I’ve received a few comments questioning my decision to delete the two posts I made about the Ukrainian band Beton this week, on the grounds that it had also removed the reasons I gave for my actions in the comments below the posts, so I’ve decided to take a moment to lay out my rationale here. To be honest, this time last week, I had no idea who Stepan Bandera was. Now I know he was Ukrainian ultra-nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis and led a faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) that was involved in pogroms against Jews, Poles and Russians long before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Siding with the invader in the hope of escaping domination by Moscow, the OUN morphed into a police force assisting the Nazis in their programme of deportation and extermination. They were complicit in the Holocaust. How is it possible then, for a Ukrainian band that claim to be inspired by the Clash, to be photographed wearing t-shirts that celebrate Bandera? Beton – the word means ‘concrete’ – rewrote the lyrics to ‘London Calling’, turning it into a call for resistance and support for the Ukrainian people in their struggle against Putin’s invasion. ‘Kyiv Calling’ was posted last weekend, the project having been given the blessing of the remaining members of the Clash.

After I posted it on my Facebook page, my attention was drawn to the offensive images of them wearing Bandera t-shirts. I deleted the post and called them out for their support for fascism. The band reached out to me to argue that they were not fascists, that some Ukraine see Bandera as a symbol of resistance against Russian domination. They pointed out that his image had come to the fore during the Euromaiden protests of 2013 that led to the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, setting in motion the events that led to the election of Volodymyr Zelensky. Is it possible that the image of a perpetrator of such abhorrent atrocities could be used in such a benign manner?

Cast your mind back to the Dukes of Hazzard, the American tv show that ran from 1979 to 1885. The central figures drove a Dodge Charger named General Lee, which featured the Confederate battle flag painted on its roof.

In recent years, successive southern states in the US have removed the battle flag from their own state insignia and in September of last year, a prominent statue of Robert E Lee was removed from it’s plinth in Richmond, Virginia. But a generation ago, The Dukes of Hazzard was a comedy show and driving around in the General Lee was all part of the fun. I don’t make this comparison to in anyway excuse the crimes of Stepan Bandera. The people who successfully campaigned for the removal of the symbols of the Confederacy didn’t achieve their goal by ignoring the reality of slavery and how it continues to blight American society today. They did it by asking those who viewed the symbolism as benign to look again with clarity and honesty at the facts. Those who recognise the appalling reality of Bandera’s crimes need to ask the same of the Ukrainians. History is always contested. Patriotism offers the status quo a method of maintaining their position in society and they do so by promoting a national narrative in which ‘we’ were always the good guys. In order for the victors to maintain this illusion, the vanquished are required to shut up and go away. Over the past decades, however, democratisation of debate has provided the victims with a method of challenging the narrative created by the status quo and those in power have responded with outrage and legislation. In the US, some states have passed laws banning the teaching of the history of slavery in a way that makes white children feel uncomfortable.

In the UK, the Conservative government regularly issues threats against institutions that seek to produce work critical of the British Empire. The Polish government recently went so far as to make it unlawful to claim that Poles had any direct involvement in the Holocaust, this despite the fact that three million Jews died during the war in Nazi-occupied Poland. Ukraine is no different in this respect and, as elsewhere, the darkest periods of its past still cast a shadow over its society. The images of Bandera that appeared during the anti-Russian Euromaidan protests gave the Kremlin an excuse to portray those seeking greater integration with the EU as ‘neo-Nazis’. This argument has formed part of Russia’s justification for the current invasion, with Putin claiming the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine as one of his war aims. But is Ukraine really a country riven by Nazism? In 1995, a political party was founded that openly celebrated the legacy of Stepan Bandera. Svoboda is opposed to immigration, globalism, abortion and LGBTQ+ rights and has been described as neo-fascist and anti-Semitic. During its first decade in politics, the party received less than 1% of the popular vote in elections to the national parliament, the Verhovna Rada. In 2012, it won 10.45% but following the Euromaidan protests, the attraction of Svoboda has diminished. At the last elections in 2019 they ran on a joint ticket with other far-right parties who together won just 2.15% of the vote. When compared with the 10.3% of the national vote share won by the far right German party AFD at the 2021 federal elections, or the 13.2% won by the National Front in the 2017 elections to the French national assembly, it becomes clear that, like other democracies in Europe, there is a far right element in Ukrainian politics, but it is far from being the dominant force that the Kremlin claims. This is also true of the notorious Azov Regiment, a volunteer unit that began life as a far right militia. Formed to fight against the Russian backed breakaway regions in the Donbass, it gained a reputation as a neo-nazi outfit. In his insightful analysis of Kremlin claims about Nazis in Ukraine, which I have posted below, Ros Atkins reveals that, since the unit became part of the Ukrainian army in 2014, far right membership has dwindled. Add that to the fact that the 1000 strong Azov Regiment represent a tiny fraction of the 250,000 strong regular Ukrainian army currently involved in resisting the Russian invaders and it’s clear that Putin’s claim that Ukraine is in need of denazification is nothing more than a smoke-screen.

Yet the continued use of Bandera’s image as a symbol of resistance by Ukrainians only serves to give credence to Moscow’s line. When you see them celebrating someone who was complicit in the Holocaust, your shock reaction has to be to question whether they really are nazis? But by engaging in critical dialogue, you might conclude that, like the Dukes of Hazzard careering around in the General Lee, they’re woefully unaware of the offensive nature of using of such abhorrent symbolism. Following my discussions with Beton this week, I’d plump for the latter.

So how do we deal with such behaviour? We call it out of course. When I find someone making a racist statement online, I confront them, demanding a retraction. Genuine racists in my experience always double down. Those who have made an unthinking comment that does not reflect their views immediately apologise and seek to clarify their position. Through dialogue it is then possible to help them understand how what they view as a fair comment is racially offensive to others. During the 1984 miner’s strike, I was among the first to perform solidarity gigs in the mining communities. Many of the miners I encountered exhibited varying degrees of casual racism, sexism and homophobia. They read the Sun and imbibed its prejudices. But as the strike wore on, their initial reactions were challenged by the diversity of those who came to support them. By the end of the strike, perceptions had changed for the better. Should I have judged them on my first impressions? Been repelled by their bigotry to the extent that I could no longer give them my solidarity? Instead, I chose to engage with them and received a political education the like of which I could not have got at any university. In return, I and many others from outside of their community helped them to see that their struggle was connected to other groups marginalised by society – women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community.

Some of the worse crimes of humanity occurred in Ukraine in the 20th century: famine, ethnic cleansing, the Holocaust. Through 70 years of being part of the Soviet Union and 30 years of struggling with the legacy of that experience, Ukraine has failed to come to terms with the crimes that own citizens committed during the wars of annihilation that took place on it’s territory. Now, as it seeks our support against Russian imperialism, we have an opportunity to encourage Ukrainian citizens to engage with honesty and clarity in what Beton refer to in their statement as “a debate on the legacy of Ukrainian historical figures, to ensure that this debate includes acknowledging and accepting crimes that have been committed both against them as victims and by them as perpetrators.’ Despite their fervent requests, we in the west recognise that NATO cannot intervene directly in the conflict. A no-fly zone would risk escalating the situation, giving Putin the excuse to use his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Instead, alongside the material support being given to their forces, the people of Ukraine also need our moral support. Those who counter every call for solidarity by echoing the Kremlin’s lie that Ukraine is a fundamentally fascist state must not be allowed to distract us from doing what we can to help a people under attack from an imperialist invader. History is messy and tainted with blood. Nuance throws up contradictions. New alliances make for awkward conversations. But I feel it is better that we engage in this difficult debate with the Ukrainian people rather than sit on our hands while Mariupol is denazified to rubble.

Billy Bragg

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