A Discussion with Eyewitnesses: People’s War in Ukraine

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Suzi Weissman interviews Vladislav Starodubtsev & Jeremy Bigwood

Ukraine is on fire. Oksana Briukhovetska, Stamps MFA Thesis Exhibition.

SUZI WEISSMAN conducted this interview for broadcast on her program “Beneath the Surface” on Jacobin Radio, March 9, 2023. It has been edited and abridged for publication here.

Suzi Weissman: This is Jacobin Radio. Russia’s war in Ukraine marked its first anniversary on February 24th. It’s a brutal, horrible, destructive disaster causing human suffering and economic devastation not just in Ukraine, but also in the lives of ordinary Russians who are cannon fodder in Putin’s war. The war has also had an impact on global hunger and energy supplies and the world environmental crisis. It’s no exaggeration to say that this war changed the trajectory of the 21st century.

Russia’s response has been to double down on destruction since it cannot accomplish its war aims. Millions of Russians have left to avoid being conscripted or because they oppose Putin’s war. Some are fighting Russians in Ukraine.Ukraine, fighting for its survival as a nation, insists peace can only be achieved through their successful resistance to Russia’s invasion. Calling for “peace” in the abstract is meaningless in these circumstances.

We’re going to get our guests’ perspective. I’m really pleased to have with us Vladislav Starodubtsev, a historian of Central Eastern Europe and an activist in the Ukrainian Democratic Socialist Organization, Sotsialni Rukh (Social Movement). He is based in Kiev.

We also have back with us Jeremy Bigwood, an investigative journalist and a photojournalist with a background in science. Jeremy has covered the wars in Central America and was in Russia when the war started. Over the last year he has traveled in Ukraine three times, returning just a few days ago. He’s now writing a series of portraits of Ukrainians on his Substack Bigwood site.

Ukraine has a rich socialist heritage dating all the way back to the 1860s and 1870s, but Putin has maintained that his goal to “denazify” Ukraine and its history. Vladislav, please tell us about how your organization developed.

Vladislav Starodubtsev: Sotsialni Rukh started out as a small Trotskyist organization in 2014, supporting the Maidan protest and calling for the democratization of Ukrainian society against the corrupt pro-Russian President Yanukovych. In Maiden we participated in the popular resistance, trying to connect trade union workers and different civil society organizations with the protests. We emphasized the social demands raised by protesters.

Over time we evolved into a broad, democratic, anti-capitalist organization, the largest leftwing Ukrainian group. We call ourselves the New Left or Democratic Socialists. uniting different struggles, feminist struggles, trade union struggles, LGBTQ struggles, worker struggles into one big push for the socialist transformation of society.

SW: Is there cooperation between Ukrainian leftists and Russian leftists in the wake of this war?

VS: There are often problems in communication, because often Russian organizations don’t understand the Ukrainian context. Russian society promotes a chauvinism that creates misunderstandings and stereotypes. That said, we cooperate particularly with the Anti-war Feminist Movement and Socialist Alternative. They have strong positions against the invasion.

SW: Would you characterize Putin’s war aims as imperialist?

VS: In colonial studies there is a debate about whether Russia is an empire and whether its imperialism is unique. Russia primarily colonized lands on its border rather than overseas.

The cockoo, representing Ukraine, is wounded by Russian rockets. Oksana Briukhovetska, Stamps MFA Thesis Exhibition.

This is a very specific and understudied type of imperialism. It enabled Russia to crush any anti-colonial rebellion just by crossing the border. This created an ideology as the Russian state developed through imperial time, through Soviet time and through the current moment of the Russian Republic.

During all these periods the idea of Russian supremacy dominated. Usually, it’s a cultural domination. It’s a very structural racism that sees the Western world as an enemy, but copies the Western notion of success. During the Khrushchev era. This was reflected in the announcement that the Soviet Union will be better than the USA. Putin, too, always compares Russia to the West.

Then there is the Russian state’s thesis of the “brotherly nations” of Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians. This very paternalistic identity projects the notion that the “big” Russian nation will protect the “small” Byelorussians and Ukrainians – that they are one people and Russia should defend them, even defending these nations against themselves. The ideology of the Russian state, its propaganda and imperialist identity, has existed through time.

Russian Imperialism Reborn

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian imperialism didn’t disappear. It was reborn with new strength. We can trace its action to the two invasions of the Chechen Republic as it brutally crushed the Chechen fight for its independence. This was the first major invasion that the newly independent Russian Republic took against an independent state.

It is important to point to this beginning because there was no NATO in Chechnya, there weren’t Nazis in Chechnya, and there weren’t any of the justifications used for invading Ukraine. Clearly the sole reason was to capture territory and occupy the land — this is classical imperialism.

Friedrich Engels remarked that a nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free. And following the Chechen wars (first war 1994-96; second war 1999-2000 ed.), there were a lot of “anti-terrorist” campaigns in the Russian Federation.

The police developed their surveillance and employed various tools to suppress the opposition and especially the media. The first bricks to building an authoritarian regime are to be found in suppressing all democratic values.

This invasion of the Chechen Republic cannot be traced to any perceived threat from NATO. Western forces tolerated the invasion and brutality because they wanted to include the Russian Federation in their New World order.

At the time of the second invasion of the Chechen Republic, British prime minister Tony Blair was visiting St. Petersburg, talking to Putin about trade agreements. Clearly the West gave a green light to Russian imperialism and the building of modern Russian authoritarian state, even supplying it with weapons.

SW: I’ll also add that Chechnya was seen as another front of the war on terror. Both Yeltsin and Putin unleashed the war on terror to boost their popularity at home. Russians have a traditional enmity against Central Asians, typically portrayed as money changers and cheaters.

I’d say that Yeltsin was trying to emulate George H.W. Bush in his Gulf War, creating a quick and dirty war that would boost popularity for electoral purposes. And Putin did it to burnish his war credentials when he was first in office.

Jeremy Bigwood: I think it helps when looking at Russia to understand this concept called Russky Mir. Russian society is better than anyone else. The concept of Russky Mir goes back to Tolstoyian times, It seems to have survived very well in the Soviet Union.

To a large extent I think that is driving this war. I don’t think it’s about Putin. I think Putin is just a manager. He could leave and I think Russians would continue the war. My view of Russia has been quite diminished by this invasion and what has happened afterward.

Imperial Ideologies

From the Ukrainian folk song: “Oh, in the meadow the red viburnum bent down / Our glorious Ukraine is grieving….” Oksana Briukhovetska, Stamps MFA Thesis Exhibition.

SW: I’m reading blog posts from Russians that there is an economic dimension to this war. Even though there have been sanctions and projections that this war will further disintegrate Russia — even destroy it — people are writing that Putin is developing a war economy, similar to Washington’s permanent war economy. How might this fit in with the political economy of Russia? How might this fit in with your comments about cultural supremacy?

VS: I would say the invasion is not driven by economic factors, at least not immediate ones. The main political factor is based on a Russian identity that tries to self-recreate empire.

Mostly this war is a serious hardship for the Russian oligarchy. For the capitalist class in Russia, for practically everyone, the war leads to economic collapse. Not even the bureaucracy is profiting. But a second political motivation lies in Putin’s elite using the war to strengthen their grip on society. Russia is a police state with a distinct policing class, which controls private companies. Putin’s bureaucracy would like to reduce the military’s power over the economy.

I’d say the U.S. invasion of Iraq was connected with the general rise of Islamophobia and police terror. The same was going on in Russia. Russia tolerated the invasion of Iraq, and the United States tolerated what was going on in Chechnya. This ideological imperialist cooperation meant “We will not mention your imperialism and you will not talk about ours.”

Both imperialist invasions provided the ideological grounds for states to continue. Putin is now pointing out that the United States invaded Iraq. Russia will justify its invasions by pointing to those of U.S. imperialism.

I agree with Jeremy about the Russian war. I would say that Russian society and the Russian state structurally developed out of colonialism and racism. It’s a big part of the Russian imperial state’s identity. Its colonialist vision is hard to imagine Russia without Ukraine. An independent Ukraine, especially a democratic Ukraine, is a threat.

In Russian ideology, the Russian nation remains a dominant colonial power. Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Georgians were all second-class citizens used by Russian imperialism to oppress other nations while oppressed by Russians. These structural hierarchies continue to exist. In fact, this dynamic of supremacy needs to be strengthened. Racism develops more racism and more expansion. That motivates and feeds imperialism.

Before this podcast, I looked at the one story that reported 47% of Russians would continue the war even if Putin proposes a peace plan. There’s a backlash among those thinking that Putin doesn’t go enough and isn’t aggressive enough against Ukrainians.

SW: There are many myths about this invasion and many about who Ukrainians are. Could you address some of these charges?

VS: Even with Russia on its borders, Ukraine (after 1991) demilitarized and denuclearized itself to a very great extent. Yet Ukraine and other Eastern European countries felt threatened  by the Russian imperialism that destroyed Chechnya and built a police state.

The charge over the official Russian TV channels is Ukraine being “all Nazis” as the reason for the invasion. There was a great article released by my anarchist friend, who has been busy monitoring fascist violence in Ukraine. He monitored 58 cases of violence against people in 2021 by the far right. There were 120 incidents of violence against property. Comparatively, these are not big numbers.

Far-right forces are on the streets and in some military structures. Their influence is certainly less than in Western countries where street violence is strengthened by their parliamentary influence: Alternativ fur Deutschland in Germany, the Swedish Democrats, Le Pen in France or Trump legislators in the United States. These are more serious cases around the globe than what’s going on in Ukraine.

We should acknowledge the existence of far right nationalists in Ukraine. They are fighting in the army, and we as the left have a temporary truce because we are engaged in a people’s war. Everyone sees that the main target is to destroy Russian imperialism.

Afterwards, there probably will be problems with the far right. But for now far-right violence is exceptionally low and their influence lower. As history unfolds there will probably be new conflicts, but the question remains open about whether they will gain or lose strength. There is a problem but not a unique one — the far right exists in most states to a greater or lesser extent.

Democratic Rights and Language

SW: Another question: Are leftist parties being banned in Ukraine?

VS: The parties that have been banned were not left wing although some had leftist-sounding names. The largest of these was the Communist Party of Ukraine, which is directly connected to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Both supported the invasion and were participating in efforts to sabotage the Ukrainian military.

The banned parties clearly stated their support for the Russian invasion or had strong contacts with Russian economic circles. They are Slavic supremacist, racist and homophobic parties. They were banned the same way as fascist parties were during the Second World War in different countries.

We have a few functioning left-wing parties in Ukraine. A leftwing party can easily register, subject to two conditions. No totalitarian symbols (including the hammer and sickle) are allowed, and “communism” not allowed in the name.

Legally existing leftwing organization do not face persecution and can freely carry out their activities, even organizing protests. In Ukraine, this alleged totalitarian state, we had a successful strike. In this time of war, we held a successful protest against neoliberal reforms.

We had trade union demonstrations. We protested against cuts in education. The myth about leftwing parties being banned is absolutely false and used to strengthen Russian propaganda.

SW: Vladislav, one myth about Ukraine to debunk that we hear a lot about is that  Russians had to invade because Ukrainians were suppressing the Russian language. And that ignores the fact that there are major cities that are Russian speaking, even though they’re turning toward Ukrainian. Could you address some of these major myths?

VS: This is a complicated issue, especially for those who don’t understand the history of colonialism. Ukraine had been under the heavy pressure of assimilation into Russian culture and had experienced the destruction of their culture and language.

In the times of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language was seen as the language of peasants, as that of second-class citizens. If you wanted to get a good job, to get a good education, to get a career, you should speak Russian.

Russian was the language of civilized people and Ukrainian was the language of peasants. This was true in independent Ukraine until 2014. Before then it was hard to buy a Ukrainian book. You would go to a bookstore and every book except a few was in Russian. In the cities everyone spoke Russian, and there were no translations into Ukrainian.

Between independence and the Maidan protests there were some who were really strong on defending their Ukrainian language and culture. But afterwards there was an active push by civil society to revive the Ukrainian language and save Ukrainian culture. People started to speak in Ukrainian, more books were printed in Ukrainian and there was more interest in Ukrainian history.

As all of this was happening, not everyone was happy. Russian-speaking people were feeling threatened as the dominant status of Russian was collapsing. At the same time there was, on the part of some, a growing defensive nationalism by those who, in defending Ukrainian culture attacked Russian culture.

There were tensions, but it wasn’t violent. After Maidan, along with a Ukrainian cultural renaissance, some prejudice developed against the Russian language. Ukrainian has become the more dominant language. Certainly, prejudice against the Russian language has been strengthened by the war.

SW: I can see that this language conflict will be a continuing issue, and an important one. I‘d like to turn to Jeremy, who just returned from Kyiv. Can you tell us of your impressions?

JB: One of the things that was striking to me is that most Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian also speak Russian. Many Russian-speaking people in the eastern or southeastern part of the country have a hard time speaking Ukrainian, but it doesn’t really make much difference when it comes to the war.
When I was in the front line area between Kherson and Mykolaiv last summer, I found lonely soldiers speaking Russian. The military chain of command was talking in Russian. They were fighting Russians, but they were all speaking Russian because everyone knew Russian.

There were Russian speakers who didn’t speak Ukrainian, but the Ukrainian speakers all spoke Russian. So this is how it was done in a very difficult situation where we were actively being attacked by the other side.

When I was in Kherson, recently liberated at the end of last year, all the soldiers I talked to there were speaking in Russian too. My interviews were entirely in Russian.

But it is an issue. I was just talking to someone today from Kyiv whom I interviewed a couple of weeks ago. She’s all pissed off because she doesn’t want to have to learn Ukrainian. Well, sorry. You are living in Ukraine after all.

SW: We saw this in the Baltic states, by the way, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There were people in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who did not speak those languages because they were Russians who had moved there.

JB: It might help to learn the country’s language a little bit. Russian was Zelensky’s first language. Before the election he actively studied Ukrainian. He spoke Ukrainian, but he wanted to get it perfected.

I’ve also spoken with people from western Ukraine who really do not like having to get into a taxi in Kyiv and have to speak Russian. So this is an issue that will continue. The new law states that unofficial business transactions such as banks should be conducted in Ukrainian and not Russian.

Ukraine is an independent country and will continue to be. I want to point out to Americans that the people who are bleeding in the war are Ukrainians, and they’re often left out of the equation.

In the United States, some talk how the big, bad United States and NATO are beating up on poor little Russia. Meanwhile Ukrainians have become invisible. They should not be. They’re really suffering. They’re really fighting hard. I’ve covered wars in a lot of places, and I’ve never seen anything like this one.

Ukrainian soldiers have high morale, but they are still very much outnumbered. And when you’re outnumbered, that’s a problem. And when you don’t have the right kind of shells for your artillery, that’s a problem. And this is a major issue in Ukraine.

High Costs and People’s War

Flowers and graves mingle together. Oksana Briukhovetska, Stamps MFA Thesis Exhibition.

SW: Do either of you have figures for the number of soldiers on either side, or the number of wounded and dead?

JB: I don’t have access to the numbers, but what I hear from people on the front lines is that the Russians have much more troop strength, especially when you count the Chechens and the others coming in to fight. This is something I hear all the time.

VS: I am not a military expert, but usually the battlefields are going on in more than one place. In concrete battle usually Russia has more troops at its disposal, and it still has major reserves. Ukraine already mobilized everyone it could mobilize.

I would say it is good that Jeremy noted that on Ukraine’s side there is high morale and a lot of self-organization, society and cooperation. It’s really a people’s war. I had never before experienced something like this.

The only similar event was during the Maidan revolution, when people were self-organizing. People then helped each other, crafting some shields, organizing medical help developed but on a small scale in comparison to now. Everyone is at the free kitchens, helping internally displaced people, and providing clothes and weapons for the military.

Well, except for the bourgeoisie; they are not involved. They’re just living somewhere in Western Europe, enjoying a luxurious life. They are not involved.

Reading Franz Fanon really helps you to understand this war. He said in such times of war, of national liberation, people understand that they are ruling the country and not the capitalist class. Why? Because they are organizing everything; the country can’t run without them. That is the general feeling of the Ukrainian population.

There are also problems that are usually not spoken about, and that we need to discuss. The Ukrainian government is carrying out ultra-Thatcherite-style politics. Its anti-social policies create pressure on civil society.

We have had big cuts in social spending, passage of anti-worker legislation and a deregulation of the labor market. Workers are securing the country against the Russian invasion, and labor rights should not be undermined during this period.

We cannot repel the invasion by ourselves, we need financial and material aid from beyond our borders. Without European and American anti-aircraft systems, I probably wouldn’t be speaking with you.

SW: Jeremy, can you also report about the morale of ordinary Ukrainian people you’ve met. How do you see this war going?

JB: I see the war more or less going on for at least another year. I think that the Russians have at least another year’s worth of war in them, and they want to conquer Ukraine. I think the Ukrainians, as long as they’re well supplied, can hold the Russians off and eventually force some peace negotiations at some point. Right now it is way too early to do such a thing.

If the Chinese truce plan froze the lines where they are, Russia would take advantage of the pause and resume attacking in another couple of years. So that’s a non-starter.

People have adapted to the situation. A friend who lives on the sixth floor of a building walks up and down now; there is no running elevator but she tells me she’s healthy and can adapt.

Luckily, it has been a fairly warm winter in Kyiv. People are starting to feel a lot better with spring around the corner. That’s something that I hear from everyone.

People are very concerned about the amount of blood that they’re expending on the battlefield. That is something I also hear all the time. They say there’s really no alternative — if you stop and have a ceasefire now, the Russians will just keep going.

It’s the Russky Mir issue. The Russians are not going to stop until they are stopped militarily. Nothing else will work. After nearly a million Russians fled their country, those who are still there live under repressive conditions and have no access to the media. It’s a totalitarian state.

But when I was recently in Kyiv, I could see people determined to fight back in whatever way they can. I see people volunteering, including taking medicines and food to people who can’t go out and get them themselves. I see great community spirit there; I’ve never seen that anywhere in my life. As Vladislav said, this is like completely new territory.

SW: What about the huge number of refugees that have fled Ukraine? How has that affected the world, not just the world economic or global situation, but how have people’s perception of the war changed because of contact with refugees?

VS: Refugees forced to flee their countries face a number of problems, particularly racist attitudes. That’s even true with Ukrainians, but even more so with those from other nations. I think it’s important for the left to address that.

All refugees should be equally accepted. Some people express hatred toward Ukrainian refugees because we are “accepted” while others are not. We need to criticize the system that creates a porous border for white people, only letting in people with blue eyes and white skin color.

There are still refugee camps on the Polish-Belarussian border, and on the Lithuanian border, to prevent Syrian refugees getting into the European Union. People are dying.

For the left and for Ukrainians, we need to build connections with different communities of oppressed people and fight for their rights too. We should not allow walls to be built around ourselves, as if to say, “Okay, Ukrainians should pass but everyone else should be barred.”

But Ukrainian refugees able to enter Western countries often find it difficult to adapt. For example, many who were raped by Russian soldiers and have become pregnant want an abortion. But if they are refugees in Poland, they face a law that criminalizes abortion. It is an absolutely absurd law and should be addressed.

What’s At Stake

Progressive struggles, struggles for inclusion of all people, are interconnected. The left needs to bring the topic of Ukraine and the humanity of its people to this universalist point of view. This is not only around the topic of refugees, but in confronting the increasingly authoritarian alliance of different leaders and movements.

We see the convergence of far-right movements and their connections to Putin. They are bonding together against Ukraine and against human rights and democracy. The struggle against Putin is connected to the struggle against all authoritarians and imperialism.

This is a global struggle. Authoritarian leaders are increasingly dependent on each other in their crusade against what they call the liberal world order. They are doing this to justify their attacks on democracy, attacks against minorities, attacks on abortion rights.

It is important that the defeat of Putin be a defeat for authoritarians such as Modi and Trump. Winning one struggle will strengthen other struggles against totalitarian tendencies. In this context it is disappointing to hear Russian propaganda spouted by supposedly left-wing people. They mischaracterize the popular uprising of Maidan as no more than a U.S. coup.

I’m also thinking of Germany where Sarah Wagenknecht, a prominent representative of the left-wing Die Linke party, calls for abandoning Ukraine because having secure Russian gas supplies is more important. Her speech was received to the delight of the right-wing AfD, but fortunately not with her party. But this split in the international left is disturbing.

SW: There’s this rise of a so-called left, which hides its support for authoritarian regimes like in China and Russia, giving backhanded support to the Syrian regime. They call themselves socialists but neglect to talk about bottom-up democratic socialism. For those of us who consider  ourselves socialists, it is our understanding — going all the way back to Marx — that socialism and democracy are inseparable.

How do you address those who only see this war in terms of U.S.-NATO intervention, who don’t seem to consider Ukraine?

VS: I think the left should realign itself on the platform of securing democracy and fighting for its extension and inclusivity. The problem with the left did not begin with Ukraine; we saw it with Syria.

What are leftwing values? Does it mean geopolitics, does it mean anti-Americanism or does it mean supporting a fight for equality for oppressed people, for solidarity between borders, for democracy? It’s a possibility to rethink and realign to push human rights, social and political rights, democratic rights.

In the context of Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine, it’s absolutely necessary to fight for Ukraine to have a just peace, which is achievable only with a Ukrainian victory. That means supporting Ukraine’s right to obtain weapons.

As someone who has learned from the U.S. left, I think that now people can learn from oppressed people like us and the Syrians. If we don’t, I think the left won’t survive internationally. It will collapse because of its lack of a coherent ideology based on the indivisibility of human rights.

SW: I want to thank you both for joining me today on Jacobin Radio. Thanks to producer and director Alan Minsky, and to Jacobin Radio’s Micah Utrecht and Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of Jacobin magazine. Special thanks to Robert Brenner and thanks to you for listening.

[Ukraine Solidarity Network in the United States, Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign and the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine (ENSU).]

May-June 2023, ATC 224

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