How fascist is Ukraine's Svoboda?

Not at all, says its members. Just a little, well, 'emotional'...

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM


Ihor Miroshnychenko, a parliamentarian from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, is an ‘emotional’ man. That is the word that he and his colleagues use to describe his raiding the headquarters of the country’s state television broadcaster last month. Accompanied by five other Svoboda bully boys, Miroshnyschenko berated and beat the station director before forcing him to sign a resignation letter. So proud were they of this deed that one of the Svoboda members videotaped the whole confrontation and posted it on YouTube.

The proximate cause of Miroshnychenko’s anger was the station’s transmission of a Russian news channel broadcast of a victory concert in Red Square celebrating Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. One can imagine how this was a painful spectacle for most Ukrainian viewers, a proverbial rubbing of the salt into the collective national wound. But it hardly constituted a ‘betrayal’, as Miroshnyschenko (who, irony of ironies, is deputy head of a parliamentary commission on freedom of speech) characterised it to me. Nonetheless, he tried to analogise the problem for my American ears. ‘Imagine if on September 11, CNN put on Osama bin Laden to speak to Americans,’ he said, standing in the marble antechamber of Ukraine’s Rada (parliament). Yet that’s exactly what CNN (and Fox News, and the BBC, and most certainly Al Jazeera) did in those terrible days, playing endless footage of bin Laden sitting in his cave, warning us heathens of future attacks.

Oleksander Aronets, the 26-year-old Svoboda member who videotaped the incident, ventured another comparison. If ‘Mexico takes some part of the USA and the national channel broadcasts the picture, in real time without comments, of a celebration, I think that normal people would react emotionally,’ he told me.

Aronets now admits that storming the television headquarters was a ‘shameful thing’. But he seems to be in the minority among his fellow party members when it comes to the actions of Miroshnyschenko, a former football journalist with an apparent expertise in hooliganism. Two years ago, he wrote on his Facebook page that the Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis (voted by readers of lad mag FHM as the world’s most beautiful woman), was ‘not Ukrainian but a Zhydovka’, or ‘dirty Jewess’. Not all of Miroshnyschenko’s antics have been so regrettable; in February, he led a group of Svoboda members in tearing down a Lenin statue, one of hundreds of Soviet icons dismantled in recent months.

Yurij Noevyj, a 28-year-old Svoboda representative in the Kiev regional parliament, downplayed Miroshnyschenko’s behaviour by stating that he is merely a ‘very emotional’ man who ‘made a little attack’. (Svoboda members seem to have developed an appreciation for the British art of political euphemism.) So far, Svoboda has made no effort to punish Miroshnyschenko, an ominous signal for its future role in Ukrainian politics.

Svoboda was an auxiliary element in the ‘EuroMaidan’ movement that ousted Ukraine’s former president, the Russian vassal Viktor Yanukoyvch. A visit to the deposed leader’s estate, now an open-air museum to post-Soviet corruption about an hour’s drive from central Kiev, gives a sense of what so outraged ordinary Ukrainians about their former leader, in the same way that a boyhood trip to Versailles helped me understand if not justify the French revolution. Boasting a private zoo (complete with ostriches), a golden toilet, and a golf course, the gaudy property is half the size of Monaco. Yanukovych had the road connecting his estate to Kiev widened, my taxi driver explained, only to clear it twice a day for his motorcade’s commute.

A populist party that locates its support in the western (predominantly Ukrainian-speaking) part of Ukraine, Svoboda traces its roots to a variety of extreme right movements and militias that formed in the era of post-Soviet independence. Anti-Semitic and racist statements by its leaders, calls for ‘Ukrainophobia’ to be criminally prosecuted, a political programme predicated largely on ethnic grievance, and a reverence for the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, have earned Svoboda a fascist reputation, a status that has become even more prominent with Moscow’s incessant propagandising. While the party is more accurately described as nationalist, one can judge Svoboda by the company it keeps. Until last month, it maintained observer status with the Alliance of European National Movements, of which both Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik and the BNP are charter members. Svoboda left the coalition not due to any newfound discomfort with the nature of its partners, but out of self-interest: alliance leaders endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

That said, anti-Semitism and racism are not animating principles for Svoboda in the way that they are for other far-right European parties. Aronets, the young man who was the most enlightened of the Svoboda party members I interviewed, even expressed a sense of solidarity with the Jews. ‘They had a Holocaust, we had a holodomor,’ he says, speaking of Stalin’s forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians. ‘They were without their own country. And then when they formed a country, Israel… They brought back their own language. We have problems [maintaining] our language. They brought back their laws, their traditions.’

Talk of Svoboda’s alleged fascism and anti-Semitism clearly annoys its members.

‘All the journalists which are visiting our country, all the time ask about this question,’ Noevjy snaps when I query him about his party leader’s having complained of a ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’ several years back. When I ask him about the storming of the national television station, he complains of a double standard. ‘Nobody in the West speaks badly about Robespierre or other people who were great revolutionaries,’ he replies, revealing, among other things, that he is not a reader of this magazine. He speaks conspiratorially of ‘a big media campaign against Miroshnychenko’, whom he assures me ‘most people support’.

Demanding a videotaped, forced confession from someone, even a remnant of a previous corrupt regime, is not the behaviour of a democrat. And given Svoboda’s rabid anti-communism, it was particularly hypocritical, such a tactic being a hallmark of the party apparatchik. Thankfully, most sectors of Ukrainian society — including the acting prime minister — condemned Svoboda’s behaviour. Yet the party’s rallying cry of ‘lustration’ — the post-Soviet term used to describe the process of weeding out Communist Party members from state organs — has wide appeal now in Ukraine, which never went through a process of de-communisation.

Svoboda’s success in recent years, one experienced observer of Ukrainian politics told me, was attributable to precisely the sort of grit displayed by Miroshnychenko. Svoboda deputies would actually return the blows of allies of Yanukovych during the fist-fights that frequently erupted in the Rada. But the skills required while one is in opposition are wholly different from those necessary to govern, and like extremist movements elsewhere suddenly thrust into power, Svoboda is having difficulty adapting to Ukraine’s new political environment. The party controls three ministries in the coalition government, down from four after the defence minister, a Svoboda man, resigned in disgrace over complaints that he had failed to give orders to Ukrainian soldiers in the face of Russian invasion. If it wants to gain the confidence of Ukrainian voters, Svoboda needs to keep its ‘emotions’ in check.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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Show comments
  • Sean Lamb

    Excited as I was by the idea of a golden toilet, the only photo I could find that hasn’t been exposed as a fake appears to be a very ordinary toilet that someone has hurriedly spray-painted.

    Happily the folks who spray-painted seem to be none other than Radio Svodboda

    • Sean Lamb

      I mean even in Ukraine if you have the kind of wealth that can afford a golden toilet, wouldn’t you want a golden toilet seat to go with it rather than squat uncomfortably on a golden rim?

  • Sean Grainger

    That reminds me, the mag should get that Polish minister who wrote so well in The Times in for a few.

    • Ihor Wolansky

      In his 2007 work “Heroes and villains” Historian David Marples describes
      how Bandera and the Nazis attempted to exploit each other to gain
      tactical advantage in their battles with their enemies (for Bandera, the
      Soviets and anyone who supported the USSR.) To describe Bandera simply
      as a “Nazi collaborator” is a highly inadequate simplification.

  • Cyril Sneer

    And yet still not as fascist as the left….

  • La Fold

    Fascism is just a dirty word hurled by one totalitarian at other totalitarians.

  • Baron

    It will be interesting to see how comfortable the Brussels apparatchiks will be with these ’emotional, gritty’ Jew haters and Robespierre admirers.

    Could the Western governing elite sink any deeper?

  • Sergej Panov

    Wow..As a lawyer, I can certainly object here. This is the most biased article I have seen for a while. How about the fact that Miroshnychenko offered his apologies, and THE MAJORITY of the party’s members have stated that this type of behaviour is not permitted. Tiahnybok (the leader of the party) has condemned the actions of Miroshnychenko as well. Yes, he was overly emotional, but a couple of days earlier, 18 of their party’s members were killed , and that guy (who was not beaten btw, just slapped) was showing on a national TV channel how Russia celebrated what they have done to Ukraine. I am a tolerant person, but not sure I would able to keep my hands to myself. Shame on the author and the Spectator for printing this. Without even asking for a comment from the party in question.

    • Damon

      “[T]hat guy (who was not beaten btw, just slapped).”

      Ah, so that’s all right then. Incidentally, I’m emotional too, but I’ve never been moved to call anyone a. “dirty Jewess”.

      • Sergej Panov

        I am not claiming it is OK. I am just saying that the author is purposely trying to exaggerate, which points out he is biased for some reason

        • allymax bruce

          ‘the author’, is a Zionist trouble-maker, that uses ‘minority-issue’ grievance politics to instill hatred against his Zionist enemies. The premise of Kirchick is to make his enemies, be seen as, ‘others’ enemies too; thus, soliciting, all ‘others’ ‘support’ to his Zionist ‘propaganda’ issue. John Lennon did it first in New York; he was asked to ‘front’ a multi-issue rally, of which, he was reverenced as a ‘free-speech’ icon. Kirchick is a pathetic crude imposter, of a person.

    • Baron

      You still have alot to learn, Sergey. In democracy one ‘keeps one’s hands to oneself’, this is what distinguishes us from thugs like Miroshnychenko.

      Did you say you were a lawyer? Hmmm

      • Sergej Panov

        You see, when a person has noting substantial to say about the facts, he/she is trying to make an emotional attack on a person, just, like you did, when you commented both on me and Miroshnychenko. Do you know how many great things Svoboda has done? I have personally heard of many, and I can list them if you wish. But a person like you, I suspect, would never accept any claims that do not correspond with your point of view

        • Tom Tom

          Go on list them and see if they stack up against the achievements of Stefan Bandera

          • allymax bruce

            You’ve been conned.

        • paulus

          You go and beat the editor of the News channel, and that seems alright to you! i think your law is a bit different from ours. i think if you give Andrew marr a happy slappy session,whilst videoing it it wouldn’t see you promoted to the cabinet, the Police would be straight on top of you.

          Saying we have beat people with a knout and hearding jews into a barn to be set on fire arn’t necessarliy good things in themselves. Maybe you need to familiarise yourself with what we think is right/wrong.

          • MVMn

            He’s not an editor of a news channel – he is Yanukovitch’s mafia member appointed to keep channel under strict censorship.

        • harebell

          “I am a tolerant person, but not sure I would able to keep my hands to myself.”
          You kind of condemned yourself with this. Classic blame the victim rationalisations of a bully. And as a lawyer you should know that if you were unable to “keep your hands to yourself” then you committed assault.

    • No it isn’t a biased article. You come across as a lot more biased despite your claim of “tolerance.” Miroshnychenko is a thug and Svoboda mini-fuhrer Tiahnybok, a Nazi sympathizing scumbag. The fact that you raise Tiahnybok’s name in order to give cred to Svoboda in this context is beyond naive. Your tolerance obviously doesn’t extend to the right of Oleksandr Panteleymonov, the director of NTU TV, to air what in most media contexts would be called news.

      • Sergej Panov

        Where did you see that in my comments? I just call for a balanced article. Svoboda made mistakes, but they also did many great things during the revolution and after. I am curious..please tell me which party you support, and I can find you things your party’s members did that are not uncalled for. I wonder whether you would be so quick to judge them and call them “thugs”.

        • mikell

          oh yeah and Hitler built terrific highways

          • Sergej Panov

            …I do not care about Hitler. If you are trying to somehow correlate the party and Hitler, you are soooo off base. In the parliament, btw, they registered a draft law that aims to stop Hitler’s type of propaganda. They have actually done more to condemn fascism than any other party in Ukraine. They have even received a praise for that from an Israel organisation. But, you see, for some reason the author failed to mention that.

          • Tom Tom

            Who cares about Israel ? After all this farce is funded by an Israeli billionaire Pierre Omidyar

          • jmillionaire

            The fact that a couple Israeli organizations condemned svoboda neo nazi views before and have now received a praise is certainly irrelevant.

    • Andrea Bettino

      …mmmmmmm…starting by saying that Yanukhovich was a criminal, a thief and he was not for sure doing anything for Ukrainian people, but his pockets…Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor are UNDEFENDABLE, they are fascist, as well as Timoshenko, as a lawyer, you should perfectly know that she was a thief as well as Yan, and that’s why she was in jail, beyond the fact that her conviction was piloted for political reasons. For other “territorial” issues, I recognize that as Ukraine is your Country, it is far difficult for you to discuss about it from a objective point of view (BEWARE, I am absolutely not criticizing it, I am sincerely recognizing it as a matter of fact), therefore I’d rather skip it. I am just sorry for you as Ukrainian people, who are the victims in all this mess.

  • Sergej Panov

    …BTW. I am Jewish. I have never been persecuted by the Svoboda party. The party of Regions spread lies about them on that field. Surely, a journalist should had known about that.

    • Sean Lamb

      Historically speaking they were probably more into persecuting Poles than Jews

      • MVMn

        Svoboda were persecuting Poles? Don’t joke. Stepan Bandera took part in polish-ukrainian fights, that’s correct, but his ideology of Ukrainian state doesn’t mean “fight poles”, that’s ridiculous.

        And since Svoboda has not much to do with antisemitism, why write an article that calls them _ultra_ nationalists (I see nothing “ultra” about them) and antisemitic?

  • BelaruskayaChyhunka

    / ‘Zhydovka’, or ‘dirty Jewess’ /
    Zhyd (Ukrainian, Belarusian) = Żyd (Polish) = zsidó (Hungarian) = Jude (German) = Jew (English) = Juif (French), … every other European language. It sounds the same everywhere. Millions of people all over the world use this word without any connotation. There is only one exception – Russian language, where it means ‘dirty Jew’ or more precisely in Russian ‘Jew’ == ‘dirty Hebrew’ (Russians exclusively use Hebrew/Evrey for this reason). And only Russian or Russian-speaking Jew (cause they know, how Russians like them) can consider this word as an insult. As far as I know Svoboda is ultra-nationalist party and they speak Ukrainian only, so it’s rather strange to expect Russian words from them. This story was widely used in Russian propaganda. And I do not understand people, who say “I fled the Ukraine to escape hatred” (The Sun, “Mila Kunis reveals her secret past as a Jew living in Ukraine from where she fled to escape hatred” – and it was before Miroshnychenko’s words) and proclaim themselves “super-Jew” or “very Jewish girl” in the USA and after that they are very insulted when someone in Ukraine using standard ukrainian word ‘zhyd’ said that they are not Ukrainians, but Jews. She heaped dirt upon the Ukraine and Ukrainians and doesn’t say a good word for Ukraine ever. I call this Jewish butt-hurt, that Zhydovka-phrase has nothing in common with fascism (another ‘special’ Russian-word).

  • Thomas Stenstroem

    It’s incredible that someone can deny the fascist character of Svoboda. Have you read their party programme? Celebrating the ultranationalists of Bandera and his ilk. Making “ukrainophobia” a criminal offence. Banning other languages than Ukrainian in higher education etc. etc. There is nothing in the programme celebrating real Western liberal values.

    Again the Svoboda thugs started a brawl in parliament the other day. When will they ever learn that fists are no arguments in a democracy?

    I’m a friend of Ukraine, but I cannot honestly defend a government with members from a fascist party.

  • jmillionaire

    You cant just correlate the words fascist and nationalist with regards to a political party such as Svoboda, they are definitely ultra nationalists looking to protect anything with regards to Ukraine (language,etc). The whole fascist title given to this political party is clearly Russian propaganda unless these men are really are pro-Nazi?! For some reason i seem to doubt that fact and continue to assume that the Svoboda party is just a nationalist political party trying to protect Ukraine. The right thing to do is surely protect Ukraine but the scheme any political party can pull over their peoples eyes to benefit themselves is likely to happen with the absurd levels of corruption plaguing the Ukrainian government.

    • Tom Tom

      Which Oligarchs back which group ? It is all a questions of Ukrainian Oligarchs wanting to keep their gains from erosion from EU competition or Russian Oligarchs

  • David Lindsay

    Where is John Laughland?

    Also, Mark Almond’s Post-Communist Ukraine – A Short History will be out soon.

  • Thomas Stenstroem

    There are clear definitions in political science with regard to fascist ideologies. From this point of view it is absolutely clear that Svoboda shares the basic ideas of Mussolini and other historical fascist leaders.

    Günter Verheugen, former EU commissioner for enlargment, recently noted that a European taboo has been broken when so many politicans have accepted the presence of fascists in a European government. I think that his opinion carries weight. Until a new government without Svoboda is formed in Kiev we liberal Europeans should regard the present regime with a lot of suspicion.

  • Paul Frantizek

    First of all, I hate the label ‘radical right’, it’s a lazy affectation. While many of the parties it’s used to identify – Jobbik, Franjo Tudjman’s regime in Croatia, Svboda in Ukraine – are definitely far right, others are nothing of the sort and simply painted with that brush as a means of delegitimizing them.

    If anything, it’s the EU that deserves the label ‘radical’ – their program is radical in both its ideology- its radical denial of nationality and desire to impose a transgressive ideal of ‘inclusion’ – and its mode of implementation – its cynical appeal/denial of the so-called ‘rights’ to self-determination.

    As far as Putin, he simply echoing the same ‘Tyranny of Relativism’ themes as Pope Benedict. Sad that we have to rely on a cynic to speak the truth, but such is the nature of the post-Western establishment.

  • Jasmine An’deez

    The history of the 20th century is rife with examples of people voting themselves into servitude and thus giving up liberty through democratic processes.

  • MVMn

    “Miroshnyschenko berated and beat the station director before forcing him to sign a resignation letter”

    Wrong, they didn’t beat him just pushed a couple of times. That’s not a beatup really – you should’ve seen how Svoboda members were beaten, and the bastard station director did everything to help Yanukovitch cover up the thing – you’d not see beatup of Svoboda members in the news. So he deserved some rough treatment.

    “So proud were they of this deed that one of the Svoboda members videotaped the whole confrontation and posted it on YouTube”

    That’s a lie – they had a video stream on from one of the activists, and some people who were watching it recorded the stream and uploaded it to youtube – it wasn’t done by Svoboda members themselves. So you’re lying here. Why?

  • allymax bruce

    This articel is not journalism. This is Psychological Warfare! Kirchick is a fake!
    The Zionists, (Kirchick), using the same nasty evil tactics they used to start WW1 and WW2; fund both sides, send in an ‘incendiary’, then sit back and watch millions murder each other. Then, the Zionists step in and steal control.

  • Constantine Orel

    Bandera did not collaborate with Nazis. He tried to establish a contact with them cause he thought they would help in creating independent Ukrainian state. As soon as he realized that was not the case, he stopped any contacts with Nazis. Moreover, Bandera spent 3 years in German prison from Jul 1941 till Dec 1944. As for Svoboda, I feel their popularity and influence are exaggerated. Just look at the personal presidential rating of Tyahnybok. In 2012 many people, who voted for Svoboda, weren’t Svoboda’s supporters in the first place, or shared any ideological values with them; they voted not for Svoboda per se, they voted for politicians of ‘new’ generation (so they thought). Now when the smoke has cleared and people see the real face of this ‘new’ politicians they won’t support them again.

  • Thomas Aquinas

    Since we don’t fully know the sources of our traditions, we should realize that we aren’t free to change them without risking social havoc.

  • Knuckles Mutatis

    Well, you know, the fact that prior to 2004 their Party symbols included neo-nazi & SS imagery certainly didn’t help any…

  • Rod Dainjer

    By attacking private property, collectivism redirects aggression outward and furthers modern systems of plunder, serfdom, and injustice.

  • Jason Finch

    The term is used to refer to women who are of Jewish heritage.[1][2] In Russia, it is considered pejorative and the word is used as an “anti-Semitic pejorative”[3] by Russian-speaking people across the old Soviet Union[nb 1].[4] In other Slavic languages, such as Polish, Ukrainian,[5] Czech, Slovak, and Slovene the terms zhyd (Jewish man) and zhydovka (Jewish woman) are not pejorative.

    Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhydovka

    Everywhere on the web, this was translated as ‘dirty Jewess’, but in fact it hould be translated as ‘(female) Jew’, with the female only present because Kunis is female and so gets a female ending as opposed to masculine ‘Zhyd’. All part of the slur on western Ukranians as ‘fascists’ and ‘anti-semites’.

  • Kiev, Polish Fascist Have a Dirty Nazi agenda in NYC’s East Village And Velselka a Kiev, West Ukraine Restaurant at 144 Second ave is one of them, Who is Funding Neo-Nazi’s in Right Sector Out of NYC.. the Owner’s Jason Birchard and Manager Piotr Szpinecki Are two Dirty Closet sly Fascist
    West Kiev, Ukrainian Snake’s & Scum Who Can’t be trusted.

    And the Russians Need to Keep Tabs On these two Creeps who are funding Neo-Nazi Right Sector Scum Who are Killing Russian speaking women and children in East Ukraine. Funded By Dirty Blood money Out of this Shady Evil Restaurant In the east village NYC.

  • degeneral

    They might be nazis, but they are OUR nazis. After all, it worked out so well with all the fundamentalist Muslim movements the West supported, too.