Armed and Dangerous: Juliet Jacques on Film and Fascism in Ukraine

Ahead of the presidential elections on 31 March, the far-right has begun to target cultural institutions

On 7 February, Ukrainian nationalists attacked a lecture at the Izolyatsia cultural platform in Kyiv. As sociologist Anna Hrytsenko was discussing the causes of the growth of far-right youth movements in Ukraine, 30 members of the fascist groups C14 and National Sprotyv (Resistance) entered. They heckled Hrytsenko and painted swastikas on the chairs; they told her that she would be prosecuted under Article 161 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code: ‘Violation of citizen equality on the grounds of race, nationality, religious beliefs, disability and other.’ Were it not for the police, who allowed the mob to enter on the proviso that they did not physically attack anyone, the intimidation would likely have been violent.

Izolyatsia expected such attacks on its recent video exhibition and lecture programme, ‘Armed and Dangerous’, curated by Kateryna Filyuk and filmmaker Mykola Ridnyi. The project reflected on the rising tensions in Ukraine since the Maidan uprisings of 2013–14 and the start of the war with Russia, which in June 2014 forced Izolyatsia into ongoing exile from its original location in Donetsk. I wasn’t surprised, either. I first visited Izolyatsia a year ago, at which time I was making a documentary about queer and feminist artists working in a post-Soviet landscape, one dominated by EU-facing neoliberal oligarchs and far-right nationalists who are united by their hatred of Ukraine’s communist past. That night, there was a lecture about Ukrainian LGBT activism. A few teenagers were outside smoking, huddling for warmth (it was minus ten). I thought nothing of them until Filyuk said, casually: ‘That’s the far-right, they turn up to anything they don’t like and try to shut it down.’

'Armed and Dangerous', installation view, 2019. Courtsy: Izolyatsia

Attacks on lectures and art exhibitions are frequent in Kyiv. In two works in Izolyatsia’s exhibition – Armed and Dangerous Episode One (2018) by Ridnyi and Fabulous Squirt (2019) by Oksana Kazmina – I recognised CCTV footage of the attack on the Visual Culture Research Centre gallery in February 2017, when masked men beat up a security guard and destroyed an exhibition by anarcho-communist artist David Chichkan. I also recognized several people who I had interviewed last year. At that time, I attended Kyiv Pride: a 3,000-strong crowd marching on a fenced-off route as hundreds of riot police (grudgingly) protected us from far-right groups yelling: ‘Homosexuality is not Ukrainian!’ Going to football matches, talking to friends and just walking around, it felt like fascists were everywhere, and the problem could not simply be dismissed as Russian propaganda: browsing second-hand books at Independence Square, opposite Maidan, the stall-holder waved a copy of Mein Kampf under my nose, insisting I buy it. During my stay, C14 and others carried out pogroms on Roma communities in Kyiv and Lviv, killing a 24-year-old father. Since I left in August, nationalists have attacked a trans rights march in Kyiv; chased student artist Spartacus Khachanov out of Ukraine for making anti-military sculptures; and formed numerous groups across the country, becoming increasingly confident in acting as vigilantes.

David Chichkan, Crossing Borders 2, 2017, watercolour graphics. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Kacper Gorysz

Ukrainian nationalists have focused their energies on attacking artists, activists and minorities rather than organizing into political parties. Amongst the dizzying array of candidates for the presidential election of 31 March – the first since the changes wrought by Maidan began to be felt – C14 and others have backed Ruslan Koshulynskyi of All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda (Freedom) party, who won 37 seats in the parliamentary election of 2012 but lost 30 in the next, held two years later. Most of the other 40 people standing are independent former deputies or businessmen. Amongst the front-runners are sitting president and oligarch Petro Poroshenko, and pro-European conservative Yulia Tymoshenko, who became familiar for her distinctive, traditionally Ukrainian dress (and hairstyle) during the Orange Revolution of 2004–05. Ahead in the polls, however, is Volodymyr Zelensky, who in 2015 played the role of President in the popular television series Servant of the People and now leads a party of the same name. No poll has put Koshulynskyi above 1.7%; Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party, was declined as their name, statute and symbolism did not comply with the ‘de-Communization’ laws set by Poroshenko in 2015, which demanded the removal of Soviet statues (excluding war memorials) and the rebranding of public places whose names alluded to communism.

Servant of the People. Courtesy: Netflix

Zelensky supported both the Maidan uprising and the Ukrainian army in its war against the Russian forces that occupied the Donbas in May 2014, following the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Zelensky has recently said that, if elected, he would ask to negotiate with the Russian government rather than the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic – who seized Izolyatsia’s Donetsk property, a former insulation factory, and destroyed the artworks, including soap sculptures by Maria Kulikovska, and the chimney, which Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou had refashioned into a giant lipstick in tribute to women who rebuilt the area’s industry after World War II. A resolution may not halt the rise in nationalism triggered by the war: any settlement other than the entirety of occupied Crimea and the Donbas being returned to Ukraine will likely incite it further. Recent form suggests that, whoever wins on 31 March, Ukrainian authorities will do little to combat far-right movements, and the work of opposing them will continue to fall to artists and activists whose tactics are more suited to slowly building cultural consensus than physical conflict. In the short term, at least, it’s hard to see beyond not only defensive battles against increasing neoliberalism in government and nationalism on the streets, but even the fights to keep exhibitions and lectures running in the face of fascist barbarism.

Main image: Far-right party demonstrate in Kiev. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: NurPhoto 

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

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