Caught in Ukraine’s violence, war and identity crisis

Alarm raised over ultra-nationalist attacks following 50 incidents of political violence last year.

Caught in Ukraine’s violence
Diana Berg with posters satirising Ukranian poet Taras Shevchenko in the background [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Mariupol, Ukraine – Diana Berg champions contemporary art, feminism and LGBT rights in the epicentre of Ukraine’s main crises – a separatist war, spiralling political violence the weakened central government can hardly control, and an uneasy amalgamation of national ideology.

In the spring of 2014, the apolitical graphic designer, who grew in a Russian-speaking family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, decided to counter the rise of a violent, Moscow-backed separatist movement around her.

She organised several anti-separatist protests that enraged the separatists.

At the last rally held in April 2014, thousands marched under Ukrainian flags, but a mob armed with clubs, Cossack whips and Molotov cocktails ambushed them, killing a protester and wounding many others. 

After Berg and her girlfriend fled the nascent “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” the separatists sentenced them to death and posted Berg’s personal information online, prompting hundreds of threats.

The couple ended up in nearby Mariupol, a gloomy city of 500,000 blanketed in industrial pollution that became the de facto capital of the Ukraine-controlled part of the Donetsk region.

Being one of almost 2 million Ukrainians displaced by the conflict, Berg didn’t just struggle for survival.

In 2016, she turned a former gym into Tuy, an art platform that hosts exhibitions, readings, concerts and film screenings.

The cinderblock building covered with posters and installations became a beacon of art, feminist and LGBT activism, and contributed to what Berg calls a “renaissance” in Mariupol.

“It seems strange in a city near the frontline,” the 39-year-old told Al Jazeera in Tuy’s kitchen. “But you can’t live just thinking about war, war, war, and feeling depressed.”

Caught in Ukraine’s violence
Diana Berg and the staffers of Tuy, an art platform in Mariupol [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

However, activists of the National Corps, an ultra-nationalist, neo-conservative and homophobic group with political aspirations, took aim at the initiative.

On August 19, 2018, at least 30 of them – wearing gloves, surgical masks and balaclavas – stormed in before a punk rock concert to assault and pepper-spray visitors, including teenagers and women, and destroy furniture and equipment, Berg and Tuy’s staffers said.

“They fluttered in and kicked a girl in the chest right away,” Kseniya Chepa, Tuy’s manager, told Al Jazeera describing the attack. “I got scared later, when there were kids around all covered in blood … and tears.”

The assault came after a bullet was shot in one of Tuy’s windows. There had also been threats and homophobic, white supremacist graffiti scribbled and spray-painted on Tuy’s external walls.

Ukrainian officials condemned the attack, but no culprits have been identified – although two of the attackers wore National Corps T-shirts.

Rising political violence 

The attack was one of at least 50 incidents of political violence in Ukraine last year, according to Amnesty International.

Many were organised by ultra-nationalist groups that targeted “pro-Russian” or liberal politicians and public figures, human rights and LGBT rights activists, disrupted feminist rallies and lectures on Holocaust, destroyed a Roma encampment and killed a Roma man.

“In almost all instances, the law enforcement authorities have been slow to react and perpetrators were rarely, if ever, brought to justice,” Amnesty said.

Caught in Ukraine’s violence
A gathering of National Corps in the eastern city of Kharkiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

This year, the nationalist groups went even further.

In March, they accused then-President Petro Poroshenko of condoning corruption in the military and injured 22 policemen while trying to attack his motorcade. 

Other violent attacks were triggered by anti-corruption investigations.

In the southern city of Kherson, councilwoman Kateryna Handzyuk was doused with concentrated sulfur acid in July 2018 and died in hospital four months later. In June, four attackers were sentenced to up to six and a half years in jail.

Caught in Ukraine’s violence
Ukrainian ultra-nationalists rally in front of presidential administration in Kyiv to protest corruption [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

In the central city of Cherkasy, journalist Vadim Komarov who investigated corrupt officials and their ties to organised crime, was assaulted in early May, fell into a coma and died seven weeks later.

Survivors of such attacks blame the central government’s failure to reign in corrupt regional clans that respond with violence to any attempts to investigate their shadow deals.

“We fell into Middle Ages, there are local feudal lieges that have corrupt political allies in the capital,” anti-corruption activist Mikhail Kuzakon from the Black Sea port of Odessa told Al Jazeera in April.

To protect his safety, Kuzakon wears a bullet-proof vest outdoors.

Three weeks before the attack on Tuy, Kuzakon survived an assassination attempt that he claims was organised by Odessa mayor Hennady Trukhanov, who is under investigation for embezzling $7m.

More than a dozen anti-corruption activists, whistleblowers and municipal legislators have been beaten, stabbed and gunshot in Odessa since Trukhanov was elected mayor in 2015.

Caught in Ukraine’s violence
Mikhail Kuzakon, an anti-corruption activist in the Black Sea port of Odessa, has to wear a bulletproof vest after an assassination attempt he survived in August 2018 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

What unites the two types of violence is the overall weakness of the central government that lost its monopoly on violence, analysts say.

“The centres of power have been diversified, groups that practice violence with impunity have crystallised, and the central government cannot do anything about them,” Kyiv-based expert on right-wing groups Vyacheslav Likhachev told Al Jazeera.

Forging a new identity

Another factor breeding political violence is what some observers call Ukraine’s identity crisis.

The former Soviet nation of 43 million is still forging a national ideology.

Pro-Western political elites reject all things Russian (ex-president Leonid Kuchma’s 2003 book was titled simply “Ukraine is not Russia”), but Ukrainians are too diverse and polarised about their attitude to Russia.

Ukraine’s westernmost provinces became part of the Soviet Union after 1939, but Russia absorbed most of eastern Ukraine centuries ago. Russian language and culture still dominate some of these regions – without necessarily translating into political allegiance to Moscow. 

Despite five years of war, 57 percent of Ukrainians feel “good” or “very good” towards Russia, and only 27 percent – “bad” or “very bad,” while only 13 percent are positive about the Kremlin, according to a poll released in March by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute.

There is an identity crisis of elites in Ukraine and a hidden riot of the masses ... This state of social polarisation is very toxic.

by Aleksey Kushch, political analyst

The official glorification of vehemently anti-Russian figures such as Stepan Bandera – whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army sided with Nazi Germany and participated in the killings of Jews and Poles – fuelled the current rise of far-right groups – and alienated some Ukrainians. 

“Why should I worship him if my grandfather fought him during the war?” Konstantin Skorobogatko, a steel plant worker in Mariupol, told Al Jazeera.

The political success of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who grew up in a Russian-speaking Jewish family and confronted ex-president Poroshenko’s nationalist narrative, shows how Ukraine’s political elite and average citizens have grown apart. 

Even lauding less controversial figures, such as 19thcentury poet Taras Shevchenko, turns them into icons whose place in the national pantheon can’t be doubted and whose image can’t be revised let alone lampooned.

“But he was such a character, much more interesting than his official biography,” Berg said standing next to a fridge with two posters depicting Shevchenko as a punk rocker and the frontman of The Prodigy, a British electronic band.

In February, a far-right activist destroyed the poet’s portraits re-imagined by artist Andriy Grekhov as Batman, Che Guevara and John Lennon, among others, that were exhibited in a Kyiv subway station named after Shevchenko. 

And back in 2015, controversial publicist Oles Buzina who penned a book titled “Shevchenko the Vampire,” was shot in Kyiv.

His suspected killers from a far-right group were released from pre-trial detention, their sentencing keeps being postponed.

“There is an identity crisis of elites in Ukraine and a hidden riot of the masses against this identity” that led to Zelensky’s election, Kyiv-based political analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera. “This state of social polarisation is very toxic.”

Source: Al Jazeera