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The Tortured State of Ukrainian Society

Deki the sniper. Still from “The Sniper’s Way.”

“A Sniper’s War” just premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will next be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on February 23rd. Although I doubt that many of my readers will be in Missoula for the festival—or for any other purpose—I still want to call attention to a film that should eventually and hopefully make it into theatrical distribution before too long. This is a first-time work by a young filmmaker that shows remarkable courage, talent and perseverance in painting a portrait of a Serb volunteer who came to the Donetsk People’s Republic to defend his socialist beliefs. Whether or not those beliefs were grounded in reality is not really a question the film sought to answer. Director Olya Schechter simply wanted to tell the story of a man nicknamed Deki who was poised on the razor’s edge between duty to a higher cause and murder.

Early on in her powerful documentary, we see Deki showing photographs on his smart phone of the devastation wrought by NATO in Belgrade. There are bombed out buildings that by any definition were the result of war crimes. Behind him on the wall is a banner from the former Soviet Union of a hammer and sickle poised above a red star. Later on, we hear him and fellow separatist fighters mourning over the loss of Communism that they blame on NATO and Western imperialism. Deki is nostalgic for a system that provided free health care and education in Yugoslavia, as the militia members nod in agreement. The men are not ultra-nationalist special forces “volunteers” hoping to reabsorb the whole of Ukraine into a new Russian empire. Instead, they are the salt of the earth of Eastern Ukraine: middle-aged schoolteachers and coal miners.

Schechter’s crew follows Deki and his comrades into the skirmishes that take place in no-man’s land between the Ukrainian military and separatist-controlled territory. He dons a camouflage suit of the kind seen in Hollywood films like “The Shooter” or “American Sniper” but this is not a Hollywood film. Instead it is a record of the quotidian tasks of a trained killer who on a good day eliminates 10 or so men, making sure that he never fires at an unarmed civilian.

The government in Kiev has no such compunctions. The film introduces us to a number of mostly elderly residents of Donetsk who nonchalantly point to a hole in the wall made by an incoming missile and other damage. They are all too old and too poor to pick up stakes and move to safety. They look at Deki as their savior, just as the war orphans who he visits on a regular basis.

As someone who wrote passionately in defense of the Serbs during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and later on in defense of Euromaidan, “A Sniper’s Tale” challenged my views on the war and convinced me once again of the dead end of reductionism when it comes to Ukraine, a country that I have not given much thought to since the conflict began to de-escalate after 2015. A conversation with director Olya Schechter helped me to understand the state of the conflict today, which is quite different than it was in 2014. She discovered early on the 2 ½ years she spent making the film that the Russian “volunteer” brigades and their heavy weaponry had left by the time she began filming.

What existed was a purely Ukrainian conflict that had terrible costs on the people on both sides, including those in Donetsk who were disowned by relatives living in the West. We discover that even among the separatists there is a sense of futility with one soldier commenting that “all these idiots”, including him, have no idea who they are shooting at. Perhaps he might have added that neither had they any idea of why they were shooting.

Ms. Schechter’s film reminds me of the early work of Andrzej Wajda. His “Generation” trilogy includes a film titled “Ashes and Diamonds” that portrays the existential crisis of a young member of the anti-Communist underground who was ordered to assassinate a Commissar but ends up killing two civilian cement plant workers instead. Throughout “A Sniper’s War”, Deki wrestles with the question of whether he is a hero or just an ordinary killer. Given the slow descent into hell in Eastern Ukraine, it is understandable why he stopped fighting after 3 years.

Perhaps it is high time that the left revisits the question of what is happening in Ukraine today, especially in light of the latest developments. In an interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish in August 2016, Stephen F. Cohen stated that “Trump…seems to want a new American policy toward Russia. And considering the danger, I think we as American citizens, deserve that debate, and not what we are given in the media today, including on the front page of the New York Times.” But Trump, like the peace candidate LBJ in 1964, ended up adopting the very program of his warmongering opponent. The Washington Post, arguably even more bellicose than the N.Y. Times, congratulated the president for sending arms to Kiev:

President Trump’s decision to supply Ukrainian forces with Javelin antitank missiles and approve the commercial sale of sniper rifles, wouldn’t stop a Russian offensive if there were one — but it could give Mr. Putin pause. It’s a worthy application of the “peace through strength” principle of President Ronald Reagan that Mr. Trump says he admires. If there is ever to be peace in Ukraine — and an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations — Mr. Putin must first be made to understand that his aggressions, whether in Ukraine or in cyberspace, will be resisted and will incur tangible costs.

Meanwhile, in the West, where sentiments for joining EU was proof of the region’s fascist leanings, the most threatening fascist formation is just as opposed to the EU as the separatists in the East. Andriy Biletsky, the founder of the fascist Azov Battalion, has formed a new party called the National Corps that is against the European Union and NATO—exactly the main goals of the Eastern separatists his men are killing.

The growth of ultraright parties in Ukraine is fed by the government’s neoliberal policies that included proposals for raising the general retirement age, raising utility bills, cutting unemployment benefits, and laying off workers in the coal and gas industries that are rapidly being privatized. Despite recent polls indicating that 76 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of President Poroshenko’s policies, he is still anticipated to be re-elected in 2019. Yuriy Boiko, who was an ally of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, only has the support of 6.9 percent of the population. Even if Boiko advocates a return to the Russian sphere of influence, the people still have enough of a bitter taste of corruption and police brutality to stick with the neoliberals.

In a perfect world, the workers of the East and the West would unite against the oligarchs who oppress and exploit them whether they are oriented to the Kremlin or to Washington. Olya Schechter’s stunning documentary serves as a wake-up call for me to catch up on developments in the country that Lenin described as having the same relationship to Russia that Ireland had to Great Britain. For those trying to make sense of a perplexing and often dispiriting situation, I advise you to bookmark the ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org/. There you will find an article on the origins of Biletsky’s National Corps and other developments of interest to socialists in the Ukraine and elsewhere. I will also be posting announcements on “A Sniper’s War” as it is shown in the coming months. It is a key to understanding the tortured state of Ukrainian society.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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