Ukraine Behind the Curtain

For most people on the left, knowledge of the Ukraine is limited to a few well-trodden factoids. Victorian Nuland made a phone call that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected government and its replacement through a pro-EU, pro-NATO coup. The coup relied on a combination of neo-Nazi violence and false flag incidents to succeed. Once in power, the anti-Communist government and its rightwing supporters began tearing down statues of Lenin. And all of this could have been anticipated because Stephen Bandera collaborated with the Nazis during WWII.

This micro-narrative eliminated the need to understand the country’s history or the economic contradictions internal to the country that have led to chronic instability ever since it became independent in 1991. For those who want to dig beneath the surface, there are two new books by Ukrainian scholars that put the country’s ongoing turmoil into perspective. Stephen Velychenko’s “Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine 1918-1925” points out in painful detail how an emancipatory project in 1917 led to the preservation of Czarist type domination but in the name of proletarian internationalism. Put succinctly, if you want to know why Lenin statues (that never should have been erected in the first place per Lenin’s aversion to idolatry) were torn down, Velychenko’s book is a good place to start. As for Euromaidan and its consequences, Yuliya Yurchenko’s Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketization to Armed Conflict is the very first attempt to apply a Marxist analysis to Ukraine’s chronic oligarchic rule. Despite her support for Euromaidan, Yurchenko makes the case that it was hijacked by a wing of the ruling class that sought to preserve its narrow profit-seeking goals by exploiting nationalist resentments.

I have followed Velychenko’s commentary on Ukraine since 2014 at Krytyka, a magazine  that describes itself as covering topics otherwise not discussed in Ukrainian media such as controversial historical moments, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, gender and sexual discrimination. For example, you can read a defense of LGBTQ rights coming under attack by Ukrainian nationalists  that is based on the early Soviet Union’s support for gay rights. If you become a regular reader of Krytyka, it will go a long way toward understanding the country’s complexities that defy facile geopolitical schemas.

To start with, it must be understood that Ukrainians never voted to become part of the USSR. Leaving aside the dubious circumstances in which Crimea became part of Russia in 2014, there never was a referendum offered to Ukrainians in 1918. The country became a Soviet republic as a result of the Soviet Union’s ability to dictate the facts on the ground. Despite the pleas of the Ukrainian left to be allowed to create their own socialist republic that would have had the support of its impoverished peasantry and working class, Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw the forced assimilation of Ukraine as a revolutionary act.

Once the Bolsheviks took power in October, 1917, a sense of triumphalism set in. With all proportions guarded, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin et al saw the Red Army as an instrument not only capable of defending the socialist motherland but extending the revolution beyond the country’s boundaries. While they did not make the comparison explicit, there was a sense that they were the 20thcentury’s version of the Napoleonic army that in the course of its military campaigns would impose the norms of bourgeois democracy that existed in France over conquered territory.

Theoretically, the Red Army’s incursion into Ukraine in 1918 might have ushered in Soviet-style democracy but there was little respect for the rights of the indigenous population that was considered too backward to consult. Russian domination of Ukraine began in the early 18thcentury when Peter the Great issued a decree banning the use of the Ukrainian language in clerical manuscripts. His successor Catherine the Great went even further, calling for the Russification of the backward province. In 1863, Pyotr Valuyev, a Czarist official, issued a proclamation stating that the Ukrainian language never existed, doesn’t exist, and cannot exist.

As is universally the case, language restrictions entail class distinctions. Bans on the Kurdish language in Turkey serve to keep those who speak the language marginalized. This was also the case in Ireland where Gaelic gave way to English. Or the Catalan and Basque languages in Spain.

Velychenko’s argument is that the Bolsheviks supported the right of self-determination for oppressed nations such as Ireland and India but made an exception for Ukraine. As was the case in Ireland, the language of the oppressor nation became privileged as a way of exercising control. In Ukraine, where the cities dominated the countryside, the workers and the middle class spoke Russian (particularly if they were immigrants from Russia) or were bilingual. As might be expected, the urban dwellers were also susceptible to the appeal of the Russian Revolution since its leaders spoke their own language and in the name of proletarian revolution.

The Communists incriminated themselves in the way they spoke about their role in Ukraine. Kamenev, who served on the central committee, stated in October 1918: “We must clearly and unequivocally state that in the course of the development of the proletarian revolution in Russia the slogan of national self-determination [for Ukraine] turns into a tool of bourgeois counter-revolution against Soviet Russia.” Yakov Yakolev, a Ukrainian Communist loyal to Russia, explained in November 1919: “Without the Red Army not only can we not count on the success of the revolution in Ukraine, but we cannot count even on its emergence.” After his troops had taken Kyiv in 1917, Red Army colonel Mikhail Muraviev declared that “we brought this [Soviet] power from the far north on the points of our bayonets.” The analogies with Napoleon’s army could not be clearer.

But nobody spoke with more authority about Ukraine than Christian Rakovsky, who Lenin had assigned to be the Kremlin’s representative and whose word was law. Like Muraviev, he saw things in Napoleonic terms in a letter to Lenin: “I handed the government [that I] installed with bayonets to Ukraine’s Soviet.”

Perhaps if Soviet rule could have provided material benefits, it might have compensated for the linguistic and cultural deprivations ordinary Ukrainians had to endure. After all, weren’t relations between Ukraine and Russia based on socialist principles? As you might expect, Ukrainian socialists were as adept as their Russian counterparts in identifying economic inequality. In 1919, leftist economists compiled statistics that illustrated Ukraine’s colonial status within the new Soviet state. The data revealed that Ukraine exported 10,922 railway wagons of supplies to Russia (not including army requisitions) in the first six months of that year and imported 1,737 wagons of goods. Their studies also showed that only 50 to 65 per cent of recorded Ukrainian exports were foodstuffs as Bolshevik gangs literally stripped everything they could from Ukraine. As has been the case historically, countries relying on agricultural exports always suffer in trade with industrialized countries. The USSR might have been backward but it was far more industrialized than Ukraine.

No matter how much the Ukrainian left implored their comrades to allow their country to determine its own destiny, the Kremlin kept a tight grip on the country’s cultural and economic life. Therefore, a rival Communist Party emerged that challenged the one that took its marching orders from Christian Rakovsky. While Stephen Velyshenko takes great pains not to interject himself ideologically into a scholarly work, it is obvious that he wrote “Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red” as a way of showing how an alternative path was open. Ironically, he allows that even if Ukraine had evolved independently from the USSR, this would not necessarily mean that it would have turned into a communist utopia. In his conclusion, he strikes rueful and even fatalistic note:

But an independent communist Ukraine would have entered the twenty-first century like other former Soviet Bloc countries. Insofar as it would have had legitimacy, like the Vietnamese and Chinese parties, because it was supported by a majority of peasants, it might even, like them, still be a ruling party today. There would have been a party dictatorship but no massive inflow of Russian settlers in the mid-century, and the public communications sphere, the economy, and education would have been in Ukrainian, not Russian. Social mobility and status for immigrants and non-territorial minorities, as in any other country, would have been contingent on using the language of the titular nation–Ukrainian. Without powerful, politically Russophile, neo-soviet front groups based on the urban Russified and unassimilated Russian minority, a non-communist Ukraine, like its western former Soviet Bloc neighbors, likely would have been in the EU by 2004.

This brings us to Yuliya Yurchenko’s “Ukraine and the Empire of Capital” that is much more a work of advocacy than Velychenko as might be expected from being published by the radicals at Pluto Press rather than the U. of Toronto Press. If Velychenko’s horizons are limited by Ukraine likely being in the EU by 2004, the entire purpose of Yurchenko’s book is to try to recover the original vision of the Ukrainian revolutionary movement to build a socialist republic.

Her book is distinguished by being the very first book-length, English-language expression of Ukrainian Marxism since the Euromaidan. It reflects her anger over how the aspirations of the protestors were thwarted by another turn in the revolving door of Ukrainian politics that ends up with one oligarch replacing another after the masses get fed up by corruption, police brutality, diminishing economic security and ecological ruin.

Her critique is all-encompassing. Yanukovych, the president that so many on the left held in the same kind of esteem as Fidel Castro, gets debunked as does Poroshenko, the billionaire who exploited nationalist sentiments to become Yanukovych’s replacement. Meanwhile, in a recent poll, Poroshenko got a 76% negative rating with only 3% of those polled fully satisfied by his job performance. The entire purpose of Yurchenko’s book is to pull away the curtain from these gangster presidents in the same way Toto pulled away that of the Wizard of Oz.

Using an impressive array of statistics, she illustrates the various power blocs that hold Ukrainian society under tight control. Despite all the myths about recovering the country’s cultural heritage or rival myths about the benefits of Russian ties, what exists in Ukraine is a long-running fight over spoils by rival oligarch/mafia gangster combinations whose wealth was made possible by looting state-owned assets after the country abandoned Communism. In a very real sense, Ukraine is still stuck in the same phase that Russia was under Boris Yeltsin.

For a left that prefers simplistic binary divisions, Ukraine was “good” in the East and “bad” in the West depending on whether the orientation was to the EU or Putin’s proposed Eurasian Economic Union. For Yurchenko, there are multiple power blocs rooted not in geography but in particular economic blocs that relied on manufacturing and financial capital formations accumulated through privatization and that were often defended by mafia gangs.

For example, despite all the articles that treated Donetsk as if it were Rojova, it was a region that was as open to imperialist penetration as any other part of the Ukraine. After the country gained its independence, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Priority Development Areas (PDAs) were created as a compromise between rival blocs of capital in Kyiv and the ascending Donetsk capital.

Investors in the special zones got considerable tax breaks, enjoyed by both Mariupol—a supposed base of Ukrainian nationalism–and Donetsk. The zones attracted the largest FDI inflow, most of which, according to Yurchenko, was in fact recycled oligarchic capital. The SEZ legislation in Donetsk prioritized ferrous metals, coal mining and electric power generation, all of which were mainstays of the local economy. Instead of benefiting the economy and reducing the region’s dependency on volatile foreign markets for raw materials, it benefited what she calls FIGs, shorthand for Financial Industrial Groups. Nearly half of the FDI in Donetsk came from offshore financial centers such as the British Virgin Islands and probably originated as capital that left the country surreptitiously (or illegally) before returning to the region as FDI.

Long before Donetsk was transformed into an investor’s paradise, there were class divisions that were heightened by the clash between Communist pretensions and working class expectations. The penetration of capital into Donetsk was not only beneficial to investors spanning the entire country and from other sources worldwide, it also broke the bonds of solidarity that existed in the country during the final days of Communist rule. Yurchenko writes:

The industrial regions where most of the country’s heavy and lucrative industry is concentrated, Donbas, the labour inadvertently was concentrated as well. This contributed to a stronger sense of workers’ unity and shared worker identity that is so crucial for labour mobilisation. It is not by accident that Donbas would become the epicentre of the movement for Novorossiya and separatism but was a result of a series of connected and complex shifts in the socio-economic make-up of the region in the context of the growing inequality and disproportionality of wealth distribution and the accompanying shift in societal consciousness utilised by the ‘masters of Donbas’. However, what had started as a social movement of over 500,000 coal miners in 1989 and served as one of the catalysts to the independence movement, as was discussed in two earlier chapters, was also systematically becoming disintegrated and disempowered through marketisation reforms and associated assaults on the worker’s rights to organise, bargain and socially reproduce. This disintegration and disempowerment has had a strong and long-lasting effect on the utility that the dispossessed masses have for the regime of neoliberal kleptocracy as strikers, gangsters, protesters, corrupt or co-opted administrators and the like.

Like every other country in the world (including the U.S.), conditions appear bleak in Ukraine. It is burdened by debt, corruption, fascist gangs, and a senseless war. Perhaps the only hopeful sign is that 76% of the country views Poroshenko’s presidency negatively. Yurchenko’s conclusion ends with a grim recognition of the task that lies before her countrymen. Given the recent developments in the U.S. brought on by a rightwing dominated Supreme Court, her fighting words should set the tone for our resistance as well: “The second Maidan has not brought the change that many have already died for, yet it was only the beginning, not the end of the dispossessed fighting back. Ukraine is pregnant with the next, more violent Maidan.”

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.