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On Friday, The New York Times profiled a Russian national, identified only as Kandalaksha, who defected to Ukraine years ago in protest of Vladimir Putin's regime — and now leads Ukrainian soldiers in the fight to repel the Russian invasion.
"Kandalaksha is something of an anomaly. He is from Russia, and describes himself as a political refugee. An opponent of President Vladimir V. Putin’s government, he left his homeland in 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist war in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk," reported Carlotta Gall. "'I was fighting the Putin regime,' he said, 'and I understood the hottest place to fight against the Putin regime was in Ukraine.' Soon after arriving in Ukraine he took a step beyond political activism and joined a volunteer military unit in 2015. 'I was searching myself and I looked for a way to be useful,' he said. 'I thought it would be most honest to go to fight for the country.'"
According to the report, Kandalashka fought against Russian forces when they tried to seize control of the capital city of Kyiv earlier this year — then after that offensive failed and they pulled back to focus on the separatist regions, he was sent east to fight there too.
"Every few days soldiers from this unit of the 95th Air Assault Brigade head to the frontline, which they call ground zero, giving others a break from the pounding artillery," said the report. "The soldiers are caustic about the type of warfare they are undergoing on the open country of eastern Ukraine. They describe themselves as cannon fodder, and reduced to “cotton” or stuffing under the heavy barrages of artillery. But their morale seems high and, as volunteers, most said there were convinced of the need to stand up to Russian aggression."
Per the report, Kandalashka was particularly enraged by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asserting that Ukraine could end the war by giving up territory.
"'That is a horrendous thought,' he said. 'The whole world has to destroy the Russian cancer. It is the quintessence of evil and should be defeated by all humanity,'" said the report. "He said large-scale Western support for Ukraine would help change minds in Russia as people would see the improvements and development of freedoms. The youth in Russia already understood how unjust their system was, he said."
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Just before the supermarket shooting that killed 10 people on May 14, 2022 in Buffalo, New York, the suspected terrorist posted a manifesto online. The top is adorned with a “sonnenrad,” or “black sun,” an old Nordic symbol.
The sonnenrad is composed of 12 repeated runes – letters from ancient Germanic languages – arranged in a wheel. Each rune represents a sound, like in the Latin alphabet, but they also have a meaning when they stand alone.
The sonnenrad is a well-known Nazi and neo-Nazi symbol that has been seen in other white supremacist attacks. For the Nazis, the rune in the design stood for “victory.” What is less discussed but nonetheless important is that the symbol has a spiritual component. It is connected to a contemporary religious movement, folkish Heathenry – a form of contemporary Paganism.
Today, “Heathen” is an umbrella term used by people who practice various forms of spirituality inspired by Nordic cultures. Folkish Heathenry, specifically, was resurrected from Nazi spirituality. In the 1960s, a group in Florida began spreading spiritual ideas inspired by Nazi writings, and they gained adherents throughout the United States. In turn, they also influenced some other heathen groups to embrace white identity politics.
Understanding the sonnenrad’s spiritual roots can provide a better grasp of the implications of its use and its importance to members of the far right.
Many kinds of paganism
Heathens are a minority form of contemporary Paganism, which is itself a minority religion. Adherents not only live throughout the United States but are active in Northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
All forms of contemporary Paganism are shaped by pre-Christian spiritual practices. Contemporary Pagans rely on archaeological, historical and mythological accounts, mixed with modern occult practices, to create a religion that speaks to their lives in the 21st century but is inspired by past practices.
As a sociologist of religion who has studied contemporary Paganism for over 30 years, I know that all forms of Paganism share a number of similarities. Contemporary Pagans venerate gods and goddesses, view the Earth as sacred, celebrate the changing seasons in a set of yearly holidays and participate in magical practices. Most members of these religions are white. In a survey I conducted with religion scholar James Lewis, which I discuss in my book “Solitary Pagans,” we found that the majority are socially liberal and open to variety in all aspects of life, including ethnic and racial differences.
People who identify as “Heathens” differentiate themselves in several ways from other Pagans. They celebrate the ancient Norse gods once worshiped in Scandinavia, Iceland and Germany. When discussing ethical issues or exploring how best to know and celebrate the gods, they rely on medieval Icelandic texts about them: most importantly, two called the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. Runes, normally carved or drawn on stones, are used in their rituals and divination – that is, foretelling the future.
Within Heathenism, there is a growing divide between those who are more liberal or middle of the road politically and folkish Heathens who are politically right-wing. Inclusive Heathens believe all who “hear the Norse gods’ call” should be welcomed into the religion, regardless of race or ethnic background.
Folkish Heathens, on the other hand, state that the religion should be restricted to those of “pure” northern European heritage; in other words, a religion for white people only. They view the religion itself as part of their white identity and have incorporated Nazi writings into their spirituality.
Folkish Heathens joined in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and since then, more inclusive Heathens have been declaring that folkish Heathens do not represent their religion.
Adolf Hitler was not particularly religious, but some of his lieutenants embraced a form of occult worship that focused on the ancient Norse gods. They viewed it as a religion of the “volk” or folk – the common man and woman who the Nazi Party romanticized as the heart of the nation.
Since extreme antisemitism was at the heart of Nazi ideology, the fact that Jesus was Jewish and Christianity grew out of Judaism troubled some Nazis. Therefore, they viewed Norse traditions as an appealing alternative and imagined it as the “true” faith, the religion of the original occupants of Northern Europe. Their religion emphasized healthy outdoor living and a connection of the folk to “their” land. The people and the nation were tied to the land in a mystical manner.
Propaganda suggested that people considered “outsiders” or “others” were like weeds: They needed to be eliminated both for the health of the nation and for the health of the folk, who were imagined as the “true” people of the land. The runes, the worship of Norse gods – particularly of Odin, who was viewed as a warrior god – and the sonnenrad were all part of this spiritual component that infused elements of the Nazi agenda. The sonnenrad, for example, was embedded on the floor of a palace for SS officers.
‘Folk’ views today
Similarly, folkish Heathens in the U.S. have come to see the land as “belonging” to white people, even though everyone except Indigenous peoples immigrated or were brought here. As with the Nazis, the land is viewed as connected spiritually to a “people.”
In his manifesto, the suspected shooter in Buffalo contends that he is not religious, although he ends with the words “I will see you in Valhalla,” the Norse afterlife for warriors. This was the same ending that the terrorist who had killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 used in his manifesto. The 2022 manifesto relied on this earlier one as a model, and both illustrate the racist conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement.”
The use of Heathen imagery in both of these manifestos is not, however, simply an act of imitation. Folkish Heathens are part of the far right and their imagery, that of a “pure” white world, is appealing to other members of the far right. Folkish Heathens interact with both other Pagans and others on the far right online and in person. Heathen religious rituals and imagery are becoming integrated into far-right groups.
Images like the black sun do not just emerge from the ruins of Nazi Germany, but directly from those who are practicing a contemporary religion. The participation of folkish Heathens is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the far right.
Katrina Rasmussen was an eighth grade student in North Texas when she watched the raw, televised images of kids her age running from their Colorado high school while ambulances loaded bleeding students and teachers into parked ambulances.
Now, 23 years later, she watched the tragic week’s events in Uvalde unfold as a high school teacher herself, in Dallas and she says it is as if nothing has changed since the Columbine High School shooting.
“We feel like we’re at the mercy of people who don’t even know what it’s like in the classroom,” she said.
Across the state, teachers in Texas are finishing out one of the toughest years they have ever seen. A global pandemic closed schools and forced more than 5 million public school students onto laptops and desktop computers at home.
This was to be the successful road back to normalcy for public schools. But after two large COVID-19 surges, a year of angry school board meetings, parents claiming teachers were grooming kids for abuse, and fights over everything from mask mandates for students to what books they can read, teachers were already at a breaking point with nearly 500 quitting even if it meant losing their license.
Rasmussen said watching the news about the shooting at Robb Elementary School which left 19 children and two teachers dead, including the news conference by Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders, she feels she has no control over how to respond to these mass shootings.
“People who have never taught before, make policies that affect every moment of my day, she said. “Right now, that’s really what cuts me the deepest.”
Lakeisha Patterson, an elementary school teacher in Deer Park, said it’s been exhausting watching so many school shootings over the years. When Columbine happened, she said there was a shockwave felt across the country and people came together demanding for change and for action to happen.
Now, she says that she’s tired of hearing the words “thoughts and prayers” after every tragedy.
“As a teacher, not only am I responsible for curriculum, but I have to be a counselor at times a parent, a guardian, a cheerleader, supporter, a nurse, a custodian and now I need to be a police officer,” Patterson said.
A day after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire in a classroom in Uvalde one of Luaren Gonzalez's students asked her a gut-wrenching question.
“Miss Gonzalez, are we safe?” her third grader asked her.
Gonzalez, who teaches in the Pasadena Independent School District, she felt she had to be strong for her students who were the same ages of those who were killed in Uvalde on Tuesday.
“That really got me,” Gonzalez said, trying to hold back tears. “That was something that just really hurt my heart.”
Even before the horrific shooting in Uvalde, the mood among Texas teachers has been one of resignation. Literally.
And that’s on top of a teacher shortage the state was experiencing before the pandemic that is now exacerbated by the return to school forcing Gov. Greg Abbott to create a commission to come up with solutions.
Public education advocates and teachers themselves, fear that this latest incident will be the breaking point for teachers that were already considering leaving the profession since the pandemic hit. All while Texas is already facing a teacher shortage.
Teachers have been leaving with the fear of a shooting happening for years and everytime one occurs that fear just keeps compounding, said Alejandra Lopez, president of San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
“We are talking about compounding crises,” Lopez said. “We have the lack of funding and resources, we have had to endure two years of a pandemic and now the reality of school shooting.”
Already there have been more than 200 mass shootings in 2022, according to the The Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization. Teachers, whether here in Texas or anywhere else, feel the pain of shootings in their communities as schools most of the time serve as a community hub.
Lopez said people need to reject the premise that teachers need to be prepared for these incidents and instead figure out ways to stop them from happening entirely. That starts with making it harder to get guns.
Ron Acierno, executive director of the UTHealth Houston Trauma and Resilience Center, said it is “insane” that people are asking how teachers can be better prepared for this situation when people should instead be calling for less gun violence and more gun reform.
“Are we really at that point where that's a valid question?” Acierno said. “It's like saying, how can we prepare children to be sexual exploitation or sex trafficking victims?”
Acierno said for teachers the fear or trauma can start with the school shooter drills they practice throughout the school year, especially for those that have already experienced past trauma.
“They're going into these drills, many of them having already experienced trauma in the background of their life,” he said. “They're dealing with the trauma of their students and then you put this over stress levels that are already very high.”
Nicholas Westers, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas, said it’s normal that students feel anxiety over the mass shooting, but that parents should keep an eye on it if it continues.
With children already dealing with behavioral issues from being stuck at home during the pandemic, Westers said during this time, parents and teachers need to give students reassurance that they will be safe and explain to them how.
“We all have physical needs for food, shelter, water,” he said. “That is most important because if you don't have that, and nothing else really matters and then right above that is safety.”
Westers encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about what they’re feeling, what they’ve heard and what their most worried about.
Andrew Hairston, a civil rights attorney and education policy advocate for Texas Appleseed, an organization that works to address systemic inequalities in state education, said the next steps forward should be a robust expansion of menta health experts in schools.
“That should be a priority for policymakers alleviate the suffering of teachers and young people to invest in those mental health resources,” Hairston.
Rasmussen, who signed her contract for the next school year on the day the shooting occurred, said she has been considering leaving the profession every year for the last couple of years.
“This year, I really was expanding my network, putting my resume out there and doing some deep soul searching over where I want to be this time next year,” she said. “Not from the standpoint that I don't like teaching anymore but from the standpoint of I don't know if I can live like this anymore.”
Many teachers this year saw a dramatic rise in behavior problems in the classrooms this year as students who attended virtual school from their kitchens or bedrooms, had to reaquaint themselves with sitting in a classroom away from home for more than seven hours.
Those increase in student behavior problems are one of the reasons, Darrell Nichols, 30, quit his job in April at a Brazos Valley charter school, near College Station, after teaching for seven years.
“I've been bitten; I've been scratched; I've been punched in my line of work over the last two years, with this last year in particular,” Nichols said.
But Nichols, who left teaching to go into sales, said this past week has hit him hard, particularly as he remembers all the active-shooter drills he did with his own students every few months. His kids are so used to them by now they don’t even question what they are doing.
“It is bringing up a lot of old feelings for me because I had to practice what those teachers drilled for,” said Nicholls, referring to teachers Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles who were killed on Tuesday at Robb Elementary School. “I had my kids hidden away from the window, the door. I would brace myself against the door with my car keys in my hand as a makeshift weapon if I needed to use them.”
He said watching Abbott and other state leaders come to Uvalde and ask for healing prayers for the community, also upset him.
“I didn’t get into the classroom, on the one hand, to be accused of grooming my students and on the other hand being asked to take an AR-15 clip for them,” Nicholls said. “And no one I know got into the teaching profession for that.”
Reporter Jason Beeferman contributed to this story.
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