Register Monday | December 10 | 2018
Danger Zone Supporters of both the right-wing nationalist Svoboda Party and ultra-right Pravi Sektor march outside the Ukrainian Parliament (March 2017).   Photography by Christopher James Bobyn

Danger Zone

Ukrainian ultra-nationalists are violently attacking fellow citizens—and that means Canada has a choice to make.

It’s a short journey to the epicentre of Ukraine’s newest human rights crisis. Go four stops on the metro line past Kiev’s central station, then hop on a bus route that runs under a highway overpass, past a chocolate store owned by Ukraine’s president, and away from the middle-class nucleus of the country’s capital. On an overcast June morning, the bus soon deposits me in front of a row of aging Soviet-style apartment blocks, behind which a beaten path tacks uphill through a leafy forest.

Twenty minutes later, as I emerge through a gap in the trees, I find myself standing ankle-deep in the wreckage of a destroyed home. The burnt earth at my feet is seeded with shattered glass. A nest of collapsed wooden supports creates a hub, and from here an array of everyday objects—kids’ toys and coats, plastic water jugs, an unpacked suitcase, mattresses—extends like spokes through the half-hectare clearing. The pattern of debris speaks of a forced departure.

The person who led me here is Olga Makar, a Christian activist from Kiev. As we pick through the rubble, Makar tells me the story of a community of Hungarian-speaking Roma, fleeing poverty in Ukraine’s far-western Transcarpathian region, who came to Kiev to eke out a living collecting bottles and excavating scrap metal from a local dump. “They were the poorest of the poor,” she says, recalling a certain family she got to know. “Many times we’d come [to the shantytown] at five in the afternoon and they would say ‘we haven’t eaten yet.’”

Makar, twenty-eight, is an organizer with the Orthodox Church association Molodyozh za Mir (in English, “Youth for Peace”), which opened a weekend school for the Roma children. Makar, who has known the families for half a decade, describes a community of about thirty residents, half of them children. She explains that the Roma had built makeshift shelters without plumbing or power and had lived in this park in Kiev, known as Lysa Hora, winter and summer, for three years.

What happened next has been documented by at least two Ukrainian media sources. On the night of April 20—Hitler’s birthday—a group of about thirty young men, some masked, surrounded and torched the Roma settlement. They fired a gun, threw stones, slashed the Roma’s belongings with knives, and deployed pepper spray during the attack, according to a report published by Hromadske Radio, based on interviews with survivors. A local news site called Levyi Bereg also published a short video showing the aftermath of the event. It shows a group of Roma, including women encumbered by children and belongings, fleeing through a garage complex, past an impassive security guard, pursued by a bunch of muscular young men spraying mace.

The attack had been the culmination of a campaign of intimidation that had included stealing money from the Roma, the radio reporters found. And while the contents of the video may have been a shock to many, the bigger shock, to an observer not intimately familiar with Ukraine’s political landscape, would probably be the identity of the attackers. The group that claimed responsibility is an ultra-nationalist organization called “S14,” whose name is reputedly a nod to a fourteen-word slogan coined by American white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

S14 is not an underground movement. It is a political association whose leaders operate in the open in Ukraine; it holds regular press conferences and was founded in 2010 as the youth wing of the Svoboda Party, which holds seats in Ukraine’s Parliament. The group is also registered as a “Civil Society Organization” with Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, which makes it eligible to apply for public funding.

On June 8, less than two months after the Lysa Hora attack, Ukraine’s Ministry of Youth and Sport announced that as part of its support for “national patriotic education projects,” it was awarding a grant worth 440,000 grivnya, or just under $22,000 CDN, to S14, to run a kids’ summer camp. In December of last year, local municipal authorities in Kiev also signed a cooperation agreement with S14 members, identifying them in the agreement as “citizen activists” and empowering them to “patrol” the section of the capital in which Lysa Hora is located.

None of the group’s activities are secret. In fact, after the Roma camp was vandalized, S14 trumpeted its role, with its leader posting a photo on his Facebook page that showed a young man sporting the group’s crest posing beside a flaming Roma shack. But the reaction in Ukraine was not what a human rights defender would hope for: not only did the Ukrainian government hand over money to the group afterwards, but the Kiev police have, by the time I reach the clearing in mid-June, made no arrests.

Mention the word Ukraine, and most Canadians today will think of a geopolitical conflict. The country’s standoff with Russia has defined its recent history, as well as its place in Canadian foreign policy. Still, the standoff alone doesn’t explain how Canada got involved in Ukraine. Rather, in February 2014, a street-based movement deposed Ukraine’s Russia-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych, and Canada began ramping up financial and military support for Ukraine’s new government.

At the time, it was easy to see why the movement, which became known as the Maidan Revolution, won Canada’s support. It originated with a protest by students demanding that Ukraine sidestep Russia to align itself in a free trade deal with the EU. Canada began cheerleading for the revolt at the outset, with its then–foreign minister visiting the pro-EU demonstrators during a trip to Kiev in December 2013. Later, after Maidan prevailed, Canada positioned itself behind Kiev in the war that emerged between Ukraine’s new government and the Russia-supported separatists in Ukraine’s east, who opposed the revolution.

Four years on, that conflict has evolved into an on-again, off-again cycle of low-intensity trench warfare between Ukrainian forces and their separatist opponents. In a parallel development that made bigger international headlines, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, partly in a bid to maintain access to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is located on the Crimean Peninsula. Canada and Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement in 2016, and Canadian soldiers are now in Ukraine training their Ukrainian counterparts. Last December, Canada modified its legislation to allow Canadian companies to apply for permits to export weapons to Ukraine.

Since 2014, most Western commentators have described the struggle between Ukraine’s pro- and anti-Maidan forces in stark cultural terms reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Mainstream Ukrainians, the argument goes, unlike Russians and their eastern Ukrainian proxies, favour Western values such as free markets and democracy, and Maidan was a triumph of civil society.

But it’s increasingly clear that this optimistic, self-congratulatory assessment downplays many disturbing truths about the situation in Ukraine. It ignores the degree to which violence, not protest, was used to effect political change; as many as seventeen police officers died, as well as around a hundred demonstrators. It also fails to account for the reality that the movement against Yanukovych was concentrated in Kiev and western cities, with only a minority of protests in the east.

And, more critically, the Western take glosses over the huge disparities between the groups that were united against Yanukovych in 2014. Some had made a name for themselves through their nationalist rhetoric and their hate speech toward minorities. The influential Svoboda Party, for example, which reportedly provided the equivalent of around $2 million CDN to the Kiev protests, has a leader who was known for his anti-semitic outbursts; and then there are groups like S14.

A masked member of the utra-right Pravi Sektor (Right Sector) stands guard at Kiev’s Maidan square, during the 2014 revolution that toppled the then pro-Russian government. Pravi Sektor and other right- wing groups were prominent during the initial days of the revolution and formed their own armed battalions when war broke out in Ukraine’s east after the revolution (February 2014)


Many Ukrainians don’t question the decision to use force to confront the separatist threat, nor the military help of countries like Canada. They invoke Russia’s state support for the insurgents as a reason to delegitimize them and reject negotiation. Maidan also set a new norm when it came to paramilitary groups, making Ukrainians look tolerantly upon them. After the revolution’s success, newly formed groups of revolutionary fighters marched east to fight the separatists. Ukraine’s official military was overstretched at the time, and the militia members, some of whom had pilfered and used weapons from state armouries during the uprising, were legitimized by a state decree in April 2014. Two militia groups, called “Right Sector” and “Azov Battalion,” remain active and distinct on the front today, despite the Ukrainian military’s attempts to integrate them into its forces.

But many activists, including Makar, say the cause-and-effect relationship that came with the separatist battle is even more complicated: they say the war has encouraged the proliferation of extremist groups, noting that attacks on minorities have increased since the fighting began. Over the last two years in particular, far-right nationalists have shown their confidence by assaulting a wide variety of groups who, in their view, do not conform to a traditional Ukrainian identity—not only ethnic minorities like Roma, but also feminists, leftists and LGBT activists.

A synagogue in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine popular with tourists, was firebombed last summer (though the bomb didn’t detonate as planned). Activists have described a litany of other incidents. Several weeks later, rightists occupied and shut down a book launch in the city of Chernivtsy. In December, youth pepper-sprayed a meeting of a gender discussion club at Kiev’s Dragomanov University. On March 8, International Women’s Day, members of a local far-right organization in Uzhgorod threw red paint on feminists who were picketing in the central square. On the same day, in Lviv, far-right activists cornered a group of leftists leaving their own Women’s Day march and pelted the streetcar they were riding with stones. Back in Uzhgorod, rightists later beat a male participant from the Women’s Day event and held a night march, a few days later, that drew a hundred protestors giving Nazi salutes. Except in the case of the paint attack (in which the assailants were arrested, then quickly released) in all cases the authorities failed to arrest or prosecute perpetrators.

Judging by the calendar of incidents, it appears that things are getting worse fast. The April attack at Lysa Hora wasn’t the only assault on the Roma. Others followed near Lviv, on May 9, and near Ternopil, also in the country’s west, on May 22. Then, on June 7, Kiev saw a new attack in a large wooded area not far from Lysa Hora: members of two groups teamed up, with S14 circulating pamphlets with anti-Roma slurs, and the other group streaming the attack live on its website. The video shows that at least two police officers were present while the militias demolished the camp, but there were no arrests. Then, most dramatically of all, came a murder: a man named David Popp, a twenty-three-year-old Roma Ukrainian who was stabbed to death in late June while his girlfriend looked on, helpless.

Activists and human rights observers have proposed competing explanations of why Ukraine’s police and courts have failed to act. One is that these institutions, which were on the receiving end of the militias’ violence during Maidan, are afraid to antagonize them; another is that they simply share prevailing social prejudices about minorities. A third explanation suggests that some politicians are seeking to court the right-wing vote in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. But these theories have one thing in common: they all predict that realities in Ukraine are unlikely to change overnight.

Canada has a choice to make. Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist affiliated with Kiev’s Polytechnic Institute, says that external pressure is the only thing that will push Ukraine to protect human rights. He believes that allies, including Canada, should make further financial assistance conditional on Ukraine taking steps to stop militia violence. “Ukraine is immensely dependent on Western financial, political and military support,” says Ishchenko. However, Canadian authorities have shown little willingness to sanction the Ukrainian government over human rights violations. What’s unclear is whether the pace of vicious attacks over last few months will change their minds.

Ukraine’s trajectory did not need to veer this way. Denis Pilash, a Kiev-based leftist activist who was prominent in the student movement during the Maidan Revolution, recalls it as a broad movement that united elements of the left, the liberal centre and nationalist right. That unity reflected a broad societal malaise arising from big problems, including poor living standards and police brutality.

The demands of the movement’s liberal spokespeople were fairly simple. They wanted the government to sign a free trade and political association agreement with the EU, and to return to a constitution that allotted more power to the country’s parliament, and less to the president. But Pilash says both the left and the right also proposed platforms that diverged from these points. The left also wanted to reduce the power of Ukraine’s financial oligarchs, reversing some privatizations of state assets and increasing funding for education, and they demanded that Ukraine adopt “European values” in areas such “gender equality and fighting discrimination.” The right, according to Pilash, was mostly interested in the “visibility and legitimacy” they would attain by participating in a movement with broad support. “And they were more organized,” Pilash says.

Far-right violence in Ukraine predated Maidan. It became more visible starting in 2012, when the nationalist party Svoboda made an electoral breakthrough, winning thirty-eight seats out of 450 in the National Parliament. From there, the party began to use its parliamentary funding to sponsor groupslikeS14.Previously,thoughUkraine was often conservative by western standards, outright attacks on, say, gays and feminists had been a rarity, according to Pilash.

As Maidan protests swelled, Pilash says, diverse groups of demonstrators resorted to direct action: in Kiev, a left-wing group occupied the Ministry of Education, while members of S14 occupied City Hall. But the balance of power between rightist and leftist forces was permanently altered on January 16, when the Yanukovych government voted in a draconian anti-protest law mandating lengthy jail terms for demonstrating. With peaceful civilian protest now ruled out as a viable option, Pilash says, the street fights between civilians and police grew.

In an essay published this April, Ishchenko, the sociologist, explains that the right had a long-held tradition of fighting police at protests and training their members at boot camps. When street fights came to Maidan, they were on familiar ground, effectively protecting demonstrators from police attacks. They raised the morale of the movement when it was at risk of disintegrating, and, soon enough, demonstrators largely accepted those on the far right as protest partners, says Ishchenko.

“They were a minority” during those street skirmishes, says Pilash, who estimates the Right Sector group at that time at around 150 members. But they had good visual effects, “flags, symbols and slogans,” helping them convince the public that they were the heirs to Ukraine’s independence movement. The participation of far-right organizations in the emerging anti-separatist war raised their profile further. According to Pilash, only a minority of far-right activists actually served on the front in the east, as in the earlier street fights; but they “could go fight, and then come back, with arms and experience, and most of all be absolved of their excesses, [seen as] defenders.”

Carleton University professor Milana Nikolko says Ukrainian far-right organizations feed off nostalgia for the country’s first nationalist leaders. “There’s a particular pressure among young adults to look for nationalist figures,” she says. Nowadays, even those who simply remember Maidan differently from the militaristic groups, downplaying their primacy, have experienced their wrath. In one dramatic 2017 incident, masked youth vandalized an experimental Kiev art exhibit entitled “Lost Opportunities,” about a lack of progress under Ukraine’s new government, as seen from the left. Surveillance video from that day shows people punching and pepper-spraying a security guard, and spray-painting “separ,” short for “separatist,” on the wall.

Rightists regularly insinuate that those who disagree with them are pro-Russian separatists. One union activist, Artem Tidva, told me that it’s a way to shut down discussion, even when their opponents’ causes have little or nothing to do with the conflict in the east.

To many people, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism feels exponential: something that feeds on itself, creating its own logic and history, and promising to grow ever larger unless a strong brake is applied.

“Watch out for adders,” the soldier tells me. It’s a blistering hot day, and I am standing in the waist-high grass of a meadow merging into woodland—a field in western Ukraine. Armoured cars are parked nearby, and I’m trailing behind a group of about ten Canadian soldiers coaching their Ukrainian counterparts in ambush and counter-ambush training. As the soldiers, crouched in stealth positions, fan into the woodland, a blare of machine guns rings out ahead of us and adrenaline hits. I run crouching over springy ground, oblivious to the threat of snakes.

Over a smoke break a few minutes later, young Ukrainian soldiers tell me about their intensive training schedule. The soldiers, mostly in their twenties, are part of a group of five hundred to six hundred Ukrainian service personnel currently on the base, where they are being mentored by about two hundred Canadians from the Petawawa army base in Ontario. The Ukrainians are contract soldiers who have just rotated off a tour of duty on the country’s front line in the east, confronting separatists, and they will return there once their fifty-six-day training here is over. This is a typical pattern, and Canada’s mentoring mission, which began in 2015, is making a tangible, if modest, contribution to improving the Ukrainian forces’ fighting capacity.

These drills, however, are just one prong of Canada’s two-prong Ukraine strategy. On the one hand, Ottawa’s vision for its military involvement was neatly articulated in a report from Parliament’s Standing Committee on National Defence, released last December. The report often frames Ukraine’s conflict with Russia in east-versus-west terms, similarly to how it was framed at the time of Maidan; at one point it quotes a Ukrainian witness who argues that “Ukraine remains the only real force standing between Russian aggressors and the security and stability of Europe.” The Standing Committee on National Defence also found the war was likely to continue.

With these premises in mind, it urged the government to stay the course, continuing to put pressure on Russia. Among other measures, the committee recommended that Canada share satellite images of the conflict zone with Ukraine and supply weapons to the Ukrainian army such as light arms and anti-tank systems. (The NDP members on the committee dissented, citing concerns that arms deliveries could provoke an escalation with Russia.)

Canada’s position situates it as a relative hawk among western nations. There is, of course, a political expectation that Canada, as a NATO member, will help resist Russian incursions in Eastern Europe; its support for Ukraine’s military derives from that commitment. “Canada’s support for Ukraine is part of a larger coalition response to Russia’s aggression and should be read as such,” says Bohdan Kordan, a political scientist at St. Thomas More College. Its work in Ukraine is similar, he said, to its participation in Operations Reassurance, along with NATO partners, in Poland, Estonia and the Black Sea.

But the approaches of NATO members to Ukraine have also sometimes differed dramatically from each other. France and Germany, for example, brokered a pair of accords, known as the Minsk Agreements, which were signed by Ukraine, Russia, and separatist leaders in the winter of 2014–15. If implemented (the process has dragged on for years), the accords would allow some political and linguistic autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions. The accords therefore, at least implicitly, admit that local grievances played a role in the separatist uprising, and that a political solution is necessary and possible. Canada’s focus, however, has been weighted toward military preparedness, rather than on urging Russia and Ukraine to enforce the Minsk deal.

Canada’s troop deployment to Ukraine, though hardly huge, also outstrips that of most of its allies. Operation Unifier, as the training mission at the base is called, is not a NATO mission, as Ukraine is not a NATO country. Unifier is instead the product of a bilateral agreement between Canada and Ukraine, and a reflection of the Harper, and later the Trudeau, governments’ priorities. The base that I visited is a hub for western soldiers in Ukraine. Although several countries have also sent trainers here, their numbers tend to be in the single or low double digits: Poland has sent thirty, the United Kingdom fifteen, Sweden five. Only the United States, with 220 soldiers, has sent more than Canada. While there’s no evidence that Canada’s spending has reached far-right organizations, “it’s very hard to see where the money is going,” Nikolko says. The Azov Battalion, for example, “does get some funds from [Ukraine’s] government at different levels.”

Pride Parade participants make their way through downtown Kiev.


The second prong of Canada’s current work in Ukraine is also significant: it has increased its development assistance to the country, committing $245 million in new projects since Maidan. Among other programs, Canada has promised $10 million to train Ukrainian judges, $13 million to train and equip the police force, just over $7 million to monitor elections, and $4 million to train journalists.

This isn’t all new; in fact, Canada’s development funding to Ukraine goes back at least two decades, and it has led to “significant improvement” in anti-corruption measures, and more recently the development of agriculture, among other projects, says Nikolko of Carleton University. The new funding is built on an old strategy among western countries, especially relevant in Ukraine today—an “institutions-based” approach to nation-building that assumes that countries like Ukraine will “spring back” to prosperity and social harmony once these institutions are established. It also assumes this will attract investment, which will help to alleviate poverty and, by extension, social conflict.

This approach also accepts as a truism that free trade and integration with the west is in Ukraine’s interest. Separatists, who rejected a free-trade accord with Europe, are seen as Russian dupes whose concerns cannot be addressed through negotiation. Taken to its logical conclusion, Canada’s strategy calls for pursuing the war, not ending it—an approach that fails to tackle the problem of the apparent link between the war and the growth of extremist groups.

It’s surely more complicated for Canadian decision-makers: they may also feel that Ukraine’s pro-western government is in a precarious position, and may not want to push it too hard on human rights issues so as not to provoke a showdown with the militias, who could gain sympathy and come out in a stronger position after next year’s election.

Canada has also, in a few cases, specifically supported groups that are the targets of right-wing groups: it helped finance the Gay Pride Parade in Kiev, for example. When I met Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, on the day after the attack on the second Roma camp in Kiev, he said he believed the pace of extremist attacks hadn’t increased since Maidan, at least not exactly. He said more attacks may be happening because minority groups are now more confident in expressing themselves post-Maidan, and there is pushback from conservative Ukrainians unused to seeing, for example, gay rights parades and anarchist art exhibits.

In some cases, this may be true. But leftwing activists like Pilash mostly take issue with the idea that the recent violence is a growing pain, and that “civil society is winning.” They are afraid that the price of containing the separatists may be that the far right will succeed in dominating Ukraine’s government and society.

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said it is closely following events in Ukraine. “Canada firmly condemns the violent attacks by members of the S14 on Roma camps in the last months,” a spokesperson for the department wrote via email. Canadian officials “take note,” the statement continued, “of actions taken by the Government of Ukraine to address such acts and encourage continued measures against the perpetrators. We will continue to work together with Ukraine to strengthen the capacity of the justice sector, the media and civil society.”

Ukraine’s militias can’t be blamed for all its problems. While citizens have been busy curbing each other’s free speech in the streets, Ukraine’s government also recently passed one troubling law and mobilized another, both limiting freedom of expression—a sign that the culture war is gripping even the country’s highest levels of authority.

In the first case, President Poroshenko signed a May 2015 package of “decommunization” laws regulating the discussion of history, stipulating prosecution for those who make statements criticizing Ukrainian independence fighters, or who praise the accomplishments of the Soviet Union. A second law, already on the books for a long time before the revolution, applies to the “desecration of national symbols”—only recently, though, has it been applied to artists.

Early this year, Kiev artist Dana Rvana produced a banner showing a naked woman bound in rope, menaced and poked by disembodied hands holding various symbols: a cross, money, and a trident associated with one of Ukraine’s nationalist militias, among others. A small collective carried the banner through the streets of Kiev on International Women’s Day. The march’s organizer, Olena Shevchenko, says that police later approached her, saying there had been a complaint against her for “insulting state symbols”—an offence which can result in six months’ jail time.

The trident depicted on the banner, the symbol of the “Natsionalnyi Druzhiny” group, is reminiscent of the crest of Ukraine. In the end, the charges laid against her were for a different offence, comparable to public disorder. Still, about twenty ultra-right demonstrators showed up to Shevchenko’s first court appearance, brandishing sticks and mace canisters. They posted her photo on their Facebook pages and “called people to fight with me as a pervert and a separatist,” Shevchenko says. Court security didn’t protect her, and she and her lawyer ended up calling a private security firm to evacuate them.

Shevchenko was eventually acquitted, but the saga of the banner wasn’t over. A month later, a reproduction of it was featured in an art exhibit at a student-coordinated art space at Kiev’s Dragomanov University. The exhibit explored violence, specifically gender and right-wing violence. Other paintings—experimental and uninhibited, exactly what you’d expect from a student art show—showed a groom pushing his bride’s face into a wedding cake and a police officer dancing a minuet with members of a farright group. The event was held under police protection due to right-wing threats. “The opening was wonderful,” remembers Aliona Mamay, one of the exhibit’s coordinators. But the next day, she says, she got a panicked call from one of the exhibit’s curators saying the university wanted to shut it down.

The exhibit’s other coordinator, philosophy student Valeria Zubatenko, says the university’s Vice-Rector, Igor Vetrov, yelled at her in a meeting, saying that “there was a war on” and there was no place for such art. Administrators claimed they had received a letter of complaint from students, and, before the curators could take down the exhibit, they did so themselves. Mamay says police told her the university delivered the paintings to the local police station and filed a complaint against the students for desecration of national symbols, under the same law originally referenced when Shevchenko was charged. Irina Savchenko, a literature professor who acts as spokesperson for the university, wouldn’t confirm that the University denounced the work to police, instead saying obliquely that “a declaration to the police was made.” Ukrainians, in a state of war, “don’t have a right to make provocative acts,” she told me.

In many cases like this, an alarming pattern emerged: legal prosecution and street violence, or the threat of it, seemed to work in tandem. This echoes a common complaint of left-wing activists in Lviv, who say that when they hold actions and are attacked, police, if they are present, protect the attackers.

Police complicity can go much further, and be more dangerous, judging by the experience of twenty-six-year-old Danil Tyastov. To meet him and one of his friends, I take a lengthy bus ride to the city’s outskirts. Tyastov doesn’t stray far from home, except to commute to and from his night shift at a brewery. The rest of the time, when they do go out, he and his friend carry axes and mallets in the waistbands of their pants. Tyastov shows off his stomach tattoo, which says “class war,” and often sounds full of youthful bravado. But his stories are chilling. During his ten years as an activist for social justice and environmental causes, he says he’s been attacked by “fascists” more than fifty times.

Tyastov’s most serious ordeal began on a May evening this year, when he and a friend were surrounded by twenty members of a far-right gang known as the “Misanthropic Division.” Both parties recognized each other from earlier confrontations. “They threw stones at our heads and yelled ‘Sieg Heil,’” Tyastov says. Luckily, the clash took place in a busy area near a playground, and bystanders started shouting at the assailants, allowing Tyastov and his friend to get away.

A week later, Tyastov and another friend were walking near Lviv’s historic cemetery when they were suddenly surrounded by a similar group of forty men, most of them masked. Tyastov says the attackers carried chains, axes, knives, and mace; he remembers being beaten on the head. He woke up in an ambulance, where his head was sewn up without anaesthetic. Doctors later told him he’d lost almost a litre of blood. He was discharged from hospital the next night, but his friend—not an activist—had been stabbed in the stomach and remained in a coma for four days.

For Tyastov, the most maddening part came about a month later. Police summoned him, intimating that a complaint had been lodged against him for initiating the earlier attack near the playground. These charges would be dropped, they indicated, if Tyastov agreed not to press charges for the later, more violent attack. Tyastov was furious. “There were two of us. How could two attack twenty?” he asks. “They wanted to bargain with me to protect... the Nazis,” he says. Tyastov says he is consulting a lawyer but is not inclined not to lodge a complaint, convinced the process will go nowhere. He blames Ukraine’s political leadership for allowing far-right groups to thrive.

Ukraine may be heading, however, for the kind of public reckoning that will force people on all sides to make their intentions more clear. In late June, outside of Lviv, a gang of youth tore through a Roma camp similar to the one at Lysa Hora, while its inhabitants slept. David Popp, the twenty-three-year-old Roma migrant from TransCarpathia who was murdered in the attack, suffered knife wounds to the head. Four other Roma were wounded, including a nineteen-year-old relative of Popp’s, a ten-year-old boy, and the boy’s pregnant mother.

This time, unlike the previous assaults, the police came to the scene and arrested the perpetrators—seven boys aged sixteen and seventeen, and a twenty-year-old ringleader. Police evacuated the camp and took the remaining Roma to a safehouse. Local news reported that the youth were a splinter group of the Misanthropic Division, the same gang that attacked Tyastov.

To get official statements from the far right on the problems in Ukraine so often linked to their movement, a good place to go is an artist’s loft-type space up three flights of stairs in a residential building in Lviv; inside the entrance, a teenage girl in cut-off jeans sprawls on a sofa. It’s the office of National Corpus, a political party founded in 2016 by veterans of Azov Battalion, one of the militias still fighting separatists in the east. The party has two members of parliament (though they were initially elected on a different ticket and opted to cross the floor). When asked for an interview, two men in their twenties meet me. They lay out a primarily economic nationalist platform: to “kick out the oligarchs” and expel Russian capital from Ukraine, and to undo some of the privatizations of the post-Soviet period. They cite the Lviv Bus Factory, which they said was economically strategic and should not have been sold off.

One left-wing activist, Rodion Bahayev, suggests that National Corpus functions as an above-ground networking hub, where activists who end up joining various right militias get to know each other. Tyastov says he identified activists from National Corpus during certain attacks, listing them. But the National Corpus spokesmen repeatedly deny that their organization has physically attacked leftists. They claim that the 2017 Gay Pride Parade in Lviv was shut down by “the community,” and, when asked about attacks on Roma camps—I spoke to them just before Popp’s murder—they insinuate the earlier attack was justified, but without claiming credit.

Social issues are barely worth debating, they say. “Ukraine is naturally a very conservative country,” says one. “I understand that there are psychological illnesses—that someone can be [homosexual] from birth. But why parade it on the street, in front of our kids and mothers?” They make a similar critique of feminists who, they say, have paraded with placards showing women’s genitals on the street. “The life purpose of these guys is to fight with us,” he says. “But our life purpose isn’t to fight with them.” Right-wingers “effectively influence the political processes of the state,” he says.

The predicament Canada faces after events like Popp’s murder is more complicated than it seems, says Kordan. If it wants to criticize the situation, it likely “has that right,” he says, “insofar as Canadian aid and assistance to Ukraine is based on a policy that encourages gender and ethnic equality.” But deciding exactly how and when to step in won’t be easy. 

With their combat experience, militia groups like Right Sector have become “instrumental,” says Kordan, “in Ukraine’s frontline defence.” That likely makes most NATO countries reluctant to criticize them, no matter their ideology, he says; they are, in many ways, not only a strategic partner of the Ukrainian military, but of NATO itself.

“This is not to say Canada should remain silent in view of the recent attacks,” Kordan says. But he believes Canada should avoid zeroing in on particular groups and focus instead on encouraging Ukrainian authorities to prosecute human rights abusers, implementing its existing official policy on rights and minorities, which is “quite liberal.” Kiev, he says, “has shown a willingness to do this”—perhaps just not a strong will to do so, yet.

The days after Popp’s death seemed to show he was right, that Ukraine’s direction is elastic. Foreign media took note of the murder. And, in a departure from the Canadian embassy’s usual tone, Ambassador Waschuk made a pointed note in a tweet, hinting that the perpetrators weren’t the only ones with blood on their hands. “Whoever the direct perpetrators of the attack and killing targeting the #Roma camp in #Lviv turn out to be,” he wrote, “impunity for self-anointed extremist ‘enforcers’ has played a role in this tragedy. #Ukraine is obliged to secure the #dignity and lives of all its citizens. #HateKills.”

About three weeks later, the Kiev police took the unprecedented step of arresting Sergei Mazur, a high-ranking member of S14, in connection with the attack at Lysa Hora. (He was then released from jail, and was sentenced to a brief spell of house arrest.) Maria Guryeva, the spokesperson for Amnesty International in Ukraine, says there was a direct link between this action and international pressure. “There have been some steps taken towards investigating the attacks on the Roma camp at Lysa Hora, and also in the case of the killing of a Roma in Lviv,” she explained to me via email. “But these are isolated cases, and progress only occurs when there is pressure by citizens and international attention. Real and systemic steps by the government to fight violence have yet to be seen.”


With files from Fionn Adamian.