Russia Says the Ukrainian Protesters Are Fascists and Nazis. Are They?

How It Works
Feb. 20 2014 1:36 PM

Fascists, Fascists, Everywhere

Svoboda head Oleh Tyagnybok pays his final respects to activist Mikhail Zhiznevsky during a funeral service in Kiev on Jan. 26, 2014.

Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

If the increasingly bloody turmoil in Ukraine is primarily viewed in the West as a struggle between pro-European supporters of democracy and an increasingly authoritarian government under the influence of Moscow, the official Russian line on the events presents an alternate reality: Western governments are naïve dupes supporting violent extremists with far-right fascist tendencies.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The Russian foreign ministry has dubbed the protests the “Brown Revolution,” comparing it to the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has asked, “Why do we not hear statements of condemnation toward those who seize government buildings, attack and burn police officers, and voice racist and anti-Semitic slogans?” 


The Russian government has a habit of throwing around labels like this a bit casually, but in this case—while undoubtedly self-serving—it’s not completely inaccurate.

One of the three figures who form the Maidan movement’s unlikely leadership coalition, along with boxer Vitali Klitschko and former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party who has a habit of doing things like referring to the country’s government as a “Jewish-Russian mafia.” The party traces its roots to a Nazi-allied partisan army during World War II  and was known as the Social-National Party—in reference to National Socialism—until 2004. Last month the party held a torch-lit march in honor of Stepan Bandera—a controversial figure viewed by some as a Nazi collaborator.  

The rebranded party’s election to parliament for the first time in 2012 concerned many Ukrainian Jews, though Tyahnybok has unconvincingly defended himself from charges of anti-Semitism, saying, "I personally have nothing against common Jews, and even have Jewish friends, but rather against a group of Jewish oligarchs who control Ukraine and against Jews-Bolsheviks [in the past].”

It’s clear that the protests against the government by supporters of European integration started before Svoboda showed up and that the party's presence does not represent all—or even most—of the protesters in Kiev, which include a fair number of Jews. But Tyahnybok’s role has certainly made things awkward for the movement's international supporters.

The Svoboda leader was conspicuously absent at last week’s meeting in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the far more palatable Klitschko and Yatsenyuk. Sen. John McCain was criticized for sharing a stage with him when he visited Kiev in November. More recently Tyahnybok has met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton.*

All the same, the charges that Euromaidan is defined primarily by fascism and anti-Semitism is a little rich coming from the people making it, as Timothy Snyder discusses in the New York Review of Books:

The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe. The Russian foreign minister, in Munich, lectured the Germans about their support of people who salute Hitler. The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history. It is still a serious presence today, although less important than the far right in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. Yet it is the Ukrainian regime rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews. In other words, the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.
The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. [Vladimir Putin’s proposed] Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology. The European Union is based on a historical lesson: that the wars of the twentieth century were based on false and dangerous ideas, National Socialism and Stalinism, which must be rejected and indeed overcome in a system guaranteeing free markets, free movement of people, and the welfare state. Eurasianism, by contrast, is presented by its advocates as the opposite of liberal democracy.

Some have also accused Yanukovych of deliberately facilitating Svoboda’s rise to prominence in western Ukraine as a useful political foil. If true, that now appears to have been a massive miscalculation on the president's part.

Svoboda’s prominence within the opposition movement is certainly concerning, not only because of the possibility it could now play a more prominent role in the future politics, but because it has  allowed an increasingly authoritarian leader and his blatantly authoritarian international backers to make the case that their opponents are the ones who pose a threat to democracy.

*Correction, Feb. 20, 2014: This post originally misspelled Victoria Nuland's first name.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.