The Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom presents viewers with a story of everyday citizens facing down brutal riot police controlled by Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The colorful array of activists, artists, scarf-wrapped babushki, bearded priests and fresh-faced students makes it appear as if Ukraine’s people from all walks of life in participated in the Maidan uprising. But some are missing—neo-Nazis, who were edited out.
“A CRUCIAL ROLE”
Ukraine had an established far-right movement long before the Maidan upheavals of late 2013–early 2014. In 2010, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yushchenko drew widespread condemnation abroad by honoring Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator and leader of an underground army responsible for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles during World War II. Pre-Maidan Ukraine was home to the Social-National Assembly, a white-supremacist organization headed by Andriy Biletsky, who’s written that his group’s mission is to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.” It also had the Svoboda party, led by Oleh Tyahnybok, a parliamentary deputy whose 2004 request for an investigation of the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” controlling Kiev caused international headlines. In 2012, a fellow Svoboda politician called Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.” All that these groups needed was an opportunity to come out of the shadows; Maidan gave them that chance.
Initially, the disparate neo-Nazi factions remained on Maidan’s periphery. But as the protests grew violent in late 2013—which led to Yanukovych’s overthrow, civil war, Crimea, etc.—the far right “played a crucial role, providing muscle to protesters who were largely unequipped to do their own fighting,” as The New Yorker described it. Indeed, the instrumental role of far-right groups was acknowledged by journalists and analysts in publications as diverse as The Guardian, the BBC, Reuters, and The National Interest. Even Hannah Thoburn—a commentator who’s authored numerous articles in support of Maidan—has noted that Winter on Fire failed to mention “that far-right nationalist groups were very involved in the fighting.”