Ukraine’s Darkest Secret

On 25 February (2022) The Weiner Holocaust Library, Britain’s library of record of the Holocaust and genocide, issued a statement1 signed by its director Dr Toby Simpson condemning both the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s ‘spurious’ claim that his objective was to ‘denazify’ the country and save it from genocide. At the time, given the West’s woeful ignorance of the facts on the ground in Ukraine and of the history of the country, Vladimir Putin’s justification — denazification — did ring very much like hyperbole and an extreme distortion of history. Ukraine, much of the west of which was within the Черта оседлости — The Pale of Jewish Settlement (1791 to 1917), suffered immensely during the Holocaust; with the number of Jewish victims now estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.6 million. Ukraine, along with Belarus and Poland, had the highest concentration of Jews in the world before June 1941.

How was it possible then for Mr Putin to justify his claim that the Ukrainian government was a Nazi regime? On the same day The Weiner Holocaust Library issued its condemnation of Putin’s ‘absurd and offensive’ claims, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland and a host of other Holocaust memorial institutions and Jewish organisations around the world published similar condemnations of Russia’s ‘revisionist’ history of the Shoah and the invasion of Ukraine.

Yet, as any scholar of the Holocaust and as any student of Ukrainian politics knows, there was more than a grain of truth to Putin’s claims. Antisemitism was not introduced to Ukraine by the invading German armies during Operation Barbarossa or by the SS-Einsatzgruppen murder squads that followed in their wake. Ukrainian and Russian czarists and nationalists had been harassing and murdering Ukrainian Jews in pogroms since 18212 — and the first such pogrom took place in Ukraine, at the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea.3 The last pogrom, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews, was a series of massacres in June and July 1941 perpetrated in and around the city of Lviv by battalions of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) acting to curry favour with the invading Germans.4

Ukraine has a long history of Jew-hatred, anti-Jewish violence, and institutional antisemitism; trends in the culture and politics of the country that were never checked with the defeat of Nazi Germany or by the Soviet Union. Rather than ossifying and vanishing from the pages of Ukrainian history as a fossil of darker times, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists went underground during the years of Stalinist Soviet rule; effectively becoming a locus of resistance against Communism in the country.5 In 1956 the Organisation split into two factions; a ‘moderate’ OUN-z and a hard-line and openly neo-Nazi OUN led by Stepan Bandera. These Banderists reorganised themselves in Ukraine in 1991, after Ukrainian independence, and formed the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1992.6 By 2018 the Congress was affiliated with fellow neo-Nazi organisations and paramilitaries СІЧ (C14) and Правий сектор (Right Sector). The ‘14’ in C14 is a reference to the ‘fourteen words’ coined by the American white supremacist and neo-Nazi David Lane: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’7

One may be forgiven for thinking that this is fringe or extremist politics as it is in the United States, Britain, and western Europe. But no, nothing could be further from the truth. The hard right is mainstream politics in Ukraine and has been since independence. In March 2018, Kyiv city authorities empowered C14 to establish a municipal guard to patrol the streets of the capital to deal with what many in the country see as the Roma problem. With the support of the police this C14 militia viciously assaulted Romani people on the streets, and in one incident — downplayed by the police — were filmed beating and pepper spraying the residents of a Roma settlement outside the city.8 These ‘municipal guards’ were dressed in black paramilitary uniforms and many of their victims were young mothers and toddlers.

The Maidan, that is the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, was a defining moment for Ukrainian Nazis. Far-right and neo-Nazi groups, with their distinctive red and black flags and paramilitary outfits, were a highly visible element of the protests and uprising. They were instrumental in Kyiv in ousting the government, and their support was quickly sought by the new ‘democratic’ regime.9 This, of course, is one of the most difficult parts of the story for non-Ukrainians to get their heads around, and — like much of the politics of Ukraine — it is complicated. The new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, and the chief line of attack against those pointing to the links between the neo-Nazi right and the new government is the question as to why a Ukrainian Jew would have any truck with the Nazis and vice versa. But this problem is made all the more complicated by the fact that Zelenskyy’s biggest donor, the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi10 — who has been funding and continues to fund the ultra far-right, is also Jewish.

Whatever the reasons for this strange arrangement, the relationship exists. Zelenskyy publicly honoured the heroes of OUN, men and women who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, and brought the neo-Nazis in from the cold; placing them at every level of the Ukrainian state-political and military establishments.11 What is beyond doubt is that there would have been no coup in 2014 without the support of the far-right. While western governments and their aligned media outlets like to describe Zelenskyy’s government as a ‘democratically elected government,’ the truth is a little more complex. Viktor Yanukovych was ‘pro-Russian’ — insofar as we define pro-Russian as desiring to maintain Ukrainian neutrality and keeping the country out of NATO, but he was elected in fair and open elections. Since the revolution, the provinces with the largest Russian speaking and ethnic Russian populations (in eastern Ukraine) have been disenfranchised.12 This was one of the most significant reasons why Donetsk and Lugansk declared their independence.

The most recent instalment of this saga is the involvement of the United States. Since 2014, the US State Department has been worried about a Russian invasion. After all, what is happening in Ukraine is following the same Bush Doctrine playbook policies that led to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. From 2014, US and allied NATO forces embedded themselves inside the country to advise and train the Ukrainian military which was, at the time, shelling Donetsk and Lugansk. And this is where things get dark and interesting. The United States identified a number of Ukrainian military units as particularly useful — far-right and openly neo-Nazi regiments like the Азов (Azov) regiment; a far-right militia integrated into the Ukrainian army and comprised of ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis from C14, Right Sector, and the OUN.13

Naturally, the Biden administration has gone further. It has brought commanders of C14 and Azov brigades to the States for special training with the CIA,14 and Joe Biden himself has cosied up to Oleh Tyahnybok. Tyahnybok, a member of the Social-National Party of Ukraine (the Ukrainian NSDAP. Yes, you read that right.) in 1991, has risen to become a government minister (he introduced an ethnicity category to Ukrainian passports) and leader of C14.15 Interestingly, the symbol of the Social-National Party of Ukraine (also the same symbol used by the Azov regiment) is the Wolfsangel; the insignia of Das Reich, the 2nd SS Panzer Division.16 These are people who are not even trying to hide that they are Nazis.

When Putin spoke of denazifying the Kyiv regime, the best way this could be interpreted was as a cack-handed way of saying ‘regime change.’ But no, Putin meant exactly what he said. He wants to remove — or he says he wants to remove — Nazis from the Ukrainian government. Regardless of what one thinks of Vladimir Putin, he isn’t wrong here. Fascism and Nazism are powerful political forces within modern Ukraine, and we are not talking about new right-wing thugs cum neo-Nazis either. These are proper old school Nazis, and they have much more influence in the new Ukraine than our media and governments want to admit. In the new Ukraine, in western Ukraine, given their resistance to the Soviet Union, these real Nazis are seen as true patriots and as saviours of the nation — the white nation — and the United States and NATO are about to confirm this status. Maybe we should have done a little more research before we picked sides.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.

1. ‘The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Statement on Ukraine,’ The Wiener Holocaust Library (25 February 2022), accessed 5 March 2020.
2. ‘Pogroms, Holocaust Encyclopedia,’ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 5 March 2020.
3. Ibid.
4. John-Paul Himka (2011) ‘The Lviv Pogrom of 1941: The Germans, Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Carnival Crowd,’ Canadian Slavonic Papers, 53:2-4, 209-243, DOI: 10.1080/00085006.2011.11092673
5. Alexander Statiev (2020) ‘The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists as the Leader of a Unique Fascist Armed Resistance,’ in Violent Resistance: From the Baltics to Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe 1944–1956: Brill | Schöningh.
6. Andrew Wilson (1993) ‘Modern Ukrainian Nationalism: Nationalist Political Parties in Ukraine, 1988-1992. Ph.D. Thesis (University of London). 36
7. The Jimmy Dore Show (3 March 2022) ‘Ukraine Neo-Nazis Infiltrate Every Level Of Military & Government,’ YouTube.
8. Christopher Miller, ‘Police Break Silence After Video Shows Far-Right Attack On Kyiv Roma,’ RadioFreeEurope | RadioLiberty (26 April 2018), accessed 5 March 2022.
9. The Jimmy Dore Show (3 March 2022)
10. Kim Hjelmgaard, ‘Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s actor president, prepares for his greatest role yet,’ USA Today (14 February 2022), accessed 5 March 2022.
11. The GrayZone (4 March 2022) ‘Forever War in Ukraine or End of Unipolar World?,’ YouTube.
12. RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, ‘Russians In Ukraine Blocked From Voting In Presidential Election,’ RadioFreeEurope | RadioLiberty (18 March 2018), accessed 5 March 2022.
13. The GrayZone (4 March 2022)
14. Branko Marcetic, ‘The CIA May Be Breeding Nazi Terror in Ukraine,’ The Jacobin (15 January 2022), accessed 5 March 2022.
15. Jeff Mason and Pavel Polityuk, ‘U.S. backs Ukraine, warns Russia with Biden visit,’ Reuters (22 April 2014), accessed 5 March 2022.
16. Alec Luhn, ‘Preparing for War With Ukraine’s Fascist Defenders of Freedom,’ Foreign Policy (30 August 2014), accessed 5 March 2022.