KIEV–At the Bingo nightclub, a few hundred Ukrainian music fans were celebrating the anniversary of their favorite very white ultra-nationalist metal band, Sokyra Peruna. Some were teens, some looked like they were in their 40s. They were dressed up and tatted up with Nazi symbols, pagan spirit designs and emblems from the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
Some fans brought their children along. Smoke wafted over the stage, guitars rocked, and dozens of right hands straitened up in Hitler salutes as the band’s leader, Arseny Klimachev, roared out neo-Nazi lines he’s made famous in Ukraine’s capital: “Heroes of my race! Heroes of your race!”
The fans will tell you these rants and symbols, banned in Ukraine by law, are really just fashion statements, a part of their sub-culture. But the Jewish population of Ukraine, estimated to be more than 200,000, is more than uneasy about such demonstrations. To them, Hitler’s fans are not just lovers of heavy metal music, but one more manifestation of a hostile, increasingly powerful movement.
For decades both Russians and Ukrainians referred to their enemies as “fascists,” and caricatured enemies as Hitler. During Moscow’s conflict with Tbilisi in 2007 and 2008 Russian propagandists painted Hitler-style mustaches on the face of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Today millions of Ukrainians refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin as to “Putler”–you can even buy souvenir toilet paper that says that. But if Putin is as bad as Hitler, what are Ukrainian Hitler fans thinking?
Meanwhile, Kremlin officials insist that the pro-European Maidan movement was “fascist,” and that Ukraine is now ruled by neo-Nazi government. And, as if to confirm the Moscow line, dozens of far-right movements, groups, bands use Nazi symbols and praise Hitler’s violence against Bolsheviks, “the occupants of Ukraine.”
Just a few days before the 73d anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazism in World War II, Ukraine saw a march of ultra-nationalists who proclaimed that Odessa should be cleansed of Jews. At the rally, the head of the Right Sector in Odessa, Tatiana Soikina, said: “We are sure that we can put things in order, so Ukraine will belong to Ukrainians and not to Yids, not to oligarchs, glory to Ukraine!”
The march took place several days after the U.S. Congress sent a letter to the State Department describing the “unacceptable” situation with anti-Semitism in here (PDF). It noted that Ukraine was “glorifying Nazi collaborators and made it a criminal offense to deny their ‘heroism.’” Among those Nazi collaborators the American members of congress cited Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych, and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) for killing Jews and Poles in the years from 1941 to 1945.
In fact, all those historical figures mentioned in the letter are seen by many in Ukraine as heroes, even though today Ukraine gets more support from Washington than ever.
Washington is selling Javelin anti-tank systems to Kiev to reenforce the Ukrainian army in the war against Russia-backed rebels in Donbas. The four-year-long conflict has taken more than 10,000 Ukrainian lives.
Far-right activists insist that every single anti-Semitic action has the Kremlin’s agents behind it, while representatives of the Jewish community want to see the conspicuous fans of Hitler put in jail.
“Anti-Semitism is rapidly growing all over Ukraine: Holocaust memorials are vandalized every week, while the opposition say President Petro Poroshenko is ‘a Jew,’ when they want to say that the president is bad,” says Eduard Dolinsky, the head of Ukraine’s Jewish Committee.
Dolinsky, a prominent public figure in Ukraine, monitors incidents of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Committee has demanded that the government and law enforcement agencies push for punishment of those professing Nazi ideology, but so far there has been none.
Dolinsky says he is upset that both Russian propaganda and some Ukrainian media outlets use his name and voice for political agendas as each tries to put the fascist brand on the other. “Our main intention at the Jewish Committee is not to allow history to repeat itself. Today in public opinion Jews seem to be to blame for political failures, just as it happened in Germany in 1930s,” Dolinsky told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this month, the deputy director of Lviv school Number 100, Mariana Batyuk, was fired after posting photographs of herself and her school students lined up and saluting, “Heil Hitler.” The teacher also posted Hitler’s portrait on her Facebook page with a caption: “He was a great man, whatever you say.”
A Ukrainian nationalist, Sergei Parkhomenko from the “Anti-Putin Information Front” insists that real Ukrainian patriots could not attack Jews. “Both Odessa activists and the Lviv teacher and those who vandalized Holocaust memorials must have been paid by either the Kremlin’s agents or those who want to discredit Ukraine,” Parkhomenko told The Daily Beast.
Far-right militia units recently marching across Kiev and promising to bring “order” to Ukraine sounded threatening, and not many people wanted to get in the way of muscled-up guys with black masks covering their faces.
“The other day I was invited to a round table at a TV show to debate with far-right politicians, I had the opportunity to bring two people with me, but all my friends were too scared to go,” Dolinsky told The Daily Beast.
Reporters of the Zaborona media (translates as “banned” media) group of Ukrainian journalists covering forbidden, censored and sensitive news, took photographs of young men slamming during the concert, pushing each other, showing off Nazi and Ku Klux Klan symbols tattooed on their naked torsos.
One of the fans went from one corner of the club to another unfurling his big Nazi flag. Anna Belous, a Zaborona reporter, told The Daily Beast.
“It is stupid to blame everything on the Kremlin. Officials should admit that we do actually have guys using Nazi symbols in Ukraine,” Yekaterina Sergatskova, the founder of the Zaborona project, told us. “Every year thousands of people with far-right views participate in Povstanets festival, this is not a news.”
Last week President Petro Poroshenko condemned the increasing anti-Semitism as “unacceptable” in a post on his Facebook page. But the dance goes on.