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  • What the Far Right Does Not Tell Us about the Maidan
  • William Jay Risch (bio)

Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity has multiple meanings. For some, it demonstrates Ukrainians’ ability to organize themselves, fight a corrupt police regime, and champion the rule of law, human rights, and freedom from imperial Russian rule. For others, the presence of the Far Right among its leaders symbolizes the return of the most aggressive, violent features of Ukrainian nationalism.

The specter of extreme right-wing nationalism has haunted Ukraine’s revolution since late November 2013, when students and young professionals began demonstrating on Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan, to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision on 21 November not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union the following week. Yanukovych’s government hinted that further aid from Russia, and possibly membership in its Eurasian Customs Union, would substitute for EU assistance. Thus it looked as if Ukraine was about to lose its sovereignty and become a satellite state of Russia or part of a resurrected Soviet Union. Such developments encouraged activists in right-wing organizations to take the lead. Already in the first days of protests, there appeared the black-and-red flags of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), first adopted by Stepan Bandera’s wing of the organization during World War II. Far-right political chants such as “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” “Ukraine above all!” and “Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!” resounded on the Maidan. Students from the right-wing political party Svoboda (Freedom) were among those mobilizing protesters around these slogans. These nationalist-motivated calls for justice grew fiercer after Ukraine’s Berkut security forces beat up demonstrators and drove out the Euromaidan on the early morning hours of 30 November. “Glory to Ukraine!” became a rallying call the next day, 1 December, as people in Kyiv in the tens and hundreds of thousands took to the streets and demanded not just closer [End Page 137] relations with Europe but justice against the police, the resignation of Ukraine’s government, and even the ouster and imprisonment of their own president.

Over the next three months, symbols attributed to the Far Right appeared whenever violence flared up. After Ukraine’s parliament, the Supreme Rada, passed the so-called Dictatorship Laws on 16 January 2014, clashes broke out on Kyiv’s Hrushevsky Street between protesters and security forces. A far-right organization connected with the Maidan’s self-defense units, Right Sector, took credit for sparking the scenes of flying Molotov cocktails, burned-out buses, and flaming tires that spread across the world’s media. When a peaceful march to the Supreme Rada on 18 February turned into nearly three days of bloodshed, resulting in at least 100 dead, the chant, “Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!” took on special meaning. It resounded in the makeshift morgue in the Hotel Ukraine, up the hill from the Maidan, after doctors and priests had given the dead their last rites.

When President Yanukovych fled Ukraine on 21 February, it looked to some as though the forces of the Far Right had triumphed in Kyiv and were threatening the country’s future. Right Sector took over the Hotel Dnipro and some shops on Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk. Members of parliament from Svoboda became government ministers. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and uprisings orchestrated and managed by Russian military intelligence in the Donbas region prompted violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces that led to up to 40 pro-Russian activists being killed in a fire in the Trade Unions Building in Odessa on 2 May. Right Sector activists allegedly claimed credit for the act, though the details remain murky.1 When armed men, some of them from Russian military intelligence, seized administrative buildings in the Donbas, volunteer battalions, some of them led by people of the Far Right, took up arms and helped the government wage its war against pro-Russian forces, known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). These battalions included the Azov Battalion, whose leaders come from the neo-Nazi political party called the Social-National Alliance (SNA). The Wolfsangel cross...