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  • “A People Without a History Won’t Fight”: The Battle to Control Ukraine’s Past
  • Ian Bateson (bio)

Hands fly up in the packed wooden stalls of one of the central theaters in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. One after another, the items of a new political party’s manifesto are approved unanimously. Every so often, the shirtsleeve of one of the delegates falls back, revealing a tattoo that looks like an embellished swastika.

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ian bateson

[End Page 42]

This is the Oct. 14, 2016, launch of the National Corps, the political wing of the far-right Azov battalion, which was founded when war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The hall is filled mainly with young men shouting “death to enemies” and “glory to the nation.” Massive banners hang from the balconies to the floor, which bear the emblem of the new party : a stylized trident, the country’s national symbol.

An Azov member shows slides of a 10th-century lead seal. It is rusty and brown with worn edges. In the center, surrounded by faded symbols, lies a two-pronged fork, which adorns the seal of the Kievan Rus’ Prince Sviatoslav I and is the predecessor to the trident.

Later, National Corps’ press secretary Oleksandr Alferov brings out the seal for the audience to see. He says that it was owned by Sviatoslav’s father, the better-known Prince Volodymyr who converted Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity. They are the prototypical leaders of the eastern Slavs, which includes Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians. The seal was used to imbue documents with royal authority, but here it is giving this new party a sense of historical continuity.

Since 2014, Ukraine and Russia have fought a battle for the legacy of Kievan Rus’. In other countries, perhaps, such disputes would be relegated to historians and conferences, but when Russia seized control of Crimea in 2014, began arming separatists, and sent Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine as reinforcement, the issue gained new relevance. One of the key Russian justifications for the incursion on Ukrainian territory was that Ukraine had no history as a state and thus no right to be respected as one. In response, Ukrainians, wishing to counter Russian propaganda and military action, have sought to root their national identity in history. Connecting the threads of Ukraine’s past became a key part of the case for an independent future.

That is an argument Azov has been championing. When Russian proxies launched a new offensive in August 2014, Azov was credited with the successful defense of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in Sepember 2014. The group is regularly able to bring out hundreds to thousands of mainly young men for torch-lit marches, but its political might remains untested.

Azov denies having Nazi sympathies, but journalists have spotted its members sporting “SS” tattoos. When questioned, the commanders say that, as a volunteer battalion in the middle of a war, they don’t have the right to turn away anyone willing to fight.

Azov’s emblem, however, seems to tell a different story. It overlays a Wolfsangel —an ancient German symbol based on a wolf trap and popular with neo-Nazis—with a rising wave and a Sun Wheel, an occult symbol associated with Nazi Germany. Again, Azov rejects the connection, saying that the apparent Wolfsangel is merely an “I” overlaid with an “N,” standing for “idea of the nation.”

In the theater, the delegates approve a platform that commits the party to official Ukraine-centrism, legalizes the right to carry firearms, and promises the reacquisition of nuclear weapons for Ukraine. On many issues, including its opposition to “Brussels bureaucracy,” a reference to the European Union, National Corps’ positions are not unlike those of the far-right parties the Kremlin supports in other European countries. But because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continuing unrest, Azov is fiercely anti-Russian, making any cooperation anathema.

A tall, muscular man with a boyish face takes the stage. He is elected head of the new [End Page 43] party. This is Andriy Biletsky, founder and commander of Azov, who has a history of far...


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