Volodymyr Ishchenko and his smear campaign

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a Ukrainian left-wing sociologist enjoying some popularity among the western leftists. A year ago, he published a paper «Left divergence, right convergence: anarchists, Marxists, and nationalist polarization in the Ukrainian conflict, 2013-14» in the Globalizations journal in which he presents a narrative of the split among Ukrainian new left caused by the Maidan uprising and subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ishchenko identifies the anarchists from the Autonomous Workers Union and Nihilist as one leading actor and (post- or neo-)stalinists from Borotba as the other. 

Volodymyr’s paper has some value as a collection of references. I would encourage its readers to follow them and read the original statements of the participants as well as observers’ comments. But his general narrative, while being smooth and well-constructed, fundamentally misrepresents motivations of the actors. As one of the latter, I feel the urge to put Volodymyr’s story in the context.

I was initially hesitant about the Maidan. But on January 16, 2014 the parliamentary coalition of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine passed laws curtailing freedom of speech and assembly in an attempt to suppress the protest. Maidan reacted not with fear but with rage. On January 19 the protesters started a violent confrontation with the police on Hrushevskoho street. That was  also the last day when Borotba and the AWU tried to cooperate.

This is the day when post-Soviet leftists traditionally commemorated anti-fascists Stas Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, murdered in Moscow in 2009 by Russian fascists. The Kyiv new left held a small joint meeting at Mykhailivska square. The square looked unusually empty. No one was interested in our event: neither police, nor the far right. Then we heard the first explosions from Hrushevskoho street where Maidan protesters entered a violent confrontation with the police. After the meeting, some of us went straight there.

Then, on January 22 the country heard about the death of Serhiy Nigoyan, murdered by the police near Lobanovsky Dynamo Stadium in the center of Kyiv. In a couple of days, occupations of government buildings in western and central Ukraine resulted in a fragile stalemate which lasted less than a month during which anarchists and sympathizers discussed the possibility of opening a «second front» against the government in an attempt to catch up with the protest. We hardly had time or resources required for it, but after the events in January it became clear that government victory would lead to a dictatorship. The AWU statement summarizes our mood.

And Borotba went in another direction. They held a picket of the US embassy blaming the US government for instigating the civil war in Ukraine. Their announce of the picket is worth reproducing here

At that time it did not make any sense, as if Borotba had suddenly lost their mind. However soon I had my personal point of no return in relations with them. It happened on February 19, when the fragile stalemate fell apart and the final showdown came.

I was taking part in a Skype chat with some leftists from the EU discussing the events as they were unfolding right in front of our eyes, watching the fire of the trade unions building in Kyiv that was started by the «Alpha» special forces squad. Serhiy Kirichuk from Borotba was also online and he described the events as a failed fascist coup being suppressed by the government despite some people who stood together with Kirichuk at the anti-fascist demo a month before were among the Maidan protesters.

Kirichuk not only seemed comfortable with their death by the hands of the police thugs but was trying to erase any good memory of them.
It was the last straw. The relations with Borotba, already strained, started morphing into an existential conflict. Kirichuk’s statements were not products of confusion but the first open manifestation of Borotba’s alignment with Anti-Maidan forces. 

Soon, Borotba took part in the events in Kharkiv, where pro-Russian Anti-Maidan mobs attacked Maidan protesters in an attempt to create a «people’s republic». It should be noted here, that Kharkiv Maidan had much lower participation of the far right than in Kyiv. It was dominated by liberals, and anarchists from AWU-Kharkiv were prominent there as well. If confusion and fear of the far right could be justified in Kyiv, Kharkiv clashes made it clear that it was exactly the democratic and liberatory spirit of Maidan that Anti-Maidan was opposing.

AWU and Nihilist have already put enough effort into documenting the subsequent political trajectory of Borotba. I will not repeat the story here but refer to our 2014 text translated by Euromaidan Press. I need this short memoir to highlight what Ishchenko’s narrative about Maidan and the left cleavage is missing: it is the existential dimension. What he called simply «opposition to police violence» was in fact the feeling that the lives taken by the police and paramilitary thugs mattered. Ishchenko’s paper appeared before the powerful eruption of Black Lives Matter but I hope it is clear now that such issues cannot be dismissed. Ishchenko lacks either adequate theory or sufficient empathy or both to understand it.

While this existential aspect would be more than enough for a split, and it was the primary driving force behind our attempts to document Borotba actions in 2014 — this was the only way we could hold them accountable — there is another dimension of the story that Ishchenko’s paper omits.

It is the evidence that Borotba was in fact working for the Kremlin as early as January 2014. In English, the evidence is summarized by Bellingcat and «Reft & Light» . Nihilist published an analysis as well (in Russian).

Borotba being in fact the Kremlin’s astroturfing project is a perfect explanation of their actions during Maidan and afterwards. The weird protest against American influence in February 2014 in Kyiv makes sense in the context of Russian state propaganda portraying all anti-Kemlin forces in the former USSR as agents of Western imperialism. The year 2020 has brought plenty of fine examples.

Ishchenko’s total omission of this evidence is more likely willing than not. A person following publications on Nihilist as he does could not have missed the love story of Borotba and the Kremlin. Thus his narrative presented in Globalizations should be classified as a lie by omission.

Ishchenko presents himself in the Globalizations paper as concerned with the left unity. However, when the real picture is taken into account, calls for such a unity become ridiculous.

Leon Trotsky once wrote

«The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: “Communists” plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant prove equal to zero.

A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.»

I would not theorize here about the nature of post-Soviet klepto-tyrannies. Empirical evidence alone is enough to judge. In the year that passed since Ishchenko’s paper was published, Putin’s regime has proceeded from jailing anarchists and Crimean Tatars to jailing everything that moves. Anschluss of Belarus is likely in the near future. Are we supposed to unite with the agents of the regime that would throw us to jail as it has thrown Crimean anarchist Eugene Karakashev and many more? I am singling Eugene out because Kyiv and Kharkiv anarchists know him IRL, just to highlight the personal dimension of all this. 

Well, Ishchenko’s Facebook page gives some hints of what this unity may look like. The page clearly caters to Western and Eastern tankie audiences. And the most recent post looks like this:

The «Opposition Platform — For Life» was created from the unrepentant faction of the Party of Regions (the party of Yanukovich ousted from power in 2014) and the «Ukrainian choice» movement led by Victor Medvedchuk, one of the richest people in the country. Being the party of klepto-bourgeoisie and klepto-bureaucracy, it channels popular dissatisfaction with the government only in the same way in which, according to some claims, Donald Trump channelled grievances of the white working class. In fact, their conservatism, their political cynicism, and their love of «alternative facts» are not unlike those of Trump. 

And their pro-Russian orientation is evident, for example, from their visit to Moscow right at the time of an escalation in Donbas or from their greeting to the people of Russia on the occasion of Russia Day. The links are for non-Ukrainian audience only (use Google Translate); in fact, pro-Russian position of the «Opposition Platform — For Life» is well-known in Ukraine, and the Wikipedia article reflects this as well. So Ishchenko is exploiting the cultural barrier in his post to manipulate his non-Ukrainian audience.

Anatolii Sharii (Anatoly Sharij in another transliteration) is a full-time YouTube blogger from Ukraine living in Spain. He has also launched a party named after himself that took part in recent local elections in an alliance with the «Opposition Platform — For Life». The sources of funding for the party and his full-time blogging are not clear, and recently the Security Service of Ukraine has announced allegations of high treason against him. He is also known for homophobic and xenophobic statements.

Sharii’s xenophobia is immense and multifaceted. On various occasions he
called the Romani people «a nation notorious for its songs, dances, theft but not for scholars», wrote «an intolerant article on Muslims», calling Western Ukrainians «impure blooded Ukrainians who can’t teach the others how to love Ukraine, sing the anthem, and carry the flag», promoting the stereotype of «immigrant crime», and so on, and so on, and so on.

Sharii was also a member of the organization «Love against homosexualism», a conservative pressure group notorious for counter-picketing feminist and LGBT events in Ukraine.
In short, Sharii is to the Anti-Maidan camp of Ukrainian politics what the racist fringe is to the Trump movement.

So while in theory Ishchenko advocates for a left-wing alternative to both Maidan and Anti-Maidan, in practice his support for the Anti-Maidan camp goes up to the point of whitewashing a notorious hatemonger. The united left built according to Ishchenko’s recipe would have a distinctly tankie face and a pro-Kremlin orientation, toeing the political line of stronger pro-Russian forces. Such a love for the ousted faction of Ukrainian kleptocracy from a leftist is beyond my comprehension. Is he aspiring towards a proposal from the Kremlin’s propaganda department? Has he already received such a proposal? 

Well, the international editorial board of Globalizations includes Boris Kagarlitsky, whom Anton Shekhovtsov characterized as «a Kremlin’s mole in the leftist movement» and Alla Glinchikova, another person from Kagarlitsky’s Kremlin-funded Institute for Globalization Studies. I second Anton Shekhovtsov’s claims. Kagarlitsky was always a close friend of future Borotba leadership, and he was active in the alter-globalization movement, which he used to promote the Kremlin’s agenda. In particular, Ishchenko himself mentions Kagarlitsky’s story of Anti-Maidan as a proletarian uprising. is an example of Russian war propaganda pandering to Western leftist audiences. Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact extent of Kagarlitsky’s influence on Globalizations’ editorial policies.

Another plausible explanation is that Volodymyr may sympathize with pro-Russian right-wing populists and kleptocrats because of certain shared cultural conservatism, as this passage from his Globalizations paper may hint: 

«The final source is the postmodernist turn of the left to the politics of identity, reconciling symbolic emancipation of the minorities with the unchallenged basis of the globalizing neoliberal capitalism. The agenda-setting article titled ‘Cosmopolitanism against the Russian World’ by Alexander Wolodarskij (Shiitman, 2015b) firmly takes the side of progressive globalization against the conservative Russian nationalist project. Indeed, within the ‘bourgeois revolution’ narrative about Ukrainian conflict, (neo)liberals and the global capital are not the enemies of the left. Instead, they are allies against the local conservative reactionaries. 

A recurring interpretation of the conflict in Ukraine appeared in the texts of Nihilist authors, claiming it as a conflict of values — of the progressive Western world against reactionary Russian world — essentializing conservatism up to anti Russian xenophobia and reminding orientalist ‘clash of civilizations’ arguments. While regularly attacking Russian imperialism, Nihilist texts often basically dismissed the problem of Western imperialism and US-dependence of post-Maidan Ukraine as hardly anything more than a Russian propaganda conspiracy theory that provided a common ground of ‘anti-imperialism’ for the ‘authoritarian’ left convergence with pro-Russian far right. 

It is particularly noteworthy that any discussion of capitalism’s crisis reaching the limits was lacking from the Nihilist’s writings. The whole ‘modernizing’ agenda in alliance with transnational capital for Ukraine could only be based on the assumption of a progressive development potential in the capitalist system. Moreover, any defense of national sovereignty and the state role in the economy could be interpreted as a concession to reactionaries.»

Ishchenko’s language here tells more about himself than about Nihilist, placing him firmly in the conservative leftist camp, and his activity on Facebook where he is not restricted by academic journal limitations supports this characterization. 

As a side note, yes, I think that a Western-style (neo)liberal democracy is preferable to and indeed, more progressive than a post-Soviet klepto-tyranny. As another side note, Ishchenko talks about our «essentializing xenophobia» in general, without referring to any particular text. This is a smear job on the pages of a supposedly academic journal.

And, last but not the least, Ishchenko’s years-long feud with some Nihilist editors (much older than Maidan) may explain a lot if not in his politics then in his paper. Ishchenko’s long-term involvement in rivalries within the new left in Ukraine amounts to a conflict of interest when writing on the subject. I hope future academic publishers will take this into account.

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