Ukraine’s Far Right Is Boosting A Pro-Putin Fascist

Italian neo-fascist Franco Freda has published and promoted books by Nazis, written that “[we] only have accounts to settle with the Jewish or Judaized Europe,” was convicted of trying to resurrect Benito Mussolini’s fascist party, was judged to be partly responsible for a 1969 far-right terrorist attack, and last year said that Russian president Vladimir Putin “is a champion of the white race.”

This, apparently, is all okay with Ukraine’s Azov movement and Plomin, its literature club and publishing outfit. Plomin currently sells a Ukrainian translation of Freda’s 1969 book “The Disintegration of the System,” which lays out a “battle plan” for overthrowing the state that one scholar wrote “[advocates] direct action and has no conscience.”

On December 17, two members of the Azov movement presented this translation at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA), arguably Ukraine’s most prestigious university. However, the presentation was not sanctioned by the university and apparently managed to take place there only due to “a group of young aggressive people” who, despite staff trying to resist, invaded and, in the far-right’s own words, “occupied” a university venue to host an unsanctioned event.

Freda the fascist

Freda and his supporters insist that he occupies some sort of ethereal space between left and right, yet the man, now 78, has long been firmly associated with the most violent fringes of Italy’s far-right. 

Freda has spent multiple years in prison for his activities, including for his role in a series of bomb attacks in April 1969. After an initial acquittal in 1987 on charges of being partly responsible for a 1969 terrorist attack — the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan that killed 17 people and wounded 88 — subsequent investigations led an Italian court to ultimately rule in 2004 that he was partly responsible for the crime. 

However, having been acquitted, Freda could not, under law, be charged again for the same offense. Yet he and other far-right figures were charged in 2000 and found guilty of trying to reconstruct Italy’s Mussolini-era fascist party, which is a crime in Italy, via their now-disbanded “Fronte Nazionale” party. It’s this long past that led researcher of the far-right Anton Shekhovtsov to refer to Freda as “one of the most notorious Italian fascist terrorists.”

Freda has also run a far-right publishing house since the 1960s, publishing and promoting work by Nazi-era figures and sympathizers including Joseph Goebbels, Romanian fascist Corneliu Codreanu (a man one historian once described as an “obsessive anti-Semite”), Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, Hungarian fascist Ferenc Szalasi, and, as of December 2019, seven separate works by Adolf Hitler himself. 

Published in 1969, Franco Freda’s pamphlet, “The Disintegration of the System” (it is hardly long enough to be called a book), is not difficult to find online in English translation. The work, dense and polemical, proposes that an alliance be formed between far-left and far-right to overthrow the “bourgeois” state by any means necessary. It led to Freda being paradoxically called a “Nazi Maoist” after its publication.

The cover of the Ukrainian translation of Italian neo-fascist Franco Freda’s 1969 work “The Disintegration of the System,” posted on Telegram

In late 2019, individuals associated with Ukraine’s Azov movement, specifically its literature club and publishing outfit Plomin (Flame, in Ukrainian), presented a translation of Freda’s minor magnum opus and other writings of Freda’s into Ukrainian. The book, complete with artwork and illustrations, is currently available for sale for 200 hryvnia (approximately $8.60) from Plomin’s website. 

“We only have accounts to settle with the Jewish or Judaized Europe”

Freda’s work contains some glaringly anti-Semitic passages. “We have nothing to see with the mercantile Europe, with the Europe of plutocratic colonialism: nothing to share,” Freda writes in the first chapter. “We only have accounts to settle with the Jewish or Judaized Europe.” (“Con l’Europa giudea o giudaizzata noi abbiamo solo vendette da fare” in the original Italian). 

Freda has even worse things to say about Judaism. Later in the same first chapter, Freda refers to Europe as “an old hussy who has whored in all the brothels and has contracted all the ideological infections.” Some of these “ideological infections” for Freda include Zionism, “Masonry”, and Judaism. 

Further on, Freda makes a reference to “Judaic and Masonic Europe,” which relates to the longstanding Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory. For Freda, though, it seems no farfetched theory but rather part of a “monstrous spectre” that has destroyed Europe. 

Freda the accelerationist?

The focus of Freda’s polemic, however, is on destroying the contemporary political order by any means necessary. “The fact remains that, for a political soldier, purity justifies any hardness, indifference any deceit, while the stamp of the impersonal on the fight dissolves all moral worries,” Freda writes. 

“It is necessary by promoting, goading, accelerating the time of this destruction, intensifying the action of rupture from the present equilibrium and today’s phase of political arrangement,” Freda writes.

The tone of Freda’s work, not to mention the repeated use of the word “accelerate” (accelerare), is reminiscent of something that has come fifty years after its initial publication: neo-Nazi channels on social media app Telegram that push so-called “accelerationism”. This is a term for undertaking acts of violence with the goal of more quickly bringing about the demise of governments, sowing chaos, and causing upheaval in society. 

This is a strategy that echoes with Freda’s time, the “Years of Lead” (Anni di piombo) from the 1960s to the 1980s. During this time, both far-left and far-right forces sought to spark a revolution, trying to weaken the Italian state with acts of terror. While far-left extremists kidnapped and assassinated a number of public officials, Freda and his far-right friends adopted a “strategy of tension,” instigating bombings and trying, with varying degrees of success, to pin them on their left-wing opponents. Freda and friends also had help from Italian secret services, who at times “nudged things along, working with neo-fascist killers to frame the left.” 

Despite this, Freda still takes time in his work to lay out his vision for his ideal state. It’s a state that not only reads like the fruits of a totalitarian fantasy, but might remind some Ukrainians of the horrors of the 1930s under Stalin. Private property will be abolished, Freda writes, and various “Commissars” (Commissario in the original Italian) will oversee everything from foreign affairs and finance to even collective agricultural “combines,” where workers will make up what Freda calls the Committee of Management of the Combine. 

In addition, Freda lays out a future where collective punishment is the norm (“proportional penalties on all the members of a group where a member commits crimes”) and where forced labour is the penalty for all crimes — except for vaguely-defined “grave crimes against the popular order of the state and public property,” for which the punishment is death. 

“…the only decent European politician is Vladimir Putin”

Even more awkwardly for the fiercely anti-Kremlin Azov movement, Franco Freda is a dedicated fan of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In an interview in November 2018, Freda not only spoke highly of pro-Russian far-right populist Matteo Salvini, but had the highest of praise for the man who literally engineered Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

“Putin is a champion of the white race,” Freda said. “I think of the Slavic peoples, they’re the ones who won the Second World War … they’re brutal individuals, of course, but they are the only ones who can resist.”

That wasn’t Freda’s first foray into lavishing praise on Putin. In 2014, while the Azov Battalion was fighting Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine, Franco Freda also took time to compliment the Russian president. 

“It is my impression that the only decent European politician is Vladimir Putin,” Freda said in October 2014. 

What happened at the presentation?

The photo promoting the Ukrainian translation of Freda’s book on Facebook (and on the book’s front cover, available online beforehand) featured flags from several Italian neo-fascist terrorist movements.

The photo promoting the presentation of the Ukrainian translation of Franco Freda’s “The Disintegration of the System,” featuring flags from several Italian neo-fascist terrorist movements

The flag of Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”), bearing an axe, is prominent, as is the axe being held by the figure representing Franco Freda. Ordine Nuovo is a group whose members took part in a number of terrorist attacks in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including a 1969 bombing in Milan that killed 17 people and a 1974 attack on an anti-fascist rally that killed eight.

The flag of Italian neo-fascist terrorist organization Ordine Nuovo

The flag of National Vanguard (Avanguardia Nazionale) was founded by Stefano Delle Chiaie in 1960. Their flag marked by the Odal rune, a common symbol often used by neo-Nazis. National Vanguard was responsible “for at least 15 terrorist attacks between 1962 and 1967.”

Another symbol is visible on the book’s cover, images of which were promoted before the event, and it is a Celtic cross visible on the axe of the figure depicting Franco Freda. The Celtic cross is a common white supremacist symbol, especially in Italy, where one far-right extremist accused of trying to kill six African men and women in a 2018 spree of drive-by shootings was reported to have owned a flag with a Celtic cross on it.

A zoomed-in view of the Celtic cross visible on the Ukrainian translation of Franco Freda’s “The Disintegration of the System”

The presentation of the book took place in the museum of National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) on December 17, 2019. 

The presentation of the Ukrainian translation of Franco Freda’s “The Disintegration of the System” at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) on December 17, 2019

Presenting the book were two individuals associated with Plomin, Azov’s literature club and publishing outfit: Evgenii Vryadnik, Plomin’s legal head, and Serhii Zaikovsky. 

Plomin’s Evgenii Vryadnik, seated at the table and facing the crowd

Plomin’s Serhii Zaikovsky, seated at the table and facing the crowd

“Nobody knew who they were”

The presentation took place at NaUKMA and, according to social media posts after the event, even university president Dr. Andriy Meleshevych was in attendance — raising concerns that one of Ukraine’s most prestigious universities was playing a role in helping mainstream the far right. 

However, Meleshevych told Bellingcat that this wasn’t the case. He said that NaUKMA did not permit the presentation, and that it took place at NaUKMA as the result of subterfuge and intimidation from the organizers. Meleshevych, since his term as NaUKMA president had expired at the time of the presentation, stressed to Bellingcat that he was speaking only as a private citizen, not as an official representative of the university.

This is what Meleshevych told Bellingcat: “A NaUKMA student asked for permission to host this event about a week before it was supposed to take place.” However, Meleshevych said, this permission was never granted by the director of the NaUKMA Museum, a venue at the university that often hosts lectures and events.

Meleshevych further explained what went on the evening of the presentation, December 17. He told Bellingcat that he “was informed that a group of young aggressive people got into our museum despite objections and resistance of the museum staff and organized an unsanctioned event there. Nobody knew who they were.” 

Meleshevych told Bellingcat his term as president ended on December 17, before the presentation started, and that what he did next was not in any official capacity, but because “as a Kyiv-Mohyla citizen [he] had to figure out what was going on.” Therefore, he said, he went to the presentation.

Two people, Meleshevych told Bellingcat, were at the front table in the room answering audience questions. About 40 people were there, he said; the event was mostly in Ukrainian, and peaceful. Since his immediate concern was whether there was any “obvious and present threat of violence,” he left the presentation after only a few minutes. 

Meleshevych told Bellingcat he didn’t know of Franco Freda’s work beforehand, and also added that law enforcement had been informed afterwards about the event. He also added that the student who helped organize the event without official approval, according to information of which he was aware, would soon be subject to university disciplinary procedures for violations “of established procedures and rules of hosting public events at NaUKMA.”

Subsequent posts by sympathizers of the organizers appear to support this version of events. A post on December 30 from neo-Nazi Wotanjugend (Bellingcat wrote about them earlier, in 2019) wrote that “a strong group of associates, in the best traditions of Italian revolutionary combat student teams, occupied the hall of the library of [NaUKMA].”

Wotanjugend’s post also links to the Azov movement-linked “Militant Zone” VKontakte page (incidentally VKontakte, the Russian social media site, is banned in Ukraine), stating the book can be bought from them online. Another post on a Ukrainian website, posted the same evening as the event, claimed that NaUKMA staff wanted to “disrupt” the event after learning what book was going to be presented on their premises.

Since the event at NaUKMA, the translation of Franco Freda’s book has been presented and promoted elsewhere. A Telegram post by neo-Nazi group Karpatska Sich — a group that has posted photos of its own members giving Nazi salutes and has encouraged its members to buy a Ukrainian translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto — shows that the translation was presented in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk on January 15.

While faces in the photos are blurred, it is clear that the two individuals presenting the translation in Ivano-Frankivsk are the same ones Meleshevych saw answering audience questions at NaUKMA and presenting the book —- Evgenii Vryadnik and Serhii Zaikovsky.

A photo posted by neo-Nazi group Karpatska Sich of a presentation of a Ukrainian translation of Franco Freda’s “The Disintegration of the System” in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine

Vryadnik the veteran

Vryadnik, the 25-year-old head of Plomin, is a veteran of the Azov Regiment. His Facebook page contains no shortage of content that one might expect from someone promoting a figure like Freda. He has complained about the crimes of Nazism being mentioned too frequently in the film Mr. Jones, about Welsh journalist Gareth Jones’ work uncovering the genocidal Holodomor forced famine in the early 1930s. 

He also complained about the atrocities of Nazism and the “positive sides of liberal democracy” being mentioned too frequently for his liking during his university days at NaUKMA, and that there are too many books about the Holocaust in Ukrainian bookstores

As his Telegram channel makes clear, Vryadnik is not above open racism.

In one post on his Telegram channel, Vryadnik referred to people of African origin as “useless human material” and, evoking discredited race science, suggested that Africans’ IQs are too low to work even as labourers. In a post on March 15, 2018, Vryadnik complained that “dumb negroes have committed genocide against the best European gene pool,” speaking of white colonists in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and French colonial Algeria. He went on to not only complain about “a worldwide genocide of Europeans” but also offered up a justification of something that had occurred some twelve hours before — the Christchurch mosque attacks. “[The] desire for revenge pushes some people into action,” he wrote.  

From right to left, Evgenii Vryadnik, Serhii Zaikovsky and National Corps’ international secretary Olena Semenyaka at a book presentation in the Azov movement’s Cossack House in Kyiv in December 2019

Back in 2015, Vryadnik may have been up to much more. While investigating mentions of Ukraine and the Azov movement in the wake of leaked data from the Iron March website, which was shut down suddenly in 2017, Bellingcat found several leaked private messages from an individual claiming to be from the Azov Regiment. 

The individual claiming to be from Azov was registered on Iron March under the username “EugHagalaz” and with an email address “eugenevr@…” The messages were sent between July and September 2015, to individuals who expressed interest in joining Azov. 

After finding these messages, Bellingcat searched online for a number of terms related to the user’s screen name and email address. When Bellingcat searched Google for “Eugene Hagalaz,” we found an Instagram account with a user bearing that name. A reverse Google image search of the profile picture for the account of “Eugene Hagalaz” found matching images for Evgenii Vryadnik, including Vryadnik’s Facebook account.

Like “EugHagalaz,” Vryadnik is an Azov veteran, and has been tagged “Eugene Hagalaz” in the past on his Facebook profile; in addition, the email address “EugHagalaz” signed up with for Iron March ends with the first two letters of Vryadnik’s surname (i.e., “eugenevr”). Moreover, the first message “EugHagalaz” sent on Iron March was, according to IP address data in the Iron March leaks, sent from Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine — the same city Vryadnik is from. This evidence strongly suggests, short of an unlikely coincidence, that Vryadnik was active on Iron March, a website that gave birth to neo-Nazi terrorist group Atomwaffen Division.

Vryadnik with Azov leader Andriy Biletsky, at a presentation in December 2018 in Plomin in Azov’s Cossack House. The man pictured on the wall above the bookcase is Romanian “obsessive anti-Semite” Corneliu Codreanu

While “EugHagalaz”/Vryadnik was only active on Iron March for a few months, it was enough time to engage with some of the most extreme elements of the global far right, including the founders of Atomwaffen themselves.

“Great to have you on the forum,” one user with the screenname “Odin” messaged EugHagalaz in July 2015. “I am an avid support [sic] of the Azov Battalion. I would like to talk to you sometime, I’d like some advice from you about my militia that I lead in the US.” EugHagalaz messaged back and forth with Odin several times, giving a few pieces of advice, including on running, night walking and working with explosives.

The real name of “Odin” is Brandon Russell, a founding member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group Atomwaffen Division (AWD) who is currently serving five years in prison for illegal possession of explosives. AWD members have been responsible for several murders, unsuccessful bomb plots, and an assassination attempt.

Another user messaged EugHagalaz in August 2015, asking if Azov was accepting English-language volunteers. 

“Yes, of course,” EugHagalaz wrote back to the user in September, who went by the screen name “TheWeissewolfe.” EugHagalaz told him that there were opportunities for international volunteers in several parts of the Azov Regiment, and that “we have hard trainings here”

As multiple outlets including Bellingcat have reported, “TheWeissewolfe” was Devon Arthurs, an AWD co-founder and roommate of Russell who murdered two of his comrades in 2017. One of Arthurs’ victims, Andrew Oneschuk, had tried to join Azov and had been in contact with Azov representatives, as Bellingcat revealed in a 2019 investigation.

“Go to hell, Russian agent,” Vryadnik replied to Bellingcat’s request for comment.

“My last “Sieg” of the night, I swear”

Vryadnik’s colleague Serhii Zaikovsky, also 25, is the “editor-in-chief” of the self-described publishing house that published Freda’s work in Ukrainian. Zaikovsky has a social media history full of open displays of racism, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitism.

“What can a negro do in an office?” Zaikovsky asked in a Telegram post supporting South African apartheid on November 20, 2019. “There’s something in them that doesn’t work. And it was all (((Marxists))) who told the dumb negroes that they shouldn’t sit in palm trees like their normal ancestors, but ride buses and pay mortgages.” 

Zaikovsky again used the anti-Semitic “echoes” in parentheses, popularized by online antisemites in 2016 to denote Jews, the very next day. “By the way, there’s a new trend in the west – to paint known representatives of a famous ((((nationality)))) in blue,” Zaikovsky wrote on his Telegram channel on November 21. “And so the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries becomes clearer.”

An anti-Semitic meme posted by Serhii Zaikovsky on his Telegram page. (The title of his channel references the German word “Volkstum,” folklore, but also “Volkssturm,” the national militia of Nazi Germany during the latter days of WWII)

In a subsequent post later that day, Zaikovsky asks how many members of the US Congress who signed a letter demanding the Azov Regiment be designated a “terrorist” organization could be “painted blue” — in other words, how many signers of the letter were Jewish. 

He didn’t stop there. The next day, Zaikovsky listed the apparent number of members of Congress of Jewish origin who signed the letter, including Max Rose himself. Rose and other top signatories of Jewish origin are the ancestors of Jews originally from present-day Ukraine, who Zaikovsky wrote were “lucky ones who in their time escaped the Haydamak pogroms.” The Haydamak were Cossack paramilitaries who, in uprisings in the 1700s, destroyed a number of Jewish communities in present-day Ukraine.

In December 2019, Zaikovsky posted a meme mocking Anne Frank and denying that she was a victim of the Holocaust. “Real talk, think about it,” Zaikovsky wrote.

After the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the United States on January 3, 2020, Zaikovsky decried the killing by posting a meme with a Jewish caricature that BuzzFeed News described in 2015 as “unquestionably the most popular anti-Semitic image on the internet.”

“And who are you for, dear friends?” An anti-Semitic meme posted by Zaikovsky on his Telegam channel on January 4, 2020

Zaikovsky followed this up with a poll, asking if followers supported “Jewish whores” or “Muslims, but Indo-European.” He then followed this up with a cartoon of Donald Trump drawn as the same anti-Semitic caricature.

It should also be noted that earlier, in December of 2018, Zaikovsky attended the neo-Nazi Asgardsrei festival in Kyiv, posting several photos and videos as part of a story (entitled “1488,” a common neo-Nazi number code) on his Instagram account. These photos and videos have since been deleted; this author screenshotted copies of them while researching Asgardsrei at the time. 

A now-deleted photo from a December 2018 Instagram story from Serhii Zaikovsky. The text reads “Heil Hitler” in deliberately-misspelled Ukrainian (“Gitlar”). The band on stage is neo-Nazi band Der Sturmer, named after the Nazi newspaper

“My last “Sieg heil” of the night, I swear,” Zaikovsky wrote in a now-deleted Instagram video in December 2018 at the neo-Nazi Asgardsrei festival

Mainstreaming the far right, yet again

Vryadnik and Zaikovsky’s presentation at NaUKMA has since been celebrated several times on Telegram by neo-Nazi Wotanjugend, who called it “an important event in the intellectual environment.” As Bellingcat wrote, Wotanjugend itself has a long history of promoting and praising far-right terrorists, including promoting a Russian translation of the Christchurch shooters’ manifesto. Incidentally, after our investigations earlier this year, Wotanjugend’s website became inactive and posts praising the Christchurch shooter disappeared from their Telegram channel.

It’s also clear that the translation and presentation of Freda’s work is part of an effort to slowly push far-right extremist ideas into Ukraine’s mainstream, something that has long been a part of the Azov movement’s plans.

A meme shared by Serhii Zaikovsky in advance of the book presentation, with “ideas of Franco Freda” inside the Trojan horse being led into NaUKMA

While Plomin and friends have the right to translate any work they want within the bounds of the law, they have no right to a platform in a university — let alone a platform in a university without that university’s consent — to promote it, and are certainly in no position to complain about censorship merely for being exposed and criticized.

These individuals and their colleagues in the Azov movement are openly hostile to democracy but friendly towards Nazism and fans of far-right terrorists. They are pushing an agenda of hate under a thin pseudo-intellectual, faux-academic veneer. They’ve already bragged online that they’re next going to translate work by “neo-fascist Italian terrorist” Stefano Delle Chiaie, the founder of Italy’s National Vanguard, a group that was responsible for more than a dozen terrorist attacks in the late 1960s.

And, despite their claim they’re not concerned about Freda’s contemporary opinions, Ukrainians may wonder why figures who present themselves as the ‘intellectual’ wing of the Azov movement work to promote the writings of someone who in turn sings the praises of Vladimir Putin.