When Serhii Filimonov was named best actor at the Stockholm International Film Festival in November, it capped off a surprising career twist for the burly boxer and former Ukrainian soldier.
Filimonov was previously better known in his homeland as a longstanding leader in Ukraine’s hooligan-based far-right street movements, which has seen him linked to aggression towards minorities, including the country’s marginalised Roma community.
It’s a pedigree that equipped him perfectly to play the lead role in Rhino, a movie about a young gangster’s rise through the underworld in post-Soviet Ukraine, and led to him being picked from a casting call of hundreds of ex-convicts, former soldiers and athletes for the part.
Although an acting novice, Filimonov’s powerful performance earned him best actor awards at film festivals in the Georgian city of Batumi as well as Stockholm, where Rhino also won the supreme “Bronze Horse” award. But observers have been unsettled by accolades bestowed on Filimonov, given his long history of right-wing extremist agitation and hooligan violence, which he has done little to publicly renounce.
“Filimonov has conducted acts of violence in the name of far-right extremism … and has deep roots in the far-right hooligan and street fighting networks – which is an integral and important part of Ukraine, as well as Europe’s, far-right extremist ecosystem,” Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at strategic consultancy firm The Soufan Group, told VICE World News.
“That Filimonov is being recognised in the public entertainment space and through prestigious awards without any mention of his historic association with violence and extremism is disturbing and, frankly, irresponsible,” she added. “It serves to condone whatever violent acts he has committed and extremist ideology he espouses, and could inspire others.”
Media coverage of Rhino – which received hundreds of thousands of euros in public funding including through Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s filmmaking support fund – has generally glossed over Filimonov’s extremist affiliations, with articles describing him merely as “an activist and former soldier.” An article in leading film industry publication the Hollywood Reporter in November reported Filimonov’s win in Stockholm, with no mention of his far-right background.
In fact, Filimonov, who was born in 1994, has a long and ongoing history in Ukraine’s far-right hooligan scene, in which he has carved out the status of an influencer. He has more than 21,000 followers on his Instagram account, which features a mix of family photos alongside pictures of Filimonov – frequently shirtless – in the gym, at protests, or handling heavy firearms.
He’s the leader of a group called Honor, which uses a fascist-style logo of three upraised daggers, and whose members have the name tattooed on their bodies. Filimonov did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment about his film role, but when VICE corresponded with him in 2019, for a story about him and his Honor associates showing up at pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, he portrayed the group as patriotic anti-corruption activists whose guiding ideology was the “struggle for justice and Ukrainian independence.”
Experts say that while Honor has been attempting to shake its extremist public image and gain a measure of acceptance as a legitimate player in Ukraine’s civil society, including by providing security at mainstream protests, it remains a militant vigilante street movement with neo-Nazi hooligans in the ranks.
Honor’s militant approach to activism can be seen in the group’s posters and Instagram posts, which depict Molotov cocktails, while the white supremacist ideology espoused by some members could be clearly seen in their neo-Nazi tattoos, said Saltskog.
In an email to VICE News in 2019, Filimonov downplayed the significance of his colleagues’ tattoos, which included swastikas, black suns and white power slogans such as “14 88” and the initials “W P S H,” which stand for “white power, sieg heil.” Filimonov himself has a “Valknut” tattoo on his left shoulder, an old Norse symbol of interlocking triangles that the Anti-Defamation League says has been appropriated by white supremacists, although it is also often used by non-racist pagans.
“The majority of us were brought up in the football fan scene where such symbols aren’t unusual,” he wrote in 2019, adding that the group were not neo-Nazis or racists. “We have neither the time nor the desire to hate people who have done us no harm. We only hate enemies.”
According to reports, that background in the football hooligan scene has involved being a leader of Dynamo Kyiv’s most notorious “firm,” known as the “Rodychi” (The Relatives). Filimonov was shown to be present when members of the Rodychi stabbed Black supporters of Chelsea Football Club in a racist attack at a Champions League match in Kyiv in 2015. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Filimonov was also active in his teens in the neo-Nazi group C14, the militant youth wing of the ultranationalist party Svoboda.
Filimonov’s unorthodox rise to prominence has been heavily shaped, like other Ukrainians of his generation, by the Russian aggression towards his homeland, which experts say also created the conditions for far-right ultranationalists to establish a growing foothold in Ukrainian society.
When war broke out in 2014 with Russian-backed separatists rising up in the east of the country, Azov, a powerful volunteer battalion known for harbouring white supremacist ideology within its ranks, played a key role on the battlefield. Azov, which also attracted white supremacist foreign fighters from around the world, was soon formally incorporated into Ukraine’s armed forces, before spawning its own ultranational political party, National Corps, as well as a paramilitary group, known as National Militia, which “patrols” the streets enforcing its own intimidating brand of vigilante justice.
Following the outbreak of war, Filimonov – at the time a young hooligan who used the Twitter handle “SoberNazi” – fought for Azov in Donetsk and Crimea; when he returned from the frontlines, he served as the leader of the Kyiv chapter of Azov’s National Corps party, presiding over the vigilante eviction of a makeshift Roma camp from a Kyiv park in 2018. The US State Department has branded both National Corps and C14 as “nationalist hate groups.”
He left National Corps in 2019, forming his own breakaway movement, Honor, alongside close associates who were also former hooligans and Azov veterans, who have sought to position themselves, despite their links to violent right-wing extremism, as legitimate activists in mainstream civic society.
While far-right figures like Filimonov have unquestionably sought to gain standing and influence in society amid the ongoing tensions with Russia – which is currently fuelling those tensions with a massive troop buildup on the border, and on Friday was accused by Ukraine of a wide-scale hack of its internet services – Kremlin propaganda has routinely played up the extremism of groups like Azov in a bid to smear the Ukrainian forces as a whole.
That’s hypocritical given that white supremacist foreign fighters also received training and fought for the pro-Russian separatists through groups like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist organisation which claims to be fighting for the “predominance of the white race.” In 2020, the US government added RIM to its list of specially designated global terrorist groups, saying it had “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe.”
Asked to comment on Filimonov’s political activity, Arthouse Traffic, the Ukrainian film company behind the production and distribution of “Rhino,” said the actor’s extremist ideology was none of its concern.
“Serhii came to the cast as a civil activist and veteran of the ongoing war against Russian aggression. We were looking for a tough guy with a complicated and unusual past who can reflect the controversial figure of the main character. Serhii was the right fit and met our requirements,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“We are not responsible for the behaviour of any actors beyond the movie project. We don't support any extreme political or radical views. And don't proclaim any of those in the movie.”
But that doesn’t wash for Nicholas Potter, a researcher at German anti-racist group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, who first reported on the extremist’s burgeoning acting career for Belltower, his organisation’s news site.
“The fact that a far-right hooligan with a history of violence is being celebrated as an actor is worrying, as it normalises his ultranationalist ideology and politically rehabilitates him, although there does not appear to have been any clear break with the far-right scene,” he told VICE World News.
“It sends out a deeply problematic message when such an individual is then applauded as an artist and honoured with prizes. His role in Rhino also offers him a platform and reach on an international stage that he wouldn’t otherwise have.”
He said this was especially troubling given the domestic climate in Ukraine, in which far-right, ultranationalist forces were carving out a growing “foothold in the established political and cultural mainstream.”
Filimonov’s film festival awards had been celebrated on Honor’s Telegram channel, said Saltskog, the senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group, “which shows you how proud they are of the affiliation.”
Rhino is a co-production between Ukraine, Poland and Germany, receiving public funding from all three countries. The Polish Film Institute and the German film fund Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg did not respond to requests for comment on the situation, while Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s filmmaking support fund, would not be drawn on the issue of Filimonov’s extremism.
“Eurimages is not a producer of the film and takes no artistic and/or production decisions on the projects it supports,” said Araceli Gomez, a Eurimages assistant to project managers, confirming that Rhino had been awarded €270,000 (about £225,000) in funding in October 2020.
Rhino is directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who made the film after he was released in a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia in 2019. Sentsov was detained by Russian security services in 2014 in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and spent five years in a Russian jail on terrorism charges which Amnesty International and other groups say were trumped up. In 2018, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Sentsov did not respond to a request for comment. But in an interview with German outlet DW last year, he directly addressed the issue of Filimonov’s extremist background.
The interviewer said that Filimonov “used to be a hooligan, soldier and far-right activist” but today saw he sees himself “as part of civil society,” and asked Sentsov whether that past made him hesitant to cast him.
“No, that's exactly what I was looking for,” replied Sentsov. “Someone who has had to go through various struggles in life, whose past is also overshadowed by negative experiences – someone who has grown inside; someone who is ready to face challenges. I'm glad we found him because he has the physical and mental fitness needed for this role.”