“Of course, there’s Russophobia. What did you expect, it's the ninth year of a war of aggression”. Right‑wing radicalism researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev on Russian propaganda talking points
Oleg Shmelev
“Of course, there’s Russophobia. What did you expect, it's the ninth year of a war of aggression”. Right‑wing radicalism researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev on Russian propaganda talking points
29 March 2022, 16:12

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Сollage: Liza Lozhka / Mediazona

Vladimir Medinsky, who heads the Russian delegation in the negotiations with Ukraine, recently said that “on denazification, the situation is quite strange because our Ukrainian colleagues believe that there are no Nazi formations in Ukraine and this is not a topic for modern Ukraine at all.” Mediazona discussed the ‘Nazi question’ and other Russian propaganda talking points with Vyacheslav Likhachev, head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group and member of the expert council of the Center for Civil Liberties, who has been studying far-right radicalism in Ukraine for years.

How long have you been doing this?

— I have been involved in monitoring hate crimes – not only anti-Semitism, more broadly – and analysing right-wing extremist groups for more than 20 years, these last 20 years in Ukraine, but I started back in Russia in the late 1990s.

— What is your assessment of the situation in Ukraine before and after 2014?

— There are different indicators we can use to assess the situation. It depends on what exactly we are interested in. Take anti-Semitism. Are we trying to assess the level of anti-Semitism of the general public by relying on the sociological surveys? Or perhaps we’re interested in the number of recorded crimes motivated by anti-Semitism? There will be different dynamics there. If we look at the popularity of far-right groups, the dynamics will be different, this is not always directly correlated. It would be too crude a generalisation to say that at some point there was a peak of right-wing activity and hate crimes, and then there was a decline. That is because we are talking about different realities with diverging dynamics.

For example, the number of hate crimes – those “classic” racist attacks we’re familiar with in Russia from 10–15 years ago – peaked in Ukraine in 2006–2008. At the same time, the popularity of ultra-right parties was extremely low: in the 2006 elections, the all-Ukrainian association "Svoboda" received 0.3% of the vote. In the 2007 early elections with few contenders, Svoboda managed to perform just marginally better receiving 0.7% of the vote while being the only nationalist movement on the ballot.
My point is that generalisations are hard, there’s always a bit of a stretch involved but basically  ten years ago Ukraine of Yanukovych was... depending on how you count, a 4 or even 40 times more “fascist” than the modern one. If we judge by the popularity of ultra-right political movements.

How do I come up with these numbers, 4 and 40? I take the number of representatives of right-wing radical forces in parliament or the percentage of votes cast for right-wing radicals in elections. In 2012, 10.44% of voters voted for Svoboda, and it’s parliamentary faction included 43 MPs. Today, Svoboda has just one female MP – nothing unexpected here. And if you look at the percentages, not only Svoboda, but all right-wing radicals (the National Corps of Andriy Biletsky, the Praviy Sector with its breakaways) received two and a half plus percent of votes in 2019. Four times less than under Yanukovych.

Can we try to assess the situation through a different statistical lens?

— 10 to 12 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism recorded per year – is this lots or few? A comparative approach is pertinent here. Last year the European Union issued a report on EU countries – anti-Semitism statistics is not available for all of them, but some list “anti-Semitic incidents”. We can only count verbal insults in Germany - maybe a thousand cases, it is hard to compare. But for some countries there is a breakdown: violent incidents, attacks, terrorist attacks, acts of vandalism. And you can look at the statistics for France and Belgium, and it looks convincing. Then it is clear how 10–12 Ukrainian cases should be compared with, say, 90 cases in France. One should also mention 73% of the votes cast for an ethnic Jew [Volodymyr Zelensky], and all the talk about denazification can be thrown out the window. I don’t know of any other Western democracy with a Jew enjoying such a convincing margin of victory.

— There is a certain distrust towards all official statistics in Russia…

— Same for Ukraine, the quality of official statistics is poor, and the official classification [of crimes committed] does not always take into account the hate motive. However, the Jewish community performs systematic monitoring and usually receives relevant information directly from the communities. Yes, there are probably unreported cases. But we certainly have more comprehensive data, and these methods were adopted by various professional groups in all countries around the world. We have to compare the situation with other countries – are you really going to claim that Germany was not de-Nazified enough?

— Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that there are right-wing radicals in Russia as well but stressed that we do not have torchlight marches and there are no right-wing radicals in the government. If we take the pre-war period, say, January 2022, can you name any prominent far-right politicians? And how common were those torchlight marches, anti-Semitic and racist violence?

— Two points. First, the “pre-war period” in Ukraine was before January 2014. The Russian aggression began in February 2014, and it’s been lasting for all these nine years.

Second. The question seems very odd to me: is there a rational point to Putin’s claims? I understand the intention: fact-checking, rebuttal, etc. But, forgive me for resorting to the Hitler argument from the very beginning, wouldn’t it be strange if the fact-checkers analysed passages on Judaism as a misanthropic religion in Mein Kampf and argued that sure, there are some controversial ideas in the Talmud, we understand the circumstances, it was normal then? Or perhaps should we discuss the existence of certain international Jewish organisations and institutions as evidence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy?

See where I am going with this? It seems very strange to analyse the situation now when hundreds of civilians are dying every day and there is an attempt to occupy an independent country? Should we really be discussing Putin’s perspective and argue if there are Nazis in Ukraine? I understand who will be reading the piece, but it would also be dishonest of me not to say this. In fact, I think the framing of the question is bizarre. Nothing personal, it would just be dishonest not to say so.

When it comes to high-ranking right-wing radicals, with the exception of a brief period of transitional government formation in the spring of 2014, never have any right-wing radicals been close to any cabinet positions. Svoboda was one of the three parliamentary parties then, which is why they participated in the cabinet – after the abolition of the Yanukovych constitution, Ukraine is a parliamentary republic.

By the beginning of 2022 there were several people who've made careers at the the Interior Ministry after serving in Azov battalion – with prior far-right background of connections to political organisations of Andriy Biletsky, one of Azov's founders.

The most high-ranking of them was Vadim Troyan, deputy chief of the national police. But one has to be careful here, we’re talking about a person with far-right background who was at the same time responsible for protecting the Equality March, the largest annual public event for the rights of the LGBT community in Kyiv with thousands of participants thwarting attempts by the far-right to assault people. And over these past years the security at those marches was exceptionally managed with assaults having been either thwarted or prevented. This was done by the national police, well, until Troyan left just before Avakov did, but it was a job well done.

The Equality March in Kyiv in 2021. Photo: Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

There was nothing in his official activities that would suggest he was ideologically motivated in any way, if we talk about his ideology pre-2014. And that was it, no further attempts by the far-right to infiltrate into state agencies.

If we dig deeper, we can say that some people with a far-right background became members of the public advisory councils to several ministries as representatives of veteran organisations. That included the relevant Ministry of Veterans Affairs, when it existed, plus there were state grants distributed by the Ministry of Youth Affairs for purposes of patriotic education. But this too dates back rather to Poroshenko's presidency, under Zelensky even this symbolic participation of the far-right in governance has been reduced to almost zero. 

Oh, we also had the Rada of Community Control – people were elected there with public voting, including some with far-right backgrounds, but those people have also mostly disappeared in the last couple of years. And that's about it, I can't remember anything else, no elected officials.

The local elections of 2020 saw the right-wing radicals of Svoboda losing their mayoral positions in the western regions. Even on a local level, practically no people with far-right backgrounds held posts. 

— Well then, let’s get to the next point in Putin’s speech: torchlight processions.

— I understand that a torch must be very scary, and if you see one, it’s definitely connected to anti-Semitism. Well, I mean, torchlight processions, okay, so? People walk around with torches, what's the problem? I fail to see how people with torches are an anti-Semitic symbol, to be honest. None of the manuals and databases of extremist symbols in the US or Germany, nor the football federation extremist symbols manual designed to penalise football clubs for their fans’ actions, list the torch as an anti-Semitic symbol. I don't see what the problem is with torchlight processions.

Look, let me give you an example: there’s a practice of taking someone's last name in triple brackets, as in: (((Meyerson))). It’s an anti-Semitic symbol with a simple message: this is a Jew, and the person implies a negative attitude towards Jews. After all, no one would ban brackets altogether as a symbol of anti-Semitism. So, getting back to the torches, what do these people carrying them mean?

They walk with torches, what do you mean what do they mean? Just recently Angela Merkel was leaving the chancellor position, and there was some kind of a ceremony with the German military, with torches. Was Germany not de-Nazified enough? What are we even talking about, a torch is a torch.

— Another obsessive point is Russophobia. Does it exist in Ukraine, and if so, to what extent?

— Of course, there’s Russophobia. What did you expect, it's the ninth year of a war of aggression. Nobody likes aggressors. But it’s a weird kind of Russophobia since the Russian language is either well-represented or strongly dominant in certain regions, including in the capital, in everyday life and speech. Russophobia in its more dignified form kind of strives to carry a limited political charge and perhaps a civilisational, cultural orientation rather than speaking about ethnicity or language.

On a civilisational or geopolitical level, claiming to be a part of the “Russian world” will certainly cause rejection, hatred and aggression. But one must understand that this aggression is retaliatory, it is the result of a Russian invasion – would be strange if there was no such reaction. There is Anti-Arab sentiment or Islamophobia in Israel despite it having 20% of Arab citizens and another 20% of Jews coming originally from the Arab world. Of course, these sentiments are present, how could they not be after a hundred years of struggle for the country's independence and existence. Then there is also Russophobia in Ukraine. Well, you shouldn’t have attacked us.

— There’s also the Bandera scare. Is he really a national hero now, to what extent can he be connected to the Nazis and their crimes during the Second World War?

— The cult of Bandera is somewhat exaggerated in the Russian discourse. I will not deny that it is present, of course, some streets named after him, some monuments dedicated to him. But I don’t see a problem with that, what's the problem, anyway?

— There are two versions: Russians say that Ukrainians praise him as a fighter for independence and an anti-Soviet figure while the Russians themselves think he is closer to general Vlasov.

— How do I explain this to the Russians? The Russian perception is problematic, but historical arguments are probably not very relevant now. The point is that calling Bandera a Nazi collaborator is inconsistent with historical truth. His cooperation with the Third Reich lasted a few weeks, and it was not a typical collaboration. Andriy Melnyk’s OUN over the six months of its existence were closer to Nazi collaborators while Bandera suggested an alliance of his organisation with Germany in a very unfriendly way for the Germans.

Are you aware of his letter to Hitler? He writes that while the Third Reich would benefit from an independent Ukraine as its ally, the independence proclamation would happen irrespective of reaction. And happen it did, as soon as Lviv was under the partial control of Ukrainian nationalists, then the cooperation with the Germans ceased.

Subsequently, the sides were even involved in armed confrontation, somewhat exaggerated in the Ukrainian discourse, but it did happen. What the Russian reader needs to understand about this is that the Soviet Union was an ally to the Nazi Germany for much longer which never stands in the way of the USSR apologetics. If there is something for a modern Russian to be proud of in history, it is the role of the USSR in the Great Patriotic War, your entire historical identity is built upon it. Having taken all that into account, it just seems wrong to treat the Bandera cult as problematic.

I spent four years of my life in Jerusalem, Abraham Stern Street. Stern was an underground right-wing Zionist figure from the days when Palestine was temporarily governed by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. He founded Lehi, a militant organisation, and his successor as its leader was Yitzhak Shamir who would go on to become the Prime Minister of Israel. Stern was known for his radical views and methods. He organised raids on banks, including Jewish ones, and saw nothing wrong with random Jewish passers-by killed in street shoot-outs with the police.

So, in 1940–1941, Stern sought an alliance with Hitler. He believed that the greatest enemy of Zionism was England, and Germany could help. Stern even sent an emissary to Beirut, and he met with a representative of the German Foreign Ministry and handed him a memorandum – essentially quite similar to Bandera's letter to Hitler: It’s better for the Third Reich to have us as an ally against a common enemy, and so on. All this does not prevent Israel from erecting monuments to him and naming streets after him.

A monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv, 19 of March 2022 года. Photo: Bernat Armangue / AP

— Some supposedly far-right groups are in fact lacking a coherent ideology. For example, a Russian pro-government media outlet describes Honor members as neo-Nazis but the report itself is about their participation in the protests in Hong Kong, which seems like an unusual choice for Ukrainian far-right radicals. Are these descriptions accurate at all?

— Honor is simply not a reliable indicator. At its core are people from the National Corps, veterans of Azov battalion. But they joined Azov in early 2014 without political backgrounds Biletsky and his friends had had.

Azov had several roots, and Biletsky was just one of them. Later he seized the trademark, let's put it this way. Another group of members were football hooligans, primarily from Dynamo Kyiv.

The guys who later left Biletsky and created Honor had tense relations with the National Corps even before the start of the hostilities – with constant skirmishes and accusations that the National Corps was hijacked by Russian agents led by the notorious Sergei Korotkikh aka Malyuta or Botsman.

Honor did not make any formal statement denouncing far-right ideology, but they have in fact moved on. Its leader Sergey Filimonov, a professional athlete, had a reputation as one of the toughest football hooligans. His posts indicated moderate support for the Black Lives Matters movement which was quite unique since the far-right of the post-Soviet region would never miss the opportunity to diss the movement. And Filimonov was basically supporting it.

Another member of this group spoke out in favour of the police finding and prosecuting those responsible for assaults on the Kharkov Pride. They have drifted towards the liberal ideology retaining some kind of a right-wing vibe: they are all tattooed, they respect their heritage, have some pagan stuff with them. It’s clear that they really dig the style – flare burning, glass breaking, occasional violence – but now this all is directed against illegal developers, not political opponents, with the exception of the National Corps.

Honor is an exception, but it does represent a trend, they are not alone. The former leader of the Odessa "Pravyi Sector" Serhiy Sternenko, also a media personality, has been drifting away from the far-right views in a “national-liberal" direction.

In its moderate version, this trend is characteristic of all far-right Ukrainians. Biletsky began to deny that he ever said anything like what he is constantly reminded of. Since 2014, he has completely abandoned all racist, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Svoboda with its previously largely anti-Semitic ideology also changed... there are occasional outbursts but that’s nothing compared to the situation pre-2014, they’ve practically abandoned anti-Semitism, at least the party leaders. Moreover, they’ve cleaned the party website of the anti-Semitic materials that used to be there. The official party chronicles proudly quoted the anti-Semitic statements by Oleg Tyagnibok from 2004 – like when he suggested picking up an assault rifles to fight the Jewry (Zhidva) – now it’s all ancient history. After 2014, all those phrases were left out of the party’s official chronicles.

They are now abandoning anti-Semitism. They are abandoning Islamophobia – not all of them but many – and further ethnic phobias. Negative attitude towards people from the Caucasus subside because they have shared battle experiences with the Chechens. Crimean Tatars are now their brothers under repression in Crimea, and so on. I’m not suggesting they have evolved as fast as it seems, it’s just that at some point all they needed was to keep their nose to the wind.

There’s been some fascinating development. Following their participation in fighting the Russian aggression in 2014, the far-right enjoyed certain public legitimation: the perception shifted from “asocial aggressive teenagers” to “defenders of the homeland”. They welcomed the recognition and began taking cues on what was socially acceptable and what was not. Nazi salutes and obviously far-right symbols were out. And when Biletsky launched the National Corps party, he abandoned the symbols that his movement had previously – now he became this kind of a hardcore patriot and decidedly not a far-right street gang leader following the neo-Nazi patterns. 

Homophobia is still accepted within those circles because it is still socially acceptable. But openly racist stuff like Nazi salutes and anti-Semitism are not possible anymore since it is socially unacceptable and unpopular. Again, Israelis and Jews – even the religious Jews – were fighting alongside them since 2014 – and Praviy Sector was the first to renounce anti-Semitism.

This is a certain trend, joining the mainstream or something. They’re exploiting a style that is appealing to teenagers: there was a joke that the National Corps is just the largest chain of tattoo shops in the country because people go there to get tattoos and do some lifting at the gym; hard to find any ideology there, it is mostly replaced by the style. This is one of the reasons why they failed in the elections and continue to fail: they basically have nothing to offer. They exploit wartime rhetoric but everyone can do it by now, Poroshenko did it in the elections, and now Zelensky is a defender of everything that is dear to the Ukrainian heart.

The far-right are fading from the political scene because they have no political face of their own, they have nothing to offer. The very moment when opposing the Russian aggression became their most successful public image was the moment when they started to lose their far-rightness. Because everyone in the country opposes the Russian aggression – well, with the exception of the Opposition Platform "For Life”. So? How are they different from everyone else? Combat boots and tattoos project style, not ideology.

That style also implies aggressive behaviour. Nobody likes Anatoly Shariy’s party, but it’s the National Corps who assaults those people – this is the reason they are being called far-right extremists. Extremism means readiness to resort to violence as means for political struggle. The far-right think it is acceptable to beat up the supporters of Shariy’s party because, well, what else is there to do about them? In this sense, we can say: yes, they are the far-right radicals, maybe even extremists.

But if you look at their ideology, what is so far-right about it? In general, probably nothing at all. Some would praise the European civilisation and trash Islamic radicalism but look closely and you will find the same familiar faces – Korotkikh or someone from his entourage. Can these people even be called Ukrainian nationalists? Big question.

— Are you aware of deliberate attempts to perform outrageous stunts for money in order to get news coverage?

— Paid provocateurs are a big topic for the Ukrainian media and even among experts. There is one big problem with it: no one has been caught by the hand, even for those who were accused of provocations by the law enforcement agencies – like Oleg Muzhchil aka Lesnik from Pravyi Sector who died in a shoot-out with the security services – no convincing evidence was presented.

One can’t claim that Zhenya Karas from C14 received thousands of dollars from the Opposition Platform “For Life" for his rally in front of the Israeli embassy with demands that Israel repent for the Holodomor. Yes, it was a strange event but despite the rumors that Karas received money – how much, from whom and via whom – we can’t just be sure. A researcher must be relying on facts and not assumptions, so I can’t make these claims with confidence.

What can I say, however, is that a certain number of anti-Semitic incidents – and not only anti-Semitic, also anti-Hungarian, anti-Polish, anti-Romanian and, of course, anti-Russian – were indeed carried out by paid provocateurs. We can say this with confidence because it was proven not only by the investigators, but in a number of court cases, some of them outside Ukrainian courts.

For example, fellows who set fire to the Hungarian cultural center in Uzhgorod. In many cases it can be indisputably proven that paid provocateurs are behind some hate crimes including serious ones – arson attempts and explosions at the memorials.

These people are being paid by Russia, via Russian channels or via pro-Russian European far-right. The most recent case is from Odessa: “Death to the Jews” graffiti appeared at the synagogue and the security footage shows that the perpetrator wrote it quickly, made a photo and ran away, he received 600 dollars. Then he wrote something in front of the Russian consulate, then he was arrested.

These cases are regular, and mostly we are talking about some kind of petty crime without an ideological background – C14 or National Corps activists are never hired for these provocations, at least no one was grabbed by the hand. There are provocations, sure, sometimes it can be proven. Not all of those who write “Death to the Jews” in front of the synagogues can be caught – so it is hard to say what percentage of all cases are deliberate provocations. I am not saying it’s close to a half, but a significant percentage still.

Editor: Yegor Skovoroda

Translation: Anna Vozna

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