- Brothers in Arms:Why Russian ultranationalists confronted their own government on the battlefields of Ukraine
Click for larger view
View full resolution
On a snowy January day in 2016, a small crowd assembled in central Kiev to honor the fight against the far right. The gathering of diehard anti-fascists was commemorating the 2009 murder of the Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who'd defended activists and victims of the Russian military, and the Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Baburova, who'd investigated neo-Nazi gangs. [End Page 91]
As they unfurled banners in memory of the pair, a group of young men confronted them. In footage posted online, the men, many of them masked, identify themselves as members of the Azov Civic Corps, a Ukrainian ultranationalist movement linked to a regiment fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east.
An unmasked Azov member, sporting a strap-like beard across his chin, begins arguing with the crowd. Like most people in Kiev, he speaks in Russian—but his accent is distinctly Muscovite. He refers to the murdered lawyer as one of the "scumbags" responsible for imprisoning his friends. Someone in the crowd responds: "But is it OK to kill people because of their political views?"
"Of course it is OK," the bearded man says. "If these views contradict the interests of the nation, they should be uprooted." Although he does not mention any nation in particular, he refers to Russian soldiers as his "blood brothers" and condemns the murdered lawyer Markelov as a "Russophobe."
The left-wing activists appear puzzled. Their public assemblies had always risked clashes with their homegrown opponents, the Ukrainian ultranationalists. Yet here they were in their capital, Kiev, amid a war with Russian-backed forces, quarreling with a Russian agitator somehow aligned with the Ukrainian far right.
The man's name is Roman Zheleznov, and he is indeed a Russian citizen. He is also an ultranationalist who idolizes the neo-Nazi gang-leader convicted of murdering the lawyer and the journalist. Many of his fellow ultranationalists from Russia have, predictably enough, backed the pro-Russian rebels in their war with Ukraine.
But Zheleznov is part of a Russian contingent that has wound up on the opposite side, joining the Ukrainians fighting against the rebels. Their exact number is hard to confirm, as they keep a low profile. Zheleznov puts it at 200, while others speak of several dozen.
These Russians are, in effect, battling a proxy military force that is sustained by their own government and that includes their former comrades from the far right. But their brand of nationalism cuts across national borders. In this sense, they are paradoxical figures—"internationalist" ultranationalists.
Their journey can be traced to the Russian far right's complex relationship with their country's institutions and with similar groups in Ukraine. Most of the Russians who champion the Ukrainian cause began their careers with ultranationalist gangs back home. These gangs had powerful sympathizers and at times enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with officialdom, advancing its aims and battering its opponents. In return, they seemed to receive immunity from prosecution and access to resources.
While individual gangs have periodically supported official causes, the Russian far right as a whole has remained independent of the state. Perhaps inevitably, gangs that have served the authorities have, at other points, run afoul of them. Their involvement in violence and criminality has made them easy targets for prosecution when this relationship goes sour.
During crackdowns at home, many gang members have sought shelter in neighboring countries, including Ukraine. In doing so, they have exploited—and strengthened—existing links between the region's various far-right groups. These are ties that have typically been forged online and on foreign visits, with like-minded individuals mingling at skinhead concerts, summer camps, and soccer matches.
When the war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, Russian ultranationalist gangs constituted a powerful and unruly street movement. [End Page 92] They enjoyed contacts with a network of similar groups abroad, and while many had served the Russian government's aims, their collective loyalty to that government could not be taken for granted. Their role in the Ukraine conflict would therefore...