On Ukrainian Nationalism By a Ukrainian Person of Color
Mariam Naiem · 7 Apr 2022 · Adapted from original Twitter thread
As a Russian-speaking person of color who was born and raised in Ukraine, I believe that I am in a position to speak on the issue of nationalism and neo-Nazism in Ukraine.
To talk about Ukrainian nationalism, we first have to establish the context of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. These are not just countries sharing a common border. Our relationship is that of an empire and its colony. Same as with Russia and many other countries and peoples in Eurasia, by the way. If you want a quick tour of Russian colonialism, this Twitter thread by journalist and researcher Maksym Eristavi is a great start.
The Russian empire erases the culture of its colonies. The captured lands are renamed Russia, ethnically cleansed, and/or forcibly assimilated. For Ukraine, this manifested in several genocidal famines, and a centuries-long policy of elimination of the language and culture.
Ewa Thompson,1 a prominent scholar and advocate of the post-colonial view of Eastern European history, noted there is a “distinction between imperialistic nationalism, reaching out aggressively to subjugate and exploit potential colonies and defensive nationalism, poised to preserve traditions and identities.” Defensive nationalism is common to peoples whose identity is in existential danger.
For example, the media often mention the ultra-right regiment of Azov. Its founding year? 2014. Date of Russia’s attack on Ukraine? 2014. The current rise of the Ukrainian nationalist and far-right movements is to large extent caused by Russia’s expansive aggression.
That said, although Ukraine has been oppressed and colonized throughout its history, there are many horrific examples of atrocities and mistreatment against Roma, Jews, Poles, and others, committed by Ukrainians. In particular, like the rest of the lands of the former Russian Empire, Ukraine is firmly associated with anti-semitism in the Jewish national memory.
Ukraine is not an ideal place. Ukrainian society is not perfect, and there is racism in it. I have personally encountered racism in Ukraine. We hear about it a lot. What we hear less about is how much Ukraine has improved in recent years. Ukrainians have elected a president whose campaign was based on unity across identities. And this president is of Jewish descent.
Jewish communities also support Ukraine in this war:
As I mentioned, I have experienced racism in Ukraine. But, having lived in the US and Western Europe, I can say that I was much more likely to encounter institutional racism abroad than in Ukraine. Moreover, in the last decade, I felt safe in Kyiv (before the full-scale invasion, of course…)
Now, let us look more at the right-wing movement. As in many European countries, there are right-wing parties in Ukraine. But unlike places such as Hungary, Italy, and others, in Ukraine, such parties have tiny support.
The most known Ukrainian far-right parties of “National Corps”, “Freedom” and “Right Sector” together received ~2% of the vote in the 2019 Parliamentary Elections. Compare with the sobering statistics in Europe:
Thus, the actual scale of the far-right problem in Ukraine was significantly overblown by the Western media (and Russian propaganda), especially compared to incredible progress in recent years despite the war raging since 2014.
This is not to say that Ukrainian far right is not an issue. I am the last person to defend them. But, its media coverage is overblown, ignores the genuine changes for the better in Ukraine, and fails to put it in the context of European, and, especially relevant now, Russian far-right movements.
Russia wants the world to believe they are “de-nazifying” Ukraine, implying Russia is free of neo-Nazism. But of course, this is very far from the truth.
Russian nationalism is expansive. Quoting Professor Thompson again, “It is directed outwards and its bearers are less aware of their own chauvinism.” An essential element of such nationalism is the idea of one’s own greatness, which becomes a justification for territorial expansion beyond Russia’s existing borders. The modern Russian imperial ideology is deeply rooted in aggressive expansive nationalism.
Despite this, I think Russian nationalism is weakly covered in Western media, even when relevant. For several years, Alexei Navalny has been an example of the systemic struggle against the regime in authoritarian Russia. But even Russia’s opposition has close ties to nationalism.
Around the 2010s, Navalny was expelled from his party for “nationalist activities”, and campaigned to end subsidies to Chechnya and other non-Slavic regions of Russia on ethnically stereotypical grounds. Navalny’s nationalism is also evident in his stance on illegally annexed Crimea. When asked about Crimea, he replied that “Crimea is not a sandwich”, and added: “Crimea will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine again in the near future.”
There are more than 100 neo-Nazi groups in Russia, and the number of crimes they commit is growing each year. It is difficult to find accurate information about them, and they are not of such interest to the Western media as Ukrainian ones.
TL;DR: Western media and Russian propaganda wildly inflate the problem of the Ukrainian far-right. The coverage fails to put the Ukrainian far-right in the larger context. Once done, it’s evident that it is a tiny problem compared to Russian and even European right-wing movements.
Russia, in contrast, used to be an authoritarian state, but now it has all the features of a fascist state. Totalitarian propaganda & censorship, popular support for violence – all of this is a portrait of modern Russia.
Is Ukraine an ideal country without racism? No.
Does the Ukrainian far-right have political prospects? No.
Is Russia an ideal country without racism as they imply? No.
Does the Russian far-right have political prospects? It already is a fascist state.
I do not agree with prof. Thompson on many things, but she is one of those who have been fundamental to making the post-colonial understanding of Eastern Europe popular. ↩