Ukraine, the US Ambassador and the fascists

By Yasha Levine


I’ve been trying hard to keep my head down and focus on writing my upcoming Surveillance Valley book, but I just can’t help but peer from time to time at the giant catastrophe taking place in my ancestral homeland of Ukraine. 

It’s not just the war, which is horrible enough and grinds on day after day. There’s also the horrific economic conditions faced by the country and the ongoing oligarchic looting — with, most recently, a “pro-Western” Ukrainian oligarch siphoning off $2 billion of IMF aim funds into his private bank accounts without anyone minding. There were the string of suspicious suicides of former government officials and a brazen daylight hit on a pro-Russian journalist. And then of course there’s the scary new legislation that has officially outlawed communist ideology and the display of Soviet symbols, “making something as trivial as selling a USSR souvenir, or singing the Soviet national hymn or the Internationale, punishable by up to five years in prison for an individual and up to 10 years in prison for members of an organization.” 

Yep, there’s so much to watch and be horrified by.

But the latest thing that caught my eye was the online activity of Geoffry Pyatt, esteemed U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. One of his tweets brought me back to a topic that’s been haunting me ever since I travelled to Ukraine last summer: the normalization of Holocaust denial, and America’s cynical support of fascist groups and ideologies in the former Soviet Union. 

Ambassador Pyatt leads a busy life on social media. He logs on daily to wage a relentless tweeting war against Russian propaganda. Recently Pyatt took to Twitter and did something I thought no modern American ambassador would ever be caught doing: he promoted Ukraine’s “OUN Battalion” — an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group that proudly takes its name from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an ultra-violent fascist group that was backed by Nazi Germany and carried out a brutal campaign of mass murder and mutilation against Poles and Jews in the early 1940s.

How bad was the OUN? Well, its leaders wanted to create an ethnically pure Ukraine — free of Poles, Jews and Russians. And it took serious steps to make it happen. OUN even had song with a refrain that went something like this: “We will butcher the Jews, strangle the Poles, and establish a Ukrainian state!” 

I’ll get to the ugly history of OUN in a bit. First, a bit about an article that Ambassador Pyatt liked so much that he couldn’t help but promote on Twitter.

It appeared in one of the Koch-funded The Heritage Foundation’s newfangled magazines, The Daily Signal. Among attacks on Planned Parenthood, green energy subsidies and government jobs, the mag ran a dispatch by Nolan Peterson, a Daily Signal foreign correspondent and a “former USAF special ops pilot.” In it Peterson hangs out with the “OUN Battalion.” He describes how members of the battalion go about their combat duties on the frontline in eastern Ukraine and introduces his readers to “Ukraine’s Women Warriors,” pointing out how brave they are and how well they’re treated by their male comrades — even as they all risk their lives to free Ukraine from Russia’s totalitarian grip.

Here’s a sample: 

OUN stands for the “Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists,” a partisan group dating back to before World War II.

With the sun settling outside on the late summer afternoon, about a dozen Ukrainian soldiers stood casually inside the garage, talking and joking. They seemed unconcerned by the sounds of artillery and gunfire in the distance. 

The soldiers ranged widely in age, some as young as 19, some in their 40s and even 50s. They wore mismatched military uniforms purchased off the Internet, or which civilian volunteers had donated. Some soldiers were cleaning their rifles or tinkering with equipment, while others relaxed, enjoying the relative safety of the garage.

One of the soldiers was a 22-year-old named Julia. She had just returned from the trenches and stood with a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung across her chest as she talked and laughed with the others.

Julia’s dark black hair was pulled back in a bun, but it was a little wild and disheveled. She wore a body armor vest, camouflage pants cut off below the knee, and high black combat boots. Her jewelry was simple—a silver necklace, silver gauge earrings through her earlobes, and a black stud in the upper ear. Two woven bracelets were on her right wrist and a ring on her left index finger.

Julia, whose nom de guerre is “Black,” seemed relaxed. She rolled her eyes and cocked her head in a dismissive laugh when a fellow soldier made a joke about Playboy magazine.

Ain’t that nice? Ain’t that just super progressive? 

Reading the dispatch, you can’t help but marvel at just how friendly these “OUN Battalion” folks are, at how egalitarian and just downright decent. Right? Well, not really. 

See the article leaves out a few salient details: Like the fact that the leader of the OUN Battalion is an out-and-out Ukrainian fascist by the name of Mykola Kokhanivsky — who called for suspending democracy in Ukraine and establishing a centralized nationalist dictatorship. Kokhanivsky was a member of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists and is closely associated with a scary network of ultranationalist/fascist organizations that popped up in Ukraine starting in the early 1990s. Groups like like Right Sector, an armed paramilitary group that worships Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian supremacist leader of the OUN — a man who collaborated with the Nazis, fought to establish an ethnically pure Ukraine and whose followers were responsible for liquidating Jews and Poles. As one rank-and-file Right Sector fighter told BBC’s Newsnight, they want “a pure nation — not like under Hitler, but in a way a little bit like that.”

Given Kokhanivsky’s affiliations and history, it’s not surprising to find him at the helm of a shady, privately financed paramilitary outfit that takes its name from OUN, one of the most brutal nationalist groups operating in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century.

How ugly was the OUN? Well, you could teach a graduate seminar on the gruesome history of the OUN, but here are few bits to give you some perspective, courtesy of the work of Per A. Rudling. He’s an associate professor of history at Sweden’s Lund University and an expert in Ukrainian and European nationalist movements.

OUN’s origins: 

Founded in 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists became the dominant political movement of the Ukrainian far right. It was formed out of a number of radical nationalist and fascist groups and was, initially, led by war veterans, frustrated by their failure to establish a Ukrainian state in 1917–1920. In the increasingly authoritarian political environment of interwar Poland, radicalized the Ukrainian nationalists.

…Belonging to a tradition of European generic fascism, the OUN emerged out of an amalgamation between the Ukrainian Military Organization and a number of other extreme right-wing organizations, such as the Ukrainian National Association, the Union of Ukrainian Fascists, and the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine. From the moment of its founding, fascists were integral to, and played a central role in, the organization. The OUN avoided designating itself as fascist in order to emphasize the “originality” of Ukrainian nationalism.

The OUN slogan “The Nation Above Everything” was taken quite literally, as was the slogan “Ukraine for the Ukrainians.” … In 1936 Stepan Bandera indicated the magnitude of the crimes the OUN was prepared to consider in order to achieve this goal. “The OUN values the life of its members, values it highly; but—our idea in our understanding is so grand, that when we talk about its realization, not single individuals, nor hundreds, but millions of victims have to be sacrificed in order to realize it.”

Nazi collaboration:

The OUN cooperated closely with other fascist states and movements—Italy, Japan, Spain, and, in particular, Germany. … In the second half of the 1930s, its relations with Nazi Germany were close. In September 1937, Volodymyr Martynets’ represented the OUN at the Fifth Congress of National Socialists Abroad in Stuttgart.

…Following the German and Soviet invasion of Poland, many leading OUN members gathered in the German-occupied part of Poland, the General Government. They were further radicalized by the brutal Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine in 1939–1941 and by the ideological and military training of many of their leaders by Nazi Germany from 1938–1939 onwards. Referring to itself as a “natural ally” of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, the OUN(b)declared its readiness to go to war against the USSR.

…leadership consisted of ruthless OUN(b) activists, most of whom were trained in Nazi Germany, and many were deeply involved in the Holocaust. The Ukrainian gendarmerie, Hilfsfreiwillige (volunteers), and, in particular, the so-called Schutzmannschaften, had been central to the implementation of the Holocaust in Ukraine and Belarus. Often they were tasked with the dirty work, the Schmutzarbeit, of the Nazis, sealing off areas for the murder of Jews, communists, and pro-Soviet partisans. 

Mass murder:

In April 1941, the OUN(b) declared that they “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime.” Its propaganda directives in the following month demanded the destruction of the Jews: “Ukraine for the Ukrainians! . . . Death to the Muscovite-Jewish commune! Beat the commune, save Ukraine!”

In April 1943 Mykola Lebed’, the acting leader of the OUN(b), advocated a policy “to cleanse the entire revolutionary territory of the Polish population.” … The UPA’s [UPA is the armed wing of the OUN YL] ethnic cleansing of the Poles in Volhynia and Galicia continued through 1943 and much of 1944, until the arrival of the Soviets.

The murderers used primarily farm tools—scythes, knives and pitchforks. Orthodox priests blessed such weapons in their churches. The bodies were often badly mutilated, partly as a byproduct of intimate murder, but were futher tampered with in order to dehumanize the victim and strike terror. Some had their stomachs cut open, noses cut off, or faces smashed in. The display of dismembered, crucified, or disemboweled bodies was meant to instill fear and panic and encourage the Volhynian Poles to flee. Polish and Jewish survivors’ accounts emphasize the brutality of the murders. Moshe Maltz, a survivor, wrote in his diary:

When the Bandera gangs seize a Jew, they consider it a prize catch. . . . They literally slash Jews to pieces with their machetes.

Bandera men . . . are not discriminating about who they kill; they are gunning down the populations of entire villages. . . . Since there are hardly any Jews left to kill, the Bandera gangs have turned on the Poles. They are literally hacking Poles to pieces. Every day . . . you can see the bodies of Poles, with wires around their necks, floating down the river Bug.

The murders of Poles and Jews continued through the winter and spring of 1944.… The murders were carried out along ethnic lines in an area with many mixed Polish-Ukrainian families. Polish survivor testimonies contain gruesome accounts of how the UPA forced family members to take part in murders of their relatives.

This stuff is horrific but it just barely scratches the surface. The historical record is crammed with similar survivor accounts. Here's a bit from Timothy Snyder's The Reconstruction of Nations describing a horrific scene of mass murder and torture in a Polish in north-western Ukraine by the UPA, the armed wing of the OUN.

Just before dawn on 29 August 1943, UPA partisans and Ukrainians from neighboring villages surrounded Głęboczyca and moved to murder all its inhabitants. Farmers already in the fields were surrounded and killed by blows from sickles. This alerted their wives, who were killed with bullets or farm implements or both. This made enough noise to give warnings, and a few individuals escaped. At least 185 Poles were murdered. Some were decapitated, some were hanged, some had their skin torn from their muscle, some had their hearts gauged from their bodies, some were set aflame. Many were hacked into pieces with farm implements. Some suffered many, most, or even all of these tortures. The village was destroyed, and of it today there is no sign.

This wasn’t an isolated massacre. Tens of thousands of Polish people were killed in this manner.  

No matter how you look at it, these OUN goons were a bunch grade-a monsters. If you’re the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine dedicated to promoting western values of tolerance and democracy, these are not the exactly the kind of people you’d want to promote on your Twitter feed. 

Well, except... The uncomfortable truth is that America has had a central role in enabling and protecting OUN after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hell, the CIA support of OUN is pretty much the only reason a group like “OUN Battalion” could even rear its head in Ukraine today. 

It all goes back to the end of World War II.

When the Soviet Union took back western Ukraine, most of the OUN leadership fled to Germany, where the rag-tag and feuding organization engaged in petty crime, terrorism and dollar counterfeiting to stay afloat. Naturally they came to the attention of American spies  — first the OSS, then CIA.  They were gearing up to fight a covert Cold War against the Soviet Union and saw OUN as a perfect weapon: Not only did OUN leaders have valuable intelligence and a network of anti-communist operatives, the organization had plenty of rank and file hoods eager take the fight to the hated commies, even if it meant being parachuted on suicide missions behind the Iron Curtain. American foreign policy wizards also hoped that these Ukrainian nationalists could organize internal resistance groups to fight the Soviet Union from the inside.

So in the late 1940s, the CIA sponsored the immigration of various OUN members into the United States, financed their operations and shielded them from prosecution for war crimes. Eventually a whole community of OUN-connected Ukrainians found home in the United States. With financial backing from the CIA, they founded newspapers, set up historical societies, became respectable university professors and churned out an endless stream of revisionist history about themselves that buried their fascism, their Nazi ties and WWII-era crimes. Nazi collaborators became democratic freedom fighters. Mass murderers of Jews and Poles became heroic anti-communist partisans. The whole project reached peak revisionist absurdity when some Ukrainian historians began to claim that OUN wasn’t anti-Semitic at all, but protectors of the Jewish race. And yet, no matter how hard they tried to wipe themselves clean, their fascism and drooling anti-Semitism kept poking through. 

Here’s a short excerpt from a book by a former OUN member who lived in America, in which he argues OUN was not anti-Semitic, yet can’t escape cramming his text full of overt anti-Semitic tropes — including making references to Jews as sucking Ukrainian blood: 

Even when a Jew was choking a Ukrainian villager, sucking his blood as a nobleman’s tax collector, or innkeeper, or torturing him in the basements of the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, KGB, or as a Bolshevik commissar—this was alright, honorable and just, in accordance with the command of your Jehovah. And yet when that Ukrainian defended himself, then this was already criminal “anti-Semitic” and a “pogrom of the innocent, defenseless Jews.” . . . You see, the name of the Russian empire became “USSR” [SSSR in Russian] after the revolution. Are you aware of how the “goyem” within the empire read that?: “Three Sruls and one Russian.”

This kind of psychotic OUN revisionism flourished in the west. So when the Soviet Union collapsed, the reworked heroes and nationalist history came rushing back to Ukraine. “The collapse of the Soviet Union created a demand for new history writing. Soviet textbooks were discarded and, in many cases, replaced with diaspora accounts of the past,” wrote Per A. Rudling. “While the influence of returning émigré nationalists on Ukrainian politics has been modest, their influence on Ukrainian history writing and myth-making has been significant.”

While this new history buried OUN’s crimes, it did little to change the fascist underpinnings of the old ideology. In the 1990s, in Lviv — which had its giant Jewish population almost entirely wiped out during WWII — the ultranationalism came surging back with a vengeance. Streets were renamed after OUN leaders and Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera, and menacing torchlight processions became a common occurrence. The ultranationalism was so strong that my sister-in-law and her family left, fearing for their safety — and that’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ultranationalist and openly fascist groups surged in popularity and grabbed parliamentary seats. Svoboda, an openly fascist political party, flourished. Svoboda (which means “freedom”) was until 2004 called the Social-National Party of Ukraine — a overt reference to Hitler’s National Socialist party. The party required members to be ethnically Ukrainian and wanted to introduce "Soviet" as a "nationality" which would be stamped in people's passports. "The Ukrainian needs to stay Ukrainian, the Pole—Polish, the Gagauz—Gagauz, the Uzbek—Uzbek," read the party's website. Svoboda party official once called Ukrainian-American actress Mila Kunis a “zhidovka” — Ukrainian “female like” or “kike-ess.” 

The New York Times reported in 2012:

KIEV, Ukraine — The last time Oleg Tyagnibok was a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, his colleagues kicked him out over a fiery speech in which he described how Ukrainians, during World War II, bravely fought Muscovites, Germans, Jews “and other scum,” and then used slurs to refer to the “Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine.”

Eight years later, Mr. Tyagnibok is preparing to return to Parliament, not as a lone member of a broader coalition, as he was when he was ejected, but as the leader of Svoboda, the ultranationalist, right-wing party that will control 38 of 450 seats, or about 8.5 percent of the national legislature.

The strength of these political movements and their ideology continued to surge, bubbling over into mainstream national legitimacy and power during the Maidan protest movement in 2013 and 2014. After President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled, ultranationalist groups and their members attained national office and received top appointments in the government — especially the security officers. Meanwhile, President Petro Poroshenko repeatedly honors OUN and its leaders as “heroes.”

Just like during the Cold War, ultranationalism is being used as a political weapon. But instead of being used to fight the Soviet Union, OUN myths are being mobilized by one Ukrainian oligarch clan against another: “pro-Western" oligarchs vs "pro-Russian" oligarchs. Both sides cynically duking it out for control over Ukraine's resource riches, while whitewashed fascist ideology seeps deeper and deeper into Ukrainian society.

I saw firsthand just how normal they have become when I was in Ukraine last summer. 

Take Andrei and Lena, a couple I met in Kharkov through a friend. They agreed to give me a rundown of the situation in the city — Ukraine second biggest — a few days after I arrived. They’re nice, upper middle-class and in their mid-thirties. They’re both young professionals, and lived in the center of Kharkov with their young daughter. Lena worked for a western company, while Andrei ran his own tourism business. They were thoughtful, intelligent, educated and well-connected people — they were good hosts, and even hooked me up with a discounted rate at a nice local hotel.

I wasn’t too surprised to hear Andrei say he had rediscovered “censored” Ukrainian history — a history that I knew was produced by exiled members of the OUN. What shocked me was Andrei’s crypto-racial theories about the Russian people. It came out when I asked him about the east-west division in Ukrainian society. Why did he think people in the predominantly ethnically Russian regions were not as supportive of the new pro-Western Ukrainian government?  

Andrei thought about it for a moment and then explained. He said he had always loved Russia — loved going to the country, loved visiting St. Petersburg, has lots of Russian friends — but that that love was no more. To him, there was a huge and unbridgeable difference between Ukrainians and ethnically Russian Ukrainians. The Russians were more servile, more easily duped by state propaganda and more authoritarian. As opposed to "ethnically pure" Ukrainians, Russians were less capable of living in a western-style capitalist democracy — where you have to hustle and think for yourself, where you couldn’t mooch off the state and where success or failure depended on your own initiative. To Andrei the difference had to do with breeding and history. As he explained it, serfdom had never take root as deeply in Ukraine, while Russians were stuck in the awful institution for centuries and centuries — and the serfdom had taken its toll on the race and made Russians and Ukrainians incompatible.

I wasn’t sure if his history on this was right. But it didn’t really matter. The implication of what he was saying was clear: It was all about genetics and blood. Russia’s history of serfdom has bred Russians to be slavish, less free in their thinking and more receptive to authoritarian propaganda. This difference was profound — it was genetic, and no amount of schooling or cultural education would change it.

It was a grotesque racial eugenics theory — something that could’ve been churned out by a social darwinist or Goebbels’ propaganda ministry — but it fit quiet nicely if you wanted it to. It could explain everything from Russia’s communist past and current support for Vladimir Putin. It’s all about the Russian people’s inbred serf mentality, man! They’re incapable of being free!

The way Andrei saw it, the current struggle against Russian influence more than just about economic integration with Europe, it was a fight to break away for a degraded, inferior culture and people — something that had been weighing down Ukraine since the Soviet days. 

I held my tongue at the time, but I was horrified by his casual eugenicism. The whole thing was very personal to me. I was born in Leningrad, a citizen of the Soviet Union. Half of my family came from modern day Belarus, half from Ukraine. My mom’s side came from a Jewish village — a shtetl — in central Ukraine. I thought to myself: Andrei’s heroes vowed to wipe out people like me — and almost succeeded. As a Soviet Jew, where did I fit into his naive eugenicist view of the world? 

As for Ambassador Pyatt and his tweets…America’s neocon establishment sees the rise of Ukrainian ultranationalism as a good thing, something that should be supported and nurtured, as it has succeeded in peeling Ukraine away from Russia’s sphere of influence. But at what cost? War, death, destruction, Ukrainian set against Ukrainian and a European country steeped in naive crypto-fascism? 

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