Some commentators on the Ukraine crisis seem so convinced that it must be a struggle between good guys and bad guys that they're willing to ignore evidence that there's anything problematic about their chosen side.
In the US press, this generally means whitewashing the opposition that overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, since Yanukovych had the support of official enemy Russia. To maintain a simple good vs. evil framework, the fact that Ukraine's neo-fascist movement had a significant role in that opposition–and in the new government that replaced Yanukovych–was downplayed or even outright denied.
Take Timothy Snyder's widely circulated piece from the New York Review of Books (3/1/14), "Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda." Snyder is a professor of history at Yale; I've read one of his books, The Reconstruction of Nation: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999, and thought it was excellent. But his piece on the Ukraine crisis illustrates that being a gifted historian does not automatically convey the ability to write about events in one's own time in a clear-eyed fashion.
Complaining that "from Moscow to London to New York, the Ukrainian revolution has been seen through a haze of propaganda," Snyder cited claims by both Russian and former Ukrainian officials that "Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists" and that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted by "right-wing thugs." "Interestingly," Snyder wrote,
the message from authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Kiev was not so different from some of what was written during the uprising in the English-speaking world, especially in publications of the far left and the far right. From Lyndon LaRouche's Executive Intelligence Review through Ron Paul's newsletter through The Nation and the Guardian, the story was essentially the same: little of the factual history of the protests, but instead a play on the idea of a nationalist, fascist or even Nazi coup d'état.
In other words, not only Russian and ex-Ukrainian officials, but also various Western media outlets–with the most oddball and marginal listed first–are putting forth the "propaganda" claim that Yanukovych was overthrown by the far right.
Given this introduction, you would expect the article to go on to debunk the idea that the people who overthrew the Ukrainian government were fascists. Instead, Snyder spends the next 20 paragraphs arguing that Yanukovych's government was bad and undemocratic. It need hardly be said, of course, that bad, undemocratic governments can have fascist opponents; if they could not, his opposition to Stalin would disqualify Hitler as a fascist.
So it isn't until the 23rd paragraph that Snyder begins to address the claims made by "the far left and the far right" about fascists overthrowing Yanukovych. And he starts, surprisingly enough, by acknowledging that there's an element of truth to them: "The Ukrainian far right did play an important part in the revolution," he writes. That's maybe something he could have mentioned some 1,800 words earlier; it seems an important qualifier to the assertion that talk of "right-wing extremists" is mere "propaganda."
Snyder makes an argument that Yanukovych, by not repressing his fascist opponents as much as he did liberal democrats, was actually using them to bolster his claim to power–imputing to Yanukovych a sort of association with fascism for failing to be antifascist enough. Snyder sees no need, on the other hand, for the anti-Yanukovych movement to apologize for actually including fascists in its coalition; in fact, he depicts the participation of fascist militia in the overthrow of Yanukovych's government in what can only be described as a heroic light:
The radical youth of Svoboda fought in considerable numbers, alongside of course people of completely different views. They fought and they took risks and they died, sometimes while trying to save others.
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Svoboda is a far-right party launched in 1991; its original name (the Social-National Party) and logo (a swastika-like superimposed I-N, standing for "Idea Natsii," or "Idea of the Nation") were deliberate echoes of Nazism. It supposedly purged neo-Nazi elements in 2004, but its ostensibly more moderate leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is notorious for his attacks on the "Moscow/Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine" and "the Moskali [Russians], Germans, Kikes and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state" (Channel 4, 12/16/13). Yuri Mykhailyshin, one of Tyahnybok's top advisers, set up something called the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre in 2005 (OSW Commentary, 7/4/11). Did some of the people these far-right extremists fought alongside have "completely different views"? One should hope so.
Though not all of them do; another group that played a large role in the violent clashes was Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist movement that has criticized Svoboda for its "pacifism" (Nation, 1/21/14). While disclaiming racism and antisemitism, Right Sector describes itself as "nationalist, defending the values of white, Christian Europe against the loss of the nation and deregionalization" (Le Monde Diplomatique, 3/14). Snyder calls Right Sector "the group to watch" as "the radical alternative to Svoboda," but suggests that it, too, is nothing much to worry about, and possibly even represents a constructive stabilizing force: Its leaders tell Jews and Russians "that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial," and since the government's overthrow, "they have not caused violence or disorder. On the contrary, the subway runs in Kiev." But do the trains run on time?
Snyder insists that "the transitional authorities were not from the right," and that the "new government, chosen by parliament…is very similar in its general orientation." This is simply false; Snyder mentions a couple of political figures who are not fascists, but passes over in silence a number of bonafide far-right extremists who have been given powerful positions.
The new deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Sych, is from Svoboda; National Security Secretary Andriy Parubiy is a co-founder of the neo-Nazi Social-National Party, Svoboda's earlier incarnation; the deputy secretary for National Security is Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector. Chief prosecutor Oleh Makhnitsky is another Svoboda member, as are the ministers for Agriculture and Ecology (Channel 4, 3/5/14). In short, if the prospect of fascists taking power again in Europe worries you, you should be very worried about Ukraine.
Snyder's piece inspired a much less informed screed in Forbes (3/4/14) making an even more sweeping denial of the role of the extreme right in the new Ukrainian government. Forbes contributor Greg Satell wrote:
There has also been completely unfounded accusations that Ukraine's interim government is "Neo-Nazi" and "Ultranationalist." Timothy Snyder has done a wonderful job debunking these claims.
Satell's link, of course, goes to Snyder's "Haze of Propaganda."
"Are there Neo-Nazis in Ukraine?" writes Satell. "Sure, just as there are in Chicago and every other major American city. Are some politically active? Yes, as is David Duke in our own country. Do they have any power to shape policy or events? Categorically no." Unless you count leading the fighting that overthrew the government as shaping events, or getting to run the military and justice system as affecting policy.
Satell has the nerve to call his utterly ignorant article "How the Western Press Is Getting It Terribly Wrong in Ukraine."