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On Tour with the 'Azov' Neo-Nazis: Austrian Media Continues to Delude itself and Gaslight its Readers
Glorifying Neo-Nazis, this is a new, if expectable low--the piece appeared in Der Standard, which was founded by Oscar Bronner whose father had to flee the real Nazis in 1938 (oh, the irony)
Readers of these pages know that I’ve got a soft spot for pointing out cheap agit-prop and propaganda in legacy media, in particular if they involve white-washing of Neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Yes, there’s quite a big bunch of them, as well as other actual (far) right-wing extremists currently living their wet dreams of ‘fighting those darned Rooskies’, or whatever.
Fact is, since the Maidan putsch, Western legacy media has reported on the presence of these formations, their influence on Ukrainian politics, and their impact on the policies emanating from D.C. and Brussels.
The advent of the Russian ‘special military operation’ that commenced on 24 Feb. 2022 has triggered a veritable avalanche of stunning double-standards, praise for previously scorned ideas (esp. National Socialism), and, yes, even revisionism among the educated thought-leaders of U.S. imperialism.
I’ve already wrote extensively about the inanities that followed the uncritical and unthinking #standwithukraine, in particular highlighting the alleged associations between, on the one hand, the presence among the anti-Covid mandate protests of people holding right-of-centre ideological convictions, which esp. (self-identifying as left-liberal, but eco-friendly) Der Standard found deplorable, as explored here:
By contrast, Austro-Covidian state broadcaster ORF Online doubled down on the calls for a ‘safe space’ for dissent. This is, of course, an intellectual nonsequitur as well as a practical impossibility if there ever was one, to say nothing about the refusal by the above piece’s author, Colette M. Schmidt, to grant people who hold ideological predispositions alien to herself basic civil liberties, incl. the right to freedom of expression and assembly. On top of all of these absurdities, there’s also the issue of the actual existence of Neo Nazis among those Ukrainians, as may be stated tongue-in-cheek, who are fighting and dying for our all freedoms (so that we all could safely stay at home while being oppressed by the Covid mandates). Please find my take on ORF’s Christian Körber, who confirmed that Russia’s claims—that there are actual Neo Nazis in Ukraine—were (at least partially) factually correct here:
And now—I have to bring up this disgusting topic again, for about a week ago, the below piece was published by Der Standard, which, to me, reads like an even worse absurdity in terms of cheap pro-Nazi propaganda. Written by one Philip Malzahn and published on 23 July 2022, I confess that, when I first read it, I thought that I’ve seen (almost) everything now.
Entitled ‘On Tour with the Fighters of the Azov Regiment in Ukraine’, Mr. Malzahn is a self-declared ‘freelance correspondent for the MENA [Middle East & North African] Region’ occasionally writing on other topics as well. Here’s my translation of the piece, with all emphases mine; credit for content, in particular the illustrations (which are inserted where they are in the original piece), as given in the original article as it appeared on Der Standard on 23 July 2022 (source here). Below the piece, I’ve added a few more lines to better contextualise this article and its author.
On Tour with the Fighters of the Azov Regiment in Ukraine
Almost no-one is so hated, feared, and celebrated at the same time. Who are these soldiers? And is there anything true about allegations that they are a gang of Nazis?
By Philip Malzahn, reporting from Kharkiv and Pitomnik [a village near Kharkiv]
Sledak sits among the remnants of his childhood. Next to him: his ten-year-old self. The boy in the photo is smiling and reading a book. But the adult is holding a gun. One autumn day, some twelve years ago, the pictured son is caressed by his mother. No one caresses the grown-up Sledak here in the summer of 2022 in Pitomnik, a village north of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border. The house where he grew up, where the Rooskies [die Russen, a common trope that, while seemingly o.k.-ish as a descriptor, is used throughout the piece; it also has quite negative connotations, hence this translation] stayed for a time, is now an outpost of his troop: Azov.
A long cut runs through the large-format picture, a snapshot of a happier past: with a knife, the Rooskies cut through the bodies of mother and son. They left the framed picture in the living room, leaning against the sofa, and added, as a welcome: ‘We’ll get you’.
[I don’t know if this claim is actually true; it certainly could be, but then again, there’s no evidence. Mr. Malzahn just wrote it, perhaps because the Azov troops told him, hence take this claim with a spoon of salt. In addition, I do wonder, if the above is true, why this isn’t pictured? The same reservations apply to the below paragraph about killed cats.]
The cats are dead—also cut up. One is dangling in a plastic bag, the other one Sledak covered with a jumper. She is lying on the carpet upstairs next to the computer.
[Yes, Mr. Malzahn uses the female pronoun here as die Katze, the cat, is a female noun. Now, while I won’t claim that this cat’s sex plays any role (other than a cheap stunt), it’s worth pointing out that, as battle-hardened as these Azov troops are, note how much this guy, Sledak, cares about protecting the integrity and privacy of the deceased cat. The contrast to what is reported on the atrocities committed against humans—among others, by the Azov troops—be advised these links, compiled by NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller a few weeks ago, are extremely graphic; see also Cory Bernard’s more recent take-down, which ran on Sky Australia.]
Sledak’s mother, who looked after him as a child, is now in Bulgaria. ‘Kill them!’, she is said to have told him. They—that’s the Rooskies. And killing them, that’s what Sledak does together with his closest friend Rijs. ‘Sledak’, the detective. ‘Rijs’, the lynx. Nicknames, call names, battle names, as real names don’t exist in war. You never know who is listening. Until February of this year, the 22-year-old Sledak was a cadet at the police academy, hence the nom de guerre detective.
Their Own House Targeted
Last February, when Putin orders the attack and his tanks begin rolling towards them, both Sledak and Rijs want to fight and end up in the Ukrainian military intelligence service GUR. Then they get reassigned to the ‘Kraken’, a special unit of the Azov Regiment [check out, and contrast, the WaPo’s account of them with this one by Al-Jazeera]. Sledak’s native village of Pitomnik is occupied by the enemy, as the Rooskies march towards the gates of Kharkiv, a city of millions. Bombs hail down, and the city is threatened to go down in terror.
Then, at the end of April, the Azov Regiment, in cooperation with the Ukrainian army, launches a spectacular counter-offensive. The detective and the lynx are in on it. They know no mercy, not even towards themselves. ‘I voluntarily gave our artillery the coordinates of my house. On my own volition’, Sledak emphasises. An acquaintance had told him that the Rooskies had taken up positions there.
It paid off: Sledak was able to liberate his hometown with the troops. The house is still standing, at least partially. He leaves the sofa, the moment of solicitude and sadness, and goes up stairs. Walking past family pictures and the dead cats, he enters his childhood bedroom, strolling past cartridges, clothes, weapons, and a small donation box his comrades have set up for fun.
Upstairs, more members of the ‘Kraken’ unit are ripping out the window frame with a crowbar [why, we’re not told]. Others are fitting a drone with an explosive charge. Once the window is torn out, the drone flies towards the edge of a nearby forest, 800 metres to the enemy lines.
The war is now taking place on the screen: the young soldiers have spotted the Rooskies, with the drone positioned over them unsuspecting in the trench [I doubt this: all these drones, in particular the larger ones, generate noise; granted, in the heat of the battle, the humming of the rotors may be hard to hear, but since this is 2022, I find it hard to believe that it went unnoticed]. The red button is pressed, the explosion is first seen on the small screen, and then it can be heard through the open window frame. Boom. This is how we fight in Azov, they explain [to Mr. Malzahl]. Fast, efficient, fearless. Even if the own house is destroyed, which is ‘a small price to pay for freedom’, says Sledak.
There is little talk about politics, neither among themselves nor in the interview. ‘We also have a Muslim fighting with us, nicknamed Ararat’, says Rijs, the lynx. They are all patriots, of course. Nationalists, yes. Not Nazis. ‘Exterminating another people—that’s what the others want, the Rooskies’, they say.
‘Thor With Us’
After their mission, they walk to the car, 300 metres through the forest. It takes an eternity. When you’re so close to the enemy, it’s impossible to tell what an explosion means: are we shooting at them, or are the others shooting at us? They stop at every sound. Then off they go in the camouflage-green VW Caddy, the ‘Kraken Mobile’, 15 kilometres back to Kharkiv. In the evening they want to go swimming and throw a few grenades, to train. The mood is good, the day is a success: they are alive.
Thor’s Hammer [Ministry of Truth™ entry here; note the Anti-Defamation League’s listing as ‘General Hate Symbols’] is tattooed on their arms. ‘Thor with us’, the tattoe says in Runic script. A song of praise for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj rages from the speakers: ‘You are the only one who could unite the people’, the voice says, and, ‘Fuck them, Vova!’ Sledak and Rijs sing along enthusiastically. This is Ukraine after almost 150 days of war. A Jewish president motivates young Azov fighters with a penchant for Germanic worship. ‘Life is short’, comments the lynx.
Politics is taken care of by their commander. His name is Konstantin Nemichev. With his characteristic face line and brawny, he’s born and bred in Kharkiv. He’s a former football hooligan of the Metallist club and, since 2014, an Azov fighter from the very beginning. He’s also a politician in the years following [the Maidan putsch], a stood as a mayoral candidate in the October elections for the National Corps Party, the political arm of Azov. The regimental party, so to speak. He failed making the five percent threshold, though.
[True to their colours, here’s the admission by (even) Wikipedia hat this is ‘a far-right political party…led by Andriy Biletsky’, whose Ministry of Truth™ entry calls him the ‘co-founder of the nationalist movement Social-National Assembly’.]
Then comes Putin's invasion, Nemichev swaps his suit for uniforms again. Azov’s yellow logo—which looks like the Waffen SS Wolfsangel, which they claim are merely the initial letters of the ‘National Idea’—is emblazoned on his shoulder patch. ‘This is a Russian narrative, an invention to defame us’, he says of the Nazi accusations. ‘All ethnicities and religions are welcome in Azov. All who fight for Ukraine.’ And the Russian-speaking population? ‘It is a lie that we are oppressing these people. I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. The Rooskies thought they would be welcomed with flowers. But there are only guns here.’
[I wrote about that symbol in another piece, which you can find here; it, too, is used by Neo-Nazi formations, as well as can be found on the ADL’s listing of hate symbols.]
On the Hit List
It’s impossible to guess the percentage Nemichev would win, if an election would be held today, but definitely more than five. Probably far more. Azov is everywhere, on everyone's lips, on the internet, on the streets. Why? Because of the long battle for Mariupol. Because of the fighters who are now in Russian captivity. Azov are those who do not give up.
In Russia, Nemichev is at the top of the hit list, though. On 29 March, Russian MP and retired general Vladimir Shamanov claimed before the Duma that the Speznas [special forces] had arrested Nemichev and his deputy commander, Serhiy Velikov alias Chilli. ‘These bastards are Nazis from a hooligan group tied to the local football club Metallist. Now they are on their knees begging for mercy’, Shamanov said. It was Fake News that is now playing into Nemichev’s hands. ‘Now even many people from Russia are writing to me to express support for our cause’, he says.
All the media hype around Azov has ensured that the number of its fighters is increasing rapidly. Before February, they numbered perhaps some 2,500. Nemichev does not want to say how many there are today. The ‘Kraken’ in the Kharkiv area alone is over 1,800 strong. In addition, there are special forces, infantry, artillery, their own intelligence units, and volunteer battalions on several fronts throughout the country.
Meanwhile, they even have their own tanks: not from Europe or the US, but from their enemy. Many like Sledak and Rijs, who previously had no interest in politics or war, prefer to join Azov rather than the regular army. They come because they can fight in their hometown and with their friends. Many know each other from before, especially from the hooligan environment. They come for the morale, the fighting spirit, maybe also for the fame. But when you look into the faces of these young men in their early 20s, faces that have learned what it means to take a life, you know that there is nothing praiseworthy about war. Rijs and Sledak complain of sleep problems, of traumata, but they carry on. ‘Until death.’
‘The Country Has Woken Up’
Nemichev speaks in the ruins of the bombed-out governor’s palace, but he has a vision for the future. ‘When people's homes were hit by missiles, the country woke up’, he says. He doesn’t want Ukraine to be part of the EU or NATO. He sees a union with Poland, Estonia, Lithuania. Countries that are resolutely united in the fight against Russia. The war and the question of what comes afterwards dominates everything in Ukraine. Politics, media, society.
[On this ‘vision’, check out where this may have come from: to me, it smells of Polish interwar dreams of an Intermarium…]
Azov’s clouded past does not seem to play a role. Yet, it does exist: accusations of human rights violations, mistreatment of prisoners of war, attacks on Sinti and Roma. The US once wanted to put the group on the terror list.
Today, Azov presents itself more carefully, more cautiously. The presentation, the presence in the social media is highly professional. The high number of new members, who have nothing to do with the political cadre, and the many heroic stories have led to Azov’s arrival in the middle of society.
Even if the Regiment is formally subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, even if Kiev pays the salaries: Azov by no means drives along government lines, often acts from an autonomous position of power.
[This is ‘curious’: ever wonder why the Russians consider the Azov Regiment ‘irregulars’ under domestic and international law? Azov is a classical ‘non-official’ unit, i.e., something that used to be known as francs-tireurs, i.e., ‘guerilla fighters who operate outside the laws of war’, according to the Ministry of Truth™, hence there’s no obligation on part of Russia to treat them as ‘regular’ POWs; incidentally, but also omitted from this piece, is that this legal ‘nicety’ was also behind the Nazi-German extermination campaigns against Soviet soldiers in the 1940s: because, Berlin said, Moscow wasn’t party to the various Geneva Conventions, Soviet soldiers weren’t ‘protected’ by its impositions. Oh, the irony, eh.]
Nemichev himself strikes a moderate tone. He says Ukrainians have already learned the most important lesson of the war: ‘Cohesion. That is the only way we are strong, and the only way we can rebuild the country.’
Back at the front. The artillery troop that targeted Sledak’s house at his request includes Kusja and Punf. They stole their howitzer from Russia. Now the gun is firing at those soldiers who brought it.
Kusja leads the small unit, Punf fires the projectiles. Their appearance is unusual for war: like hipsters. In big western cities, no one would turn their heads. Kusja wears a well-groomed moustache and always takes his metal-framed analogue camera with him. He captures the war there, 35 mm film, black and white. Uncensored impressions of an Azov fighter, 22 years old. The Russians know about him: like Commander Nemichev, his name has also appeared on a wanted list.
Kusja shrugs. He and his buddy are regular dudes. Kusja plays rugby, Punf loves archery. Punf’s mother is a nurse, now also in the army. His father? ‘An asshole’, he says. Just normal problems.
[Another one of those WTF moments I had when reading the piece: what about parental notions is ‘normal’, if the father is described as such? I mean, I’m sorry for the shitty childhood experiences, or lack thereof, this guy, Punf, must have had, but the lack of taste on part of Mr. Malzahn is staggering.]
Little Desire to Fight [Die] in ‘Bombass’ [a wordplay indicating Donbass]
While their comrades Sledak and Rijs are being transferred to the Donbass—the Azov effect is supposed to turn things around there as well—the two have stayed in Kharkiv, for now. Punf has little desire for ‘Bombass’, though. ‘That's why I didn’t become a soldier in 2014’, he says. At the time, the conflict was focused on the east of the country; Russia was only a marginal issue. ‘I don't want to die for these people who twiddle their thumbs and wait for Putin.’
[I have no idea what Punf means by this; yet, at least it ‘confirms’ that, for Azov and their ilk, this conflict began in earnest in 2014, as opposed to 24 February 2022. Apparently, Mr. Malzahn doesn’t care much, if anything, for logic and intellectual cohesion of his piece, either.]
At Azov, they have no illusions: there are Ukrainians who feel they belong to Russia. ‘Nevertheless, this time everything is different. It’s all about the whole thing. If they order me to go, I'll go.’ Once Azov, always Azov.
Kusja and Punf openly describe themselves as right-wing. After all, they say, Ukraine’s interests are also those of the people. Tens of thousands have already died. But they refuse to be called ‘Nazis’: the Russians are the ideological Nazis, disguised with Soviet aesthetics.
[Same here: I’m at a loss for understanding what this means: whataboutism, anyone?]
The war has not made them more extreme or radical in their right-wing attitudes. Rather the opposite. For example, quite the typical hipster, Kusja produces T-shirts with his own logo: a framed skull. Although it is reminiscent of an SS division, it is supposedly just a pirate logo. Last week he sold one to an Arsenal Kiev hooligan. Arsenal’s HoodsHoodsKlan is the only left-wing hooligan group in Ukraine. The Klan [sic] has its own unit, which also fights. ‘The war creates unusual and uncommon friendships’, says Kusja. In Kharkiv, now they would occasionally have a beer with anti-fascists. ‘Before the war, that was impossible.’
The penchant for far-right symbolism and aesthetics is there nonetheless, the skull and crossbones being not the only example. Punf’s arms are decorated with tattoos. Amid the colourful images, squiggles and US cartoon characters of Adventure Time floats a red logo: a swastika. Emblazoned on his finger is an ‘S’. The same style as that of the Waffen SS. Punf can only laugh at this. ‘The swastika is an old symbol, much older than the Nazis, and the “S” is a sun rune. We’re into the old stuff. On Germanic, Slavic tradition. Those are our ancestors.’
[Make of these moronic statements what you wish, but I’d like to point fingers to Mr. Malzahn who, on top of all of the above, uncritically writes about this as if we’re talking hot dog condiments…hence:]
What really lies behind all of this is something only the fighters themselves know. One thing is certain: if the Russians caught him, they would photograph the tattoos and publish them—just as they did with his comrades. They would feel confirmed in their idea of ‘denazifying’ Ukraine. For Punf, an acceptable prospect.
Fight, and Die Young
All the young Azov fighters have doubts that they will live very long. Yet, it is worth it to them. The following episode shows how much so: after their transfer to the Donbass, contact with Sledak and Rijs breaks off. After a few weeks, they upload a new video. Brutal fighting in the Donbass, close combat. In the end, they capture two Russian soldiers. Sledak posts a video, writing: ‘That’s why we couldn’t be reached for a while. This is our work. Think about that when you are sitting in a foreign country drinking beer.’
A clear message to his fellow countrymen who have fled. Sledak and his comrades will never flee. They are part of a new generation—they grew up between war and death, between techno and Thor, between youthful dreams and analogue photos. It is the Azov generation.
So, what else is there to say?
It’s cool to have a predilection for ‘Nazi aesthetics’ and scorn those who fled.
Sure, I could list a few more things about the statements so uncritically reproduced by Mr. Malzahn.
Yet, there’s but two more things I’d like to note:
The level of naiveté displayed by Philip Malzahn is nowhere to be found (except for 1970s adult movies, as in, ‘that machine only works if I take off all my clothes?’). Mr. Malzahn is a product of any German-language education system (ahem), yet he apparently has no problems writing fawning agit-prop for openly extremist formations while glorifying the killing and maiming of ‘the Rooskies’. It’s sickening.
Yet, the other point I’d like to raise is this: the above article appeared in Der Standard, Austria’s premier socially liberal (progressive) paper, founded as an alternative muck-raking outlet in the mould of the NYT (yes, that’s not ironic, as the German Ministry of Truth™ entry describes it). Its founder, one Oscar Bronner, who still holds some 12.55% of the shares, with the majority of shares (85.64%) held by his private family foundation, was born in Haifa in 1943 and was (is) the son of a comedian who had to flee Austria after the Nazis annexed it in March 1938. Oh, the irony, one could say.
Or: is it ‘o.k.’, if not ‘hip’, to advocate uncritically for Nazi aesthetics in self-identified left-liberal media?
Is anyone else feeling a bit Upside Down?