Russia Without BS: What Ukraine’s ‘Left’ Just Doesn’t Get
Apart from sharing similar political views, I don’t have much to do with Jacobin. It’s produced some very interesting articles but I don’t see much point in regularly reading a source that tells me what I already know or agree with. That being said, one thing that is consistently disappointing about Jacobin is their poor coverage of Ukraine.
Probably the worst offender on their site was this article by Daniel Lazare. It starts off rather good, taking Timothy Snyder to task for some of his ridiculous assertions in his very popular book The Bloodlands. Snyder is an accomplished historian and we definitely agree on a lot of things when it comes to the present, but one thing I cannot stand about him is his often emotionally-charged reinterpretation of historical facts and his pandering in the present. But Lazare goes from legitimate criticism of Snyder’s history to full-on Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine’s present later in the article. If Snyder was wrong in the past, he’s right in the present, pandering aside. And with Lazare it’s just the opposite.
But you could almost forgive Mr. Lazare because at least according to his bio (what I could find of it), he has no background in Ukrainian history, politics, or culture. I have no idea if he’s ever even visited Ukraine. One might be led to believe that he was getting his info from Russian sources like Sputnik or RT, but in fact that isn’t even necessary. There are plenty of other independent publications, and even supposedly independent Ukrainian sources, which produce this kind of drivel.
For an example of something much more subtle but far more dangerous because it deceives leftists, look no further than this more recent article by Alona Liasheva and Mikhail Khokhlovich. If I were to rate my reaction to this article as I read it, it basically proceeded in the following order: Strong suspicion > Okay that’s fair > Getting better > YOU FUCKING BLEW IT! Let us therefore go through the stages.
The article begins with the stabbing of Stanislav Serhienko, and attack which happened while I was living in Kyiv this year. Make no mistake about it- the attack was brutal and totally unjustifiable. But the authors use manipulative language so as to paint the picture of a neo-Nazi dominated Ukraine, exactly as Kremlin media would. Take a look at this sentence, for example:
“Serhienko had publicly criticized both Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army, which had allied with far-right battalions in the war in the country’s east.”
The first thing that leaps out at me here is the claim that the Ukrainian army had allied with far-right battalions. For one thing, most of the volunteer battalions were more or less non-political or at least not far right. Second, it’s not like the Ukrainian military had much of a choice at that point in 2014. The whole Ukrainian armed forces had been in tatters since the 2000’s and was essentially a token army. Even after three years of war and with instruction from NATO armies, it is still rife with parasitical, corrupt, incompetent individuals, especially among the officer corps (I have some personal experience with this). In 2014, the government simply didn’t have the luxury of politically vetting every soldier who or volunteer who stepped up to perform a vital service at such a critical time, and knowing how cynical and burnt out many Ukrainians are when it comes to politics, I doubt anyone really cared. There were more pressing issues to deal with.
But what really angers me about this kind of talk is that it perpetuates the myth that the use of far-right organizations and volunteers is something exclusive to the Ukrainian side, which of course is bullshit. In reality, there were and still are far right elements on both sides, and one could reasonably argue that the Russian side has more far right elements, both from Russia and pro-Russian far-right parties from Europe. The only difference is that Russia, with its monolithic state structure, is far better at managing the optics.
I am one of the first people to call out the idiotic idea that the presence of neo-Nazis on the Russian side somehow cancels out those on the Ukrainian side. I do think the the far right in Ukraine, in spite of its lack of real political power, is a serious problem which must eventually be dealt with in order to achieve full victory over Russian aggression and occupation. But Khokhlovich seems to understand nothing about his potential audience, the Ukrainian people, or what they’ve been hearing from the Russian propaganda machine since 2014. Defeating the far right in Ukraine entails mobilizing the Ukrainian people against it, making them understand why the far right can never overcome Russian imperialism, and how they actually aid that imperialism indirectly (and occasionally directly). One way to start communicating that message more effectively is to tell the truth- both sides rely on far right elements, and Russia probably more.
The authors then go on to describe a number of other hate crimes in Ukraine, pointing out quite correctly that these crimes are rarely if ever prosecuted. Often no suspects are found. However, this is somewhat misleading because the sad truth is that much of what they describe occurs regularly not only in Russia, but also all throughout Eastern Europe. Hell, it’s happening a lot more in America these days as well. Russia’s SOVA center tracks hate crimes in Russia every year. In recent years, Russia’s government has been doing a better job about cracking down on far right nationalists. This is partially for optics, but it is also for internal stability. That does not mean, however, that the Kremlin doesn’t have legions of far right thugs to do its bidding in Ukraine or Russia, however- it just means they typically won’t be sporting swastikas. Furthermore, when they are attacking the “correct” targets, they not only attack with impunity, but do so often with the help of the state or state media.
I should also point out that anyone who believes the Kremlin has fully broken with the more radical ethno-nationalists in Russia is to say the least, extremely naive. The Kremlin, like many other authoritarian regimes, is infamous for using front groups or agents to manipulate and keep tabs on any political group. It is also worth noting that in spite of the government’s desire for national unity, the state media routinely produces racist and xenophobic material on a weekly basis. How can you tell the Russian people week after week that Europe is degenerating due to “tolerance” for rapacious Muslim hordes and expect them not to develop negative feelings towards Tajik and Uzbek guest workers, for example? It’s no secret that the Russian government supports and sometimes funds far right parties and organizations throughout the West, or that the state allows them to hold conferences in St. Petersburg without fear of being charged with “extremism.”
This might seem like splitting hairs or whataboutism, but it’s very important because the image that the authors of this article present is the typical Russian-slant, i.e. Ukraine is a country dominated or otherwise inherently associated with the far right, but Russia somehow isn’t. In reality, in Ukraine dealing with Pravy Sektor or Azov might be difficult, but if you’re up against a government-aligned far right group in Russia, you’re facing the full force of the Kremlin and its repressive machine. Even if one doesn’t go as far as to point that out, to be truly honest would mean acknowledging that Ukraine’s far right troubles are no worse than those in several other Eastern European countries.
Later in the article the author does make some fair points, for example explaining that the organization Borotba (which is inappropriately named), not only participated in the Anti-Maidan movement but then actually went over to support the separatists. What I didn’t see however, was any explanation as to how Borotba, in spite of claiming to be left-wing, has actually put out far right propaganda and justified alliances with the far right in the so-called DNR/LNR. It also mentions the banning of the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) without pointing out how corrupt it was, how some people called it the “Capitalist Party of Ukraine,” or how it was essentially itself a right wing party. Few Westerners are aware of the “Red-Brown” alliance that reared its ugly head in the wake of the Soviet collapse. In Russia, for example, wherever there’s a Soviet flag, there’s often an imperial tricolor.
Lastly another thing must be said about the impunity with which the far right commits attacks in Ukraine. Khokhlovich lives there, which means he should be more than familiar with the level of lawlessness and corruption there.
In a country where public figures brazenly steal millions of dollars from the public and still get away with it, it’s not hard to understand why many of these street assaults go unpunished. The only way to get any justice is to generate sympathy, outrage, and popular support- and Ukraine’s left seems wholly incapable of doing that for reasons I’ll explore later.
Next the article contains some deceptive information about the assassination of Pavel Sheremet, claiming that “much evidence” points to far right involvement in that case. In reality, the evidence points primarily to the SBU, and thus the authors are equating SBU with far right. It would be more accurate to equate the SBU with organized criminal activity, not far right politics, and it is more likely that Sheremet’s killing was connected with exposing corruption rather than ideology.
Wrapping up the “suspicious” part of the article, I notice that it plays up the level of political representation the far right has in Ukraine. While the authors touch on the lack of representation, it wouldn’t have taken much effort to point out, for example, how there are no nationalist parties in the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament. Unless something’s changed from the last polls I’ve read (courtesy of Michael Colborne), in order to make the threshold to get seats, all of Ukraine’s far right parties would have to merge into one bloc. To be fair, I’ve heard rumors they might be considering this, but being well acquainted with far right politics tells me that would at best be a short-lived alliance. On the far right, there are always too many wannabe SS Obersturmführers and not enough SS Schützen.
It also wouldn’t have taken much effort to show that Ukraine’s approval for the far right is far lower than it is in other countries, including supposedly tolerant Western Europe. Let’s face it- if Ukraine were such a far right-dominated country, the far right would do better, period. Western far right parties would be having their international conferences in Kyiv and not St. Petersburg. If Ukrainians approved of the far right, they’d just vote for far right parties. What’s stopping them? The short answer, of course, is that most Ukrainians know that the far right have no real solutions for Ukraine and are often times little more than thugs with ties to criminal activity. They are not about to turn over true power to such people. These are all things the article should have pointed out.
I might also take a moment to mention how the article handles the subject of LGBT and tolerance in Kyiv. The Kyiv Pride March was extremely successful, which the authors acknowledge. They point out, however, that this was thanks to the large police and National Guard presence. Very true, but what they don’t tell you is that the crowd of marchers was far larger than the paltry group of nationalists who came out to oppose them. And yes, the city authorities did cave when far right activists objected to the painting of the Arch of Friendship as a rainbow, but when it comes to the issue of LGBT rights, progress is being made.
I will give the authors one more credit for devoting a whole section to how the state finds itself in conflict with the far right in Ukraine. By detailing the contradiction between the government and far right groups like Pravy Sektor, the authors either wittingly or unwittingly help break down the “nationalist junta” narrative- clearly nationalists wouldn’t be so violently opposed to a government that supposedly shared their values, after all. Gold star for that I suppose, but it’s about to get worse…
The poison pill of this article comes at the grand finale, the part where the authors totally destroy any credibility they had and inadvertently demonstrate just why the Ukrainian left can’t get any popularity in Ukraine these days. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the final conclusion of this article, the piece de merde!
“Real resistance to imperialist influence — from both Russia and the West — can only begin with a democratic dialogue with unrecognized republics based on the Minsk peace agreements, not repression against Ukrainian citizens.”
And that’s where you fucked up, son. First of all, the idea that Russian and Western imperialism are, for Ukraine at least, equal, is simply nonsense. Russia has invaded and occupied a significant portion of Ukrainian territory. The war that they started has killed over 10,000 Ukrainians and displaced nearly 2 million others. Did the West do that to Ukraine? No. You can talk all you want about the IMF or Western investment in Ukraine all you want- but no NATO country has literally killed people in Ukraine, nor have they occupied any part of it with their military. Only in the twisted bizarro-world logic of the Kremlin and its foreign supporters did anything resembling that happen, and that is in reality nothing more than a contrived a priorijustification for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Rest assured that on the very day that a NATO military forcibly takes control of a part of Ukrainian territory against the wishes of its elected government, I will more than happily declare Western imperialism in Ukraine to be equivalent to its Russian counterpart, but not a minute sooner.
Far more egregious is the authors’ suggestion for “resistance” to said imperialism, which just happens to almost perfectly match Putin’s own demand to the Ukrainian government. It’s hard to decide where to begin when debunking such an idiotic suggestion, so bear with me.
First let me state that there is no way for Ukraine to begin a “democratic dialogue” with the unrecognized “republics,” because they are not democracies- they are puppet entities controlled by the Russian government, its military, and its intelligence services. They were never set up to be viable states or to achieve some kind of just demands on behalf of the Ukrainian residents of the Donbas (most of which is under Kyiv control, by the way). They were erected with the help of Russian mercenaries so as to give Moscow leverage with which to control Ukraine’s foreign policy and to secure the interests of certain Russian businessmen who had investments or other business ties to the east. The Ukrainian government already attempted such a dialog two times in 2014- once in April before the war actually started, offering full amnesty to those who were occupying buildings if they would lay down their arms, and the second was a unilateral ceasefire later in the summer of that year. The “rebels” also broke the first Minsk ceasefire and ignored the second until they had secured Debaltseve in early 2015. They have continued to break ceasefires ever since. Considering that the first point on the Minsk II agreement is a total ceasefire, how is one supposed to open up a dialogue, democratic or otherwise, with that?
Secondly, the reason Putin wants Ukraine to engage directly with his “republics” is because he wants to freeze the conflict in a manner similar to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Doing so would be a huge boon for Putin, allowing him to pull most of his forces out of the territory while trying to use the Minsk II agreement to get Ukraine to foot the bill for his military adventure. To be sure, the structure of Minsk II creates some contradictions which have turned the whole mess into a stalemate, but the Ukrainian government giving some kind of de facto recognition to the “republics” would go a long way toward accomplishing Putin’s aims.
While the authors make token comments about Russia’s role in the war, they never call out Russia for what it’s actually done. The onus always seems to be on Kyiv to solve a problem they didn’t create. This is typical of many Putin apologists out there, and if the authors do not consider themselves to be Putin apologists, they might want to consider their wording a bit more carefully. For example- don’t basically repeat the Kremlin’s demands almost verbatim.
To be sure, I believe that the population of Eastern Ukraine and of the occupied territory will play a crucial role in the liberation of the country, far more so than anyone in the West. But the dialogue cannot be with Russia’s puppets. It must be with the people themselves, and it must be a dialogue about resistance to Russian occupation. Nothing else will matter. And I have no time for those who disingenuously object to this, saying that it would lead to more violence. Violence has already come to Donbas- Russia brought it. It will remain so long as they are occupying that territory. If one objects to violence aimed at ending that occupation, then what is to stop Russia from grabbing more territory, killing people in the process, and then demanding “peace” for the sake of “human life?” Send the butcher’s bill to Moscow for those who have been killed or maimed in Putin’s war.
And this, it pains me to say, is why Ukraine’s paltry left is so hated or ignored in their own country. The far right may be run by immoral criminals commanding ignorant football hooligans, but when their country was invaded and Ukrainians started dying, they stepped up and did something- they had just enough functioning braincells to figure that out. Where was the “left?” On many occasions they were on the wrong side of the barricades, either backing the invader or playing down the threat- which in fact only amounts to allying with a far right, reactionary regime which has far more resources and power. I’ve had conversations with some of these figures who keep demanding peace, acting like both sides are equally guilty in this war, and refusing to acknowledge when I point out that it is Moscow, not Kyiv, who holds the key to peace. And I must confess sometimes I want to smack them, either because they do in fact have a pro-Kremin agenda or because they are so dense as to not notice they sound that way.
I’m going to be very frank with the rest of the Ukrainian left- if you want to win hearts and minds, if you want society to be outraged and favor you instead of turning a blind eye to the far right and the self-proclaimed patriots, you must stand up for Ukraine. You must call out the main threat to Ukraine- Russian aggression. If you had any proper Marxist theoretical grounding and praxis you would know that a foreign colonial power dominated by a reactionary regime trumps internal contradictions. This has been put into practice several times in the 20th century- in Vietnam, China, Albania, and Yugoslavia to name a few examples.
Is there anyone so foolish as to think that if there had been real Ukrainian leftist volunteer battalions, the political situation would be as it is today? Sure, the government might be more uneasy about them than they are with far right battalions, but that could be offset by popular support. Maybe I’m just getting old,but I’m pretty sure popular support is kind of an important in a war of resistance and a socialist revolution.
Imagine, for the moment, something that may seem impossible today. Imagine a leftist inspired militant organization begins a guerrilla campaign against Russia’s proxies in the east, pulling off daring attacks that neither the Ukrainian army or even the Azov regiment would ever even consider possible. In short- imagine this leftist militant faction gets results. Do you think attitudes would be unchanged? Do you think people wouldn’t raise hell if the government attempted to crack down on this rogue movement, if it were the one thing in Ukraine the Kremlin actually feared?
Of course things would be different. In fact, I predict it would be the political death of the far right- they’ve had so many years to beat their chests and shout their slogans without actually achieving any results. If a leftist militant movement could step up and achieve what the “patriots” could not in four years with the support of the state, there’d be red flags flying next to blue and yellow ones in Kyiv. Volodymyr Viatrovytch could do nothing but sputter and tear his hair out with impotent nerd rage and nobody would listen.
But alas, it seems the Ukrainian “left” can’t even work up the courage to verbally condemn Russian imperialism without false equivalencies, which is why my hypothetical about a Ukrainian leftist Hezbollah-style resistance movement seems so laughably fantastical at the moment. I guess it will remain so for the foreseeable future, unless either this article becomes wildly popular or I win the lottery here in the States so I can fund shit just like Ukraine’s oligarchs do.
And thus once again, Jacobin fails to make a solid connection between the Western left and Ukraine. It’s not that there aren’t ways, either. Stephen Velychenko, for example, has provided some good work on this topic. The failure of Western leftists to develop a solid line on Ukraine is yet another reason why leftist politics are still unpopular in the country. Many Ukrainians hold progressive values, many of them are almost socialist or at least social-democrat in their outlook. They’d probably find much common ground with Western radical leftists, because the idea that capitalism is Ukraine’s biggest problem is basically on the tip of everyone’s tongue (as usual, even the far-right engages in anti-capitalist rhetoric). But what happens when those Ukrainians try to reach out and see things like these Jacobin articles? I mean this is a bit of an improvement because at least one of the authors is actually in Ukraine, but in many other cases pieces about the supposed right-wing domination of Ukraine are written by people who have never even been there. This does nothing but convince Ukrainians that the international left has dismissed them offhand as Nazis based on Kremlin propaganda.
To wrap up, let me once against reiterate. Yes, the far right is a big problem in Ukraine. But it is a problem largely thanks to the war that Russia initiated, and that war takes precedence over almost every other issue out there. If the left is able to demonstrate that it is more able to resist and repel Russian imperialism than the right, it will gain more popular support, and then it will be able to better push through its revolutionary changes. The left will not accomplish this by attacking the concept of pro-Ukrainianism, rather it must show how it is in fact the true pro-Ukrainian force, and that the self-proclaimed patriots, most of them hypocritical criminal parasites or street thugs, are in fact objectively anti-Ukrainian. It should point out that it was the radical Marxist left, and not the reactionary far right nationalists (who did not even exist at the time), that gave birth to the modern Ukrainian state in 1917, and that the roots of true, original Ukrainian nationalism were always the progressive ideals of revolutionaries like Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko, and Ukrainka, and not the twisted reactionary fascism of Dontsov, Bandera, or Shukhevych.
Do not confuse this with some kind of call for “patriotism.” It is a call to stand up and recognize that Ukraine faces an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggle. The day may very well come when the next imperialist threat is from NATO or the EU, but it is not this day. Today, and for the foreseeable future, that most pressing threat cannot be anything but the Putin regime, followed closely by their proxies and the reactionary criminals of the Ukrainian ruling class. If Ukraine’s left cannot stand up and proclaim that simple truth which is self-evident to even the most politically apathetic Ukrainians, they have no one to blame but themselves for their failures.