KYIV — One fan describes it as the “best organized gathering of white nationalists in the world,” while another calls it “a fascist metal thing.” And, for the fifth year in a row, it’s taking place this weekend in the Ukrainian capital.
The Asgardsrei festival is never likely to be mistaken for Coachella. Taking place over two days this Saturday and Sunday in Kyiv’s Bingo club, this neo-Nazi spectacle will feature more than a dozen bands from Europe and beyond. Their lyrics will feature everything from unabashed anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial to praise of Nazi figures, including Hitler himself, and open calls for violence.
But it’s about more than just the music. The nastiest fringes of the far right meet at Asgardsrei, with Nazi salutes and flags of neo-Nazi terrorist movements flying freely. This year’s attendees will include international far-right extremists hellbent on violence, including one who on more than one occasion has threatened to kill this journalist and his colleagues.
This year it’s taking place with a level of openness and confidence that has observers of the international far right worried — and all under the ever-spreading wings of the country’s far-right Azov movement.
Asgardsrei is hardly a new player on the international neo-Nazi music scene. It was first held in Moscow, under the stewardship of Russian neo-Nazi Alexey Levkin among others. But after Levkin and other Russian far-right, neo-Nazi figures came to Ukraine in 2014 to fight with far-right, pro-Ukrainian forces — in particular, the Azov Battalion — Asgardsrei made a new home in Kyiv the following year. Today, Levkin is a self-described “political ideologist” in Azov’s National Militia.
Asgardsrei has continued to grow in popularity since the inaugural Moscow festival in front of what the organizers claim was 600 fans. This year’s event is aiming to draw at least 1,500 fans from Ukraine and abroad (the event’s website is entirely in English) to enjoy some of the world’s biggest bands from a subgenre known as NSBM — National Socialist black metal.
Asgardsrei’s organizers aren’t keen on that label or the word “Nazi” being applied to them or their festival. Levkin himself told Haaretz that Asgardsrei “is really not an NSBM festival.” He even claimed that swastika flags are banned at the event, inviting Haaretz to attend in person.
However, there will be a number of bands playing whose neo-Nazi views aren’t hard to decipher. There’s the Greek band Wodulf, a side project of the Der Stürmer band that played at Asgardsrei last year. Wodulf’s songs include lyrics like “Immortal loyalty to the Swastika / Blood and Soil, Source of our Strength.”
Then there’s Brazil’s Evil, whose Asgardsrei performance will apparently be its final performance together as a band. Its repertoire includes the song “Holocaust Black Metal” (“Awaken, white beast!”), and a former band member was reportedly part of a gang that murdered a gay man in 2000.
Also on the bill is Stutthof, named for a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland. An interviewer once asked the band’s sole member why he chose that name. “It was the playground for the Jews,” he responded, while denying that his band was neo-Nazi. “We chose this name for [a] simple reason: No sympathy at all for these subhumans.”
A local band appearing is Kroda — another bunch of neo-Nazi deniers despite their lead singer once performing a song called “Kosher Nightmare” (“I laugh in reply to Yiddish fables / About six millions of murdered Jews!”).
There’s France’s Seigneur Voland, whose songs include awkwardly titled Nazi paeans like “When Swastikas Light Up the Sky” and “Jews and Other Germs of Decay.” Other songs contain lyrics referring to dreams that “the 12 tribes were exterminated / By the last white bastion of the Third German Reich.”
Finland’s Goatmoon will be playing Asgardsrei for the third consecutive year. Maybe it will play “Aryan Beauty,” like it did last year, or “Way of the Holocaust Winds” with its lyric “Subhumans try to rule this world / But with honor we fight against it all.” The band has released a mini-album called “Appetite for Holocaust,” and there’s no shortage of photos online of it performing flanked by the same swastika flags that Levkin assures are banned at the festival.
And, of course, there’s Levkin’s own band, M8L8TH — the name referencing the “88” neo-Nazi code for “Heil Hitler.” Its songs include lyrics like “Blood and soil under wheels of Totenkopf / Pressing rivals’ short skulls into the filthy mire / Preachers of Kabbalah, offspring thereof / Labour in Death Camps, burn in furnace fire.”
Other M8L8TH songs include “The Echo of Future War,” features lyrics referencing “the dirty blood of kikes” and fighting until “the damned Jew has croaked.” (Levkin told Haaretz there are no references to Jews in that particular song, but the above lyrics are clearly audible in live recordings.)
Levkin was allegedly closely involved with neo-Nazi violence in his native Russia. He was arrested on suspicion of double murder in 2006, though the charges were later dropped. According to Russian media reports, he was also part of a neo-Nazi gang in his hometown of Tver that allegedly vandalized Jewish and Muslim graves at a cemetery and committed at least four murders.
“These are the really bad guys,” an activist involved with the international metal music scene says about the bands playing at Asgardsrei. The activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the threats they have received over their work, says there is a significant difference between bands that “dabble in crypto-fascist imagery,” like U.S. thrash metal band Slayer, and “full-fledged neo-Nazi bands” like M8L8TH, Goatmoon and others.
These bands “actually practice what they preach,” the activist says. “What they preach is a truly virulent blend of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, bigoted rhetoric steeped in hatred and underpinned in some cases by very real violence.”
Lots of Nazis — and affordable
Asgardsrei continues to find fans from the most violent fringes of the international far right. Over the past few years, users of the most extreme neo-Nazi internet forums and chat sites have talked about Asgardsrei in glowing terms — for instance, on the now-defunct neo-Nazi website Iron March. The contents of the website, which shuttered in November 2017, were leaked online last month. One user wrote about his experience at 2016’s Asgardsrei, where he “met nice naziboys [sic] from Serbia, Croatia, Sweden, France, Ukraine and Russia.” The same user again waxed about the experience a few months later, calling Asgardsrei “a good opportunity for EVIL NAZIS from all around the globe to meet, listen to god-tier music and have a fucking good time.”
Over on Stormfront (one of the first neo-Nazi hate websites), a Croatian user wrote of 2017’s Asgardsrei: “This is, in my opinion, the best organized gathering of white nationalists in the world. Ukraine is a very favorable country and I think everyone can afford it.”
Fans of Asgardsrei could be found on leaked neo-Nazi chat servers from the Discord chat platform as well. In early 2018, some users mused about going to that year’s Asgardsrei — which one user bluntly described as a “fascist metal thing.” Another user posted a photo, apparently from 2017, of headliner M8L8TH on stage accompanied by Nazi salutes and a flag of neo-Nazi terrorist network Atomwaffen Division being held aloft. The latter group has been implicated in a number of murders and bomb plots. An Atomwaffen flag was also sighted at 2018’s Asgardsrei, visible at the time in public but now-deleted Instagram posts.
The flag’s appearance might be explained by the presence in Kyiv last December of U.S. Atomwaffen members Kaleb James Cole and Aiden Bruce-Umbaugh. Upon their return to the United States, Cole was stopped and questioned by U.S. border protection officers, where he said he and Bruce-Umbaugh attended a metal music festival while in the Ukrainian capital.
While Cole didn’t explicitly state that he was at Asgardsrei, the timing of the visit to Kyiv, the fact that both men are reportedly NSBM enthusiasts, and the fact there was no other “metal music festival” taking place there at the time makes it unlikely they were anywhere else.
It is not just this year’s bands who are already known: some of the attendees are also known. The anonymous administrator of a neo-Nazi Telegram channel devoted to praising the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque massacre in March posted a photo of his Asgardsrei tickets last month and urged people to attend, saying he was going to “Sieg Heil” to his favorite M8L8TH song. This is an individual who has issued multiple death threats to this journalist and colleagues who have written about his activities, which include translating and selling Ukrainian and Russian translations of the Christchurch shooter’s “manifesto.”
Far-right networking opportunity
Asgardsrei is not just about the music. The night before the concert, there will be a mixed martial arts “full-blown fight night” (in the words of Asgardsrei organizers). The MMA event will feature more than a dozen fights with combatants from across Europe and is scheduled to take place at Kyiv’s old opera house. The Kyiv municipality did not respond to questions from Haaretz about why a far-right group is hosting an event in a state-owned venue.
“The intersection of MMA and the far right is actually increasingly popular in Europe and North America,” says Bethan Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge who researches far-right music scenes. “In addition to the excitement and perceptions of toughness they elicit, fight nights like these are also yet another potential revenue stream for organizers,” she notes.
Events like Asgardsrei form an even more overarching function for the far right, says German researcher Thorsten Hindrichs. They serve to demonstrate power and attract attention, to create and maintain international networks, and to earn money — “money that the extreme right needs in order to remain capable of action or, in the worst case, to expand its capacity to act,” Hindrichs tells Haaretz.
With the cheapest Asgardsrei ticket selling at $65 (the “full VIP” ticket sells for $125) at a venue that can hold up to 1,600, revenue is a key part of the game for Asgardsrei. However, organizer Levkin says the event is still paying off debts from last year and that the festival is “not such a ‘gold mine.’”
Hindrichs, a musicologist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz who focuses on far-right music subcultures, stresses just how crucial networking is at events like Asgardsrei.
With representatives from groups like Germany’s neo-Nazi Der Dritte Weg, Italy’s neo-fascist CasaPound and Greece’s Golden Dawn having taken part in Asgardsrei, Hindrichs says, the festival and its networking opportunities provide a golden opportunity for Europe’s extreme right to grow and become stronger.
Hindrichs notes the key role that Olena Semenyaka, the international secretary of Azov’s National Corps political party, plays in this far-right networking. While also part of the team alongside Levkin at the Azov-associated record label that stages Asgardsrei, Semenyaka has spent much of 2019 networking with far-right groups across Europe — including documented travels to Italy, Germany, Sweden, Portugal and Croatia.
Asgardsrei is “the only far-right music festival that doesn’t take place far away on the meadow of a small village or in a remote industrial area,” Hindrichs says. Instead, it is “publicly recognizable and full of self-confidence,” staged in a popular venue in one of Europe’s biggest cities.
“The fact that such an event can take place at the beginning of the 21st century in the heart of Europe, in the heart of a European capital, without any problems or restrictions, is at least as scandalous as its comparatively poor coverage in most European media,” Hindrichs adds.
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