We cannot be sure who fired the first shot (or threw the first firebomb), but we can identify factors that contributed to the outbreak of violence. In sharp contrast to past protests, there was no consensus in favor of a commitment to nonviolence under all circumstances. As confrontation with the Berkut intensified, ‘Maidan self-defense forces’ were set up.They were organized in units called 'hundreds' (sotni) and armed themselves with Molotov cocktails and crude explosives produced in makeshift workshops. Within 'Maidan self-defense' RS initially controlled just one 'hundred' and later more as its popularity grew; it also stole firearms from a police depot. There were other 'hundreds' that had nothing to do with RS, including a 'Jewish Hundred' [14]. Yanukovych, informed that such preparations were underway, authorized the Berkut to ‘use force if necessary’ (later he was to withdraw authorization, turning the Berkut officers into sitting ducks).

Given the high level of tension, it was now unlikely that escalation to violence could be avoided. However, it is quite clear – even from the public statements of its leader Dmytro Yarosh [15] – that RS did not seek to avoid violence. The same may also have been true of other components of the 'Maidan self-defense.' Quite a few observers reported RS fighters throwing Molotov cocktails at the police and thought that they were deliberately provoking a violent reaction against the mass of demonstrators [16]. Besides fighting the police, RS men vandalized the Kiev offices of Blue parties (Party of Regions, Communist Party of Ukraine, etc.) and took control of ‘autonomous zones’ in and around Kiev.

Right radicals also intimidated parliamentarians. In a leaked telephone conversation in which EU representative Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet exchange impressions from their visits to Kiev, Paet mentions that some deputies had received nighttime visits from ‘uninvited guests’ while one parliamentarian had been beaten up on the street right outside the parliament building [17]. In this context it is understandable why deputies from Eastern and Southern Ukraine fled the parliament building through underground tunnels, leaving the parliament in the hands of the pro-Maidan parties. Yanukovych himself fled to Russia in fear for his life.

Thus, violence and the threat of further violence from the ultra-nationalists were a crucial factor in determining the outcome. The contribution of the Svoboda deputies was also important, as it was they who assumed the leading role in the proceedings of the rump parliament (now representing only half the country) that formalized the change of regime.

Was this then a popular uprising or a fascist coup? Yes, there was a popular uprising. True, it was confined to one half of Ukraine, and an equally popular counter-uprising soon followed in the other half. But within the popular uprising an armed ultra-nationalist minority acquired a disproportionate though probably not a crucial role. Whether this counts as a ‘fascist coup’ depends on how many of the insurgents can be described as fascists and on the political outcome of the uprising, which remains unclear. I think that although fascists (or semi-fascists) did play a significant role it would be an exaggeration to speak of a fascist coup. 

The mystery of the ‘third force’

In his telephone conversation with Ashton, Paet reports that Olga Bogomolets, a physician who treated casualties of sniper fire in the Maidan, showed him photos demonstrating that both protestors and police officers had wounds caused by the same type of bullet. So there were snipers – according to other sources, firing from the Philharmonic Hall and the Ukraina Hotel – who targeted both sides. The identity and motivation of this ‘third force’ has become a salient issue in the propaganda war.

According to Paet, the new government did not want to investigate the matter and many Ukrainians suspected a link between the snipers and forces on the insurgent side. Former head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) Alexander Yakimenko, speaking on Russian television, presented evidence pointing to the involvement of Andrei Parubiy, former Banderite and commander of the Maidan self-defense, and American special forces. Attempts have also been made to implicate the SSU, supposedly acting under Russian orders [18].

Things get even more complicated when one considers the possibility that the Russian Federal Security Service was involved. Ukrainian journalist Sergei Vysotsky has written about FSS penetration of the Maidan on Facebook:

It is surely time to lift a corner of the curtain that hides the “inner kitchen” of the Maidan. As early as the beginning of February, the self-defense forces and the leadership of RS discovered within their structures a network of Russian agents on the payroll of Medvedchuk [a Ukrainian oligarch and politician with close ties to Russia; Putin is the godfather of his daughter—SS]. I know this because I was involved to some extent with the self-defense... RS is a sort of confederation of various people and organizations. Some of them were clearly acting as provocateurs... There is a similar situation inside the force structures. They are teeming with Russian agents’ (translated from Russian).

It is even conceivable that both Russian and American secret services were involved in some way in such ‘provocations’ – for instance, through double agents. The CIA may have sought to escalate the conflict in order to topple Yanukovych and bring pro-Western politicians to power, while Putin and the FSS may have also sought to escalate the conflict as part of efforts to induce Yanukovych to declare a state of emergency and drown the uprising in blood (as in Tiananmen Square).       

Composition of the new government

Several ministers in the new government are members of Svoboda: Oleksandr Sych (deputy prime minister for the economy [19]), Admiral Ihor Tenyukh (minister of defense), Ihor Shvaika (minister of agrarian policy and food), and Andriy Mokhnyk (minister of ecology and natural resources). Serhiy Kvit (minister of education) is sometimes added to this list, although it seems he is at most a sympathizer (he was active as a Banderite in the past and is the author of an admiring biography of Dontsov). The General Prosecutor, Oleh Makhnitsky, also belongs to Svoboda.

‘Maidan Commandant’ Andrei Parubiy, who became secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, is currently affiliated with Fatherland, but has a long history on the ultra-right. He was a co-founder (with Tiahnybok) of the Social-National Party of Ukraine, Svoboda’s predecessor. RS leader Dmytro Yarosh was appointed his deputy.

The blogger who calls himself ‘the Saker’ ( claims that ultra-rightists have been placed in control of all state bodies with armed force at their disposal (the so-called ‘power structures’). This is a gross exaggeration: the two most important posts from this point of view are occupied by men who have no known connections with the ultra-right:

(a) The first deputy prime minister, whose specific area of responsibility is the power structures, is Retired Police Lieutenant General Vitaly Yarema, a law enforcement professional and member of Fatherland who served as minister of internal affairs under Yushchenko (2005--2010). 

(b) The new minister of internal affairs is Arsen Avakov, also a member of Fatherland. ‘The Saker’ writes that he is ‘officially a member of Fatherland but in reality an agent for the Right Sector.’ I find this implausible in the extreme. First, Avakov is of Armenian origin and therefore unlikely to align himself with Ukrainian ethnic (as distinct from civic) nationalists (nor would they trust him). Second, Avakov has lived most of his life in Kharkov, where he served as head of the regional state administration under Yushchenko. In 2010 he stood as Fatherland’s candidate in the elections for mayor of Kharkov and lost to the candidate of the Party of Regions by a very narrow margin. In an East Ukrainian city like Kharkov he could not possibly have done so well had there been the slightest evidence that he had ever been associated with the detested ‘Banderites’ – and his opponent would certainly have dug up any such evidence and exploited it to the hilt.   

Although the ultra-right does control a few important posts, the most influential element in the government is the leaders of the liberal Fatherland party, whose nationalism is of a relatively liberal variety. The second most influential element, especially in the economic sphere, is the Orange oligarchs and their placemen (although these two groups overlap).

However, it is true to say that the dominant elements in the new government are not resolutely opposed to the ultra-right but value it as a legitimate participant in the movement against Yanukovych. At least they regard Svoboda in this light, and Svoboda in turn, in accordance with the division of labor between the two main components of the ultra-right, extends its protection to RS.

The Maidan did contain one major element that denies the legitimacy of the ultra-right – namely, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) led by ex-boxer Vitaly Klichko. On February 1 the press office of UDAR released a statement by Klichko, who at that time still expected to be in the new government:

It is already absolutely clear that the radical wing of the protests, headed by the Right Sector, is working solely to discredit the opposition. I want to promise these fighters that after our victory and the change of regime we shall form new law enforcement bodies, which will deal firmly with radical groups. All members of the militarized bandit formations that are now fighting in the center of Kiev will be held criminally liable. Provocateurs can expect no mercy... The Right Sector is a fifth column in our state’ [20].

Klichko pointed out that the actions of RS were alienating Western politicians who would otherwise be willing to support the opposition, specifically mentioning Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski in this connection. Indeed, the prominence of Banderite forces has especially alarmed Poles, who still remember the atrocities committed by Bandera’s men against the Polish minority in Western Ukraine under Nazi rule, when hundreds of Polish villages were burned to the ground and tens of thousands of Poles massacred.  

It had been announced that the new government would be a three-way coalition of Fatherland, UDAR and Svoboda, but after the release of Klichko’s statement Svoboda leader Tiahnybok began to express unwillingness to join a coalition that would also include UDAR. There would have to be a two-way coalition. As the largest of the three parties, Fatherland had to choose which of the other two parties would be its coalition partner. It chose Svoboda. At least for the time being, why must remain a matter of speculation.   

Are the neo-Banderites still a ‘marginal’ social force?

In electoral terms Svoboda has burst out of the fringes and entered the mainstream of Ukrainian politics. In the opinion of knowledgeable observers like Andreas Umland, however, the party’s reliable support base remains marginal and its current national prominence is likely to prove temporary. Svoboda achieved its breakthrough by winning, largely thanks to its rebranding, a new ‘non-ideological’ electorate that supported it for tactical reasons, as a disciplined force that could be trusted to put up a fight against Yanukovych. Recent polls indicate that Svoboda’s electoral support has fallen back to 5—6%. That is, it has already lost again most of its new ‘non-ideological’ voters [21].

One major reason for this is that in quite a few cities and regions, especially in Western Ukraine, Svoboda has already established a record as the governing party. And this record is not particularly impressive: Svoboda has proven itself no less corrupt than other parties and perhaps even less competent. In these areas the protest vote that previously worked in favor of Svoboda can be expected to work against it in future elections.

Considered as an electoral rather than military force, RS is even more marginal than Svoboda. Yarosh is supported as a presidential candidate by at most 2% of respondents in opinion polls. 

An illuminating source on the social atmosphere in Western Ukraine is a blog maintained by a British lecturer currently residing in Ivano-Frankivsk. On March 12 he commented as follows on relations between RS and ordinary Maidanites:

On my way back from work I encountered the Right Sector march in the city centre and decided to follow it to the police HQ. After Right Sector left, I spoke to the Self-Defence lads remaining by the entrance to the police HQ. I introduced myself as a Briton who has been in Ukraine for nearly two years and is keenly interested in events. They put forward a tall young man... He told me that he had come back from working in the USA at Christmas and has been involved with Maidan Self-Defence since then.

I asked him what he and his colleagues thought of Right Sector. He answered, and his comrades agreed, that 'they just came here for the publicity... A colleague of the man who had been to America said that in a month Right Sector would fall apart and they're a bunch of poseurs with no idea of discipline. The tall man who had been to America said that they were sick of Right Sector promoting themselves and forgetting that Self-Defence had been there from the start... There is clear tension between the groups and any cooperation seems to be uneasy. The Self-Defence lads on the door of the police HQ were very demonstrative in refusing to take Right Sector's newspaper that teenage girls with RS badges were handing out to the crowd.

With the lack of evident structures of law and order in the city, it is possible for far-right organisations to march armed and unopposed through the city, while promising a much more radical 'national revolution' and preparing, as Abramiv said today, not only for war against Russia but also for battle against any authority deemed unsuitable. Although there was an appeal to the mayor to stop masked, armed groups from marching through the city, there is little evidence of them being stopped. And, sadly, there is little readiness for any kind of civil resistance to such groups’ [22].

It is very hard to judge whether or not the neo-Banderites are still a marginal force in society. On the one hand, we have the reports of their prominence in the Maidan. One observer estimated that 30% of the demonstrators in Kiev marched under RS banners [23]. This is a minority, but hardly marginal. On the other hand, we have evidence strongly suggesting that they do remain marginal.

I think that two sources of bias are at work here. First, the focus of many commentators on electoral politics ignores people who are too young to vote – though not too young to fight! I get the impression that it is this age group that provides RS with most of their recruits. Second, the understandable focus on the events in Kiev may be generating a misleading picture of the situation in Ukraine as a whole. Here I agree with Umland’s point that the ultra-rightists were overrepresented in Kiev’s Maidan [24], because they had deliberately concentrated their forces in Kiev. This means that everywhere else in the country, including Western Ukraine, they must have played a much less prominent role than they did in the capital.

Thus, despite the crucial role they played in the change of regime the ultra-nationalists may well still be marginal to Ukrainian society. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern. By now we should know from historical experience that even quite small minorities can wield power out of all proportion to their numbers if – like the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, for instance – they are determined, well organized, well armed and willing to resort to intimidation and violence. 


Toward the end of March a conflict broke out between the RS and the Fatherland component of the new government. It was triggered by the killing of RS leader Sashko Muzychko, who either died in a skirmish with police (the official version) or was shot by police in cold blood in a café (the RS version). In response, 1500 RS men gathered outside parliament on March 27 to demand the resignation of the ‘counter-revolutionary’ minister of internal affairs Avakov, culminating in an attempt to storm the building.

The next day parliamentary chairman and acting president Oleksandr Turchynov expressed his outrage at this ‘provocation’ and his belief that Russia was behind it – a belief based on the appearance of Russian television crews outside the parliament a few minutes before the confrontation began [25]. Avakov told the ‘revolutionaries’ that the revolution was now over and urged them to join the new National Guard and go defend Ukraine’s borders. One RS commander, Igor Mazur, replied that his men, currently engaged in military training exercises in the countryside around Kiev, were willing to join, provided that they were allowed to maintain their own separate unit outside the main command structure. This, of course, would defeat one of the likely motives underlying Avakov’s appeal.

I suspect that RS has overplayed its hand and that it will now be one of the top priorities of Avakov and his allies in the government to disarm and disband RS, by force if necessary. This move can be justified by reference to the war emergency and the view (pioneered by Klichko) of RS as a ‘fifth column’ in the service of the Kremlin. Given the dissolution of the Berkut and the fear that ordinary police officers have of RS [26], it will be necessary to organize and train special units.

Concluding remarks

This article has a specific and rather narrow focus. It is not about the situation in Ukraine as a whole or the international crisis surrounding Ukraine. In order to avoid misunderstandings, however, I would like to make a few points pertaining to the broader context.  

First, ultra-nationalism and fascism are not peculiar to Ukraine or to the Orange camp in Ukrainian politics. In particular, they also have a very significant presence on the other side of the current conflict. I have written a whole book on Russian fascism (see note 4). There I note that many Russian ultra-nationalist organizations are active not only in the Russian Federation but also in other post-Soviet states with large numbers of ethnic Russian residents, including Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Thus, Pavel Gubarev, a leader of the recent pro-Russian protests in Donetsk, is a former member of the fascist organization Russian National Unity. Also relevant here are the videos of Russian ‘Cossacks’ in Crimea lashing pro-Ukrainian protestors with their whips. I mention this not only for the sake of balance but also because Russian and Ukrainian ultra-nationalism feed off of one another: they should ideally be studied jointly as variants on a single phenomenon.

In general, although I argue that there is considerable truth in the claim that the change of regime in Ukraine was a ‘fascist coup,’ this does not mean that I accept other components of the Russian position. I do not believe that protecting people against fascism is the real motive underlying the military intervention of the Putin regime in parts of Ukraine. And military intervention is certainly not an effective remedy against the neo-Banderite forces. On the contrary, it fuels war psychosis and strengthens a spirit of ethno-national solidarity among Ukrainians, generating social pressure to play down internal divisions and present a united front to the world. Ukrainian society has the capacity to face and deal with the problem of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, but it is only likely to do so when Ukraine’s security as an independent state is no longer under threat and Ukraine has normal relations with all its neighbors, including Russia [27].


[1] See my article: ‘Ukraine: Between Oranges and Blues’, The Socialist Standard ( The regional division is not quite this simple: thus, Transcarpathia, although in the far west of the country, is Blue.  

[2] The term ‘Banderite’ as a label for the movement as a whole is a little misleading because Bandera was the leader of only one of the two factions into which the OUN split in winter 1940/41 (Melnyk led the other).

[3] ‘Ukrainian Integral Nationalism in Quest of a “Special Path” (1920s--1930s)’, Russian Politics & Law, 2013, no. 5. He suggests that the OUN’s fascist potential might have been realized had the Nazis accepted the Ukrainian state proclaimed in Lvov in 1941.

[4] ‘By Cross and Sword: “Clerical Fascism” in Interwar Western Ukraine,’ Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, June 2007, v. 8, no. 2, pp. 271-85. I think this is because his criteria for fascism are somewhat looser than those of Zaitsev. I discuss criteria for fascism in the first chapter of my book Russian Fascism: Traditions, Movements, Tendencies (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).

[5] It is hard to explain Professor Motyl’s numerous distortions and omissions except as a deliberate effort to whitewash the Banderites and thereby legitimize their heirs.

[6] Celebrating Fascism and War Criminality in Edmonton: The Political Myth and Cult of Stepan Bandera in Multicultural Canada. (

Defenders of the Banderites often emphasize their conflicts with the Nazis and the fact that at certain times some of them fought the Nazis. This may all be true, but it does not establish their credentials as opponents of fascism. If the Banderites were fascists, they were Ukrainian fascists who extolled the superiority of the Ukrainian nation and not German fascists, who regarded Ukrainians as Untermenschen. There is no reason to expect fascists belonging to different nations to see eye to eye.  

[7] For further analysis of Svoboda’s breakthrough, see the articles by Vyacheslav Likhachev in Russian Politics & Law, 2013, no. 5.

[8] Anton Shekhovtsov compares the political appeal of Svoboda and RS in ‘From Electoral Success to Revolutionary Failure: The Ukrainian Svoboda Party,’ Eurozine, March 5, 2014.

[9] For a full translation of the audio, see:

[10] For the sake of balance, the reader may also like to watch a few videos exposing violence on the part of pro-Russian forces. For example, here is a video of activists from Klichko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform trying to address a crowd in Kerch (Crimea) but getting shouted down as ‘fascists’, pelted, kicked and beaten up to the accompaniment of cries of ‘Beat the fascists!’: In fact, it is most unfair to call Klichko and his party ‘fascist’; on the contrary, Klichko is one of the rare Orange politicians to have taken a firm stand against the fascists on ‘his own side’ (see below). 

[11] The difference between the anti-oligarch attitudes of leftists and ultra-rightists is that the latter stress the Jewish, Russian and other non-Ukrainian ethnic origin of most of the oligarchs. They suspect that even Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a very wealthy woman as well as a leader of the Fatherland party and appears to be an ethnic Ukrainian, is of partly Jewish descent.

[12] Source: First published in Ukraine on website of weekly Kyiv Post. See also: (January 6, 2014).

[13] Video dated February 8, 2014:

[14] This account of the composition of the armed insurgents on Maidan is taken from the lecture delivered in Russian on March 25 in Tel Aviv by Vyacheslav Likhachev, a specialist in the study of Russian and Ukrainian radical nationalism (  

The insurgents were joined by groups of volunteers from Serbia and Israel. The Israelis seem to be politically naïve young IDF veterans with family roots in Ukraine.

[15] In early February, Yarosh issued an ‘Assessment of the Present Situation and Future Prospects’ that ended: ‘Let’s speak the language the regime can understand, which is the language of force! Glory to the National Revolution!’ (  

[16] James Kirchick writes: ‘Several participants in the Maidan protests told me that Right Sector members would instigate fights with riot police by throwing Molotov cocktails and then immediately flee the scene, leaving other protestors to bear the brunt of the armed response. Maidan casualty figures seem to bear this analysis out; no acknowledged member of the group could be named among over 100 dead’ (The Daily Beast, March 28, 2014). See also Nicolai Petro at


[18]; The Christian Science Monitor, March 8; The Daily Beast, March 30.

[19] Ukraine, like other post-Soviet states, retains the Soviet practice of having several deputy prime ministers, each of whom is responsible for a ‘block’ of ministries.




[23] Quoted by Max Blumenthal, ‘Is the U.S. Backing Neo-Nazis in Ukraine?’ Voice of Detroit, March 2, 2014. Another observer gives an estimate of one third.

[24] For source see note 12.

[25] This certainly indicates that Russian television companies have access to excellent and timely intelligence, but hardly more than that. See Kirchick (note 16) and

[26] An example from Lvov, given by Bryan Macdonald: RS had stolen concrete slabs from a building firm in order to block a road; the owner called the police but they refused to help, admitting that they were afraid of RS ( 

[27] Shekhovtsov makes basically the same point in ‘What the West should know about the Euromaidan’s far right element’ (

An earlier version of this article was circulated on Johnson's Russia List on April 4, 2014. This version is almost identical to the text on JRL: I have just corrected one or two minor errors.

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