July 28th, 2020 | 1 hr 10 mins
2016, activism, anarchism, bernie sanders, communism, democratic, hillary clinton, impeachment, lenin, leninism, masha gessen, paul manafort, poland, progressivism, putin, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, solidarity, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, timothy snyder, trotsky, trump, ukraine, victor serge, yanukovich
[Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]
The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The European Union became for many a beacon of hope that Ukraine could soon become a full democracy where money couldn’t buy power to flaunt the law, and where elections were not negotiated by a corrupt group of oligarchs. But the mafia state in Russia was a constant roadblock on the way to mass democracy, and from the beginning Trump was there dipping his ladle into the trough of human misery. In 1986 and again in 1996 Trump tried and failed to get a deal to build a luxury hotel in Moscow (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
We now know a lot about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, stretching back decades. We learned a lot from Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22 of 2017. Simpson investigated Trump for Fusion GPS, which is the company that produced the Steele Dossier. Trump is a failed businessman. His father earned money running brothels during the gold rush out west, and then buying up real estate in Brooklyn just before the bridge was built increasing the value of land there. Trump’s own enterprises, hotels and casinos kept losing money. He defaulted on many loans, and couldn’t get financing in western banks. So he starts looking for money to invest from Russia just as the market was being opened in the early 90s, and Russians were trying to find a way to get money out to western banks where it could be safe.
To understand the war in Ukraine today we have to talk about Putin’s rise to power in 1999. That is also where the story of Yanukovich’s rise in Ukrainian politics and later Trump’s rise in American politics begins. (Hensman 67,Gessen 21-42, Horvath p24). In 1999 Putin is still working as a leader in the FSB, and he starts having FSB agents set bombs in apartment buildings so that he can blame it on Chechen rebels to start a war with Chechnya. That’s how he makes himself a big hero and wins the election. It worked. Several hundred Russians were murdered, and over a thousand injured. Even though in one case where the local FSB had not been informed of the plot they actually responded to a report of the bomb and disarmed it, and then later had to change their story about it being a bomb to “oh, it was a training exercise and these were bags of sugar,” everyone in Russia at the time believed it was Chechnyans (Gessen The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin [MWFURVP] pp23-29; Hensman, pp. 65-66). In 2002 an independent commission established by the Russian Duma (a parliament) found, partly based on the testimony of defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, that the FSB had been behind the bombings. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian agents using Polonium in quantities only manufacturable by state powers, with the poison being traced back to KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi who had tea with Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London where he lived in exile. At the time Gordon Brown then refused to meet with Putin, though David Cameron later would in an attempt to reset relations with Russia. Note in passing that in part it was Jeremy Corbyn’s very pro-Russian reaction to news of a similar poisoning of Sergei Skripal that in part convinced Labor voters that he did not have their best interests in heart. His reaction to the murder of Litvinenko was the same. Corbyn either didn’t know or didn’t care that Litvinenko had been murdered to hide the FSB’s bombings of Russian citizens in 1999. Either way, what a horrible thing to contribute to the cover up of such a terrible crime. His reaction to Skripal’s murder is proof that he had not reflected on any of this, and he deserved to lose in 2019. The British working class deserved much better. Putin’s war in Chechnya in 2000 was the original “war on terror,” coming as it did a year before the attacks of 9/11. As a result of this manufactured crisis in March of 2000 Putin is elected President. This set the model for what is called “managed democracy,” where a state produces crises whenever there is an election in order to produce the desired outcome.
Putin had cut his teeth as an FSB agent in the 80s in Germany, and as he watched the Berlin wall torn down, and then later saw protest movements spread across Eastern Europe where former Soviet States were holding referendums where the majority voted to leave the USSR, something shifted into place for Putin. It’s from that time on that Putin saw the CIA in all such popular movements. His views are reflected in Russian propaganda through Russia Today and Sputnik and other sources. When pro-democracy protest movements erupted in Georgia in 2004, Putin and the Russian state media called it a CIA coup. Likewise with the Maidan protests that occured in 2013. Coup. Are there massive protests in Syria? It’s a coup. Srdja Popovic is the activist that led the student movement Otpor! who helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic only escaped conviction for war crimes by dying before the trial could be concluded. Peter Pomerantsev recently interviewed Mr. Popovic: “Srdja Popovic is halfway through explaining to me how to bring down a dictator when he gets a call. It’s a warning about a piece coming out tomorrow claiming he’s connected to the CIA and is behind revolutions in the Middle East. The piece first appeared in an Istanbul daily and then reappeared on a minor Serbian-language website full of pro-Russian conspiracies. From there it moved to a site owned by Christian Orthodox patriots, and it would soon be featured on the front page of one of Serbia’s largest tabloids, which Srdja assumes, is publishing it because conspiracy theories sell rather than because the paper has it in for him personally. After all, he makes for a good story. Recently Russian state TV camera crews turned up at his office among the monolithic Communist concrete cubes of New Belgrade, where it sits between a hairdressing salon and a pastry shop. They tried to force their way in. If they had hoped to find dozens of CIA operatives, they must have been disappointed. Srdja runs a permanent staff of four Serbs, who sit in a neat grey office which would look like an accountant’s, were it not for the multiple posters of the clenched fist that is Srdja’s logo.” (Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda [TNP], p.59). The obsession with the CIA, seeing its secret hand behind every event we can’t or won’t explain, is a kind of structural anti-semitism, in that it doesn’t, at least not always with Putin, name Jews as the originators of the international conspiracy, but it labels all such popular protests as being instigated by a shadowy cabal, sometimes that’s just vaguely refered to as “the West,” “elites,” or “America” or “George Soros,” and in Putin’s version it is more often “the homosexual Western conspiracy.” There’s never any proof but that’s not the point. The point is to make people sitting at home doubt just enough so they don’t want to join the protests. It effectively robs the protestors of their agency, treating human beings like manipulable political objects, just the way some dogmatic Marxist might. This should sound familiar after our episodes on Syria. We’ll find more examples of structural anti-semitism as we continue.
Here is a quick list of tropes that are typical of Russian propaganda, identified by experts in the field Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for full sources.
The US is to blame for any attacks against it. (Gessen, p 232)
American intervention is going to cause World War 3. (Gessen, p. 234)
Humanism, cosmopolitanism, human rights are always bankrupt concepts and their use is cynical manipulation. (Gessen, p. 234).
Russia is not imperialist. When it invades its neighbors this is always in self defence. (Gessen, p. 275)
Pro-democracy revolutions only lead to chaos and civil war. (Pomerantsev, p. 140).
Because some nations have violated the law, law itself is bankrupt, and so when Russia breaks the law it does so from innocence because it does not pretend to honor the law. (Snyder, p. 143).
In 2003 Ukraine’s close neighbor Georgia had a revolution that overthrew Russian stooge Eduard Shevardnadze, and in 2004 the Adjara revolution restored Georgian independence from Russia. In 2008 Russia went to war in Georgia to try and restore Russian domination of them; we note this in passing to give an idea of how invested Russia is in keeping its privileged trade relations with its neighbors. This is important to Ukraine, because the Georgian example caused panic in Russia that Ukraine might want meaningful independence also. Also, we’re all good leftists here, so the plight of those oppressed by imperialism moves us. Right? The fate of a place like Georgia or Ukraine is still impacted by Russian internal politics today, and in late 2003 Russian liberals lost the Duma (Horvath p14). In May of 2004 Putin gives a speech blaming the Velvet revolutions on foreign NGOs and George Soros.
In 2004, as Putin’s man in Ukraine Yanukovich was losing an election to remain as Ukraine’s president, in Russia Putin won another election, going through a period where rhetorically he voiced approval of the EU and NATO. Putin won this election thanks to widespread fraud, which should surprise no one. What is interesting here is that, according to Masha Gessen, the fraud seemed to be committed by a grassroots network of supporters, and not to have been coordinated from above (Gessen, MWAFURVP, p184). She goes into some depth in The Future is History to try and explain the psychology of people who are willing to destroy democracy in exchange for kickbacks, talking about Homo Sovieticus.
Here is what they did. Over a million people were deleted from voting roles, which also happened in the US in 2016. Ballots arrived at hospitals pre-filled. People were paid to vote a certain way. The old soviet culture of corruption, of quid pro quo, led people to support Putin in this way in order to get kickbacks: in Stalin’s Russia this kind of corruption was a matter of life and death.
Masha Gessen’s great insight into Russian style fascism is that by increasing the pain people are going through, the regime is able to make them more desperate, more willing to believe the story that nothing could ever have been different, that they must attack their enemies, that they are great.
In the Summer of 2004 Russia began an aggressive intervention into the Ukrainian elections in an attempt to get Yanukovich elected over the EU friendly Viktor Yuschenko. When Putin calls some political movement a coup, or a conspiracy, it’s the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Russia sets up a team of what they call “political technologists” in Kiev in 2004. During the months that followed they did extremely poorly manufactured polling designed to favor Yanukovich. They organized speeches by pro-Russian speakers and groups. They were trying to play down the idea that Yanukovich and Medvedev and the whole pro-Putin club were gangsters, kleptocrats. That was made harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a personal vendetta against Georgii Gongadze who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and even harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a criminal record that included a rape conviction (Horvath, p24). As Yanukovitch’s campaign proposed making Russian the official language of Ukraine, Putin himself came into Ukraine to campaign for him, appearing in a softball interview and presiding over a military parade where he invoked the USSR’s role in fighting Hitler in Ukraine in 1943. Remember how Stalin’s role fighting Hitler in WW2 was used to retroactively whitewash the terrible famine Stalin imposed on Ukrainian peasants in 1932, as punishment for “discrediting socialism”? Well, Russian politicians get a lot of mileage out of what they think ‘Stalin beating Hitler’ can let them justify doing. The other aspects of Stalin’s USSR’s involvement in WW2 get erased from this story, the abandonment of Poland in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the role of the comintern in organizing protests against US entry into WW2 in 1939, the purges and mass murder of Poles after Stalin divided up Eastern Europe with Hitler, the way the vast majority of soviet officials collaborated heavily with Hitler and helped initiate the holocaust to scapegoat Jews for the crimes of the NKVD, all of that is forgotten. Instead, “Stalin beats Hitler” gets trotted out in 2004 to justify Russian neo-liberal domination of the Ukrainian economy, to prevent Ukrainian independence and anti-corruption measures, to sabotage Ukrainian entry into the EU, and much later in 2014 “Stalin beats Hitler” will be used to justify Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, having an intimate knowledge of that history of Russia’s forcing famine on Ukraine, many of whom still suffer from bad health effects from Chernobyl, have decided that the lesson of history is that they need to shake off Russian domination. When the voting started in 2004 tracksuit wearing thugs attacked voters at polling stations to stop them from voting (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/1477722/Revealed-the-full-story-of-the-Ukrainian-election-fraud.html). Jesus, just saying that out loud I hear how that sounds like something from a Russian gangster movie, but you don’t have to take my word for it, there is a video of the attacks online, and I’ve linked it in the transcript (https://censor.net.ua/en/video_news/461036/local_elections_in_ukraine_police_show_attack_on_polling_station_in_dnipropetrovsk_region_video). There was widespread fraud in this election. Ballots were destroyed. Busloads of Yanukovich supporters went from polling station to polling station, with the same people voting at each station. In some places voters were given pens with disappearing ink! Managed democracy.
Massive protests broke out in Kiev in 2004 against this clear attack on democracy and the rule of law. This is what has become known as the “Orange Revolution.” The protests, sit-ins and a general strike all worked in the end and a second vote was held. International observers agreed this second election was fair, and the winner by a couple percentage points was Victor Yuschenko. But, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, poison your enemies. So, that’s what Russia did: they poisoned Yuschenko resulting in his disfigurement. The poisoning was discovered. Yushchenko got skin grafts and served as president of Ukraine until 2010 when Paul Manafort helped get Yanukovich elected.
In 2008 Putin couldn’t run for a third term legally, so he had his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become President while Putin became Prime Minister. By that point anyone could tell Putin was still in charge. Masha Gessen describes the system in place in 2008 to assure no candidates independent of the state party could get their names on the ballot: Here “Seryozha” sits in for the incredulous Russian public. “An independent candidate -- one who was not already a member of parliament - was required by new Putin era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country. This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists- preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Michail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out. But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake - and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures?” (Gessen, The Future is History, p289).
A word about managed democracy. The Russian fascists that Putin gets his ideas from, including Ilyin, Dugin and the Izvestia group, believe that the best nation is one without the law and order of a regular state power. The people’s will is embodied in the person of the leader. Law is defined as his will. If he wants to shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of the street there is nothing anyone can do. Elections are only held as a ritual whereby the people perform their role legitimizing the power of that leader. Managed Democracy. Putin’s last two decades in power fit this description to a T. Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has noted that the lack of a clear succession principle makes modern Russia unstable, makes the future beyond Putin permanently unimaginable. To justify his holding power in the absence a government authority that could survive him, Putin must tell a story about Russia’s eternal enemies. In Putin’s narrative, those eternal enemies are western and homosexual. The Russian ruling clique has decided that homophobia is the way they are going to mobilize people against Russia’s enemies. They believe this information war will go on forever. As a big middle finger to him, we’re going to talk about recent historical events, things that happen and then stop happening, that exist outside of eternity. We’re going to talk about what is actually happening, about what Russia tries to hide from view by vilifying homosexuals and the United States.
We know Paul Manafort now as the corrupt manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign starting officially in March of 2016. We all know that Mr. Manafort is currently serving a prison sentence for federal financial crimes. The official line from the Trump team is that the two men met in an elevator in 2015, though its established fact that they were introduced probably decades before by Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. In 2004 Paul Manafort lived in Trump tower, and in 2006 Trump signed a one-year deal to start building a hotel in Moscow on the site of an old pencil factory, but again nothing was built (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
In 2010 Paul Manafort was hired to get the disgraced Yanukovich re-elected in Ukraine. Tellingly, part of how Manafort cleaned up Yanukovich in 2010 was convincing the latter to speak Ukrainian. He won reelection in part by promising to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After the election, Manafort continued to lobby for Yanukovich in Washington. Meanwhile Yanukovich stole billions of dollars from Ukraine. Protesters in 2014 found his financial records documenting this abuse in a palace that Yanukovich had built during this period with money stolen from the public. The palace had a 9 hole golf course, a helipad, a floating restaurant, a zoo (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/trumpinc/episodes/trump-inc-ukraine). In August 2016 we found out in the NYT that Manafort was paid 27million dollars from Yanukovich under the table. In Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, Oliver Bullough describes the real cost of this corruption in sapping hundreds of thousands of dollars from a cancer research center, forcing parents of children with cancer to pay bribes for treatment. The Health Minister had overpaid 300 per cent for HIV and TB drugs in 2012. In 2014 efforts to reform the system were abandoned after the Health ministry in seven months couldn’t find a single supplier that wasn’t corrupt (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n04/vadim-nikitin/kleptocracy). That’s money the Ukrainian working class made being expropriated by an American politician with the result being poor people getting no health care, including children with cancer.
As the United States was pursuing a reset of relations with Russia, events in Russia were propelling the country towards a war with Ukraine. The Russian economy in the early oughts did well because theirs was an economy based on the export of oil. After the financial crisis of 2008 the price of oil collapsed, and afterwards Russians were less tolerant of the tyranny they lived under. In 2011 Putin’s Russia faked a landslide victory in the lower house of the Rusian parliament. In response 80,000 people protested in Moscow through December. It’s worth quoting Snyder at length [TRU} I can’t help as I read this thinking about how the Czar claimed the Bolsheviks were German agents. “If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: ‘she gave the signal.’ On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics...But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public media was paying attention to Moscow...The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a ‘documentary,’ which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners. Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that ‘it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,’ he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia. From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.” (Snyder TRU, p 56).
Putin won another rigged election in 2012. What seems to be significant about this election was that by this point the fraudulent nature of the election was taken for granted, an avowed and established part of the procedure. From Masha Gessen: “On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. ‘Can you believe this?’ the mothers asked one another. ‘They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.’ They meant the appearance of an election.” (p. 325).
In the US, not experiencing Occupy Wall Street, events in Russia barely pierced the foggy media bubble. I remember around this time joining protests in solidarity with the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and that’s it. I don’t remember once hearing a word of solidarity uttered for Russia. US politicians seemed even more clueless. Remember how in the West people thought that opening “free markets” would spontaneously generate democratic governments? Well, that was never true, but people believed it, so to the extent that anyone was paying serious attention to Russia, it was to protect the ability of people to invest money in Russia. But Russians were in the habit of taking whatever they wanted and killing people who got in the way. The result of all this was that to protect commerce, Congress passes the Magnitsky Act in the summer of 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/). The Magnitsky of the act was an accountant and lawyer who represented William Browder, who invested millions in Russia and was fleeced of his investments by the Russian government mafia. For exposing this corruption, Magnitsky was thrown in jail where he was found dead in 2009. The act freezes the bank accounts of several important Russian oligarchs. This disrupts their efforts to steal money from people investing in Russia, because without western banks as havens into which to launder the money, there’s no way for them to protect their stolen wealth. Now whenever someone tells you there’s no way to stop wealthy people from hiding their money overseas, just remember the Magnitsky Act. Unsurprisingly, Trump has worked to undermine the Magnitsky act, lifting sanctions against Russian oligarchs whenever possible (https://themoscowproject.org/collusion/trump-administration-lifts-sanctions-on-firms-tied-to-deripaska/). By now it should be clear that the Magnitsky Act is going to make it hard for Trump to launder money for Russian oligarchs. In 2013 Trump visits Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and tweets: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW is next.” (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
2013 was a big year for Ukraine. In 2013 Yanukovich reneges on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and protests erupt centered on the Maidan in Kiev. When police used violence to disperse the student protestors, masses of people joined the protests in december of 2013. These were protests on the same scale as Berlin 1848, Paris 1871, Cairo 2011, or Hama in 2012, and they had much the same goals of democracy and human rights. To get a real feeling for how and why the protests happened, you could do worse than to watch Winter On Fire, an excellent documentary about these events. Here’s how Timothy Snyder describes the protests: “Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line…. Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant… The politics of this nation [the one forged on the Maidan] were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolensko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.” In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of the Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: ‘On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves!”’ (Snyder [TRU] pp128-129). Recall that Marx defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as the domination of the state by civil society leading to the dissolution of class differences. We have seldom caught glimpses of that possibility, the possibility of people directly and democratically organizing their own lives, but in the Maidan we got a clear vision of it on the same level as the Paris Commune.
On the 20th of February, 2014 snipers massacred hundreds of protestors on the Maidan. A few days later Russia prepared its own population for war with Ukraine by broadcasting false reports of Ukrainian atrocities in the Crimea. They made up a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy (Snyder p.178). The shelled Ukrainian civilian areas, and broadcast news stories about how Ukraine was shelling its own towns (Snyder, p. 172). Russian forces invaded without Russian insignia, then pretended to be local separatist guerillas (Snyder, p. 165).. Russians were bussed in to pretend to be protesters storming county government buildings in order to stage the popular overthrow of local government (Snyder, p 144). When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down on June 23, 2014, Russia claimed that the plane had fallen because of a Ukrainian missile aimed at the president of Russia, that Ukrainian Jewish air traffic controllers told the plane to fly at a low altitude, or that the CIA had prefilled the plane with corpses in order to slander Russia. None of these things was true, of course. As forensic evidence later showed, MH17 had been shot down by the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade. The plane was flying on an authorized route at a normal altitude (Snyder, pp. 174-175). No wonder Pomerantsev has said that the war existed to create the media phenomenon. Snyder explains that the point of this misinformation war is to destroy the possibility of public sympathy for the victims of Russia’s invasion, which Russian state media called Nazis. “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. Once the intellectuals moorings were loosed, it was easy for Russians (and Europeans, and Americans) to latch on to well-funded narratives provided by television, but it was impossible to work one’s way towards an understanding of people in their own setting: to grasp where they were coming from, what they thought they were doing, what sort of future they imagined for themselves. Ukrainians who began by defending a European future found themselves, once the propaganda and the violence began, fighting for a sense that there could be a past, a present, and a future. The Maidan began as Ukrainian citizens sought to find a solution for Ukrainian problems. It ended with Ukrainians trying to remind Europeans and Americans that moments of high emotion require sober thought. Distant observers jumped at the shadows of the story, only to tumble into a void darker than ignorance.” (Snyder, p. 151).
The Internet Research Agency, which later worked to sell England on Brexit, and later worked to sell the US on Trump, was working hard on social media to convince the world that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend the Russian minority there, all while Russian officials denied that any such invasion had happened. Russian propaganda, built on structural antisemitism, almost always involves an element of bashing of LGBTQ and invocation of an epic struggle against the US. Although Obama’s February 28th statement of concern about “military movements” in Ukraine was the first time during the crisis that Obama had said anything, and though he was still not doing anything, Russians invoked a war against the west and once again the nobility of “Stalin beats Hitler.” In the light of this history, Russia bombing Syria in 2015, the story of Lisa F., it’s campaigns for Brexit and Trump take on their proper significance: a fascist war waged partly in cyberspace by a Russia spinning out of control, throwing a tantrum because it has possibly losing its colonies.
The protest movement in Ukraine in the Spring of 2014 succeeded in forcing Yanukovich to resign and in calling for new elections. The new democratically elected government of Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, though full EU membership is still an uncertain prospect. The European Union itself is an imperfect institution, and deserves a full discussion on its own. I hope it’s obvious from the discussion here and from the previous podcast that the European Union, whatever its role in the Greek debt crisis, is clearly a lifeline for Ukrainian democracy. If the choice is between the EU and being owned by a group of Russian Oligarchs, as is the case in Ukraine, choosing the Oligarchs is clearly the wrong call.
Probably you have noticed by now that talking about Ukraine inevitably forces us to talk about Trump. In February of 2014, as Ukrainian protestors are dying under sniper fire for wanting a better world, we find Trump on Fox news praising Putin and bragging about his relationship with the Russian oligarch. That very same month that the Izborsk Club put out a memorandum abandoning Yanukovich whom they presumed was to be deposed and declaring that Russia should invade Ukraine, which they did two months later. Trump is the first anti-American president, the first president who is the friend of foreign tyrants. The Izborsk Club is a Russian think tank founded by fascist novelist Alexander Prokhanov, friend of Putin’s. Another member of Izborsk is Tikhon Shevkunov who’s big idea is that Putin is the reincarnation of Volodymr of Rus who first signed the agreement with the Cossacks to back them in their fight for independence from Poland, an agreement that supposedly constitutes Russia’s right to dominate Ukraine. Trump is a big fan.
During Trump’s presidential campaign he attacked NATO and US sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine, all the while pursuing, you guessed it, a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, something Trump lied about later. In June of 2016 Manafort and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyers to discuss dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
Because the Mueller report never found a smoking gun on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, some may have lost sight of the indisputable facts that (1) Trump is a huge Putin stan with clear business interests in Russia, and (2) Russia used enormous military assets in 2016 to help Trump get elected. The resistance to admitting this evidence is one of the greatest threats to our beating Trump in 2020. To admit that Russians influenced our election is to recognize the weaknesses in our society, state, and movement, that led to our democracy being successfully attacked. Facing those weaknesses could strengthen our process and keep Trump from getting a second term. Let’s talk about the Russian hacking of the 2016 election briefly, so that we can better understand why Trump targeted military aid to Ukraine specifically in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior was writing about the connections between Trump and Putin back in 2015, and she describes the media reaction to her as gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you manipulate someone by telling them they are crazy. Abusers use it against their victims so that the latter will blame themselves for the abuse, or to deny that it is happening. Maybe the media wasn’t so much abusing Kendzior, but they were pretending she was crazy to be drawing out these parallels. You should listen to her podcast “gaslit nation.” (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/andrea-chalupa/gaslit-nation) There’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says we couldn’t possibly have had an election meaningfully tampered with. I rely on the work of Kathlene Jamieson, who is a professor of communications and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been covering electoral messaging for several decades. Her book Cyberwar is essential to understanding the 2016 election: go out and read it. We have to discuss that book’s main point here just to understand how the Russian misinformation campaign worked in the US.
Two important things to note: (1) that the email scandals were orchestrated by Russia to provide the framing of the election that made it possible for Trump to win, and (2) the left amplified this propaganda to suppress the vote for Hillary Clinton. There were two email scandals that get conflated. People think that because Clinton used her private computer Russians got DNC emails, but that’s not what happened. No useful intelligence was gathered outside the US from Clinton using her private devices for official business, and she was cleared of all wrong doing in 2019, to very little media attention. That story gets mixed up with the Russian hack of the DNC server that we all found out about in June of 2016, though little attention was paid to it at the time. Again, Americans really did think it far fetched that such a thing could happen. In September 2016, Trump joked that it was probably some 400 lbs. guy sitting on their beds in New Jersey. The fact Trump was making a fat phobic joke didn’t stop the left from laughing along. Then campaign manager of the Clinton campaign Donna Brazile describes what she was told by CrowdStrike, the company who took over their data security after the breach: “The hackers… were sophisticated teams, codenamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike. The two bears, Crowdstrike said, came from competing Russian intelligence agencies that had teams working twenty-four hours a day to break into foreign computer systems...Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike said in the Post article: ‘This is a sophisticated foreign intelligence service with a lot of time, a lot of resources, and is interested in targeting the U.S. political system” (Brazile, p28). Russian military officers stole emails from the DNC, and then carefully misquoted them at key moments to frame the electoral race to benefit Trump by suppressing the potential democrat vote.
On October 7th, 2016 as early voting had started, the Obama administration put out a memorandum about the Russian operation and that Wikileaks was likely a tool alongside DCleaks and Guccifer 2.0 Russia was using to leak stolen material from DNC emails. Half an hour later the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about being a serial molester of women was released by The Washington Post. Half an hour after that wikileaks dumped a cache of emails stolen from once Clinton campaign manager John Podesta: and these emails formed the basis of the pizzagate conspiracy theory. Social media accounts connected to Russian IP addresses that day were digging up old stories of Hillary Clinton working as a defence attorney in a rape case. The story about the Russian misinformation was completely obscured from the media horizon by Russian misinformation. The framing of the race as between two equally flawed candidates dominated the media throughout the entire month when voting happened in 2016, with the media regularly conflating the hack of the DNC with Clinton’s use of her private computers. In the final debate between Clinton and Trump the mediators repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton about lying and duplicity. Raddatz asked Hillary Clinton: “This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu(ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html). The speech in question finds Clinton praising Lincoln, who is shown in a movie explaining a policy in true but different terms to two different constituencies. As Clinton tries to explain this, Trump quips: “now she’s blaming Lincoln.” The audience laughed at that.
The false equivalence of Clinton and Trump is driving many today to say that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the democratic candidate in the general election, they will not vote for the democrat. That and the idea that the primary was rigged. If you listen carefully to far left pundits you will notice that according to them the Democratic Party is too weak to win an election but strong enough to rig one, too incompetent to beat Trump, but clever enough to rig the primaries against Sanders. The main problem with this story is that Sanders lost not because the process was rigged, but because fewer people voted for him in the primary. The second problem is that the rules for that convention were set before Sanders entered the primary, and he knew that because he had not been officially a part of the Democratic Party up to then he would be at a disadvantage. When Vox covers this supposed rigging in May of 2016 they are constrained by the facts to say it didn’t happen (https://www.vox.com/2016/5/24/11745232/bernie-sanders-rigged), and then point out that if you count Democrats campaigning against Sanders as rigging a primary then yes it was rigged. Except that is the definition of a system that is not rigged, where everyone can campaign and the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. The left has a serious weakness here that we will get into next podcast as we discuss the 2020 election. Giving specific criticisms of the system is helpful to democracy. Saying the system is hopelessly rigged helped to suppress the vote in a very close election. 70,000 votes in three states go the other way and Trump doesn’t become president. We can and should criticize the Democratic Party, but not without reason. When we fall back on the wrong lessons of the 20th century that we have absolute enemies, in this case the Dems, we then cannot discern who our real enemies are: Donald Trump. In a context where 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US face ethnic cleansing at the hands of a fascist in the White House, we should put aside the purety of our politics and stand up for something greater: basic human solidarity. And all we have to do is admit the truth: the election isn’t rigged (yet) and if we don’t vote for the Democrat we risk losing the basic freedoms that allow us to fight back, free speech and the right to assemble.
I’ve heard the argument that if we get a President Biden that leaves the system that made Trump in place and then four years later we just get another Trump but worse. First off, if Biden wins the presidency that doesn’t mean that a Trump will win the next election: each election is its own contest. Second, we begin dismantling the fascist movement by denying it the White House. Our failure to see the importance of having a not fascist in the White House in 2016 made us complicit in Trump’s crimes.
On November 7, 2016 Jacobin Magazine published an article by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller. It’s a hit piece on Hillary Clinton that framed her evolution on issues such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, war and social welfare as her being two-faced (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/hillary-clinton-is-running-for-president). This was precisely the same framing Russia had planted with the emails it leaked to wikileaks, and considering we got Trump as a result, this behavior is completely reckless of the wellbeing of immigrants and poor people who would have clearly suffered less under Clinton. We are seeing all of these same rhetorical devices today, where Bernie Sanders is said to have evolved after his vocal support of and actually voting for the crime bill in 1994, but Warren, after having shifted so radically and decisively around bankruptcy law, is treated like a Republican Manchurian candidate. If the people who don’t think the way we do can’t be trusted to ever genuinely change, then we will never ever convincingly win other people over, and for them there’s no payoff for changing their mind. If you think that pointing out Sanders’ past errors is “unfair” or some kind of an “attack,” then you need to reflect on why you think your favorite person should be beyond criticism. I am not suggesting that we should give any politician a pass, but I am suggesting that in 2016 the left followed the rest of the media in unfairly putting Clinton, a career politician who was wrong in all the same ways society at large was wrong in the last few decades, on the same moral standing as a racist who had bragged about molesting women. That moral equivalence is only possible because the standard we held Clinton to is impossibly higher than the one we held Trump to, and that’s the definition of misogyny. Then we wrongly accused the Democratic Party of rigging the primary, just as we began doing during the primary whenever Sanders lost a state, but never when he won them. Each time we echo Trump’s talking points about a rigged election we are working to suppress the vote and hasten our own doom. This is a strategic disaster, one that may have been understandable in 2016 as a mistake of a still young and isolated socialist movement, but then to repeat that error in 2020 because we haven’t reflected on it would be nearly unforgivable considering the stakes.
In 2016 the vote for Clinton was suppressed in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Clinton lost by margins of 10 or 20 thousand votes (Jamieson, pp 112-114). All of these are states that Obama won in 2012. Nationwide Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump and barely 70,000 fewer votes than Obama had. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/29/2016-vs-2012-how-trumps-win-and-clintons-votes-stack-up-to-obama-and-romney/#5e1fcc291661) In other words, Trump didn’t so much win as Clinton lost the election, and she lost because the vote was suppressed by a media climate that was artificially hostile to her.
This is the point where almost any leftist will chime in with criticisms of Clinton. Whatever those criticisms are that you have in mind, those are not the reasons she lost. Clinton didn’t lose because of her “super predator” comments in 1994 when she wasn’t in any public office but Bernie Sanders voted for the crime bill. Clinton didn’t lose because she promoted workfare. She lost because leftists agreed with Trump supporters that she was two-faced, and if a politician is going to lie that is unforgivable unless that politician is a white man and then it is expected. One of the more ridiculous claims is the so-called Pied-Piper scandal. This is the one where Clinton supposedly helped Trump win the primary. There is absolutely no evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything more than recognize in a leaked (!) email that they should talk about Trump in the media, something that was impossible to avoid given the sensational and racist comments the media was full of from the Trump campaign, which built off of his career in reality TV. Despite all this Clinton won the popular vote. Despite that, people blame her for losing, which is rich coming from people who worked hard to depress the progressive vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But it’s a way for people to deflect blame away themselves and from Trump and put it on Clinton.
Given Trump’s clear pro-Russia politics, given that Russian interference in 2016 helped him win the election by exploiting Americans’ susceptibility to illiberal and misogynist politics, given that the Republican part of the Senate refused to impeach him for having clearly usurped the power of the purse from the congress, given Trump’s refusal to enforce the Magnitisky Act, ignorance of Ukrainian and Russian history seems like a real political liability. The history of Europe turned into a nightmare of cascading mass murder in the early 40s in a conflict that turned mainly around Ukraine. Instead of cheering the democratic movement of the Maidan, many on the US left responded with very dogmatic thinking that said the EU is bad and the enemy of my enemy, Putin, must be good. On July 25, 2019 in a phone call we have all seen in a so-called transcript, Trump tried to shake down the Ukrainian president to coerce the latter into working to effect the election of 2020. We ignored evidence of Russian hacking that came out in the summer of 2016 and lost that election to Trump. Maybe we should pay more attention to Russian disinformation this time, instead of taking the opportunity to own the libs as Doug Henwood has done in our favorite publication Jacobin magazine (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/12/impeachment-donald-trump-nancy-pelosi-democratic-party). If, as Doug Henwood is doing here, your reaction to impeachment is to think that Democrats are trying to distract us from how awful they are, then you’re part of why Trump is going to win in 2020. To focus our criticism on the Democrats in the context of a fascist abuse of executive power is to minimize the threat of Trump and to undermine the only party that can beat him. A better left strategy is to rally to the democratic struggle of the Ukrainians and urge Republicans to support our ally against Russian tyranny. If any of these terrible things Paul Manafort and Trump have helped along in Ukraine mattered to us, if oppressed colonized people or the working class or even just LGBTQ rights really mattered to us, we might have been able to break Republicans away from Trump on grounds of National Security. Republicans have repeatedly, explicitly, used as a defense against impeachment the proposition that people just don’t care about Ukraine. If we understood Ukraine, if we cared, we could have resisted Russian manipulation of our media context. The consequences go far beyond Ukraine and the United States.
In October of 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Northeast Syria in a move that threatened Christian minorities and the Kurdish project in Rojava. Even Noam Chomsky was calling this withdrawal of US military forces a disaster. We should have been hammering on this contradiction hard to try and break conservatives away from Trump, and we should have had large protests to demand US troop presence be maintained. But we couldn’t. We have a left today that is constitutionally incapable of such a realistic and humaine politics of solidarity. Instead we have a left that sides with Putin against Clinton and amplifies weaponized Russian misinformation against Ukrainian democracy advocates.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Bullough, Oliver. Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books, 2018.
Gessen, Masha. The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books, 2013.
Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.
Horvath, Robert. Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution. Routledge, 2013.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president: what we don't, can't, and do know. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.
Pomerantsev, Peter. This is NOT propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. Hachette UK, 2019.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Music: Nysno by Sandra Marteleur, else Harry
June 30th, 2020 | 1 hr 5 mins
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, poland, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, ukraine, victor serge
Correction: I cannot find anywhere Stalin uses the phrase "internal colonization."
What Stalin did was colonization, and forcible starvation of millions of people, a world historic moral crime. There are no factual errors in the account presented here, other than this mistake about a phrase. Stalin called his crimes "collectivization," a disgusting euphemism designed to cover over his evil deed. My understanding of Stalin's thinking in this period relies on the work of Timothy Snyder, who discusses this point here at hour 1 minute 12:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA
There is a particular historical subject that Marxists should think through, and that subject is Poland. Poland was historically carved up between Russia in the East and Prussia in the West. It was the bellwether issue of its time, with all true progressives supporting Polish independence from autocratic Russia. Consider this passage from Marx’s inaugural address to the 1st international. The issue of Poland here is considered on equal footing with the injustice of chattel slavery in North America: ““It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes” - “Inaugural Address” of the First International, 1864 [Anderson, p67] We’ve spoken about the abolition movement and Marx’s place in it, but we haven’t talked about Poland, and its importance to Marx. Our left movement has spent nearly half a century in the wilderness. If anyone reads Marx they do Capital once or twice and that’s it. They don’t know his abolitionism, and they know even less about the history of Marxist ideology and practice in Eastern Europe, in the area between Germany and Russia. This episode is an attempt to remedy this lapse somewhat and to encourage you the listener to take an active interest in this region that has more to do with history than most think. I’m going to discuss the Polish Commonwealth, some of the political consequences of its dissolution which still impact us today and then tell the story of the Russian Revolution from the point of view of one of its satellites: Ukraine.
Let’s start far enough back that we get a good idea for the circumstances that made a thing like Ukraine possible.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later known as the Polish Commonwealth, was a republic that dominated Eastern Europe from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It was a republic of landed nobles with an agrarian feudal economy. The nobles voted for a parliament and a king and enjoyed certain rights and protections. The commonwealth was international: among its nobles were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Slavs, and a large diversity of religions was tolerated. Various ethnic minorities settled in and contributed to the wealth of Poland including the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Jews. In 1772 the Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destined to be progressively annexed by Tsaritsa Catherine II, and Polish territory stretching as far east as Warsaw falling under Prussian administration. I’ve never quite understood why anti-colonialist studies never include Eastern Europe: it just seems to be excluded from the history altogether. The story of Poland and Ukraine is where landlocked states like Prussia, the Russians and the Austrians had their colonies, and the holocaust is the culmination of that history.
In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Ukraine had been divided between the Lithuanian lords around Kiev in the East and the Polish nobility around Galicia in the West, but in 1569 the Lithuanian areas in the south, today’s eastern Ukraine around Bratslav, Kyiv and Volyn’ were ceded to Poland. The Ukrainian territories then at the cusp of modernity were a mix of Orthodox Christianity, Slavic languages and culturally Lithuanian lords now under Polish domination. The Ukraine became a melting pot in early modern Europe, where Polish became the language of high culture, where becoming Catholic was a route into high society and where the older ways of Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic language became the mark of a newly impoverished lower class. The best book to read on this topic is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of National. Quote Snyder: “As Germany was divided among Lutheran and Catholic princes, as France massacred its Huguenots, as the Holy Roman Emperor paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and as even Spain’s formidable power was challenged in the Netherlands and undermined by the Inquisition, Poland-Lithuania alone combined religious toleration, institutional reform, and territorial expansion” (Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations [TRN], p115).
But the Commonwealth was also still a feudal domain, and Cossacks were refused recognition as lords with voting rights. So, in 1654 they joined forces with Muscovy to wage war on the Polish Commonwealth. So it always is, a nation’s sovereignty and security are always weakened by the inequalities it tolerates among its peoples. The alliance between the Cossacks and the Muscovites gave birth to the myth that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia. The war between the Commonwealth and Russia ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo where Russia absorbed much of Eastern Ukraine. To Ukrainians this war was the rising up of the Cossacks to defend their rights and Orthodox religion. From the Russian point of view this was the foundation of a Russian empire. The Cossacks understood their alliance with Muscovy as temporary: Muscovy saw it as a permanent establishment of a divine order. This is important because this historical alliance became the founding myth justifying the Czar’s domination of Ukraine and Crimea: it also became the justification of Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian elections and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Because Ukrainians opposed this Russian domination, Putin needed to cast the west as his enemy and try to influence our election in 2016. For Putin all of this is necessary because of this treaty long ago in 1654.
Snyder explains to us how back in the 17th century Muscovy was changed by this encounter with the Cossacks of Kiev: “Thus the transfer of part of Ukraine exposed Muscovy to new ideas. Muscovy inherited, along with Kyiv, Orthodox churchmen formed by the controversies of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Union… In the second half of the seventeenth century, not before, books were translated in Moscow in large numbers. The source languages were Greek, Latin, and Polish, and the translators were churchmen from the Commonwealth… Having adapted to the cultural attraction of western Christianity in the age of Reform, Ukrainian churchmen confronted in Muscovy a state and a church with limited cultural connections to the Byzantium they claimed to embody. Although Kyivan churchmen had never before regarded Moscow as a center of Orthodoxy, they adapted quickly to the new political situation of the second half of the seventeenth century… After Andrusovo, Ukrainian churchmen sought to draw the support of their new sovereign by recasting the history of Muscovy in a way that linked church and state, and dignified their position. Their cooperation with the Muscovite dynasty involved the invention of Russian history. One Ukrainian churchman invented the idea of the ‘transfer’ of the Kyivan princely seat to Moscow, an idea which came to organize Russian national myth and historiography” (Snyder, TRN, p118). Does all of that sound very remote and unrelatable? Well, yes it is remote, but that just goes to show how dumb it is to claim Russia has a right to dominate the Ukraine based on it, but that’s the claim underlying Putin’s current war in the Ukraine.
After the partitions of Poland of 1772 and 1795 Galicia, a southern part of the Polish Commonwealth, became a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria. In 1783 the Habsburg monarch Joseph II founded a seminary and a university for Greek Catholics, and in the 1830s several seminary students produced a dictionary in the local peasant dialect spoken by Ukrainians there. The Greek Catholic peasants helped suppress the revolution of 1848 in Austria, and in return they were given a limited franchise and formal legal equality. In reality, the Polish aristocracy still dominated local power politics. The Greek Catholic Church became the site of Ukrainian political longing, first for reunification with Russia and a reconnection with Russian dominated Kiev, but more and more for a united Ukrainian nation state. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany and Italy, and a dozen national minorities in Eastern Europe began to develop their own dreams of national sovereignty. At the same time, Austria actively promoted the Ukrainian national aspiration over the Russophilia many Galicians felt. Any such national movement requires a dictionary and a founding set of literary texts. Because Czarist Russia forbade the printing of any such material, the Ukrainian cause was saved by half of it’s imagined geographical area being subject to Austrian rule. Similar literary projects were happening in Polish Prussia around Lithuanian identity, but the Belorussians, who had a distinct language, were not able to produce such a tradition because their entire geography was dominated by Russia. In 1898 the founding literary work of the Ukrainian nation was published: Hrushevs’kyi’s History of Ukraine-Rus’. This book told the story of a people, and was part of a general trend towards mass politics. After the French revolution the dream of democracy, the rumor of popular participation in politics, meant that aspiring leaders of political movements had to find ways to appeal to the masses. It was no longer possible to rule for very long by divine right. The foreign rule of the Polish over the Ukrainians, like that of the Russians over the Belorussians, or the British over the enslaved and native peoples, was often justified by the notion that these peoples had no written history. The History of Ukraine-Rus’ laid out the history of the Ukrainian people. As with so many such projects, a group of intellectuals systematized the language of local people, created literary works from it and then had to try and popularize their productions all in an effort to reveal to people their supposedly innate national identities. The first generation of Ukrainian nationalists were satisfied to promote their interests by agitating for greater minority rights, but frustration with corruption in the Habsburg institutions of power led the next generation to more radical demands. The rise of nationalist ideas accompanied the arrival of socialist politics. In 1890 Ivan Franko, the son of a German blacksmith and a Polish noblewoman “cofounded a peasant Radical Party oriented toward the socialist transformation of Galicia… In 1897 he broke loudly with Polish politics (writing in German) and with Ukrainian politics (writing in Polish). Already a friend of Hrushevs’kyi, Franko now became his protege. On Christmas Eve, 1899, the two men and the other leaders of a new National Democratic party published an appeal to all classes of Ukrainian society for the general endeavor of national sovereignty… By 1900, Franko was an advocate of Ukrainian independence with what he and others of his generation called ‘ethnographic’ borders. Like Franko, many of the leading Galician Ukrainian national activists in 1900 had been socialists ten years before. This was exceedingly common in the Europe of the day, not least in Poland...The general connection between the seemingly contradictory ideas of socialism and nationalism is that the idealistic faith in the yet untried people; the particular impulse that pushed Ukrainian activists from socialism to nationalism was real competition with the Poles. Ukrainians influenced by Drahomanov believed that Ukrainian socialism would arise from the Ukrainian people, Polish socialism from the Polish people, and so on.” (Snyder TRN, pp130-131).
The Ukraine was a contested battlefield throughout WWI and the Russian Civil War. After the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians felt optimistic enough to declare the existence of an independent state, but such was not their fate. After Lenin’s failed military adventure in Poland, during which the Ukrainians fought with Poland, Poland and Russia signed the treaty of Riga, whereby the Ukraine was divided much as it had been before the war, except whereas before it was divided between Czarist Russia and the Habsburgs, it was now divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. In the middle 20s Stalin brought direction of Ukraine’s economy under the control of the central soviet. All property became state property, and all state property was managed from Moscow. As we pointed out whilst discussing the Russian Revolution as a democratic movement, Stalin was able to exploit the situation of the early 20s to consolidate absolute power. Although the left opposition represented a large part of the Russian population, it lost the contest for power, with disastrous consequences for the Ukraine. But how do we know that the Ukraine’s fate would have been any different if Lenin had lived to see the 30s, or if Trotsky of Rakovsky had gotten the upper hand in 1927? We know what difference it would have made because of Lenin’s final testament.
1921 in the USSR saw the ban on parties, but it was also the beginning of a long physical decline for Lenin. While he did not seem to comment on the need to revive democratic traditions in the party and in the soviets, Lenin was clearly repulsed by the Russian chauvinism he perceived in Stalin towards the smaller nations that had historically been part of the Russian empire, specifically in Georgia and the Ukraine (Hensman 52-63).
If Germany was an ideological blindspot for Lenin, his final writings, the so-called Testament that was largely unpublished before 1956, show a Lenin that clearly understood two things: (1) that the socialist revolution would have to spread to Asia, and (2) that the new socialist project would succeed or fail based on how it managed a transition away from Russian Empire. Later, we will discuss American attempts in the 20th century to transition away from Empire. The whole 20th century is the story of unraveling Empire. Lenin urged that Russia should protect the autonomy of Russia’s former possessions. As he declined, Stalin ascended by a series of cunning political maneuvres. As General Secretary, Stalin led a diplomatic effort to force Georgia into economic unification with Russia. In one meeting, Stalin’s envoy Ordzhonikidze, whom I assume history has forgotten bc his name is so difficult to pronounce, physically assaulted his Georgian counterpart. Rohini Hensman writes: “Alarmed by a letter from an old Georgian communist accusing Ordzhonikidze of threatening them, Lenin sent Alexei Rykov to Georgia to investigate. Rykov returned and reported back to Lenin in early December 1922, and Lenin was deeply upset by the ‘image of a Communist governor behaving like a satrap in a conquered country” (Hensman, p55). Lenin stated in no uncertain terms that Russian nationalist chauvinism was the gravest threat to the Communist effort, equal only to the threat posed by Western aggression: “We, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence… That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nations, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question… The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. “ (Lenin, Letter to the Party Conference, Dec. 30-31 1923, Hensman, p58)
Instead, Stalin set out in 1928 on a process of forced collectivization in the Ukraine, a decision that would ultimately lead to the deaths by starvation of around 6 million Ukrainians. By 1924 it was clear that the Bolshevik revolution was not going to spread into western Europe. The original Bolshevik line that the revolution would have to spread internationally to succeed seemed to have been decided, and as Stalin got rid of people like Trotsky who wanted greater democracy in the USSR, he began pursuing what was euphemistically called “Socialism in one country.” Behind closed doors Stalin called this policy “internal colonization,” because it was thought that in order for a nation to enter the industrial age it would need to exploit colonies. Because Stalin imagined the Ukraine was internal to the Soviet Union, internal colonization just meant actually colonizing the Ukraine, which of course is just regular imperialism exactly the way that Czarist Russia had occupied the Ukraine since 1772. Collectivization is the name he gave for the process of state seizure of farmland, forcing peasants to work it and then taking the crops as state property. During the Russian Civil War days, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolsheviks had fought against peasant uprisings in an attempt to secure enough food to keep starvation from killing first the factories and then the workers. Peasants who hoarded grain while the peoples of the USSR starved to death were called Kulaks, a word meaning tight fisted. The kulaks were people whose greed exacerbated the generalized starvation engulfing the Slavic world since the Czar had plunged all of Europe into WW1, and Lenin was right to fight against them on a case by case basis. Things had changed by 1930 when Stalin announced his intention of completely liquidating the Kulak class. What he meant by that was mass murder in order to impose state ownership on the whole of the agricultural output. It’s worth dwelling a moment on the nature and scope of Stalin’s crimes, because people often shrug and admit that it was bad without having any idea of how bad it was. Timothy Snyder describes what the policy meant in practice in his excellent book Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [BL]: “The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: ‘At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, ‘we create kulaks as we see fit.’ Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe… All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.” (Snyder, BL, pp26-27). Like Robespierre, Stalin was imposing state power on society: this was the culmination and natural outcome of a socialist movement that in the early 20s had given up on democratic organizing and given free reign to its desires to impose “utopia” on humanity from above. Party activists communicated to peasants that Stalin had a 1st Commandment: the grain belongs first of all to the state and after that can be given to the peasants. The peasants knew the 1st commandment was “thou shalt have no God before me,” and they understood the new regime as a reimposition of feudalism by the State. Other examples where the state takes over as the boss in an older labor form include the Italian Republic in southern Italy and the 13th Amendment whereby slavery was outlawed in the US unless someone went to prison. The peasants of Ukraine rose up against the new system of peonage, but the rebellion was crushed. The worst of the repression happened in 1930 after the crop had been planted, and that year’s crop was particularly bountiful. Bad weather and the mass deportation of Ukraine's best farmers assured the next year’s crop yield would be much worse. Stanislaw Kosior reported in August of 1931 that yields would be low, but his superior Lazar Kaganovich told him the problem was theft, so Kosior intensified repression. The peasants, having no choice, met their quota by handing over their seed grain: at that point they were sabotaging the next year’s yield under threat from the state. By July of 1932 party leaders in the Ukraine had successfully communicated to Stalin that a famine had begun there and that Soviet policies were going to make it worse. The documentation of these facts is now indisputable, thanks to the empirical data and private letters made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalin decided that if collectivization was failing it was the fault of the peasants, that they should be starved in collective punishment and that above all the problem should be hidden from view of the world lest the reputation of socialism should be tarnished. What a sick joke. Local party leaders in the Ukraine who complained were sacked and deported, and their calls for Red Cross intervention were ignored. Unlike Lenin, who in 1921 asked for and received international aid for famine victims in the USSR, Stalin didn’t see the people’s wellbeing as the source of his right to rule. His right to rule was his power over the truth and over life and death. “Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of success. Resistance to his policies in the Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now ‘quiet’ and even ‘holy.’ [here Snyder quotes Stalin] The ‘kulaks of today,’ he said, were ‘gentle people, kind, almost saintly.’ [unquote] People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.” (Snyder, BL, p41). Such terribly distorted reasoning was only possible in 1932 because over the course of the previous decade the ban on factions had become a permanent institution, because public and even private debate was radically precluded, and everyone who disagreed with Stalin had been sent into exile, including nearly all of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries: Kamenev, Rykov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev and Trotsky. All of these men had opposed Stalin’s plan of forced collectivization. All of them had been labeled enemies. We are far indeed from Marx’s tenure in the garden of Epicurus where events in the heavens have a multitude of explanations, and where this whole plurality of voices is needed to reach an understanding of the world. Stalin isn’t in the same category as the socialists of the Paris Commune who demanded complete freedom of the press.
In politics we often find we have enemies, but having an enemy shouldn’t become the foundation of our politics. When we replace the foundation of love for the people with the foundation of hatred for our enemies, we end up in this place where Stalin is, we end up justifying any sacrifice, even the people we supposedly love, and we lose our most important ability: to change our mind when confronted with new evidence. What’s more, when we are absolutely set on defeating an enemy rather than on gaining for our loved ones, the logic of the absolute enemy takes over our enemies as well, making compromise impossible. The mass starvation of the Ukraine became a talking point in Hitler’s political campaigns, and fed his rise to power. Stalin would later use the fact that the USSR was invaded by Hitler, and had beaten Hitler back, to retroactively justify the famine in the Ukraine.
At this point the historical ties between Ukraine and Poland become important. Many Ukrainians began to flee the Ukraine to Poland where they pleaded with Polish authorities to get the word out to the rest of the world and to do something. 85,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938, under suspicion of plotting against socialism. Foreign nations were considered to exist on the other side of a class line: if someone had a connection to Poland they were thought to have a loyalty to global capitalism as such. This may sound outlandish, but later when we dig into the politics of the Party for Socialist Liberation, the PSL, we will find this same kind of reasoning involving proletariat and bourgeois nations. Though Stalin imagined Poland was plotting against him and against the socialist revolution, Poland was actually trying to find a politics that would let them live side by side with the USSR in peace. Poland didn’t sound the alarm about the Ukrainian famine because they had just signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, who in 1939 repaid them by splitting Poland down the middle, taking the eastern half and letting Hitler take the western half in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to cover up the world historical crime of causing the starvation of 6 million Ukrainians, Stalin then tried to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. In Poland, Hitler and Stalin pursued the same policy on different sides of the border: they murdered anyone who could take part in Polish state building: doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, writers, scientists. They were fighting a war against reason itself in the name of political projects based not on political compromise but on zero sum thinking where success could only mean the annihilation of one’s enemy. The most well known, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of these massacres was at Katyn, where 22,000 Poles were systematically slaughtered by an NKVD that had been forged in the forced starvation of Ukraine.
It’s easy when one talks of millions of deaths to lose all sense of the loss involved. Some half a million Poles were murdered by Stalin in the latter half of the 1930s, and each one of them was a human being with a life and a place in the world. We should tell the story of at least one of them to communicate a little what a catastrophe this was. One of the Poles who was arrested and sent to Stalin’s camps was Jozef Czapski. Czapski was taken because he was an artist and from an aristocratic family. He had the remarkable good luck in his youth to discover Proust as an aspiring artist in Paris starting in 1924. There he encountered and befriended many of the people who had inspired the characters in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” In the camp where Czapski was taken the inmates, who were mostly scholars of one sort or another, taught each other classes. Czapski taught a class on Proust’s Search for Lost Time. These class notes were later collected, and an English translation was published in 2018. In them Czapski tells the story of the death of Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel. Bergotte was a writer of popular trash fiction. One day as Bergotte is wandering through an art exhibit he is struck by a painting by the then unknown Vermeer. It is a landscape of several houses on a beach, and Bergotte is particularly taken back by the exquisite attention the artist paid to a certain patch of yellow roofing. The artistic perfection on display, produced in utter isolation and a lack of recognition, confronts Bergotte with the rude realization that the novelist sacrificed the quality of his own art in order to have public appeal. He feels he has cheated himself and his art, and then he dies. The image of Vermeer, the artist committed to creating something of high value in the context of utter isolation closely parallels Czapski’s own experience there in the camps. Czapski would survive the camps and live to a ripe old age. Many other brilliant people did not.
Hitler’s political project, which we explore in detail elsewhere, involved using the German state to destroy the states of Eastern Europe so that his German people could colonize those lands. He explicitly referenced the history of America’s genocide of native peoples as an example to the Germans of how a great people acts, and he specifically identified the Ukraine as the key to the success of his political enterprise. Ukraine was to become the breadbasket of the new German empire, and it’s people were to be for Germany what Black enslaved people were to the United States. When Hitler’s forces arrived at the furthest East places they could conquer, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, they found lands that had already suffered Stalin’s so called “internal '' colonization. The people in those nations who had collaborated with Stalin then very actively collaborated with the Nazis, by a vast majority. The crimes of the NKVD were in everyone’s very recent memory, and the Jews were an easy scapegoat. Communists and Nazis both agreed the Jews were to blame, and the former commisar’s in Stalin’s bureaucracy almost every last one of them participated in and often initiated the mass shootings that started the Holocaust. In 1942 Hitler became aware that he would not be able to take Moscow, and he also became aware of the mass shootings of Jews that was being organized by Lithuanian nationalists. It was at that moment when he gives up the idea of sending all the Jews to Siberia or to Mauritania, which had been his idea up to that moment, and settles upon the “final solution.” The image we have of the holocaust, of the death camps, touches on a reality, there really were death execution sites, though typically they did not include barracks or “camps.” The story we get from Hollywood is falsely comforting. The story in popular culture is of death camps and of heros who save Jews from those camps. Half of the people who died in the holocaust were shot, then dumped in mass graves, and the majority of people who had an opportunity to save Jews did not because doing so would put their own lives at risk. It’s crucial that we understand that ordinary people, people like you and me, allowed the holocaust to happen and participated in it because of decisions made that created the situation of the holocaust. Hitler set up camps for his political enemies and for diabled people as part of a eugenicist project in 1933, nearly a whole decade before the holocaust begins. If we think that camps of immigrants in the US are harmless, it is because we have forgotten or never knew this history.
The Ukraine is the center of WW2, though we remember it being a secondary character or an extra in the drama. More Ukrainians died fighting German fascism than did Americans. Timothy Snyder in this excellent speech (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTJwCCAF2lA ) from 2017 about Germany’s historical responsibility points out that 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians were murdered by German forces in WW2. Three million Ukrainians died fighting in the Red Army. The Ukraine was the center of Hitler’s colonial project. With the subjugation of the Ukraine under Russia and the mass famine of 1932 fresh in their personal memories, Ukrainian nationalists volunteered to join Fascist gangs in committing the holocaust in order to get the arms to fight later for a Ukrainian nation state. That is not to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Much of this history was not understood in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Ukrainians would have remembered them as lived experience following WW2. We rarely ever understand the cold war, or the founding of NATO in this context, as world changing events that ended the destructive Russian domination of Poland that had gone on for several centuries. Instead, the left thinks of NATO as western imperialism embodied. Again, this is not to provide apologetics for the hamfisted antics of the CIA in Eastern Europe, but to understand them. Stalin was objectively an evil man doing evil things, and it was easy to justify illegal actions to fight him. It wasn’t easy to tell that the habit of illegal CIA operations could only undermine America’s claims to legitimacy as a world power and claims to being a democratic society. If time allows, a whole series of podcasts should be done about the history of US interventions in the 20th century. For now, we note these issues in passing, finish briefly telling the history of Ukraine to date, and discuss why it’s important today that the international community defend Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering this long history of Russian and German colonization of the Ukraine, and its terrible consequences, it is stunning to witness the current indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in 2014! Yeah, I’m calling you out Michael Moore. How dare you belittle the impeachment of Trump, talk about it as though it had no importance, without even mentioning Ukraine, when Ukrainian lives were on the line, when the entire postwar peace in Europe is on the line. We’ll come back around to that.
Inevitably, a discussion of Ukraine has brought us to the question of what to do in the aftermath of the empire? Hitler and Stalin both sought to found an empire by first dominating the Ukraine. Now Putin is attempting the same thing. After WW2 the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland, Eastern Germany, all of Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In the early 1950s Stalin began gearing up a purge of Jewish people, but to do so parts of the bureaucracy had to be turned against each other in a cycle of mutual recrimination where each party hopes to save themselves by throwing their fellow bureaucrats under the bus. This was the precise mechanism that had led to the Polish purges of the late thirties. By the early 1950s the bureaucrats in the soviet system understood this game, that it meant their doom, and they wisely declined to play it. This does not mean the danger wasn’t real, or that things couldn’t have gone another way. We’ll speak at some length in a later podcast of the shameful role French intellectuals in particular played in providing rhetorical cover for the purges and show trials. Suffice it to say that chief among these traitors was Sartre, who had some idea that a Jewish purge was developing just as he was beginning a strong turn towards support of the Communist cause around 1952. Sartre’s hypocritical silence on this issue is all the more striking because of his previous attention to the problem of European anti-semitism (Judt, Past Imperfect, p184). Timothy Snyder’s account of the rise of fascist ideology we face today, the excellent book The Road to Unfreedom [TRU], includes a vital condensed telling of Ukrainian history under Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians resisted Stalin, it must be admitted with the help of the CIA, throughout the 40s and 50s and were then sent to the gulags. Most of those who survived to see Khrushchev take power in 1953 were released. The Ukraine became a populous center of Soviet industrial production. In the seventies Brezhnev declared that Russia had “really existing socialism” implying that all national differences within the Soviet Union had been transcended, and Ukrainians who resisted cultural erasure in the 70s often were sent to mental hospitals. In 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters occured in the Ukraine because of the culture of the suppression of the truth that reigned in the Soviet System. If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, you should go and do that after this podcast episode. In order to save the USSR from humiliation Gorbachev needlessly exposed millions of Ukrainians to dangerously high doses of radiation. The discussion of this crime among Ukrainians led to a national discussion of the mass starvation of a generation prior, which very similarly had been forced on them to “save the reputation of socialism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. And this is where we begin to encounter associates of Donald Trump in the story about Ukraine.
In earlier podcasts I spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Revolution, and I did that because in Russia socialists came to power and in wielding power found themselves directly in contradictions that we in the USA have not faced. Wielding power as Marxists, as Socialists and as Communists posed the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to our ideals, because sitting in power always demands trade offs and sacrifices. Even if the Russian revolution because of when and where it happened could only have ended in tragedy, especially so, we must learn from it. In tending to these historical issues we can gradually redeem our movement and the socialist project as such. The inability to come to terms with this past has left us vulnerable in the present moment in ways I want to discuss later in this podcast once I’ve developed the background some. We have to reflect on the crimes of Stalin, because we should know our faults better than our opponents do and because those crimes are a part of socialism that we cannot simply disown. I hope that much has been made clear in previous podcasts. The worst crimes were committed from what Tony Judt has called “retroactive necessitarianism,” which is the idea that because we know how history ends, any sacrifice is justified in accelerating our trip there. In conversation with Timothy Snyder, Tony Judt describes the embrace of such ideas in the 20th century as the infinite breaking of eggs in the making of an impossible omelette.
“This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information...All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist - much less as ‘liberal’ - were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue t o tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places - of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance - access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way that had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make the difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs… The kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. (Thinking the Twentieth Century. pp. 91,94,97).
Here at the end of a long meditation on the outcome of a very specific type of socialism, Bolshevism, in a very specific context, Ukraine in the 20th century, right here, this is where I want to situate a discussion of Capital.
As Tony Judt explained, there’s a version of Capital that reads like a holy text. According to this reading it lays out an inevitable series of events. The story goes something like this. Capitalists are greedy: they need more and more profit. To get more profit they will improve the means of production, automate as much as possible and drive down the value of labor. As labor gets devalued, the wage will fall and living standards will become unsurvivable. The workers will choose to defend their lives, and they will rise up. When the workers rise up they will form a council government that will organize production democratically. The moral of this story is that we should sacrifice everything to accelerate the arrival of these events. What’s even better, since we personally only have one life to live, is that we force as many other people as possible, through persuasion or violence, to sacrifice themselves to accelerate the coming of these events. I have been developing a stronger version of Marx than this: the Marx who wrote Capital to reject the commodification of humanity, but we have to deal with this other Marxism, for which humans are just fodder for the engine of history.
Finally, let me lift up Victor Serge again. Victor Serge spent his youth as an anarchist in Paris, the son of exiled Russian revolutionaries. Anarchism in Paris at that time was taken by the idea of propaganda of the deed. That meant individual acts of terrorism and/or assassinations of political figures. Several of Serge’s friends received the death penalty for conspiracies, and he was sentenced to 5 years of solitary confinement, though it seems he was guilty of nothing more than having guilty friends. He served 3 years of his sentence and then as German forces threatened France in WW1 he was released. He moved to Spain immediately to take part in the attempted revolution there. In 1919 he moved to Russia to help build the Soviet Union. In the 20s he joined the Left Opposition, and in 1933 he was arrested by the NKVD, an organization he had served in. He spent two years in a gulag in Orenburg, plenty of time to ponder the dark timeline that he had been swept into, plenty of time to ponder the failure of the Bolshevik project. Copyrighted in French in 1939, first appearing in translation in 1981, and then reprinted in 2015 by the New York Review of Books, Midnight in the Century is a stream of consciousness novel about the experience of the left opposition in the gulags. In this book we find the Bolsheviks waxing nostalgic for the days “when there was still freedom in the revolution.” (102). It’s a beautifully written book of historical fiction, full of sadness and hope, and in it the Russian Siberian wilderness plays an important role. Victor Serge is essential reading for understanding how that generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution, then survived Lenin and were betrayed by Stalin, how they understood their own defeat and what it meant for Europe.
The book is a personal document about Serge’s experience in the gulag, but it is also a political polemic, explicitly echoing Trotsky’s jeremiads warning Europe about Hitler. For instance, he speaks directly to the idea he knows is pushing the German KPD to boost the German Nazi party against the Social Democrats: the idea that if Nazis get into power then the communists can ride the pendulum back to replace them. As I read this passage I imagine that instead of the Social Democrats he’s describing making a common front with the Democratic Party to kick out Trump. “The only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade-unions. It’s madness to expect to win the masses away from their leaders, cough Joe Biden cough when the proletarian spirit has become stabilized within the old parties. And when you yourselves are hardly much better than the people you’re denouncing! Bernie Sanders ... There are still some imbeciles who say that Hitler should be allowed to take power, for he’ll use himself up rapidly, go bankrupt, dissatisfy everybody, open the way for us… The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it… Stalin gave Hitler his strength by driving the middle classes away from Communism with the nightmare of forced collectivization, famine, and terror against the technicians. Hitler, by making Europe abandon the hope of socialism, will strengthen Stalin. These grave-diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve - the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home - toward a catastrophe.” (p. 76).
In everything I’ve read about the oppositionists, even when they were in the Gulag, is that they never gave up on the power of collective organization and collective thought, aka free expression, to transform the world. And if they were to be buried in Siberia, they were certain that they were the seeds of trees a future generation would shelter under. Before Stalin’s determination to destroy even the memory of them, they remained defiant. Here is one telling bit of dialogue between oppositionists that must surely be based on a real or on several real conversations: “‘We’re right, comrades. Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass is right to grow, for the Revolution doesn’t want to die out. Without us, there would be nothing left of it but reinforced concrete, turbines, loudspeakers, uniforms, victims of exploitation, humbugs adn informers. Now you see it, now you don’t! But we’re here - like the ocean floor, and the trick is spoiled!... Let’s rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they’ll lock us up int eh cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you’ll savour this sunshine all the more. I’m teaching you wisdom! One day you’ll die down on a cot ina disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.’ ‘And thought?’ asked Rodion. ‘Thought? Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?’ ‘Midnight’s where we have to live then,’ said Rodion with an odd elation.” (pp. 117,118)
It’s hard to imagine, but I’m telling you, Victor Serge wrote a stream of consciousness novel about men and women doomed to die unremembered who were convinced their cause would win in the end, and he convinces us in the telling that history will vindicate them. Under the Siberian sky, in a kind of enormous garden, Serge’s writing invokes not despair but the infinite potential in nature, the fact that no matter how dark the path may be the natural world holds up for us the image and example of absolute freedom. There is an infinite series of events of which we make up a finite part. Serge writes about the sky as though he were intentionally orienting us towards infinity. One of the novel’s oppositionists is Ryzhik, and I want to end this episode with a passage where Ryzhik describes the Siberian countryside: “‘On the Yenisey,’ said Ryzhik, ‘it was even more beautiful than here. The earth seemed to light up from within. Even before the snows had melted the grasses came to life and light filtered into the tiniest twig, the tiniest streamlet. You walked on light. The flowers have cool, light colours. Only the stars resemble them. You leave the house one morning, you go out onto the plains, straight ahead, for there’s nothing anywhere, nothing but the horizon and the same horizon beyond the horizon. You’re alone, alone like… Ah! I can’t really say like whom, like what. Well, like a stone at the bottom of a well, and you don’t know what’s happening to you. You want to sing, you feel the earth is on a spree. It’s something marvellous, unique; anything might happen. That’s it, you’re going to turn around, just like that, and there right in front of you, in the emptiness, will be a great happiness. What kind? You have no idea, but it's possible, that’s sure. And you do turn around and you see birds arriving. They’re coming through the sky in clouds. They’re coming with great flapping wings, and the light is climbing, the stones have a luminous polish, there are flowers, the steppe is singing in silence. Nothing happens to you, of course, but everything is possible.” (p. 70).
Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Czapski, Józef. Lost time : lectures on Proust in a Soviet prison camp. New York Review of Books, 2018.
Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.
Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: The Holocaust as history and warning. Seal Books, 2015.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Yale University Press, 2002.
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