In the past few days a number of videos have appeared on social media of vigilantes dealing with ‘marauders’ in cities and towns around Ukraine. These marauders are described variously as looters, dissenters, and traitors — people caught exploiting the war for personal gain, people who refuse to take up arms, and others the community deems unpatriotic. As Ausnahmezustände (‘states of exception’), conflict and war often create social environments in which old scores can be settled and hatreds acted on. The war in Ukraine has enabled president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to do what no other Ukrainian leader before him has been able to do; to transform Ukraine from a state into a nation, and on the streets of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol we are right now being given an insight into what the nationalists and ultra-nationalists mean by Ukrainian nationhood.
Among these videos and pictures of people being strapped to posts, stripped, and beaten, there is a discernible subset of this disturbing genre in which Romani people are singled out for particularly vindictive maltreatment. We have seen badly beaten Roma men bound to trees and signposts, their trousers and underwear pulled down, and lashed with canes and branches. There have been pictures of Roma women with bruised faces — young and old, tied to posts, with their faces daubed with green paint. In one heart-breaking image we see a woman and her daughters bound around a tree with men in paramilitary uniforms looking on. Perhaps the most upsetting of these is a video from Kyiv in which a large black clad man screams abuse at a Roma woman and her teenage daughters, before giving them a vicious beating with a large rubber dildo (no doubt to humiliate them) and finally pepper spraying them in their faces — in broad daylight.
These acts of public humiliation are happening in a disturbing carnival atmosphere of reprisal and revenge, not at all dissimilar to the public humiliation of Jews by the Nazis during the early years of the Holocaust. In fact, there is nothing to differentiate these events. They are happening in daylight in front of a gleeful and approving crowd of onlookers, they are being filmed by the perpetrators, and no one — not even the police — is intervening to help the victims. And now that Godwin’s law is obsolete, it is worth noting that the Romani people were special victims of the Nazis — German and Ukrainian Nazis — in the Shoah, with the Roma population suffering proportionally more than the Jewish population. Almost sixty percent of Europe’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, while recent research into the Porajmos — the Nazis murder of the Romani and Sinti people — suggests that as much as ninety percent of Europe’s Roma were murdered. While the western media is busy constructing a fiction about the genocide of white ethnic Ukrainians by the Russians, the treatment of the Roma by these Ukrainian nationalists is definitively pre-genocidal.
What those on the outside watching these events have to know about this treatment of Romani people in Ukraine is that it is not a new development. In an effort to protect the western wartime media image of the white Ukrainian as a righteous victim of Russian aggression, across the West we are seeing various attempts to downplay the persecution of the Roma by Ukrainian nationalists. Everywhere we see this narrative forming of there being far-right ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis all over Europe, and yes, this is true. But this distortive narrative masks the specific reality of far-right Nazis in Ukraine and the suffering of the Roma.
There is nowhere else in the world where ideological Nazis enjoy the legal and political protection Nazis in Ukraine do. In January 2018 the Kyiv city municipal council signed an agreement with the ultra-nationalist C14 group, allowing them to form a ‘municipal guard’ — an auxiliary police force — to work with the Ukrainian national police, and twenty one other towns and cities have relationships like this with the far-right. In Britain, a motion was tabled criticising the BBC’s positive coverage of these openly Nazi auxiliaries:
…this House is deeply concerned by the reporting by the BBC of the Kiev-based organisation C14, a far right organisation with neo-Nazi origins; considers the reporting of C14 activities fails to uphold BBC editorial values; is further concerned that the BBC has afforded a degree of legitimacy to C14, allowing it to disguise itself as a nationalist organisation engaged in reasonable activities designed to defend Ukrainian sovereignty; believes that the BBC has failed to apply due rigour in failing to report on the known history of violence by C14, including attacks on the LGBT community, violence against ethnic minorities, journalists and trade unionists and an attack on a police officer using a grenade during Kiev Pride; expresses deep concern at reporting of C14 activities as educational conversation and petty hooliganism; and calls on the BBC to uphold the values and standards expected by licence fee payers in the reporting on Ukraine.
In April 2018, amid reports in the international media of ‘pogroms’ against the Roma community in Ukraine, the national police were involved in covering up and later downplaying a C14 auxiliary police raid on a Romani community on the outskirts of Kyiv. A number of men dressed in black paramilitary attire entered the area and began to viciously attack the residents. After the men of the community had been savagely beaten to the ground, the members of the Nazi police squad began spraying mace into the faces of young women and their children — including a baby. Since the Maidan coup of 2014, there have been a number of incidents in which the police have protected C14 and Azov Battalion members — groups now integrated into the Ukrainian army — following their involvement in the murders of young Romani men.
The interim government of 2014 — the Maidan coup government — included a number of ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party (formerly the ‘Social-National Party of Ukraine’) members as Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney General, and Minister of Defence. This time in government enabled the far-right to fill the state bureaucracy and the military with party members and other influential Nazis, fund national youth programmes, and secure funding to train and arm their paramilitary organisations. So, to describe the Ukrainian far-right as just like far-right groups elsewhere is disingenuous in the extreme. Ukrainian Nazis have exactly the kind of power in the Ukrainian state that the Nazi Party in Germany had at the end of the Wiemar Republic.
Now perhaps it is time for us to wake up to what is happening in Ukraine. This is not a fringe extremist group acting outside the law. In many parts of Ukraine, especially in besieged Mariupol, this is the law — and their lionisation in the western media and the place they are gaining in the emerging Ukrainian nation as defenders and heroes of the nation is daily making this situation more difficult to remedy. The bourgeois liberal mindset of the West is currently soothing itself with the knowledge that these Nazis are not doing well in the polls, but this is a grave mistake. Nazis have never paid much attention to the niceties of ‘weak democracy.’ And while it may be true that most Ukrainians are not Nazis and do not belong to the far right, Ukrainians are broadly sympathetic to the objectives of the Nazis. In 2019, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that forty-six percent of Ukrainians held anti-Semitic opinions. Eighty percent of respondents between the ages of 35 and 49 said that it was ‘probably true’ that Jews had too much power in the business world.
If this is how the average person thinks about Jews, we can only imagine the level of popular hatred for Roma people. This would certainly help explain why when Maksim Yarosh — a commander of the Azov Battalion — filmed himself beating a Roma woman and her children on the streets of Kyiv, not one single passer by intervened. This explains why he believed he could do this without fear of arrest. The Ukrainian police force has no interest in protecting this vulnerable minority, and it has even less interest in dealing with the dangerous menace that is the far-right. It is preposterous to suggest the Ukrainian far-right is just like the far-right in other European countries. Nowhere else in Europe would this be tolerated. But it is very much tolerated — even encouraged — in Ukraine. It is time that we in the West sat up and started paying attention to this.
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.
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