Rival nationalist bigotries
Daniel Lazare investigates the thriving rightwing ideology on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine divide
With each passing week, the Nazi influence on the Volodymyr Zelensky regime in Ukraine grows more and more pronounced.
The Azov battalion is already well known. Andriy Biletsky - its founder back in 2014 and now an official advisor to the country’s top military command - is notorious for declaring that the Ukrainian national mission is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Azov’s official insignia sums the message up by superimposing two famous Nazi emblems on top of one another: the “black sun” (a wheel with 12 crooked spokes that was a favourite of SS chief Heinrich Himmler) and the Wolfsangel (a ‘Z’ bisected by a short bar that was adopted by various Wehrmacht and SS units as well).
Thanks to Azov, the Ukraine is the only nation with an expressly Nazi unit in its official ranks. What is worse is that Azov’s influence is growing. Previously, its membership was estimated at anywhere from 900 to 2,500 fighters - a drop in the bucket, compared to a total of more than 200,000 Ukrainian military personnel in all. Thanks to the war, however, Biletsky recently told the Financial Times that its membership now numbers in the “scores of thousands”.1 Azov is thriving and, as news reports indicate, its units are running the show along much of the front.
But Azov and other ultra-right forces are dominant in another struggle as well: an increasingly important war of symbols. On April 17, Azov fighters tore down a statue of Soviet commander Georgy Zhukov in the contested city of Kharkov in the country’s east.2 In response to calls for a May 9 Victory Day parade in the newly-fallen city of Mariupol, Biletsky threatened in a TV interview to hit it with a Tochka-U surface-to-surface missile if Russia went ahead with the plans.3 On April 21, Ukrainian soldiers tore down yet another statue - this time that of Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, killed in action by the Nazis when she was just 18.4
This incident, which occurred in Chernigov, some 80 miles north of Kiev, is the most explosive of all. The reason is that Kosmodemyanskaya was not just any war hero, but, thanks to a Soviet propaganda campaign, a latter-day Joan of Arc. Captured in November 1941 while trying to burn down buildings believed to be housing Nazi barracks and a communications centre, she refused under torture to give up the names of her comrades. Paraded barefoot through the snow on the way to the gallows, she used her final moments to deliver an impassioned speech.
“Hey, comrades,” she said according to an account that appeared after the village of Petrishchevo was taken back. “Why are you looking so sad? Be brave, fight, beat the Germans, burn, wipe them out! I’m not afraid to die, comrades. It is happiness to die for one’s people!”
Turning to her German captors, she warned: “You hang me now, but I’m not alone. There are two hundred million of us. You can’t hang us all. They will avenge me.” Then, with the rope around her neck, she cried out: “Farewell, comrades! Fight, do not be afraid! Stalin is with us! Stalin will come!”
“Here is the people’s heroine,” Stalin supposedly declared after the article appeared in January 1942. As an official ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, Kosmodemyanskaya’s portrait hung in classrooms across the country after the war, as children recited the story of her life. In the 1960s, a writer named Volodia Novikov recalled telling a lie as a child and then reminding himself that “Zoya would not have done that.”
“I felt very ashamed,” he wrote. “From that time, I’ve always tried to be truthful, honest and brave.”5 A Soviet émigré now living in the US remembers a teacher telling her not to worry about visiting the dentist, because “Zoya had the Soviet star burned into her back by the Nazis and she didn’t cry.”6 A photo of Kosmodemyanskaya’s mutilated body - her left breast cut off by drunken Nazi soldiers on New Year’s Eve - acquired an almost iconic status. When her younger brother, Alexander, became a tank commander after vowing to avenge her death, he too was named a Hero of the Soviet Union after dying in battle.
Tearing down a statue of Kosmodemyanskaya is thus like tearing down a bust of Sophie Scholl in Germany or the statue of an anonymous dockworker in Amsterdam that commemorates the communist-led February 1941 strike against the round-up of the Jews. Judging from the photos and videos now swamping Twitter, outrage seems to be growing - as indeed it should.
To be sure, Kosmodemyanskaya took a major hit after 1991 when “liberal” journalists tried to puncture the legend by charging that Petrishchevo was not occupied at the time of her arrest, that she was betrayed by a fellow partisan or that another woman was executed in her place. “The image of Zoya functioned as a lightning rod in the debate about Soviet history,” one US historian notes. But, thanks to an official follow-up investigation, the charges were debunked and a consensus emerged that the story was true in all important respects, that she “had indeed been executed by the Nazis in Petrishchevo and that the minor details were irrelevant to that fact”.7
So Zoya remains a symbol of anti-Nazi heroism after all. But, where Russian writers have talked about the “three executions” of Kosmodemyanskaya - first by the Nazis, the second by post-1991 rightwing journalists and the third by the post-Soviet malaise, indifference and neglect that followed - it is plain that a fourth ‘execution’ is now underway, thanks to resurgent Ukrainian fascism.
Nearly 80 years after Soviet forces liberated Kyiv in late 1943, it is yet another sign of how the battle for Ukraine is now playing out in reverse. The process started slowly with sporadic ultra-right efforts to do away with Soviet-era monuments and place names mainly in the country’s pro-nationalist west. But it vastly accelerated 20 years later when neo-fascists used the 2014 Euromaidan uprising to extend their influence across the entire country.
The new government, hand-picked by the US state department’s Victoria Nuland, offered the ultra-right key ministries, including defence, plus top posts in the police and the national security agency known as the SBU. A year later, president Petro Poroshenko followed up with sweeping anti-Soviet laws banning the hammer and sickle, the red flag, the Soviet anthem and the Communist Party - by now splintered into three parts. Simultaneously, the government conferred official honours on the old Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists - groups that collaborated with the Nazi occupation and took part in the slaughter of thousands of Jews and as many as 100,000 Poles during a nationalist cleansing operation launched in mid-1943.
Strolling about Kyiv in a Lenin or Trotsky T-shirt was expressly forbidden. So was denouncing Ukrainian Insurgent Army members as mass murderers - even though that is precisely what they were. Local officials named 34 streets after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist voivode (Führer), according to Wikipedia. Three dozen cities, towns and villages erected statues in his honour, two dozen named him an honorary citizen, while the western city of Lvov, the capital of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, dedicated an entire year to him in 2019. With torchlight parades in his honour an annual occurrence, Ukrainians who dared attend May 9 Victory Day celebrations instead found themselves roughed up by pro-Bandera thugs.
The effect has been to downgrade the Soviet victory over the Third Reich in favour of the coming victory of the Banderovtsy over the Russians.
None of which is surprising. The war of symbols stems from a parallel process on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian divide. In the case of the former, it meant that Moscow would not sweep away old Soviet memories and symbols, but, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, Russify them instead. Soviet victories in Stalingrad and Berlin became Russian victories, while Yevgeny Khaldei’s famous photo of a Red Army soldier raising the red flag over the Reichstag became a symbol of Russian rather than Soviet triumph.
A budding movement to canonise Kosmodemyanskaya as a Russian Orthodox saint is part of that process, while an immense new armed-forces cathedral outside of Moscow (unveiled in 2020 on the 75th anniversary of the 1945 victory), is another. Built in monumental Russian style, the structure alternates mosaics of battle-hardened Soviet soldiers with images of the Holy Spirit and pictures of a sword-wielding Christ militant. It is the culmination of a process that began in September 1943, when Stalin met with three church leaders and promised to improve their status in return for their support in the war. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Stalinist alliance with the church has given way to a union of Russian nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy.
The process is more or less the same on the Ukrainian side, where anti-Soviet nationalism has led to Banderism, Nazism, vilification of all things Russian and an effort to elevate the 1932-33 famine caused by Stalin’s headlong collectivisation campaign into a second Auschwitz. The Holodomor is the new holocaust, Ukrainians are the new Jews, while the national goal, according to Zelensky, is to turn the country into a “big Israel” on the Black Sea.8 Where Jews were once the enemy, Israel is now a model to be emulated - with the Russian minority, needless to say, cast in the role of the Palestinian under-class.
Russian nationalism cannot defeat Ukrainian nationalism. To the contrary, it can only exacerbate it. Two forms of nationalist bigotry are thus growing, as US imperialism fans the flames. Instead of eliminating one another, Putinism and Banderism are part of an emerging quasi-Zionist synthesis that shows every sign of spreading to other countries as well. The more they battle one another, the more their mutual resemblance can only grow.
A Schipani and R Olearchyk, ‘Don’t confuse patriotism and Nazism’ Financial Times March 29: www.ft.com/content/7191ec30-9677-423d-873c-e72b64725c2d.↩︎
AM Harris, ‘The lives and deaths of a Soviet saint in the post-Soviet period: the case of Zoia Kosmodemyanskaya’ Canadian Slavonic Papers June-December 2011, No279.↩︎
AM Harris op cit No290.↩︎