What are the real barriers to freedom of assembly in Ukraine?

Ukrainian far right routinely disrupt public LGBT, feminist and left-wing events. The police aren’t prepared to oppose this surge of right-wing violence. RU

Ganna Grytsenko
16 May 2018

26 March 2018, Kyiv. Right-wing radicals try to derail a debate on... far right groups and human rights. Source: Facebook.I arrived ahead of time at the discussion event on the far right and the right to peaceful assembly. The event was being held as part of the Docudays UA International Documentary Film Festival in Kyiv in late March, and I’d been invited to participate on the panel. I was early, but a few “guests” were already waiting for me. Near the entrance to the venue there were two dozen awkward-looking teenagers wearing inconspicuous sportswear. A police detachment was keeping an eye on them. The teenagers recognised me – I frequently write and talk about the far right, and do so without concealing my identity – but they didn’t shout insults and let me walk through calmly. The floor inside was strewn with “Respect Diversity” posters ripped down from the walls, and police were walking around the hall.

As it turned out, activists from the far right movements Right Sector, Katehon and Tradition and Order had shown up, it seems, to confirm the thesis regarding the Ukrainian far right’s disruption of feminist initiatives and to sabotage the discussion itself – but they got their times mixed up and only ended up frightening the participants of the previous event. By the time our discussion was due to begin, the far right had found themselves under the close supervision of the police. In the end, the discussion itself proved a success, although it did begin with the words: “Dear listeners – well, you can see the situation for yourselves…”

It should be understood that far right attacks on events and initiatives in Ukraine aren’t a recent phenomenon. In earlier years, for example, 1,500 Cossacks could gather to disrupt an LGBT event, while a gallery hosting an LGBT book presentation could simply be set on fire. Exhibitions were vandalised, film screenings flooded with gas, and participants in a human rights march attacked.

Why, then, has the Ukrainian public started talking about this troubling trend now? There are several reasons.

An upsurge in feminism

In recent years, we have witnessed the growth of feminist consciousness throughout the world – via campaigns such as #MeToo (workplace harassment) and #HeForShe (gender equality solidarity), via major women's marches in the US and increased representation of women in popular culture.

Ukrainian society, for its part, is also gradually moving towards progress as well, though it does still face several fundamental challenges. Some recent accomplishments Ukrainian feminists can rightly take pride in include the following: Order 256, which banned women from employment in 450 professions, has been repealed; the Invisible Battalion campaign has taken great strides towards ensuring equality for women and men in the

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8 March International Women's Day March, Kyiv. Photo: Tetiana Kozak. All rights reserved.Ukrainian military; the official clinical protocol for transgender transitioning has been simplified. We’ve also witnessed a gradual move from the reactive to the proactive within the feminist agenda – if, in earlier years, feminists waged battle against proposals to introduce a tax on childlessness, the prohibition of abortion and artificial insemination for unmarried women, feminists are now taking the initiative in proposing topics for public debate and reforms.

Researcher Tamara Zlobina describes the qualitative transition to a different role for women in Ukrainian society as “gender decay”. The social roles of the berehynya (the homemaker) and the “Barbie” (glamorous woman) have disintegrated, and women have started participating en masse in socio-political processes such as Euromaidan, the war in eastern Ukraine and other forms of public endeavour. Ukrainian feminists are now seeking parliamentary ratification of the Istanbul Convention, designed to counter domestic and gender-based violence in systematic fashion.

In recent years, Ukraine has seen the emergence of a grassroots feminist movement in favour of the Swedish model of regulating prostitution. The online flashmob #ЯнеБоюсьСказати (#ImNotAfraidToSpeak), intended to make sexual violence a prominent topic for public debate, was launched in Ukraine before expanding to other post-Soviet states. This year’s International Women’s Day marches in Ukraine attracted substantially more participants (women and men alike) than in previous years, and ever more cities are staging these events – Kherson, Mariupol and Lysychansk included.


The aftermath of an attack by right-wing radical organisation “Carpathian Sich“ on an International Women's Day event in Uzhhorod, 2018. Photo: Nataliya Kabatsiy / Facebook.The LGBT agenda has also risen to the fore. In 2016, Kyiv played host to its first open March of Equality, a parade modelled on pride events in other countries. The event attracted several thousand people, and the 2017 march had an open carnival atmosphere for the first time. Odessa, too, hosted pride parades in 2016 and 2017. Draft bills on the protection of children’s rights to a “homosexuality-free” media, introduced in 2012-2013, were withdrawn from consideration in the Verkhovna Rada, and a number of deputies in the post-2014 parliament openly support the rights of LGBT people (in particular, Sergiy Leshchenko and Svitlana Zalishchuk). Furthermore, anti-discrimination amendments have been made to labour legislation (although not without pressure from the public). Meanwhile, Jamala, the winner of 2016’s Eurovision Song Contest, has spoken out in support of the LGBT community.  

In a world increasingly oriented towards equality, conservative and far-right movements, in turn, are beset by fears that feminism will triumph, which compels them to take drastic measures. Leading masculinity expert Michael Kimmel argues that violent extremism is driven not by ideology, but gender roles. And indeed, members of the American alt-right specifically oppose feminists, while European far right activists, not to be outdone, spearhead rallies against the Istanbul Convention. Support for conservative initiatives has also been forthcoming from Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, a previous organiser of the conservative forum World Congress of Families in Moscow and president of the right-wing Katehon think tank, which has served as a platform for the conservative-esoteric philosopher Alexander Dugin.

Ukraine has its own Katehon group – and it’s unlikely that this choice of name is a coincidence (the word, after all, is a rare one). The Ukrainian initiative, just like its Russian counterpart, opposes the Istanbul Convention, stages protests in response to equality marches and stages “debates” around the “problem of ultra-leftist movements in Ukraine”. One female participant at one of these events, proudly holding aloft a banner emblazoned with the words “Women dream of being tamed”, derives her conceptions of masculinity and femininity from the thought of Alexander Dugin – something she quite openly stated.

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8 March 2018, Kyiv: counter-demonstration against International Women's Day. Photo: Tetiana Kozak. All rights reserved.This polarisation between conservatism and feminism has resulted in increasingly frequent attacks on feminist and LGBT events in Ukraine, which, proliferating in number and enjoying ever greater appeal, have become the primary target of Ukraine’s far right. By way of example, Vsevolod Zheiko’s February 2018 lecture about discrimination in cinema in Mariupol – where, until recently, nothing comparable had even been attempted – was sabotaged. Sabotaged, too, was rights defender Anna Sharyhina’s lecture on LGBT movements in a Kharkiv bookstore (it ended up being relocated twice: first to Kharkiv’s Nakipelo press centre and then to Kyiv’s Izolyatsiya centre). In 2015, far right attacked the 200-strong KyivPride march; by 2016, the number of marchers had swelled by an order of magnitude – an extraordinary increase that may be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the previous year’s attack was widely covered in the press.

Anti-gay vigilantism

The slang term bon (from “bonehead”/”Nazi skinhead”) has expanded in meaning in Kyiv and come to refer to all those who try to physically disrupt events. Visitors to events at risk of such disruptions remark that bons – or “opponents”, as they’re sometimes called – are typically men who outwardly resemble students or school kids. Dressed in the latest youth fashions, they couldn’t be further removed from the traditional skinhead stereotype (bomber jacket, heavy boots, rolled-up jeans).

Beside the fact that there’s an orchestrated drive to lure young people into neo-Nazism (a drive spearheaded by the Russian Nazi online emigre group WotanJugend, among others) the very theme of “schoolchildren against gays” was, to some degree at least, imported to Ukraine from the outside – and also from Russia. In June 2013, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses was amended with a new article, and changes were also made to two other laws (“On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development” and “On Basic Guarantees of the Rights of the Child in the Russian Federation”.)


Russian far right activist Maxim Martsinkevich, who received a ten-year prison sentence in 2017 for attacking people involved in drug trade. CC BY 3.0 DenTV / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.This kick-started a campaign of state homophobia in Russia – a development immediately exploited by the ultra-right. Maxim Martsinkevich, better known as Tesak (“Hatchet”), wasted no time in launching the “Occupy Pedophilia” project.

Masquerading as an anti-paedophilia organisation, the group is actually in the business of anti-gay vigilantism. Its members lure gay men on “dates” – only to beat them up and humiliate them once they arrive, with the assault invariably filmed and posted online. Martsinkevich’s “project” made wide use of very young people, who would arrive at the rendezvous spot instead of the adults who were supposed to come.

In 2013, Martsinkevich travelled to Ukraine to promote his idea, which acquired a life of its own and spawned copycat organisations such as Fashionable Verdict, White Lions and Heritage. A recent homophobic murder in the southern city of Mykolaiv was straight out of Tesak’s playbook: three underage boys invited an adult gay man out on a “date” and then proceeded to rape and kill him.

According to 2017 data from UNICEF, 67% of Ukrainian children aged 11 to 17 have experienced bullying in the last three months. It is only to be expected, then, that the same practices find their way into extracurricular life. The general rigidity of secondary and higher education doubtless contributes to arguments in favour of so-called “traditional values” as such. When, in 2018, sex education in a teacher training college takes the form of lectures on girls’ “purity”, it becomes difficult to expect students to be even minimally gender-literate.

And so, despite the fact that extreme right-wing parties are expected to achieve only modest successes in Ukraine’s 2019 elections, with the far-right parliamentary party Svoboda projected to garner around six percent of the vote, and the National Corpus just above zero percent (figures in no way representative of the far right’s considerable social base), the young subculture can nonetheless fray one’s nerves, or – taking its cue from the latest political fashion in Russia – throw zelyonka (brilliant green) into one’s face and onto one’s clothes.


19 January 2018, Kyiv: far right groups disrupt an anti-fascist action in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova. Source: Facebook.In part, feminists and LGBT individuals are persecuted because of their association with leftist movements: anarchists, anti-fascists and universal equality advocates are their most frequent and, at this point in time, only constant allies. In January 2018, the Ukrainian neo-Nazi organisation C14 turned up to sabotage an anti-fascist rally in central Kyiv. No specifically homophobic attacks were expected, but things turned out otherwise. The neo-Nazis mistook a British tourist passerby for a homosexual participating in the rally (he had multi-coloured hair and a piercing), set upon him and beat him up. Meanwhile, feminist and LGBT marches in Ukraine often attract cisgender and heterosexual men who attend them not for the sake of their personal interests, but on account of general egalitarian and anti-fascist considerations.

A single coalition

A big problem facing the organisers of rallies and open-to-all events is the questionable and ineffective conduct of the Ukrainian police. The Nash Mir (Our World) Centre, which monitors LGBT rights violations in Ukraine, has drawn attention to the fact that the police response to protection requests is frequently inadequate: they can refuse to accept statements regarding violations or to enter information about offenders’ homophobic or transphobic motivations into their reports. Similarly, the police can delay or close cases in view of the alleged impossibility of establishing the identity of the criminals.

The perpetrators and instigators of anti-LGBT attacks are often repeat offenders, known to everyone by sight and name, and yet this never seems to be enough to press criminal charges. The conduct of the police is invariably reprehensible. They make no attempt whatsoever to arrest the attackers, or detain them for a matter of hours before releasing them (as happened on last year’s International Women’s Day in Kyiv); they fail to keep rallies and counter-rallies separate (as happened on 19 January of this year); they detain the victims of attacks (ditto), or simply refuse to guarantee protection in advance (as happened in March of this year in the western city of Uzhhorod): “We cannot ensure the safety of your event, so we advise you to cancel it.” Furthermore, there is evidence that right-wing radicals turn up at event venues and exchange friendly greetings with law enforcement officials. And although Ukraine’s human rights community is trying to improve its relationship with the police, it hasn’t yet achieved any significant success in this regard owing to the lack of political will within the institution.

A revealing incident occurred in Kyiv during this year’s International Women’s Day march. A female marcher held aloft a banner emblazoned with the image of a naked woman, her thigh pierced with the logo of the new far right organisation National Militias (which resembles Ukraine’s coat of arms). Some “opponents” made several attempts to snatch the banner out of the marcher’s hands, and finally succeeded – not in spite of an intervention by the police, but because of it. Subsequently, an attempt was made to prosecute Olena Shevchenko, march organiser and leader of the LGBTQ organisation Insight, for violating a (non-existent) procedure of holding peaceful assemblies, but the court eventually decided to dismiss the charges, possibly because of the wide public outcry generated by the whole saga.


A feminist banner at International Women's Day on 8 March, 2018, Kyiv. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov is responsible for this state of affairs – and not only because he has failed to take any measures that would remedy the situation, but also because of a number of his personnel decisions. First Deputy Head of the National Police of Ukraine Vadym Troyan was previously a member of the far-right Patriot of Ukraine organisation. Reports in the Ukrainian media suggest that Troyan has enjoyed Avakov’s patronage since the latter’s time as governor of Kharkiv Oblast; so too has Patriot of Ukraine’s Andriy Biletsky, People’s Front parliamentary deputy and former commander of the Azov Regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine. What we know for certain is that Patriot of Ukraine really amped up its operations during Avakov’s governorate – the organisation systematically victimised the local Vietnamese community.

On top of everything else, the head of the National Police Department for the Security of Strategic Facilities, Sergey Korotkikh (known in Russia as “Malyuta” and in Ukraine as the Azov Bosun), is not only a leading figure in the Russian nationalist movement, but also, as some media outlets suggest, on friendly terms with Arsen Avakov’s son, Oleksandr.

This complex web of connections, referenced in the rhyming leftist chant (“Natsitsy i politisya - odna koalitsiya”/ “Nazis and the police are part of a single coalition”) gives some idea of ​​why rank-and-file Ukrainian police officers (who, as the above-mentioned Nash Mir study maintains, often hold homophobic and misogynist views themselves) aren’t overly interested in maintaining public order and ensuring freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Men involved in far right actions almost never end up behind bars for other reasons, too. For instance, the C14 group, which has been operating with impunity since at least 2011, has publicly boasted of its cooperative relationship with the Ukrainian security services, while the Uzhgorod-based Nazi project Carpathian Sich has links with local corruption schemes.

Event organisers often say that if the police are to perform their protection duties properly, initial negotiations must first be conducted with them. Examples of positive engagement with the police do exist (the Docudays UA International Documentary Film Festival event at the beginning of this article being a case in point, or the March of Equality, which invites Ukrainian MPs and foreign diplomats to participate). It seems that whenever things threaten to escalate into an international scandal and this message is somehow driven home to the police, the forces of law and order do doubtless elect to fulfil their duties and prevent calamity from striking.

But it’s obvious that not all the peaceful gatherings and socio-cultural events that take place throughout the country can (or should) be on the same level of prestige. That said, it’s equally clear that the responsibility for successfully persuading the police to do their job should not lie with the organising committee of a march, discussion event or lecture. The right to peaceful assembly, as provided by Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, applies to everyone, not just those lucky enough to strike the right tone. While we should applaud those who manage to get the police to carry out its job, we should still demand the Ukrainian police to do their job systematically.

We might see significant improvements in the situation if the as-yet-unfinished reforms of the country’s police were finally to be completed, and if the police leadership, together with that of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were to be replaced. If people cannot safely exercise their right to peaceful assembly, as enshrined in Article 39 of the Constitution of Ukraine, society will struggle to exercise other rights and achieve other goals. First of all, however, we need to dig in our heels, hold more public events and attend them in as many numbers as possible.


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