[Letter from Kyiv] The Armies of the Right, By Aris Roussinos | Harper's Magazine

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[Letter from Kyiv]

The Armies of the Right

Inside Ukraine’s extremist militias

Andriy Biletsky (center) marches with Azov members in Kyiv on Ukraine’s Independence Day, August 24, 2019 (detail) © Maxim Dondyuk

[Letter from Kyiv]

The Armies of the Right

Inside Ukraine’s extremist militias
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Outside the city-council offices in Kyiv’s Obolon district, Andriy Biletsky was about to give a speech. It was a spring day in 2019, and volunteers from Biletsky’s far-right group, the Azov movement, were idling in the sunshine next to the gloomy Soviet-era building, while others milled about in the shade of the birch and linden trees of a nearby park, almost outnumbering the audience members. The volunteers wore tight-fitting T-shirts and heavy military boots, and were ready to record the proceedings with cell phones and camcorders. The spectators, mostly pensioners, clutched plastic shopping bags and gossiped among themselves.

Azov was established in 2014 as a volunteer militia, and was lauded for its heroic intervention in Ukraine’s grueling campaign against Russian-backed separatists in the east. Since those early victories, however, Azov has expanded its scope, managing to integrate itself into the military, the police, and other structures of the Ukrainian state. It established its own political party, the National Corps. Biletsky, who commanded Azov’s military forces against Russia, is the party’s leader.

There was a flurry of activity, gray heads turning and phones held aloft, as Biletsky—a burly forty-year-old sporting a neatly groomed beard and a tight fade—entered the scene. A small crowd of babushkas with henna-dyed hair and young people in combat gear clustered around him as he began to speak. He railed against the traitors and crooks who dominate Ukrainian politics, and boasted of Azov’s efforts to offer IT and English lessons to the elderly and unemployed. The crowd applauded. “I’m so glad you are here,” cried one old woman when Biletsky opened the floor for questions. “Everyone says the nationalists are Nazis, but really you are patriots.” The audience applauded again as Biletsky’s tattooed, black-clad entourage scanned the crowd for potential hecklers.

One respectably dressed middle-aged man carrying groceries asked Biletsky why he hadn’t deployed his regiment to deal with the crooks in parliament. Biletsky sidestepped the question, reminding the crowd instead of the importance of voting. When the Q and A ended, I pushed myself forward and managed to shake Biletsky’s hand. I reminded him that we had an interview scheduled for the next day. “What do you want to ask me about?” he said. “Fascism?” Yes, I replied. He stared at me coldly for a moment and then laughed. “Of course, of course,” he said, “I have nothing to hide.”

The next morning, his assistant canceled the interview.

Azov members and supporters at the Young Flame Festival, organized by the National Corps, outside Kyiv, August 2019 © Maxim Dondyuk

Azov members and supporters at the Young Flame Festival, organized by the National Corps, outside Kyiv, August 2019 © Maxim Dondyuk

Ukraine is among the poorest countries in Europe and the closest thing the continent has to a failing state. It is mired in a smoldering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, and its state institutions have been almost entirely captured by competing oligarchs. Corruption pervades almost every level of government. Outside Kyiv’s metro stations, elderly women in head scarves and bedraggled war veterans beg for change, while nearby the streets are lined with luxury shops and petty gangsters run red lights in black SUVs without fear of rebuke. Millions have emigrated to Poland or Russia for work. The capital has the uncanny feel, at times, of a postmodern Weimar, where Instagram influencers brunch in cafés tricked out in the international hipster style opposite billboards adorned with the faces of Ukraine’s martyrs in the war against Russia.

But perhaps Ukraine’s clearest departure from the standard model of European liberalism is its proliferation of armed far-right factions, considered by analysts and ordinary Ukrainians alike to be the secretly funded private armies of the elite oligarch class. They fought in the trenches outside Donetsk and now patrol city streets, enforcing a particular vision of order with the blessing of overstretched and underfunded police departments. In some regions, they serve as official election monitors.

Recruitment posters for these militias can be found across Kyiv, calling on disenchanted veterans and disaffected youths to join them in their mission to remake the world by crushing liberalism. To their supporters, these groups are enforcers of the popular will, defenders of the nation against Russian encroachment from the East and liberal values from the West. To others, especially Ukraine’s Western-funded NGOs, increasingly isolated outposts of liberal order, they pose a serious and growing challenge to Ukraine’s social harmony, and, ultimately, to the state itself.

The most powerful and ambitious of these militias is Azov. Like many of the country’s armed far-right groups, it was founded during the 2014 revolution, when the Moscow-friendly autocrat Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in bloody clashes around Kyiv’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. More than one hundred protesters were killed in the city, mostly by snipers from the elite Berkut police force, before Yanukovych was overthrown and forced to flee to Russia. Amid the chaos, former members of Patriot of Ukraine, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group, established Azov. The militia first fought in the capital, then aided the military in battles against Russian-backed separatist forces, including the reconquest of the city of Mariupol. In November 2014, Azov was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine, with its own armored units and artillery battery. Since then, it has built a wide-ranging infrastructure of civil and military groups—including the National Militia, an auxiliary police force—and spawned a variety of summer camps, training centers, and veterans’ programs. In 2016, Biletsky launched the National Corps. While they have thus far polled at around 1 percent, their failure to generate electoral enthusiasm belies their growing presence both on the streets and within the organs of the state.

This spring, as the novel coronavirus triggered an economic crisis across Europe, Azov capitalized on the uncertainty by pumping out a stream of social-media propaganda that highlighted its humanitarian efforts targeting poor Ukrainians. Azov press releases showed masked volunteers disinfecting trams and common spaces in apartment buildings, handing out packages of food to families and retirees under quarantine, and delivering surgical masks to underfunded clinics and hospitals in neglected provincial towns. “During this time, our Volunteers already know better than social services who really needs help,” claimed one post.

Volunteers are not shown on TV channels, but activists do their job every day. We help those who really need it. Who needed it before quarantine, and became even more vulnerable during quarantine.

National Corps members repaired crumbling orphanages, sewed face masks, and plastered walls with advice on hygiene and social distancing—making a show of performing basic services the Ukrainian state was failing to provide. At the bottom of each press release was a phone number and the exhortation join us! together we will overcome all difficulties!

Riot police in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, February 2014 © Maxim Dondyuk

Riot police in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, February 2014 © Maxim Dondyuk

Ukraine’s complex ecosystem of far-right militias and activist groups is populated by many other organizations that, while less influential than Azov, still play a major role in public life. A variety of them—including Tradition and Order, Katechon, Freikorps, Sokil, and Karpatska Sich—appear at demonstrations with Azov, though their branding differs. Some are more overtly Christian in their imagery; some tend toward neo-paganism; others are more openly fascist. The groups promote one another’s posts on social media, especially on the Telegram channels used for organizing, indicating that some share members with Azov and thus may act as front organizations for deniable activity, according to Oksana Pokalchuk, the director of Amnesty International Ukraine. More often than not, however, the groups are committed rivals, competing for the largesse of the Ukrainian state and primacy in the country’s increasingly heated street politics.

Shortly before Biletsky opted to cancel our interview, I sat in a bright, whitewashed-brick café in a gentrifying district of Kyiv with Julian Kondur, a young Roma activist. The previous year, he told me, the city’s Roma population had been the victims of what he called a “pogrom” at the hands of C14, one of Azov’s smaller far-right competitors. In April 2018, C14 members burned down a Roma encampment in Kyiv’s Lysa Hora park. Kondur’s Roma-rights organization had asked the police for protection, but according to Kondur, officers turned a blind eye when C14 returned the next morning to attack the remaining Roma with pepper spray. (The Kyiv police claim they were unaware that the second attack was taking place.) The militia published photographs on its Facebook page glorifying the camp’s destruction. “These groups don’t fight at war, they fight here,” Kondur told me. “To prove that they are also heroes they find an easy target. And Roma were the easy target.”

I arranged to meet Evgen Karas, C14’s leader, in one of its offices—a windowless stone cellar near the Arsenalna metro station. It comprised a cramped office and kitchen area, as well as a hall where C14’s government-funded NGO hosts lectures and workshops for the capital’s youth. Karas, his head shaved, arrived half an hour late, locked in conversation with a few young women. Dressed sharply but casually, like the CEO of a tech startup, he settled into the chair opposite me, next to a giant flatscreen television that had been playing Ukrainian music videos. Karas spoke in a rapid, stream-of-consciousness style, defending the valuable role his group played in policing Kyiv, and then expounding a bizarre, unproven claim that Kyiv’s police force was engaged in a massive plot to murder elderly and vulnerable people living alone in the city center, bury them in secret graves, and steal their apartments.

When I asked Karas about the Lysa Hora incident, he claimed that the Roma burned down their own encampment, though he admitted that posting photographs of the burning tents on Facebook was probably a misstep. He insisted that C14’s role was something akin to Batman’s in Gotham City: ensuring justice for a desperate, neglected populace.

Karas gave an account of what he described as a typical scenario: First, one of the few good cops, hamstrung by the corruption of his superiors and the legal system, calls him asking for help closing down an illegal bar selling alcohol to children, or chasing drug dealers off the streets. Then C14’s foot soldiers arrest the culprits, handing them over to the police and sitting in on the resulting trials in a blaze of publicity that, Karas assured me, had brought positive results. His men, he told me, clamp down on petty crime and antisocial behavior—things that the country’s police are incapable of controlling. “General crime, like robbers, thieves, people who have stolen cars or who are drunk driving, or someone who raped his wife—very often we can do it because we have many on patrol,” he said. He noted that many C14 members also belong to the Municipal Guard, an auxiliary police militia created by Kyiv’s mayor, the three-time world champion heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko. With six hundred members, many of them military veterans or C14 fighters from the front lines, the Municipal Guard took part in the Lysa Hora incident alongside C14 and was responsible for enforcing Kyiv’s quarantine measures last year.

According to Karas, C14’s effectiveness at maintaining order had translated into some success at the ballot box, at least at the local level, where several members have won elected office. Karas himself serves as a member of the Civil Oversight Council at the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. “I was elected,” he emphasized, making a pointed distinction between his group and Azov, whose success he claims is unfairly derived from the patronage of the country’s interior minister, the powerful oligarch Arsen Avakov. Karas acknowledged a rumor linking his organization to the director of the country’s Security Service, but dismissed it as hearsay. All C14 receives from the state, he said, is funding from the Ministry for Veteran Affairs for rehabilitating soldiers, plus some money from the Ministry of Culture for education, and resources for training journalists in “how to deal with and resist Russian propaganda.” For Karas, the problem isn’t that far-right groups are getting government funding but that Azov dominates the scene, hoovering up patronage and outcompeting smaller rivals.

On a side street near Maidan Nezalezhnosti, just a few steps from Kyiv’s showpiece McDonald’s, is Cossack House, one of Azov’s administrative centers. Before the revolution, Cossack House provided lodging for military personnel, but when the fighting in the square began, Azov took control, transforming the building into a recruiting center, field hospital, and morgue. They now rent the building from the Ministry of Defense. Behind steel double doors, Cossack House is home to a free gym for potential recruits, as well as offices, lecture halls, and a film club. The building’s gray neoclassical corridors display shrines to the group’s martyred dead, as well as glossy leaflets promoting their summer camps, funded by the Ministry of Culture, at which children receive patriotic education and weapons training.

I had ventured to Cossack House to meet with Ihor Mikhailenko, the commander of Kyiv’s National Militia, who, like many senior Azov figures, is a former member of the neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine movement. Although Azov does not formally subscribe to National Socialism, members are known to tattoo themselves with Nazi imagery and fly the swastika flag over their fortifications in the east, in what is either a genuine display of ideological loyalty, an effort to troll their Russian enemies, or both. Ukraine’s bloody twentieth-century history creates a certain confusion, as so many symbols of Ukrainian nationalism and the struggle for independence against the Soviet Union are inextricably linked to those who collaborated with the invading Nazi forces against Stalin, a moral and political ambiguity that groups such as Azov exploit to the furthest possible limit. Azov’s official logo combines the Wolfsangel rune of the “Das Reich” division of the Waffen-SS with the Black Sun symbol, first employed by SS commander Heinrich Himmler at Wewelsburg Castle in Germany. The group’s slick propaganda videos feature young recruits with shaved heads and beards marching in torchlit neo-pagan ceremonies behind a Black Sun shield—imagery as inspiring to disaffected young Ukrainian men as it is discomfiting to the country’s Western backers.

Buzzed into Cossack House by the gatekeeper manning its CCTV cameras, I climbed a curving tsarist-era staircase into an empty lecture room, where school desks and chairs stood stacked against the walls, to wait for Mikhailenko. He arrived flanked by a burly retinue, and exuded an air of barely restrained impatience at being interviewed. “We don’t have a definite field of activity,” he said of the National Militia’s policing role. “We are engaged in a very large range of preventive acts of law enforcement in the community, as civilians who are helping law enforcement agencies on a voluntary basis.” Mikhailenko had played a central role in Azov’s formation as a combat unit, he told me, and he viewed the regiment as his child. “Then I switched to civilian life and saw the problems there,” he said. “I realized that it was necessary to act somehow, to change the order on the streets.”

Human-rights groups allege that the National Militia’s public presence is expressly designed to discourage liberal protest and intimidate civil society, charges Mikhailenko denies. “There are no cases where we have put pressure on activists, or any other kind of illegal activity,” he told me. “We are not involved in illicit activities, and all our actions stem from the legislation of Ukraine, in accordance with the law.” He claims the National Militia is a solution to the failings of the state—particularly the under-recruitment of police—which has led to rising crime rates, creating in some areas of Ukrainian cities an anarchic atmosphere of impunity, in which drug dealers dominate housing projects and rival gangs engage in shootouts for control of their business enterprises. “The attitude of bystanders to our activities is quite positive,” he said. “They say that we need more like this.”

Far-right activists at a march in Kyiv to mark the birthday of Stepan Bandera, a hero of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement © Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Elsewhere in Cossack House, Azov presented a more rarefied image. At Plomin, Azov’s literary salon and publishing outfit, college-aged volunteers, mostly philosophy and literature students in wire-frame glasses and intellectual-chic dress, bustled at their desks. On the walls were posters of the intellectual heroes of esoteric fascism and Germany’s interwar Conservative Revolution: Yukio Mishima, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola. It’s a pantheon of radical critics of liberal democracy who have gained popularity online among members of the “alt-right,” as well as Europe’s radically conservative publishing houses and think tanks, all seeking to take advantage of liberalism’s existential crisis. But while France, Germany, and Italy might have comparable institutions, theirs are not backed by armed brigades. Ukraine’s uniquely permissive political environment has seen far-right thinkers from across the Western world come to Plomin and Reconquista—a now-defunct lecture hall, restaurant, and mixed-martial-arts fighting club owned by a prominent Azov member—to give speeches lauding the group as an inspiration.

In an October 2018 appearance at Reconquista, since uploaded to YouTube, the American white nationalist Greg Johnson praises Azov, noting that “what’s happening in Ukraine is a model and an inspiration for nationalists in all white nations.” When I mentioned this to Serhiy Zayikovskii, an artfully disheveled twenty-four-year-old Plomin activist in a death in june T-shirt, he shrugged. “For us, the works of Greg Johnson look silly and very strange, because we don’t understand, you know, why they are doing so much to produce all these things about the ethnostate and so on.” On the right as well as on the left, many Ukrainians find the American obsession with race baffling. Instead, Plomin sees itself as a harbinger of a broader, nobler intellectual and spiritual battle against the liberal ethos they believe has brought European civilization to its knees. “We are not interested in race war and so on,” said Yulia Fedosiuk, a twenty-six-year-old Plomin staffer whose husband was away fighting for Azov against the Russians, and whose dramatically photogenic features have made her the centerpiece of Plomin’s social-media output. “We use the example of the Codreanu movement,” she explained, referring to the fascist Romanian leader of the interwar period. “They created this great movement with social initiatives: they built houses, hospitals—they did what the people needed.”

The Maidan revolution had made Azov members, along with many other far-right activists in Ukraine, believe that another Europe was within reach. “What I think is that most of the people who took part in the Maidan actions, they were nationalists,” said Fedosiuk. “I haven’t seen liberals there. Maybe they danced and sang songs, but they didn’t take part in radical actions.” Anna Klokhun, a twenty-three-year-old staffer with blond braids, agreed. “Maybe Maidan was a time when all of us could feel that we can create history and our ideas could influence the world for now. And that was the moment when we felt the power and believed that we can make some of our ideas real.”

Tasked with converting these ideas into reality is Olena Semenyaka, the thirty-one-year-old international secretary of Azov and the group’s diplomatic representative to other radical right-wing and fascist groups across the continent. A 2014 photograph of Semenyaka giving a Nazi salute while holding a Hitler Youth flag is frequently shared by Russian state media in the ongoing propaganda war between the two countries, but at Cossack House her demeanor was significantly less confrontational. In her office—adorned with a poster commemorating the French Identitarian Dominique Venner, who shot himself in Notre-Dame to protest the legalization of same-sex marriage—Semenyaka outlined a vision of Ukraine at the center of an Intermarium, a political union of conservative Central European countries. The idea, which originated in Poland following World War I, could lead to a “pan-Europe,” she said, “which could defend its sovereignty and ethnocultural values under the conditions of the growing influence of superpowers, like Russia, and also the growing West, as well as the development of aggressive globalization trends.”

While she claimed that her attempts to forge military and diplomatic links with Poland and the Baltic countries have met with some success, her outreach efforts to far-right movements in Western Europe have largely faltered, as many of those groups support Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the continent’s dominant pole of opposition to liberal democracy. She has also failed to make meaningful connections at the Pentagon. The U.S. State Department has referred to Azov as a hate group, a development she blames on Russian sympathizers within the American media and what she felt was an unfair focus on the group’s use of Nazi symbolism. As a direct result of these reports of Nazi links, U.S. military assistance to Azov was banned in 2018. “Obviously now it will be hard to directly incorporate with the defense structures of the U.S.,” she told me, “but we are still looking for such opportunities. Definitely both countries would benefit from it.”

Despite Semenyaka’s travels across Europe and appearances at conferences of like-minded groups, Azov remains a major player only in Ukraine, and there only with the indulgence of the state, whose patronage Semenyaka treats as proof of the group’s respectability. For this reason, she was careful not to characterize Azov as a revolutionary movement. “We have some revolutionary trends, we are ready for different scenarios,” she said. Azov fighters played a central role in the Maidan revolution, she reminded me, and the group would be ready to rekindle that revolution if the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, became “a puppet of the Kremlin.” “We are also ready to defend our integrity in the streets,” she added. “In this aspect the national revolution scenario can repeat.”

Azov recruits at basic training in Mariupol, Ukraine, August 2019 © Maxim Dondyuk

Azov recruits at basic training in Mariupol, Ukraine, August 2019 © Maxim Dondyuk

Not long after my visit to Cossack House, I took a creaking Soviet-era overnight train to Uzhgorod, a sleepy border town of low Hapsburg-era buildings nestled at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. When I arrived, the city’s crumbling walls and overpasses were plastered with images of Kalashnikov rifles, the Celtic cross logo of white nationalism, and the message ks88, code for “Karpatska Sich Heil Hitler.”

Karpatska Sich is a militia based in the far west of Ukraine. I had seen its promotional materials on a government-funded placard outside a large department store on Kyiv’s main shopping street. The posters celebrated the militia’s role fighting Russian-backed separatists, comparing it to the Ukrainian militias that had fought for the nation’s independence in the early twentieth century. The group’s online propaganda, which features acolytes in ski masks and promises assault-weapons training in the region’s forested mountains, more closely resembles images from jihadi-run northern Syria than anything in European politics.

In Uzhgorod, Karpatska Sich had just finished hosting a conference for extreme-right organizations from across Eastern and Central Europe. It took place in a medieval castle, perched on a rocky crag overlooking the town. Now the groups were preparing for a march through the streets. Neo-Nazi and fascist groups from Poland, Serbia, Hungary, Finland, and Russia were all represented, their banners displaying eagles and crossed swords. Masked activists held a sign proclaiming europe is for us, or for no one.

I watched the proceedings from the parking lot of a dingy hotel in the town’s main square, along with a handful of police officers and Azov’s local representatives. These were Samanta Stoilkovic, a cheerful woman who claimed to be a political refugee from Serbia, and Mikhail Didych, a half-sober fifty-year-old businessman and local organizer for Azov dressed in the business-casual uniform of the petty provincial oligarch.

Didych told me that he didn’t anticipate any trouble at the march as long as the boys avoided the “green snake”—alcohol. After one far-right event a few years earlier, he told me, laughing, some of the attendees got drunk and began shouting “unnecessarily provocative slogans: ‘Magyars to the knife,’ stuff like that.” Still, he was confident the event would pass peacefully, despite the minimal police presence. Normally, Azov’s own National Militia officers would be patrolling alongside the police. But with no risk of antifascist interference that day, Didych explained, their services were not required.

“There is no other side,” he said. “There is no one to resist. [Antifascists] will shake their fists on Facebook tomorrow, but they have neither the courage nor resources for direct confrontation.” Stoilkovic told me that the role of Azov’s National Militia in Uzhgorod was mainly to discipline the immigrant populations of Indian students and Arab kebab-shop workers in town—to prevent them from harassing women, selling drugs, or drunk driving—and to reassure the locals that this foreign presence was being monitored. Patrolling alongside Karpatska Sich, Azov’s National Militia ensures that the streets are kept safe for Ukrainians, she explained. “Here in the Carpathian region we have lots of problems with Hungarians, Gypsies, with students from India and Pakistan,” she said. “One month ago there was a knife battle between them, and they harass Ukrainian girls. No one cares about these problems, so someone has to do something about it.”

I asked Didych why the Ukrainian state, unlike other European governments, was so willing to cooperate with extremist groups like Azov and Karpatska Sich. Part of the reason, he explained, is that the government vividly remembers the recent revolution, and fears being toppled by a similar uprising. But it’s also the simple fact that the oligarchs who run Ukraine are too busy with their tangled business interests to concern themselves much with the tiresome work of politics, allowing the far-right to fill the void. “Perhaps one day they’ll notice we have too much freedom,” he said, laughing, “because really, we have more democracy than all the rest of Europe put together.” To Didych, Ukraine’s hospitable environment for far-right street politics presented a welcome contrast to the marginalized status of far-right factions in Western Europe and the United States. “If right-wing movements in Europe are out of moves because they are referred to almost as terrorist organizations, then here we all really understand that right-wing movements are not a threat to the state,” he said. “Instead, it is the opposite. They are the engine that moves the state forward.”

As the march began, I approached a few Karpatska Sich members, some wearing ski masks, others with shaved heads, long beards, and black hoodies emblazoned with the Black Sun. It became clear that they had known I would be attending and, somehow, that I was of Greek descent. They ordered to me to fuck off, immediately, for my own good. The police shrugged, and I took the first train back to Kyiv.

 lives in Kent, England.


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