How War and Militarism Are Terrorizing Women in Ukraine
Yesterday, Ukrainian neo-Nazis stormed a European lesbian conference due to be held in the capital city, Kyiv, with the aim of shutting down the gathering before it even starts. Using tear gas and armed with placards, the ultra-right wing ‘protestors’ have spent days hounding the hotel where the conference is to be held, including smashing hotel windows and spray-painting homophobic graffiti. Picket signs read “Go back to hell, sodomites” amongst other unsavoury sentiments.
This targeting of the lesbian conference is just the latest in a string of violence perpetrated by neo-Nazis in Ukraine against women and the LGBQ+ community, which has become increasingly frequent in the last few years. Women and LGBQ+ are not the only targets of this violence – last year, the targeted attacks against Roma in Ukraine by ultra-right wing nationalists made international headlines. Less reported on are the similarly systematic harassment and intimidation of immigrants and other ethnic minorities in the country.
In a country like Australia, we would have a hard time imagining that such harassment, violence, and intimidation against women, sexual and ethnic minorities could become so commonplace. But I think Ukraine is a litmus for the rest of the world in terms of how quickly the polarization of politics can become lethal, and threaten to undo nearly 80 years of human rights advances.
The reason this far-right wing violence has become practically acceptable in Ukraine has to do with the civil war that has affected the country for nearly 5 years and the fusing of militarism, masculinity, and the state that enables the policing of the gender order by these groups to take place.
Tracing the story of war, militarism, and the rise of a particularly violent and aggressive form of neo-Nazi, militarized masculinity in Ukraine requires us to go back a few years.
In 2013, the country was deeply divided between ‘East’ and ‘West’ (or perhaps better said ‘Rest’) on the geopolitical orientation of the country. A very large number of people, particularly in the capital city and Western regions, were deeply upset with the government and with the economy, and held hopes that a new economic arrangement under negotiation with the EU would improve conditions. When the Yanukovich government suddenly reversed its position and refused to sign the EU deal, it sparked mass protests in Kyiv and around the country, which culminated in the 2014 Revolution now known as ‘Euromaidan.’
Euromaidan came under heavy siege from the Ukrainian government. The violence perpetrated against protestors was a strong impetus for many to commit what time, energy, and resources they had to support the movement. But, as with any violence, it also attracted a certain kind of man in droves, seemingly seduced by the opportunity to wield and use weapons and act as masculine protectors. Many of them shared political views that would place them far on the right side of the political spectrum, fostered and developed for many through their love of football (but that’s a whole ‘nother story).
While by no means the majority of participants in the protest, these violent men soon gained prominence and prestige as the ‘heroes’ of Euromaidan. Volodymyr Ishchenko, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, has been tracing the influence of the far-right in Ukraine since Euromaidan. He noted early on that despite their media prominence, the values espoused by the far-right did not reflect the general values of those participating in the protests. Yet, their apparent heroism has allowed for the normalization and even valorization of these extreme views.
Now, the true impetus or cause of the civil war is contested and I’ll reserve my views for now, since the important thing to note for this analysis is how, as heroes of the Revolution, these far-right groups soon became national war heroes for volunteering to take their arms and transfer their violence towards their new enemies – the separatist forces in Donbas. With historical factors and the revolution leaving the armed forces in disarray, when the separatists declared independence in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and seized government buildings by force, the Ukrainian government depended on groups of civilian men who formed ‘volunteer battalions’ to source their own weapons, mobilize to the front line, and fight for the territorial integrity of the state.
Since then, though small in number, these militant far-right groups of men have become an increasingly powerful political force in the state and the government has proven itself unable or unwilling to reign in their violence when it is directed internally at civilians far from the front lines of the civil war. To the neo-Nazis, the enemies are one in the same. According to one with whom I spoke for my own research, the enemy against whom they fight is “homosexuals, paedophiles, and communists.” Those enemies do not just exist in the armed units of the separatist forces, but, by their rationale, in all aspects of Ukrainian society and have the potential to threaten the cohesion and stability of the state anywhere at anytime.
As such, it has become increasingly dangerous to be not only left-wing, but liberal in any sense of the word in Ukraine. In such a situation, the rights of women and of sexual and ethnic minorities are facing quick erosion. Not only are these groups systematically targeted by far-right groups, but so too are the formerly mainstream, acceptable demands now being de-legitimized. For example, far-right groups harassed and attacked organizers of Ukraine’s International Women’s Day march, arguing that IWD is a ‘Soviet holiday’ and that women should be celebrated on Mother’s Day, instead.
Certainly, as we have seen with the recent Christchurch terror attack, the values and sentiments expressed by the far-right are not confined to Ukraine. There is a rising polarization of politics, globally. We have to stop thinking of the violence perpetrated by far-right militant men in the West as “lone wolf” attacks and begin placing their violence within the context of militarism, misogyny, and xenophobia that unites their vision of the world and glorifies violence perpetrated against women and minorities.
Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.