About “Radical Nationalists”

By Volodymyr Kulyk, 11.02.2014

I decided to write this blog after reading an interview with Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector, in Ukrains’ka Pravda a few days ago.  Among many other things, Yarosh briefly explained his ideological orientation, including his understanding of nationalism and how it differs from the nationalism of the Freedom (Svoboda) Party.  Given his role as leader of the Trident (Tryzub) organization, which bears the name of Stepan Bandera, I expected a classical ethnonationalist position with a noticeable xenophobic color compatible with Svoboda’s slogan that “here, the Ukrainian is master.”  While acknowledging many things his organization (it was hard to figure out when he was talking about Trident alone and when about Right Sector as a whole) has in common with Svoboda, Yarosh also said that he does not by any means accept “certain racist things” characteristic of Oleh Tyahnybok’s party.  Yarosh based his reasoning on those who have just died for Ukraine, namely a Belarusian and an Armenian, saying that “they are much greater comrades for me than any, sorry, Communist cattle like Symonenko, who plays for Russia, yet is an ethnic Ukrainian.”  As a true Banderite, he supplemented this current justification with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) leader’s classic thesis that a Ukrianian nationalist should treat non-Ukrainians according to their stance on the Ukrainian struggle for national liberation:  with loyalty, with neutrality, or with hostility.  Many of today’s fighters for a free Ukraine may not like his citing Bandera, but I imagine that most would not disagree with the thesis itself.

Yarosh’s dislike of “racism,” which I did not expect from him, caused me to think about whether it is appropriate to describe Right Sector, along with Svoboda, as radical nationalists.  It’s understandable why this description is attractive:  faced with the need to name those who seem to be both radicals and nationalists, many journalists and analysts  resort to combined terms like “radical nationalists” and “nationalist radicals.”  These terms (which I have sometimes used too) are characteristic ofjournalism and public commentary, where there is no space for discussions about terminology.  The second one could, in principle, be considered adequate for describing nationalist segments of the radical camp – if it weren’t used (and perceived) so often as a synonym of the first, which implies a radical variation of nationalism, and Yarosh’s explanation would refute such an implication or at least fundamentally correct it.

Thus, it’s worth distinguishing clearly between two elements:  the radicalism of a certain person’s or organization’s nationalism and the radicalism of their political and ideological position in general.  Yarosh and his Right Sector are clearly radicals in today’s protest movement – though the movement itself has become noticeably more radical, and hence inceasingly supports their actions.  At the same time, Svoboda professes a much more radical nationalism, yet its political behavior (or at least its leaders’ behavior) turned out to be, in the opinion of many protestors, not just non-radical, but cowardly and accommodating.  The description “radical nationalists” is inadequate preceisely because it obscures this important distinction.

Of course, Yarosh’s published statements – answers to Ukrains’ka Pravda journalists and Glavred readers, as well as announcements and short citations in several other publications – do not give enough information for a complete characterization of his personal ideological position, or that of the organizations he speaks for.  He was not asked many relevant questions, and he did not always give a direct and detailed answer to those he was asked, since he did not want to expose ideological or other differences between participants in a common struggle.  Besides, for the time being Yarosh’s words are only words; a declaration of positions that have not been put into political practice yet.  Thus it is not possible to tak about his ideology as specifically as about Tiahnybok’s or Svoboda’s , which can be characterized based on draft laws they propose, the results of their voting, and even violent actions taken by them on the Maidan in particular – not just based on claims they have made.  But precisely because we know so little about Right Sector right now, it is important to pay careful attention to the information available and try to draw some conclusions.

Speaking about his nationalism, it can be said that it is not liberal or purely civic, but at the same time, it is in no way neo-Nazi.  Although Yarosh supports an Association Agreement with the EU (perhaps as a counterweight to Moscow’s integrationist pressure), he is against complete European integration.  Like nationalists in many European countries, he believes that “indeed, the bureaucratic monster in Brussels is doing everything to eliminate national identity and the traditional family; it conducts anti-Christian policies.  Thus we have our own view of this situation, and we believe that Ukraine must be a subject, and not an object, of geopolitics.  We must build a strong state, and create certain geopolitical constructions in Ukraine.”  In this quotation, we see conservative nationalism (or national conservatism), based on traditional Christian values (including heterosexual ones) and the desire for a strong national state that is able to conduct an active foreign policy.  His “National Revolution” aims to build exactly this kind of state.  The latest declaration by Right Sector, which calls for a victorious completion of this revolution, not only rejects a continuation of negotiations with the regime, but also rejects orientation “toward the opinions of the West as the key to our victory.”

This nationalism (and its national revolution) doesn’t have to be ethnic:  it is, in principle, possible to fight for a strong state and a traditional family through the joint efforts of all citizens.  However, basing national identity on Christian values inevitably excludes non-Christian groups, and the above-mentioned attitude of the Ukrainian national movement toward non-Ukrainians indicates that this movement is the business of ethnic Ukrainians that, in the best case, members of other groups can join.  So there are elements of ethnic exlusion in this nationalism, but they are in no way radical:  it’s not calling for ethnic cleansing or persecution, or claiming the superiority of the “indigenous nation,” or anti-Semitism, or racism, or other things widespread among ethno-nationalists.  Moreover, Yarosh flatly rejected social nationalism in favor of “traditional nationalism”: as he put it, “nationalism does not need anything extra, it is sufficient as it is.”  He rejected this, I imagine, not only because of a conservative dislike of socialism, but also to avoid the impression of being close to Nazi ideas, which Svoboda cannot wash itself of to this day, having started out as the Social-National Party.

To be sure, Yarosh’s own characterization of Trident has added to its image as an organization of radical nationalists.  He has called it an “organization with narrow functions, like an order of knights,” whose task is not just disseminating nationalist ideas and bringing up young people in a nationalist spirit, but also “national defense activities; that is, defense of the honor and dignity of the Ukrainian nation, under any conditions, and by any methods and means available.”  But in Yanukovych’s state, such activities do not seem as radical as in European democracies, no matter how “ruined” (according to nationalists) these democracies are by anti-Christian policies and the erosion of national identity.  Right Sector has become acceptable to a great many participants and sympathizers of the protest movement precisely because the regime showed a complete unwillingness to deal with less radical methods of protest, which the majority even now would gladly resort to, yet no longer believes can achieve at least minimal satisfactory results.  After all, not only Right Sector, but all of Self-Defense and, to a certain degree, all of the Maidan community has taken on “national defense activity” against a regime that is openly hostile to the people and the nation, one which threatens human dignity and the sovereign statehood of Ukrainians of all ethnic groups.

The question is what methods are needed to conduct these actions.  Yarosh’s political means for achieving revolutionary changes seem even more moderate than his nationalism:  stopping police violence, freeing prisoners, creating a government of professionals, returning to the constitution of 2004, conducting early elections… But having given politicians time to try to reach a deal on these matters, he does not really believe in their efforts and is preparing to deploy other methods, which are not moderate at all.  I am not sure that it was right to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at policemen then, provoking them to use weapons, or if it’s right to do so now.  (At the same time, I share the widespread view that if blood had not been shed on the streets of Ukrainian cities, and if this had not compelled the West to put pressure on Yanukovych and the oligarchs, the regime would hardly have made any concessions at all.)  If only because I myself have never put my body in danger of being hit by bullets or batons, I do not have the right to recommend this way to others.  But I am convinced that using force against a repressive regime is less unacceptable than using it to strengthen the position of one’s party within the protest movement, as some of Svoboda’s leaders and activists have done.  Around the same time that Yarosh gave interviews, an interview with Svoboda member Ievhen Karas’, one of the commanders of the occcupied Kyiv City State Administration building, appeared in Livyi Bereh.  He firmly denied rumors about torturing policemen held in the basement, but without any hesitation or remorse talked about how his people beat up apprehended thieves and wrote “Thief” on their foreheads (in Russian, for some reason). He also justified using violence against activists of the dissident protest group Common Cause (Spil’na sprava) when throwing them out of the Ministry of Agriculture building, claiming that Svoboda activists had been provoked into doing it, though he didn’t say who exactly had provoked them.  This little boss seems much more inadequate and dubious to me than Yarosh,  all the more so because even before the Euromaidan protests, the main targets of Karas’s radical acts were, it seems, not riot police, but leftists and other “liberfags”.

Thus I suggest that we avoid mixing everything into one cocktail called “radical nationalism,” but distinguish between anti-imperialist nationalism and xenophobic nationalism, between radicalism shown in a real struggle and the radicalism uttered at public assemblies, between Svoboda activists who fight the riot police and those who beat up “wrong” protestors.  And, as soon as there is more information, we should distinguish between the different ingredients in Right Sector.

From Ukrainian translated by William Risch; edited by Annabelle Chapman.

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