When I started this investigation on Ukraine, I was astonished to discover the degree to which the massacre in Odessa [May 2, 2014] had faded from memory. Forty five people were killed in a huge fire in the heart of a major European city in the middle of the 21st century. Everything was filmed by dozens of cameras and cell phones. Yet around me, no one remembered.
Forty five Ukrainians of Russian origin died in a fire inside a building [the Trades Union House in the city center of Odessa] caused by the Molotov cocktails of Ukrainian nationalist militias. After a quick investigation, I discovered that the event had not been censored. It had been addressed, discussed, but never investigated. As though too embarrassing to discuss.
Why no investigation? Probably because the victims were of Russian origin. These victims were reported as “persons” but without knowing who they were, who killed them and why they were dead. “Persons” who were nobodies.
In speaking of these deaths, our democracies should have expressed some sympathy, officially, solemnly. There should have been strong reactions by chancelleries. Press releases by ministries of foreign affairs. [However], following the Russian invasion of Crimea, Russian-speaking populations in the conflict were assigned the roles of villains.
What happened on that May 2, 2014, in Odessa? I discovered the answer after viewing hours of video shootings, interviewing dozens of witnesses, finding victims and aggressors and comparing the stories until I pieced together facts that make sense of this fury. Important fact: I interviewed and have broadcast only direct witnesses of events–the people I saw on videos– in order to filter to some extent the exaggerations and lies that arise in such a circumstance, on the side of the attackers as well as victims. The result of this painstaking work is at the heart of the film to be broadcast Monday evening [February 1] by Canal Plus [Canal +].
During my investigation into this massacre of little exposure, I saw the importance of Ukrainian nationalist militias. They were at the forefront of street fighting on Maidan Square (January-February 2014], and later formed battalions to fight Russian troops in the east of the country. But these battalions were merged into the army. They did not exercise the same discipline. They were able to serve as auxiliaries to the government; or become a parallel police. And, yes, in their ranks, the signs of neo-Nazi ideology were obvious.
My investigation went against the commonly accepted narrative. I knew I was going to meet strong opposition, that we would be accused of playing into the hands of Putin, to voice elements of Russian propaganda. I did not expect to meet with such huge denial, bordering on hysteria at times. On a Ukrainian website, I am called a “terrorist” in the pay of the Russian secret service. The site calls for a ban on the film. Even the Ukrainian ambassador to France pressured Canal Plus [not to screen the film]. That is what surprises me the most. For it seems to me that Ukraine must ask itself about these paramilitary groups. They are, as stated in the film, the greatest threat to Ukrainian democracy. To renounce saying what one knows to be the truth because “it plays into Russian propaganda” is to become a propagandist oneself. One omits, not because we are liars but because we are full of good intentions. But never forget that from such omissions, the worst conspiracy theories are born.
In France, the accusations against the film have come mainly from two militant blogs and an unusually violent writing by the reporter in charge of Ukraine in Le Monde, Benoit Vitkine. In all three publications, the arguments are similar. It is said I did not nuance enough my perception of the extreme right, which ranges from dark brown neo-Nazism to light-beige nationalism. I exaggerated the importance of the paramilitary groups, armed with Kalashnikovs and sometimes with tanks. I have not stressed enough their heroic role in their fight against the Russians. I exaggerated the influence of Americans in the regime change [of February 2014].
And then certain factual errors are pinpointed. I’ll try to answer them here.
To question the rigor of my documentary, Benoit Vitkine cites one, sole example. He accuses me of having created out of my imagination the manufacture of a new generation of tanks by the nationalist battalion Azov (for which he seems to feel a fond indulgence). But it’s the truth. Andriy Biletsky, the head of the battalion, sang to me its praises [manufactured tank] with much pride. 1.2 meters of armored shield in the front and steering video cameras used to steer it. The technical details of this new beast of war can be found here.
Benoit Vitkine is well aware that Andriy Biletsky comes from the most radical extreme right. His electoral standing is low (although he is a Rada deputy), but his standing in steel and in battle-hardened men is strong.
Then Benoit Vitkine insinuates, without citing anything in support, that my purpose is to highlight “the installation of a new fascism in Ukraine”. Vitkine must be very angry to write such things. I never said that fascism had settled in Ukraine. The key phrase of my documentary is: “The Ukrainian revolution has created a monster that will soon turn against its creator.” And then I tell how far-right groups attacked the parliament and killed three policemen in August 2015. I have never suggested that the attackers were in power. Even if those who are in power were able to use them.
The only “good point” which Benoit Vitkine wants to award me is that I worked on the massacre of Odessa, a “frequently overlooked episode”. You said it yourself, dear colleague…
Anna Colin Lebedev writes a blog on Mediapart.fr. She, on the other hand, reproaches me precisely for my treatment of the “drama” of Odessa. She is careful to never write the word “massacre” or “butchery”, to never precisely name the savagery of the murders. Anna Colin Lebedev affirms that this “drama” is not at all ignored. The only proof she offers are papers published … a year after the fact. Those of Le Monde (Benoit Vitkine) and The Economist. A blogger, Olivier Berruyer, conducted an analysis of article headings in the days immediately following the massacre. This analysis is available on his website. It is most eloquent.
Anna Colin Lebedev accuses me of creating a story “centered on the tears of victims”. That’s true, I gave voice to a mother who lost her 17 year old son, Vadim Papura. She spoke reluctantly, she was certain that I would not use her statements, that the West does not care about their fate. I also give voice to Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom even voice remorse. I interviewed eyewitnesses from all sides. According to Anna, everything is the fault of the police, who were not sufficiently effective [in stopping the violence that day]. This is what the film should have focused on, she says. Not on militiamen who threw Molotov cocktails on the trade union building or who finished off the wounded lying on the ground [after jumping from windows to escape the burning building]. Not on the fact that none of the killers has been imprisoned and that the Ukrainian government has sabotaged any judicial inquiry, as recalled in the article in The Economist [May 8, 2014] which she kindly quotes as reference but which she probably has not taken the time to read.
That’s it for the specific criticisms. From there, we descend into tiny details.
Thus, Anna Colin Lebedev tells me that I mention the presence of the symbol of Azov on Maidan while the battalion had yet to be created. It will be formed three months later. Sure, but for me, it was just a name change: the symbol was everywhere on Maidan, it is the same symbol as the group ‘Patriots of Ukraine’, who have the same leader, Biletsky, the same men and who will go on to form a military battalion to fight in Mariupol [Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine].
So for clarity, I made the editorial decision not to go into such levels of detail. The fact that this famous [Azov] symbol is borrowed from an SS division, Das Reich, does not seem to move my critics.
Igor Moysichuk, according to Anna Colin-Lebedev, was not the spokesman for Pravy Sektor [Right Sector] however he was introduced as such in this televised debate. Igor Moysichuk is a member of nationalist splinter groups that sailed between Azov and Pravy Sektor but he was mostly a crook playing for his personal account. He joined the Radical party of Oleg Lyashko and he was arrested, in front of our camera, after extorting 100,000 Hryvnia from some guy from his party.
In the blog Comité Ukraine [Ukraine Committee] by Renaud Rebardy, I am accused of not reporting that the Azov battalion had integrated into the regular army. Renaud Rebardy will have misheard and, especially, misunderstood the nature of relations between the Ukrainian government and Azov. Here is a verbatim commentary from the film when I talk to Azov: “Officially, this brigade obeys the Ukrainian national army. And yet, many of them remain masked.”
And this is what their leader Andriy Biletsky told me about their financial means: “Well, if we talk about finances, for acquiring armaments, it is provided by the state, as is part of our equipment. The rest comes from the work of activists among whom there are small and medium businessmen. They invest money and make all of this possible. ”
During the interview and in comments that I finally edited out, Biletsky utters a veiled threat against the government he deems too corrupt. The subtlety of Azov is that they are officially in the army but they retain a wide margin of autonomy.
Then Renaud Rebardy says that there have “never been talks” to remove Russian as an official language in 13 Ukrainian regions. The facts: the Ukrainian parliament proposed to do so on February 23, 2014, and the day after, the war started. Russian-speaking populations were worried about their future and Putin took advantage of that to launch military manoeuvres. On February 28, the [interim] Ukrainian president repealed the measure. But it was too late, the devil had escaped from the box.
The same Renaud Rebardy chides me for reporting that the new Ukrainian Minister of Finance is a former U.S. diplomat. Natalie Jaresko became a naturalized Ukrainian in December 2014 in order to join the government. Before that, she worked first as a diplomat at the State Department, specializing in Eastern European countries, from 1989 to 1995, and then she maintained a strong relationship with the U.S. government after taking over the presidency of the Western NIS Enterprise Fund (WNISEF), an investment fund that invests money from a U.S. state agency (USAID) in the Ukrainian economy. She remained there (in addition to her position at the private investment fund she ran, Horizon Capital) until she took a job in the Ukrainian government [as finance minister]. These are not trivial matters, correct?
Benoit Vitkine accuses me of reporting that the new ministers of the economy are “pro-business”. Yet this is the politics from which they declare themselves “aggressively pro-business,” I have it in my video recordings. This explains, for example, the fourfold increase in natural gas prices. Among other things.
Rebardy also accuses me of being too harsh with Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the Svoboda Party. I describe him: “Historically, he belongs to the neo-Nazi movement.” This man has many times said that he wants to rid the country of the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”; he often uses the term “Yid”. He was also the founder of the Social National Party (does that name remind you of something?).
Another criticism came from the militant Euromaidan blog: I gave voice to Alexis Albu, a communist activist of Odessa whom they accuse of being homophobic and red-brown.
Why did I interview Albu? Not because of his opinions but because I discovered on amateur video his presence in the building of Odessa on the famous May 2, 2014. And let me remind you, my goal was to find people who are seen in videos and then gather their comments on what they saw. I try to establish the facts. What interested me in Albu is that we see him walking out of the union building intact and shortly thereafter, he is laying on the ground, gravely wounded in the head. What happened in between?
Finally Anna Colin Lebedev noted a sentence written in the presentation of the website of Premières Lignes announcing my documentary: “No one has really asked who they (the Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries) were.” This sentence is obviously factually false. But if she saw the movie and, most of all, listened to it, she knows that this sentence is not in there. It was written to “sell” the film on the website of the production house and can therefore be attributed to clumsy marketing.
All this said, if one sits at the level global public perception, it is clear that the general public knows nothing about the importance of Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups, nor the existence of the massacre of Odessa of May 2, 2014. That`s because this issue has been underreported (which is not to say not reported at all). We know from the Russian side, it is said that far-right nationalists went to fight in the Donbass. But we know less on the other side.
To conclude, I invite everyone to watch the film on Monday night on Canal Plus and make your own judgment. Because the people who insult me and threaten me on social networks are precisely those who have not seen the documentary. They imagined it. Faith is a powerful drug.
You can watch the February 1, 2016 broadcast of ‘Ukraine: The Masks of the Revolution’ on channel ‘Canal Plus’ here (in French, 54 minutes). You can watch a version sub-titled in English on Vox Populi Evo here. English-language promo and other information on the film is here.