Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has insisted that the Euromaidan protests against the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych were driven by far-right groups, fascists, or even “neo-Nazis” and that Yanukovych’s downfall has brought these dark forces into the corridors of power. These claims are echoed by Kremlin-friendly Western commentators on the left (the Nation’s Stephen Cohen) and the paleocon right (Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo). Far-right extremism in Ukraine is indeed a worrisome problem. But the alarmist narrative of “neofascists in Kiev” is vastly exaggerated, more often than not with the blatant goal of discrediting a pro-democracy, pro-Western government—a bias all the more glaring when the alarmists ignore the rise of de facto fascism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its startling connections to ultra-right nationalism in Europe.
Concerns about the political ascendancy of militant Ukrainian nationalism generally focus on two groups: Svoboda (Freedom), a far-right party which advocates some patently illiberal policies—including a ban on what it deems anti-Ukrainian hate speech—and whose leaders have a history of xenophobic comments; and Right Sector, an armed militia that gained prominence in the Maidan protesters’ defense against government riot squads. (Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Russian-Jewish journalist and monitor for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, has estimated that only about 1 percent of the demonstrators were “radical nationalists.”) As a result of the political deal brokered by Germany and France before Yanukovych’s ouster, Svoboda got several appointments in Ukraine’s interim government; Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh was offered the post of deputy chair of the national security and defense council but declined, choosing instead to run for president.
Both groups have tried to shed their bad reputation, moderating their rhetoric and reaching out to the Jewish community. These image-improvement efforts have not been entirely successful. Last month, three Svoboda MPs were caught on video intimidating and assaulting a television editor whom they accused of a pro-Russian slant; Right Sector was recently involved in clashes with police and a near-riotous rally outside parliament, leading the government to order the group disarmed.
The encouraging news is that popular support for the far right is negligible; in a March 26 poll, 2.5 percent of likely voters in the May 25 presidential election said they would vote for Svoboda leader Oleg Tyahnibok and just 1.4 percent for Yarosh. Moreover, Ukraine’s current leadership is clearly determined to curb its influence. A Svoboda-driven bill that would have effectively made Ukrainian the country’s sole official language was promptly vetoed by interim president Oleksandr Turchynov (a fact ignored in several subsequent articles in the American press that cited the language law as a Svoboda success). In late March, one of the top Svoboda-affiliated cabinet members, Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, resigned under pressure and was replaced with a nonpartisan career military man. It should be noted that Ukraine’s Jewish leaders are strongly supportive of the new government, in which several key posts are held by Jewish politicians.
Writing in Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s surviving dissident media outlets, journalist Alexander Lipsky has pointed out that smearing opponents as “fascist” was a standard Soviet propaganda ploy. Its revival is particularly ironic today, when some Russians using this slur may fit it far better than their targets do. Take Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who recently lamented on Twitter that Ukrainians, his Soviet-era compatriots, had turned to “Nazis all around.” Rogozin first entered politics as a leader of the nationalist bloc Rodina (Motherland), which got booted from local Moscow elections in 2005 over an ad—featuring Rogozin himself—that used blatantly racist caricatures of Azerbaijani migrants. In 2011, he was the subject of a glowing tribute on the American “white identity” site Occidental Observer.
A far more sinister figure is Alexander Dugin, founder of the “Eurasian movement,” which defines its mission as opposing “liberal hegemony” and modernity. In the 1990s, Dugin, a college dropout active in marginal ultranationalist groups, wrote essays openly advocating fascism as a “third way” alternative to communism and capitalism. Dugin argued that real fascism had never been properly tried (an argument usually made on behalf of communism) and would eventually emerge in Russia; while disavowing the racist “excesses” of Nazism, he also praised the SS as an “intellectual oasis” in the Third Reich and fantasized about the rise of “a race of Nordic warrior priests.”
All this would make Dugin merely an odious crank if, by the mid-2000s, he had not emerged as a leading “intellectual” in Russia’s Putin-era political establishment, with ties to top politicians and members of the official media. Dropping the word “fascist,” he began to style himself a “traditionalist”; he also procured a Ph.D. and became the head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. In 2009, his International Eurasian Movement counted among its board members Alexander Torshin, Duma vice speaker and a leading figure in the ruling United Russia party, and Nikolai Yefimov, editor in chief of the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Dugin was cited as an intellectual guru by Ivan Demidov, who headed United Russia’s ideology section in 2008, and currently serves as an adviser to the chairman of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin.
Dugin has long been a staunch foe of Ukraine’s independence and a champion of reclaiming Crimea for Russia. New evidence points to his direct involvement in fomenting unrest elsewhere in Ukraine. On March 31, a Eurasian Youth Movement leader, Oleg Bakhtiarov, was arrested in Kiev on charges of plotting attacks on the parliament; two days earlier, a video turned up online that showed Dugin giving tactical advice to Ekaterina Gubareva, a separatist activist in Donetsk, in an intercepted Skype conversation. (Gubareva’s husband, Pavel Gubarev, in detention after leading the takeover of a local government building, is an ex-member of Russian National Unity, a militant group with black uniforms and a swastika-like symbol.)
Amidst Russia’s current patriotic fervor, rhetoric with scarily fascistic overtones has gone increasingly mainstream. In his speech on the Crimea annexation, Putin called antiwar dissenters not only a “fifth column” but “national traitors,” a phrase that sounds as odd in Russian as it does in English and that some bloggers traced directly to Hitler’s “National-Verräter” in Mein Kampf. At times, this rhetoric has specifically singled out Jewish dissidents. In one eyebrow-raising moment, TV talk-show guest writer Alexander Prokhanov (a notorious peddler of anti-Semitic “journalism”) voiced bafflement at the Ukrainian revolution’s Jewish supporters who could be “bringing on a second Holocaust”—to which host Evelina Zakamskaya replied, “They brought on the first one, too.”
The Putin regime’s flirtation with fascism is not just domestic. A recent article by Northeastern University political scientist Mitchell Orenstein in Foreign Affairs documented extensive ties between the Kremlin and the nationalist extreme right in Europe, including Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn. The “international observers” Moscow invited to the referendum in Crimea included Belgian neo-Nazi Luc Michel and former Polish MP Mateusz Piskorski, currently head of the European Center for Geopolitical Analysis, identified in a 2006 Anti-Defamation League report as a former “translator and publisher of hardcore Nazi material.” According to an exposé in a leading Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, Piskorki’s magazine Odala, published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, openly praised Nazi Germany, featured Holocaust deniers, and called for a united Slavic empire as “the only hope for the White Race.”
In a particularly bizarre twist, Piskorski—a member of Dugin’s Eurasian movement—showed up as a speaker at a March 30 St. Petersburg international conference called “Neo-Fascism in Europe: 70 Years Later,” which, Novaya Gazeta reports, had a transparent agenda of promoting the myth of a neofascist takeover in Ukraine. Presumably with a straight face, he declared that “fascism is rearing its head worldwide.”
If Ukraine’s fledgling democracy survives the Russian threat, its extremist problem will likely be contained. Not so in Russia, where the rot of far-right nationalism currently starts at the top.
Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.