by Jennifer J. Carroll
Outside the sphere of Russian propaganda, the Kremlin’s assertion that the Ukrainian crisis is fueled by radical nationalists and fascist provocateurs is widely understood as fabricated. Putin’s claims that radicals and extremists control Ukraine’s parliament and that Russian nationals face physical threats are categorically false, and even the US Department of State has gone on record to say so.
The great irony here is that many western scholars and journalists spent the weeks and months prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea toeing the very same line, accusing groups such as Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and the Svoboda (Freedom) party of being the militant forces of political evil on the streets, aggressively gunning for their narrow and hate-filled agenda. Stephen Cohen has, for better or for worse, become the epicenter of this discourse in American media, arguing that EuroMaidan is controlled not by the moderate political leaders of the Udar (Punch) and Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) political parties but by “right-wing” extremists who hate Europe and Russia in equal measure, as well as homosexuals, Jews, and other social and racial minorities. These sentiments have been echoed by other scholars, bloggers, and journalists who have also laid blame for the tragedies that Kyiv has suffered upon a nefarious and radical nationalism that naturally inclines itself towards militarism and violence in one way or another.
As a regional expert who has been living in Kyiv, and has been present at EuroMaidan, observing, documenting, and talking to protesters for nearly three and a half months, I can say with confidence that these writers have grossly mischaracterized recent events in Ukraine. The common flaw in each of their claims is that certain social and political markers (markers which these authors are interpreting as sure signs of right-wing extremism) are treated as static and unchanging, as symbols whose meanings are historically informed and frozen in time. Such a synchronic analysis of details like the prominence of the Ukrainian Partisan Army’s red and black flags at Maidan or the frequent shouting of so-called “Banderist” slogans (named after the former leader of the Ukrainian Partisans Army, Stepan Bandera) like “Glory to the Nation! Death to the enemy!” is highly problematic because it leaves open no possibility for the re-contextualization or repurposing of these symbols and histories for new and different ends.
Such historical narratives and political symbols as these constitute a language that can be used to signal infinite meanings and values. One of the fundamental principles of any language is that the connection between a symbol and its meaning (what de Saussure called the signifier and the signified, or what Peirce called the representamen, the outward appearance of a symbol, and the interpretant, the idea of what that symbol can and does mean in context) is constantly in flux and may change or evolve as dictated by culture and circumstance. To borrow a perfect metaphor from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy professor Mychailo Wynnyyskyj, the blanket insistence that the use of Banderist icons indicates the presence of a scary, militant, ethnically-motivated nationalism “is equivalent to saying that any American who takes pride in the portrayal of George Washington on the dollar bill must also condone slavery.”
The only way to fully understand the meaning that someone applies to a symbol (even a familiar and problematic symbol) is to ask them about it—something which the authors writing from offices outside of Ukraine have not done. Many EuroMaidan protesters with whom I have spoken go to great lengths to distinguish between the various Ukrainian nationalisms embraced by these groups and the dangerous, radical agendas described in the media. Tolya, a man in his twenties who had stood on the barricades with members of Pravy Sektor during the clashes with police on Hrushevskoho St., emphasized that the group, though somewhat aggressive and certainly to the right of most, does not promote a morally problematic agenda. “It’s not nationalism to a point where you hate or discriminate,” he said. “A lot of the stuff they say is simply pro-Ukrainian rather than anti-somebody else.”
Tolya also emphasized the important defensive role that members of Pravy Sektor have played. “I think it’s really important to see that despite their radicalism, which was more visible at the beginning of EuroMaidan, they have become a shield [against police violence] for regular people.” In the days surrounding the worst police violence in Kyiv, Spilna Sprava, Pravy Sektor, and certain subgroups within the Svoboda Party formed a significant portion of the EuroMaidan Self-Defense brigades and were welcomed as heroes into the EuroMaidan encampment. Anya, a woman in her thirties, spoke of these volunteers with pride. “These men, I see them, I see their eyes as they are marching towards the front [to meet the police]. They may be going there to die, but they are calm. Their faces are brave.” This woman’s pride bears little if any connection to the personal politics of the volunteers manning the barricades. Rather, a sense of unity was created around protesters’ shared intolerance of police violence and mutual indignation at the number of lives that had already been lost.
Similarly, the so-called “Banderist” slogans, which so many scholars outside of Ukraine have declared to be signs of right-wing aggression, have been largely recontextualized within the contemporary discourse of EuroMaidan and have taken on new meaning. Once the battle cries of the Ukrainian Partisans Army, a nationalist group with a spotty history who became involved on both sides of WWII, these phrases are predominantly used by EuroMaidan protesters to acknowledge the voluntarism and sacrifice of those at the barricades, not to promote a partisan discourse. Calls of “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” are never heard as often as when a brigade of Self-Defense volunteers march by. Even speakers on the main stage will take a pause and acknowledge those men (and women) who have risked their personal safety to protect that of others. These volunteers are the heroes, not Stepan Bandera and certainly not the partisans he led to battle nearly 70 years ago. These sentiments are echoed in other new and newly resurrected slogans, such as those called out at the funerals of those killed by police violence in the streets: “Heroes never die!”; “Glory to the Heroes! Glory! Glory! Glory!”; and “For the heroes of the Heaven’s Hundred! Glory! Glory! Glory!” These are extremely context-specific utterances that scholars decrying the right-wing agenda of EuroMaidan have conveniently overlooked in their analyses—probably because they have never been at EuroMaidan to hear them.
Finally, it bears mentioning that groups like Svoboda, Spilna Sprava, and Pravy Sektor may, despite their admittedly problematic political platforms, be tolerated and even valued by the ordinary Ukrainians who make up the vast majority of EuroMaidan protesters for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. For example, many have told me that the presence of multiple groups with multiple leaderships would divide the attentions of the Yanukovych regime, complicating attempts to undermine the movement. For this reason it was seen by many (though certainly not all) as beneficial for the opposition block at the helm of the protest movement to include Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyaynyboh into the formal leadership structure and make space for groups like Praviy Sektor and Spilna Sprava to operate.
These groups also provided an element of organization that other political parties did not. The Udar Party is often considered to be too new and too disorganized to accomplish very much, and many regard the Batkivshchyna Party suspiciously as they are large, wealthy, and just as poised for potential corruption as Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. For this reason, joining the organizational structure of EuroMaidan often meant being in close contact with the leadership structures of politically right groups, because only those groups could offer the organization and leadership structures needed to get things done. “Despite their slogans and ideology,” a young university student told me, “they are really disciplined.” I personally know of one man in his thirties, a successful consultant who lives in Kyiv, who joined the Svoboda party even before EuroMaidan began despite having no interest in nationalist politics. He said he just wanted to be involved in his community, and Svoboda was the only group getting things done – he was particularly interested in a local playground project that they were undertaking.
None of this is to argue that the aggressive, racist, right-wing bogey men alleged by so many English-language writers to be at the helm of the EuroMaidan movement were entirely absent from the protests. Indeed, in a massive anti-government movement that boasted hundreds of thousands of participants, it would be terribly strange if these fringe elements did not pop up in one form or another. The attention lavished by Western writers on these radical perspectives, however, has led the larger discussion about EuroMaidan wildly off-point. While we should acknowledge the experience and knowledge of regional experts, even those distracted by right-wing actors, no one has more authority to characterize what Ukrainian activists are up to than those activists themselves, and they are telling a different story. We should listen.
Read the original text at the Yale Journal of International Affairs