Ukraine: How Nationalists Took the Lead


While Putin tries to change the subject from insurrection to war (perhaps in fear that the contagion of unrest will spread inside Russian borders), we believe it is especially important for anarchists and others with a stake in social movements to learn from the revolution in Ukraine. Specifically, we want to study how nationalist and fascist elements were able to take the initiative, and how to minimize the likelihood of this occurring elsewhere in the future.

To that purpose, we present an interview here with a member of the Autonomous Workers’ Union in Kiev, who discusses why groups like Svoboda and Pravy Sector were positioned to take advantage of the social movement, and evaluates the effectiveness of the various strategies anarchists and anti-fascists adopted in this unfavorable context.

Shortly, we will present our preliminary hypotheses about what anarchists elsewhere around the world can learn the Ukrainian example, along with a reading list of primary source materials available in English.

How were nationalists able to establish themselves so visibly within the movement? Was it because they were there first? Was it because they had more resources? Or was it something about the issues and demands of the movement itself?

There were several reasons. First of all, nationalism is not rejected by the vast majority of protesters. Even people with liberal views haven’t said much against the party “Svoboda” (Freedom) and other nationalistic organizations. Most of them prefer to turn a blind eye to the aggressive actions of nationalists, imagining that nationalists will not follow their ideology. Surely, this is a delusion.

Secondly, nationalists from the Svoboda party started to infiltrate almost any social protest long ago. They have numerous activists while other parties don’t. These activists did a lot of organizing work during protests. During the clashes with police, boneheads’ support became even more valuable. This concerns also the “Pravy Sector” (Right Sector) group. On the other hand, Svoboda lost some support on account of aggressively infiltrating others’ activist space and brutal fights with other protesters.

Thirdly, other opposition parties need Svoboda votes in the parliament. Even though quite a large number of people still weren’t very happy about Svoboda (as well as some European politicians, who would prefer not to cooperate with nationalists openly), Svoboda was appreciated as a legitimate part of the protests because of their resources.

Hanging white supremacist flags in the occupied Parliament in Ukraine

Why were anarchists and antifascists not able to establish a similar presence? Would it have been possible if they had acted differently?

There are not so many anarchists and antifascists in Ukraine compared to nationalists. Also, a lot of anarchists were skeptical about the protest when it was all about Euro-integration, they partly joined in when “Maidan” changed mainly into a protest against police brutality. Nevertheless, it was quite dangerous to agitate about any social issue, as the far right could attack at any time.

Another reason for this was that anarchists and antifascists in Ukraine are divided because of several principal issues. Quite many “anarchists” and antifascists are rather manarchists, reject feminism and pro-choice movements as “bourgeois,” and cooperate with national-anarchists from “Avtonomy Opir” (Autonomous Resistance).

Can you imagine anything anarchists and antifascists could have done in the previous years that would have prepared them better for this situation?

In fact, the whole situation was quite unexpected for everyone—even for the Opposition leaders. It was the government who provoked the protest to grow larger with brutal violence of riot police squads.

Also, there are not so many anarchists in Ukraine. For example, the 1st of May demonstration in Kiev gathered about 300-350 anarchists and antifascists in 2012, and their number decreased to about 200-250 the following year. Other cities have much smaller anarchist and antifascist scenes. A lot of people changed their views from anarchism to social democracy or national-anarchism. I think that the main reason was that we had very few workshops, discussions, book publishing, etc. Now the main issue is to increase the number of activists again and concentrate on workshops about theory.

What strategies have different anarchist groups pursued for engaging with this situation? What conclusions can you draw from the results?

When the “Euromaidan” had just started, different leftist and feminist groups, including the syndicalist student union “Priama Diya” (Direct Action), tried to infiltrate the protest in different ways with social and feminist slogans, criticizing the idea of Euro-integration at the same time. They were pushed out of the protest by the boneheads; activists of the communist party “Borotba” were even beaten very harshly. Some activists continued to infiltrate the protest in different ways, but not so openly—for example, organizing different workshops among protesters—but there ware almost no results.

Antifascist football fans of “Arsenal-Kiev” decided to join the protest against police brutality. They declared the “truce” with Nazis and joined the fights against the police.  Also “Arsenal-Kiev” fans made a call for all anarchists and antifascists to join their struggle, while they were cooperating with national-anarchists from “Avtonomny Opir.” After anarchists spoke some criticism about such alliance, football fans threatened everyone criticizing them with violence. Of course, this proclamation made a reverse effect, as even more people turned their backs to football fans.

After extreme police brutality in January, different leftists, and anarchists in particular, initiated “Hospital Guard”—a group of people that was trying to prevent police brutality against injured people in hospitals. “Hospital Guard” was quite effective, and a quite lot of protesters with moderate views joined it. Now, after fights against the police are over, “Hospital Guard” activists are thinking about changing it into an initiative that would fight against neoliberal medical reform. Only time will tell how effective it was.

Which aspects of anarchist rhetoric and approach have nationalists appropriated? What can we do to prevent this?

Nazis from “Pravy Sector” and the Svoboda party have no need to appropriate anarchist ideas—they still stand for the strong state and have support with this idea. During the Maidan protests, they changed their rhetoric to be more democratic than before in order to get more sympathizers, but it still is very authoritarian and has no sign of anarchist influence.

The only fascist group that appropriated anarchist ideas was “Avtonomny Opir,” the former National Labor Party of Ukraine. Their ideology is a mix of anarchism, nationalism, and the Third Way. Some of leftists were quite happy to see that former fascists had started to change their views, but in fact this evolution stopped on that ideological mix. The evolution of “Avtonomny Opir” also had another effect—some antifascists and anarchists started to cooperate with them and appropriated their ideas. So now groups like “Narody Nabat” (People’s Bell) and “Socialny Opir” as well as Arsenal-Kiev football fans have basically the same views, including pro-life and rejection of feminism.

Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok doing their party salute upon re-election to head of the party.

Members of Right Sector on the front lines.

Narody Nabat (“People’s Bell”), a group that describes itself as “social anarchists,” is reportedly cooperating with autonomous nationalists.