If you’re anti-fascists, that means Kyiv has fascists?


This was the slightly bemused question a Ukrainian journalist asked a young “anti-fascist” activist and student of a prestigious Kyiv university*

“They call themselves skinheads but we call them “boneheads” or “bons”.  There are quite a lot of them in Kyiv, around 300. They’re aggressive, converge in groups and get into fights”.

These are racially motivated confrontations that sometimes end in murder. At the end of January, for example, as reported here, an 18-year-old Congolese refugee died on knife wounds. UN agencies (and Ukrainian human rights groups) called for a full investigation.

During the last year, according to UN figures, 17 attacks were recorded on refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine. The Congress of National Minorities reports that in the first two months of this year 11 racially motivated attacks were committed.  They are including the killing of the young Congolese man in this figure”

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance recently published a report stating that the number of racially-motivated attacks by young people belonging to skinhead or neo-fascist groups in Ukraine is on the increase. “ECRI has been informed that skinhead activities appear to be organised and that racist attacks occur regularly (at least once a week) in the largest cities such as Kiev, Odessa, Lviv, Kharkiv and in the Crimea.”  The report states that such attacks are against foreign students, asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, business people, diplomats, as well as against Ukrainians who intervene to protect those attacked. The report also suggests that the police are not doing enough.

Serhiy, the anti-fascist activist, says that the victims of such attacks may not only be targeted because of the colour of their skin. “They beat up “rappers” because they’re listening to black music. So if you’re listening to rap on a walkman, you can become part of a group at risk. However they particularly hate it when a young man from an Arab or African country goes out with a Ukrainian girl. They consider that Ukrainian girls should only go out with Ukrainians and that mixing races is a big crime. The “bons” can follow them to a dark alley in order to attack them.”

“The police don’t usually acknowledge racist grounds for killings, and speak of hooligan motives. Some of us tried to work with the police. We told them where they could find the neo-fascists, named names, gave photographs, but they were totally uninterested. They don’t want to get involved in it. They say there isn’t any neo-fascism in Ukraine”.

The young lads decided to fight the neo-fascists themselves.  Some of the first activists of the “anti-fascist” movement had themselves been among the neo-fascists.

Serhiy recounts that the first “anti-fascist” was a punk who got beaten up by the skinheads. He read up articles about neo-fascism and anti-fascism in Europe, shaved his head and started fighting “neo-fascism” on the streets of Kyiv.

The most active anti-fascist movement in Ukraine at the moment are the “sharpy” or “Skinheads against racial prejudice” and the “rashi” or “Red anarchist skinheads”.  In the capital there are three “anti-fascist” groups of about 20-30 men. The movement is constantly gaining new members who want to fight neo-fascism on ideological grounds, out of revenge or simply out of a taste for street fights. Others leave, to get married, or for other personal reasons.  The oldest anti-fascist is 24, while there are a good many who are still minors.

Serhiy is now part of the “sharpy” movement. When asked what holds members of this movement together, he says:

“They’re united by their anti-fascist position. Everyone has the right to feel safe in the city.”

Confrontations with the neo-fascists take place at least once a week. Some are planned, others spontaneous. The planned ones are when reconnaissance people head off to the places where the neo-fascists normally hang out. It may be the girlfriends or wives of the anti-fascists if the neo-fascists haven’t seen them before. The young women assess how many there are and then the anti-fascists move in. the aim is not to kill or maim, simply frighten.

“To demonstrate that there is a force that will stand up to them”, Serhiy explains. He doesn’t think it’s possible to completely eliminate neo-fascism, but it’s quite realistic to stop young lads taking part in it.

“And they mainly understand the language of force”, he says. They do also engage in verbal work, explaining what they’re doing, and in addition, they have a site where they post photos of alleged neo-fascists.

“Is that to shame them or so that all those wishing to can recognize them and beat them up?”

“One doesn’t preclude the other.  When I see a young man at the metro dressed like a skinhead, I go up to him and ask if he is one. And if he says yes ….”

Then what?  Do you immediately give it to him, or do you arrange to meet later?”

“It’s better straight away. Later he can come with others.”

The anti-fascists make up for their smaller numbers through a healthy lifestyle and good physical condition. Most of them don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, and they practise martial arts. Their girlfriends support them and help with reconnaissance work.

“One girl took part in the fighting. They killed her boyfriend, sneered, etched out a swastika on his body. She wasn’t physically very strong, but in her rage she beat one of the neo-fascists up”.

Serhiy’s parents know that he’s involved with combating neo-fascism, but don’t guess quite how actively.

Serhiy says that the neo-fascists usually hunt their antagonists, In that sense, the “anti-fascists” partially distract them, protecting representatives of other nationalities and subcultures. Quite often members of subcultures who’ve been attacked join the anti-fascists.  Not so much to protect people of other nationalities, but to defend their own group.

If you see a shaven-headed youth in a “Bombi” jacket with heavy boots with metal inserts, it’s probably a “bonehead”. Unless there are red laces, the mark of the anti-fascists.  However Serhiy says that it’s only the really young members seeking to assert themselves who wear these, since it’s extremely dangerous. “The boneheads, however, however white laces. They’re supposed to be given for murder or taking part in a serious confrontation, however a lot of them just wear them anyway.”

Serhiy says that overall the neo-fascists don’t parade killings even among their own.

He is constantly receiving threats, telephone calls, and they know where he’s studying.

“And you’re not frightened?”  

“I’m frightened”.

“I was sure you’d say no”

“How can you not be frightened?”

Commentary from Maxim Butkevych, an activist from Amnesty International in Ukraine

There are gangs and subcultures in Ukraine which espouse neo-Nazism or racism, and quite often the two movements intertwine.  It’s not generally so important in our case what labels we use – fascism, racism, neo-Nazism. The fact that such groups exist is very dangerous.  They are more and more often resorting to attacks.

The problem is certainly not as immediate as in Russia where the situation with such neo-Nazis is virtually the worst anywhere in the world. Racist aggression came to us specifically from our northern neighbour. Ukrainian neo-Nazis act to a large extent under the influence of their Russian counterparts. They’ve taken their experience, tactics, some of their symbols. However it wouldn’t be correct to blame everything merely on the Russian influence and say that racism wasn’t typical for Ukrainians.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian authorities are not keeping statistics on racially-motivated attacks. This is firstly because the victims themselves don’t always go to the police. This is especially the case with people with black skin, Roma people and refugees whose dealings with the police are difficult. Secondly, even if the attack is recorded, it’s very rarely registered as being racially motivated. Most often they explain it away as hooliganism. The law enforcement agencies don’t want to acknowledge the problem with massive efforts needed to resolve it. As well as the fact that such motives are extremely hard to prove in court.

Adapted from an article by Viktoria Herasimchuk at

*  the beginning is changed a lot since the activist asked that the term “skinhead” not be used since originally the latter had not been associated with racism.  He said that they use the term “bonheads” or simply “bons”.  It seems safe to stay with the commonly used terms, except where entirely clear who is referred to (translator)

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