Over the last few days, a disheartening consensus has emerged among self-styled Western progressives that there is little or nothing in the current Ukrainian revolution that merits solidarity. This mixture of wariness and indifference was already evident in the build-up to the bloody crackdown in Kyiv on February 18, but it has been stoked and heightened considerably since then by the clear and central role played in unfolding events by the Ukrainian extreme right, particularly by members of the so-called Right Sector and by the somewhat less extremist group Svoboda.
It is undeniable that the far right has taken a leading role in the shaping of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. But what international observers have entirely failed to grasp is that the choice between either supporting fascism or disowning the revolution is an entirely false dichotomy. Progressives worthy of the name could instead have taken the role of the far right as yet another challenge within a political situation that presented a complex cluster of challenges, including, most importantly, the removal of an utterly corrupt lackey of a neighboring dictator. The far right has come to own this revolution in part because of the prissiness of the left, the inability to accept that the situation might be intrinsically complex, and might impose common interests on groups that are otherwise entirely at odds.
The one place where the left seems to get this basic fact is in Russia. Now by 'Russian left' I don't mean people who watch Alex Jones or whomever on RT and who meet every criticism of Putin with the subject-changing remark, 'Well, it's no worse than what the US does'. By 'Russian left' I mean the Russians who want to see Putin go the same way as Yanukovych, so that they can really start building a free and egalitarian society.
It was pointed out to me in Moscow a week ago that there is a direct, graphable correlation, over the past 10 years, between unrest in Kyiv and repression in Moscow. That is, the louder the demands for freedom in Ukraine, the more firmly Putin clamps down on the expression of dissident views at home. Putin fears nothing more than a contagion effect, the spread of disorder from Ukraine into Russia. And Russian progressives brace themselves for another cycle of repression, while inwardly rejoicing when Ukraine rises up, because it gives them hope that the same thing could happen next in Russia.
This is a slim hope, of course, and no one I know has any illusions. Putin could count on the army to repress any Maidan-style movement in Moscow, while Yanukovych knew all along that he could not be certain of the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces. His great error was to suppose that it would be enough to clear the square with police repression, and to fail to recognize the high degree of military organization on the part of the demonstrators. Police snipers are intimidating, but insufficient to bring down the sotni: hundred-strong legions of soldiers, first attested as centuriae in ancient Rome (for linguists this is a lovely instance of the famous centum/satem split), but incarnated much more recently by communist brigades in the Spanish civil war.
The tweets I am reading from the sotni are nationalist and ultranationalist in character. There is near constant invocation of the call-and-repeat formula: Слава Україні — Героям Слава! [Glory to Ukraine -- Glory to the heroes!]. This phrase goes back to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a hard nationalist and anticommunist group during World War II that also fought for Ukrainian independence against the Nazi occupation. The pair of phrases continues to be used today as a slogan for all supporters of Ukrainian independence. I chanted them myself at the demonstration in front of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in Paris on February 19 (there were some prickly fascists lurking around, to be sure, but there were also Odessa Jews, orange-bedecked Kyiv democrats, and assorted other good people singing the national anthem together). They have been consciously and carefully taken up by left supporters of Maidan in Russia and Ukraine. Thus for example Aleksandr Pivtorak, writing in Russian from Kyiv for the Ukrainian online news source Hvylya, concludes his article on Maidan and 'the crisis of left mobility' with the sign-off Слава Україні! He knows where the phrase comes from. He also knows what it means right now.
I recently read a comment from someone whose Jewish communist grandparents used to like to say that the only argument for Stalin was that he could keep the Ukrainian fascists in check. To me this comment said more than it intended: it drove home to me the fundamentally neo-Stalinist character of much of the vocal left in the West. In their own way, too, by turning their backs on the Ukrainian revolution for fear of its ugly fascists, the Western left is sticking with Stalin. The current incarnation of Stalin does not even pretend to represent a hope for a radiant future for the oppressed of the world. He is a pragmatist and a realist, but, like the dictator who represented both the apex of Soviet power and the beginning of its decline, Putin's own power rests on convincing enough minds, at home and abroad, that the people he governs need this sort of government, that they are historically or genetically (the distinction is always blurry here) incapable of enlightened self-rule, and therefore must be ruled with an iron fist.
This is nothing more than an ugly prejudice, and it is clear that Western Ukraine isn't buying it anymore. Putin had sought to keep Ukraine within Russia's tighter sphere of influence through corruption, poison attacks, and, most recently, through a major, $15-billion-dollar loan to the Yanukovych government. It was implicit as a condition of this loan that the Ukrainian president would not go along with any movement for a reorientation toward the EU, and therefore that he would not tolerate the EuroMaidan movement, and would do whatever was necessary to suppress it. He tried to suppress it, and failed, and now Putin is very unhappy.
I have been reading many comments from Ukraine to the effect that we are only now seeing the true end of the pax sovietica, the true collapse of the USSR. The first collapse was partial, it let loose those republics, like the Baltics, that had only been seized in the chaos of World War II, and those of Central Asia, that always remained culturally and demographically very distinct (with the exception of major portions of Kazakhstan). Russia continued however, after the collapse, to perceive the world beyond its borders in terms of two distinct kinds of foreignness: the true abroad, on the one hand, and the ближнее зарубежье, or 'near abroad' on the other. Nowhere did this latter category apply more fully than to Ukraine. The very name 'Ukraine' suggests that it is 'at the border': u kraya.
In the early 1990s, when the final arrangement had yet to take shape and we were hearing strange acronyms like CIS ('Commonwealth of Independent States'), exiled Russian nationalists like Solzhenitsyn were unequivocal: let the 'Stans go, let the Baltics go, but keep greater Russia, historical Russia, together. This would include the RSFSR, 'White Russia' or Belarus, and 'Little Russia' or Ukraine. When that could not quite be realized at a formal level, Russia, at least since the beginning of the Putin era, did everything possible to make it a de facto reality. And it was, more or less, until now.
Left-leaning analysts in the West, including Stephen F. Cohen writing for The Nation, have appealed to the same ancestral ties that excited Solzhenitsyn's patriotic imagination in order to argue that we must not rush to suppose that Ukraine has a right to be independent from Russia. This is ironic. Solzhenitsyn used to be the arch-conservative Western progressives could tolerate because of his truth-to-power exposure of the excesses of the Soviet Gulag system under Stalin and Khrushchev. Now there are echoes of Solzhenitsyn in the left's defense of Russia's neo-Soviet clinging to what's left of its imperial power. But, again, this unlikely twist can be explained in large part by the fact that the left is far more Stalinist, mostly unknowingly, than it was a generation ago. (It also was not reading a magazine called Jacobin, a detail that seems to trouble me a lot more than it does my peers.)
We should not be talking about Ukrainian independence tout court. There are real political, economic, and cultural ties between much of Eastern Ukraine and Moscow, and it would seem to be a violation of the popular will of this region to break those ties by force or decree. There also does not seem to be any natural reason why Sofia, say, belongs any more in Europe than Lviv does. Many borders are artefacts of historical contingencies, and it would be ridiculous to seek to set them all just right once and for all. But as I've been arguing elsewhere, the current uprising in Western Ukraine is not primarily about geopolitical reorientation or about chasing the glossy consumerist dream of the EU.
Indeed, to suppose that this is what it is about, as many who are eager to abandon the Ukrainian revolution have argued, is a direct contradiction of the view that what the revolution is really about is ultranationalism, fierce defense of Ukrainian soil, etc. Again, ultranationalism is one of the elements in the current events, and so, admittedly, is Euro-optimism (on this latter point, the Russian line is of course a compelling one: there is no good reason for such optimism; Russia is richer by far than, say, Romania or Bulgaria, and only fools would rush to join the EU only similar terms). But I would conjecture that a deeper historical reason for what is happening right now is the desire in Western Ukraine for a free and independent society, and this means, most importantly, a final end to Russian domination.
I hope they attain this, and I declare my antipathy to any Westerner who does not have the same hope, or does not believe that this is something to which the Ukrainians have a right. I believe mutatis mutandis that this rift is the same as the one that separated defenders of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 from those who saw it for what it was. Again, one great difference between 1956 and today is that Putin is not even pretending to hope to bring about a better world (or, if he is, it's only in the same obviously disingenuous way Alex Jones and other guests on the Russian propaganda network are). Were there craven Hungarian antisemites who resented those Soviet tanks coming and interrupting their plans for an independent Hungary? Of course there were! Does anyone today doubt that the Soviet Union overreached its legitimate exercise of power? I hope not.
And again, I declare that in this hope I look most of all to what the dissident Russian left is saying, and I don't care much at all about the opinion of Americans who think Fox News is the only media outlet capable of lying, or that Obama is the only world leader prepared to kill innocents. The Russians I know look to Ukraine, and they see a glimmer of hope that they too might soon be free of the old prejudice that validates and excuses their being ruled by an iron fist, and that the pax sovietica might collapse even within its core of power in Russia. I'm on their side.
Yes, there are fascists playing a central role in the Ukrainian revolution right now. And yes, the US and the EU are trying cynically manipulate the revolution for their own geopolitical interests, just like Russia is. Don't let these parties prevail. Don't abandon Ukraine.