This is part 4 of my series on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you can read the other parts here.
In his speech declaring war on Ukraine, the (not so great) dictator of Russia, Vladimir Putin, said the goal of his “special operation” was the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine and ridding it of drug addicts. The goal of demilitarization made sense, at least from Putin’s perspective – he wanted a regime change. He’d remove the democratically elected government and install a Russia-friendly puppet government instead, thus expanding the power and influence of the Russian empire.
Putin made it sound like Ukraine is swarming with Nazis. But Putin was not talking to me or my Western readers; this speech was directed to the Russian people. A large majority in Russia is convinced that the Russian Army is doing God’s work, removing from power neo-Nazis that were committing genocide in Ukraine and especially East Ukraine (I discussed this in part 3 of this series). To my shock, I found that the majority of my middle school friends in Russia believe this, too.
This was inconceivable to me. How could Ukrainians, who, based on my interactions with them, were culturally indistinguishable from Russians, suddenly became Nazis? I wanted to understand where this neo-Nazis belief was coming from. I spent more time than I’d like to admit reading and watching Putin’s propaganda to understand it.
All propaganda usually has a kernel of truth. To understand that tiny kernel of truth about neo-Nazis in Ukraine, we have to go back to the beginning of the 20th century. That century was terribly unkind to Ukraine, just as it was to most European countries. Ukraine found itself caught between two empires, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian, that fought each other and stepped all over Ukraine. Its people were constantly victimized. Ukraine fought the Poles in the Polish-Ukrainian War in 1918. And then the Ukrainians became casualties of both the Red (Bolshevik) and White (anti-Bolshevik) factions during the Soviet revolution.
As the Soviets came to power, things got a lot worse. In the early 1930s about a quarter of the country died from hunger, a catastrophe that went into the history books as the Holodomor or Great Famine. The Holodomor was caused by the “brilliant” policies of Joseph Stalin. Ukraine at the time was a mostly agrarian society – over 80% of the population lived on farms. Stalin’s great idea was to collectivize the farms. All land was expropriated from its farmers and put into a collective called Kolhoz (an acronym loosely translated as “collective farm”). Farmers became laborers on the lands they used to own. Those who refused to give up their farms were called “kulaki” (which translates as “tight-fisted”) – they were shot.
When everybody owns everything, nobody owns anything. You are not going to have soul in the game when you labor for the collective good, an abstract concept. Production from the collective farms was drastically lower than when they were privately owned, while Bolsheviks were collecting “the vig,” based on pre-collectivization output. Add some bad weather into the mix, Ukraine starved, as millions of people died from hunger (I’ve seen figures as high as eight million). As an aside, when politicians who never spent a minute running a business come out with social-redistribution or economic policies, think of Comrade Stalin and how his theoretically feasible policies failed in practice and killed millions of people.
In pictures of starved Ukrainians from this era, they look no different from prisoners at Auschwitz. Ukrainians often look at Holodomor as Russian genocide against Ukrainians. I am not a historian, but it seems that Stalin’s policies were not directed specifically towards Ukraine but also impacted Russia and Kazakhstan. The Ukrainians were also terrorized and abused by those who collected their wheat. They were often killed if they did not report all wheat that was collected. Needless to say, many Ukrainians looked at the Soviets as oppressors.
I am trying to simplify a very complex history in just a few paragraphs, and I am describing Ukraine as a monolithic country. It is anything but. It is a country that often holds opposite views on issues in different parts of the country. Keep that in mind while reading this.
At the beginning of WWII, when the German Army entered Ukraine, some Ukrainians (especially in the western part of the country) looked at Germans as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They welcomed the Germans as their liberators from Soviet oppression. Some joined the Nazis and became their henchmen, exhibiting cruelty similar to that of the Nazis. Russian propaganda will never let you forget that.
Also, today we look at Nazis as heartless aggressors who killed millions of people and perpetrated the Holocaust, and deservingly so. But we have the benefit of hindsight. At the opening of WWII, Eastern Europeans did not know what would ensue. This had not been the experience of Eastern European populations when they dealt with the Germans during the First World War.
I read Sam Zell’s wonderful autobiography, Am I Being Too Subtle? Sam’s Jewish relatives did not want to leave Poland in 1939. They were not afraid of Germans, because the last time they were occupied by Germany, during WWI, the Germans treated them well. Luckily, Sam’s father traveled around Europe and realized that Hitler’s Germany was much different from the one twenty years before. Sam’s family left Poland hours before their town got bombed by the Germans.
But I still have to stress this point: The majority of Ukrainians, including my grandfather, fought against the Nazis. They were no less brave than the Russians, and many gave their lives to liberate the world from Nazism. Again, Ukraine is a large and diverse country.
Ukraine’s dark history gives plenty of material for Putin’s propaganda machine to work with. But many countries have dark histories. Let’s take the United States, for instance. If Putin’s propagandists wanted to convince Russians to invade America to liberate Black people from “racist neo-Nazi White Americans,” our history would provide plenty of raw material, too.
Putin’s propaganda documentary would start with slavery. It would tell you that the founding fathers of America owned people as private property. It would go on to tell you that racism is embedded in the DNA of our constitution. The documentary would have historians narrating and showcasing the horrible lives African-Americans had in the US for centuries. None of them would be lying. There would be videos featuring the KKK lynching and tar-and-feathering Blacks. The film would show footage from the 1950s—not that long ago—of segregated public facilities with signs “Whites only.”
Then the documentary would fast-forward to recent times. You’d see video clips of police shooting Blacks in the back or choking them to death. Or of last year’s BLM and anti-BLM protests, like the one in Charlottesville. Then it would mix in some footage of Hitler and then of neo-Nazis marching in Nazi regalia, brandishing torches and giving the “sieg heil!” salute – there are plenty of those videos circulating in the US, too. After you were done watching this film, if you were a kindhearted Russian, your blood would boil with anger and disgust toward White Americans.
This propaganda video would carefully filter out any positive developments that have happened in our country in the past century: the civil rights movement, the end of segregation, and general public outcry from all corners of our society against anti-Black racism. It would not show that as a country we progressed, we changed, we improved.
The propaganda machine would not stop with one documentary. Russian TV would feed you little clips of White Americans exhibiting neo-Nazis tendencies several times a day on the one and only government news channel. Marketers know that for you to remember a message and then to believe it, it has to be repeated many times. The propaganda machine would bring a Hubble telescope to bear on every racial injustice that has ever been perpetrated in our country. It would magnify them so much that if you had never been in the US, you would believe that Black people are so oppressed today that there is little difference between their treatment by White Americans two hundred years ago and today. I am in no way glossing over the many glaring and painful examples of racism in our current society. But, by the time Russian propaganda was done with you, you’d be convinced that Black people are afraid to go grocery shopping and that White Americans all wear KKK hoods instead of baseball caps.
Russian propaganda doesn’t stop at just dredging up dark history that has little semblance to current reality. It makes up stories and stages fake events. Let me give you a very real example from Ukraine. After I wrote part 1 of this series, a reader from Russia sent me a video with the subject line “And you say there are no neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” I watched the video, and I could not believe my eyes. Then I googled and found several reputable newspapers writing about it. Here is what The Times of Israel wrote about it:
[The video shows] shoppers climbing up and down the staircase [in a shopping mall in Kyiv], whose middle-section stairs feature a large swastika locked in a white rhombus encircled by red, similar to Nazi Germany’s flag. The street where the shopping mall is located is on the street named for Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who briefly collaborated with Nazi Germany in its fight against Russia.
Note the Stepan Bandera reference; it is important. I will address him soon.
The LED stairs of the “Horodok” shopping mall in Kyiv lit up with a giant swastika for a few minutes on 16 February 2019. The shocking display bewildered shoppers, and after several minutes, security turned off the power of the LED lights. Horodok’s management apologized for the incident and claimed their computers were hacked.
We will never know whether the LED display was hacked by a Russian disinformation operation or Ukrainian neo-Nazis. The point is, this video would have you believe that a gigantic Nazi swastika in a shopping mall in the center of Kyiv is just another day in Ukraine. Of course, it is anything but. Displaying swastika is a crime in the Ukraine. The same newspaper I quote above wrote the following: “On 21 February, Ukraine’s security service opened a criminal probe into the swastika show under p.1 of article 426-1 of Ukraine’s criminal code, which prohibits propaganda of Nazi and Communist ideology.”
This is just one of many examples where Russian propaganda tries to portray Ukrainians as neo-Nazis.
We cannot discuss the topic of neo-Nazism in Ukraine and not discuss Stepan Bandera. You hear Bandera’s name on Russian TV nonstop. In fact, they’ll call Ukrainians “Banderovtsi,” which means, to them “Russia- and Soviet-hating, Jew-killing neo-Nazis.”
Stepan Bandera fought for the independence of Ukraine and became the head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1933. He orchestrated the assassination of the Polish minister of the interior, for which he was sentenced to death. The Nazis invaded Poland and Bandera escaped from prison.
Bandera collaborated closely with Nazi Germany. The Nazis led him to believe that Ukraine would get its independence under German rule. The Nazis broke their promise shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. Afraid that Bandera would start a revolt against Germany, they arrested him in June 1941. Bandera spent most of WWII in a German concentration camp. While he was there, his organization, OUN, fighting on Germany’s side, committed atrocities against Russians, Jews, and Poles, murdering as many as 100,000 people. Bandera was assassinated by the KGB in 1959.
Jewish people suffered from pogroms (organized massacres) all over Europe for centuries. Most governments throughout Europe either encouraged it or closed their eyes. Ukraine was not any different. However, Lenin put in place an anti-pogrom policy. This is why a lot of Jews joined the Soviets. Since Soviets were the enemy, and thus so were Jews, this gave Ukrainians another reason to hate Jews. (Being Jewish, the first reason still escapes me.) Here is what Bandera said about Jews: “The Jews in the USSR constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine.” I hate finding a nuance in someone hating a race (my race), but his hatred of Jews was very different from Hitler’s belief that “Jews are an inferior race.”
When we discuss Bandera we need to define two terms, nationalist and patriot. We are entering into the murky entrails of social science. Patriotism often carries a positive connotation and nationalism a negative one, though until the 20th century they both meant the same thing. They have a common core: love of and dedication to one’s country. A patriot wants sovereignty for his country. A nationalist is often patriot who believe in the superiority (exceptionalism) of his or her country or race, as was the case with the Nazis). A lot of nationalists will tolerate minorities as long as they don’t interfere with the majority – that was the case with Bandera. Nazis are a modern example of an extreme case of nationalism. However, the lines between the two terms often get blurry, as you’ll see.
Was Bandera a nationalist or a patriot? We know he wanted an independent Ukraine, as any patriot would. However, since in addition to Ukrainian independence he wanted to rid all other nationalities from Ukraine, that would make him a nationalist. Bandera is a polarizing figure in Ukraine. A third of the country has a negative image of him as a murderous nationalist and a third a positive one as a fighter for Ukraine’s independence (I get the feeling those who suffered the most from the Soviets belong to this group). He is unpopular in Eastern Ukraine (the territory closer to Russia) and very popular (a 76% favorable rating) in Western Ukraine.
In 2015, Ukraine passed a law focused on the de-communization of Ukraine, which resulted in the removal of Soviet monuments and the renaming of 52,000 streets previously named after Soviets, replacing them with the names of Ukrainian historical figures. The law gave a lot of raw material to Putin’s propaganda machine. First, Russians, who, just like Ukrainians, suffered huge losses during WWII, are very sensitive to anything concerning WWII. If you want to get into a bar fight with almost any Russian, tell them that the Americans, by opening a second front, helped to win WWII.
Thanks to Russian propaganda reminding them about it several times a day, Russians are insulted by Ukrainians removing from their streets the names of Soviet generals who fought the Nazis. Also, since they see Bandera only as a Nazi sympathizer, they portray this move as Ukraine reverting to its natural state of being neo-Nazi and thus showing its true colors. But here’s an important point: This law also banned Nazi symbols.
I tried to discuss this topic with my classmates from Russia. I’d tell them that I understood that they had an issue with Bandera (I am not a fan, either). But I could see how some Ukrainians look at him as the fighter for their independence that this country always needed. This doesn’t make Ukrainians automatically neo-Nazis; after all, (paraphrasing Forrest Gump), a Nazi is what a Nazi does.
Irony arises when I ask my Russian classmates, don’t you think that what Stalin did to Russians, Ukrainians, and the rest of the Soviet Union was exponentially worse than what Bandera did? After all, Stalin killed twenty million people in the Soviet Union. He beheaded top ranks of the Soviet Army (just like Putin, or any dictator, he was afraid of strong leaders), which resulted in much greater losses of life in the Soviet Union during WWII. I’d tell them, you criticize Ukrainians for naming streets after Stepan Bandera, but Joseph Stalin is in vogue again in Russia and his statues are popping up all over the country. My Russian middle school friends tended to reply that Stalin was a complex, non ordinary individual.
And then there is the Azov Battalion. This name pops up in every other conversation and Putin’s propaganda. The Azov Battalion is named after the Azov Sea. It started out as a private militia funded and formed by a Ukrainian oligarch to fight off the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. At the time of its formation the Ukrainian Army was very weak, and the formation of the battalion seemed like an act of desperation. Russians are terrified by this battalion, as it fought successfully in the second assault of Mariupol in 2014. (Mariupol is the city being turned into rubble by Putin’s bombing today.) In 2015 the Azov Battalion was folded into the Ukrainian National Guard. It remains one of the best-trained units in Ukraine. I have read reports that the battalion has been trained by the US. Its sole goal is to defend Ukraine from Russia.
There is plenty of raw material here for Russian propaganda. The insignia of the battalion somewhat resembles a swastika, though the battalion denies that. It says that it derives from a Ukrainian symbol that dates back to 1918. Call me a skeptic. More importantly, at one point as many as 20% of its members identified themselves as neo-Nazi sympathizers.
I struggled with Azov for a long time, and then had this insight: Imagine my neighborhood is overrun by invaders (zombies, if you like). My next-door neighbor is a neo-Nazi, wears a Nazi swastika, lights a candle every day to Adolph Hitler, and bakes a cake for Hitler’s birthday. We, my neighbor and I, take up arms to fight these invaders, who are determined to kill our families. At this point I don’t care what beliefs my neighbor holds, I just want to make sure he has a gun and knows how to use it. We don’t share the same values (an understatement), but at this point we are united by the same goal. My neighbor may be a nationalist, he may think our neighborhood is superior to others (though he doesn’t do anything about it), but at this point we are both patriots fighting to protect our loved ones.
This is exactly how I view the neo-Nazi 20% of the Azov Battalion. Today they share the same goal as the rest of the battalion and 100% of the country: Free Ukraine from the Russian invaders who are killing their loved ones and leveling their cities. Also, I have to remind you that the Azov Battalion is a battalion, not the whole army. I’ve seen numbers that it has 900 soldiers, so in the worst case 180 are sympathetic to neo-Nazis; but the Ukrainian Army has a quarter of a million people, so 180 is a rounding error. Russian propaganda would have you believe that 20% of that battalion is the whole Ukrainian Army.
As much as Russians would love to point to neo-Nazis in the Azov Battalion, they should look at their own ranks. In 2015, Russia (unofficially) sent their military to support Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine fighting the Ukrainian Army. Putin also sent a Russian neo-Nazi group, the Russian Imperial Movement. I was going to say that Russian-sponsored neo-Nazis are a clear instance of nationalists, not patriots, but then I realized that they are just neo-Nazis thugs hired to kill Ukrainians.
“Is there a neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine?” I’d ask my Ukrainian friends (who I was quite certain were not neo-Nazis). They’d be somewhat puzzled by it, as if they had not given it much thought, just as you’d draw a blank look if you asked me or any of my friends in Denver (or most of my readers, probably) the same question about the US. I know I’d be puzzled by it. I see occasional clips on TV of white supremacists having political rallies. There was a tragic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, which has now been shuffled in my memory with a dozen of other mass shootings unrelated to neo-Nazis that have happened since. I have read that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US and Europe. But when my wife and kids and I go to synagogue, I don’t worry about our safety. Thankfully.
But then I read that almost one out of ten Americans thinks it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. I don’t know a single one of those “one out of ten.” I doubt many of my friends and readers do, either. Maybe these “one out of ten” fall outside of our myopic circles (I discussed the concept of myopic circles here) and normal, kind hearted, civilized people don’t usually associate themselves with scum (I am not apologetic about it). Or just maybe, those “one out of ten” are around us and they just don’t publicize their neo-Nazi sympathies.
In 2019 Ukraine held democratic elections. 73% of the country voted to elect a Jewish president in a country that also had a Jewish prime minister. Ukrainians must be a unique breed of neo-Nazis, as Ukraine is the only country in the world whose head of government and head of state are Jewish (outside of Israel). By the way, in the same election, the far right party got only 2.3% of the vote. So no, Ukraine doesn’t have a neo-Nazi problem. Just like any Western country, Ukraine is affected by the neo-Nazi cancer, but it represents only a tiny portion of the society.
I was talking to a dear childhood friend who lives in Russia, and he told me something that stuck with me. He said, “The problem with Russians is, we don’t apologize.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but then I stumbled on this speech by the Ukrainian prime minister to Israel’s Knesset in 2015, apologizing to the Jewish people for the role Ukrainian collaborators played in executing 33,000 Jews in less than two days during the Babi Yar in 1941.
That apology will not bring these perished souls back. But it will do two things: It is an admission and it takes ownership of this event. That may sound like a little thing, but it is not. We live in a society where history is written not by the guy with a pen but by the guy holding a gun to the head of the guy with a pen. History is constantly being rewritten – in Russia, Stalin went from being a monster to celebrated hero again in less than two decades. An apology by a president of a country cements truth into the history books. Though it is not a guarantee, it reduces the chances of repeating an atrocity in the future. Neo-Nazis don’t make apologies like that.
For the last three weeks, as I was working on this four-part essay series, I deepened my appreciation of so many things we take for granted in the Western world: democracy, free elections, due process, and the rule of law, but especially these two things: freedom of speech and a free press.
Today in Russia, people are put in jail not just for speaking against this war but for simply calling this “special operation” in Ukraine a war. Participating in a peaceful demonstration or posting a picture of killed Ukrainian civilians on social media will also land you in jail. And then there is freedom of the press, which dies without freedom of speech. This is exactly what has happened (again) in Russia.
Propaganda coupled with the dismantling of the free press has created a weapon of mass distraction. This combination is incredibly dangerous; it gives a dictatorial government unlimited power over the mind of its people. It allows government to precisely curate what people think and thus provides an almost unlimited carte blanche for government actions – this is what allowed the unthinkable, barbaric war against Ukraine.
Propaganda strips away all independent thinking, turning people into mindless drones. Propaganda works by causing our right (emotional) brain to overwhelm our left (analytical) one. The more you “think” with your right brain, the less thinking you do. Over time, emotions evoked by propaganda prevent you from objectively analyzing the subject at hand. You have a hard time telling what is true and what is not. Over time, peer pressure sets in, and it is hard to be the only enlightened one. This is how people get zombified.
I remember watching The Walking Dead – that show about a zombie apocalypse. This moment stuck with me. A husband sees his wife-turned-zombie walking down the street. He runs up to her and tries to talk to this shell of a person. He desperately attempts to appeal to any particle of soul left in the body of what used to be his wife. He cannot get through to her. She is dead. He is talking to an empty shell. Strangely enough, this is the experience I had when I tried talking to Russians zombified by Putin’s propaganda about Ukraine and neo-Nazis in Ukraine. This experience is not unique to me. I’ve read about and met young Russian adults who have had this experience with their parents, who were otherwise intelligent people and still are when it comes to other parts of life.
If you look deep enough into the history of almost any country, you’ll find dark, tragic holes in it. But we are not our history. We are not our past. We are what we learn from it. We are our actions today. Ukraine had a tragic and painful history, but unlike Russia, it has learned from it.
Ukraine’s fault was that it was a budding democracy right next to a shriveling, dictatorial ex-empire. Putin could not live with the fact that a democracy next door, a country that did not want to live under his thumb, also wanted to embrace Western values. It also dared to attempt to prosper while the ex-empire under his rule became a bit less relevant every day.
The dictator next door needed an excuse to invade Ukraine. The nonexistent threat of NATO seemed like a good one. But it was not enough justification for starting a war and killing people who look just like his own population. He had to dehumanize the people he was about to kill. He convinced his populace that by his bombing cities and killing Ukrainians by the thousands, the Russian Army was doing God’s work and de-Nazifying the country – he even threw in the bonus that he’d also get rid of drug addicts. (I’ll touch on that next.)
In all honesty, neither an excuse to invade nor his dehumanization campaign really mattered. With the mind control his propaganda has over Russians, given enough time he could have convinced them he was de-Marsifying Ukraine from Martians.
One last note:
In his speech Putin said that in addition to de-Nazification he’d be ridding Ukraine of drug addicts. My close childhood friend told me an interesting story about this. One week into the war, Volodymyr Zelensky was giving an interview to the Western media, and he was falling asleep. For several days Russian propaganda replayed this clip. For several hours a day the propaganda machine paraded an army of psychologists and drug addiction experts to explain to the thirsty-for-knowledge Russian public that this Jewish neo-Nazi (the new kind) was behaving just like a typical drug addict. Of course, any person with just a slight awareness of the situation wouldn’t need an army of experts to tell them what was going on with Zelensky – he was terribly sleep-deprived.
But here is where the interesting part comes in. My friend was talking to his mother-in-law. She was telling him how Zelensky is a drug addict. He asked her, “Don’t you think he is just short on sleep because his country is at war?” She gave him a puzzled look. He continued, “Where do you think Zelensky is?” She replied, “In Poland, with his family.” My friend threw up his hands and said “I give up!” I rest my case.