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Azov, the far right and ‘national myths’ in Ukraine

How important are fascist groups such as the Azov regiment in Ukraine? Sam Ord looks at how they fit a wider pattern
Issue 2797
Yellow and blue striped flags of far right group Azov

Far right group Azov march in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2019 (Picture: Goo3)

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is generally right wing and supports US imperialism, however he is not a Nazi. But Ukrainian far right groups, quite small in themselves, prosper because of an explosion of “patriotic” ideas pushed out by the government.

Like many other countries, including Britain, Ukraine’s rulers seek to create a sense of national unity. They elevate ideas and figures from the past who can serve as a glue to bind people together and motivate them against Vladimir Putin. That has accelerated sharply since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

As a Ukrainian novelist wrote in The Economist magazine this month, “The country used to lack national myths. Now they’re everywhere.” In 2014 the Ukrainian state deliberately launched a new campaign to emphasise its hostility to the Russian regime.

Building on a process that began earlier, this meant rehabilitating “anti-Soviet” figures who are beloved by the fascists such as Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. His Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and Poles.

Already by 2009 there were 30 Bandera monuments in western Ukraine and four museums. In 2010 Bandera was named a “Hero of Ukraine” by the outgoing right wing president Viktor Yushchenko. This was part of emphasising ethnic divisions as austerity bit after the financial crisis.

He was stripped of the title in 2011 under Yushchenko’s replacement, president Viktor Yanukovych. But when Yanukovych was removed by the Maidan revolt in 2014, Kiev’s city council renamed the city’s Moscow Avenue as Stepan Bandera Avenue. This followed the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Last year another local council renamed a major stadium in western Ukraine after Roman Shukhevych. He was a leading figure in SS Schutzmannschaft 201. This was a Ukrainian battalion formed by the Nazis that participated in the genocide of Jews in Belarus and hunted down anti-Nazis in Ukraine.

Banderist symbols such as the red and black flag have become “simple” national images and can be seen on some pro‑Ukraine demonstrations now. It’s therefore not surprising that groups such as the fascist Azov regiment can grow. It was set up in 2014 with fascist and white supremacist subgroups integrated within it. Its leading figure was the Nazi and antisemite Andriy Biletsky.

Former president Petro Poroshenko described Azov as “our best warriors” as they were recruited into the National Guard of Ukraine in November 2014. Azov members have launched attacks on Roma, LGBT+ people and migrants. But they have access to the weaponry that Nato has poured into the country and are nestling closer to the centre of government. 

Olena Semyanka, a leading figure in the Azov regiment’s political arm, told Die Zeit magazine that she was now an assistant to a deputy of Zelensky’s ruling party. She added that she was supporting him in building up the International Legion of volunteers to come from across the world to fight.

In 2015 Canada and the US announced that their own forces would not support or train the Azov regiment, citing its Nazi ties. But the following year the US lifted this ban under pressure from the Pentagon.

Another militarised far right movement is Right Sector, which also fights against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. As the Russian aggression escalated, Right Sector grew with support from the top.

In December last year Right Sector member Dmytro Kotsyubaylo was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine by Zelensky. There are such close links between Right Sector and the Ukrainian state that it is normal for schoolchildren to visit its training camps. Here they are given a version of Ukrainian history that venerates figures such as Bandera. Strengthening a right wing version of history has had very dangerous results.

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