The war that broke out in the Ukrainian eastern region of Donbass a year ago is being fought on multiple levels. In the stalemate, news reports can be mightier than kalashnikovs, so few actors are neglecting their propaganda efforts. Giovanni Cadioli explains why historical memory plays such a dominant role in the conflict, and particularly the battle by both sides to smear the other as “fascist”.
Before the unrest in Ukraine gave way to open war, Russian channels started a news campaign focusing on the various extreme-right groups that took the streets of Kyiv and battled Yanukovych’s police. This campaign was very effective both because of the extreme care paid to its launch, and because, notwithstanding several distortions and plain mystifications, it did rest on real existing evidence. Militants from Svoboda, Right Sector and UNA-UNSO were indeed right on the frontline of the fight in Kyiv. Red-black flags, as well as Svoboda’s blue ones, became a common sight among several other neo-fascist symbols displayed by a portion of the protesters.
However, neo-fascists represented only a minority of the Maidan protesters, albeit a very visible and active one. Claims made by several Russian channels that the post-Yanukovych elections would have seen a strong affirmation of the extreme right ended in nothing: considering the votes cast for Svoboda, Right Sector, the chameleon “left-right” nationalist Radical Party and other minor groups we see how the far-right stood at 11.6% in 2012 and at 13.3% in 2014. There was therefore no such thing as a “fascist electoral breakthrough”.
Yet, Russian media have far from having given up on “fascists”. In fact, the new Ukrainian Government provided some powerful material that fed right into Russian propaganda. It allowed the formation of fascist paramilitary forces, directly subsidised by far-right parties, then incorporated a number of such formations into the official Ukrainian military and even appointed Right Sector’s leader as an advisor to the Ukrainian Chief of General Staff.
Although the Ukrainian Government also eliminated one of the most flamboyant figures of Ukraine’s far-right, who had become a favourite target of Russian medias’ reports, it is very hard to deny that the Ukrainian volunteer “Azov Battalion” flies a fascist flag. Anyway, in case anybody had any doubts, its members promptly and repeatedly displayed symbols even more incontrovertibly linked to fascism and Nazism.
The recent law honouring as “freedom fighters” Second World War Ukrainian guerrilla formations such as UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, represented the last step in a dangerous game played by Kyiv. Uncritically praising those who fought for Ukraine’s independence against both Soviets and Nazis, while massacring tens of thousands of Jewish and Polish civilians, outraged not only Russia, but also Israel and Poland.
All of this allowed and still allows Russian media and State officials to denounce the double standards applied by the West in regards to far-right as well as to tacitly support the idea that the Donbass conflict is an “anti-fascist war”.
But how true is this?
Before entering into the presentation of evidence, it is crucial to operate a reconceptualisation of terms such as “fascist”, since its Western meaning is of little use in observing realities in the former Soviet Union.
In Western Europe a chauvinistic, xenophobic, homophobic and staunchly pro-religious behaviour could well be defined fascist. In Russia, the KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), gave up long ago on Marxism-Leninism and embraced “social-patriotism” (Анализ программ российских политических партий начала XX и XXI вв – Гаврилова М. В). Already back in the 1990s its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, released publications where the Soviet red flag and the black-gold-white nationalist tricolours were displayed together. These flags were also jointly carried to battle during the 1993 constitutional crisis, when a loosely defined red-brown coalition opposed Boris Yeltsin. The Russian Communist Party also condemns homosexuality, has joined right-wing styled anti-immigration movements and suggested beatifying Stalin. Finally, communist leader Zyuganov stated he would have whipped iped the Pussy Riot smembers, just as Cossacks did in Sochi.
Similarly, in Western Europe one would define a political force often aligned with communists, which proposed the re-adoption of the hammer and sickle as State symbols and the re-creation of the Soviet Union as far-left. In Russia, Zhirinovsky’s chauvinistic LDPR (Russian Liberal Democratic Party, which is in itself a contradiction), supported the 1991 putschists, celebrated the 1996 Duma vote that officially revoked the dissolution of the USSR and backed the Communists in suggesting the re-adoption of Soviet symbology in 1994 and 1997.
Parties such as the KPRF and the LDPR, as well as other entities such as A Just Russia, Rodina and Patriots of Russia, are united with the United Russia ruling party by a loosely defined “patriotic” sentiment.
What then does the Russian media refer to, when it talks of “fascism” and “anti-fascism” in Ukraine?
Ukrainian fascists are defined as such, because they revive experiences and symbols reminiscent of the Second World War, among which the red-black flag was used by UPA and portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera, regarded as a hero by Ukrainian nationalists and as a fascist collaborator by many pro-Russians and Russians. Monuments ) were built in his honour in Western Ukraine and Yankovych’s predecessor, the pro-western Yuschenko, even awarded Bandera the (afterwards-revoked) title of Hero of Ukraine.
Outrage for the perceived “Banderist Turn” in Ukraine is just the last proof of how most Russians had been mislead by the old Soviet motto ‘Ukraine and Russia eternally together’.
For many Ukrainians, the anti-Soviet resistance of UPA symbolises a first attempt to attain independence, rather than a contribution to the failed construction of a Europe-wide Third Reich. Yet, to the Russian media, and most of the Russian people, the red-black flag is not much different from the Swastika, as was the case of the Croatian checkerboard flag for many Serbs in the 1990s. Outrage for the perceived “Banderist Turn” in Ukraine is just the last proof of how most Russians had been mislead by the old Soviet motto “Ukraine and Russia eternally together”, bitterly reawakened in 1991, 2004 and yet again 2014. In 1991, even the Russian leadership sincerely expected the three “Slavic sisters”, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, to quickly rejoin. No such thing happened and Ukraine has swung back and forth between the twin piles of Moscow and Brussels since at least 2002. In the meantime, Putin turned to any aid he could find, from White Generals to the memory of the Great Patriotic War, to make clear what he stated once again in this year’s Q&A: “I make no difference between Ukrainians and Russians. They are basically the same nation”.
The Russian leadership feels let down by Yanukovych and betrayed by Ukraine. Its actions in Crimea and Donbass, although looking much like imperial expansion, owe more to Russia’s worry that it might have entirely lost any economically, militarily and geopolitically influence in Ukraine. This is more a “defensive expansion”, than a thrust to recreate a Russian empire.
Nonetheless, mentions of Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine as well as of Yanukovych’s corruption clearly don’t find much space in the official stance taken by Russian officials, who are adamant that “because of a coup supported by Washington and Brussels, in Kyiv in February of last year power was seized by ultranationalists”.
However, going beyond news reports’ titles and digging into the very heterogenous front of pro-Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, one realises how on the Russian side there seems to exist as much “anti-fascism” as a sort of “fascist anti-fascism”, as well as plenty of nationalism.
Starting with some of the pro-Russian leaders, we have Pavel Gubarev, now head of the disgraced “New Russia” party, who was a member of the swastika-displaying Russian National Unity, now fighting in Ukraine under more “politically correct” insignias. Another renowned separatist leader, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin was a volunteer with Serbian forces and far-right paramilitaries during the Yugoslav Wars and has been linked with the gruesome Višegrad massacre.
Moving on to the many volunteers who rallied in support to the pro-Russian separatists from all across the world, we find a Serbian chetnik battalion as well as an even more telling case. An Italian volunteer, named Andrea Palmeri reached Donbass and enlisted in the militias there. He was welcomed by Gubarev as a “true Italian fascist” who was there to fight against Western imperialism. Palmeri himself in a interview stated that “we cannot reduce the whole issue to fascism and communism, that’s only propaganda” adding, quite correctly, that “if you tell a Russian communist that at home (i.e. in Italy) the left endorses pro-gay, pro-drugs, pro-immigrations campaigns, or uses anti-religious discourses, he won’t believe it but that’ts the truth”.
Chetniks and “true Italian fascists” fight together with communist volunteers, such as Spanish and Russian ones. They are enlisted in an army that includes units that march under the “for the Tsar!” motto and the insignias of Donskoy and Nevsky, as well as others that adopted the red star or the hammer and sickle.
And the contradictions are not over. The Donetsk People’s Republic adopted a tricolour used by pro-Soviet forces in 1918 and yet also the Imperial double-headed eagle. The Luhansk People’s Republic chose the red star as state symbol and if the first Novorossiya flag was made up by the Russian Imperial colours, at the same time, the very anthem of Novorossiya is a reinterpretation of the anthem of Soviet Ukraine. Moreover, the Donbass People’s Militia and the newly established Ministry of State Security of the LNR adopted the shield-sword KGB symbology, which was however also taken up by the Russian Orthodox Army.
Finally, prominent separatists such as military commander Mozgovoy stated that Novorossiya “will be socialist” and yet DNR Deputy-PM Andrey Purgin,“when asked if what happened in Donbass was a “left-” or “right-led” revolution, […] said that “right-wing ideas dominated the revolution”.
Thus there exists proof that communist and nationalist-styled symbology are jointly used and that the ranks of pro-Russian separatists are filled with volunteers, defined as follows by an arrested Spanish volunteer: “half of them are communists and the other half are Nazis […]. We fought together, communists and Nazis alike […]. We all want the same: social justice and the liberation of Russia from the Ukrainian invasion”. Even so, the separatists clearly compare the current war to the 1918 pro-Bolshevik uprising and 1941-45 anti-Nazi struggles.
How to make sense of all of this then? Quite simply, such contradictions are resolved with the celebration of a new alliance, the one between “socialism and tradition [which] fight together against fascism”. Even an extremely powerful symbolical representation of such alliance has been produced: a flag divided in half by the orange-black colours of St. George and displaying on one side the Soviet red flag with hammer and sickle and on the other one the black-gold-white Imperial tricolour. The flag has increasingly appeared in news reports and photos from Donbass.
Putin’s idea of Russia is based on the perception of a deep continuity between Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation, crafted by playing down moments of historical rupture such as 1917 and 1991
This set of apparent contradictions generally fits within the mutating national idea carefully built by the Putinist leadership over the last fifteen years. This idea is based on the perception of a deep continuity between Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation, crafted by playing down moments of historical rupture such as 1917 and 1991. The prescription inherent in this idea is that Russia “should develop in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, way” and the post-ideological loosely defined patriotism that comes with it allows the Russian leadership to freely manoeuvre from cooperation to confrontation with the West and from treaties with Latin American socialist states to support for Europe’s far-right.
Some of the ideological extremes seen in the Donbass would not find Putin’s approval in Russia, since the Russian leader is everything but a diehard nationalist. However, as far as these extremes are half-hidden in eastern Ukraine and play into Russia’s interests, they are, at least temporarily, tolerated.