Why are Nazis acceptable in Ukraine?

Azov Battaltion insignia and Nazi symbols

One of Vladimir Putin’s demands is that Ukraine “de-Nazify.”

These days the word “Nazi” is often a general purpose insult with no specific meaning. except “very, very evil.” But there are Nazis in Ukraine, and they are the real thing.

I don’t want to exaggerate.  

Ukrainian neo-Nazis are few in number. Most estimates put hardo-core Nazis at less than 2 percent of the population.  The extreme nationalist Svoboda and Right Sector parties each received less than 2 percent of the vote in recent presidential elections.  

Volodymyr Zelensky, the current President of Ukraine, is Jewish, and he received more than 72 percent of the vote.  Most of the rest went to the incumbent.

On the other hand the neo-Nazi parties are part of the Ukraine’s governing coalition.  The Azov Battalion, whose members are openly neo-Nazi, is an important part of Ukraine’s fighting force.  The “Overton window”—the range of ideas that are acceptable to discuss—includes neo-Nazis.

To understand how this can be, you have to know about the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine or Great Famine, imposed by Joseph Stalin on Ukraine from 1929 to 1933.  

It was one of the 20th century’s greatest crimes against humanity.  A United Nations report estimates it cost the lives of 3 million to 10 million Ukrainians.  It is officially recognized as genocide by Ukraine and 16  other countries.

Joseph Stalin forced millions in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union to starve to death in order to force the peasants into collective farms and gain control of the food supply.  He also suppressed Ukrainian cultural institutions.

Most historians interpret this as the Soviet Communist Party preemptively destroying all potential sources of resistance to the regime, including farmers who owned their land and individuals loyal to non-Russian cultures.

But there are those who see the Holodomor as an attempt by “the Russians” to destroy the Ukrainian race.  I’ve come across this meme serval times over the years while doing Internet research.  And I’ve also come across the meme that it was an attempt by “the Jews” to destroy the Ukrainian race.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s first look at the Ukraine terror-famine in all its horror.

The writer Arthur Koestler, in The Invisible Writingdescribed his disillusionment with Communism.  In 1932, as a new convert to Communism, he was invited to tour the Soviet Union.  At the entry point, at Kharkov in Ukraine, he noticed that all the other inbound travelers had luggage filled with food.

Hundreds of pounds of sugar, tea, butter, sausages, lard, biscuit and conserves of every variety were on the counters and grimy floors of the Customs shed.

I was startled by the look on the Customs’ officials faces while they were handling these foodstuffs.  It was a look of greed and resignation.  I had suffered hunger myself; the way a hungry man takes a piece of salami into his hands—the deference of his touch, and the pathetic gleam in his eyes—cannot be mistaken.

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe.  It stopped frequently.  At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread.

The women were lifting up their infants in the compartment windows—infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks.

I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33, which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims.  [snip]

My Russian traveling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who resisted collectivization of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms.

Robert Conquest is the leading historian of Soviet crimes against humanity.  Here is the beginning of his 1986 book, Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.

The attack on the peasantry was two-pronged.  First there was “de-kulakization.”  If a peasant was rich (for example, owned as much as three cows), he and his family could be stripped of everything they owned, including pots and pans, and sent to fend for themselves, usually to starve.  

Then there was confiscation of food of independent farmers, leaving them with almost nothing, because they allegedly were hoarders.  This took place not only in Ukraine, but all across Russia, the Caucasus and Kazakhstan

Conquest described how this worked, in painful detail in case after case, with anecdotes supported by research.  I found the book painful to read, both when it first came out and just now when I looked at it again.  If you lived in Ukraine at the height of the Holodomor, you could be sentenced to decades of forced labor for a simple act of kindness, such as giving a piece of bread to a starving child.

He wrote about the suppression of Ukrainian churches and cultural institutions.  One part that stuck in my mind was the roundup and execution of Ukraine’s blind bards.  They were unable to work in the fields, so they made their livings going from village to village and singing the great Ukrainian ballads and national songs.

Reminding Ukrainians of their free and heroic past was heresy.  Under Stalin, people were executed or imprisoned under just for arguing that national identity was as important as social class.

Considering all that happened, it should not have been surprising that, when the German armies invaded Ukraine in 1941, some (not all) of the Ukrainians welcomed them as liberators.

The German army had occupied Ukraine for about a year during World War One and set up a nominally independent Ukrainian government.  Ukrainians had a good memory of that occupation, especially compared to what came after, so it was natural that some of them welcomed the Germans back.

Big mistake!  Hitler’s plan for Ukraine and the other Slavic countries was to depopulate the countries by means of starvation and killing those who resist, and making the survivors into slaves for German settlers moving into their new living space.

But this was not apparent at first.  Some Ukrainians collaborated with the invaders out of opportunism, others out of genuine conviction.  A unit of the Waffen SS was composed largely of Ukrainian volunteers.

A Ukrainian nationalist named Stepan Bandera was originally a Nazi collaborator.  He believed Ukraine was for members of the Ukrainian race, and Jews, Russians, Poles, Tatars and other nationalities did not belong there.

But when he learned what the Nazis had in mind for Ukraine, he turned against them and was imprisoned.  He was released during the last stages of the war so he could form an independent Ukrainian army to resist the Soviets.

He survived the war, helped organize an anti-Soviet Ukrainian resistance with the help of the CIA and was assassination by the KGB in Germany in 1959.

I don’t want to leave the impression that most Ukrainians were Nazi collaborators.  An estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians, including Zelensky’s grandfather,  served in the Red Army fighting the Nazis, and an additional 250,000 were partisans, fighting the Nazis behind the lines.

Even so, many Ukrainians today regard Stepan Bandera as a great national hero.


My reason for bringing these things up is that Naziism in Ukraine is a big issue today.  It affects the current situation in a big way.

When Ukrainians look at Vladimir Putin, many of them see Stalin.  When Russians look at Ukraine, many of them see Stepan Bandera.

A couple of years ago, Putin only demanded that Ukraine be neutral between Russia and NATO, like Finland and Sweden, and that it grant autonomy to the Donbas region, similar to what Canada has granted Quebec.  It didn’t seem to me then that this would be an unreasonable price to pay for peace.

More recently, he promised Ukraine autonomy if it demilitarized and de-Nazified.  If that means disbanding its army, including the Azov battalion, and purging neo-Nazis from government, it wouldn’t seem impossible.

But Putin says that he has a list of neo-Nazis who’ve committed crimes against Russians, and they will not escape justice, I’m reminded of the Soviet invasions of the 1940s.  Whenever the Red Army invaded a country, it had lists of people—patriots and anti-Communists—to be arrested.  Many were never seen or heard of again.  I don’t see how Zelensky could agree to giving Russia free rein to roam Ukraine and determine who should be arrested or executed.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, because Putin in his latest speech said that Ukraine is part of the Russian nation, and he’s not going to compromise.  At this moment, it doesn’t look like he will be satisfied with anything but surrender, so maybe de-Nazification is a moot point.

In the meantime, we Americans are in the position of supporting Nazis because they are fighting Russia.  It reminds me of U.S. support for former members of Al Qaeda because they were fighting Assad in Syria.  I think our government should be careful about who they us with.


How Zelensky Made Peace With Neo-Nazis by Alex Rubenstein and Max Blumenthal for the Greyzone [Added 2022/3/5].  This is the best of the linked articles on the Azov Battalion.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Zelensky and the Fascists: “He will hang on some tree in Khreshchatryk” by Bernhard for Moon of Alabama [Added 2022/3/5]  Scroll down for the important part.

Article by Vladimir Putin “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

Address by the President of the Russian Federation – February 24, 2022.

The Ukrainian Famine: How Joseph Stalin Starved Millions by Patrick J. Kiger for History.com.

Azov Battalion

Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment? by Al Jazeera. (2022)

Congress Has Removed a Ban on Funding Neo-Nazis From Its Year-End Spending Bill by James Cardin for The Nation (2016)

Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are on the March in Ukraine by Lev Golinkin for The Nation (2019)

U.S. and Ukraine, Only Two Countries Vote Against UN Resolution Condemning Naziism by the Countercurrents Collective. (2021)

The United States Is Reaping What It Sowed in Ukraine by Nicholas J.S. Davies and Medea Benjamin for The Progressive (2020)

Facebook Allows Praise of Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi Battalion by Sam Biddle for The Intercept.  (2022)

White Supremacists, Other Extremists Respond to Russian Invasion of Ukraine by the Anti-Defamation League.

Why is Russia invading Ukraine?  Putin’s “Nazi” rhetoric reveals his terrifying war aims by Zach Beauchamp for Vox.

Bunny Rabbits and the Big Bad Wolf: Ukraine and Russia Through the Lens of Western Reporting by Gilbert Doctorow.

How a Far-Right Battalion Became Part of Ukraine’s National Guard by Tim Hume for Vice.  [Added 03/18/2022]

Far-Right Extremists Have Been Using Ukraine’s War as a Training Ground by Tim Hume for Vice.  [Added 03/18/2022]

How Ukraine’s Jewish president Zelensky made peace with neo-Nazi paramilitaries on front lines of war with Russia by Alexander Rubenstein and Max Blumenthal for The Greyzone.  [Added 03/16/2022]

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9 Responses to “Why are Nazis acceptable in Ukraine?”

  1. a gray Says:

    An interesting article, but my sense is that “Nazis” is an all-purpose appellation for anyone perceived by Putin and his group to be their enemies. That is not to say, though, that all countries don’t have an ignorant element that doesn’t understand what the Nazis stood for and did.


  2. wtfbuddy1 Says:

    Well if Putin want to denazify Ukraine – where will he stop? Does he have a list for Romania, Hungury, Poland and the US. We are on a roller coaster in this world and right now it’s racing down hill fast with all options still on the table, but no one want to sit at the table.


  3. philebersole Says:

    The Nazis in Ukraine really are dyed-in-the-wool, honest-to-god Nazis, as much as the marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The linked articles show this.

    The difference is that they are not part of the U.S. military and governmental structure, as the Azov Battalion and neo-Nazi political parties are in Ukraine.

    Given Ukraine’s bloody and tragic history, I can sort of understand why some Ukrainians in the 1940s might have welcomed Hitler’s army as liberators, and why they might be regarded as heroes today.

    The fact that the Azov Battalion is part of Ukraine’s fighting force does not make Ukraine fair game for invasion and conquest.

    At the same time, I as an American have misgivings making the Azov Battalion our proxy warriors in fighting Russia. If Ukraine is defeated, and the U.S. government decides to sponsor an insurgency, I am sure, based on past history, that they will be first choice to get CIA support.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Bill Harvey Says:


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    One battalion doesn’t count for much. Generally from 300 to about a thousand soldiers, it’s a drop in the military bucket of hundreds of thousands of troops. But they might make for great Russian PR.

    Putin is doing this because he can’t have Ukraine in NATO. In a war, he’d lose access to the Black Sea as well as having daggers to his northern and southern flanks. He was always paranoid about an invasion from the west and did not trust the growing pacifism in Europe. He got that from being a Cold War baby and maybe being a bit psychopathic. But psychopathy and/or paranoia seem to be common ingredients in being a national leader. And even the US is not immune.

    I do not know what was offered to Ukraine to avoid the invasion. Or if there was anything Zelinskyy could have done short of simply surrendering his country to a puppet regime. Given Ukrainian opinion, that was probably not an option. Had Putin not invaded Crimea and Donbas, perhaps positions would not have hardened. The Holodomor, which still has living survivors, colors the Ukrainian attitude towards Russia’s actions.

    My feeling is that everyone would have been better served for Ukraine and the Baltics to stay neutral but nobody ever listens to me. (Finland has prospered by it.) But the die is cast. Europe is remilitarizing, the Russian economy is plunging, and the Baltics are justifiably in a panic. I see moves that might be made to calm the situation but I don’t believe the powers that be are going to do anything that hasn’t been done before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      The Azov Battalion is also known as the Azov Detachment and Azov Regiment. According to Wikipedia, its estimated strength in 2017 was 2,500 troops.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Fred (Au Natural) Says:

        Still pretty small potatoes. They do not represent Ukraine, only a tiny corner of it. Every country has a share of crackpots and malcontents and that’s sure a smaller share than the US. Thinking of all the far right militias we have here. If we were invaded and against the ropes, US GOV would surely use them.

        When you are desperate, you take what you can get.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. navasolanature Says:

    Thanks, that is really interesting background and explains a lot more than the main news offers. Yes, a very complex situation. Seems to me could have been avoided by following Finland example but can see how Putin would like to grab back what the Tsar and Stalin had. The Ukraine has rich resources and coast.


  7. philebersole Says:

    I don’t equate Ukraine with Nazi Germany. I don’t say neo-Nazis are running things in Ukraine. If this wasn’t clear in my original post, I apologize.

    What is the case is that Stepan Bandera, whose followers fought on the size of Nazi Germany, is regarded as a Ukrainian national hero because he fought the Soviet Union.

    And for that reason, his present-day followers are accepted in present-day Ukraine as part of the political spectrum.

    Bandera followers never got as much as 10 percent of the vote in Ukraine, but they are an influential part of the governing coalition that came to power in the 2014 coup.

    They not only have their own military unit, the Azov battalion, but a private police force, that operates independently of the Ukrainian government.

    Their members have positions all through the Ukrainian government, which they will not give up no matter who wins elections, and they will never surrender. One reason they will never surrender is that Russians will show no mercy to Nazis.

    The fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish does not change these facts. They do not recognize his authority, and their leader has threatened him with death.

    It is understandable that, considering the millions of Ukrainians who were killed by orders from Stalin, that Ukrainians would respect Stepan Bandera and find his followers acceptable.

    It is understandable that, considering the millions of Russians and other Soviet subject who willed by orders from Hitler, that Russians would never tolerate a government that included supporters of Bandera.

    Also, the Bandera ideology is slightly different from Hitler’s ideology. Hitler regarded Jews as the No. 1 enemy, although he also despised Slavs and other non-German peoples. Bandera regarded Russians as the No. 1 enemy, although he also wanted Ukraine to be cleansed of Jews, Poles and other non-Ukrainian peoples.

    The natural reaction to a demand for “de-Nazifaction” is either “yes, of course,” or “this is a phony issue.” A glimpse of Ukraine’s tragic history shows that it is not so simple.




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