By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
What kind of people are these? I asked as I considered, in my previous commentary, the bottomless corruption and cynical theft that have lately bubbled to the surface in Ukraine. What kind of polity is this? What kind of country is Ukraine? To advance this line of inquiry we must now ask: What do we talk about when we talk about Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainian nationalists?
Volodymyr Zelensky offers us a nation of admirable patriotic pride and fervor. But does Ukraine’s president represent the sentiments of Ukrainians so faithfully as our corporate-owned media lead us to assume? There are too many reports of Zelensky’s political vulnerability to dismiss as he takes the nation in what amounts to a frenzy of self-destruction—destruction, this is to say, of the nation he purports to be saving. The New York Times and the other major American dailies, which print when the Times prints and are silent when the Times is silent, do not tire of telling us Zelensky came to office in a landslide electoral victory four years ago. I wish they were honest enough to note that one policy, more than any other, won Zelensky 71 percent of the vote. This was a commitment to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Ukraine’s Russian neighbor and mend the fracture running down the center of the country between its western and eastern provinces.
What kind of national leader is this man who betrayed his electorate and now advertises himself as standing for them? Volodymyr Zelensky used to make his living as an actor, a performer, and it seems to me he continues to do so. What drama is he performing?
The Azov Battalion, which has emerged as a critical component of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, dropped the Nazi Wolfsangel as its regimental symbol in mid–2022. This had proven problematic after hostilities began a year ago this month. When, with the war on and the West pouring weapons into Ukraine, members of the Azov Battalion went to Washington and then Disney World—an interesting itinerary—their sponsors required them to wear long sleeves to cover up their tattoos of the Wolfsangel and the Schwarze sonnen, their black suns, which figured prominently as occult symbols of Nazi SS rituals. Why? Because we like you!
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Do the Azovs and other such militias, some with tentacles running deep into civil society and politics, properly represent Ukraine’s 44 million people? These 44 million are behind them? I am not in the market for bridges to Brooklyn.
Prior to the war, The Times and its pilot fish among the American dailies reported often enough on the neo–Nazi character of the Azov Battalion and other Ukrainian nationalists. Now they never do. Journalists who ought to know better, including estimable correspondents such as Roger Cohen, who I suspect does know better, now write routinely that this identification of Ukrainian nationalists with Nazi and Fascist ideology is nothing more than Russian propaganda.
Eric Hobsbawm, the late and celebrated British historian, wrote a series of books giving names to historical epochs: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, The Age of Extremes. They made an excellent chronology of the West’s progress–is this my word?–since the late 18th century. Shall we name our era “The Age of Cosmetics?”
Those running Ukraine and the oligarchs who control those running Ukraine are highly dependent on neo–Nazis bearing arms and other ultranationalists. These groups are present in Kyiv’s ministries and in the regime’s intelligence services and, ends justifying any and all means, count assassinations among their methods. A new makeup job will not change this. Fraud is a way of life among the ruling cliques and atop the military. The world’s largest black market in illicit weaponry, a human-trafficking cesspool, 122nd of 180 nations in Transparency International’s corruption rankings: Not even Vogue, with photographs by Annie Liebovitz, can make this look good other than among those with a crying need to believe the orthodoxy because they have a crying need to submit to authority.
Let us look as closely as we can into this matter of Ukraine’s ardent belief in itself as a nation. Let us, with no help from our media, see what we can see.
A while back I wrote of a lecture Ernest Renan, the 19th century critic and historian, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1882. Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What Is a Nation?) is remembered for Renan’s (disputable) argument about the place of collective forgetting in making a national consciousness. But it is remembered even more, maybe, for Renan’s thumbnail definition of a nation. In part:
A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is (please excuse the metaphor) a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.
I’m willing to excuse the metaphor if you are. It is a very good one. Consent is the core notion here. “Daily plebiscite” is the phrase students of Renan have celebrated down the decades.
Taking this as a civilized idea of what makes a nation, even if there is more to the question, how does Ukraine stack up against Renan’s thinking? It is almost too bitter to type the question. Ukrainians had their plebiscite on the last day of March 2019, when they gave their consent to Zelensky’s two serious proposals–to eliminate the nation’s cancerous corruption and to settle up peaceably with Moscow. And the reply was, roughly, “Plebiscite, schplebiscite, I am not serious about the corruption and I will not give you your peaceful co-existence with Russia. I am going with the Americans, who had no vote and who do not respect yours, who will continue to run our country, and who want neither peace nor co-existence between us and Russia.”
I do not see how one can take seriously all the talk about Ukrainians’ pride in their nation once the implications of what Zelensky has done with his presidency are taken into account. Staying with the just-considered definition, this puppet of America’s neoliberal cliques, this clownish clod Central Casting dresses up in military costume, has deprived Ukrainians of their nation even as he claims to speak in its name.
Parenthetically, I wonder if we can use the 2019 vote count as a rough, very rough measure of national sentiment as to popular support for Ukraine’s neo–Nazis and ultranationalists and the war in which they figure so prominently and the influence they exert in public life. Probably not to the satisfaction of a good social scientist. But you cannot tell me the majority of Ukrainians think neo–Nazis represent them or that the bellowing professions of nationalism coming from these people have anything to do with Ukraine as a nation in any serious, civilized sense.
Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian–French psychoanalyst, wrote a book back in the early post–Cold War Years called Nations Without Nationalism, an argument for tolerance and acceptance of the otherness of the Others among us. In my reading of the Ukrainian majority, this is the kind of nation to which they aspire, this the nation they voted for in 2019. There is no indication whatsoever that they were then or are now on for an ultranationalist freak show featuring deluded Nazi sympathizers in influential places and on the front lines of a war they did not want.
It makes me think we have to consider Ukraine’s extreme-right factions in terms of “Nationalism Without a Nation,” because they are not at all interested in Ukraine as a serious nation just as they are not interested in the majority of Ukrainians. Their compulsive preoccupations are with ideological purity, with their derivative notions of a world divided between master and slave races, and with waging the cosmic confrontation between the two.
Ukrainian nationalism is rooted centuries back in history, but in its modern manifestation dates to the final months of the First World War. Ukraine declared itself independent in January 1918, 11 months before the Armistice, three months after the October Revolution, but what is now Ukraine was soon divided between Poland, which took the western provinces, and, the eastern provinces, the new Soviet Union. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the OUN, the first of numerous violent far-right groups, was founded in 1929. As is well-known, a lot of gruesome history followed—the famine Stalin induced in the 1930s, the slaughters of Jews, division among Ukrainians between those who sided with the Red Army against the Nazi regime during World War II and those who fought with the Nazis against the Red Army.
The ideology of present-day Ukrainian nationalists dates to the interwar years. Stepan Bandera, the murderous, anti-Semitic, anti–Russian, and anti-much else, emerged in the early 1940s by way of a split—what would these kinds of movements do without splits, more splits, and splits within splits?—in the OUN. Bandera is, of course, much glorified by Ukrainian fanatics today. We have seen Bandera’s portrait hanging in the offices of government officials and on banners held aloft during freakish, Klan-like processions through Kyiv, just as we have seen the Wolfsangel and the Schwarze Sonne on the shoulder patches of Ukrainian troops.
Dmitry Plotnikov, a Russian who writes about the histories of former Soviet republics and publishes widely at home and abroad, singles out a 20th century ideologue named Dmitry Dontsov to explain the specific origins of the 21st century version of Ukrainian nationalism as we have it (even if we cannot read much about it). Dontsov preached an ideology of “integral nationalism,” drawing heavily from Mussolini and other Italian Fascists. He also equated nation and race—wrong times 10 to any civilized human being—and handed down the thought that Ukrainians are a master race locked in battle with Russians, a slave race. Neither Ukrainians nor Russians, of course, are by any stretch a race.
Iron discipline, limitless sacrifice, violence as purification, the supremacy of a chosen avant-garde, the totalized remaking of the individual personality, the worthlessness and dispensability of all nonbelievers: All of this has carried over into contemporary Ukraine, all of it shot through with a fanatical fervor bordering on religious belief. But history, xenophobia, hatred of others, politics, military strategy, a desire for power, or other such discernible factors cannot explain the phenomenon of Ukrainian nationalism—not by themselves. We have to look more deeply to come to a useful understanding. We have to think of a pathology, a collective pathology.
Some months ago one of my editors advised me to read Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. We had been discussing a phenomenon I have already mentioned, the extraordinary tendency among Americans to believe anything those in authority tell them, however hollow or preposterous or transparently untrue. It comes down to a need to submit, to repudiate individual responsibility. So it is a psychological question.
Fromm’s book is pertinent to this tendency among Americans. But it is all the more so as we try to understand the Azov Battalion, Right Sektor, Svoboda, and all their extremist ideological colleagues. Fromm, the German psychoanalyst associated early in his career with the Frankfurt School, wrote Escape from Freedom, in English in 1941, to explain the rise of the Nazi Reich and Italian Fascism. I can hardly overstate the book’s usefulness as we address our questions: Who are these people and what do we mean by “Ukrainian nationalism?”
Naziism and Fascism arose amid collapsing social orders. Such interims leave those in such societies unmoored, with nothing to hold onto. Social and political structures that had previously given life meaning and each person a place in a larger community no longer gave people either. Social isolation was the common condition. There was nothing to which people could belong. All this gave people what Fromm calls “freedom from”—freedom from old constraints, customs, orthodoxies, forms of oppression, what have you. But then came the need to act, Fromm’s “freedom to,” meaning freedom to do new things—in short to be individually responsible. This is the freedom, in Fromm’s very credible case, Germans and Italians of the post-Great War decades found fearful.
Escaping this freedom can take many forms. In one way or another there is always a search for a new authority to which people who feel themselves adrift can submit. In the American case, an empire on its back foot and a social and political system in advanced decay push people into a state of denial, which manifests as submitting to authorities—political, administrative, informational, the authority emanating from a television screen or a front page—even as the credibility of these authorities collapses. This is a topic worth more comment, and I will leave it for another time.
The Ukrainian case—and note once again its origin in the disorder of the interwar years—seems to me uncannily similar to the earlier German and Italian experiences. For the believers, there is the same desire to create and submit to a new order provided by an ideology that serves all the functions, psychoanalytically speaking, of the old order: One has a place in it, one is once again anchored, one has a system that explains all worldly events in an apparently coherent fashion. To submit in this way renders the individual once again unfree—not responsible to himself or herself but to a new system of authority that mandates everything in life—what to think, what to believe, what to do, who to glorify and despise, and so on.
I have been much given to social-psychological analyses of this kind since my days as a correspondent in Southeast Asia. There was no understanding those societies without grasping what their people were and were not psychologically ready for. But there is a danger here, as I was sometimes warned and that must now be noted. We can never dismiss the importance of history and politics to the direction a given society takes. But while mindful of this mistake, I am with Fromm: “Man is not only made by history,” he wrote at the beginning of his book. “History is made by man.” Psychological wounds, needs, and drives, in other words, cannot be ignored as we understand the political and social events that give newspapers their daily headlines–or that newspapers refuse to report, I ought to add.
This is where I come out on the neo–Nazi presence in Ukraine and the professions of nationalism emanating not only from the ultraright but often enough from the regime itself. I do not doubt their will to power, that they are in their war with Russia to win it. But the project is not to build a nation: Ultranationalist elements have done diabolically well tearing apart what remains of one. When, not long after he was elected and before he had caved to the Americans, Zelensky went to the front line while the Ukrainian forces were bombarding their Russian-speaking countrymen in the eastern provinces, ultraright officers threatened to lynch him when he ordered them to stop the shelling. Whereupon Zelensky stepped back and the bombardments went on for many years. What does this tell us? These people have no interest in making a nation of Ukraine or serving a democratic citizenry. They have no idea of any such responsibility and no thought of assuming one. The project is to submit to an ideology that prominently features violence and a consuming hatred of others. War becomes the perfect “duty,” the thing one must do, the pure expression of the authoritarianism to which they are dedicated.
This is my “nationalists without a nation.” To take at face value what Ukraine presents of itself, and the reproduction of this presentation by American officials and in American media, is merely another form of submission, nothing more.