Ukraine’s left: between a swamp and a hard place

The events of the past two years—the mass protests that led to the deposing of President Viktor Yanukovych, the subsequent annexation of Crimea, and Russian aggression in the east—have changed much in Ukrainian society.

These events have split the global left, dividing the so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ (who support Putin’s aggression) and those who condemn it. Meanwhile, inside Ukraine, left-wing activists are currently re-grouping in response to the events of the past 15 months. Indeed, the changes taking place inside the radical left community began in 2011-2012; the events that followed served as a catalyst.

From the ground up
When Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, the left movement was in the process of being built from the ground up.

Traditions of left-wing protest had long been eradicated, and talk of a continuous tradition of an organised left, stretching back to Nestor Makhno or the Trotskyists, was preposterous.

May 2014: the Socialist Party of Ukraine marks May Day in Kyiv. (c) Oleksii Vovk / Demotix.

May 2014: the Socialist Party of Ukraine marks May Day in Kyiv. (c) Oleksii Vovk / Demotix.

In the late twentieth century, the language of democratic protest against Soviet power, leftist at its core, was liberal conservative.

Indeed, in the late 1980s, the Soviet press used to call conservatives, who supported a more authoritarian regime and an end to the democratic process of perestroika, ‘right wing’ (although formally speaking, they were communists), and the opposition (including conservative liberals like Boris Yeltsin)—‘left wing’.

Later, in independent Ukraine during the 1990s, the term ‘leftists’ became popular when referring to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist parties, which, having taken root in the debris of the recently dissolved Communist Party, went on to exploit people’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

These parties included the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU), which drifted away from Stalinism to social democracy; the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), self-declared successor to the old Soviet Communist Party of Ukraine; the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, which broke off from the SPU and quickly took up a nationally-oriented ‘socialist’ position, with an ‘anti-globalisation’ bent grounded in religion; and, last but not least, the Peasant Party of Ukraine, rocked by a series of scandals in the past 15 years.

Throughout the 1990s, these political forces made up the majority in the Verkhovna Rada, and acted as the opposition to President Leonid Kuchma. It was precisely these parties, emerging from the Stalinist tradition (indeed, the majority of them never left it), which came to embody left-wing principles for ordinary people in Ukraine.

Thanks to their efforts, socialism and communism are still closely tied to ideas such as Slavic nationalism, a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation, the police state, the death penalty, social conservatism, the defence of ‘canonical Orthodoxy’, and the wholehearted approval of the Soviet experience.

Gradual regression
In the past 15 years, however, these parties have lost their political influence. This slow defeat has come about not just as a result of demographic processes (the inevitable ageing and diminishing of their supporters), but also due to their own miscalculations.

Simferopol, March 2014: meanwhile, statues of Lenin began to fall all over Ukraine. (c) Gregor Fischer / Demotix.

Simferopol, March 2014: meanwhile, statues of Lenin began to fall all over Ukraine. (c) Gregor Fischer / Demotix.

During the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, the once powerful SPU squandered its political capital, as it entered unscrupulous coalitions, made bad political deals, and was exposed in a series of corruption scandals.

The Communist Party, which was practically in a governing coalition with the Party of Regions under Viktor Yanukovych, supported the infamous dictatorship laws of 16 January 2014, and in so doing, bound its political future with that of the regime, which quickly fell apart a month later.

After Maidan, with a large portion of their electorate in annexed Crimea and the territories of the ‘People’s Republics’, the communists had little hope of returning to parliament.

‘The left swamp’
At the same time, new left-wing organisations of a different breed have emerged: genuinely anarchist initiatives, Trotskyite groups, radical offshoots from the bureaucratic structures of the CPU, left-leaning nationalists, anti-fascists, social democratic circles—the wide spectrum of left organisations and movements typical of any western country.

Though Ukraine's left split well before Maidan, the events of 2014 have left their mark. (c) Oleg Pereverzev / Demotix.

Though Ukraine’s left split well before Maidan, the events of 2014 have left their mark. (c) Oleg Pereverzev / Demotix.

To distinguish these groups from the post-Stalinist parties, which monopolised the left flank of national politics, Ukrainian journalists coined the term ‘the new left’. They did this without paying much attention to the fact that this term refers to a concrete political tradition; and one, which, not every young leftist who doesn’t love the CPU belongs to.

Aware of their minimal numbers and influence, these movements kept close to one another: they organised common protests and May Day demonstrations (for Kyiv, with a population of three million, a 500-strong May Day march was considered a success), operated general mailing lists and leased spaces for collective use.

Members of one group would move to another or create their own, but would remain, nevertheless, in the same friendship groups. New people also found themselves here.

This is how a phenomenon that came to be known as the ‘left swamp’ formed: a relatively stable, close-knit social environment where many people hated one another on political and personal grounds, held different political ambitions, but nevertheless felt a sense of belonging to a common cause.

Drying out the swamp
When one group tried to use the swamp in its own interests, though, this was the beginning of the end of this community.

In 2010, the Organisation of Marxists, a group that unified Stalinist former Komsomol members with Trotskyites, invited the swamp to participate in the creation of a ‘left political subject’ (the term ‘party’ was not used to avoid scaring off the anarchists). And so a process was set in motion. Its results turned out to be contrary to its aims: instead of entering the ranks of this new party in droves, the swamp began to dry out.

The anarchists put forward an alternative proposal: unite in radical federative unions on the basis of a syndicalist strategy. In summer 2011, the Autonomous Workers’ Union (AWU), which positioned itself against this new ‘party’, was founded.

By 2011, the Organisation of Marxists had already disintegrated into Stalinist and Trotskyite wings. The former took the name Borotba (the title of a Ukrainian social democratic party active in 1918-1920), while the latter called itself the Left Opposition (a nod to the Trotskyite platform in the Soviet Communist Party of the 1920s). Both groups saw the creation of a leftist party with parliamentary ambitions as their task.

December 2012: Borotba protests outside Verkhovna Rada. (c) Sergei Kharchenko / Demotix.

December 2012: Borotba protests outside Verkhovna Rada. (c) Sergei Kharchenko / Demotix.

The most influential of these new organisations turned out to be Direct Action (Priama diya), a student union anarcho-syndicalist group founded in the mid-1990s.

Beyond the swamp
Wth their different political views and aims, the paths of these organisations naturally began to diverge. And though accusations of sectarianism and opportunism began to fly as the ‘swamp dried out’, this process ultimately benefited everyone.

In 2012, for instance, anarchist organisations were able to hold their own May Day demonstration, raising their own libertarian agenda; Borotba received the opportunity to found their own parliamentary party, bringing police officers into their ranks, co-operating with Russian nationalists as well as developing other initiatives, previously unthinkable in partnership with the anarchists and Trotskyites.

Meanwhile, Left Opposition (Liva opozytsiya) strived to remain in the swamp longer than everyone else, trying to maintain good relationships with everyone simultaneously. The events of 2013-2014, however, marked the end of a general left community.

The pro-Putin left
Initially taking a sceptical position (typical for most leftists) towards the Maidan in Kyiv, Borotba went on to break with Ukraine’s other left groups in January 2014.

As the protests took on an anti-police character, and the Yanukovych regime intensified its repressive tactics, one thing became clear: there was no going back. Instead, what we faced was either the victory of Maidan (and an uncertain future) or a new authoritarian regime in the Russian model.

Despite this, Borotba openly took the side of AntiMaidan, a pro-government movement, which later transformed into pro-Russian separatist movements in the south and east of the country.

Today, Borotba’s leadership resides partly in western Europe, partly in Russia, and has tied its political future to the separatist movement in the east of Ukraine.

In so doing, Borotba has lost its political appeal for the rest of Ukraine. Have they managed to achieve anything on that side of the frontline? It’s hard to say: separatist authorities have arrested Borotba members on several occasions. The CPU has also found it difficult to enter the ‘political process’ in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

Meanwhile, though it never officially supported Maidan, the position of the Autonomous Workers’ Union’ on Maidan changed after January 2014.

Many members of AWU participated in protests and infrastructure initiatives, including protecting casualties in hospitals and supporting the occupation of the Ministry of Education (organised by Direct Action).

Indeed, anarchists from AWU were the first to hold a protest after Maidan—against the new government. AWU is still yet to become a syndicate, as it has not managed to set up cells in factories. But it operates as a propagandist anarchist organisation, protesting and holding consciousness-raising events.

The local Kharkov branch of AWU managed to partner up with the liberals in winter 2013-2014, and became an influential force in the Maidan movement there after pushing out the nationalists. Indeed, Kharkov, despite several splits, is home to several anarchist initiatives, including a squat for ATO refugees.

In Kyiv, the left had no such opportunity: nationalists maintained their monopoly on public pronouncements, and pushed the leftists and feminists aside as soon as they unfurled their human rights and socio-economic banners. Nevertheless, Direct Action stubbornly tried to promote its agenda on Maidan (and on the walls of the occupied education ministry). It was in violent confrontations with left activists that the far-right group Right Sector was born.

After Maidan, Direct Action underwent personnel changes: a third generation—young students of an anarchist bent—replaced the second, who were, at last, destined to leave the lecture halls. Today, Direct Action is involved in fighting an anti-religious campaign, resisting the creeping influence of the church in educational institutions, as well as defending the interests of students against neo-liberal education reforms.

Meanwhile, Free Earth, an anarcho-ecological organisation founded in Kyiv, continues to fight against the development of shale gas in Ukraine, and building on Kyiv’s green sites. Several activists from this group are currently fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The initial post-Maidan period seems to have produced several new anarchist groups. In autumn 2014, an anarchist initiative called Black Rainbow sprung up in Kyiv, and local anarchists in Zhytomyr managed to set up Chaotic Good, despite nationalist resistance.

All these groups categorically separate themselves from the ‘People’s Republics’ in Ukraine’s east, seeing those movements as far-right puppet dictatorships, which are controlled by the neo-liberal Putin regime. At the same time, though, they are against any form of nationalism.

Refusing to lay equal blame for the breakout of conflict on the Russian and Ukrainian governments, Ukrainian anarchists come out against the neo-liberal and conservative initiatives of their ‘own’ state.

Digital democracy
The departure of Borotba from Ukrainian politics opened up a space for a young left party—one which, just like Syriza and Podemos, could unite grassroots social movements and promote a social democratic agenda.

Left Opposition decided to take this mantle. Shortly after the victory of Maidan, which they supported, they launched the Party of Social Revolution, declaring the principles of digital democracy. In order to avoid the usual bureaucratic hiccups of registering a new party, they reached an agreement to essentially buy a formal party structure created by other people.

This party has had no shortage of scandals. Under pressure from activists in Odessa, Oleg Vernik—leader of the Defence of Labour trade union—found his way into the party management. In the early 2000s, Vernik, a union leader, was suspected of conning international socialist organisations.

Vernik’s biography is a full one: during Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in 2012, he worked closely with Alexei Kochetkov, the Russian political technologist responsible for CIS-EMO, an election-monitoring organisation. Indeed, Vernik has long tried to establish partnerships with nationalist groups.

In May 2014, however, the organising committee decided to build the party from scratch under the name Social Movement. According to the organisers, they consciously decided to avoid the word ‘revolution’ in the name, given its lack of popularity among today’s electorate.

This new party hopes to repeat the successes of the Greek and Spanish parties—to become a platform for grassroots socio-economic protest, and eventually get into parliament and promote Keynesian economics and progressive politics.

As to their position on the current war in Ukraine, this party tries to please everyone at once: they are smooth in presentation, declaring that both sides are at fault. Yet a scandal over one member of this new party’s management, who had been serving in one of the pro-Ukrainian police battalions, has sharply divided the party: for some, this was fine; for others, it was impermissible.

Have Social Movement made the right choice? Only time will tell. After all, larger political projects, with better financing and administrative resources, have already appropriated socio-economic slogans against austerity, rising communal charges and the fall in citizens’ income.

These populists have very good chances at the coming local elections in October, and Social Movement will have to fight them on the same ground.

Left nationalists
The Autonomous Resistance (AR) movement stands apart in Ukraine’s left scene. Founded in 2009, this group has undergone a political evolution in the past six years.

The founders of AR used to be in charge of the Ukrainian National Labour Party – a national socialist movement, which looked up to Hitler. Gradually, though, a new group emerged with a ‘left Nazi’ ideology. They were particularly enamoured with the Strasser brothers, and their ideology shifted towards defending the rights of workers (ethnic) and resisting the oligarchs (Jews).

In reality, the rather odious Yury Mykhalchyshyn—a member of Svoboda—used to run this party, but broke off contact after becoming a people’s deputy in 2012. A conflict between Svoboda and AR took hold, manifesting itself in regular street violence in Lviv (AR’s ‘stronghold’). Svoboda, which brought the majority of classic neo-Nazis groups under its wing, sent them to fight AR, the ‘communists’. As a result of this conflict, AR swung further to the left.

Currently, this group positions itself against capitalism in its texts, and considers the key contradiction in society to be class, rather than nationality. It condemns xenophobia, though its members desire a ‘proletarian’ government after the social revolution has taken place (instead of the immediate abolition of the state), and resists progressive social agendas such as feminism, LGBT, and reproductive rights. They have, for all intents and purposes, remained nationalists.

During Maidan, AR was active in Lviv, occupying the regional administration building. After conflict broke out in the east, many AR members set off for the front to fight against ‘a more reactionary regime’ (they do not support the Ukrainian government).

The Greek crisis
The Ukrainian left is often accused of lacking unity: the bringing together of everyone with everyone else is fashionable, and those who resist it are branded ‘sectarians’.

Although all the groups mentioned above are on the left of the political spectrum, they have, at times, expressed very different views. For instance, take their views on Greece.

Of course, all Ukrainian leftists condemn the policies of the Troika, which, as they see it, continues to insist on senseless and merciless austerity, stigmatising Greeks as ‘lazy natives’. But there are serious differences.

Borotba and similar groups underline the geopolitical aspect, ‘exposing’ the role of the European Union, which is stripping the Greeks of all they have, and will soon do the same to Ukrainians.

Autonomous Resistance emphasises the destructive role of usury, and believes that Greece should liberate itself from this yoke—after all, they say, the parasite bankers have trapped Greece in a web of debt.

Social Movement proposes complete solidarity with Syriza, and hopes for a further radicalisation of its politics—the nationalisation of the banks, and reforms in the style of Lenin’s NEP.

Anarchists express solidarity with Greek workers, but do not support Syriza as a party (it heads a bourgeois government). For them, there’s no point in the proletariat relying on this government: they have to organise themselves and take the initiative. Several of them would add that the problem here resides in capitalism itself, and not the populist dichotomy ‘people/oligarchs’, and that there is a latent anti-Semitism in the stories of greedy bankers who are at fault for everything.

These are all different positions, and belie the radically different political philosophies at work here. Many on the European right, of course, also ‘support Greece’.

The next political battle
For Social Movement, clearly, the next political battle is the upcoming local elections. Given the domination of populist rhetoric heard from their more powerful opponents, they shouldn’t expect much in the way of electoral success this autumn. That said, they themselves take a more long-term view, seeing the coming elections as an opportunity for agitation.

The current patriotic hysteria that has swept Ukraine—unavoidable in times of war—is helping left-wing nationalists to gain ground.

When it comes to AR, their political programme is close to that amalgamation of left and right slogans which dominates the minds of many people in Ukraine. Aside from nationalism, AR’s demonstrative radicalism and insurrectionism also attracts attention: it draws people who wish to defend the ‘achievements of the Maidan revolution’, but who are not prepared to work with right-wing movements.

That said, surveys show that the overwhelming majority of people in Ukraine are tired of radicalism and violence: thus, ‘ultra-radical’ political forces can appeal only to a minority.

Anarchist organisations are aware of this, and opt for different tactics: without hiding their radical programme, anarchists believe their main goal is to help raise the consciousness of workers and build organisational structures.

As Maidan showed, without organisation, there’s no point thinking about more ambitious aims.


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