The 2014 Euromaidan protests also unveiled both the hope and horror to be found in the country. A country with a longstanding history of violence, war and oppression revealed a culture of peaceful collective action.
In parallel to this, brutish escalation of inner conflicts and the aggressive attempt to maintain old patterns of hierarchy led to shootings in the capital, a divided country and further manifestations of trauma.
This division is exactly what Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, exudes. Hip cafes surround Maidan Square, and the city center is filled with people mingling in the open urban space. Yet, not far from the Independence Monument, the streets are filled with memorials. Pictures of dead women and men line the streets – a makeshift alley of remembrance.
Fashioned like graves, these memorials feature small stone statues of crosses or doves, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian national flag, as well as the red and black. These flags of the Right Sector–a key militant right wing movement–are nearly as omnipresent as the national flag in the city.
Many commentators deny substantial right-wing influence in Ukraine, pointing out that the most popular far-right party, Svoboda, barely retains any official mandate. This year’s presidential election saw Svoboda get just 1.62 percent of the vote. A walk through Ukraine’s urban spaces, however, tells a different story.
Right wing groups were among the most visible actors at Euromaidan. United against a common enemy–the Soviet Russia of the past in the form of corrupt politicians, and Putin’s increasingly expansionist Russia of the present–the right-wing alliance was able to use revolutionary momentum and translate it into political action.
While having little official representative power in a system designed for and by oligarchs, the far-right still has significant discursive and subversive power. This shows in their vast mobilisation of extreme paramilitary groups fighting on the front lines, such as the National Corps. The group’s openly neo-nazi leader, Andriy Biletsky, has claimed thatvUkraine’s mission is to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade… against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”
Increasingly these combat-ready vigilantes are deployed as agents against civil society, the resultant violence often going unpunished. In July 2018, for example, anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk was fatally doused in acid in front of her house. The perpetrators were veterans of voluntary right-wing bataillons fighting in Donbass. Similarly a series of attacks on Roma camps in Lviv last year left one dead and many injured. This perpetrator, a member of a far right group, boasted publicly about the attack on Facebook. In both cases, those responsible remain unpunished.
In an interview by Euronews, Vyacheslav Likhachev of Freedom House remarked, “Many of the groups active in Ukraine have real combat experience, paramilitary formation and even access to weapons…They pose a real physical threat to left-wing, feminist and liberal movements, LGBT activists, human rights activists, and ethnic and religious minorities.”
Despite attacks on journalists and activists, the majority of civil society does not denounce these acts. Rather, the right-wingers are seen as kingmakers. After all, they lack any official affiliation, are militarily trained and easily mobilised against an unremovable political elite.
At the same time, criticism is often seen as blatant Russian antagonism and propaganda. At times this seems like a problematic nod to an ideology that declared Slavs as subhumans and considered their territory as open for the taking. The Ukrainian far-right is operating on the basis of a deep contradiction by embracing a worldview that unequivocally disenfranchised, killed and robbed their forefathers.
The paradox doesn’t stop there, however. Ukraine’s ascent in art, culture and collective action following Euromaidan demonstrated its remarkable potential for progress and prosperity. But, if the purpose of the exercise was to open up westwards, then blood and soil logic will not do.
The EU is cultivated by the core belief of unity in diversity. Reactionary nationalist sentiments threaten this notion and create division rather than affiliation. By courting the right, a pro-European Ukrainian civil society might actually manoeuvre the country further away from Europe and into the arms of a new authoritarian mindset. Lastly, the attempt to create a new identity cannot succeed if it is confined by the logic of demarcation. By denying inner tendencies to regressive and racist ideologies and simply framing them as Putin’s propaganda, Ukraine is sacrificing the opportunity to take ownership of its difficult past.
By fashioning its long-evolved diversity as a threat to its own purity, Ukraine is losing itself along the way. Rejecting all its traumas, scars and setbacks, yes, but also its memory, its beauty and its resilience.