Ukraine’s struggle for independence is plagued by memories of fascism. Nationalists fought more than once against the Soviets in the last century, even when it meant aligning with Nazi Germany.

This is a country that both idolizes and condemns a former leader who collaborated with the Nazis – Stepan Bandera. He is denounced by many Ukrainians and Jewish groups for mass killings, but he is also beloved for refusing to rescind the proclamation of an independent Ukrainian state in 1941.

In the past, Ukrainian Jews suffered pogroms and government-sanctioned persecution, and anti-Semitism is still a threat. For instance, the opposition coalition, which includes the Svoboda party, has been criticized for far-right extremism. Complaints have been filed against Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, for alleged incitement and racist remarks, such as saying Ukraine was headed by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”

When Ukrainian nationalists and far-right groups began protesting against Viktor Yanukovych’s government on Kiev’s Maidan Square, many Western and Russian media outlets called the demonstrations fascist with anti-Semitic undertones. Armed and masked protesters brandished nationalist symbols linked with the fascism of yesteryear.

This included the Celtic cross, which has replaced the swastika for many modern white-power groups, and the wolf-hook SS insignia. There was also the symbol 14/88. The 14 represents a 14-word slogan used by white nationalists, and the 88 stands for “Heil Hitler” – H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Finally, there was the Black Sun occult symbol, with which the Third Reich adorned a castle hall.

Some researchers and protest groups say the allegations of fascism and anti-Semitism are propaganda to undermine the protests.

The right-wing and nationalist umbrella group, Pravy Sektor, grabbed center stage after January 16, when Yanukovych approved laws that criminalized participation in anti-government protests. The movement’s press secretary, Artem Skoropadsky, called the fascism accusations “forms of official Russian propaganda that successfully change the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to ‘Nazism.’”

Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian researcher of European far-right groups and a fellow at the Radicalism and New Media Research Group in Britain, has said neo-Nazi groups are only a very small part of the protest.

“The movement is tolerant of other organizations’ extremist views but does not necessarily support them,” Shekhovtsov said. “They don’t exclude people and want to unite protesters for a stronger opposition.”

Some Pravy Sektor protesters on the Maidan sported yellow armbands with the wolf hook symbol revealing their specific political party affiliation—that of the Social National Assembly (SNA), a largely Kiev-based neo-Nazi organization. Other more openly anti-Semitic parties are White Hammer and C14, the neo-Nazi youth wing of the Svoboda party.

According to Pravy Sektor’s press secretary, the movement consists of many different groups and individuals. “This is not just a long-term rally, but a national, liberation movement,” he said in early February.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, summarized the name-calling in an article for The New York Review of Books. He called it an “attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past.”

Heroic picture of the past

Protesters have marched carrying photos of Bandera and under red-and-black flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the nationalist paramilitary and later partisan army that fought both the Nazis and the Soviets. On Maidan Square, these images represent the history of war and struggle for Ukraine’s sovereignty, not Nazism, said Vyacheslav Likhachev, a researcher at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

According to Likhachev, “the provocative symbols have to be understood in the context of a Ukrainian, heroic picture of the past. In a contemporary context, it is not correct to associate Bandera with neo-Nazis.”

Two attacks on Kiev Jews took place in one week in January and added fuel to the name calling. Also, last Saturday, a Ukrainian rabbi called on Kiev’s Jews to leave the city, fearing that the small community could fall victim to the increasing violence. At least four Jewish protesters were killed during demonstrations in the days leading up to Yanukovych’s ouster by parliament. Overall, more than 70 Ukrainians were killed.

Many media outlets began equating the attacks and the rabbi’s comments with the protests in general, which suggested that the protesters were anti-Semites and that the Jewish community was a target.

Likhachev says the four Jews killed were victims of police brutality and sniper shots; they weren’t targeted as Jews. “Jews are in danger because of the bigger problem of violence, which affects all Ukrainians,” he said.

Josef Zisels, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said that “the Jews of Ukraine participate in protests, though not as a community but as citizens of Ukraine who are tired of the cynical actions of the government.”

Pravy Sektor and other protesters have dubbed themselves the defense forces of the protests; they’ve actually provided some stability. For example, the protest leaders have proposed that Kiev synagogues be guarded, along with streets in Jewish areas.

“The protesters understood extremely well that they’ve been posed to take the blame by the state propaganda mechanism,” Likhachev wrote in a report published by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, pointing to provocations by the government.

The violence on Maidan and elsewhere has simmered down, but protesters are still on the streets; the most recent trend is the toppling of statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders. Pro-Western Ukrainians are offended by these reminders of Soviet rule, but others are proud of Soviet accomplishments.

In any case, Ukraine’s political future is uncertain and the cultural divide could widen.