During the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine, many observers have commented on strains of nationalism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism in the country. But unfortunately, these comments have often missed the mark. How identity and prejudice shape Ukrainian politics is far more complicated than is commonly depicted.
It is particularly important to understand these questions now. We are in the middle of a U.S. presidential election in which Donald Trump has praised Vladimir Putin and raised questions about whether he might reverse U.S. opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recognize its annexation of the Crimea.
I have conducted 15 research trips to eastern and southern Ukraine, including time visiting the front lines of the conflicts in the Donbas and Crimea regions. Based on this research, I can debunk two myths about nationalism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
Myth #1: Ukraine has extraordinarily high levels of anti-Semitism.
Jewish monitors of anti-Semitism in Ukraine find levels of physical and media attacks against Jews to be very low in Ukraine in comparison with Europe and Russia. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman is Jewish, as are many oligarchs.
Moreover, one of the most nationalist forces in Ukrainian politics — the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) Party — has had little success. Like all far-right parties in Ukraine, Svoboda has been unpopular.
Emerging from the neo-Nazi Social National Party in the 1990s, it was briefly in power in the Galician region of western Ukraine and gained seats in parliament only once — in 2012 — when it received protest votes against the authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Svoboda has had much less success than many other populist nationalist and neo-Nazi parties throughout Europe.
This is not to suggest that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as I discuss below. But Ukraine fares well in comparison to many other countries.
Myth #2: The anti-Semitism that does exist in Ukraine exists only among the right wing.
It’s a common mistake to focus only on Svoboda and the far right. Nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments are present not only on the right wing, but on the left wing, too.
For example, you see nationalism among “Sovietophile” forces like Communists, Russian nationalists, or the Party of Regions, who supported Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. The Tatar annual commemoration of this act as “genocide” has been banned by Russian occupation authorities in the Crimea, who have closed down Tatar organizations and media outlets, deported or arrested leaders and murdered activists.
Moreover, anti-Semitism in Ukraine appears to be most prevalent in the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, not the western regions where Svoboda has more influence. These two separatist republics, which declared their independence from Ukraine in May 2014, are kept afloat financially, economically and militarily by Russia through a shadow government. Russian anti-Semitism in these republics is a response to the support given by the country’s Jewish minority to the Euromaidan and Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
For example, Sergei Aksyonov, leader of the neo-Nazi Russian Unity party, was installed as prime minister by Russian occupation forces in the Crimea. His anti-Semitic and homophobic political forces believe the Crimea is part of Russia, Ukraine belongs in the Russian world, Ukrainians are “Little Russians” and the Ukrainian language is a dialect of Russian.
In the Donbas conflict, “internationalist” volunteers from France, Italy, Serbia, Hungary and as far away as Brazil mingle with Russian neo-Nazis and Cossacks. But these volunteers also include those from the extreme left who have come to fight “NATO,” “U.S. imperialism” and “Ukrainian fascism.” In Europe the far left and far right are united in their anti-Americanism, antagonism toward the European Union and NATO and love of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
And some volunteers appear to be bringing anti-Semitism into the Ukrainian conflict. In Donetsk and Luhansk, separatist political leaders accuse the Ukrainian leadership of being Jews who have Slavicized their names. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is allegedly hiding his real Jewish name of “Valtsman,” for instance.
Ukraine’s foremost expert on anti-Semitism, Vyacheslav Likhachev, has concluded there is a “high level of anti-Semitism in the public discourse” of the Donbas separatists. He added that “anti-Semitism has long become an important component of the official ideology of the puppet regimes declared on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, occupied by Russia.”
As a result, much of the Jewish population in these regions has fled to other parts of Ukraine, fearing official anti-Zionism (camouflaged anti-Semitism), an influx of Russian Cossacks and neo-Nazis to fight on the separatist side, and lawlessness and economic breakdown.
What does this mean for Ukraine?
Debunking these myths helps us better understand how nationalism and anti-Semitism actually operate in Ukraine. It’s not just a story about the far right, even though politicians and scholars often focus on far-right forces.
Rather than focus on Svoboda and its kindred, politicians and scholars must also understand the pro-Soviet, Pan-Slavic and Russian nationalists who are especially prevalent in the Crimea, Odessa and Donbas. For example, although Anton Shekhovtsov keeps track of these disparate Russian nationalist, fascist and neo-Nazi groups fighting for the separatist cause, we know relatively little about how these groups impact Ukrainian politics.
And these forces have been anti-Maidan, occasionally separatist and always Ukrainophobic. They strongly oppose European integration, believe Ukraine is a natural part of the Russian world and feel strongly that Ukrainians and Russians are, as Putin has repeatedly said, “odyn narod” (one people).
These forces are clearly important not only to Ukrainian politics, but to how Western countries, and a newly elected American president, must approach the region.
Taras Kuzio is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, and author of “Ukraine. Democratization, Corruption and the New Russian Imperialism” (2015). His book “Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Nationalism, Identity and Crime” is to be published later this year.Save