Nationalism and fascism in Ukraine: A historical overview

Part one

By Konrad Kreft and Clara Weiss 
9 June 2014

This is the first part of a two-part article.

The Western media is seeking to downplay the prominent role of fascists in the new Ukrainian government. Several of the regime’s ministries are headed by members of the far-right Svoboda party, and the militias of the neo-fascist Right Sector are active in violently repressing resistance in the east of the country.

Both Svoboda and Right Sector played a crucial role in the February 22 coup in Kiev, which was strongly backed by Berlin and Washington. This is no coincidence. The close collaboration of Germany and the US with Ukrainian fascists has a long history, reaching back over the last hundred years.

The roots of Ukrainian nationalism

In contrast to many other European countries, there has never been a strong bourgeois national movement in Ukraine. Ukraine has been divided between Poland and Russia since the late Middle Ages. After the carve-up of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire. Only a section of what is now western Ukraine was integrated into the Hapsburg Empire.

The weakness of the Ukrainian national movement was due on the one hand to the country’s economic backwardness and lack of a strong middle class. Significant industrialisation occurred only in the era of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, a large proportion of the urban population consisted of Russians, Germans and Jews, while the rural population was mainly Ukrainian.

When bourgeois forces finally erected a Ukrainian nation-state, following the 1917 February Revolution’s overthrow of the tsar in Russia, they were immediately confronted with a revolutionary working class. The Bolsheviks, who seized power in Russia in October, received powerful support from the workers of Ukraine. Ever since then, bourgeois nationalism in Ukraine has been characterised by virulent anti-communism, pogroms against revolutionary workers and Jews, and attempts to win the support of imperialist powers.

The Social Democratic-dominated Rada (parliament), which proclaimed Ukraine’s independence in January 1918, tried to reach an agreement with Germany. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, however, the Soviet government was forced to cede Ukraine to Germany. When German troops marched into the country, the military dispensed with the Rada and established a dictatorship under Hetman (pre-eminent military commander) Pavlo Skoropadskyi, a landowner and former tsarist general. Skoropadskyi proceeded to make Kiev a rallying point for extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic politicians and military officers from all over Russia. (See: Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution: Part two)

Germany’s defeat in the First World War led to its forced retreat from Ukraine. Bloody battles engulfed Ukraine during the ensuing civil war in Russia. Supported by Western powers on Ukrainian soil in its fight against the Soviet government, the volunteer army under General Denikin committed horrific crimes and organised anti-Jewish pogroms. An estimated 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Whites in the second half of 1919 alone.

Symon Petliura, one the many Social Democrats who became nationalists, headed a directorate that took power in Kiev. This body also sought the backing of the Western powers in its war against the Soviet government and was responsible for the murder of more than 30,000 Jews. Both Petliura and Stepan Bandera, who emerged later as a leading figure, are regarded as role models by present-day Ukrainian nationalists.

Lenin advocated self-determination for Ukraine, and this democratic demand played a crucial role in winning the oppressed Ukrainian workers and peasants to the side of the Bolsheviks, who eventually won the civil war in 1921. In 1922, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic officially became part of the newly formed Soviet Union. However, western Ukraine remained under Polish rule.

Genuine independence from imperialism and development of national culture were possible in Ukraine only during the early years of the Soviet Union. These advances emerged from Lenin and Trotsky’s nationalities policy, which conceded to the nations within the Soviet confederation a comprehensive right to self-determination. The oppression of nationalities, as was common in the tsarist empire, was decisively rejected by the Bolsheviks.

The cultural life and material living standards of the Ukrainian masses underwent a dramatic improvement in the 1920s. The illiteracy rate declined sharply, as educational institutions and universities were established throughout the country. The Ukrainian language and culture were widely promoted, and this greatly stimulated intellectual life. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1939, thanks to this policy, Soviet Ukraine became extremely attractive to the workers, peasants and revolutionary intelligentsia of western Ukraine, which remained enslaved by Poland.

However, the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy brought an end to this nationalities policy. Lenin had attacked Stalin because of his centralist and bureaucratic tendencies in relation to the Georgian and Ukrainian questions. But after Lenin’s death, Stalin became increasingly ruthless in his attacks on non-Russian nationalities.

“The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too,” wrote Trotsky in 1939. “But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.” [1]

The Ukrainian peasants were particularly affected by the forced collectivisation of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Approximately 3.3 million people fell victim to this policy.

The devastating consequences of the nationalist polities of the Stalinist bureaucracy strengthened “nationalist underground groups… which were led by fanatical anti-Communists, successors of Petliura’s supporters and forerunners of Bandera’s people,” writes Vadim Rogovin in his book Stalin’s War Communism. [2]

Stalin’s murderous policies of repression played into the hands of Ukrainian nationalists and fascists, who agitated in the western parts of the divided Ukraine and collaborated with Hitler when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Despite the crimes of Stalinism, however, the great majority of Ukrainians fought in the Red Army to defend the Soviet Union.

The crimes of the Ukrainian fascists in World War II

Among the most significant organisations that collaborated with the Nazis was the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Its members were recruited mainly from veterans of the Civil War who had fought on the side of Petliura against the Bolsheviks.

During the 1930s, the OUN carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Its ideological head was Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973), who became one of the leading ideologues of the Ukrainian extreme right-wing through his journalistic activities, among which were Ukrainian translations of Mussolini’s Dottrina del Fascismo ( The Doctrine of Fascism ) and excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf .

Dontsov had earlier developed his thesis of “amorality.” According to historian Frank Golczewski, this asserted the obligation “to collaborate with every enemy of Great Russia, regardless of their own political goals.” It “created an ideological justification for the subsequent collaboration with the Germans” and the lineup of Ukrainian nationalists behind the United States during the Cold War. [3]

In 1940, the OUN split into the Bandera (B) and Melnyk (M) factions, which bitterly fought each other. Bandera’s more extreme group was able to attract more followers than Melnyk’s. It began by establishing Ukrainian militia (the Roland and Nightingale Legions) on German-occupied territory in Poland which, in league with the Wehrmacht (German army), invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After the withdrawal of the Red Army from areas conquered by the Germans, the legions and special militias acted as auxiliary troops in countless massacres of Jews. Following the entry of the OUN-B into Lviv on June 29, 1941, the Bandera militias (Nightingale Legion) unleashed murderous pogroms against the Jews lasting several days. Ukrainian militia continued massacring Jews in Ternopil, Stanislau (today Ivano-Fankisk) and other places. Documentary evidence relating to the first few days of the Wehrmacht’s advance reveals that about 140 pogroms were perpetrated in western Ukraine, in which 13,000 to 35,000 Jews were murdered. [4]

On June 30, 1941, Bandera and his deputy head of the OUN-B, Yaroslav Stetsko, proclaimed the independence of Ukraine in Lviv. Stepan Lenkavski, the OUN-B government’s director of propaganda, openly advocated the physical extermination of Ukrainian Jewry.

The Nazis used their Ukrainian collaborators to commit murders and acts of brutality that were too disturbing even for the SS units. For example, SS task force 4a in Ukraine confined itself to “the shooting of adults while commanding its Ukrainian helpers to shoot [the] children.” [5]

Dealing with Ukrainian and other collaborators in the Soviet Union was a controversial issue in the Nazi leadership. While Alfred Rosenberg, one of the main Nazis responsible for the Holocaust, urged greater involvement of local fascist forces, Hitler opposed the nationalists’ so-called independence projects. On Hitler’s orders, the OUN-B leaders were eventually arrested and the Ukrainian legions disarmed and relocated.

From 1942, the Ukrainian militia served the Third Reich in the “anti-partisan campaign” in Belarus, in the “security service,” and as armed personnel in concentration camps. Bandera and Stetsko remained in custody in Sachsenhausen concentration camp until September 1944.

When Hitler’s armies went into retreat after their defeat at Stalingrad, members of the OUN legions returned to Ukraine and formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1943. Immediately after his release by the German authorities, Bandera headed back to Ukraine to lead the UPA.

The UPA was supplied with German weapons and attempted to implement an extensive ethnic cleansing program in order to create the conditions for an ethnically pure Ukrainian state. In 1943 and 1944, the UPA organised massacres that claimed the lives of 90,000 Poles and thousands of Jews. It also brutally terrorised, tortured and executed Ukrainian peasants and workers who wanted to join the Soviet Union. The UPA went on to kill some 20,000 Ukrainians before the insurrection was completely crushed in 1953.

To be continued


[1] Leon Trotsky, “Problem of the Ukraine,” Trotsky Internet Archive 

[2] Vadim Rogovin: Stalins Kriegskommunismus, Essen 2006, p. 377

[3] Frank Golczewski: Die ukrainische Emigration, (Hrsg.): Geschichte der Ukraine, Göttingen 1993, p. 236

[4] Per Anders Rudling: “The Return of the Ukrainian Far Right. The Case of VO Svoboda,” in: Ruth Wodak, John E. Richardson (ed.): Analyzing Fascist Discourse: European Fascism in Talk and Text, London 2013, pp. 228-255. The article is accessible online.

[5] Quoted in Christopher Simpson: Blowback. America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War, London 1988, p. 25

Nationalism and fascism in Ukraine: A historical overview

Part two

By Konrad Kreft and Clara Weiss 
10 June 2014

This is the second of a two-part article. Part one was posted June 9.

The Ukrainian fascists during the Cold War

Immediately after World War II, the American secret service and military began recruiting high-ranking Nazis and Nazi collaborators for the ideological, political and military struggle against the Soviet Union. Fascists and war criminals from Germany and Eastern Europe who had been directly involved in the Holocaust and the murder of millions of Soviet civilians were utilized for covert activities by the US intelligence agencies or worked for propaganda outlets like Radio Free Europe.

According to Harry Rositzke, who was responsible at the CIA for secret operations inside the Soviet Union, “any bastard” was good “as long as he’s anti-Communist.” [6] The network that the CIA built up in the 1940s and 1950s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rested heavily on the web of Nazi collaborators.

A key role was played by Reinhard Gehlen, who had led Hitler’s military intelligence service on the Eastern Front and later became the first president of West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency (BND), responsible for foreign intelligence operations. From 1946, he worked for Washington and was able to utilise his old contacts among Ukrainian collaborators, within the anti-Soviet army of Russian General Vlasov, and within other Nazi networks.

The CIA’s first large-scale projects to destabilise the Soviet Union included intervention in the Ukrainian civil war. The predecessor to the CIA, the OSS, together with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), had already supplied the underground war being waged by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists-Bandera (OUN-B) with materiel and logistics before the end of the world war. As well as military training, this included the parachute drop of agents into Soviet and Polish territory. [7] The guerrilla war in Ukraine became the prototype for similar operations by the CIA throughout the world during the Cold War.

The most important UPA liaison officer for the CIA was Mykola Lebed, whom American military intelligence had described in 1946 as a “well known sadist and collaborator of the Germans.” [8] In 1949, the CIA sponsored his entry into the United States and covered up his war crimes. In emigration, he led the OUN-Z, a split-off from Bandera’s arm of the OUN, which was funded by the United States. He provided the contact between the US and the UPA fighters.

After 1953, Lebed was involved in the management of the émigré publishing house Prolog, financed by the CIA, which disseminated nationalist, anticommunist and historically revisionist literature. From 1945 to 1975, Prolog also published material in Munich depicting the Ukrainian fascists as freedom fighters against communism and either denying or varnishing their participation in war crimes.

Since 1943, the UPA has worked on the myth of the “democratic freedom fighter” to make itself acceptable as an ally of American imperialism. The standard lie runs: the OUN/UPA fought for democracy against both the Nazis and the communists.

The Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling writes of the propaganda of the fascistic Ukrainian diaspora: “The line between scholarship and diaspora politics was often blurred, as nationalist scholars combined propaganda and activism with scholarly work. Lebed’s circle never condemned the crimes or the mass murders of the OUN, let alone admitted that they had taken place. On the contrary, it made denial, obfuscation, and white-washing of the wartime activities of the OUN and the UPA a central aspect of its intellectual activities.” [9]

For years, “The main conduits for smuggling” literature produced by the Western secret services “into Soviet Ukraine and Lviv in Western Ukraine were through Poland and Czechoslovakia.” [10]

When Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski became President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, the US increased its funding for anti-Soviet Ukrainian propaganda. In addition to literature and radio broadcasts, videocassettes were produced.

Under President Reagan, the strategy of destabilising the Soviet Union by boosting the nationalities question was intensified. The CIA produced material that was addressed to different ethnic groups in the Soviet Union and encouraged separatist-nationalist tendencies. In 1983, President Reagan received OUN-B leader and war criminal Yaroslav Stetsko at the White House, pledging, “Your struggle is our struggle. Your dream is our dream.” [11]

According to the Ukrainian nationalist historian Taras Kuzio, Prolog was able to produce $3.5 million worth of propaganda in the Soviet Ukraine thanks to the financial support of the US. This paid for publications and the use of new technologies, which, according to Kuzio, “had a great impact upon sustaining and increasing anti-regime activities and opposition groups in the late 1980s in the final push towards Ukrainian independence.” [12]

In West Germany, the BND, in which countless former Nazis were active, supported exiled nationalists in their anti-Soviet work. In Munich, where the BND is headquartered, a Ukrainian émigré centre was established after the war that distributed propaganda literature. Bandera and Stetsko, the two most important OUN-B leaders, also lived there under false names. In October 1959, Bandera was uncovered by the Soviet KGB and murdered in Munich. Stetsko, the exiled leader of the OUN-B, lived there until his death in 1986.

Many academics have covered up Western cooperation with Ukrainian fascists. During the 1950s, many books were published about the Second World War concealing the role of collaborators in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, or glorifying them. The media, too, largely kept quiet.

In his 1988 book Blowback: America‘s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War, American journalist Christopher Simpson, who uncovered the network of old Nazis in the service of the CIA, noted:

“Until recently, the US media usually could be counted on to maintain a discreet silence about émigré leaders with Nazi backgrounds accused of working for the CIA. According to declassified records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, several mass media organizations in this country—at times working in direct concert with the CIA—became instrumental in promoting Cold War myths transforming certain exiled Nazi collaborators of World War II into ‘freedom fighters’ and heroes of the renewed struggle against communism.” [13]

Today’s war propaganda glorifying the fascists in Ukraine as model democrats and freedom fighters stands in this tradition.

The rise of Svoboda after 1991

After independence in 1991, Ukraine, like the rest of the former Soviet Union, saw far-right groups springing up like mushrooms. These ultra-right forces were encouraged by the imperialist powers and the Ukrainian state.

A systematic rehabilitation of the OUN and UPA began in the 1990s. In 1997, under the second Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, a government commission on the OUN and UPA was established in which prominent historians participated. The reports produced by the commission in 2000 and 2005 whitewashed the role of the fascists, especially the OUN-B.

The commission’s objective was the ideological preparation of a law giving veterans of the Red Army and the OUN/UPA equal status. The breakthrough in the rehabilitation of these forces followed under President Viktor Yushchenko, who came to power in 2004 as a result of the Western-backed “Orange Revolution.” He then passed the law giving them the imprimatur of the state.

Svoboda supported Yushchenko in the “Orange Revolution.” Its chairman, Oleh Tyahnybok, elected as an independent parliamentary deputy, joined Yushchenko’s bloc Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) and became a member of the parliamentary budget committee.

At that time, Tyahnybok said of the UPA/OUN-B veterans: “You fought against Moskali (a derogatory term for Russians), Germans, Yids and other scum… You are feared by the Mafia of the Moskali-Yids in the Ukraine the most.” This speech can be found on YouTube.

As a result of public pressure, Yushchenko’s bloc was unable to keep Tyahnybok and expelled him the same year. However, criminal charges for incitement were rejected.

Tyahnybok’s party was formed in 1991 under the name Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) through the merger of various right-wing groups and student bodies. It renamed itself Svoboda (freedom) shortly before the Orange Revolution.

Immediately after he took office, Yushchenko began a broad-based campaign to rehabilitate the Ukrainian fascists and their collaboration with the Nazis. In July 2005, he founded an “Institute of National Remembrance,” committed the Ukrainian secret service SBU (once part of the KGB) to carry out propaganda, and supported the establishment of a Museum of the Former Soviet Occupation. As the director of the institute, he appointed Volodomyr Viatrovych, who as an ultranationalist activist was also director of the Centre for Research of the Liberation Movement, an institution of OUN-B successors. [14]

Several OUN and UPA fighters and nationalist leaders like Symon Petliura were officially honoured, with the state producing special stamps and commemorative coins bearing their portraits.

During his last year in power, Yushchenko ensured that the mass media, such as Channel 5, gave Svoboda a disproportionate amount of coverage. Tyahnybok and party ideologist Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn appeared on popular talk shows such as “Velyka polityka” (Big Politics) and “Shuster Live.” Especially following Svoboda’s electoral success in western Ukraine in 2009, the party achieved widespread media coverage. [15]

Yushchenko had monuments built in Lviv and Ternopil to commemorate war criminal Stepan Bandera, whom he declared to be a hero of Ukraine just days before the end of his presidency in 2010. After protests from Poland and the EU, the new president, Viktor Yanukovych, rescinded this honour, as well as that for the fascist Roman Shukhevych.

Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling described the ideological climate in 2013 with the words: “The hegemonic nationalist narrative is reflected also in academia, where the line between ‘legitimate’ scholarship and ultra-nationalist propaganda often is blurred. Mainstream book stores often carry Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic literature, some of which finds its way into the academic mainstream.” [16]

The Yushchenko regime’s collaboration with fascists was not limited to Svoboda. The openly anti-Semitic Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN), founded in 1992 as the successor organisation to the OUN with the participation of Stetsko’s widow Slava, joined Yushchenko’s bloc Our Ukraine in 2002 and remained in parliament until 2012. Party Chairman Svarytsh was in the first government of Yulia Tymoshenko and was justice minister in 2006 in Yanukovych’s anti-crisis alliance.

Under these conditions, Svoboda was able to triple its membership between 2004 and 2010, according to its own figures. Nonetheless, the party performed only modestly in elections. In the 2007 parliamentary elections, Svoboda won 0.78 percent of the vote, and in presidential elections in 2009, 1.43 percent.

By contrast, its vote in regional elections in western Ukraine was significantly higher. In local elections in 2010, the party achieved between 20 and 30 percent of the vote in eastern Galicia, and won 5.2 percent nationally. Since then, Svoboda’s stronghold has been the city of Lviv, where the OUN-B proclaimed the short-lived independent Ukraine in 1941.

In parliamentary elections in October 2012, which had the lowest turnout (58 percent) since independence, Svoboda entered the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) as the fourth-largest party, with 10.45 percent of the vote. Its highest vote percentages came from western Ukraine, with totals of between 30 and 40 percent in three administrative regions. On the other hand, the party barely achieved 1 percent in eastern Ukraine. In Lviv, Svoboda achieved more than 50 percent and in Kiev it was the second strongest party.

Svoboda leaves no doubt about its fascist orientation and its glorification of the Nazis. On 29 January 2011, on the occasion of a memorial event for the battle of Kruty in 1918, the party organised a large torchlight procession with autonomous right-wing groups and Nazi symbols.

On 28 April 2011, it celebrated the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the Galician division of the Waffen-SS. Along the route of the march, placards proclaimed “the pride of our nation.” The participants, with party ideologist Mykhalchyshyn at their head, chanted, “One race, one nation, one fatherland,” and hailed Bandera, Melnyk and Shukhevych as heroes of Ukraine.

On 30 June 2011, Svoboda commemorated the 70th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, as well as Stetsko’s renewal of the Ukrainian nation, in a people’s festival, where mock fighters appeared in SS uniforms.

In addition, Svoboda opened several restaurants in Lviv. In the dining room of one, an oversized portrait of Bandera was hung and jokes about Poles and Jews could be found on the toilet walls. Dishes on offer included “Hands up” (in German) and “battle serenade.” Local ultra-right football fans described Lviv on their banners as “Bandera town.” Streets in Lviv have been named after Nazi collaborators by Svoboda city councillors.

The young party ideologist Yuri Mykhalchyshyn, born in Lviv in 1982, founded a right-wing think tank in 2005 that he first named after Josef Goebbels and later Ernst Jünger. In his writings, he openly refers to the “heroic” legacy of fascists like Evgen Konovalets, Stepan Bandera and Horst Wessel. He has described the Holocaust as a “bright episode in European civilisation.”

The government and media’s hailing of fascism, which in Ukraine claimed millions of victims, has been met with disgust and opposition by large sections of the population. By contrast, the Western powers portrayed the Yushchenko regime, which pressed for the ideological and political rehabilitation of fascism, as a model democracy. At the same time, Svoboda and the right-wing paramilitary Right Sector received support from Western intelligence services and parties.

Svoboda maintains close ties to the far-right German NPD (National Democratic Party), which was described by judges in 2003 as a “state organisation” because its leadership was full of secret service operatives. In May 2004, the NPD welcomed a Svoboda delegation on a friendly visit to the state parliament in Dresden. The Christian Democratic Union-aligned Konrad Adenauer Foundation also provided Svoboda with a platform. The foundation invited Svoboda members to conferences and seminars on the lessons of the 2012 elections. At the time, Yanukovych had just been reelected.

The US Republican Party also has decades-long connections with Ukrainian fascists. The American government invested large sums of money in the preparation of the coup against Yanukovych. Victoria Nuland, US undersecretary of state for Europe, stated that Washington had “invested” around $5 billion in political projects in Ukraine over the past two decades.

On May 9, the government-aligned Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that a Right Sector member had flown to Washington at the end of April for talks with the US administration. Nuland offered Right Sector $5-$10 million to give up its weapons and transform itself into a party. But Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector, rejected the offer.

The strong support from Western governments for Ukrainian fascists is directed not only against workers in Ukraine, but against workers around the world. Berlin and Washington have deliberately built up fascist forces in Ukraine and are now using them to impose social attacks on the working class and prepare for a major war with Russia.


1. Nazi Lt. General Reinhard Gehlen

2. Mykola Lebed

3. Stetsko meeting with Vice President Bush in 1983 ]


[6] Cited by Simpson, 1988, p. 159

[7] Taras Kuzio: US support for Ukraine’s liberation during the Cold War: a study of Prolog Research and Publishing Corporation, in Communist and Post-Communist Studies, no. 45, 2012, p. 53

[8] Simpson 1988, p. 166

[9] Per Anders Rudling: The OUN, the UPA and the Holocaust: A study in the manufacturing of historical myths, in the Carl Beck Papers in Russian & Eastern European Studies, no. 2107 (2011), p. 19. The article is accessibleonline.

[10] Kuzio, 2012, p. 56

[11] Russ Bellant: Old Nazis, the New Right and the Republican Party, Boston 1991, p. 72

[12] Kuzio 2012, p. 61

[13] Simpson 1988, p. 5

[14] Rudling 2013, p. 230

[15] Ibid ., p. 244

[16] Ibid ., p. 231