The claim that last month's democratic revolution in Ukraine was actually driven by ultra-right extremists, fascists, or even "neo-Nazis" has been a staple of Kremlin propaganda. It is also echoed by Western pundits who think that Vladimir Putin is getting a bum rap and the United States is backing the bad guys in this conflict. It is true that far-right nationalists are a troubling, though by no means dominant, presence on Ukraine's political scene and a potential problem for the new leadership's quest for European integration. But the cries of "fascism" from Moscow and its apologists are breathtakingly hypocritical, considering the Putin regime's entanglement with far-right, ultranationalist and, yes, fascist elements at home and abroad.
It's hard to gauge the actual extent of extremist involvement in the Maidan protests, which began in late November in response to Yanukovych's rejection of a European Union trade deal. At the start of February, Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Russian Jewish journalist and board member of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, estimated that "radical nationalists" made up about one percent of the protesters. On one occasion in the early days of the "Euromaidan," a notorious hatemonger, poet Diana Kamlyuk, took advantage of an open microphone night to make overtly racist and anti-Semitic remarks; but Likhachev stressed that this was an isolated, widely condemned incident, and that the rallies featured prominent Jewish speakers as well as Jewish religious and cultural events.
As tensions between protesters and riot police escalated, the radicals took on a larger role—particularly Right Sector, a paramilitary group some view as bordering on neo-Nazism because of its admiration for World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist, onetime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. (While Bandera's record on anti-Semitism is a matter of some dispute, his followers unquestionably committed atrocities toward Poles, Russians, Jews, and others; by any objective reckoning, he was certainly more terrorist than freedom fighter.) Right Sector has made some effort to improve its image: its leader, Dmitro Yarosh, has met with the Israeli ambassador in Kiev to assure him that the group strongly opposes anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Yarosh and other militants have also praised Jewish fighters on the Maidan. Still, concerns about their influence justifiably remain.
Another alarming factor is the nationalist party Svoboda ("Freedom"), whose head, 45-year-old Oleg Tyahnibok, has a history of anti-Semitic and racist comments—though he has tried to reinvent himself as a moderate. Svoboda has about 8 percent of the seats in Ukraine's parliament; thanks to the deal brokered by Germany and France before Yanukovych's resignation, it also holds four of the twenty posts in the interim government, including that of Minister of Defense. The party's attempts to shed its thuggish reputation have not been entirely successful; on March 18, three Svoboda parliament members threatened and assaulted the chief of Ukraine's TV Channel 1, angered by what they regarded as the station's pro-Russian slant, and forced him to write a statement of resignation. The incident, which caused near-universal outrage, is now being investigated.
The good news, as historian Timothy Snyder points out in The New Republic, is that current polls show Svoboda getting 2 or 3 percent of the vote in May's presidential election. And some reports on the right-wing menace in Ukraine clearly overstate the party's impact. Thus, a March 13 column in the Los Angeles Times and a March 18 Foreign Policy article pointed to Svoboda's successful push for a law making Ukrainian the country's sole official language—without mentioning that Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov later vetoed the bill.
Meanwhile, in Russia, nationalists in the upper echelons of power include such prominent figures as former NATO envoy and current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who first entered the political scene as a leader of the nationalist bloc Rodina (Motherland). In 2005, Rodina was banned from Moscow City Council elections for running a blatantly racist campaign ad: the clip showed three Azerbaijani migrants littering and insulting a Russian woman and Rogozin stepping in to tell them off, and ended with a slogan promising to "clean up the trash." While Rogozin is no fan of America, he has some peculiar American fans: in 2011, a glowing tribute that concluded with, "Let's hope that Rogozin rises to power in Russia—and for the rise of a 'Rogozin' in America and elsewhere throughout the West," appeared on the "white identity" website, Occidental Observer.
Rodina co-founder and Rogozin's erstwhile rival for its leadership, Sergei Glazyev, most recently served as Putin's man in charge of developing the Customs Union—the alliance with Kazakhstan and Belarus that was also to include Ukraine. Like Rogozin, Glazyev has attracted the sympathetic attention of far-right kooks in the Unites States—in this case, Lyndon LaRouche: in 1999, LaRouche Books published an English translation of Glazyev's book, Genocide: Russia and the New World Order, with a foreword by LaRouche himself.
But Rogozin and Glazyev are mere peons compared to self-style "traditionalist" intellectual Alexander Dugin, a writer and professor at Moscow State University. In his New Republic article, Snyder identifies Dugin—"an actual fascist"—as "the founder of the Eurasian movement," the ideology that provides the foundation for Russia's expansion into Ukraine.
In fact, Dugin—who, in his writings in the 1990s, was quite explicit about the fascist and even Nazi roots of his views, asserting that true fascism had never been tried and would be born in Russia—is more than just the father of an idea. As documented in a 2009 article by Ukrainian scholar Andreas Umland (who has also chronicled the rise of extremism in Ukraine), Dugin has extensive, close ties to Russia's political elites and the pro-Kremlin media. A number of high-level officials and journalists have served on the leadership council of his organization, the International Eurasian Movement. Dugin's admirers include Ivan Demidov, a TV producer who at one point, in 2008, headed the ideology section of the ruling party, United Russia.
Dugin's frightening rhetoric has been on display in recent days. After a massive antiwar demonstration in Moscow on March 15, he wrote on his Facebook page, "This is no longer simply filth, ideological opponents, or dissenters, but a parade of traitors. Today, they have risen against the Russian people, against our State, against our history. They are defending murderers, occupiers, Nazis, and NATO. All the participants in this march of the fifth column have been condemned—by history, by the people, by us." Then, he quoted a line from a famous wartime poem: "As many times as you see them, kill them." (The poem, of course, referred to German invaders.)
If those are the ideologues, it's hardly surprising that some of Russia's foot soldiers in the conflict with Ukraine are of the brownshirt type. Most notable among these is Pavel Gubarev, the pro-Russian activist in Donetsk who briefly proclaimed himself the city's "People's Governor" and raised a Russian flag over the local government building. A few days after Gubarev gained notoriety, it was revealed that he had once been an activist in the militant group Russian National Unity, whose emblem bears an unmistakable resemblance to the swastika. (Photos of Gubarev in uniform made the rounds of the Internet.) And, shortly before the March 16 referendum, the Kremlin's man in Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, used a blatant anti-Semitic code in a televised speech, referring to Ukraine's new leadership as "an unnatural union of cosmopolite oligarchs who have grown rich plundering the Soviet era's heritage, and neo-Nazis." Of course, "cosmopolite" was once an infamous Soviet euphemism for "Jew"—and it is no coincidence that the best-known business oligarch allied with the new government is a Jewish man, Ihor Kolomoysky.
Then there's the matter of the "international observers" Moscow invited to the referendum in Crimea—a veritable freak central of neo-Stalinists and far rightists including Belgian neo-Nazi Luc Michel, Hungarian right-wing extremist Bela Kovacs, and Serbian-born American paleocon and war crime apologist Sr?a (Serge) Trifkovi?. Another observer, Polish parliament member Mateusz Piskorski, who praised the referendum in a Russia Today interview, is a former neo-Nazi in a very literal sense. As one of Poland's leading newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, reported in 2006, in the late 1990s and early 2000s Piskorski published a magazine called Odala, which openly praised Nazi Germany, interviewed Holocaust deniers, and proclaimed that "considering the decay and multi-racialism of the West," a united Slavic empire was "the only hope for the White Race." Piskorski now belongs to Dugin's Eurasian Movement.
Umland's 2009 article on Dugin and creeping Russian fascism ended with the eerie prediction: "Should Dugin and his followers succeed in further extending their reach into Russian high politics and society at large, a new Cold War will be the least that the West should expect from Russia, during the coming years." Perhaps fascism has indeed won—and not in Ukraine.
This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.