A snapshot from "Masks of the Revolution"
Article by: Anna Colin Lebedev and Ioulia Shukan
Read their first piece: French scholars respond to Paul Moreira’s film on Ukraine
Paul Moreira has reacted in his blog to some of the criticisms that were made about his film “Ukraine the masks of the revolution,” by Benoit Vitrine in Le Monde, in the post from the Ukraine committee at the Libération website, and here at this very blog. Here is our reply and, we hope, a few clarifications on those aspects of the situation that were deformed and distorted in the documentary.
We thank him for his response, which is constructive in tone, in that it deals with facts and sources and avoids the more sterile tone of denunciation. We are prepared to ignore the fact that one of the co-authors was left out in his commentary. We are even prepared to ignore the use of the term “militant blog” to qualify this blog, on the grounds of its so-called excessive politicization, done with the intention of discrediting our argumentation, ignoring, all the while, our research work of several years duration, on the ground in Ukraine. Our reply therefore, will have some of the heaviness of a university text, but that is the price to pay if we want to avoid sweeping broad brush strokes in our analysis.
Paul Moreira has difficulty replying to our criticisms because of his lack of knowledge of Ukraine, beyond simple clichés. We will reply, therefore, by providing certain elements of clarification about the tragedy in Odesa, on the ethnic and linguistic questions involved in the conflict, on the armed battalions, and on the menace that they represent for the Ukrainian state.
Were the dramatic events of Odesa a massacre of Ukrainian Russians by nationalist militias?
The official inquiry is not yet complete, yet Moreira tries to give us the following verdict based on his own investigation. “45 Ukrainians of Russian origin died in the building’s fire, which was caused by the Molotov cocktails of the Ukrainian nationalist militias.”
No, it is not Ukrainians of Russian origin, nor Russian Ukrainians nor Russian speakers, who were victims of the Odesa tragedy, (a tragedy which cannot be effectively described as a massacre, since only the official inquiry will be in a position to determine if there were any murderous intentions). Odesa is a largely Russian speaking city with a population that has been mixed for centuries. It has a strong feeling of local identity, and is somewhat resistant to feelings of allegiance to either Ukraine or to Russia. The clashes of 2014, which followed Kyiv’s Euromaidan, were between supporters of the revolution (mostly Russian speakers), and those opposed it (mostly Russian speakers).
“The victims were Russian,” claims Moreira in his reply, “and that explains the silence surrounding the enquiry.” To answer him, lets hear again from Tetiana Herasimova, director of the May 2 Group, an Odesa NGO which is campaigning for an independent inquiry on the tragedy and whose members consist of journalists who were on the ground when the tragedy took place. This includes intellectuals, university professors, and even ex-members of the forensic police.
Interviewed by Ioulia Shukan, she replied. “That is a strange way to ask the question. In Ukraine ethnicity does not appear in one’s identity papers and we don’t know the ethnicity of the victims. We don’t have, and have not had ethnic conflicts. A variety of people were present in the Trade Union Building (where the victims perished). For example, Anatoliy Kalin (one of the victims) was a avid fancier of embroidered Ukrainian shirts and his wife plays the bandura (traditional Ukrainian instrument) in a music group. On the other hand, Ihor Ivanov, one of the ultranationalists of the Right Sector, is not Ukrainian.”
Paul Moreira also persists in ignoring the conclusions of two inquiries, which are above reproach. First of all there is the inquiry carried out by the aforementioned May 2 Group, which has completed a number of expert investigations at the Trade Union Building, undertaken many hours of interviews with representatives of both sides, witnesses, and family members of victims. In addition, they have collected and analyzed hundreds of videos from professionals and amateurs. The second inquiry is that of the Council of Europe, which also is based on material gathered on the ground.
The two inquiries carefully recreate the context which preceded the fire, pointing out the use of firearms, from the very beginning of the clash, and by both camps. They stress that it were the shots by one of the members of an armed pro-Russian group, Vitaliy Budko (alias Botsman) which caused the first deaths in the ranks of the pro-Ukrainian camp, Ihor Ivanov, mentioned previously here, and Andriy Biriukov. Amongst the pro-Russians, three people fell during the street clashes.
The two inquiries highlight the inaction of the police department, both the high ranking officials who refused to carry out an anti-riot plan to separate the two camps, or the police officers who were on the ground and did not intervene, simply allowing the situation to follow its course. The two inquiries also point out the lack of action by the fire department, which received telephone reports of the fire at the Trade Union Building, and did not follow up.
Both inquiries describe the fire very explicitly. It was an accident, and the responsibility is shared. On page 13 of the report of the Council of Europe, we can read that “medico-legal experts have located five centers of fire, in the lobby, in the left and right hand staircases, between the main floor and the first floor, as well as on the landing between the second and third floors. With the exception of the fire in the lobby, the fires which started in the other locations could only have resulted from actions by people who had sought refuge in the interior of the building. The investigation is not able to indicate whether these fires were started intentionally or not. The closed doors, and the chimney effect in the staircases, contributed to a rapid spread of the fire to the upper floors, and especially to the extreme spike in temperatures in the interior of the building.” In the end, 42 people, and not 45 as Paul Moreira insists on stating, perished because of the fire. 34 were asphyxiated in the interior of the building, and 8 died as a results of falling while trying to escape the flames.
The Odesa tragedy no doubt received the media attention it deserved. The 43 deaths at the Trade union Building are no longer featured so prominently in the media, and their number has been added to the 9000 victims of this armed conflict. If the victims of Odesa have each a name and a history, the thousands of civilians killed in the conflict will never have have this privilege.
An ethnic and linguistic clash?
The conflict which led to the tragedy was not ethnic or linguistic, but rather, political, as this blog has pointed out on a number of occasions since 2014. “To understand this conflict, we need to understand one thing,” explains the film, “in Ukraine there are not only Ukrainians, there is an enormous Russian population.” No, contrary to what Paul Moreira states so abruptly, this statement does not help us to understand the conflict. Ukrainian society is in fact quite diverse in terms of its ethnic composition and linguistic preference. Nevertheless, there were no signs of of secession or interethnic conflicts before the Russian government started to utilize the argument of providing “support to Russian populations” to justify its intervention and to raise Donbas against Kyiv. This confusion between “Russian” and “Russian speakers” is carefully maintained by Moscow and the film allows itself to swallow the bait.
The language question has, in fact, been used in the conflict, as Paul Moreira points out in his reply. Yes, the vote by the Ukrainian parliament to withdraw the status of regional language, previously granted to Russian and other minority languages (allowing them to be used officially in parallel with Ukrainian) was interpreted by the people in the East of the country as an attack against them. The law was not promulgated by the President, but the damage was done. The reputation of being “anti-Russian speakers” has stuck to the government which arose out of the Maidan, a revolution which was in large part Russian-speaking and a government which included several ministers who did not speak Ukrainian.
“In the East of the country, a large part of the population only speaks Russian,“ says the film. This is false. Studies such as those by Razumkov Centre, and other research, shows that Ukraine is a bilingual country where 90% of the population understands both languages, but where the majority has a preferred language. Moreover, the division is not only regional but more complex. The countryside in the East is often more Ukrainian-speaking than the cities, and the young are more Ukrainian-speaking than their elders. Since the last post on this blog on this subject, the situation has not changed very much.
Armed pro-Ukrainian groups: what are we talking about?
Paul Moreira tells us, in his response, that he is concerned about the future of armed groups of ultranationalists, which arose after Euromaidan. As we stated in our first post, this is a basic issue and an object of major investigation for researchers as well as for the media. However, this question can not be analyzed outside the context of the armed conflict which gave rise to these battalions and which has given new legitimacy to patriotic discourse and all its symbols.
In fact, the Ukraine which Paul Moreira discovered with Euromaidan, has changed profoundly during these last two years. A society which had not known armed conflict on its territory since the end of the Second World War, found itself attacked on its territory by Russia, and then was plunged into a conflict in which the Kremlin has nourished fears, encouraged, armed, and directed an armed insurrection in the East. Today there exist no serious studies which question the decisive role with of Russian power in the insurrection and war in the Donbas. Despite this, Ukraine has not become anti-Russian, contrary to what simplistic analyses suggest; it is, on the other hand, clearly anti-Kremlin.
Armed groups arising out of the Euromaidan, or local pro-revolution movements, started to organize themselves throughout the country, to prevent the further spread of anti-Kyiv insurrections fomented by Russia. In Autumn 2014 there were a good 30 volunteer battalions, composed of men and women from all regions, of all origins and all political convictions. Azov and Right Sector were amongst these battalions. Svoboda, on the other hand, was not connected to a specific battalion, but it appears that many of its members joined the Kyiv-2 battalion or Sich. A member of the Sich battalion threw a grenade onto the lawn of the Parliament at the end of August 2015. The relation to ideology in the battalions would merit a separate study. All observers point out a large diversity of political affiliation and opinion within the same battalions. That is what Stephane Siohan found in the course of an inquiry into the Aidar battalion, in February 2015. A virulent anti-Semite and a Jew studying the Torah were in neighboring rooms on the front. Similar situations could be observed in other battalions, This ideological insensitivity can only be understood in the context of a revolution and a war where these ideological preferences can be relegated to the background when it is a matter of confronting a common enemy.
In fact, it was the volunteer battalions, equipped and fed by volunteers and business people which replaced the official army in the first months of the war. Yes, “they abandoned sticks and wooden shields and now handle real guns.” But we need to explain why. Paul Moreira does say in the documentary that the battalions acquired this importance because of the weakness and disorganization of the Ukrainian army, but he does not dwell enough on the specific context of the war and its consequences. If the battalions “have not yet given up their arms” as the journalist correctly points out, it is because a war is still going on.
The battalions, do they menace the Ukrainian state?
Are we trying to look for excuses for the ultranationalist movement, to nitpick on the nuances between “neo-nazi, dark brown and light beige nationalism” as Pual Moreira suggest in his response? Quite the contrary.
Starting in the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian state tried to regain control over these volunteer battalions by integrating them into the regular armed forces. In fact, these battalions which the state did not finance and did not really control, have constituted a threat to its authority and an obstacle to the strategic conduct of the war, even though they represented the principle force of the war effort. Most of the battalions have joined the Ministry of Defense. The Azov battalion has been integrated into the National Guard, which reports to the Ministry of the Interior, and not the army (another factual error in the film), and the Right Sector is the only unit still free of official control. Its fighters are today not recognized, nor supported, nor financed by the State.
Since January 2015, the battalions consist of soldiers under contract, (including many veteran volunteers, but also new recruits) and soldiers mobilized during several waves of conscription. Even integrated into the armed forces of the state, these battalions continue to pose a problem for the state. Even if the state has effectively managed to gain control over recruitment and management of the fighters, the supply of these armed groups is still in part dependent on private financing, and the work provided by volunteers.
The degree of state control is still open to question, especially when certain charismatic commanders (such as Biletski mentioned in the film, and others) remain in their positions. Paul Moreira’s investigation fails, unfortunately to provide any answers on this subject. It remains to settle the debts of the first months of a war, carried out by fighters who were poorly trained, and often left to their own devices.
One question which has been widely covered on the both sides of the front lines is the various violations of human rights committed by certain battalions. The subject is no longer taboo in Ukraine, despite of the great degree of respect the population has for its fighters. The subject has been covered in several reports put out by human rights organizations. While stressing that the scale and nature of violations reported on the Ukrainian side do not compare with the depredations committed by the the pro-separatists, a joint report by the Civil Liberty Centre itemizes the cases which have been discovered so far.
A number of of legal proceedings have been initiated against Ukrainian soldiers suspected of violence against civilians. It is not the more ideological battalions which have come under scrutiny, but others less distinguished ones, such as Aidar or Tornado, some several dozen members of which have been accused of kidnapping, extortion, and torture.
So far no case of racial hate has been uncovered. Is this an example of the State which protects its most extremist elements in this war? This is possible, but Paul Moreira’s film provides no tangible proof which would allow us to know more in this matter.
He does not say anything either about the place of nationalism in modern Ukrainian society, beyond the cliché of the ultranationalist revolution. He is quiet on the ideological plurality of the Maidan, ranging from the far left to the far right, and including a range of political preferences or even indifference. He gives the impression of a revolution in which the militant force is exclusively neonazi.
Our investigations on the ground, as well as those of our colleagues, provide us with quite a different image, one which does not deny the involvement of extremists groups, but puts them in perspective; groups that are tolerated, minorities but not insignificant, and just units among other units on the Maidan. Their visibility is in part the result of a communication strategy. Thus Svoboda and Right Sector were among the rare groups to bring out flags in the pro-Kyiv demonstration, reducing the visibility of more moderate groups. This view is, moreover, shared by researchers who are critical of the Euromaidan like Volodomyr Ishchenko.
Having discovered the Euromaidan on his television screen or on Youtube, Paul Moreira has confused the abundance of certain images with the real sense of proportion as to what actually took place. The assumption of automatic nationalist contamination which underlies Paul Moreira’s reasoning, does not appear valid in Ukraine. The presence of far-right groups in the public square, does not cause their ideology to be “diffused” to the revolutionary milieus and in Ukrainian society at large, as was proven by the poor results obtained by far-right candidates in the presidential and legislative elections.
None of the ultranationalist parties were able to exceed the minimum threshold necessary to enter parliament, even if a dozen or so ultranationalist were elected as individuals. No, ultranationalist groups have not taken power in Ukraine. One of the reasons for this weak diffusion lies no doubt in the abundance of moderate nationalist offerings in Ukrainian society. The question of a broad based acceptance of a reactive nationalism is also worthy of our critical attention.
Why this strong reaction to Paul Moreira’s documentary?
Readers of this post might say to themselves that Paul Moreira is justified in involving himself in an inquiry into armed groups, given that these groups have become an issue in modern Ukrainian society. We also think so. In addition, we think that the profound changes which an armed conflict or security concerns bring about in a society, are a major subject of preoccupation, even for us in Western Europe. However, playing on fears, or demonization, is not the best way to understand or make oneself understood. What we regret is that, despite an initially laudable intention, Paul Moreira’s investigation has to such an extent lacked rigor and relied on unreliable sources, allowing itself to be dragged down the slippery slope of sensationalism and conspiracy theory. In this conflict, this investigation has become, unfortunately, a weapon.
Translated from the original French by Steve Kaufmann
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