Interview: What Will It Take to Rein in Rightwing Nationalism in Ukraine?

07/21/2014 01:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014

As tensions rise in Ukraine between the Kiev government and Russian separatists, nationalists have sought to capitalize on the conflict by advancing a right wing and intolerant political agenda. Such ideas threaten the notion of promoting a more pluralistic and multi-ethnic Ukraine. What are the current stakes in Kiev, and what will it take to rein in the political right? Recently, I caught up with Marko Bojcun, a Ukraine expert and political scientist at London Metropolitan University. Bojcun has worked in Ukraine on and off for twenty years, and was recently shouted down by rightists in a Kiev bookstore when he attempted to engage in a discussion about the historic role of Leon Trotsky.

NK: Rightist forces fared very poorly in the recent presidential election. Does this suggest that the Ukrainian public is not interested in right wing nationalism?

MB: In the election, Dmytro Yarosh from Right Sektor and Oleh Tyahnybok from Svoboda combined polled about 3% of the vote. However, Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party got 8% of the vote and after the election it became clear that he was allied with the far right as well. So the populist far right vote is a little larger than I had thought. It may be there is a considerable base of support for such forces in coming elections. Whatever the case, it's clear that a significant portion of western Ukrainian society views history and politics through a nationalist filter which is informed by the nationalist movement of the past which opposed Stalinism. In the interwar period, when nationalists were very right wing and anti-Communist, and during the Second World War, this movement actually grew. Nationalists argued that the main enemy of the Ukrainian people was external and not domestic. This is what the nationalist movement bequeathed to present day Maidan protesters in terms of how they interpret the surrounding political milieu.

NK: How do you think Ukraine can consolidate a more pluralistic and multi-ethnic state?

MB: Ukraine is already a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society. However, ethnicity has become politicized over the past year, really for the first time since the 1930s. While the current constitution provides for minority rights and languages and provisions are more than adequate, the big problem is how to implement these guarantees and provide adequate resources within the school system for example.

NK: What's your own personal perspective about heightened nationalism in Ukraine?

MB: I have worked in Ukraine for over twenty years on and off. There was only one instance in all that time when I was pulled out by someone who objected to me speaking Ukrainian. I was in the market, and I bought some donuts. I asked how much the donuts cost, and the lady vendor kept on saying "What, what?" in Russian. I can't speak Russian though I understand it. She was very demonstrably trying to indicate that she didn't understand me and wanted me to ask my question in Russian. She undoubtedly thought I was from western Ukraine, even though I'm an Australian of Ukrainian descent.

NK: Where and when was this?

MB: The incident occurred in Kiev in 2008. Despite this, however, Ukrainian society is very tolerant and as I went around working, I saw people speaking in Russian and then switching back into Ukrainian. To be sure, just like the west Ukrainian society is a bit racist. Take for example the Ukrainian encounter with black African immigrants which is fairly recent and indeed quite racist. The far right is picking up on anti-immigrant sentiment and is trying to politicize this. Persecution of Gypsies and discrimination meanwhile really needs to be dealt with. Any manifestations of anti-Semitism have to be actively addressed under the law, and people can even be prosecuted. As for Jews, there hasn't been a real rise in anti-Semitism over the course of the Maidan movement though there is and has been a kind of popular anti-Semitism within the wider society.

NK: What do you mean by that?

MB: Jews are stereotyped as having certain kinds of qualities, appearance and characteristics even though there are very few Jews left in Ukrainian society. Fortunately, anti-Semitism hasn't been politicized in the same way as say, in Hungary under the right wing Jobbik party.

NK: Do you think political and economic elites should do more to forge a new national identity and denounce the fringe? Where do you see President Poroshenko and what will it take to overcome rightist nationalism?

MB: The way I see it right now, the Kiev government relies on nationalism and I don't think the elites will be able to relinquish that narrative. I think it will take a mass movement which is multi-ethnic in nature to address the problem.

NK: Well I was going to ask you about that. How numerous are the groups which are trying to counteract right wing nationalism?

MB: As far as the active elements, it's very small and fragmented. There are people on the left and in trade unions, as well as within the intelligentsia and cultural circles who are attempting to speak in that alternative way. Such a movement should put forward cultural, economic and social demands which are distinct from the elite agenda. However, we don't really know what the great majority of society thinks about this. Let's face it: even at the Maidans, the vast majority of people failed to participate.

NK: Does the election suggest that the rightist forces will be more cautious in future? You yourself were shouted down by rightists in a Kiev bookstore recently when you attempted to speak about Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who nevertheless called for an independent Ukraine. You remark in an article that rightists refuse to accept such revisionist history, and after the meeting was disrupted local police arrived late on the scene. In light of such incidents, I wonder if you think this type of culture war is bound to continue?

MB: At the moment, I fear the right has been emboldened. I think this kind of attitude of intolerance towards one's opponents has only grown stronger since I was confronted in the bookstore.

NK: How difficult is it to talk about controversial historical issues in the university setting, or even in public places or bookstores? Do you find it difficult to raise such themes in Ukrainian academic scholarship?

MB: Well, it's not difficult with the people I mix with at Kiev Academy, Kiev Polytechnic and Kharkiv University. But there are ideological factions amongst historians and political scientists. During some organized conferences it's very difficult for people to speak their minds, particularly around such issues as the Holocaust, the Second World War, the Ukrainian famine and gulags. There are always these pockets of strident intolerance in academia, as in the wider society as a whole. But in academia, it's always a bit more masked.

NK: How popular is the historic myth of controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who was active during the Second World War? Is anyone challenging such popularity by advancing counter-historical narratives? Why do you suppose there's so much sympathy for Bandera as a historical figure, yet Nestor Makhno, another important figure on the left who played an important role in the Ukrainian Civil War, seems to have vanished or been airbrushed out of history?

MB: The history of the 1917-1921 revolution and civil war, with its various movements and leaders, was effectively snuffed out by Stalinism. However, in more recent years there's been a decent amount written about Makhno and even monarchism in Ukraine, which had long been suppressed as a subject of historical investigation. To be sure, Bandera is quite a complex historical figure. Today, there's a great deal more scholarship and research about Bandera than there ever was during the Soviet period. He did collaborate with the Nazis, but he was also later imprisoned in a German concentration camp. Bandera not only symbolized the nationalist movement of the 1930s but also the resistance to Stalinist encroachment in the 1940s. Western Ukraine was incorporated after 1945, and Bandera's movement survived the Second World War. It took some time for the authorities to suppress the nationalists, who only disappeared by the late 1940s and early 1950s. Indeed, there are still people around who participated in Bandera's movement.

NK: Is there an actual attempt to raise awareness about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Ukrainian history? Cossacks seem to be regarded as "colorful" and "folkloric" characters in Ukraine, yet they inflicted terrible suffering on the Jews at different times. Is anyone challenging the historical narrative here?

MB: The romanticizing of the Cossacks is just that, and there's a certain kind of a kitsch attached to this subject. There's been research into the role of the Cossacks in the Czarist armed forces and police up to 1917, and later with the Whites during the civil war, but not too much. As far as the pogroms of 1919-1921 in central and western Ukraine and Poland, and the Holocaust later on, there is a growing body of scholarship now available. What seems to be happening in academia, however, is that parallel investigations seem to be taking place. It's only recently that Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian scholars have started to meet together and bring their analysis to bear in a common forum. I'm not saying it's a matter of "I read your book and you read mine," it's about meeting in a conference and we actually discuss what happened in the city of Lviv in June, 1941, when the Germans marched in and the Holocaust began pretty much at that point. Who was responsible? Was it the Germans? Was it the Ukrainian police? People are only now beginning to pull this history together in open and lively debates. It's difficult sometimes too because these issues are politicized.

NK: What do ordinary people think about the historic role of the Cossack?

MB: The popular view of the Cossack, and there's a decent amount of truth in such a view, is that they were fugitives from serfdom and passed out of Polish, Lithuanian and Russian feudal societies and right onto the steppes to become farmers. Then they became warriors to defend their land and formed an army garrison state, and that's where their history began. The Cossacks were later associated historically with the formation of an independent political power ranged against the Polish-Ukrainian Commonwealth on the one side and Muscovy on the other. From there, it's a long way down to the end of the 19th century when the Cossacks were recruited in the Kuban and Don into Czarist frontier armies and sent to repress Jews, workers and Communists. To be sure, people who read history are aware of this dark chapter though a lot of ordinary folk see the Cossacks as mere jolly men who drank a lot.

NK: Thanks for your time!

Marko Bojcun is a Ukraine expert and political scientist at London Metropolitan University.