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Anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism are on the rise in Eastern Europe, under the guise of ultra-nationalism. A look at the forces behind it, and what the European Union is doing to reign it in.

Ukraine ultranationalists echoes hitler 2021 03 30
Young Ukrainian ultra-nationalists on the march in Kiev. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine's nationalist party embraces Nazi ideology

Meet Svoboda, an up-and-coming party in Ukraine. It's nationalist, pro-Nazi, and poised for the parliament.

This is the second story in a five-part series exploring the rise of the far-right in eastern Europe. In part one, the political battle over an historic theater highlights growing anti-Semitism in Hungary. Part two examines the growing popularity of Svoboda, a far-right party in Ukraine. Part three visits a popular Ukranian restaurant designed to ridicule Jews. In part four, the EU considers what it can do about far-right extremism in its domain, and part five takes a broader look at the problem across the region.

L'VIV, Ukraine — In this great city of western Ukraine, the worst of the European experience is creeping back into democratic politics.

In L’viv, it comes under the guise of Svoboda, a party calling for a Ukraine that is “one race, one nation, one Fatherland.” Originally known as the Social-National Party, it is rooted in Nazi collaboration.

This wasn't supposed to happen. In 2004, following a disputed national election, the Orange Revolution, a peaceful campaign of protest, swept a coalition of moderate nationalist politicians into power. They quickly fell out among themselves. A blizzard of allegations of corruption swirled around them. One of the original leaders of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, is in prison, convicted of "abuse of office,” although rights groups say her incarceration is politically motivated.

Read more: Anti-Semitism takes the stage in Hungary

From journalists, cab drivers and young entrepreneurs, to peasant women who run market stalls to supplement their state pension by selling homemade cheese and pickles, everyone says the same thing: the politicians of all parties are only in it for themselves, grabbing every penny they can. Meanwhile, Svoboda has grown in popularity. Young people are drawn to the nationalist rhetoric, and older supporters are more used to life under the kind of authoritarian views it holds.

Svoboda is now the largest party on L'viv city council and in the regional council. It has taken power in other major urban centers of western Ukraine, like Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk. Come this October, when the country holds elections, Svoboda is expected to make the jump to the next level and win seats in the Verkhovna Rada, the national parliament, for the first time.

Besides disappointment with the main democratic parties and endemic corruption around the country, Svoboda's rise underscores a swell of anti-Semitism in a part of the world where the Holocaust was at its fiercest and there are virtually no Jews left. It is a symptom of an ultra-nationalism all along the eastern borders of Europe. This extreme form of racially based nationalism links Soviet Communism and Jewishness together. The patriotic fight against the former leads to Nazi-glorification and an excusing of local fighters roles in helping to murder Jews during the Holocaust.

Read more: Restaurant serves up dinner with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism

Svoboda’s success so far has been built on a skilled public-relations campaign, complete with videos re-enacting Nazi propaganda tropes like torchlight parades and speeches that echo Hitler. Svoboda also honors Ukraine veterans who fought with the Nazis in a unit known as the Waffen SS-Galicia against the Soviet Army and the threat of what they refer to as “Jew Communism.”

They deal in gesture politics, changing the name of Peace Street, in an outlying district of L'viv to Nachtigall Street, in honor of a Ukrainian group that was implicated in a massacre of the city's Jews after the Nazis arrived in June and July 1941. Svoboda's reason: "Peace Street is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes." Their political demonstrations frequently turn violent. Last September in Uman, Hasidic Jews on annual pilgrimage were confronted by Svoboda activists. The two groups were separated by police. The Svoboda contingent then attacked the cops. Dozens were arrested.

Last month, German historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, was forced to cancel lectures around Ukraine after receiving calls from people threatening to harm him, as well as being followed by hundreds of Svoboda supporters wherever he went. His crime: lecturing on Stepan Bandera, leader of an ultra-nationalist group during World War II, a fascist responsible for many atrocities against non-ethnic Ukrainians. For Svoboda, Bandera is a hero.

“We consider tolerance a crime”

The person organizing the demonstrations and making the firebrand speeches is Yuri Michalchyshyn. At 29, he is barely old enough to remember the bad old days when Ukraine was under Soviet rule. He speaks a romantic nationalist language rarely spoken by mainstream western politicians. "A nation is an organic thing, historically defined. A wave of passionate energy which unites past, present and future generations," Michalchyshn said, seated in the office of Iryna Sekh, his party's leader at the regional council. "The Ukrainian nation is the current territory of the Ukraine reinforced by language and recent history of social and national struggle."

Watch video from a torchlight march organized by Michalchyshyn below


Svoboda's racial theorizing is built on sand, since most people who live in the region have mixed blood. "Ethnically, Ukraine doesn't exist," according to Ukrainian historian Andriy Kozitzky. The western part of the country nestled up against Poland and Hungary is a mix of many groups: Russian, Ukrainians, Armenians. That’s irrelevant to Svoboda followers. Mychalchyshyn said: "We are against diversity.” In his writings, he says, "We consider tolerance a crime."