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Ukrainian American Journalist: Putin’s Unjust War Is Emboldening Ukraine’s Far-Right Movement

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We speak with Ukrainian American journalist Lev Golinkin about the rise of the far right in Ukraine. Golinkin says Russian bombing of the sacred Jewish site of Babi Yar disproves Putin’s claims that the invasion is about “denazification,” and attacks on cities in eastern Ukraine show he does not care about Russian-speaking Ukrainians either. He also speaks about the neo-Nazi presence within his home country, saying, “Ukraine’s far right is the primary benefactor on the Ukraine side of this war because they now get to attract people from all over the world, and they get to be seen as on the frontlines of fighting for white civilization.” He adds the presence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine “does not give Russia any reason, any justification, to invade an inch of Ukrainian territory.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

“The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased.” That’s the headline of a new piece in The New York Times by Lev Golinkin. He’s a Ukrainian American journalist who came to the U.S. in 1990 as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, now called Kharkiv. Lev Golinkin is also author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir of Soviet Ukraine. He’s joining us from East Windsor, New Jersey.

Lev, thanks so much for being with us. You’ve written so extensively about your country. Talk about your response to what’s taking place right now.

LEV GOLINKIN: We are seeing a repetition of some of the worst things that Russia has done to Ukraine, because when you look at Chernobyl, for example, Chernobyl was not an accident. Chernobyl was the result of Soviet policy, of Soviet refusal to care for human life.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s be clear, because Chernobyl was in the Soviet Union before it dissolved, and, you know, of course, it’s in Ukraine.

LEV GOLINKIN: Correct, correct. But it was inflicted upon — it is in Ukraine. It was inflicted upon Ukraine, and it was the result of Soviet policy, of Soviet disregard for safety. What we’re witnessing right now is Moscow, again, complete disregard for safety with the attacks on nuclear plants and with the lack of foresight to the horrors that could happen.

We also see, for example, there is mixed information about a strike recently on — near Babi Yar in Kyiv, which is a Nazi killing ground. Unlike what the reports originally said — there’s a memorial for Babi Yar — it was not hit. Original reports were saying that it was. It was not hit, but the Russian attack landed near Babi Yar anyway. So, we’re talking about a sacred ground. We’re talking about a killing ground of 33,000 Jews in two days by the Nazis in 1941. Afterwards, the Soviet Union forbade Jews to have any communal memory. They did not want Jews — they forbade even a simple memorial saying that “Here lie murdered Jews in the Holocaust.” And now you have Moscow again just recklessly attacking right near a site that has such significance and holds such pain for the Jewish people and for Ukraine, in general. And again, with —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, isn’t it interesting, Lev, that this memorial was very controversial at Babi Yar, a famous massacre site, and it was a Russian billionaire, a Jewish Russian billionaire, who was born in Lviv, Mikhail Fridman, who mainly funded the Babi Yar — the latest Babi Yar memorial?

LEV GOLINKIN: It’s a very long and bitter story, because talks are about what the memorial is going to — what is it going to memorialize, because Babi Yar wasn’t just carried out by the Nazis. It was carried out with heavy assistance from Ukrainian nationalists, from Ukrainian collaborators. And this is at the center — I write a lot about these things — it’s at the center of memory wars, of who’s responsible for what, who did what in World War II. It’s also used a lot of times by Russia, who points out how Ukraine is honoring Nazi collaborators. A lot of times Russia also just blows it out of proportion. And there’s a lot of this acrimony over the memory of Babi Yar. But regardless of what you’re doing, if you are an invader claiming that you’re protecting Ukrainian Jews and you’re protecting — you know, you’re fighting back against the Nazis in Ukraine, it kind of goes very much against that when you’re bombing one of the most sacred sites of victims of the Nazis.

And also, Amy, I just want to point something out in the same vein. You spoke to a previous guest about him being a Russian versus Ukrainian in the language. Just so you know, I am from Kharkiv, from Ukraine. I was born there, raised there. I am a native Russian speaker, as are my parents, who are also there. So, Putin’s lie about how he’s protecting Russian speakers, he’s currently — he’s not protecting them. He’s bombing them. He’s killing them right now. All the people that you see are in Kharkiv, 99% chance that anybody who’s killed in the city is a native and primary Russian speaker. And these people, they’re not Russians. We are Ukrainians. We happen to speak a different language, but it’s like saying that people in Canada, in Quebec, the French speakers, are still Canadians and members of Canada. So, that’s a very important thing to put out there, so people know that the whole notion of Putin saving Russian speakers is garbage. He’s not saving them. He’s killing them right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lev, finally — 

LEV GOLINKIN: That’s — go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: — you have written extensively about the far right in Ukraine, and you have Putin saying he’s on a denazification campaign. You have fiercely condemned the Russian invasion of your country, of Ukraine. If you can talk about both, how both things can be true?

LEV GOLINKIN: Yes. It is impossible to hold both thoughts in our heads right now. Ukraine does have a neo-Nazi presence, including a neo-Nazi regiment in its Armed Forces, ok?

AMY GOODMAN: The Azov.

LEV GOLINKIN: That does not give Russia any reason, any justification, to invade an inch of Ukrainian territory. Those two things are true at the same time. What we need to do in America is condemn and fight back Russia, while at the same time making sure we don’t have extremists who travel and train with Ukrainian neo-Nazis. And it’s extraordinarily frustrating to see people are saying it’s one of two things: It’s either Putin is a savior on a campaign to free Ukraine, which is garbage, but then, people, on the other hand, say, “Well, I guess that means that Ukraine doesn’t have any neo-Nazis, so we shouldn’t worry about them.” We should. We can support Ukraine, and I believe it is supporting Ukraine to make sure that these far-right groups do not have access to weapons. And I think that it’s important not just for Ukraine but also for America, because we do not want these things coming back in attacks on other places, similar to how Islamic extremists use. And it’s important to be able to entertain both things at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lev, how is the far right, how are the —

LEV GOLINKIN: We can condemn Russia, condemn the invasion, and at the same time be careful.

AMY GOODMAN: How is the far right, how are the neo-Nazis in Ukraine responding to the Russian invasion, and how are the other Ukrainians responding to them?

LEV GOLINKIN: This is a — the Ukrainian far right could not have wished for anything better for this, OK? They now are — it’s very much harder — it’s harder to criticize them, and they’re also now open for recruitment. They’ve wanted, from the beginning of this conflict — both sides, the separatists and the Ukrainian far right, have attracted neo-Nazis from all over the world to get firsthand experience in battle. So, this war could — somebody always benefits from a war. And Ukraine’s far right is the primary benefactor on the Ukraine side of this war, because they now get to attract people from all over the world, and they get to be seen as on the frontlines of fighting for white civilization. So, it’s an extremely dangerous thing to look at, and one we should be able to analyze it, while also condemning the war crimes that Russia is committing against Ukraine. It should not be difficult to hold both things in focus at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lev Golinkin, this is a discussion we have to continue at another point. I thank you so much for being with us, Ukrainian American journalist who reports extensively on the Ukraine crisis, Russia and the far right, author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir of Soviet Ukraine. We will link to your New York Times op-ed, “The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased.”

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! currently accepting applications for a human resources manager. Check out democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Camille Baker. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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