There’s One Far-Right Movement That Hates the Kremlin
Ukraine’s Azov movement is hostile to Russia, friendly to neo-Nazis, and inspired by France’s new right. It’s not running in Ukraine’s presidential elections because it plans to win power by playing a long game.
KIEV, Ukraine—If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ve probably snapped a photo of the very spot that’s a symbol for a far-right movement more than 1,000 miles away.
It’s here along the banks of the Seine, at Notre Dame Cathedral, that an aging French man decided to make what he called a “sacrifice” a few years ago. Before Tuesday’s devastating fire it might have been the most recent time the centuries-old cathedral made such shocking news.
On May 21, 2013, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, a man known in France as a “nationalist extremist” and a “militant populist with a violent past,” walked into the 12th-century cathedral, stood next to the altar, pulled out a revolver, and shot himself.
Outside of France, few knew Venner’s name. But right-wing nationalists in Ukraine certainly did. The far-right Azov movement was founded in 2014 to help defend Ukraine against invasion by Russian-led proxy forces. It began by recapturing the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, near the annexed Crimean Peninsula, from Russian proxies. (Russia has since partially blockaded the Kerch Strait, harassing Ukrainian vessels and nearly cutting off the Azov coast from the rest of Ukraine.)
The Azov movement’s early victories also earned it a reputation as a place where far-right extremists and self-confessed neo-Nazis could make themselves at home. In more recent months, it has become better known for its street battles against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, injuring almost two dozen police officers in one violent protest against alleged corruption in Poroshenko’s inner circle.
Members of the Azov movement have made Venner a martyr. On the anniversary of his death in 2015, Azov members laid flowers and lit a candle for him in front of the French Embassy in Kiev. They give lectures on his works, post quotes from him on social media, and even sell bookmarks with his face and name emblazoned on them.
Venner is one of several icons of France’s Nouvelle Droite (New Right) who, beginning in the late 1960s, started laying out a new strategy for the postwar far-right. And while the Azov movement is a relatively new player on the global far-right scene, the key to understanding it has its roots nowhere near Ukraine.
Venner was a writer and historian known for his works on themes popular with the far-right in France and beyond, from conspiracies to destroy Europe with Muslim migration to apologetics for France’s Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime. In a note found on his body, he lamented what he called “the crime of the replacement of our people” by Muslim immigrants.
It’s a clear nod to the so-called “great replacement” theory promoted by fellow Frenchman Renaud Camus, a theory that continues to inspire right-wing extremists—including the Christchurch terrorist, who plagiarized the title of one of Camus’s books for the title of his rambling manifesto. Venner’s final blog post before his death was an anti-LGBT rant: France was, at the time, in the midst of a heated debate over same-sex marriage.
But Venner made a far-right name for himself decades before. In 1962, he was released after spending 18 months in jail for being part of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS). A right-wing terrorist group that was formed to try to prevent Algerian independence, the OAS killed an estimated 2,000 people in just over a year and tried to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle several times.
Nostalgia for the lost Algerian cause—the failed effort to keep Algeria a part of France—became a core cause of the French far-right. Former OAS members, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, were instrumental in setting up the far-right National Front, the party now called the National Rally, and led by Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen.
That year Venner wrote Toward a Positive Critique, a work that the Mexico-based political scientist Tamir Bar-On, the author of two books on the French New Right, calls a far-right version of Vladimir Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?”
This book helped pave the way for what would become known as the Nouvelle Droite in the late 1960s. Alongside figures such as Alain de Benoist and the late Guillaume Faye, Venner and others at GRECE (“Research and Study Group for European Civilization,” spelling out the French word for Greece) began laying the groundwork for how more palatable far-right movements could gain currency in the wake of Nazism.
The 1930s-era politics of unabashed racism, unguarded language, and unsubtle advocacy of imperialism and authoritarianism were, to say the least, poisoned by the legacy of World War II and French colonial wars in then-French Indochina and Algeria. Authors such as Venner called for a new approach; far-right nationalists needed to clean up their image and cast aside violence, overt racism, extreme rhetoric, and even electoral politics to some extent and focus more on what Bar-On calls “the long route through the wilderness.”
The goal for this new far-right was to shape attitudes and beliefs over a much longer period of time and spend less time fretting about getting votes and achieving immediate political power. “The approach,” Bar-On told Foreign Policy, “was basically, ‘We have to challenge the left by capturing the laboratories of thought.’”
With its roots in a still-smoldering war, this might not sound like familiar territory for Ukraine’s Azov movement. It was originally formed as a volunteer battalion in 2014 as a response to Vladimir Putin’s proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine while Ukraine’s army itself was a shambles. It didn’t take long for the Azov Battalion to become known for having some of the fiercest fighters on the Ukrainian side—but it also quickly became known for its embrace of self-confessed neo-Nazis into its ranks.
While most observers tend to associate anyone far-right with pro-Kremlin sympathies, there was and continues to be a core of far-right extremists and outright neo-Nazis who have no time for Putin. According to Azov, Russia is a multicultural, multiethnic land, one filled with migrants and Muslim minorities and led by a man with no actual interest in preserving what one Azov ideologist euphemistically called “ethnocultural values.”
Five years later, the battalion itself is now an official part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Azov formed a political party, the National Corps, in 2016; it’s headed by Andriy Biletsky, who was once the leader of the neo-Nazi “Patriot of Ukraine” organization. Last year, Azov introduced the National Militia, a paramilitary group whose existence continues to worry a number of human rights groups, given their propensity for street violence and vigilantism. With a claimed 10,000 members, Azov looks set to be a fixture on the Ukrainian political scene for a while yet.
The Azov movement is not seeking to gain power through elections or realistically wrest territory back from Russian control. It is doing something far more subtle. There’s a word for what the Azov movement is doing, a common one in the parlance of the French New Right: metapolitics—or, in Bar-On’s words, “the capture of cultural power [as] the precondition for the capture of political power.” In less academic phrasing: The movement focuses on playing a longer-term game and worries less about poll numbers and popular support and more about whether the mainstream is shifting closer and closer to its turf.
The French New Right built the idea of metapolitics, ironically, on foundations laid by a left-wing icon—the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He argued that controlling culture was the key to controlling power and that those who controlled the institutions of thought effectively controlled society. Azov’s leaders are certainly familiar with the term “metapolitics.” The movement’s international secretary and one of its chief ideologues, Olena Semenyaka, peppers her speech and writings online with references to it. Speaking to FP in Kiev, Semenyaka was transparent about the French New Right’s influence on Azov’s work and the idea of metapolitics. Azov’s strategy, Semenyaka said, is to build “cultural hegemony”—a term of Gramsci’s—“or cultural revolution as a means of gaining political hegemony.”
The goal, according to Semenyaka, is to pull Ukrainian society closer to Azov’s side of the political divide. “We want to bridge this gap between nationalism and the rest of society,” she said. And even as the National Corps barely registers in polls—Biletsky announced in January that he wasn’t going to take part in March’s first-round presidential elections—the movement is following a decades-old script laid out in France. Semenyaka brags about everything the Azov movement does, from mixed martial arts sessions and weapons trainings with military equipment to hosting a network of youth camps and support groups for veterans of the ongoing war with Russian-backed forces in the country’s east.
It’s part of what Semenyaka calls an effort to neutralize resistance to far-right ideas in Ukrainian society. Ukrainians support their initiatives without knowing they’re linked to the Azov movement, she said, and are happy to support the movement when its sponsorship or involvement is revealed. It doesn’t hurt that it’s easier to garner support for a movement when it’s still associated in much of the public mind with a heroic defense of the country against foreign invaders. “They don’t associate it with some far-right radicals who do some violence in the streets,” she said. Instead, the hope is that they will think, “‘These guys are OK. They’re doing something for us. The government doesn’t have such programs for us—why wouldn’t we support them?’” and end up backing the movement. “We just want to overcome this demonized image,” she added.
That demonized image is one thing that Azov doesn’t want people to notice. Despite Semenyaka’s protestations to FP that the movement was far from neo-Nazi-friendly, it doesn’t take much scratching of the surface to find the darker paint beneath. Azov has hosted neo-Nazi concerts replete with swastikas, tried to recruit foreign far-right extremists, openly assaulted feminist, LGBT, and leftist activists, and cleared a Roma camp with hammers and axes. Azov’s less cunning edges aren’t hard to find, even if it’s something it doesn’t like to talk about; Semenyaka herself has been photographed giving a Hitler salute with a swastika flag behind her.
The French New Right, however, has long been much more subtle than this. Azov is trying to borrow from this playbook. Semenyaka told FP about a project inspired by the French New Right theorist Guillaume Faye, who wrote a dictionary explaining New Right terms—an effort to turn anti-democratic, xenophobic, or even racist ideas into something much more palatable for the mainstream.
“He doesn’t say what ‘chauvinism’ is, as leftists would do,” Semenyaka said. “He explains what ‘ethnomasochism’ is for instance. He would say that whites are always guilty, and by definition you have to embrace multiculturalism, create a single human race.” References to European culture rather than “the white race” is another popular euphemism in these circles. Semenyaka said the movement has plans to create a video based on terms in Faye’s book for a Ukrainian audience, an idea that she said has the backing of Biletsky. “It’s quite a witty way to gain political hegemony,” she said.
Political power, however, isn’t anywhere near the horizon for Azov. With Biletsky’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s presidential race—he had been polling at less than 1 percent—Azov’s National Corps party is focusing on October’s parliamentary elections, where it hopes to surpass the 5 percent threshold to get into Ukraine’s parliament. (It currently holds two seats from single-member districts and is polling around 1 percent.)
Semenyaka didn’t sound worried. It’s all an opportunity, she claimed, to gain new contacts, new “political technologists”—a term common in the post-Soviet sphere to describe the art of political manipulation—new supporters, and, eventually, to become what she called “a party of ideas.”
Besides, there isn’t time for campaigning at the moment. Azov’s leading lights are too busy building relationships with far-right figures from across Europe and beyond—at least those who aren’t pro-Kremlin. It’s not the easiest task, considering that much of the European far-right, from France’s National Rally and Germany’s Alternative for Germany to the upstart Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, seem to be firm fans of the Kremlin. Still, groups such as the neo-Nazi Third Way and the Nordic Resistance Movement—a group now banned in Finland—and figures such as the American white nationalist Greg Johnson have visited Azov in the Ukrainian capital in the past few months.
Members of Azov, including Semenyaka, regularly travel across Europe to connect with other far-right groups, from Italy’s CasaPound to Germany’s National Democratic Party, which German authorities have tried to ban. And while some members of these movements are more sympathetic to the Kremlin than to Kiev, Azov’s ideologists sound confident that they can convert more than a few of them to their side and build a different transnational far-right movement with themselves at the center.
Azov is also forming connections with less subtle, and openly violent, far-right extremists whom Venner might have warned it to ignore. U.S.-based white supremacists from the Rise Above Movement visited Kiev last year before being arrested back in the United States for a number of violent attacks they perpetrated in 2017. Hendrik Möbus, a convicted murderer and founder of the German neo-Nazi band Absurd, spoke at an Azov event last December.
But in Venner’s home country, Azov hasn’t had much luck with the mostly pro-Kremlin French far-right; Semenyaka freely admits that her efforts to make connections with members of the National Rally have gone nowhere. It has left the group little recourse but to find allies among the most violent fringes, especially the Social Bastion movement. Over the last two years, Azov’s friends in Social Bastion have beaten people with metal bars while calling them “dirty Arabs” and broken a man’s jaw when they mistook him for a local anti-fascist activist. Last year, as a group of men walked past a Social Bastion hangout in the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, one of them joked to his friends, “C’est le local des fachos” (“This is the fascist local”). Members of Social Bastion emerged and attacked the men, breaking one of their legs. It’s hardly the more sanitized, more respectable face of the far-right that Venner would have wanted.
As Notre Dame continued to smolder earlier this week, Azov made it perfectly clear what it meant to them. An Azov-affiliated record label posted the message “Europe is falling apart” on social media alongside a drawing of Notre Dame burning. “First, Venner’s sacrifice, now the fire,” the post stated.
Azov’s French-inspired march through the wilderness has impressed its far-right friends abroad, many of whom are more than happy to work with Azov to try to build a new international far-right movement. Azov benefits from a unique situation for an ambitious far-right group—an ongoing war started by an imperial neighbor, an already conservative and nationalistic political climate, and the alleged protection of one of the country’s most powerful politicians, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is widely believed to be Azov’s patron.
Above all, however, Ukraine’s political climate is one where Azov’s outright violent actions don’t often get the scrutiny they deserve. Azov hopes, in that environment, it can start to turn some of Venner’s far-right fantasies into reality.
Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.