By JAMES MARKIN
In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, deepening the Russian military involvement in the country that began in 2014. In his rambling speech justifying the invasion, Putin argued that Ukrainian national independence from Russia was a historical aberration. He laid this crime of separation at the feet of Lenin, saying that “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.” In his eyes, Ukrainian national independence was so unnatural and ahistorical that the Ukrainian nationalists had to begin “by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine.” This distortion, according to Putin, led Ukraine to be “faced with the rise of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism.”
This accusation that Ukraine today is a neo-Nazi state thus has been part of the main thrust of Putin’s justification for war with the country. It follows a long period of accusations by the Russian state, and those mouthing their words, that the Maidan Revolution in 2014 was a fascist coup and that the Ukrainian governments that followed the ouster of Yanukovych were fascist regimes. When considering how to respond to the war, socialists should consider this accusation.
The origins of Ukrainian nationalism
To say that Ukraine is not a fascist state does not mean that we should support its current government. Indeed, no serious socialist should have any confidence in the Zelensky government. Zelensky represents the bourgeoisie of Ukraine, not its workers. This is why, despite posing for “heroic” photo ops and using tough words, Zelensky has sought to sell out the Ukrainian people at every turn. For example, Zelensky made changes to Ukrainian labor law that strengthened employers and weakened unions. At the same time, he also modified land law with the goal of speeding up privatization, dealing a massive blow to small farmers.
These moves fit a pattern by Zelensky of better serving foreign imperialist investors than his own people. As part of this same policy, Zelensky has also sought Ukrainian membership in both NATO and the EU, which would allow the further subjugation of Ukrainian workers to the dominion of the U.S. and Western European capitalists. However, just because Zelensky is not a steadfast defender of the political independence of Ukraine does not mean that he is a fascist or a Nazi. He is instead a liberal conciliator through and through.
Indeed, Putin’s lie to justify war should be familiar to everyone who lived through the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Just like Bush’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Putin’s claims about a Nazi regime in Ukraine are merely a false pretext for a cruel and bloody war. However, Putin’s lie has a kernel of truth. Far-right-wing and fascist groups have definitely become a problem in Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.
While Putin has accused Ukrainian nationalism of being founded entirely in Nazism, on the contrary, modern Ukrainian nationalism, like many other Eastern European national movements, was born in the context of the subjugation of the Ukrainian people by various European empires, first under Austro-Hungary and then under Poland and the despotic Russian Empire. Far from having its origins in fascism, in this context, Ukrainian nationalism was championed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who saw the struggle of oppressed nationalities within Russia for self-determination as a component struggle for the overthrow of Tsarism and the victory of the proletarian revolution.
Indeed, it was Lenin who wrote that: “Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession.”
For this reason, it was only after the October Revolution that Ukraine finally won the right to self-governance.
This history is why Putin gave Lenin the starring role in the reimagined history he presented in his war speech, accusing the Bolshevik leader of being the “creator and architect” of Ukrainian nationhood. While the bourgeois press in the USA has accused Putin of trying to restore the Soviet Union, the reality is that during his time in power, Putin has sought to restore Russian nationalism in the mode of the Tsarist empire of old, including its role in regards to Ukraine. As Lenin described it: “Accursed Tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people,” making Ukrainians hate Russians and see them as their enemy. Today the same phenomenon is occurring once again. Thus, despite Putin’s complaints that Ukrainian nationalism negated everything that brought Ukrainians and Russians together, it has actually been his vicious war that has driven a deep wedge between the Ukrainian and Russian people.
Fascism and the Second World War
Many of those who do Putin’s dirty work, and disseminate the idea that Ukraine today is a fascist regime, point to fascist collaborators in Ukraine during World War II as an origin point for modern day Ukrainian fascist movements. In doing so, they seek to prove that there is something inherently fascistic about national resistance to Russia’s imperial dominance over Ukraine. However, a Marxist understanding of fascism and Ukrainian history disproves this theory.
As Marxists, we understand the reasons for the rise of fascist movements during the 1920s to 1940s. The petty bourgeoisie, that social class which both owns property but also must do productive work (such as shopkeepers, farmers, etc.), is always ruined by the periodic capitalist economic crises. In the early 20th century, this social class was unable to find a way out through either a strong socialist movement or the bourgeois establishment. This was the origin of mass fascist groups, with their social base in the petty bourgeoisie.
Fascist ideology attempts to reconcile the reality that capitalism both enriches the petty bourgeoisie while also periodically impoverishing it by blaming the defects of capitalism on Jews, immigrants, and other targets of racist ideology. When workers’ movements are weak, bourgeois democratic states suppress fascist movements. However, the bourgeois state never seeks to totally eradicate them because they provide a good counter-balance to workers’ movements that might threaten bourgeois rule. Ultimately, although fascist movements have their deepest support and origins in the petty bourgeoisie, they cannot come to power without the support of the big bourgeoisie.
During the early 20th century, with the threat of socialist revolution on the table, bourgeois governments in Germany and Italy turned to these fascist groups and brought them into power in order to break up communist parties and smash independent trade unions. As imperialist competition pushed Europe into the Second World War, these fascist governments often sought out fascist groups that already existed in the countries they conquered as partners with whom to create puppet regimes. In this regard, Ukraine (especially the western portion, which had been incorporated into Poland) was no different from other countries like France or Norway, which had fascist collaboration regimes during the war.
The persistence of anti-Semitism
As Trotsky wrote near the end of his life, the situation in the USSR did provide special conditions that allowed anti-Semitic ideology to fester:
The Soviet regime, in actuality, initiated a series of new phenomena, which, because of the poverty and low cultural level of the population, were capable of generating anew, and did in fact generate, anti-Semitic moods. The Jews are a typical city population. They comprise a considerable percentage of the city population in the Ukraine, in [Belarus] and even in Great Russia. The Soviet, more than any other regime in the world, needs a very great number of civil servants. Civil servants are recruited from the more cultured city population. Naturally the Jews occupied a disproportionately large place among the bureaucracy and particularly so in the lower and middle levels.
Of course, we can close our eyes to that fact and limit ourselves to vague generalities about the equality and brotherhood of all races. But an ostrich policy will not advance us a single step. The hatred of the peasants and the workers for the bureaucracy is a fundamental fact of Soviet life. The despotism of the regime, the persecution of every critic, the stifling of every living thought, finally the judicial frame-ups are merely a reflection of this basic fact. Even by a priori reasoning it is impossible not to conclude that the hatred for the bureaucracy would assume an anti-Semitic color, at least in those places where the Jewish functionaries compose a significant percentage of the population and are thrown into relief against a broad background of the peasant masses. … All serious and honest observers, especially those who have lived among the toiling masses for a long time, bear witness to the existence of anti-Semitism, not only of the old and hereditary, but also of the new, ‘Soviet’ variety.
This “double-inheritance” of anti-Semitism, common to much of Eastern Europe that was under the control of the Soviet Union, provided an ideological basis for the resurgent far-right groups that emerged in the wake of the economic crisis of the 2000s. While by this period both the medieval resentment of Jews in artisanal trades and the prevalence of Jews among the Soviet bureaucracy had both disappeared, as the Jewish Trotskyist Abraham Leon wrote, “Historically, the success of racism means that capitalism has managed to channel the anticapitalist consciousness of the masses into a form that antedates capitalism and which no longer exists except in a vestigial state; this vestige is nevertheless still sufficiently great to give a certain appearance of reality to the myth.”
This is what we see fascist groups do time and time again: displace discontent with the brutality of capitalism onto pre-existing, pre-capitalist bigotries and resentments, thus diffusing the revolutionary potential of these concerns.
The specific fascist movement in Ukraine that the Nazi occupiers sought out as a partner was led by the controversial figure of Stepan Bandera. Bandera began his career as a leader of the right-wing Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists as an insurgent against Polish rule over part of Ukraine. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, during the war Bandera and the OUN organized local occupation units for the Nazi army. The OUN carried through on their tasks by participating in multiple massacres of both Polish and Jewish people in the Volhynia and Galicia regions.
However, Bandera eventually fell afoul of his Nazi patrons and was imprisoned. The OUN was mostly crushed between Nazi and Soviet forces, and Bandera himself was killed by a KGB agent in Germany after the war. While Bandera and his Ukrainian fascist collaborators during the war were vile murderers of the worst kind, their legacy should not be allowed to eclipse the heroic struggle of millions of Ukrainians against the Nazi occupation and for the defeat of Hitler. This history would be largely confined today within the walls of Holocaust museums if not for the invocation of Bandera during and after the Maidan Revolution.
The Maidan Revolution
Even after the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and its succeeding collapse, which granted Ukraine formal independence, the country still remained under Russian domination. This was because the restoration of capitalism merely transferred state assets to the private ownership of the former government bureaucrats who had managed them before. Instead of leading to a massive increase in the quality of life of Ukrainians, as many liberal commentators in the West had promised, capitalism brought with it further poverty, immiseration and corruption to Ukraine. It became one of the poorest countries in Europe, and mortality rates skyrocketed as the public health system was dismantled. The weak new Ukrainian bourgeoisie could only develop the economy along servile lines, with various sectors either becoming dependent on Russian or North American and European capital.
Thus, Ukraine became a poor country dominated by various foreign imperialisms, independent in name only. A similar process took place in many of the former Soviet Republics such as Belarus and Kazakhstan.
It is in this situation that the roots of the Maidan Revolution lie. In the face of the crisis of the capitalist economy in 2008, Russia raised the prices of its majority state-owned gas company, Gazprom. This pushed the Ukrainian government to further borrow from the EU and Western imperial interests, triggering a debt crisis. Faced with this crisis, the president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided to sell out and sign a free-trade deal with the EU in exchange for financial assistance. However, the actual deal offered by the EU did not offer any debt relief, just the potential for further looting of Ukraine by the West. Putin, terrified of losing Ukraine from his national orbit, then swooped in to offer Yanukovych an alternative deal. He hoped that the offer of 30% discounts off gas and a $15 billion loan would stop Yanukovych from signing the deal with the EU. Under this pressure from Putin, in November of 2013, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU’s offer, outraging the pro-Western sector of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and sending the country into crisis.
It was at this point that the masses of Ukraine began to pour into the central Maidan Square in the capital of Kyiv in protest. Over 25,000 people braved frigid temperatures of -35 degrees Celsius to camp in the square. As the protests continued into the new year, the Ukrainian Rada, at the request of Yanukovych, passed a series of repressive laws, designed to empower the security apparatus of the state to drive the protesters from the square. This crackdown led to the deaths of protesters at the hands of police. The backlash to these deaths ultimately caused Yanukovych to flee the country and led to the election of the pro-Western chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko as president. Russia also took advantage of the situation to cut its losses, quickly invading and annexing the Crimean Peninsula.
While polling showed that the Ukrainian people as a whole were divided on the question of entering the EU, many, especially in the west of the country, were clearly fed up with the decades of corruption and subservience to Moscow that Yanukovych symbolized. In that sense, the Maidan Revolution had progressive potential, as a stand against Russian domination of the country, even if many involved had false illusions in the Western capitalist powers, which were just as guilty of the same thing. For this potential to be truly fulfilled, however, the working masses of Ukraine must come to the conclusion that not only is Russia an imperial interloper that needs to be expelled, but also that the USA and EU imperialist powers have the same agenda. In the end Ukraine can only achieve true independence by fighting against all imperialist domination.
However, despite this progressive potential, it is absolutely true that darker forces were present in Maidan Square. The so-called “Right Sector” stepped into the Maidan protests, allegedly to provide defense from the police. This group represented a small section of the movement that tied fighting Russian involvement in Ukraine back to the insurgency of Stepan Bandera, the OUN, and all of their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. This section was also reflected in the Rada by the Svoboda party, which was part of the post-Maidan governing coalition, even holding ministerial posts.
This fascist wing of the movement and the influence of its ideology have often been symbolized by the veneration of Bandera within Ukraine following the Maidan Revolution. This seems to have mostly begun before the Maidan Revolution, under the third Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, who declared Bandera a “hero of Ukraine.” The memorialization of Bandera is especially prevalent in western Ukraine, where public memorials to the Holocaust are hard to find. However, this pro-Bandera nationalist mythos intensified after the success of the Maidan Revolution. Under President Poroshenko, Ukraine adopted laws very similar to those put in place by the right-wing Law and Justice party in Poland that forbid public criticism of national heroes. In the Ukrainian case this law explicitly protected Bandera and the OUN from public criticism.
The veneration of Bandera and his compatriots by various Ukrainian government bodies led to the ambassadors to Ukraine from Poland and Israel issuing a joint statement of protest in 2020. While the Polish and Israeli states have shown that they are anything but anti-fascist, their public protest shows that the veneration of Bandera within Ukraine is more than a hobbyhorse of pro-Putin apologists.
However, while the small fascist wing of the Maidan and its corresponding Holocaust denial narrative certainly existed, it was not representative of the Maidan Revolution as a whole—as Putin alleged. While Svoboda was initially part of the government coalition, in later years it completely fell off the map. In 2019, a far-right coalition containing both Svoboda and Right Sector failed to get even half of the 5% of the vote necessary to clear the electoral threshold and win seats in the Rada. Instead, the various parties of the pro-Western Ukrainian business interests have dominated the post-Maidan governments. This is much more consistent with the analysis of the revolution given above than of a U.S.-backed fascist coup.
The Azov Battalion
The most infamous fascist group in Ukraine today, however, is not the declining Svoboda or the Right Sector but instead the Azov Battalion. Its origins lie in the rebellion of the Donbas region of 2014. Soon following the emergence of the new Poroshenko government, discontent began to grow in this eastern, largely Russian-speaking region. The Donbas is more industrial and was the site of much of Russia’s investments in Ukraine. The post-Maidan government was dominated by Ukrainian nationalists of a type far more common in the west of the country, and fears spread in the east that this new government would impose a kind of “Ukranianization” on them. In response to these fears, militia groups began to emerge in the east that seized control of town centers, eventually stringing them together into two breakaway republics supported by Russia—the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. War quickly followed, with the Ukrainian government in Kyiv scrambling to suppress the uprising and Russia providing weapons and troops to the rebel groups in the Donbas. It is this conflict that eventually resulted in the uneasy stalemate that was reopened by Putin’s invasion in February.
It was during the war in the east of the country that the Azov Battalion first began to grow. The group was founded by the fascist leader Andriy Biletsky, who had been released from prison in the political amnesty that followed the Maidan Revolution. Biletsky had been in jail for his participation in the illegal neo-Nazi group Patriot of Ukraine. After his release he quickly put together a new organization. His militia group, named the Azov Battalion, proved especially effective in the fighting that took place in the eastern half of the country, and they were embraced by the government in Kyiv, which was desperate for effective fighting forces. Poroshenko even dubbed them “our best warriors” for their role in the fighting, and the group was eventually absorbed officially into the Ukrainian armed forces.
Azov didn’t just use the weapons and support it received from the Ukrainian state to fight the Russian backed rebel militias; it also established training camps, its own library and meeting house in Kyiv, and even sporting events. According to Time magazine, the group has networked with other fascist groups from around the world and even brought foreign fascist volunteers to Ukraine for training. Despite the heavy losses they have suffered in the recent fighting, this kind of institutionalized, armed and media-savvy fascist organization represents a serious threat to the Ukrainian working class. It is the exact kind of group that bourgeois governments have turned to in the past when they were facing possible workers’ revolutions.
So is Ukraine fascist?
While it is important to be honest about Ukrainian history and to soberly assess the real issue of fascist groups that is facing the Ukrainian working class, at the end of the day, the question of whether Ukraine is a fascist regime should be determined by an analysis of the current situation.
A fascist regime is a bourgeois dictatorship supported by a right-wing mass movement with its base in the petty bourgeoisie. In order to prove that Zelensky’s government today is such a dictatorial regime, some have pointed to a recent law that outlawed opposition parties for being pro-Russian. However, it is a mistake to think that this proves that Zelensky is a fascist dictator. Many bourgeois governments turn to less democratic methods during wartime. It is the duty of socialists to oppose these kinds of measures, but it does not make such governments fascist regimes. Instead of seeing such behavior as indicative of a turn to fascism, we should expect bourgeois “democratic” governments to use war as a cover for such reactionary laws.
Fascist regimes are brought into power by the bourgeoisie when the real threat of workers’ revolution is on the table. Then democratic guarantees are scrapped, and the fascists crush unions and other organizations of workers and the oppressed. Even with his wartime measures, the Ukrainian capitalists who back Zelensky still have not made such a turn. There may be fascists in the Ukrainian military, especially in the eastern regions, but fascist groups often flock to the military. In Germany, for example, neo-Nazi groups are well known to fester within the ranks of the army and special forces. The journalist Matthew Kennard has also pointed to a similar phenomenon within the U.S. armed forces. Indeed, fascist ties to the Russian military itself are well documented. No doubt many similar groups thrive today in the British and French militaries as well.
The existence of groups like the Azov battalion does not mean a country is headed by a fascist regime. It is only when the fascists come into and run the government, suspending all democratic pretenses, that we can say that a full transformation into a fascist regime has taken place. This has not happened in Ukraine.
None of these facts mean that we should dismiss the serious problem of fascism that faces the working class in countries in Eastern Europe. As this article shows, it is a serious problem today in Ukraine. Fascist groups have managed to gain influence, and more concerningly, they have managed to receive arms and build training camps. However, many activists who are ostensibly anti-imperialist seem to be deflecting the essential questions around the war today in Ukraine by appealing to the existence of fascist forces in the country.
The real question for Marxists is what our stance should be if an imperialist country invades a country under their domination. Our answer on this question does not depend on if there are or aren’t fascist groups on the ground in Ukraine. In such a situation, our principles say that we should support the victory of the country under imperial domination. This is because when an imperial power is defeated militarily, it sends a sign that they are weak and gives the signal for revolution and uprisings against their domination. In this specific situation, if Ukraine defeats Russia, it would be a huge blow, not just against Russian imperial interests in Eastern Europe but also around the entirety of the post-Soviet world. It would show that Russia is a paper tiger and provide an opening for heroic working-class forces already struggling in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and other places where reactionary regimes are backed up by Russian military forces.
Indeed, we could just as easily get distracted talking about the details of the widespread fascist organizations that exist within Russia as we could about similar groups in Ukraine. For example, far-right groups such as Rusich, the Russian Orthodox Army, and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) have operated within the Donbas region with the support of the Russian state. Within Russia itself the neo-fascist group Russkii Obraz even was allowed to appear on Russian state-owned television.
While such fascist groups represent a threat to working-class people, hyper-focusing on the groups in any one country can give a misleading picture of their true nature. Fascist groups are not endemic to one country or another; instead, these kinds of groups pop up all around the world as the petty bourgeois groans under the seemingly unending crisis of the global capitalist economy. The fact that Poroshenko, Zelensky, and Putin would use such groups for their own advantage is also nothing new; bourgeois governments will always make use of fascist groups when they feel it is necessary. This is why such governments can never be trusted to actually fight fascism, and no serious person should take Putin at his word when he talks about “denazification.”
What is to be done about Ukrainian fascists?
Even if the Ukrainian state today is not a fascist regime, we should not dismiss the danger of fascist groups in the country, either in the Donbas or the western regions. However, it is equally important to actually consider what it means that there are armed fascist groups in Ukraine and think about how they must be fought. Drawing attention to Ukrainian fascists in order to distract from a conversation about the real tasks demanded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and our duty of solidarity to the Ukrainian people in their struggle for self-determination is a betrayal of the struggling Ukrainian working masses.
Even if we accept the lies and slander of the Russian government that Ukraine today is a fascist regime, the Russian military is no solution to that problem. History has shown us that fascism can only truly be defeated by a unified mass movement of the working class. A strong working class can win support from the middle class, breaking the fascists’ base of support. At the same time, an organized mass workers’ movement is the only thing that has both the will and power to smash the fascists on the streets and prevent them from taking power if the bourgeoisie seeks to bring them in.
This is why the socialist solution to the danger of a fascist movement in Ukraine is the same as the socialist solution to the Russian invasion. Workers must organize together and take on both. Workers’ defense militias can both defend the country from Russian troops and smash fascist militias in the streets. A Russian takeover in the end will only strengthen far-right groups in the east of Ukraine that are backed to the hilt by Moscow. Accordingly, the current task for workers in Ukraine is to organize workers’ self-defense. We know that in this struggle Zelensky will end up being an unwilling accomplice of both the fascists and of Putin since he has already shown that he wants to break up Ukrainian workers’ organizations. Thus, the task for Ukrainian workers is daunting. They are surrounded on every side by enemies, in front of them Russian tanks and missiles, on their flank fascist militia, and behind them Zelensky himself, willing to sell the country out for a quick buck.
Workers in other countries have a duty to support the Ukrainian working class in this fight. As Leon Trotsky once wrote, we must support Ukraine’s struggle through our “own methods, i.e., through the methods of the international class struggle.” We must pass resolutions of support in our unions, send solidarity delegations and material aid to Ukrainian workers’ groups, and where possible workers should also refuse to handle any goods that would aid the Russian war effort.
However, while workers’ self-defense is imperative in this current moment to defend against fascist groups and imperialist soldiers, it is not a solution to the deeper problems that caused this catastrophe. Fascism and imperialism both arise from capitalist exploitation and only the working class taking power in its own name can truly end these problems once and for all. It is the task of socialist militants all around the world to patiently organize workers into political parties that are capable leading a revolution that can defeat the evil we see all around us today. Only through a victory of the Ukrainian working class is it possible for both the Russian invasion and the fascist groups to be defeated!
Photo: Fascists carry torches and a portrait of Stepan Bandera during a rally in Kyiv, Jan. 1, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky / AP)
 https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/ch7.htm; emphasis mine.