At least nine people died in Ukraine Tuesday in the most caustic violence since demonstrations began 12 weeks ago against President Viktor Yanukovich.

The demonstrators, characterized by the press as generally “pro-European,” have ignited what is being described inside Ukraine as a movement with an undertone of sectarian violence.  The Ukrainian nationalists, primarily centered in the Western half of the country, oppose Yanukovich’s government, associated with the Eastern half of the country. But does this simple description belie a much more complicated past of nationalist fascism and religious violence?

Ukraine Violence

History of sectarian violence frames Ukraine

After piling up significant government debt, Yanukovich’s government turned to the west for assistance, but this financial “help” came at a significant cost: higher than expected interest rates and loss of a degree of sovereign authority. Russia objected and threatened to withdraw economic and political ties to the country, which was estimated at the time to potentially cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Yanukovich, without good options, turned to Russia for assistance, which sparked the protests.

Yesterday Russia announced it was purchasing $2 billion in Ukrainian Eurobonds, a move that at one time was put on hold as the Ukraine government teetered between veering to the east or west, was a resumption of a $15 billion aid package. The move appears to have cemented Ukraine’s ties with Russia. But this larger east/west political narrative belies a little reported history.

Just after World War II, Ukraine nationalists were near 1/3 of the population and have a bloody past, according to the book Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.  The nationalists, many of whom were considered fascist, were said to have burnt down Polish villages and persecuted Jews after the war. Svoboda, a current leading nationalist party that has been accused of anti-Semitism, won its first seats in the Ukrainian Parliament in 2012 with with 10.44% of the popular vote and the 4th most seats among national political parties.

Violence flares as protesters with guns urged to converge on Kiev

With this as a backdrop, the violence in Ukraine is flaring. Western nations warned the Yanukovich government against draconian measures to crush the pro-European demonstrations and their opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, an ex-boxing champ now in the fight of his life.  Concerned about a government assault and all-out mayhem, Klitschko urged women and children to leave Kiev’s central Maidan square “to avoid further victims.” The far right militant group Right Sector had called on people holding weapons to go to Independence Square, the center of the revolt in Kiev, to protect it from a possible offensive move by security forces.

Police sources are quoted as saying seven civilians and two policemen had died in Tuesday’s violence.

As protesters and security forces waged war in Kiev, Russia called the increasing protests a “direct result of connivance by Western politicians and European structures that have shut their eyes … to the aggressive actions of radical forces.”