In 2015, I spent 2 weeks in the Ukrainian forests to explore - from my perspective as a German - the motivations and mentalities drawing young Ukrainians into nationalist (according to most EU countries’ definitions) youth organizations.
How are they shaped thorough the camp? Are such activities still on the safe side of summer fun or already triggering evolution towards more radical definitions of nation and civil duty in the time of war? What exactly is the youth of Ukraine learning here? Civic duty and civil engagement? Or perhaps how to kill an alleged enemy with bare hands?
“Many people from our organization are fighting in the Donbas – in a real war,” says Maria. She belongs to the Nationalist Youth Congress (Молодіжний націоналістичний конґрес – or MNK). Here in the forest, they train – bootcamp style— with morning runs, tactical lessons, first aid instruction, and strenuous exercise until bed. Two weeks, every day, with no breaks.
MNK, one of the largest nationalist youth organisations in Ukraine, invited me to visit the camp. The organisation, founded in 2001, wants to have nothing to do with parties like Svoboda and claims to be also different from groups “of bald rowdies in army boots, who beat up foreigners” With such groups, for example Prawyj Sektor, they cooperate “only as little as necessary in the fight against Russia”, and try to stay away if possible. The promote a kind of “positive” nationalism – whatever this may be.
Whom are they learning to fight against? Solomoiya, a scholar and MNK’s unofficial resident ideologist, attests: “Ukraine has always been Europe’s shield against invasions from the East because we are on the border with Asia. But now that’s changed.”
In between their military trainings, members receive group lessons in ideology, not unlike in the Viet Cong. “We teach the doctrines of nationalism – the canons that a good nationalist must follow.” Who invented these rules? In fact, these tenets date back the 1930s with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and their military arm, the UPA. Led by the revered nationalist Stepan Bandera, these fighters are still viewed as heroes in western Ukraine. However, not everyone considers the OUN to be equally valorous. Poland accuses them of having committed war crimes in World War II.
Heritage and modern nationalism
At the camp, a guest historian from a partner organization arrives to deliver a short briefing. As he explains, “This is all Soviet propaganda. A lot can happen in war, but these atrocities were not committed by the Banderists [members of Stepan Bandera’s organization – author’s note].” However, the UPA’s temporary formation of their own SS Division during World War II was not mere propaganda – it’s a fact. In the MNK’s official literature, though, this piece of history is largely glossed over or explained as alliance against ‘the common enemy’ – the Soviets. Instead, the Banderists are lauded as public heroes, honored in songs about the glorious fight for Ukraine and paraded under their original orange-and-black banner flying next to the Ukrainian flag also in this camp.
Does believing in nationalism imply that one also has a problem with ethnic minorities? “No”, Solomoiya replies, “but Ukrainian people should have only one official language: Ukrainian. Privately everyone may speak and act how they want, but please support Ukrainian culture and tradition.” Under this scheme, nationalism seems to mean loving one’s country and being willing to act on it. And yet, this concept entails exclusiveness, literally not allowing everybody’s voice to be heard. And just how close is this to patriotism? “Today, everybody calls themself a patriot when in reality they are just sitting in their kitchen,” opines Oleksandr, one of MNK’s senior members.
Into the woods
One evening at the camp, dinner is cancelled. Participants are divided into squads and receive maps. They must traverse a distance of 40 km to reach various control points throughout the forest. When the sun rises the next morning, one group is still en route, having slept on straw bales that night. At noon they reach the camp. Their late arrival means that punishment, or “strafbad,” is in order. Logs tied to their backs, the “losing” group members are forced to aimlessly shovel sand from a pit. What’s the point of doing something like this, anyway?
Oleksandr official statement for the organization is this: “We want to teach a new generation of Ukrainians to fight for their country and resist corruption. Since our organization was founded in 2001, we have educated many people, and so Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity is at least partly the result of our activities. In Ukraine as well as in Belarus and the rest of the former USSR, we have a problem with mentality – people feel that they cannot influence anything and therefore see no point in civic engagement. We want to build a new Ukraine.”
It is hard to say whether this appropriation of the term “civic engagement” – frequently used in the narrative strongly borrowing from the language of campaigns promoting European Union in Ukraine – really goes along with the development of a truly pluralistic civil society aiming at peaceful coexistence, dialogue and conflict resolution. Or isn’t it maybe building trenches between people making communication among them more difficult?
Taras, a member of the organization, puts it like this: “I met a lot of real friends here at the camp and was changed after experiencing these challenging drills for the first time. When I came back home, I couldn’t just relax. I had to do something. Am I a nationalist? I wouldn’t define myself as a real nationalist – it’s important to me, but not extraordinarily so.”
Stories around the fire
In the evening, participants sit by the fire, some reading camp news aloud or singing songs, and even a few couples show up. At times like this, it looks like a normal youth camp – until, that is, one of the instructors rouses campers in the middle of the night, screaming at them to vacate their tents for numerous training alarms. Sleep deprivation, disciplinary drills, and physical exhaustion are the norm. Some participants give up and leave, but the majority stay.
Lilia, another member of MNK sitting around the fire, tells us, “I could imagine joining the army, but my parents want me to cook borscht instead. Here at camp, I got the opportunity to train. My father is a soldier. The first time he heard that I wanted to visit the camp, he didn’t like the idea at all. However, after I came home and told him about my experiences, we found a common topic to talk about. Now he respects me more.” Some camp leaders here were even trained by the Ukrainian army and secret service to carry out these educational activities.
One reason or another hinders these young people from joining the army. It might be their age, studies or a sick mother one cares for. Still, they feel that they want to contribute something to their country in times of war and a serious crisis. Learning how to fight, they believe, gives them such opportunity.
A few days later, several older members come directly from the volunteer battalions of the front lines to visit the camp. Sieraia, another member on MNK, explains: “We set up a second organization called Vilny Ludy and we support the troops. We provide clothing and equipment for both the regular troops and the volunteer battalions. Nobody is adequately supplied.” Who finances this? “We carry out fundraising trips to Canada, where there are many Ukrainians in exile who support our struggle.” A volunteer soldier also gives a lecture to the campers, reporting from the frontlines and explaining how to track the wires of a mine. He himself was injured by a booby trap and now walks with a limp. “I want to return to my unit but I cannot do it in this condition. The whole fighting area is full of booby traps – they’re even hidden in playgrounds.”
The camp also teaches—using lively group games—how to resist police during demonstrations. Many people here were also at the Maidan, in the self-defense forces. They are proud that the Russian television media described their team as the harshest. Taras reminiscences, “I told my mother not to worry, that I wasn’t participating in the protests, but then right at that moment she could hear the Berkut storm our building.”
For some, the political struggle began much earlier. Oleksandr was already active during the Orange Revolution.
“We didn’t know exactly what to do, but for the first time we saw that we could make a difference.”
Since then, these men have hardly become dissidents. Solomoiya participates in the children’s council of the Youth Ministry and Taras organizes educational camps for youth in cooperation with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Both remain vigilant. The new government is better than the old one, but is it good enough? The resounding answer seems to be, no – not at all.
Imagining a new Ukraine
What path do MNK participants want to follow in the future? Are they willing to join the West and the EU? Most interviewees expressed that their alliance against Russia was only temporary. Should Ukraine become an EU member state? Partner organizations from the Baltics have warned that the EU is undermining national identity – a highly undesirable prospect for the Ukrainian nationalist group. Instead, MNK has vowed to protect Ukraine, praying for their country’s sovereignty under the blaze of flare lights.
The final evening, campers dance and sing until dawn, excited to return home where they can once again eat and sleep normally. According to Maria, “Even though so many of our friends have died, sometimes we just have to sing. We sing here in the camps to fight the sadness.”
Everyone is very friendly towards each other, as well as towards me – a visitor from the West. Only once I did I hear Andre, a rookie member from Eastern Ukraine, say, “I think there is too much xenophobia in this organization. You hear it in all the UPA songs. You can sense the hatred towards Russians and a bit towards the Poles, for historic reasons. It’s difficult for me. I feel Ukrainian, but I come from Kharkiv, in the East, and we speak Russian at home.”
But that was at the beginning of camp. Now, at the end of his training, Andre sits happily with his peers and plans to get further involved. To the casual observer, they’re all just a cheerful bunch of friends.
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