Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a PhD student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a public commentator in American media on the war in Ukraine and Russian-American and Ukraine-American foreign relations. She is an expert on race and racism in the former Soviet Union, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. She is an alumna of Harvard University and Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institute.
In an interview with Jason Jay Smart for the Kyiv Post, she talks about Russia’s claims about neo-Nazism in Ukraine, criticisms levelled at the Azov Battalion, and the apparent expendability of ethnic minorities in war, including Russia’s on-going war in Ukraine.
Have you undertaken academic research on Ukraine and spent time in the country?
Yes and yes. My Master’s thesis at Harvard was on the Holodomor famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932-1933, and peasant experiences in the Ukrainian countryside. While I was doing my research, my graduate advisers encouraged me to do so in Ukraine, instead of Russia. I was concerned about my safety as a Black woman, and we thought Ukraine would be a safer choice for me than Russia.
Russia in the 2010s was a dangerous place for minorities to be. Today, while I’m working on my History PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, I continue to carefully follow the situation in Ukraine, and I continue to take Ukrainian language classes. I have also studied Russian and speak Russian.
The Russian press says that Ukraine is a “fascist, Nazi Regime”: As someone who knows Ukraine and Russia, and has studied fascists and neo-Nazis, what do you think?[Russian President] Vladimir Putin calling Zelensky, a Jewish man who had family die in the Holocaust, a Nazi, is incredible. Zelensky is not a Nazi, and he is certainly not leading a fascist dictatorship in Kyiv.
Furthermore, World War II and the “sacrifices of the Russian people” have been a huge part of the Russian state’s narrative for generations. It teaches Russian citizens that Russia is essentially built “on the blood of patriots” who defeated Nazism. The narrative erases the real history of the Soviet Union’s fight against the Nazis, including the sacrifices of all the nationalities of the USSR—including Ukrainians. It establishes the myth that Russia is the eternal vanguard to fight “Nazism.” But the definition of “Nazi” has changed as needed to fit the Kremlin’s needs. Since [former Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych fled, Putin has harped the “Nazis in Ukraine” storyline – it justifies to the Russian population the Kremlin’s actions abroad.
Some say the Azov Battalion are Nazis. What do you think?
Only those who Google “Azov,” and have no further knowledge of the organization could argue that today’s Azov are a “Nazi” group. Azov is not what the Russian press says it is. Today, Azov is a depoliticized, regular national guard unit, despite what Russia says.
However, we should not erase the origins of the Azov Battalion, as that also gives pro-Russian supporters excuses. Azov was created because of the Russian invasion of Luhansk and Donetsk. This is a reason why it drew ultra-nationalist Ukrainians.
This in no way excuses it – but it does give important historical and societal context for the Battalion’s early stages. But that was eight years ago. Groups and their membership shift over time. Today, it would not be classified as a “far right” or “fascist” group because the far-right element represents a minority view in the depoliticized military group.
A way to think through this conclusion is like this: if we contrast Azov to the American, German or British militaries, are far-right tendencies in Azov higher than in these countries? If we investigate and find the percentages to be disproportionate, then we can study Azov as an anomaly. Remember, there are people with extreme beliefs everywhere – including in corporate board rooms – however they do not represent the majority of today’s Azov Battalion. I am not an expert on Azov, but I do trust the work of academics, including Ukrainian researchers, who are.
In a report that just came out, Radio Liberty indicated that though ethnic Kazakhs make up only 16% of the general population in the Astrakhan Region of Russia, they have made up 80% of Russian military deaths from Astrakhanians during Russia’s war in Ukraine. Other reports indicate that Muslims from the North Caucasus and Mongol Buryats are disproportionately represented on Russian lists of those Killed in Action (KIA).
Why do you think a disproportionately higher number of ethnic minorities are on the front line and how do you interpret it?
I was not surprised when I heard the reports of Indigenous peoples and ethnic minority groups being the first ones sent to the front lines by Russia. I think of it in the context of empire and colonialism. In imperial Russian and European imperial history, empires always did the same thing. This is exactly what empires historically do – they send the colonial troops first.
In the eyes of a colonial power, not all lives are equal. Some people are “more expendable” than others and that is why we see that the “other Russians” are the ones that the Russian military sends in first and worries less if they get killed.
When do you think we can expect to see higher numbers of ethnic-Russians being sent to Ukraine?
Even though every other week you hear rumors that soon there will be a military draft in Russia, I find it unlikely. Whilst I don’t think it would be the nail in Putin’s political coffin, I also think he would not take such a chance as it could change the domestic dynamic and conversation about the war among Russian people.
So, for Putin there is a calculation: “Who is expendable?” and “Whose expendability is worth documenting?” That is why for the Russians, there is less concern for calculating the number of war dead from those who they have calculated as being “more expendable.” The Kremlin is not taking people from Moscow or St Petersburg. Moreover, Putin wants to keep the military in-check. He does not want to and has not empowered the military because it could pose a risk to his power.
Who are the Ukrainians in the eyes of Putin?
Putin does not believe that Ukrainians are a “real” people. Rather, he believes that they are “Russians who have gone astray”; and thus, he is on a mission of “returning them to the Russian flock.” In both his declaration of war speech and his bloated 7,000-word long essay on Russian and Ukrainian history, he has made this vision clear.
It is a startling thought that if Putin considers Ukrainians to be “his own people” – and we see how brutally he is attacking Ukrainians – imagine how he would treat other peoples who are not “his own,” especially visible minorities, different ethnic groups and other religions.
Do you think there might be pushback by Russian minorities who Putin is sending off to be needlessly killed in this war?
Let’s look at their options: Do Buryats have any recourse? The families of the ethnic minority soldiers may be upset and angry, but what can they do about it? No matter how upset or angry their families are if they get killed, they are very far from Moscow where the decisions are made. Importantly, they are out of sight and out of mind for most Russians.
Do these minorities have any real ability to effect change? Can they organize it? Realistically, no. The fact is that they are being used by the Kremlin in the way that we have seen many other colonized groups used. They serve a purpose but are more expendable in the government’s eyes than the colonizers’ racial or ethnic group is. The elites don’t go to war – they have other options open to them and that is why they send others to fight. But as time passes you start to notice that some faces you used to see around are missing, and you learn they’ve gone to the war. We can assume the same is happening in Russia.
Do you find it paradoxical that on one hand we have Putin touting the “greatness” of the “Russian World,” while on the other hand inviting in so many, largely Muslim, ethnic minorities?
I do not find it to be too surprising and I will cite being raised in southeast Texas: it is economic dependency and racism. In Texas, it is not uncommon for somebody to harbor a deep dislike of Mexican people, however they recognize that they need the cheap labor that the Mexican immigrants are providing. Likewise, they might complain about illegal immigration, but the fact is that their own economic success is built on the very fact that so many Mexican immigrants are not documented, so he can be exploited for the economic gain of the Texan who dislikes him.
In both the Texas example and in Russia, they despise the culture and the visibility of the ethnic minority, but their economies depend on them. They need their labor, but it should not be confused to mean that they like them or that they do not hurt them.
How bad is racism and the neo-Nazi movement in Russia?
The structural racism that exists in Russia has allowed for ethnic minorities to be killed and the police to have either participated or looked the other way. Putin does not need to give his official approval to harass ethnic minorities as we see that after the minorities are attacked, no one is prosecuted. Not to mention that people openly advertise that they won’t rent to minorities.
Yes, Putin outlawed some neo-Nazi groups before the Sochi World Cup, but that was because he knew it would look bad for Russia if an African or Latin American player was attacked. It does not mean that those banned haven’t already formed new groups, and it cannot be interpreted to indicate Putin’s personal disdain for these groups.
Do neo-Nazis in Russia like Vladimir Putin
Neo-Nazis, the far right and ultra-nationalists in Russia generally support Putin. The neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist groups in Russia also influence these groups outside of Russia. This is interesting as Russia is idealized by European and American neo-Nazis as being “pure” white and Christian. However, that is obviously false as Russia has large indigenous diversity and hundreds of ethnic minority groups. How a man whose older brother died during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad cannot be disgusted by Nazis, and to so trivialize the term to fit his political needs, says a lot about Puti
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon can be followed on Twitter at @ksvarnon
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