The Nationalist Reconstruction of Ukraine

The infamy of Neo-Nazis obscures the role played by other radical Nationalist groups in Post-Maidan Ukraine. The histories of these groups show us the bigger picture, the long-term goals and trajectory of the Nationalist project.

Ukrainian Nationalist Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self-defense Organization (UNA-UNSO)

Banner of the UNSO. From Wikimedia Commons.

At the time of the Euromaidan the UNSO was already a long-established paramilitary group. It became a founding member of the Right Sector and organized sotnya for the Maidan Self-Defence. UNA-UNSO fighters were at the heart of the action on the European Square.

UNA-UNSO members at the European Square in Kiev, 24 November 2013. From Wikimedia Commons.

The UNSO’s leaders had registered the UNA as a political party in 1994 and campaigned in national elections. The UNA never became more than a marginal option, receiving less than 5% of the vote. After the Euromaidan events ended the party became the legal vehicle for the Right Sector’s entry to politics: the organizations merged in 2015 and the UNA was reconstituted as the Right Sector Party. Right Sector continued to campaign in local and municipal elections until 2022.

UNA-UNSO was integral to the Right Sector but its historical role starts much earlier. The 2013 revolution was not the first time that the UNA-UNSO had taken part in the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly government: the organization was built in the last years of the USSR and played a significant part in its dissolution.

Dissidents and Openness

The leader of the UNA-UNSO during the Maidan was Yuriy Shukevych. Shukevych was an old Soviet dissident, a member of the Helsinki Group which criticized the Soviet state on the basis of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yuriy Shukevych in 2014. From Facenews.

Yuriy was also the son of Roman Shukevych, the Nazi Auxiliary Police captain and commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) who ordered the mass murder of tens of thousands of Polish civilians.

Yuriy, his sister Maria, and their mother were exiled to Siberia when the Red Army entered Lvov in 1944. Two years later the children were separated from their mother and sent to an orphanage for “children of enemies of the state” in Stalino, Ukraine (now called Donetsk). Yuriy managed to escape the orphanage and return home to Lvov, but was apprehended in 1948 when he tried to free his sister from the orphanage. Charged with collaborating with the underground UPA, 15 year old Yuriy was sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp.

From Lenta.

In the following decades Shukevych would be repeatedly released only to be rearrested on charges of anti Soviet agitation. His sentence would finally expire in 1988 and he would be allowed to return to Ukraine in 1990. Shukevych’s release was not an isolated incident of mercy or a sign of changed behavior on his part. He was one of many political prisoners who was released during the term of Soviet premier and President, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Extract from “Posters of Perestroika”. From Cinemage Books.

The Nationalist Right emerged in Ukraine under the conditions of Perestroika and Glasnost (“Reconstruction” and “Openness”). These were guiding principles of the reforms pursued by Gorbachev and his advisors. Their reforms included relaxation of censorship, permission of private publishing, amnesties for political prisoners, and the end of the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Throughout Gorbachev’s tenure Perestroika advanced the core values of Liberal Democracy: free speech, free religion, free conscience, free association, free elections, free enterprise.

Ukrainska Helsinska Spilka (UHS), “Ukrainian Helsinki Union”

Ukrainsky Visnyk issues 1 and 2. From Amazon.

With the more permissive atmosphere of Glasnost came a flood of dissident publications. One of the key dissident newspapers was Ukrainsky Visnyk (“Ukrainian Herald”). It had first been self-published in 1970 and banned in 1972, when publisher Viacheslav Chornovil was arrested. Chornovil was released from prison in 1983, returned to West Ukraine in May 1985, and resumed publication of the Herald in 1987 as Perestroika accelerated.

The Ukrainian Herald published articles by many prominent Soviet dissidents, providing a platform for them to address the public. Before long this writing circle would become the first proto-party of Ukraine’s Perestroika.

Rally at Lviv University during which the Ukrainian Helsinki Union was founded.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Union was declared at a mass rally in Lviv on 7 July 1988. The rally had been organized by Chornovil and other writers of Ukrainian Herald, many of whom had belonged to the defunct Ukrainian Helsinki Group that fought for human rights in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Helsinki Union was dedicated to the principles of human rights as presented in the Helsinki Accords.

The principles of the UHS had been written by Chornovil before the Union was publicly declared on 7 July 1988. They included:

  • The sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, apart from the USSR
  • Multiparty elections with candidates nominated by “all parties, unions, unofficial (informal) associations, and even initiatory groups of citizens”
  • The replacement of the federal government of the USSR with a powerless coordinating body: this in service of maximum economic privatization and protecting the political power of the ethnic majority
  • The abolition of pay equity, the institution of poverty lines, and private, voluntary welfare instead of public services
  • Abolition of nuclear energy and chemical industries
  • Strict compliance with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasis on unrestricted access to information from inside and beyond Ukraine (except military secrets)
  • Legalization of Anti-Soviet propaganda and release of all political prisoners
  • Formation of independent trade unions
  • Unrestricted rights for religious believers and organizations
  • Abolition of the internal passport system of the USSR
  • Popular referendums for all matters that directly affect the majority of citizens

The UHS’ political goals thus included the restoration of capitalism and bourgeois class power at the expense of the Communist party and the workers’ state.

The Nationalist Alternative

The initial platform of the UHS protested the Soviet state’s repression of dissidents, violations of Human Rights, and undemocratic structures. Though it called for extensive reforms and greater autonomy for the Ukrainian SSR within the Soviet Union, it did not originally call for independence from the USSR. The central membership of the UHS was Anti-Soviet and dedicated to state independence but they wanted to avoid repression for Anti-Soviet activity and also to recruit dissatisfied citizens who were not Anti-Soviets.

Hryhoriy Andriyovych Prykhodko. From Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

Other dissidents did not agree with this turn to federalism, even if it was a cover story. Hryhoriy Andriyovych Prykhodko was an avowed nationalist dissident who initiated work on the Nationalist Alternative platform in reaction to the UHS. In fall of 1988 Prykhodko began the preparatory work to publish Ukrainsky Chas (“Ukrainian Time”), an explicitly nationalist newspaper.

The first issue of Ukrainian Time appeared in Feb 1989, offering analysis of current events through a nationalist, Anti-Soviet perspective. By June of 1989 Prykhodko and his associates had gathered enough support to form the Ukrainian National Party (UNP). The initial group of the UNP held a constituent assembly in Lviv on October 21, 1989 at which the party statute (constitution) and program were written by Prykhodko. Recently released dissident Yuri Shukevych was named Honorary Chairman of the Party in abstentia. The Program made the party’s goal the re-establishment of the pre-Soviet Ukrainian People’s Republic.

UNP Honorary Chairman Yuriy Shukevych at a nationalist rally. From “Day”.

The tension between the UHS and UNP, between a moderate National-Democratic majority and a radical Integral Nationalist minority, resonates throughout the politics of independent Ukraine. Both of these tendencies were able to coalesce into openly Anti-Soviet political movements thanks to the reforms of Perestroika.

[ To be continued in Part 2 ]


[ Featured image from Anna News Agency. ]

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1 thought on “The Nationalist Reconstruction of Ukraine”

  1. […] From everything gathered here, it is reasonable to think that AO and UNTP were the work of a small number of dedicated activists who started recruiting for their own groups and away from traditional far right orgs. This would be one reason for their friction with the Right Sector, which was based on the youth wing of the Banderite political party and on the old Integral Nationalists in the UNA-UNSO. […]

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