Inside Ukraine’s ideological renewal
The Cossack House is a vibrant community centre founded in April 2016 by young nationalist activists. It is widely known for being a civil bastion of the radical Azov movement, dedicated to promoting right-wing views and bringing about a rebirth of Ukrainian nationalism.
In Ukraine radical right-wing groups are gaining influence. Their nationalistic worldview divides people into those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”. Within these groups, independent thought is often equated with treason or separatism, and it is often quickly labelled as “Kremlin propaganda”. There is little room for grey areas, no middle ground, and no nuance. In their fight to win the hearts and minds, radical nationalist organisations in Ukraine have been reaching out to various social groups (especially young people) in order to build a community of patriotically-minded “new Ukrainians”. The Cossack House, run by the Azov movement, notorious for its use of neo-Nazi and SS symbolism, is one example of this phenomenon. Their goals are clear, as one of the leaflets promoting the centre reads: “Tomorrow the world will either belong to us, or to no one. Today you either join us, as you are strong and determined, or you will remain a part of the grey mass forever.”
The ugly child of the EuroMaidan
The Cossack House is a vibrant community centre founded in April 2016, dedicated to popularising right-wing views. It is based on Taras Shevchenko Lane in Kyiv’s historical centre, inside a building that once housed the Cossack Hotel. The building was taken over by the “little black men”, the young Ukrainian patriots during the Revolution of Dignity. While it legally still belongs to its original owner, since the Euro Maidan it has become a space for squatting by various patriotically-minded organisations and the youth volunteer movement. It has also been used as the main educational base for what later became the Azov regiment. Today, according to AzovPress (Azov regiment’s official public relations voice), the Cossack House is a civil bastion of the wider Azov movement.
A multi-purpose youth complex, the Cossack House seeks to satisfy the needs and interests of the community on virtually every level: it hosts a literature club, a tattoo parlour, a “military zone” shop, an English language club, several sport halls and even an art workshop. It also provides accommodation for members of the Azov Regiment as well as foreign fighters involved in the war on Ukraine’s side. Sponsored by the Azov movement, the centre organises classes in the history of right-wing ideas, mostly provided by PhD candidates associated with the National Corps party (Azov’s political wing) and, on occasion, outside experts. The whole undertaking is co-ordinated by Andriy Biletsky, a soldier and politician and leader of the National Corps.
On an ideological level, the Cossack House was modelled on CasaPound Italia, a neo-fascist Italian movement founded by Gianluca Iannone, which in 2003 took over a six-storey tenement house in Rome and opened up a far-right squat. The place became home to the families of the movement’s members, but also to various social and cultural initiatives, a library, a gym and even a recording studio. But the Cossack House draws inspiration from other European movements, including the French Mouvement d’action sociale, the Swedish Nordisk Ungdom, the Polish Młodzież Wszechpolska and the Lithuanian Lietuvių Tautinio Jaunimo Sąjunga. Like its foreign counterparts, the Cossack House aspires to be the source of an ideological renewal of Ukrainian nationalism.
Neon and flyers
When walking down Shevchenko Street towards the Maidan, you can see the Cossack House on the right hand side, before a McDonald’s. On the façade on both sides of the entrance hang banners with the emblems of the Black Corpus (one of the symbols of the Azovregiment). A styled image of the Wolfsangel – a popular symbol in Nazi Germany – adorns the door, with the overlapping letters “I” and “N” meaning “the idea of a nation” ( Ідея Нації). The door is locked. I press a button at the entry and wait. When the buzz indicates that the door is open, I walk in.
I go upstairs and I find myself in a dark corridor where the walls are covered in black paint. The only source of light are two impressive LED emblems. To the left there is a symbol of the Wolfsangel, and to the right there is an image with the profile of a Cossack’s face. Next to the front door, I find an inviting coffee table with leaflets. I pick up a few and go through them one by one. Some of the flyers are basic agitation brochures, offering unsophisticated populist messages, which usually do not change, no matter who the messenger is. But there are also other ones. I stop and read. There is a flyer advertising a patriotic youth camp, “Azovets”, where young Ukrainians are encouraged to spend two weeks with the soldiers of the Azov regiment, in order to familiarise themselves with military materiel in practice and to hear lectures on Ukraine’s history. It mentions a survival tour for even the youngest Ukrainians.
A leaflet prepared by the “Student avant garde” youth union, which seeks to change society and bring order to the streets of Ukraine, encourages young people to take part in survival and tactical medicine classes, as well as political discussions and military training. There are also several booklets of the National Corps. As they explain, contemporary Ukraine inherited the idea that citizens do not have the right to individual protection and are forced to rely on the protection of the state from Soviet propaganda. The solution, they claim, is to legalise private firearms in Ukraine, since “weapons in the hands of the citizens turn people into a nation, and lift the national spirit”.
The last brochure, with a distinct title “Strong family – strong state”, explains: “the demographic situation in the country is catastrophic. The population is aging. The best ones are dying”. The authors of the brochure recommend that the state should materially support young families based on a graded scale of individual merits. Those individuals who lead an “anti-social” lifestyle – i.e., alcoholics, drug addicts, beggars, the homeless and drug dealers – should be deprived of social benefits. The last line chillingly reads: “A traditional family, and not an individual man, should be identified as the highest social value of the state … because traditional family values, marriage and maternity are the foundations for a healthy national body”.
I make it to the third floor. The staircase is covered with professional photographs from the warzone. One of them bears the title “A machine gunner at work”. Randomly entering a room, I find myself in a bathroom, where the inside of the toilet has been painted in red, which brings to mind anti-Soviet and anti-Russian symbolism.
In the next room, a young bald man in a black t-shirt tightly embedding his chest and a knife attached to his belt is seating the newcomers in the classroom.
“Hi, I came for a lecture”, I hear myself saying. “Go to the lecture hall and take a seat”, the young man replies. The room where the ideological renewal of the young nation takes place, is located next door. Just like on the first floor, the walls are painted back and the window frames are in red. The room is dark, outside of daylight’s reach. On the walls there are pictures of the warzone. In the corners there are a few half-empty bookshelves. Various chairs not matching one another stand in front of the lecture desk. It is here that lectures about various figures, such as Julius Evola, Ernst Jünger, Emil Cioran and other leading nationalist thinkers, takes place.
Today, the meeting is dedicated to the life and work of a French nationalist named Dominique Venner and is taking place in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of his suicide, committed in the hope of awakening the memory of the French people about the origins of the nation and in protest against the legalisation of same-sex marriage and mass immigration. As the event description announces “his last gesture – a suicide in Notre-Dame Cathedral – is not only a physical act of self-destruction, but also a wider act of disobedience against the contemporary world and the last dare, a silent accusation of the half-dead institutions, which could not preserve the Spirit of Europe”. As the event organisers explain, in his suicide note, Venner wrote that the time for action has come and “we cannot let the flame of the Spirit of Europe die out”.
The audience is diverse and includes many young men in military attire and students, but also some older people with astute faces. Judging from the heated discussions, the majority of them are regular visitors at Cossack House. Andrey Voloshin, a philosopher affiliated with the Azov movement, speaks about the hobbies of Venner when he was young (such as hunting and weapons) and his involvement in the Algerian war, which fascinated him because it was “similar to a hunt”. He mentions Venner’s early experiences with political and street activism and the uncanny smile crosses his face. When he explains how Venner, together with a friend, beat up “four niggers”, who were hanging out with a white girl, his smile turns into a laugh.
He mentions Venner’s admiration for Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg and other conservatives who stood up to Hitler. Venner, Voloshin explains, focused on the question of what would have happen if they did not succeed. After all, if that was the case, the fate of Europe could have turned out quite different. Answering his own question, Venner first said that von Stauffenberg was not satisfied with the Fuhrer’s attitude towards Russians and Ukrainians. In the end, those people welcomed German forces as saviours from the horrors of Bolshevism. However, unfortunately, Hitler did not understand that and gave the order to brutally kill them.
Voloshin explains how in one of his books Venner cites Marshall Erich von Manstein, one of the best Wehrmacht generals at the time, who due to a disagreement with Hitler on the strategy for the Eastern front, retired from his function and was removed from command. Venner apparently cited him saying: “We lost the war when after taking over Kyiv, we refused to hang a Ukrainian flag on the building of the Verkhovna Rada. If we gave Ukrainians independence back then, everything could have turned out differently.”
Towards the end, the philosopher speaks about relations with Russia, pointing to the fact that Venner, like many other representatives of the new right, had a rather positive view of Russia in comparison with the United States. But since Venner killed himself before the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, we cannot say what his view on the conflict would be. According to Voloshin, however, Venner was pro-Ukrainian and he simply did not have enough information about Russia. The meeting finished with a spirited applause.
After the lecture, a young student who was recruited in his first year by “the Revenge” organisation, explains to me, chewing a toothpick, how he and his friends address socially important issues. They took over a building belonging to one of Kyiv’s universities, as it was being illegally rented out to an external party, while the space could have been given a more useful, social function. He explains that while they used to apply predominantly forceful methods in their work, they now cherish diplomatic solutions. He does not give details, but he is committed to setting up his own political party.
A married couple in their mid-forties do not hide their support when asked about the Cossack House: “We have to differentiate between Azov fighters and Azov social activities. They are not connected to each other”. The declaration is startling, given the omnipresence of Azov symbols. “They say various things about the Azov regiment, although nothing has been proven against them,” the couple continues. “You know how they slander people these days. You understand yourself who benefits from that. And we do not see anything wrong in their social activities or in the Cossack House. It is a great place with informative lectures and various events both for kids and adults,” they explain.
“Our kids can come here and spend time to their advantage instead of hanging out on the streets. They can study martial arts, read books, go to sport camps”. By sport camps, they probably mean the controversial military-patriotic “Azovets” trip, infamous for introducing children to the warzone. “They have amazing initiatives, they are strong and can build a new country. And when it comes to aggression and neo-fascist attitudes, these are all rumours. We have noticed nothing of the sort. Tell me, have you seen any aggression?” they ask rhetorically.
“You know, when I stumbled on the Cossack House’s Facebook page,” says a middle-aged Russian-speaking woman who joined the conversation, “I checked the work they do, and all their initiatives individually seemed harmless and useful, but as a whole… you understand, this focus on social life with a substantial dose of ideology reminds me of Hitlerjugend and Komsomol,” she confesses.
“Either way, I wanted to find out more about this movement. And I know two ways of finding out: to read and to ask. I have already read all the articles; that is why I came to ask. As I arrived, I saw a young man in a library and I told him there are rumours that they are neo-Nazis and that I do not want to believe it, but I came to ask”, she says. “‘No’, the young man replied, ‘we are nationalists, we have nothing against other nationalities and ethnic minorities, check the books – there is no Mein Kampf here.’” Indeed, there was not.
The lady continued: “My next question was about Bandera. I said that I do not see him as a national hero and that it is difficult for me to ignore the question of his collaboration with the fascists, although I can understand his reasons. I said I am surprised with the heroisation of such people, because of what they did to Jews and Poles. I partly had the Volhynia massacre in mind, but more concretely it echo was it still being heard in society. To that, he responded that not only Poles were killed but Ukrainians too. But this was not my question”.
I left the building with certain unease and several questions mounting in my head. After yet another revolution, I got the impression that Ukrainian society is still waiting for its messiah, for a thorough renewal of social life. The paths that lie ahead are diverse. Let us hope that what the Cossack House and Azov have to offer are not the final destination.
Nina Boichenko is a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Jagiellonian University. Her MA thesis focuses on new Ukrainian national identity.