About Those Ukrainian Extremists

by Andrew Stuttaford

Writing for the New York Review of Books historian Tim Snyder applies a reality check to some of the propaganda being directed against Ukraine.

The article is lengthy (and well worth reading in full) but to summarize, Snyder starts by explaining the background to the revolution against a regime that had become unmoored from any genuine democratic legitimacy, taking time—as a good historian should—to note how the past seeps into the present, in unexpected ways:

Enter a lonely, courageous Ukrainian rebel, a leading investigative journalist. A dark-skinned journalist who gets racially profiled by the regime. And a Muslim. And an Afghan. This is Mustafa Nayem, the man who started the revolution. Using social media, he called students and other young people to rally on the main square of Kiev in support of a European choice for Ukraine. That square is called the Maidan, which by the way is an Arab word. During the first few days of the protests the students called it the Euromaidan. Russian propaganda called it, predictably enough, the Gayeuromaidan.

When riot police were sent to beat the students, who came to defend them? More “Afghans,” but “Afghans” of a very different sort: Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet Red Army, men who had been sent to invade Afghanistan during after the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. These men came to defend “their children,” as they called the students. But they were also defending a protest initiated by a man born in Kabul at the very time they were fighting their way toward it.

Clio is a trickster muse.

Yanukovych falls, but speaking from Russia, blames his overthrow on a “Nazi” coup, echoing earlier smears that had somehow coexisted (as Snyder nodes) with his government informing its riot police that the opposition was part of a wider Jewish conspiracy. Russian leaders, meanwhile, claimed that extremists had come to power, and that Ukraine’s ethnic Russians in were in some sort of danger.

This, argues Snyder, is nonsense. After analyzing who was who at the barricades, he looks at those who have replaced the old regime:

The transitional authorities were not from the right, or even from the western part of Ukraine, where nationalism is more widespread. The speaker of the parliament and the acting president is a Baptist preacher from southeastern Ukraine. All of the power ministries, where of course any coup-plotter would plant his own people, were led by professionals and Russian speakers. The acting minister of internal affairs was half Armenian and half Russian. The acting minister of defense was of Roma origin.

The provisional authorities are now being supplanted by a new government, chosen by parliament, which is very similar in its general orientation. The new prime minister is a Russian-speaking conservative technocrat. Both of the major presidential candidates in the elections planned for May are Russian speakers. The likely next president, Vitali Klitschko, is the son of a general in the Soviet armed forces, best known in the West as the heavyweight champion boxer. He is a chess player and a Russian speaker. He does his best to speak Ukrainian. It does not come terribly naturally. He is not a Ukrainian nationalist.

…Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place.

Quite.

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