Extremism in South-Eastern Ukraine

Extremists have hijacked the Anti-Maidan protests in South-Eastern Ukraine. and their extremism and ultranationalism is fomenting violence and hatred.


Anton Shekhovtsov
7 May 2014

When masked men distributed anti-Semitic flyers in the East Ukrainian city of Donetsk, some international media outlets rather too hastily assumed that they were a hoax. The incident is still being investigated, so a definite conclusion cannot yet be reached, but even if the flyers are deemed to be a fake, the problem of anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia inherent in some elements of the social unrest in Eastern Ukraine remains very real.


Allies of the now ousted president Viktor Yanukovych launched Anti-Maidan in Eastern and Southern Ukraine in late November 2013 as a response to Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests. But Maidan was a grassroots movement, whereas Anti-Maidan was a top-down initiative with protesters sometimes receiving remuneration for their participation. This was especially true of the four large Anti-Maidan rallies held in Kyiv between November 2013 and January 2014. Anti-Maidan organised many fewer protests than Euromaidan and they had started to die out long before Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia.

The problem of anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia in some elements of the social unrest in Eastern Ukraine remains very real

However, the victorious Maidan revolution re-energised Anti-Maidan, which split into three different, but sometimes overlapping, movements: (1) protest groups mobilised by social grievances, (2) supporters of Ukraine becoming a federal state, and (3) Russian ultranationalists pursuing separatist ideas. They overlap because some of the activists mobilised by social grievances may support the federalistion of Ukraine (by which some actually mean joining Russia in the medium term), in contrast to pro-Russian separatists who insist on the immediate annexation of their region by Russia, as happened with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Anti-semitic poster in Luhansk targets journalist Savik Shuster.

Anti-Semitic poster in Luhansk targets journalist Savik Shuster. Photo: Herwig Höller

The larger part of the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan movement is rooted in almost the same attitudes that underpinned Maidan, especially after the original pro-EU protests, focusing on a limited number of social demands, evolved into the Ukrainian revolution. Despite the different triggers, Maidan and post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan were responses to socio-economic inequalities, unemployment, corruption, crime and a flawed justice system. 

Throughout the eight oblasts of South-Eastern Ukraine, 15.4% of the population support joining Russia, while 69.7% are against.

The major difference between these movements, however, is that they are dominated by two different narratives and offer two different solutions to their grievances. In inevitably idealised terms, Maidan’s narrative is democratic, while Anti-Maidan’s is authoritarian. Maidan suggests that social grievances can be addressed through closer cooperation with the democratic EU and the West in general, while Anti-Maidan believes that socio-economic problems can be tackled by closer cooperation with authoritarian Russia. Where relations with Russia are concerned, the more radical part of Maidan suggests enforcing a visa regime between the two countries, while radicals in Anti-Maidan insist that their region should become part of Russia. The more radical elements of Anti-Maidan are characterised by different linguistic preferences and choice of media as sources of information; their pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiments are rooted in the lower geographical mobility of Eastern Ukrainians.  According to an opinion poll conducted in 2013, only 13.2% of Eastern Ukrainians have ever been to the West (EU, USA or Canada), a lower figure than for Ukraine as a whole, where the average is 20.6%.


Within this movement the more radical elements of Anti-Maidan, henceforth the separatists, are a minority. For the whole South-Eastern part of Ukraine (eight regions or oblasts), those who would like their oblast to join Russia constitute 15.4% of the population, while 697% are against the idea. However, there are particular oblasts where separatists constitute sizeable minorities: 30.3% in Luhansk and 27.5% in Donetsk oblasts.

Representatives of ‘Russian Image’ (below) with the ‘Donetsk Republic’ activists in Donetsk, 2012

Representatives of ‘Russian Image’ with ‘Donetsk Republic’ activists in Donetsk, 2012

It is presumably within this separatist element of Anti-Maidan that the pro-Russian militants or extremists supported by the Kremlin with money, weapons and manpower are to be found. But they are a minority within the minority. While I realise that my interpretation could be called into question, I would argue that 2.1% of South-Eastern Ukrainians (yet 3.5% for Donetsk and Kharkiv Oblasts, and 2.5% for Luhansk Oblast), who would be willing to join the Russian army were it to invade South-Eastern Ukraine, are the extremist and ultranationalist element of Anti-Maidan. The trouble is that the extremists now seem to have hijacked Anti-Maidan protests in the most problematic regions, and it is their extremism and ultranationalism that make Anti-Maidan in, for example, Donetsk Oblast so violent. Pro-Russian extremists take journalists and international observers hostage, abuse, torture and brutally kill people. 

Moscow and the extreme right

Moscow bases its EU strategy on support for extreme-right parties, using them as proxies to infiltrate the public discourse, weaken the democratic consensus and, eventually political institutions. In Ukraine, too, the Kremlin relies on, and gives full support to, the extremist ultranationalists rather than the ‘pro-federalisation’ movement. In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, now illegally annexed by Russia, the Kremlin supported and practically installed as ‘Prime Minister of Crimea’ ultranationalist Sergey Aksyonov, leader of the right-wing party ‘Russian Unity’, rather than a representative of the ‘pro-federalisation’ Party of Regions. ‘Russian Unity’ was a miniscule party that obtained only 4.02% of the vote at the 2010 regional elections in Crimea, while the Party of Regions was supported by 48.93% of voters. Ultranationalist Aksyonov was more preferable to the Kremlin, because ‘Russian Unity’ was straightforwardly pro-Russian, in contrast to the simply Russia-friendly Party of Regions. However, since the extremists are only instruments in the Kremlin’s geopolitical game, ultranationalist Aksyonov will most likely be replaced at some point down the line by a Russian bureaucrat.

In Donetsk, the Kremlin supported Pavel Gubarev as self-proclaimed ‘People’s Governor’ of Donetsk Oblast. Now under arrest, Gubarev is a former member of the neo-Nazi ‘Russian National Unity’ party founded in Moscow in 1990 and a current member of the far-right, misleadingly named, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine. This party’s leader is Natalya Vitrenko, a long-term associate of American right-wing extremist and anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche and Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. The latter personally instructed the extremists in Donetsk after Gubarev had been arrested by the Ukrainian security service.

Russia has been supporting (and inciting) nationalist extremists in South-Eastern Ukraine since the 1990s, but in recent years the support has been more active, especially after Yanukovych was elected President of Ukraine in 2010. Some Russian fascist organisations have been cooperating with pro-Russian extremists in South-Eastern Ukraine and have established local branches: the International Eurasianist Movement, Russian National Unity, National Bolshevik Party and ‘Russian Image’, among others.

‘We support Vova! Vova is cool! NBP is for VVP [Putin]!’. National Bolshevik Party activists in Kharkiv, 2012

‘We support Vova! Vova is cool! NBP is for VVP [Putin]!’. National Bolshevik Party activists in Kharkiv, 2012

Before the Euromaidan protests, only researchers of the Ukrainian far right knew about the anti-Semitic sentiments of the pro-Russian extremists; by January 2014, they were attracting the attention of the wider public too. At that time the Facebook fan page of the Berkut special police force, the main security pillar of Yanukovych’s regime, was revealed to be full of anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic content. Specifically, subscribers to the Berkut fan page discussed, through images and posts, ‘the Jewish roots and connections’ of opposition leaders, as well as exploring the ‘collaboration’ of Jews with the Third Reich. The scandal pushed Eleonora Groisman, chairperson of the All-Ukrainian NGO ‘Ukrainian Independent Council of Jewish Women’, to send an open letter to Yanukovych and Minister of Internal Affairs Vitaliy Zakharchenko expressing her outrage at the extremist content. Much of this content is still available, and concerned readers can still see the seemingly non-conflicting mixture of racist, anti-Semitic, Nazi, Russian, Soviet and Stalinist propaganda on the Facebook fan page of Berkut.

Russia has supported nationalist extremists in South-Eastern Ukraine since the 1990s, but recently the support has become more active

This scandal was far from being an isolated anti-Semitic episode involving the Ukrainian police under Yanukovych. In February 2014, the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs accused Maidan activists of shooting at police and Berkut, featuring a video called ‘Kike [Zhid] MP Stepan Pashinskiy taking a sniper rifle out from Maidan’. 

In March, during the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan demonstrations in Luhansk, anti-Semitism even played a mobilising role in inciting people to turn against the interim government in Kyiv. On one particular occasion, an activist speaking at an Anti-Maidan meeting declared: ‘Yes, a nationalist coup has taken place in the state, but we need to understand what nation is behind it. Let’s look at those who have come to power. Tymoshenko-Kapitelman, Tyahnybok-Frontman, Yatsenyuk – a Jew. This is a Zionist coup, all [go] to Kyiv!’ The crowd started to yell ‘Kikes!’ At the same time, this Anti-Maidan meeting was presented as ‘anti-fascist.’ This is hardly a paradox: the anti-Semitic narrative of some elements of Anti-Maidan implies that Jews are ‘fascists’, so anti-Semitism is interpreted as anti-fascism. Numerous demotivational posters associating the Jews with Ukrainian ultranationalists are flooding the web-sites of Anti-Maidan activists.

Helga Zepp-LaRouche, Natalya Vitrenko and Lyndon LaRouche at a conference held by the Germany-based Schiller Institute, April 20

Being loyal to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its interim government, Kolomoysky fell victim to this sinister amalgamation of anti-Semitism and hatred of Ukrainian ultranationalism. A few days ago, a monument to the victims of Holocaust was defaced in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, and vandals attacked Kolomoysky personally, concluding with the phrase 'Death to Kike-Bandera' offensively referring to Kolomoysky’s ethnic background and simultaneously linking him to Ukrainian fascist Stepan Bandera (1909-1959).

Russian demotivator with the caption 'Ukrainian nationalists

Russian demotivator with the caption 'Ukrainian nationalists'

Ideological mishmash is common to Anti-Maidan movements in Southern oblasts too. For example, Anti-Maidan in Odessa in general has been – as one commentator put it – a combination of 'worshippers of Stalin and admirers of Father the Tsar, Russian Nazis and mock Cossacks, Orthodox fanatics and elderly women, nostalgic about Leonid Brezhnev, fighters against juvenile justice, same-sex marriages and influenza vaccines.' The openly extremist part of Odessa’s Anti-Maidan represented by such organisations as the 'Slavic Unity' and 'Odessa Militia' (Druzhina) embraces anti-Semitism. After the tragic events in Odessa a few days ago, the administrator of the 'Odessa Militia' Vkontakte group castigated those who did not support Anti-Maidan militants during their clashes with Maidan activists, and concluded: 'Odessa is a hero-city! And only heroes, and not kikes and money-grubbers, deserve to live in this city!'

Anti-Semitic posters were also used in Luhansk to mobilise people against the interim government.

Anti-Semitic posters were also used in Luhansk to mobilise people against the interim government. One poster featured a picture of Kyiv-based TV host Savik Shuster and said that ‘Jew Shuster would explain why Ukrainians must defend the interests of Jew Yatsenyuk and Jewish oligarchs.’

Given this context, it was no surprise when it was reported that masked men in Slovyansk (Donetsk Oblast) had distributed anti-Semitic flyers condemning Ukrainian Jews for their support of Euromaidan and ordering them to register with the pro-Russian extremists. While some Jewish leaders and media dismissed the flyers as a hoax, there is too much solid evidence that pro-Russian extremists who terrorise East Ukrainian oblasts are rabid anti-Semites and racists. Just a few days after the anti-Semitic scandal – perhaps unreasonably – blew over, it was reported that masked men had robbed the homes of several Roma families in the same Slovyansk, demanding money and telling them to leave the town: ‘we will resettle you outside the town. You aren’t needed here.’ For some reason, this horrifying anti-Roma incident was largely ignored by the international media, despite the fact that not only members of the Roma community, but pro-Russian extremists themselves acknowledged the attacks. ‘People’s Mayor’ Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, leader of Russian ultranationalists in Slovyansk, said that the attacks were motivated by the need to rid the town of drug traffickers (‘We are cleansing the town of narcotics’), and it is widely believed among the ultranationalists that members of the Roma community distribute drugs.

In March anti-Semitism was used in Luhansk to incite protesters to turn against the Kyiv interim government

It now becomes increasingly clear that a full-blown Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine would not only be catastrophic for the Ukrainian state; it would also endanger the region’s ethnic minorities that would fall under control of pro-Russian extremists and supporters of the Russian far right.


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