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Historian Per Anders Rudling traces the rise of Ukrainian right-wing party Svoboda from the nationalist myth-making of the post-Soviet diaspora in countries like Canada

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

We’re continuing our discussion about the role of nationalism and right-wing parties in the Ukrainian popular protests and the transitional government.

With us again to discuss what led to the rise of the right wing is our guest Per Rudling. Per 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, Per, let’s pick it up where we left off. You were discussing the crushing of Ukrainian nationalism by the Soviets in about year 1951, 1952. What exactly happened?

RUDLING: Well, the war–unlike in Western Europe, the war in Eastern Europe, in, partially, Eastern Europe, the Baltics but primarily in Western Ukraine, did not end in 1945. A very harsh insurgency continued for several years, roughly up until the early–1952, 1953, when the Ukrainian insurgent army, led by the Bandera wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, carried out an armed resistance against the collectivization, against the imposition of Soviet rule in this part of Ukraine. And the Soviets responded extremely brutally by deporting entire villages carrying out collective punishment. Roughly 150,000 people were being killed by the Soviets as they returned and imposed their draconian control of its territory. And the UPA in turn used an escalation of violence also against civilians who collaborated with the Soviet authorities. Here you also have several tens of thousands of Ukrainians, primarily, being killed by the OUN and UPA, up until 1952, ’53.

But roughly at the time Stalin died in 1953, the insurgency was crushed. And, of course, there was a liberalization of policy under Khrushchev after 1956. So Ukrainian nationalism, per se, was, well, pretty much stamped out in Ukraine.

In the West, however, you had several hundred thousand so-called displaced persons and refugees from Western Ukraine which stayed in the West after the war, and many of these have been in one way or another involved with the German authorities as they retreated westwards. And they, of course, many of them, many of those from Eastern Ukraine were forcibly repatriated. But those who had been Polish citizens before 1939, they could stay in the West, and many of them emigrated to Canada and the United States, and there they built their communities. And among these postwar emigrates, the by far largest political party there was the Bandera wing of the OUN, and they came to dominate much of–or take over much of the political discourse in the Ukrainian diaspora over the course of 1950s and ’60s. And they developed a parallel historiography that’s sort of set up as a counterweight to the Soviets’ influence, and they took upon themselves to carry the sort of Ukrainian spirit [incompr.] carry out–either carrying out the national cause in the United States and in Canada. And they developed a counter-history to the Soviet narrative. They [incompr.] other far-right groups, and what’s been the group of the OUN was supported for many years by the United States, through the–by the CIA, primarily, through covert action programs. And they developed their institutions. They developed their book printing. And in Canada, with the rise of official multiculturalism after 1971, there was support for bilingual education for Ukrainian schools and so on, and they developed their own textbooks and their own narratives.

When the Soviet Union collapsed after 1990, these narratives were re-exported to Ukraine proper from diaspora. As the Soviet textbooks were discarded, there was a complete narrative of World War II, of the famine of 1932-33, of the Bandera movements as national heroes, and it was re-exported to Ukraine. And Ukraine is different in that sense from the Baltic states, all three of which had their heads of state from the diaspora. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, all of the American and Canadian heads of state, in Ukraine, the old nomenklatura, the old communist leaders were still in power, more or less. They dropped, of course, the communist rhetoric and became nationalists instead. So they adopted much of this discourse glorifying the OUN, glorifying the Ukrainian insurgent army. And that became sort of a powerful narrative, at least in Western Ukraine.

When Viktor Yushchenko came to power after the so-called Orange Revolution in 2005, 2004, he decided to make this narrative sort of a new founding myth for post-Soviet Ukraine and elevated Stepan Bandera to an hero of Ukraine, elevated Roman Shukhevych, the leader of UPA, as national heroes. And also he endorsed a narration which presented the famine of 1932-33 as a deliberate act of genocide against Ukrainian people, and he greatly inflated the number of victims. He called it the Holodomor, and the Holodomor narrative came on a regular basis. With it they claim 7 million or even 10 million. So even though most historical demographers, they agree that the extra, surplus death due to famine was 2.6-3.9 million deaths, the Yushchenko government claimed over 10 million death, being killed, people being killed in the famine.

So this became sort of a national narrative. It was not very successful, because Ukraine is a very divided society. Ukraine is a young state. The current borders came about in 1954, when the Crimea was added to Ukrainian S.S.R. Western Ukraine was added through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty in 1939. Zakarpattia, Transcarpathia, of the [incompr.] was added all in 1945. So this is a divided country in many ways, primarily Russian-speaking in the east, Ukrainian-speaking in the west, and sort of mixed in the center.

So Yushchenko was trying to build a new narrative based upon Bandera and the Bandera cult, but this didn’t really work out, because people in Eastern Ukraine tended to see the Bandera movements as fascist, as traitors, and Soviet notions lingered quite strong. And so it polarized Ukraine further.

And what’s more seriously, it also alienated Ukraine’s closest supporters within European Union, ’cause even the Bandera was sort of used as a symbol to mark distance to Russia. Most of the people that Bandera actually killed were not Russians or–but the major victims were Poles and Jews. So the cult of the OUN and UPA brought a lot of concern in Poland, and the Polish parliament has defined the OUN mass murders of the Poles as ethnic cleansings with a hallmark of genocide.

So this is–the policy has been very clumsy.

But from this–well, Yushchenko was voted out of office in 2010 in a larger, fair, free election. He got, like, roughly 5 percent of the vote [incompr.] 95 percent voted against him. And Yanukovych came to power. And Yanukovych’s regime was very corrupt and continued this policy of polarization, be based [incompr.] different perspective [incompr.] based [incompr.] having your electoral base in the east.

DESVARIEUX: Per, I want to stop you for a moment, and I want to talk about–if we could just go back a bit and discuss the rise of the right-wing nationalism and put that in context of the Orange Revolution before we even get to speaking about Yanukovych.

RUDLING: Well, in the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko was a moderate nationalist, and he won this–he prevailed in this Orange Revolution together with a socialist ally and an ally of Tymoshenko’s party.

But Orange Revolution turned out to be a huge disappointment from any of the people involved. Corruption wasn’t uprooted overnight, and in fact, Yushchenko spent most of his time in office squabbling with his prime minister, Tymoshenko, and in the end he made sure that–well, he really made sure that she wasn’t elected president, but instead his rival from 2004, Yanukovych, became his successor.

So under Yanukovych what happened then was that Yanukovych continued his policy of polarization. He gave Svoboda, which was a party which got less than 1 percent support nationwide, disproportional representation in national media, primarily on TV, which was controlled by his government and by various oligarchs affiliated with his regime. And so Svoboda became very prominent in mass media.

And Yanukovych may have been calculating on–of course, this is very hard to know exactly what goes on in a non-transparent political system like that in Ukraine, but there are indications the elite was supporting Svoboda as a way to polarize the country, and then, in a runoff election in 2015, had it come to that, that it will be a runoff between Yanukovych and Svoboda, in which Yanukovych, even though he was quite unpopular towards–in the second half of his tenure, would actually prevail over Svoboda.

DESVARIEUX: Per, so wait. Am I understanding you correctly is that Yanukovych actually helped boost up Svoboda, who was essentially the group behind his ouster, in a sense, is did he sort of create a monster that eventually would come after him?

RUDLING: Essentially, yes. I mean, that’s one of the most depressing aspects of his legacy, that he exercised selective justice. He put Tymoshenko, a sort of a moderate nationalist, in jail. Well, maybe she belonged in jail. Few other people, people in Ukrainian political leadership, are not corrupt. The problem was, of course, that this was selective justice by a president and by a supreme court which was no less corrupt than Tymoshenko herself.

So he went after moderate nationalists and gave the far right disproportionate attention in the media.

DESVARIEUX: But the far right, who’s behind them? I mean, they have to have some sort of money and power and influence. Who are the oligarchs supporting them?

RUDLING: Well, they are an ideological party in a political landscape which is rather non-ideological. Tymoshenko and Klitschko are not particularly ideologically driven. They’re sort of middle-of-the-road candidates and very adaptable.

Svoboda is based in the far west, and there they have a very strong position. In Lviv, the largest Western Ukrainian city, I believe they got roughly around 40 percent of the vote. So they have a majority in the local county administration. And they have similar situations in Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, that is, in Halychyna, Galicia, the part of Ukraine which used to be part of Austria-Hungary before 1920 and has quite a different history than the rest of Ukraine.

So it’s based regionally. And these regions in the far west are also one of the poorer regions.

So the heavily industrialized east, that’s where a lot of the financial interests are. And in many ways Svoboda could be used as a sort of a bogeyman to mobilize the Yanukovych electorate. And clearly now, once Yanukovych is gone, Russia’s continued its policy of referring to the entire opposition as fascist or Banderites, even though–and I think this is very important to point out–this was genuine broad popular uprising against a regime which was immensely corrupt. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is on place 141 out of the world states. That means it’s divided 141 place with Nigeria and the Central African Republic. That is, Ukraine is not only the most corrupt country in Europe; it’s one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And it got worse under Yanukovych.

DESVARIEUX: Per, I want to pivot and talk about the role of any sort of liberal or left-leaning groups there in Ukraine. Do you know of any? Have they ever attempted to sort of contest this nationalist groups, people with political power, if they be Yanukovych, who is more on, like, the Russian side? I mean, what about more liberal left-leaning organizations?

RUDLING: There are left-leaning organizations, and they took part in the protests. I have good friends of mine who actually traveled from Sweden and traveled from United States to be in the Maidan and to help the opposition, and they are, I assure you, far from fascists. So if you have–you know, Ukraine is divided, but it’s hard to have the exact numbers. But roughly 60 percent supported the protests. Forty percent were against. Of those 60 percent who supported the protests, say Svoboda were roughly one-third of the protest. The bulk of them were supporters of Yatsenyuk and Klitschko or non-party activists which wanted Ukraine to get closer to European Union, that were tired of the corruption which was rampant under Yanukovych. And now the Russian media is stereotyping the entire–this broad protest movement as fascists, which is quite directly wrong. But there is a hard right within this movement.

And I think, you know, it should be possible to keep two problems in mind at the same time. On the one hand, yes, Russia is instrumentalizing this, discrediting opposition they don’t like. On the other hand, there is indeed a hard right within these protests, which I think liberally minded–from perspective of–liberal-democratic perspective, it would make sense to keep an eye on them. And also I think that’s the best way of helping Ukrainians’ democratic transformation, identifying not only Putin and Yanukovych, which should be identified as major problems and obstacles to democratic development in Ukraine, but also the far right.

There are several problems here, and I think any sensible analyst should sort of, like, look at them both. One doesn’t exclude the other.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Per Rudling, thank you so much for joining us.

RUDLING: Thank you.

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).