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Letters from Ukraine

“Radicals today must work to break the image of a ‘patriotic war’ that the state has constructed”

EuropeWar Zones

The following interviews are part of a weekly series conducted in English and translated into French by the French online media project Tous Dehors with “A,” a Ukrainian student from Kharkiv. They have also been published in English by Endnotes, a communist theoretical journal produced by a discussion group of the same name based in Britain and the United States. Reprinted here with permission.

Could you start by telling us about your background before the war?

I originally come from Kharkiv which is in eastern Ukraine, just a few miles from the border, but have spent the last few years studying in Lviv. All of my family and relatives are from Kharkiv as well, and before moving to Lviv I spoke Russian daily: Kharkiv is almost entirely Russian-speaking, but as we are seeing right now, this doesn’t necessarily translate to pro-Russian positions. I’m a computer science major: partly because this is the only way to earn non-poverty wages in Ukraine and you might be able to emigrate (“escape”[1]) at some point; partly because I enjoy low-level programming and technology in general, and am interested in the ways capitalist modernity determines the development of technology while allowing for more liberating uses.

Aside from this, I am interested in communism, and since trying to discern our communist horizons requires understanding capital and history in general, I am interested in the ways an emerging world market, a “second serfdom” and imperialist expansion have shaped the land I grew up in. I am trying to understand the ways in which we have been constituted, from the history of the slow and uneven capitalist modernization of the Saint Petersburg-Yuzovka-Odesa axis, to Soviet modernization, and learning from the liberation movements that fought against the domination of the landlord, the capitalist, and the bureaucrat.

What was your reaction during the first days of the invasion? Were you surprised or did you expect a Russian military operation of this magnitude?

Although I did prepare for its eventuality (packed up the most basic things and my papers, ensured that my family in Kharkiv had evacuation plans) I did not think that a full-scale invasion was going to happen. I assumed that Russia was going to conduct a mass disinformation campaign the way it did in 2014 before the Crimea and Donbas invasions. However, as it eventually turned out, the secrecy of the invasion plans made these “propaganda indicators” unreliable, and Russian media instead had to rely on long-term disinformation campaigns that started in 2014. Checking the Russian state media on a daily basis and not seeing any significant uptick in provocations, I thought that the troops stationed near the border might be used as leverage to get Ukraine and NATO to negotiate terms more acceptable to Russia. Overall, there were a few people that overreacted to every single new satellite photo of Russian military bases, but the majority became used to the fact that Russia has been waging a war in the east, and has always wanted much more.

But more fundamentally, I think nobody could have been prepared for what was to come. Even if you pointed out that the Russian invasion has already been going on for eight years, even if you saw the daily life governed by the accumulation of blood-soaked commodities and imperial ambitions as an ongoing civil war, nothing could prepare you for that early morning when the air raid sirens finally burst through the fog of the dream. First, words penetrated my half-conscious mind and exploded inside, as I wasn’t yet sure about the scale of things. “Every military airport has been destroyed,” I heard and remembered all the maps with red dots surrounding the border, “tanks are in the cities” was still ringing in my head as I was quickly packing up my things. My body refused to cooperate, every single sound was intensified tenfold, and I couldn’t sit down for a second, scrolling through the news and texting friends as I was pacing around the apartment. This is the state I spent the next few days in, but eventually, the Russian advance slowed down, and many people calmed down with it.

My family was lucky enough to drive out of Kharkiv in the early morning after the first sirens, and after my friends crossed the Polish border, I joined my family and we are still in Western Ukraine, in relative safety, together with some relatives that were able to evacuate from Kharkiv a few days later. Since I’m draft-eligible, staying in Ukraine is the only option for me. We are not yet sure about our further actions, this depends on how long this war is going to last and whether we’ll have a home to return to.

One could say that a war marks a stop in the normal course of life and the emergence of the exception. In your opinion, to what extent is the current situation changing Ukrainian society? Are the old political and social divisions being maintained and intensified? Or on the contrary, are we witnessing a rapid restructuring along new lines of division?

Even those who haven’t learned the lesson that the state of emergency is the rule are seeing an obvious intensification of the existing lines of division. It is no accident that the people who remained in the occupied and encircled cities are disproportionately poor, and often old, although there are significant efforts to paint service workers putting out the fires and cleaning up the streets, all under non-stop shelling, as patriotic heroes. Elsewhere, people are sleeping in the fields due to huge queues at the borders and some are rejected outright because they have the misfortune of coming from Africa or the Middle East. Many have decided to abandon their work, so as the government tries to motivate people in the “peaceful” regions to return to normality, previously “necessary” and “logical” structures and apparatuses have become increasingly harmful.

It’s hard to deny that the current situation definitely serves the reactionary forces: the militarized nationalist groups are receiving more support and are increasingly “mainstream,” and progressive liberals forgot about their “struggles” and threw all the support behind the state apparatus. But I am also seeing many opportunities for radicalization as the army and the police, by conscripting people and not allowing men out of the country, by arresting and killing looters, are exposing their interest in the protection of the law itself, not in our survival. Once you understand that the system we live in is the cause of this horror, that it feeds from this violence, once you feel it with your own skin, it’s really hard to listen to people painting Ukrainian suffering as permanent and suggesting political half-measures.

The Ukrainian government and the media paint the invasion as a “natural,” mythical occurrence. The minister of health easily transitioned from reporting the numbers of people infected and killed by COVID, to reporting the numbers of murdered children. The war and the pandemic are thus divorced from normality, their causes and consequences from the constitution of the state itself and the world at large: these are uncontrollable cataclysms. The mass murder of the Ukrainian civilian population is described as non-political, it originates from an inhuman, genetic and contagious population of Russian “orcs.” The Ukrainian state is merely trying to survive here, and it is treason to not throw your body to protect it.

What further characterizes the present situation, after an intentional misattribution of its causes (“war can’t potentially be a part of normality, fascism isn’t a constant in a liberal democracy, it’s outside of it”) is the total absence of solutions among nationalists and liberals. Calls for reparations (themselves just disguised calls for mass genocide of “guilty” Russians), calls for Putin to be assassinated, show that the imperial layout of the world is expected to be eternal, we can only hope for slight redistributions. Financial help for Ukraine is important, but expectations of Ukraine experiencing an economic revival due to “high patriotism” and “national unity” after the war are groundless. These are all simply non-solutions since this war is inextricably bound up with capital and isn’t just an error in its normal functioning. And while a peace treaty or Putin’s death might stop this war here and now, they won’t prevent Russia from policing the post-USSR region in the future.

Only a mass movement on both sides of the frontline and in the armies themselves, originating from a spark we might not be able to expect right now, will be able to put a stop to the world which has brought war so close to the imperial core for the first time in years. I reject the categories of innocence and guilt that serve to justify xenophobia and genocide, we should instead seek to expand the islands of civilian resistance and construct universalist communities. Imperialism can’t be separated from the economic nationalism driving it, and the management of populations that abandons millions to death from COVID, war, or climate change is the mode of governance under which we live, and both can only be overcome in a revolution constructing a radically new world.

My question may seem naive to you, but what remains of the Euromaidan movement of 2013? Has the bottom-up mobilization of a growing percentage of the population reactivated it in some way? The war of annexation between Russia and Ukraine is embedded in earlier events. With the Orange Revolution in 2004, and then with Maidan in 2014, Ukraine has witnessed two consequent movements that led to the fall of the pro-Russian regime. Could you quickly go back over the history of Ukrainian social movements of the last two decades and in particular the ways in which Putin’s regime firmly opposed them?

I don’t think that the Euromaidan movement should be the starting point to analyze the current situation. The 2004 protests are still trapped in the role of a “progressive anti-corruption movement.” What is today called the “Orange Revolution” also mobilized nationalist tropes in an attempt to define a distinct Ukrainian identity. Moreover, it deeply embedded the idea that corruption is the cause of Ukrainian stagnation, rather than simply one of the symptoms of low profitability in a post-socialist state. I think any left movement that considers corruption to be the main target of its struggle is fighting an already lost battle on the enemy’s terrain.

After a relatively peaceful Orange Revolution that was always only directed at recognizing electoral results, the winter events of 2013-14 have shown that there can be a mass movement capable of fighting the police in the post-USSR region. Euromaidan itself cannot be easily classified. The claims of the protest were multiple and the very conflictual character of the movement was intensified in step with the increasingly violent police repression of demonstrations. The protesters were not all right-wing militants, but one cannot deny that many of them ended up agreeing with relatively small nazi groups and that they were influenced by their tactics in the street, as well as their discourse.

After Maidan, right-wing rhetoric continued to move into the mainstream, all the more as many liberals found it appropriate to proudly “reappropriate” Putin’s claims about Ukraine being full of “Bandera fans.”[2] I’m relatively pessimistic as to the prospects of structures of solidarity emerging after the uprising. Post-Maidan history is a great example of the manner in which right-wing militias have been able to consolidate their power in the streets, establishing strong connections to and even a presence within the army, police and the state—while the various anarchist groups have slowly disappeared or even turned patriotic themselves.

Maidan and the subsequent Russian invasion in the Donbas lead to the emergence of a giant volunteer network. Then as now, political initiatives directed towards the strengthening of the military are seen as extremely popular. These often apolitical networks have ended up equipping right-wing battalions, which have set up their own training centres. They also actively recruit young people, all too eager to beat up queer people in the streets.

What you won’t see in any of today’s war coverage, always praising Ukrainian military performance, and what people generally don’t understand, is that the training, maintenance and arming of the Ukrainian army, along with the IMF’s credit requirements, are the structural cause behind the gutting of hospitals, schools and universities, as well as poverty-level pensions and the lack of public sector wage increases. Austerity is the future that awaits Ukraine if it’s ever accepted into the EU.

After Maidan, radical political action has been constrained to either participation in one of the army-adjacent militias or struggles for rights. Without abandoning the most basic radical positions of helping refugees as well as Ukrainian and Russian dissidents, radicals today must work to break the image of a “patriotic war” that the state has constructed. With this war and its aftermath, we will see great repression on both sides of the border, and it is ultimately the refugees burning through their savings and collecting ever-greater debts who will bear the brunt of it. The attempt to cling to the remnants of law and capital even as the tanks are rolling in only further exposes the fact that human reproduction remains a byproduct of the reproduction of capital.

Can you briefly describe how the situation has evolved since our interview last week? What have you observed that is new?

As the Russian advance stalled all across northeastern Ukraine, a few things became certain. The Ukrainian government is going to rely on volunteers to help the refugees still inside the country, and the lack of accommodations isn’t just due to the surprise of the invasion. With Zelensky declaring that a country-wide referendum would decide the fate of Crimea and Donbas, and an intensification of efforts to build an image of a successful war, the possibilities of peace settlement look even bleaker. Russian forces have halted their attempts to take the Ukrainian cities, instead opting for cutting off communications and encircling them. Block-by-block fights in Mariupol are an exception, where horrifying destruction and incalculable civilian deaths, alongside the non-stop shelling in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions, show the price of a war of attrition.

Putin’s government appears to want to re-establish an imperial vision of Russia’s role and has been trying for a decade to set itself up as a regional gendarme. In your opinion, to what extent are the recent events part of a broader Russian policy towards the countries of the former Soviet zone of influence?

I don’t think there’s been much of a “re-establishment” of Russian imperialism: it has continued along the same vectors, although, of course, with Russia having lost the position of the main Cold War enemy of the West. Rather than seeing the collapse of the USSR as a radical break both economically and politically, I think there has been a surprising continuity. Soviet republics have not only split off from the borders set by the USSR but have maintained their structure, together with their Soviet minority policies. Thus, disputes related to minority languages and political autonomy, previously routed through the central party apparatus (which has often delegated their resolution back to “titular” nationalities), have now lost their mediator and, if the minority in question had a separate state, burst into open war.

Once we see the breakup of the USSR as a result of the slow development of existing lines of division, internal to the structure of the union, the lack of “revolutionary” change or nationalist outburst in post-Soviet states is no longer surprising. Autonomy at the level of state and party structures has been mirrored in growing independence at the level of the enterprise, as each became more and more dependent on the market. Enterprises and forms of exploitation slowly adapted to the rapid change of global structures, with dissent first passing through established Soviet bureaucratic channels and later moving to the streets with the growth of surplus populations, as enterprises threw off labour reserves to reduce production costs.

We are seeing two forms of Russian imperialism in the region. In Belarus and Kazakhstan, for example, Russia has maintained friendly relations with the ruling class, and the police and armed forces can directly conduct counterinsurgency campaigns in the entire region. Russia shows a slightly different face in Ukraine and Georgia, with the former’s inability to find a peaceful settlement with Russia spelling the definite end of the union project and both moving out of the zone of Russian influence since then. Not wanting to lose closely-integrated states whose unity with the new Russian Federation became a key issue for its developing nationalism, it has engaged in open warfare against both countries. Further exacerbating the issue and serving as an excuse for the invasion was the fear that Ukrainian uprisings might translate to unrest at the core. The Russian oligarchy, relying on the state for its monopolies on raw material extraction and energy industries, naturally gravitates towards exploiting the closely-knit post-Soviet region, which must shave off its profits to acquire necessary supplies. Thus, what’s at stake for the Russian ruling class is the indivisible goal of political-militaristic domination and an establishment of a rent-extracting empire.

Sadly, some anti-imperial analyzes end here, with Russia seen as the threat to Western freedom. But we shouldn’t let the US off the hook either: without reducing liberalizations of the 90s to the actions of individual politicians, it is clear that it directly contributed to the collapse of the standard of living in every single post-Soviet state and to the region becoming a breeding ground of reactionary politics. The US also contributed to the rise of tensions before the invasion and enjoys having one more excuse to ramp up military budgets. History shows that profit-making has often defied skull-measuring narratives of ‘oriental’ and inherently anti-Western Russia. It is enough to remember France and Britain happily fighting alongside an autocratic Russia in the First World War, sending the Russian expeditionary forces to camps once they started forming soldier committees after hearing about the Revolution, with France disappointed there wasn’t a strong Russia afterwards to support the division of Germany. The US didn’t pursue its policy of national self-determination when it came to the Russian Empire, hoping to cooperate with the Bolsheviks, and in more recent history, supported Gorbachev up until the demise of the USSR became certain.

After almost a month of war, what is the relationship between the Ukrainian government and the nationalist factions?

It is clear that Zelensky’s government, despite all the talk of “pro-Russian” leanings throughout his presidency, is trying to navigate the dangerous waters of peace talks carefully. Although nationalists and nazis aren’t in charge of the Ukrainian state and have never enjoyed sizable political support, they have established themselves firmly in the regular army and various militias. With the Russian invasion as the greatest populariser of Ukrainian nationalism and new weapons flowing in, militias’ leaders might be willing to test their power if Zelensky ever flinches.

The relation of nationalism to the Ukrainian state is more complex, though. Like any nation-state, it tries to reconcile contradictory historical narratives and project all opposition onto the plane of democracy, depoliticizing it. This ends up collapsing any historical difference into a story of a united nation that’s finally liberated from the eternal Russian Empire, without questioning the radicality of the transition out of it. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Simon Petliura, and Stepan Bandera thus coexist with the image of Ukrainians liberating the concentration camps.[3]

Defending only the liberal side of this state is impossible, for its maintenance will necessitate fascist violence whenever order is threatened. To strengthen national unity, democracy will have to be suspended and parties banned. A stagnating economy calls forth parodic violence, and sadism gets mixed in: looters are undressed and taped to telephone poles. Since a nation’s health is at stake, labour rights can be limited, and language is enough to make you a suspect. Against nationalist history, our historical method is not one of empathy. Constructing monuments for the oppressed does not mark the end of the state. Neither are we driven by curiosity or a search for parallels. The only parallel between us and the people buried and forgotten by the state is that we are still fighting for the world to come, against the world that is. Any social movement challenging it will have to explode the contradictions propelling Ukrainian civil society forward.

What could be the means of a politics that refuses Russian authoritarianism as much as the dictatorship of the economy coming from the West? In the years to come, would this be a position that could be heard in Ukraine and shared en masse?

Without abandoning a “no war but class war” position, it might still be hard to envision a larger strategy beyond the immediate relief efforts. The situation we are facing right now is highly complex, and an almost complete absence of revolutionary solidarity networks in Ukraine greatly reduces the number of options on the ground: sometimes volunteering to fight might be a safer option than continuing to hide out. Therefore I appreciate comrades sharing their debates on this issue and collectives understanding the importance of real actions of solidarity.

In formulating a coherent strategy, one might be tempted to postpone social struggle to more peaceful times. Indeed, quite a lot depends on the result of this war, and it’s still hard to predict whether Ukraine has a possibility of becoming a “neutral” state or if we are only at the beginning of a long war of attrition. It’s increasingly clear that the war’s consequences are going to be international, with the Global South set to suffer another major blow to its food security two years after the COVID-19 shock. However, we should not succumb to a peace-war binary that, in the end, only serves to defend governments’ declaration of the state of emergency. The protracted Donbas war being used to justify lack of action against reactionary violence back home and the Ukrainian state being able to suppress any dissent by simply declaring it to be “pro-Russian” have once again proven this. We can’t wait for an appropriately democratic, stable capitalism, we should adapt to the catastrophe and seek ways to expand the possibilities of its non-reproduction here and now.

Beyond just accepting and settling refugees, we should be building long-term solidarity structures to prepare for the food and climate crisis. We have to oppose the militarization of the Global North, perfectly aware that these weapons are going to rain down on refugees so “different,” so “alien” to our civilization. However, sabotaging heavily guarded weapons shipments to Ukraine might not be the best way to undermine the Ukrainian defences and the army’s popularity. We should support mass desertions and mutiny on both sides as the only realistic way to stop conscriptions and break the atomicity of draft evasion. We should counter the image of a successful campaign that Ukraine is constructing: this war is unwinnable, and every minute of denying it kills more and more people. Patriotic proclamations do not help the newly drafted soldiers, nor do they help the people that can’t evacuate from the slowly encircled and shelled cities, which, authorities assure, “are never going to fall.” A historical example of the Deutsche Vaterlandspartei suffices to prove that, as long as there exists a chance of winning the war, reactionary forces will mobilize for its continuation.[4]

We can’t continue analyzing the situation just by looking at symbols and slogans, seeing fascism only when it is wearing a swastika and praising militias with black flags. In the former case, some might be motivated by an inability to see fascism as a necessary component of liberal governing techniques, in the latter, by a desire for a pure revolutionary subject. An already-conscious subject can’t form, as much as some might try to circumvent the problem of composition by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah in a demandless struggle, while others still hope for a red democratic hegemony. We should confront our weakness head-on—conscious revolutionaries are just a drop in the ocean of any uprising—and see that it becomes our strength during the insurrection.

Instead of celebrating the formation of a “revolutionary” self-defence sotnia[5] in a modern-day re-enactment of Zaporozhian Sich during another Maidan, we should question the fetishism of militancy amongst our comrades. Forming a masculine street gang centred on the myth of violence is not the only way to combat fascism, and fighting in the regular army is definitely not the way to defeat the state. We should oppose anyone trying to turn an insurrection into a “serious” affair and those who perpetuate property and gender divisions in the unsafety of a square occupation. So as not to blindly support movements that present themselves as “anti-political,” we must distinguish the uses to which different tactics are put, because barricades, Molotov cocktails, and occupations aren’t revolutionary in and of themselves. Trying to “convert” reactionary movements and reclaiming nationalist narratives doesn’t help the cause. Whereas Ukrainian Cossacks have left their wives and families back home to join a democratic mercenary state, we are interested in constructing universalist communities that fight against the divisions of the present. The success of an anti-war movement in Ukraine depends on our ability to escape the nationalist traps of organisation and to withstand the inevitable repression.

[1] The term for emigration is often “escape, get out” in Ukrainian [звалити] and Russian [свалить].

[2] ​​Stepan Bandera was a nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator during the Second World War. This unfortunate “reclamation” of Putin’s claims can be evidenced, for example, in the emergence of queer nationalist organisations that openly call themselves “queer banderists.”

[3] All three are key figures for Ukrainian nationalism. Each one perpetrated anti-Jewish pogroms.

[4] The Deutsche Vaterlandspartei [German Fatherland Party] was a proto-nazi right-wing political party that tried to mobilize Germany for a maximum war effort in 1917.

[5] Sotnia (literally “a hundred”) is a military unit of 100-150 people, notable for its nationalist significance as these have been formed by 16th-18th century Cossacks, Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukrainian National Army, and during Euromaidan.


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