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It was deeply exasperating and disappointing to read the latest screed published in The Forward regarding neo-Nazi influence within the now-infamous Ukrainian Azov battalion. The article, from Mr. Lev Golinkin, was necessarily both exasperating and disappointing to anyone who cares about these issues, and about Ukraine. It was, however, especially disappointing to me, a onetime contributor to The Forward, where I published my first reviews as a fledgling literary critic. The unceasing attacks on the heroic defenders of Ukraine in the midst of the Kremlin’s genocidal war are merely the latest indicator of its protracted decline into irrelevancy.
As multiple Ukrainians and Ukraine experts, including me, have tirelessly explained, the independent Azov battalion was indeed founded a decade ago by some very unpleasant men with often-questionable politics, at the moment when the basically defenseless Ukrainian state desperately needed to mobilize volunteers to fight the regular Russian army. The volunteer battalion would be very shortly assimilated into the Ukrainian armed forces. Doubtless, there still exist characters within Azov’s ranks with all sorts of unsavory beliefs, and some of them will be very happy to roll up their sleeves and to flex their pagan rune tattoos if you go drinking with them, as they have for me. But the battalion has long since been domesticated and taken under the firm supervision of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. Though the name of the fighting force remains, it is now a professional and elite special force that is led into battle by officers selected from the regular army recruitment pool. Those officers rise through the army ranks based not on ideology but rather on strict fidelity to the chain of command, which ends at the desk of Ukraine’s Jewish commander in chief.
The formation still contains a plurality of Russian-speaking fighters among its several thousand men at arms. Among these are Azeris, Chechens, Greeks, Russians, Belarusians, Poles, and Jews who have previously served in the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces.
The many articles about Azov that have appeared over the years in the Western press have done tremendous damage to the credibility of the Ukrainian armed forces. These interventions in the debate are routinely and cynically exploited by Russian propaganda—both for internal and external consumption. So it needs to be stated outright in an unambiguous and axiomatic fashion: There exists no serious neo-Nazi threat in Ukraine. None at all. This is a phantom fear lurking within the minds of various fantasists and neurotics. Inasmuch as historical parallels can be drawn, the main fascistic threat comes from the occupying Russian army, which commits war crimes and mass rape against the population and furthermore attempts to reprogram them with propaganda accusing pluralist democrats of being Nazis.
The Forward debases its proud historical legacy of anti-authoritarianism by publishing such nonsense. The article in question by Mr. Golinkin represents a rehashing of his numerous previous interventions in the debate. I only wish that he knew what he was talking about. What makes his argument worth engaging with is that similar beliefs remain widespread among a swath of post-Soviet emigres who are older than 50, at the same time as they are becoming commonplace among a segment of the American progressive left.
Mr. Golinkin has written that he immigrated from Soviet Ukraine at the age of 8. He has seemingly never reported from the country. Now he has a bugbear about Nazis in Ukraine of the exact same sort that older Soviet emigres from America have. It is a pathology—a deeply understandable one based on the history—but not one that should be validated or embraced. Golinkin is attempting to make the rest of American Jewry internalize his own immigrant pathologies and fears while playing fast and loose with rhetoric in a way that does not help anyone except the producers of Russian propaganda.
The Ukrainian search for an inspiring and usable past—a search for brave historical warriors whose legacy might be appropriated for the sake of inspiring the heroic warriors of the present—is to be respected, even as some of the figures who have been lionized are not always figures that we would like to be lionized. The mobilization of masculine virtues and intensity are par for the course in the midst of a war of genodical annihilation, and Ukrainian society has certainly militarized to a significant degree over the course of the last 500 days.
Which is not in any way to engage in Holocaust denial or revisionism. My own Jewish great-grandparents were shot in Belarus in November 1941. Dealing honestly with what some Ukrainians chose to do in the 1930s and 1940s is imperative, so that we can fight honestly and without a pause. I am immensely proud that Tablet recently published John-Paul Himka’s essay on the pogroms in Lviv in 1941. However, it is a fact that today’s Ukrainians, in a time of war, have consolidated their society in a manifestly liberal fashion. We should do the same and stop telling fairy tales about Nazis.
In fairness—and I say this as a proud Eastern European Jew naturalized as an American citizen a decade ago—fears of a phantom Nazi menace have swept across America in recent years. The emergence of Donald Trump presented a tremendous challenge to the the American liberal intelligentsia.The contradictory impulses and incompetent flailing of this upstart, outsider salesman presented a systematic challenge to the mores, judgments, identity, and psychological stability of the American political elite and intellectual leadership class. The sheer numbers of American commentators, policymakers, and intellectuals who turned out to be irresponsible, high-strung, and often unbalanced hysterics was totally surprising to this newly minted American.
The character of both Trump and of the American elites are a separate matter from Ukraine, but it is important to understand the origin of the appetite for The Forward’s fearmongering about Ukrainian neo-Nazis. The constant stream of articles by people like Mr. Golinkin is a market response to Americans’ ceaseless demand for garbage to feed the hunt for imaginary Nazis. As a Jew who was born in Ukraine but one who has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever returned to the country in the 30-plus years since his family immigrated to America, Golinkin has almost certainly not put in the necessary effort to understand for himself the radical and remarkable changes that have swept over his ancestral land.
The Ukrainian state is, and has been since 2015, at the forefront of the process of dealing with its dark past. Distinctions between “patriotism” and “nationalism” are not entirely specious, but they are fuzzy enough that it is often hard to tell the difference.
Ukrainian civic patriotism is fundamentally healthy and strong. It is, in fact, healthy in a way that makes lots of people integrated into the urban, post-historical professional and administrative classes in advanced democracies uncomfortable: a swaggering, self-assured liberal nationalism that unironically deploys the kinds of martial virtues lacking in many deracinated Westerners, and which make the latter feel inadequate and perhaps even emasculated. I understand full well why these virtues make a lot of American progressives (especially self-neutered progressive men) feel uncomfortable. The masculinity and virility exhibited daily by Ukrainian soldiers has not been seen in the West for half a century. After the end of history and time, nice, chummy, and decadent Westerners were not supposed to fear going to war ever again. They had “all-volunteer” armies of impoverished cannon fodder for that.
Thus, I rather pity Mr. Golinkin than dislike him. His unremitting search for followers of the Ukrainian interwar integralists is the politics of the post-Soviet Jews of the generation of my parents and grandparents. He is far too young to be consumed by these sorts of fantasies, but he is being rewarded by a bonkers progressive left that worships Soviet-era communists but sees Nazis under every bed. Yet his fears—which I have empathy for as a fellow Jew—are his own and should not be projected outward. So, I humbly beseech you Mr. Golinkin, as one Ukrainian Jew to another: Man up and face your fears. But do so without needlessly disgorging them on to other people in the midst of a war of existential survival.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.