By Gabriel Gavin, a writer and journalist living in London who has covered Central and Eastern Europe for outlets including The Independent, The Spectator and The Kyiv Post.
An RT investigation has revealed how a far-right group has used Ukrainian taxpayer funds to teach ultranationalist ideas to thousands of young people, with one opposition leader accusing the government of “brainwashing.”
Every year, at the end of the summer, more than a hundred young Ukrainians are bussed out to the leafy wilderness around the Derman-Ostrog National Park, in the Rivne region, for three days of survival skills, first aid and physical activity.
But while experiences just like this are shared by teenagers across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, this weekend away has a darker side. Known as the Gurby-Antonivsti Games, the trip is organized by the youth wing of Ukraine’s most notorious ultranationalist group and commemorates a bloody battle that took place in those same forests in 1944, between local right-wing partisan fighters and Soviet forces pursuing the retreating army of Nazi Germany.
Over the course of 60 hours and virtually non-stop, participants as young as 18 fight in hand-to-hand combat, set off flares and practice bandaging wounded comrades. The Youth Nationalist Congress, which runs the annual event, describes it as instilling young people with the “readiness to defend the Motherland, by mastering the spiritual heritage of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s (UPA) liberation struggle.”
The UPA and its partner group, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were guerrilla armies that fought occupying forces throughout the tumultuous years of the 20th century for the establishment of an independent, Nazi-aligned Ukrainian ethno-state. Influenced by far-right leader Stepan Bandera, the group began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the West of the country, driving out and murdering the region’s native Polish population. They also targeted Jews.
In his book, The Reconstruction of Nations, American historian Timothy Snyder describes how the UPA and OUN-Bandera, their ranks bolstered by defections from the Nazi-raised local levies of the S.S. Galicia, burned churches with entire congregations still inside. According to Snyder, “they displayed beheaded, crucified, dismembered, or disemboweled bodies, to encourage remaining Poles to flee.”
The field games of Gurby-Antonivsti, according to their slick website, are held “not only to honour the memory of fighters for the freedom of Ukraine” but to be “a forge of followers of UPA soldiers.” And, apparently, it works. Organizers boast on their page that “proof of this is public activity and the participation of ‘graduates’ in the modern Russian-Ukrainian war.”
Even more remarkable than the circumstances of this self-described ultranationalist training camp is the fact that it, and the Youth Nationalist Congress (YNC) that runs it, have been directly funded by the Government of Ukraine in the name of “patriotic education.” President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has championed these initiatives, first introduced by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, unveiling a package of measures aimed at supporting organisations like these to “further develop national consciousness in society, and to form a sense of patriotism as the basis of spirituality and morality.” Zelensky has continued and expanded these initiatives.
The YNC, the young people’s branch of the Revolutionary Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist, a successor to the OUN-Bandera, boasts on its website of receiving funding from the country’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, and the games are almost wholly funded by the state. One of the group’s most prominent leaders, Ivan Kishka, was even honored with an award from the Cabinet Ministers of Ukraine, according to their website. However, as a recipient of taxpayer funding, the YNC appears to function more like a paramilitary group than the operator of a summer camp.
In statistics cited on its webpage, youth leaders, dressed in military khakis, claim that the organization trained at least 1,400 ‘Maidan Self Defence’ troops in 2013, in the run up to the protests that shattered the country and brought down the government. It goes on to state that they have delivered 1,885 public projects and their events have attracted more than 35,000 people.
Among their activities are an ‘Insurgent Fire’ outdoor gathering where they “propagate the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism” to those aged between 16 and 26, as well as a wide-scale seminar series. According to the group, in five years it has “visited 15 cities of Ukraine and met with about 650 young boys and girls.”“Today,” the site goes on to add, “graduates of their programs are activists who implement their own initiatives and participate in large-scale public action.”
It appears that the young nationalists are right. Over the past month, protests in Odessa made international news with their calls for the statue of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who founded the city, to be torn down. It had previously been damaged and put into storage just after the 1917 Revolution, when anti-Tsarist feelings were running high, before being restored after a fundraising campaign by the local community. However, a largely unknown group of young people, calling themselves Decolonise Ukraine, have pledged to see the statue toppled in an attempt to “eliminate Russian influence.”
As well as taking to the streets, the group co-ordinated an official petition on the website of the Ukrainain government, calling for the bust to be torn down and replaced with one of Ivan Lypa, a historical figure who fought against Moscow’s Soviet authorities in the name of Ukrainian independence. The organiser of the petition, promoted by Decolonise Ukraine, was Ulyana Ivanivna Kyryliv. Kyryliv’s name appears on a list of participants in the YNC’s Gurby-Antonivsti Games, reinforcing the claim that its ‘graduates’ are involved in wider nationalist actions.
While Ukrainian nationalism theoretically covers anyone who advocates an independent Ukrainian state, it is clear that the state-funded YNC takes a more hard-line approach, fuelled by antagonism over Maidan protests and the referendum that saw the Crimean Peninsula re-join neighbouring Russia. Solomiya Farion, the group’s Chairwoman, who frequently poses in army fatigues and with young followers, posted a picture on her Instagram earlier this year of what appeared to be the group hanging a banner that read “Russia dies here.” In the caption, she criticized Russia’s “special operation to seize Crimea” and announced that “we will do anything for the establishment of the Ukrainian State and for the restoration of justice.”
Other members of the YNC’s top team have also taken to social media to display signs of their commitment to the ultranationalist cause. Deputy Chairman Mykola Misak posted a video of himself, armed with a rifle, teaching, in an abandoned building, a group of young women dressed in camouflage to load and fire shotguns. Misak captions the photograph ‘Happy Knowledge Day!”
Misak states on Facebook that he serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and also re-posted a photograph from a Ukrainian news website in an article about paratroopers. The picture appears to show him marching with the unit, raising concerns and questions about the links between ultranationalist paramilitary youth organisations and highly trained members of the country’s army, the second largest in Europe. Misak also features in photographs from the Gurby-Antonivsti Games where, again dressed in camouflage gear, he is pictured with a number of young people, holding out what appears to be a handful of flare devices.
Similarly, the YNC’s secretariat, Sergey Repik, has taken to social media to publicize the kind of weapons training that the group offers young Ukrainains. In one photograph posted on social media, adolescents can be seen practicing with dummy AK-47 rifles in the seclusion of the countryside. Information and Propaganda Officer Olga Sidiy also appears to have had regular contact with groups of minors outside the structures of the YNC. Captioning a picture, taken with a group of girl scouts in the city of Stryi in the west of the country, she bemoans the absence of a local youth centre that could be used for “for large gatherings or joint events with the YNC.”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports did not respond to RT’s requests for comment on its alleged use of taxpayer funds to support radical ultranationalist organizations.
One of Ukraine’s most prominent politicians, Viktor Medvedchuk, who leads the Opposition Platform – for Life political bloc, points the finger directly at President Zelensky’s administration. In a statement published after RT shared these new allegations, he wrote that “despite the coronavirus pandemic and serious economic problems, Zelensky’s Ministry of Youth and Sport is financing radicals to deliver dozens of socially dangerous projects, including military training camps for young people, allegedly in the name of patriotic education, further development of national identity and spirituality.”
Medvedchuk went on to add that the YNC and the Gurby-Antonivsti Games “use the money of Ukrainian taxpayers to attract, radicalize and brainwash young people… In the absence of any control from the state, young people are taught to use weapons and then are actively involved in nationalist actions.”
He concluded that “Zelensky’s government, which continues [former President Petro] Poroshenko’s policy in actively supporting neo-Nazi groups, covering up the crimes of the fascist regime which was overthrown as a result of our Victory in the Great Patriotic War, deserves the most severe condemnation and should be sent to the dustbin of history like its ideological forebears.”
Earlier this month, the London-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate warned that two neo-Nazi groups operating in Ukraine, the infamous Azov Battalion and the Misanthropic Division, are recruiting British far-right activists to fight in the region. According to them, and reports in The Guardian newspaper, the network of white supremacists has used Facebook to attract more than 80,000 followers and spread its ideology. One page, entitled ‘Gas Chambers,’ sells merchandise that includes T-shirts depicting skinheads killing black and Jewish people.
In July, Ukraine-based Zaborona Media published allegations that StopFake, an internet project that Facebook partnered primarily to counter “Russian propaganda” actually had links to the country’s far right. They claimed that accounts were being blacklisted and demonetised and articles about neo-Nazi activists had been censored on the social media platform as a result of StopFake’s decisions to label their reporting as fake news. A number of those associated with the group have been involved in ultranationalist projects, and have even praised a band whose frontman has described himself as “selectively antisemitic.”
A former member of StopFake, Kateryna Kruk, was even appointed as Facebook’s Public Policy Manager for Ukraine. Kruk is alleged to have previously been an activist of the far-right Svoboda movement, which has been described as openly fascist and antisemitic. Like the YNC, they have also organized commemorations of groups like the UPA and OUN-Bandera.
Big scandal in Kiev which US/UK media is *very* quiet about. StopFake – censorship group funded by the US & British governments & employed by Facebook to censor content in Ukraine – has links to Neo-Nazis. It has been lavished with praise by NYT, FT, etc. https://t.co/yVpBnaHCsF
— Bryan MacDonald (@27khv) July 11, 2020
Together, these new revelations will put fresh pressure on both the social media giant and, now, the Ukrainian government to take action on the issue. While a significant proportion of the population would support closer ties with Russia, defining ultranationalist events as patriotic education is likely to drive divisions in Ukraine, and render the future of the country even more uncertain.