It’s not just that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was a coward for fleeing in the dead of night from angry and rebellious Ukrainian nationalists in Western Ukraine to what (he hoped) would be a friendlier population in the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine. Of course, he probably was a coward to run away. However, a coup d’etat had been carried out against him, his government security forces were melting away, and roughnecks with weapons and shields were just outside his door.
But more important than his cowardice is the fact that he is a scoundrel.
He could have easily calmed the rebellion in Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital Kiev early on if he had simply told the crowds the truth about what the Association Agreement with the European Union would mean to their lives and futures, which is one reason he apparently refused to sign it. His refusal to sign this Agreement on November 21, 2013 has been called the “spark” that led to the current crisis and his overthrow. However, if, for example, he had summarized the terms of only one part of it–the Agreement’s “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area”–and explained what it would mean to the Ukrainian people, he would have severely dampened enthusiasm for this Agreement. This Free Trade section alone–removing tariff barriers and export duties–would convert Ukraine into one big “free trade zone,” where the anti-environment, anti-labor, and pro-business laws would prevail.
This is what “European integration” and “joining” the glamorized “West” would really mean to Ukraine’s massive working-class population of 46 million. It would create the economic devastation of the type that NAFTA has created in Mexico.
“You want a free, independent Ukraine?” Yanukovych could have asked, were he a man of integrity. “Well, so do I! That is why I cannot–in good conscience–sign this Agreement.”
THAT is what an honest leader would have said back in November 2013, or even before that. It is not complicated. Then he could have gone on to outline what the pending IMF “financial aid package” would do to further worsen their lives. The last but one paragraph of The February 23 The New York Times report on Yanukovych’s flight and its aftermath summarized very well what the “EU option” will mean. “The economy will remain the greatest problem facing the country,” The Times reported, and then goes on:
“The International Monetary Fund remains a potential source of financing to replace the $15 billion that Russia had made available before the protests. But that comes with an insistence on austerity and economic changes that will inflict considerable pain….” (Italics added.)*
Considerable pain, indeed!! The IMF loans will require in Ukraine, as they do everywhere, that the government undertake broad-scale privatization of resources and basic public services, cut government spending on education, health care, pensions, housing, and benefits for the needy, as well as laws that hinder the accumulation and free movement of capitalist profits. And that’s just for starters. All this will further lower the wages and standard of living of the mass of the population of Ukraine, which are already lower than the European average.
However, Yanukovych could not say such things. It is not just that he is not a man of integrity. The problem is that during his time in power, he–like all the Ukrainian rulers since Ukraine became independent with the collapse of the USSR in 1992–had already been pursuing measures similar to those the IMF would impose. These include measures such as privatizing public resources, cutting public spending, cutting subsidies for major industries–leading to stagnation, non-payment of wages, and benefit cuts–and imposing market mechanisms. All these measures have impoverished the workers and lowered the standard of living for the majority of the population. The New York Times reported one woman protester outside the reconstituted Parliament after Yanukovych fled, for example, only wondered when tthe rump Parliament would reopen the health clinics and provide jobs. (“Amid Political Upheaval…,” February 25, 2014.) In the meantime, the economy as a whole stagnated while politicians and their cronies have managed to considerably enrich themselves and acquire vast fortunes from resources that should belong to the Ukrainian working people.
In the capitalist world, we would call them the ruling class. In Ukraine, they are called “the oligarchs.” They own the politicians, they own major means of production, and they own the media so they can mold public opinion as they please, and have been quite effective in doing so in many respects.
What is unfolding right now in Ukraine is not a revolution but imperialist consolidation of the capitalist counterrevolution by imperialist finance capital and the army of international capitalist investors who seek unfettered opportunities to milk every ounce of profit they can from the Ukrainian working class and the resources in their territory.
Imperialist Invasion without an Imperialist Army
This counterrevoloutionary attempt is not being carried out by a military invasion or heavy weaponry–although surely some of the roughnecks in ski masks wielding weapons throughout Western Ukraine, occupying and destroying buildings, throwing molotov cocktails, and setting fires were paid agents of the imperialist powers. **
There is no doubt that the mass uprising in Ukraine since November was inspired by or “made in America,” in the bowels of international finance capital; the US government has the deciding vote in the IMF. This Ukrainian campaign was calculated to achieve several related goals:
1. To use popular unrest with the already deteriorating economic conditions as a cudgel against the existing Ukrainian government officials who were tending toward signing a long-term trade agreement with Russia and joining the Eurasian Union, an economic union much like the European Union but composed of former Soviet republics. The Eurasia Union , as a new economic power center, would compete with the European Union and the IMF.
2. To gain Ukraine’s acceptance of the Association Agreement with the EU causing Ukraine to fall into the clutches of the IMF and other imperialist lenders.
3. To exploit the illusions of vast numbers of the Ukrainian population that joining “the West” is the road to “freedom,” when precisely the opposite is true.
Meanwhile, for Ukraine, accepting the Association Agreement with the EU and the IMF aid package would actually remove any semblance of Ukrainian independence.
1. It stipulates that Ukraine cannot accept any financial support from Russia,
2. It would make impossible any Ukrainian economic planning that did not follow the guidelines established by the IMF and other imperialist lending agencies.
3. Because tof he nature of the IMF-imposed economic agenda, Ukraine would find it very difficult to ever escape the debt cycle. The IMF mandates, for example that capitalist profits be only minimally taxed, the government provide generous financial support and tax breaks for capitalist ventures, public services be privatized, and restrictions on transfer of capitalist profits abroad be minimal. As a result, it would be difficult, if not impossible for any Ukrainian government to raise funds for basic institutions people need to live a quality life. (If you have doubts about these claim, look at the living conditions of the masses of the people in the 27 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that have been controlled by the IMF for many years now.) IMF control of the economies of the “developing world” is the reason it never develops!
Most commentators have presented the dilemma facing the Ukrainian people as a choice between being under the thumb of Russia or of “the West.” The dice are loaded when the choice is posed that way.
The Crimes of Stalin
Most Ukrainians know well the massive crimes against the Ukrainian people and their culture committed by the Poles, the RussiansTsars, the Germans Nazis, and–most importantly–by the Stalin’s regime of the USSR.
Stalin was Georgian, of course. But, in the name of the revolutionary internationalism that he in reality destroyed, Stalin imposed Russification on all the non-Russians, including the Georgians. Furthermore, the crimes of the Stalin regime were undoubtedly the worst oppression of those committed against the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, Stalin falsely called himself and his government Communist, Marxist, Bolshevik, and Soviet even though Stalin’s first targets WERE the genuine Communists, Marxists, and Bolsheviks and the soviets or workers councils themselves, all of which contradicted his reactionary policies.
The memories of these atrocities committed by Stalin in Ukraine are still fresh and are nourished by seemingly unlimited and generous doses of US State Department funds to academics and anti-communist organizations FOR THE PURPOSE of continuing the lie that Stalinism equals Bolshevism. The persistence of the life of this faulty equation has prevented Ukrainians from realizing that their liberation is only possible with a genuine Marxist, materialist, dialectical understanding of the world. They can only ultimately free themselves from the hold of the lies by studying on their own the history of the Russian revolution and its degeneration, particularly the works by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, who was Stalin’s main and longest opponent.
Internationalism or Russification?
The rise of Stalin’s control over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian Revolution and for the workers of all the world. However, it was particularly devastating in Ukraine. Stalin–suspicious to the point of paranoia toward anyone speaking another language–in the late 1920s reversed the policy of the Bolsheviks under Lenin of promoting the rights of non-Russian nationalities oppressed by the Tsar in Russia’s “prisonhouse of nations”.
In Ukraine, the Bolshevik policy was called “Ukrainization.” It meant that all government business, all schools, all culture, etc. were to be conducted in Ukrainian. As a result of Ukrainization, there was an unprecedented flourishing of Ukrainian culture in the 1920s.*** But when Stalin came to power, he not only arrested and murdered the revolutionaries from Lenin’s time, but his henchmen in Ukraine carried out mass arrests and deportations of all the intellectuals, artists, professionals, and workers, of everyone even remotely associated with the expression of Ukrainian national rights. (Then, after committing all Stalin’s criminal assignment, his henchmen were also all arrested and shot.)
Then, on top of that, Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization of agriculture from 1929-33 led to a massive famine in Ukraine– “The Holodomor” –which killed nearly 10 million people. Moreover, Stalin’s massive terror and purge campaigns of the 1930s–aimed at wiping all the Bolshevik Old Guard and the genuine revolutionary-minded workers and leaders who he feared would rise up against him– hit Ukraine the hardest. Layer after layer of civic, party, and government leaders AND their families was arrested, deported to labor camps, tortured, and shot. This happened all over the USSR as the counterrevolutionary and criminal regime of Joseph Stalin–atrociously and falsely cloaked in the name of Communism–wiped out virtually all the genuine Communists. This happened throughout the USSR. But it was particularly savage and severe in Ukraine where the national spirit and pride were very strong.
The Post-Soviet “Free-For-A Select Few”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been nominally “independent.” However, it still remained under the control of the corrupt Communist Party and other politicians whose market and privatization policies produced “the oligarchs,” into whose pockets all the politicians had to jump to be be elected, much like it is in the capitalist world, “the West.” What happened in Ukraine was typical of what happened throughout the USSR–including in Russia– after the Soviet Union collapsed. It is often called the “post-Soviet free-for-all.” But it only benefited a tiny segment of the population.
But what caused this current crisis to unfold?
On November 5-6, 2013, in New York, I attended a conference on the Famine in Ukraine, the “Holodomor,” a two-day event where scholars from the US, Canada, Ukraine, and elsewhere, described various aspects of this holocaust, including some extraordinary academic papers incorporating new archival materials.
On the last evening, there was a special memorial ceremony with various speakers, one of whom, a US Federal Judge seemed to hold celebrity status. In his speech he made a direct pitch to Ukrainians do everything they could to make sure that Ukraine signed the Association Agreement with the EU. I couldn’t believe my ears. This man, like everyone present, claimed to support an independent Ukraine. Yet he was promoting what amounted to the negation of this independence. Europe, like the rest of the capitalist world is in a deep-going crisis. Did he want Ukraine to end up like Greece, Italy, and Spain?
I later posed the question directly to him: “How can you claim you support Ukrainian independence while promoting the Association Agreement?” He looked at me, refused to answer and turned away. The reason is obvious: The two are obviously incompatible, and he knew it. It was obvious that something strange was going on.
Then, within a few weeks, on November 20, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suspended talks with the EU on the Agreement after the Ukrainian Parliament refused to pass measures aimed at furthering the accord. A week later, Yanukovych refused to sign the Agreement, ending a process that had been in the works for seven years, His refusal was widely interpreted as a sign that his government was going to align Ukraine with Russia and its Eurasian Union instead of with the EU; this might have sealed his fate.
For Washington, the political face of finance capital, this move by Yanukovych could have been the tripwire that unleashed Washington’s plan for still another “regime change.”
By November 21, there were already mass protests in the streets, at first mostly students and youth, but soon involving broader layers of society. The rest is history. To summarize it: Starting in November, the protests at first peaceful and massive, ended up occupying Independence Square in Kiev for three months. Police repression to disperse the crowds failed and incited anger. Parliamentary passage of a law strictly outlawing public protests only caused the crowds to grow. Soon they were joined by men in ski masks and helmets who grew in number and aggressiveness, beating up police and soldiers, setting fires around the encampments to stop the police and army who were trying to disperse them. Masked men took over buildings and raided arsenals. Overall, the violent confrontations led to over 80 deaths and many more wounded. Finally, the army and security forces withdrew from battle, demoralized, fearful and, certainly in some cases, paid considerable sums. When the security forces guarding Yanukovych’s compound evaporated, he fled early February 22.
Meanwhile, the capitalist media across the board distorted the nature of the crisis ( as Stephen Cohen pointed out in an interview on Democracy Now! on February 20, 2014) committing acts of great hypocrisy (as they always do) by focussing almost exclusively on the Yanukovych government’s repression –as if caring for the Ukrainian people’s welfare– while downplaying the dire economic stakes involved . (The New York Times coverage of the Ukrainian events is in sharp contrast, for example, to its coverage of the far more pervasive violence by the US-backed military government in Egypt, which has arrested and killed 100 times more protesters in recent months. Both are awful, but it is the contrast in coverage that is being emphasized here.)
This “rebellion” in Ukraine, regardless of the various motivations for those attending or how they got there, surely did not happen by itself. Behind the scenes, through a variety of avenues, US government and private capitalists provide funds to a multitude of groups such as The National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, Democratic Institutes of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and dozens of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Such organizations as these have been and are funding and providing tendentious ideology, equipment and other logistics to either agents or unknowing youth and other organizations to incite rebellion,” just as they did for “The Orange Revolution” of 2005 in Ukraine.****
On December 23, an internet publication called The Ukrainian Week published an interview with this same Judge, who at that November 3 gathering had been propagandizing for support for Ukrainian acceptance of the Association Agreement. He is only a small cog in a giant endeavor, but such little cogs play an invaluable role in the process and can help reveal the grander operation. This Judge, by December 23 apparently “teaching” in Kiev, provides a sort of summary of his role and the roles of other cogs in this US government’s campaign to manipulate Ukrainian opinion to serve its own ends, in this case, to overthrow Yanukovych:
“ I was in Ukraine when it all began. ..America’s top officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, senators [John McCain was one of them], the Helsinki Committee, Hillary Clinton and Victoria Nuland, condemned [the attacks by the Ukrainian government on the protesters]…..Meanwhile, State Secretary John Kerry and Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland have called on Yanukovych to refrain from the use of force and law enforcers against peaceful protesters. .. Young people and students took to the streets – they are making demands, even though they don’t always agree with politicians…These people have traveled to Europe. They have seen life in the West and the processes there. I had Ukrainian judges for internship here and I talked about these things with them. I talk about this in my lectures at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. It’s very important for people who were born after Ukraine gained independence to begin to see their state differently, in the way that the role of the state is seen in the West [?!] ..If the President really wants to be a guarantor of the Constitution and preserve the rule of law, he must come to terms with the people, the opposition, NGOs and the clergy, discuss compliance rules with them and seek a peaceful solution.”
Such individuals as this judge, along with the parade of US politicians and State Department figures that he described, were working hard in front of and behind the scenes to shape and mobilize Ukrainian public (particularly youth) opinion, and to promote and orchestrate the protest events for the purpose of “freeing” Ukraine’s economy for “free” imperialist plunder.
The well-known leaked portion of a conversation between State Department official Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, wherein THEY are deciding who should be the next rulers of Ukraine provides chilling evidence of the nuts and bolts behind this audacious plot. .
What Options Do Ukrainians Have?
However, the question remains: If joining the EU surrenders Ukraine’s independence and if remaining under the thumb of Russia is to be avoided, what is the solution?
Any honest observer who studies history will easily learn that Stalin’s first crimes were against the genuine Communists and Marxists. The fact that Stalin carried out his crimes in the name of communism and Bolshevism caused incalculable damage to the class struggle to this day and led to a prolonged life of capitalism.
The false claim Marxism, Bolshevism, and the Russian Revolution are to blame for Stalin’s crimes in Ukraine is reinforced, obviously, by the shameful fact that these crimes were carried out and supported by Stalinized Communist Parties–by people who falsely called themselves Bolsheviks and Communists– both inside the USSR and abroad. The capitalist class has used every means at its disposal to tirelessly exploit this tragic state of affairs to discredit communism, socialism, Marxism, Trotskyism, and revolution. They seemingly find an endless supply of mercenary charlatan academics, scholars, and experts who live by promoting the “evils of communism” and the glorification of “the West.” As a result, the Ukrainian masses have been taught to shut out the only road to Ukrainian liberation, which is a Marxist understanding of how the world, works and how to escape from the clutches of Stalinism and capitalism.
How fertile is the atmosphere now for the ideas of Marxism, socialism, and and particularly Trotskyism in Ukraine right now?
According to Russian socialist organizer Ilya Boudraitskis, who attended the mass protests in Independence Square, “there was no room for the left,” by which obviously includes Marxists and Trotskyists.This is because of the prevailing anti-communism for reasons just discussed and the large numbers of men organized and armed by fascistic groups. “The far right confronts the left activists, Ilya said. “They take their leaflets and flags and sometimes beat them up.” *****
Since Yanukovych fled and his government collapsed, the situation has retained this ominous character. Nicolai Petro, a visiting US scholar, currently living in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, described it in an interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! on February 24. According to Petro although things were quiet in Odessa, the atmosphere in other parts of the country were tense and dangerous partly because roving, armed, masked goons have replaced disbanded state security forces. “All across the country, headquarters of parties are being sacked by their opponents. Vigilante militias routinely attack and disperse public gatherings” they do not approve of. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament is now dominated by a party called Svoboda (meaning Freedom), which even the European Parliament has designated “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic.” One of the first laws passed was one stipulating that only the Ukrainian language could be used for official business. Although this may be an understandable thing for a new Ukrainian parliament to do, in the present context, it is a deliberate arrow aimed at the heart of the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine–which voted for Yanukovych’s Party of Reform. Such a measure can only heighten the crisis and divisions within the working class.
Meanwhile, finding a way to unite, rather than divide, the Ukrainian and Russian speaking workers in the West and the East of Ukraine is essential. They need to be made aware that that they have common interests in finding a way to take control over the entire Ukrainian economy, setting up a workers government, nationalize as soon as possible all the resources, confiscate the wealth and property of the oligarchs–property and wealth that the oligarchs stole and/or squeezed from the Ukrainian people. A group called the Left Opposition Collective in Ukraine has issued a Manifesto listing “10 Thesis of the Leftist Opposition” that could be an important bridge to these goals. But how much of an audience will it or other revolutionary proposals get if these cannot be freely distributed for fear of brutal attacks by right-wing goons? If these goons are not representing the cause of the working class, and are in fact inhibiting this cause, the workers organizations and their allies need to set up their own militia to protect themselves and their ability to function freely and openly.
Time to Read Leon Trotsky on the Ukrainian Question.
For those who may not know about it, the Russian Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky–himself born in Ukraine–was Stalin’s main opponent and target who was expelled from the Communist Party, from the Soviet Union, and murdered by Stalin. Trotsky tirelessly opposed and exposed Stalin and his policies as the negation of all that the October 1917 Revolution stood for. In the 1930s, he wrote several articles on the Ukrainian question that are the most brilliant exposition of problem of and solution to “the Ukrainian Question” that are still true today.
These articles need to be read and studied by everyone who cares about the present crisis in Ukraine and who has the strength and will to open a book. In them, Trotsky outlines Ukrainian history and explains why the only way Ukrainians can ever gain their national rights is by creating a free, independent workers and peasants socialist Ukraine: “The Ukrainian Question,” written April 22, 1939 and “Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads,” of July 30, 1939, “Democratic Feudalists and the Independence of the Ukraine,” of August 5, 1939, and “Stalin, the Temporary Holder of Ukraine,” written just following the Stalin-Hitler Pact, September 18, 1939. These are all available in the Writings of Leon Trotsky published by Pathfinder Press in New York. I will quote from the first article, which although written nearly 75 years ago, applies today:
“The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many ‘socialists’ and even ‘Communists’ have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force..The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe…
In the conception of the old [pre-1926] Bolshevik Party, Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence [ i.e., during the period of Ukrainization in the 1920s], Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well and aroused to struggle the workers…
The [Stalinist] bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions, and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful deeply rooted longings of the Ukrainians masses for greater freedom and independence…
Ukraine is in a state of confusion: Where to turn? What do demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence…
We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory, which, moreover, is of the highest strategic importance. The question of the fate of the Ukraine has been posed in its full scope. A clear and definite slogan is necessary that corresponds to the new situation. In my opinion there can be at the present time only one such slogan: A united, free, and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1938-39], Pathfinder Press, New York, 1974, pp. 301-304.)”
What other option exists for Ukraine? Ukraine cannot be independent if it remains within the capitalist and market system. It has to break out of the deadly grasp of direct rule by finance capital–like Cuba has tried to do–to begin to take control over its present and future to the extent possible. Obviously, capitalism is a world system and the market dominates international finance and trade. No country by itself can escape it nor can socialism be built in one country. However, by replacing the system of private ownership with public ownership of the national wealth and instituting a national economic plan to meet the common needs, Ukraine can begin to build a better life for itself by collaborating with Cuba and other nations in non-exploitative trade agreements. This can be a holding action until both Ukraine and Cuba get aid from the drastically belated working-class revolutions elsewhere, particularly in the industrially-developed capitalist regions, which could be greatly inspired by such an Ukrainian example. Real revolutionists in Ukraine today must work toward that goal. This means workers organizing their own revolutionary organizations to mobilize the masses of people around their own needs–Ukrainian, Russian, or any other nationality that resides there–o take over and run their own economy. This is the only way to stand up victoriously against the oligarchs of Ukraine and of the planet.
MARILYN VOGT-DOWNEY was a Russian translator for many years. She translated the writings of Leon Trotsky for the Pathfinder Press.Writings of Leon Trotsky series. She also translated Notebooks for the Grandchildren, the memoirs of a Ukrainian Trotskyist who survived the Stalin era. A collection of her writings on the former Soviet Union appeared in a volume the USSR: 1987-1991: Marxists Perspectives.
* Since Washington has achieved “regime change” in Kiev, The Times has been much more frank about the grim future that awaits Ukrainians under European capitalist and IMF rules. See “Amid Political Upheavals, Ukraine Fades Dire Need for Economic Help,” February 25, 2014. Before the “change,” The Times focused almost exclusively on popular attraction to “the West.”.
**Anyone who has attended a peaceful protest knows to beware of masked individuals who break from the crowd and begin breaking windows, setting fires, attacking police, etc. all of which only serve to provoke police attacks, transforming the character of the action, and endangering protesters.
Such persons are usually suspected of being provocateurs.
The success of this project, and similar recent projects show that imperialist domination no longer requires “traditional armies.
***See Ivan Dzyuba, Internationalism or Russification: A study of the Soviet nationalities problem, Pathfinder Press, 1974, a brilliant work by a Ukrainian scholar who is still alive in Ukraine today.
****For a history of such subversive activities in the past, read two books by William Blum, Killing Hope and The Rogue State, Common Courage Press,Maine, 1995 and 2005 respectively.
***** See the interview with Ilya Boudraitskis in Intercontinental Press, February 23, 2014.)