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Historian Per Rudling discusses the influence of the Ukrainian right-wing nationalist party Svoboda and the historical roots of Ukrainian nationalism

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Tensions continue between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine’s Crimea region, the main issue being the imminent referendum vote, which could place Crimea under Russian control. We here at The Real News want to take a step back and get a broader look at the Ukrainian protests and the new transitional government.

On the one hand, Russian media reports, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, characterize Ukrainian protesters as right-wing extremists who led the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. On the other hand, President Barack Obama, U.S. officials, and other segments of the American media have reported on these events as a legitimate popular revolution.

With us to discuss what’s really the underlying truth is Per Rudling. Rudling is an associate professor of the Department of History at Lund University, concentrating on nationalism and the far right in the Polish-Ukrainian-Belarussian borderlands.

Thank you for joining us, Per.


DESVARIEUX: So, as we mentioned before, Per, we have two contesting narratives here. We have Ukrainian as protests as right-wing extremists, and the ouster of Yanukovych as sort of this U.S.-backed coup, and also the characterization of the uprising as a popular protest. But we also have the facts, and the fact is that the right-wing nationalist party in Ukraine, Svoboda, has claimed seats in the Ukrainian transitional government, including deputy prime minister and the deputy secretary of national security. Can you talk about the ideology of the party and its history? And how much influence do they really have?

RUDLING: Well, thank you. Well, the government in Ukraine is a transitional government. It consists of two parties, even though there were three parties that prominently figured in the protests. One was Yatsenyuk’s party, which is the party of Yulia Tymoshenko that is now run by her deputy. There is Klitschko’s party, UDAR, sort of an anticorruption. Both parties are center-right sort of parties. And there is the radical right-wing Svoboda Party. These three made up the protests sort of opposition together. And two of these–Svoboda and Bat’kivshchyna, or Fatherland, the party of Yatsenyuk–make up the government. And Svoboda has their four government members, and there are another three members that belong to the far right.

Svoboda is a party which is based primarily in western Ukraine, in primarily the regions that before 1940, 1939, were part of Poland, and they grew out of a tradition of Ukrainian [incompr.] nationalism. They particularly identify with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which was active during World War II and before World War II. It’s a party which is regional but claim to be all national–the exact term of the party is the all-Ukrainian party, Svoboda. But it is very regionally based. It belongs to the far-right on the European perspective. It’s a member of the so-called Alliance of European National Movements and movements. That means it works closely with parties such as the British National Party in Britain, Jobbik in Hungary, in Sweden a small party called the Nationaldemokraterna (the National Democrats). And what they do want is they promote a policy on ethnic grounds. They are seeing Ukrainians being downtrodden in their own country, and they want to introduce, for instance, a nationality paragraph in the passport or reintroduce the nationality paragraph in the passport. They want to elevate the status of Ukrainian language to the only official language, something which they did succeed, reversing that law a couple of weeks ago. It’s a party which belong on the far-right political spectrum. But politically, economically, it’s sort of middle-of-the-road. Like many far-right parties, what makes them extreme is not economic policies but sort of this sort of identity politics which they employ. And Svoboda has found its heroes and idols particularly in the very divisive World War II era, and they celebrate in particular the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists Stepan Bandera, who during World War II led the movement, which was involved in atrocities, primarily against the sizable Polish minority in West Ukraine, but also involved in crimes or persecution of Jews and other minorities.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mention that, ’cause I want to get into the history of this right-wing faction and go as far back as sort of the early 20th century. How did they really even get started, these Ukrainian right-wing nationalists?

RUDLING: Well, Ukraine was one of those countries in Europe the national movement of which failed or did not succeed in establishing a national state in 1920, 1919. Right? The Ukrainians were–and is one of the largest ethnic groups in Europe, but they failed to achieve a state. And Ukraine was divided up between four states, primarily Soviet Union and Poland in 1920, 1921. And in the 1920s, Ukrainian nationalism was primarily a left-wing or center-left phenomenon and primarily democratic, but as the Soviet turned increasingly, well, under Stalin, authoritarian and a forced starvation killed millions of Ukrainians, and at the same time the Polish government after 1926 became increasingly authoritarian, after May 1926, there was a rise of the far right. And that was a part of a larger European phenomenon that all of Europe in the 1930s, particularly this part of Europe, became authoritarian, dominated by authoritarian right-wing movements. The Ukrainians were no exception. So, as the political conditions became such that in the Soviet Union, Ukrainians were being killed en masse, dying due to famine, due to starvation under Stalin, and in Poland Ukrainian parties were discriminated, there was a current that took up an armed struggle against the Polish authorities. They wanted to create an independent Ukraine, in fact a greater Ukraine encompassing all the ethnographic Ukrainian territories. And this organization, an organization which was called the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, or /un/, was founded in 1929. It became, over the course of 1930s, and particularly during World War II, the predominant Ukrainian nationalist force. And as Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland in 1939, many Ukrainian nationalists from western Ukraine ended up under German control. And they were reconstituted there in Kraków, and they cooperated with the Germans, claim that Germany would be this catalyst which would change the status quo in Europe. So it’s not only Ukrainian nationalists, but also Croatian nationalists and Slovak nationalists, started to orient [incompr.] towards Germany, which would overthrow the–if somebody could overthrew this order, it would be Germany. But it was also an affiliation of–an ideological affiliation. The OUN wanted a one-party state under its leadership, an ethnically cleansed one-party state with no room for Jews and Poles and other minorities. And they sought to bring this about through the use of political terrorisms, through assassinations, through all the use of mass political violence. So to position the OUN historically, I guess this is still very much contested. But I do believe, and others do believe, other colleagues of mine do believe that also that the OUN can be classified as a fascist movement, sort of a generic Eastern European fascism. So you should make the distinction between Naziism and fascism. But if you talk about fascism as a larger generic phenomenon of radical right-wing movement seeking to overthrow society and have a rebirth of the society on a basis of new order, in that sense, OUN was created–in my assessment, a fascist movement.

As World War II broke out, there was a wave of anti-Jewish violence in western Ukraine, and the OUN, according to the most current research, played a central role in the organization of these pogroms, and between 17,000 and 35,000 Jews were killed during the first few weeks of the war.

The OUN later on, well, they tried to establish independent Ukrainian state, but the Germans, unlike in the case of the Slovaks and unlike in the case of the Croats, they were not prepared to recognize them as allies. In fact, the Ukrainians were treated as subhumans and treated extremely cruel by the Nazi government, and they would not be interested in cooperating with Germans and crack down on Ukrainian nationalism soon after the invasion.

Still, some of these Ukrainian and nationalist forces, when they weren’t recognized as partners, many of them went into the German police forces in 1942 and 1943. And after Stalingrad, there was a complete break, and the OUN policemen withdrew their support for the Germans, and they organized a so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA, Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya), which fought for an independent Ukraine sort of as the armed branch of the OUN. Here they also took part in the killing of Jews, but particularly in the ethnic cleansing of Poles in western Ukraine. This was a–western Ukraine was an ethnically mixed area in order to remove the Poles to prevent Polish postwar claim on this region after the war, ’cause this had been part of Poland in the interwar period. Poland, as you know, was pushed 400 kilometers to the west by Joseph Stalin [incompr.] Poland became western Ukraine. So the Poles were removed by the UPA.

But they continued also after the war. If the war in [incompr.] in the west ended on May 8, May 9, 1945, it continued in Ukraine a nationalist insurgency led by the UPA, which in turn was under command of the OUN, continued an armed insurgency up until the early 1950s, 1952, ’53.

DESVARIEUX: So, Per, I’m going to actually stop you there, and we’ll discuss what happened to that Ukrainian nationalism in that post-World War II world. So thank you so much for joining us.

RUDLING: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Per Anders Rudling is an associate professor of the Department of History at Lund University, specializing on nationalism, the Holocaust, and the far right in the Polish-Ukrainian-Belarusian borderlands. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931," which will appear with University of Pittsburgh Press in July. Dr. Rudling recieved his Ph.D. in history at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada), 2009, and his post-doc at University of Greifswald, Germany. He also has an MA in Russian from Uppsala University (1998), and an MA in History from San Diego State University (2003).