This article was originally published in German.
Serhii Filimonov is more known for street fights than dramatic arts, but for his big-screen debut as a Ukrainian gangster he has already won two awards. After the premiere of Rhino at the 78th Venice International Film Festival in September 2021, he was named Best Actor at the Batumi International Art-House Film Festival in Georgia in the same month. Two months later in November, he was crowned Best Actor again at the Stockholm International Film Festival. Rhino, a redemption story set in the Ukrainian underworld of the 1990s, also won the prestigious Bronze Horse in Stockholm. The critics are cheering.
The only problem: Filimonov is a violent hooligan and well-connected in the Ukrainian neo-Nazi scene. He has been a member of the country’s leading far-right groups since his youth. On Instagram, he poses with far-right tattoos and automatic firearms. However, this has not harmed his new career as an actor. In Germany, the film was supported by ZDF/Arte and funded by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg with 150,000 euros. In a review of the film by Euronews, Filimonov is described only as an “activist and former soldier”.
The development of Rhino is deeply intertwined with the turbulent recent past in Ukraine. Director Oleg Sentsov had the idea for the film back in 2012, with the script being awarded prizes for Best Pitching and Best Project at the Sofia Film Festival. But then Sentsov was illegally arrested by Russian forces in 2014 after Crimea was annexed. The charge: terrorism. Sentsov became an icon of resistance against Russia. He was only freed in 2019 – and was able to continue working on the film.
For the lead role in Rhino, director Sentsov did not want a professional actor. Instead, he auditioned former soldiers, athletes and prisoners – and found what he was looking for in Filimonov. In the film, he plays the eponymous protagonist Rhino, a young man who, in the power vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet Union, knows “only power and cruelty” and wants to make a name for himself in the criminal underworld. Filimonov’s political career is not so dissimilar to that of Rhino. He, too, has had a career in illegality, and his life, too, is shaped by the country’s changing power dynamics.
Born in 1994, Filimonov was active as a teenager in the neo-Nazi group C14 – the paramilitary youth organisation of the ultranationalist party Svoboda (see Bellingcat). A photo of the young Filimonov, obtained by Belltower.News, shows him with an marker pen swastika on his chest. According to his VK profile, his Twitter username was “SoberNazi”. C14 made international headlines in 2018 when the group attacked and burned down a Roma camp in Kyiv with stones and pepper spray on 20 April – Hitler’s birthday (see RFE/RL). It was one of many attacks on Ukraine’s Roma community in 2018. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Filimonov led one of the attacks. Filimonov did not respond to a request for comment from Belltower.News.
Even though Filimonov is new to the film world, he is already a maestro of staging on social networks. On Instagram, he presents a crude mixture of family life and militancy to his more than 21,000 followers. Above all, he proudly displays his body art: a Molotov cocktail is inked on his leg, the words “Victory or Valhalla” and a valknut – a Germanic triangle symbol popular among neo-Nazis – on his chest. These tattoos do not appear in the film Rhino. In other photos, Filimonov poses next to men with unambiguously neo-Nazi tattoos such as “88”, “14” or adaptations of the Black Sun (see Wikipedia). Or Filimonov is casually photographed with heavy firearms.
Filimonov is part of the violent hooligan scene in Ukraine, where he is known by the nickname “Son of Perun”. He was considered an active member of the far-right fan group Dynamo Rodychi (the “relatives”). According to the British magazine Delayed Gratification, which met with Filimonov, he was even leader of the firm. In 2015 – then about 20 years old – he was involved in a racist attack on black football fans at a Champions League match in the Ukrainian capital between Chelsea and Dynamo Kyiv (see the Ukrainian news portal Bykvu). In addition to hooligans from Rodychi, numerous members of the far-right Azov movement were also involved.
Azov was founded in 2014 as a battalion against pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine conflict. Today, it consists of three wings: the original volunteer regiment (which has since become part of the official Ukrainian armed forces), the paramilitary vigilante street gang National Militia (whose successor organisation is considered to be Centuria) and the political party National Corps. All three wings appear in uniform at martially staged and militant demonstrations. The paramilitary movement also engages in street battles with the police or tries to intimidate politicians. Their ideology is distinctly neo-Nazi, with members wearing Nazi symbols and SS runes. Their insignia includes a Black Sun and a Wolfsangel.
Filimonov was just 19 years old when the Euromaidan protests against Viktor Yanukovych’s government broke out in November 2013. Like many young men from the hooligan scene, he was drawn to the protests. He fought in the conflict, first on the streets of Kyiv, before quickly joining the newly formed Azov regiment. He was deployed in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, and according to the Ukrainian news site Bykvu, he also fought in Crimea. Photos on Instagram show him in uniform at the front – with a tank or rocket launcher. In other photos, he poses in Azov T-shirts.
But it did not stop at fighting. Filimonov also has political ambitions: From 2016, he was the head of the Kyiv branch of the Azov party National Corps until he resigned from the party in 2019 – allegedly because of a “corruption scandal” at Azov, as Delayed Gratification reports. But there could also be another reason: shortly before his resignation, he had failed to be nominated as a candidate in the elections.
After leaving the party in 2019, Filimonov founded Honor, also transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet as Gonor. He is still active in the group today, linking to the Honor Telegram channel in his Instagram bio. Already their logo presents a militant image: three daggers against a black background. On the group’s Instagram page, members pose black-clad and hooded, some wearing hoodies or T-shirts with ACAB lettering. One of the group’s logo designs consists of a Molotov cocktail. Filimonov himself portrays the group as relatively harmless. He has described Honor to VICE as a “new youth civic movement”.
The reality looks considerably different. In videos, Honor members shoot heads off mannequins or fight battles with the police. Other well-known Ukrainian neo-Nazis are also in Honor – such as Nazarii Kravchenko, former deputy leader of the National Corps or Ihor “Maliar” Potashenkov, who was also involved in the racist attack on black football fans in Kyiv. Potashenkov has a tattoo of a swastika on his head. Sashko Lysyi, formerly of the National Corps, is also an Honor member and appears in numerous photos of the group: On his shoulders are tattooed the neo-Nazi codes “14” and “88”, on his stomach are the letters “WPSH” – on the far right an abbreviation for “White Power, Skin Head” or “Sieg Heil”.
Honor has also travelled internationally. In 2019, Filimonov, Potashenkov and Lysyi were spotted in the front row of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Filimonov has claimed to VICE that he and his group were only there as tourists. Photos from December 2021 on Honor’s Instagram page show ten members in Berlin with the hashtag #gonorontour. The group spray-painted their logo in Cyrillic script on an underground train.
Honor’s connections to civil society organisations in Ukraine are particularly problematic. In May 2020, the human rights organisation Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union announced that it had hired Honor as a security company for events. In a Facebook post, a project manager of the NGO mentioned Filimonov personally and tagged his profile. She wrote she was very happy about the cooperation.
Filimonov’s far-right biography is apparently not a problem in the film industry either. The Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg is already aware of Filimonov’s background, a spokeswoman confirmed to Belltower.News: “The director Oleg Sentsov has explained his motives and the parallels between the main character and the main actor to us openly and in detail”. The film explicitly opposes hooligans and neo-Nazis and the main character is in no way heroised in this role, but quite the opposite, the Medienboard added. “For the director, it was about the greatest possible authenticity”. The Medienboard also respects artistic freedom as long as it does not support extreme political positions, the spokeswoman added: “For the aforementioned reasons, we do not see this as the case here.”
The co-producer ZDF/Arte was unable to answer an enquiry from Belltower.News before the editorial deadline, as the broadcaster first wanted to consult with the German distributor and producer, a spokesperson said. The German production company ma.je.de, which worked on the film, did not respond to a request for comment from Belltower.News. The Ukrainian premiere will follow this year, after which Rhino will also be released in German cinemas.