Putin, Lenin, Imperialism and the (Real) History of Ukraine

The people of this country suffer, I’ve always thought, from a general ignorance of history. This is because with vast oceans for borders, and ever-friendly neighbors, and no experience of being invaded, living in a country that has always urged assimilation including the acceptance of “American exceptionalism,” schooled through an educational system that avoids teaching U.S. history with any degree of credibility so as not to upset anybody, they’ve never been encouraged to think critically about the past. To ask questions. To raise objections—not necessarily about what happened, but about how to interpret and depict what happened—does not come naturally to them.

Ukraine is a place few people in this country can find on a map. Far fewer have any idea of when and how the Ukrainian state originated, or how it has related to its neighbors over time. So I might make up any random narrative about it, weaving in bits and pieces of truth here and there, and perhaps the majority of my listeners would nod agreeably at my presentation finding no flaws. There are a whole lot of ingredients to work with and to play with when it comes to Ukraine’s history.

In 2014 having, having given little thought to Ukraine to that point, people in this county (self-defined Americans and others) were informed by the most authoritative sources they knew, the cable TV news anchors and commentators. They were treated to a history lesson that went something like this: The country of Ukraine has always been oppressed by Russia. It was colonized by Russia for centuries. Russia still, after the end of the Soviet Union, wants to control Ukraine! So it responded to a popular revolution in Kyiv, an expression of the Ukrainians’ longing to fulfill its “European aspirations,” by invading Ukraine!

All this was delivered in a tone of such indignant solemnity and moral authority that I imagine most people believed it. The fact of the matter was that Moscow—having repeatedly expressed alarm at NATO’s relentless expansion towards its border from 1999, having declared in 2008 that the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO was a “red line” issue, having faced with frustration the U.S. announcement immediately thereafter that Ukraine and George would both join regardless of Moscow’s feelings about the matter, having made its point clear in the brief invasion of Georgia in 2008 (to end talk of Georgian membership), having watched a U.S.-backed coup topple a president friendly to Russia replacing him with a pro-NATO cabal—was re-annexing Crimea (not just Russian from 1783 to 1954, but still Russia’s main naval port, then on lease from Crimea, and coveted by NATO) and supporting separatists in the primarily Russian speaking population in the Donbass region primarily to prevent further NATO expansion.

In the real world, NATO is front and center here. In the world of imperialist propaganda, NATO has nothing to do with it, Russia’s stated concerns are ridiculous, and anyway, every country has the right to join a defensive alliance!

Now we hear from the same tired old anchors and their guests (former State and “Defense” Department officials, “senior foreign correspondents,” and imperialist propagandists still in demand despite their rich histories of disseminating lies), the updated version of the official line. It goes something like this: Russia has crossed a red line! It has invaded a sovereign country! Because Putin wants to revive the Russian Empire! (Often this gets rendered “Russia has invaded AGAIN” affording the commentator the opportunity to explain why the bloodless annexation of Crimea was ALSO an invasion. So too the Donbass assistance.)

In the real world, the U.S. has acted in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the collapse of what Washington perceived as the global communist movement, with an effort to encircle Russia with the most horrifically threatening military force in world history. It has expanded NATO in the absence of any real threat to itself from 16 to 28 members, bordering Russia on the Baltic coast and threatening to encircle it entirely. It has used NATO to pursue wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, in the last case illegally intervening in a failed effort to gain control over a longstanding Russian ally.

No one in their right mind can suggest that Russia holds a candle to the U.S. in imperial arrogance. Certainly not in this century.

In the real world, Biden became president determined to both reassert U.S. “global leadership” and to continue NATO expansion. His campaign literature in 2020 reminded us that he believed in the cause. And it was clear he had a particular interest in drawing Ukraine in, which meant convincing Germany and other unenthusiastic NATO members to agree that Ukraine had cleaned up its corruption sufficient to get the nod. He sent his secretary of state Anthony Blinken, who as Biden’s foreign policy advisor had urged him in 2002 to support Bush’s war on Iraq, to persuade the Germans that their gas pipeline to Russia threatened NATO unity! Meanwhile, U.S. puppet and NATO secretary-general Stoltenberg visited Kyiv to assure Ukraine that it will, indeed, be admitted to NATO. And the arms flowed into Ukraine.

Putin considered all this more threatening than ever. He amassed a force on the Ukrainian border. Biden sought to rally the European allies in a common response. While he warned of an imminent invasion, allies reflecting on recent history expressed some skepticism, and several leaders in their differing ways sought to arrange a peaceful solution. But there was never a question of withdrawing the offer to Ukraine or accepting a freeze of NATO expansion. Russian leaders complained that they were speaking to the deaf, or that the two sides were speaking different languages. The Russians were talking about their security, and need to defend their borders; the U.S. president was talking about his right to expand the alliance as he pleased.

For the U.S. media, what we see here is a clearly drawn conflict between Good and Evil, or in Blinken’s schoolmarmish conception “Democracy versus Autocracy.” What I see is two evils, neither of them democratic, locked in a conflict over the more powerful evil’s lust for further expansion. Both evils have their controlled news media and means to shape public consciousness.

The Russian media is promoting what the U.S. media depicts as a thoroughly distorted view of Ukrainian history. Without lingering on the credentials of the CNN reporters to discern distortions in anybody’s history, let’s look at what Putin has said. (I confess I haven’t seen a transcript, perhaps a sign that the speech may not contain some of what’s been reported; the bourgeois press manufactures quotes all the time. Lots of people still think the Iranian president Ahmadinejad said, “We will wipe Israel off the map!” if you can imagine.) This is what I gather it included.

Putin apparently stated that Ukraine has never been a real state. This is not true. It would be fair to say that Ukraine is not a state of great antiquity, like England since 927, France since 987, Russia since 862. It was settled by Celtic and Germanic peoples before it became the heart of a Turkic empire called Khazaria in the eighth century. Its ruling elite embraced Judaism as the national faith while the Byzantine Empire promoted Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Jews settled in large numbers in the empire. The Khazar Empire fell in the tenth century as the Slavic-Scandinavian Rus established their capital in Kyiv. Four centuries later Moscow became the capital of the Russian state.

In the interim, Kievan Rus collapsed during the Mongol invasions, and what is now Ukraine was divided among the Golden Horde, the Crimean Tartars, and the Lithuanian-Polish state. The latter portion became, through a treaty in 1654, a province of Russia. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks recognized the province as a state, a soviet socialist republic, expanding its borders to include much territory inhabited by Russian-speaking Russians. The Crimean Peninsula was turned over to Ukraine by Russia when they were both with the USSR, in 1954.

Ukraine has been inhabited and crisscrossed by Scythians, Celts, Germanic peoples, Huns, Khazars, Mongols as well as Slavs. Given its history of incorporation into different states, it has regions with large German or Hungarian populations. Unless one considers the Polish-Lithuanian dependency a state, or the Russian province of Ukraine an independent state, the first independent Ukrainian state—or at least the closest approximation of an independent state so far—was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia demanded that Ukraine be considered an independent state on the world stage; it held a separate UN seat. With Belarus it was one of the closest SSRs to Moscow, and most hesitant to withdraw from the union when Boris Yeltsin unilaterally dissolved it by pulling Russia itself out. Once established in its current configuration, Ukraine agreed to abandon its nuclear arsenal; it also agreed to a long-lease arrangement with Russia involving the vital Crimean naval base.

When Putin points to this history or at least aspects of it, he is not churning out lies at the level of the dutiful U.S. TV journalist who told us about Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9-11; Iran’s plans to build nuclear weapons; or the threat of imminent genocide in Kosovo, Libya, or Syria. But he is distorting and oversimplifying to pooh-pooh Ukrainian nationalism in general and to facilely associate it with fascism. Thus he describes the current invasion as a “denazification” operation, while the talking heads in this country ridicule the accusation.

In the real world, Ukrainian fascist movements exist and were surely on display in the Maidan coup in 2014. They played a key role in the violent overthrow of an elected government, under Victoria Nuland’s watchful eye. There remains much support in some quarters for the wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who espoused a fascist ideology and helped round up Jews in Ukraine for the Nazi death camps. Anyone paying attention realizes that there are fascist elements in the military (the entire Azov Battalion) and that fascist parties, while small and with little electoral influence, have been able to stymie the implementation of the now-defunct Minsk Accords. So, yes, there is a fascist movement in Ukraine and it has a long history.

But the resistance movement in Ukraine looks like something else. And it’s making it look like Putin is exaggerating the fascist issue, real though it is, to evoke Russian memories of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), also known as the Anti-Fascist War. Crucial battles in this war were fought on Ukrainian soil, where some local communities sided with the fascists and embraced the Nazis’ Russophobia. Putin wants to essentialize Ukrainians as tending towards fascism, now working in tandem again with Russia’s enemies. This effort could well backfire among Russians who realize that Ukrainians are divided politically and ideologically among themselves and in any case undeserving of Putin’s characterization.

The most interesting element in Putin’s presentation is the idea that Lenin and the Communists—whom he has made it clear he despises, as he plays the part of a true son of the Russian Orthodox Church—are responsible for the terrible error of creating a Ukrainian state in the form of the old Ukrainian SSR! That, he suggests, was the origin of the current problem. Lenin, in his condemnation of tsarist Russia as “a prison house of nations,” in his commitment to proletarian internationalism, and to the self-determination of nations, foolishly allowed a Ukrainian republic to form. This state could, according to the Soviet constitution, depart from the union if it ceased to serve its needs. Thus Putin explains the origin of the problem.

In the real world, Putin’s former boss Boris Yeltsin led Russia when it, not Ukraine, left the USSR. The Supreme Soviet confirmed the legality of the withdrawal, as it had approved the departure of the Baltic SSRs. Ukraine was left with no alternative but to declare its own independence. Affected simultaneously by the same confusing process, Russians and Ukrainians retained amicable relations; the mere fact of new mutual independence was not a great problem for the relationship. Relations only deteriorated when, from around 2005, Ukrainian leaders requested NATO membership. In 2010 an anti-NATO president was democratically elected; the U.S. State Department oversaw a massive regime change effort to depict him as corrupt, anti-EU, impeding “Ukrainian’s European aspirations.” It succeeded in ousting him, and to some extent also succeeded in portraying the Maidan putsch, to the people of this country, as a democratic mass movement against a corrupt Russian puppet.

That Putin is a shameless, amoral mythmaker is not the issue. Nor even is his anti-communism. If we dwell of the evil he represents, we risk uniting with the shameless, amoral mythmakers around Biden. We risk succumbing to the simplistic Blinken concept of the world (no advance over George W. Bush’s “you’re for us or against us” biblical nonsense) as one divided between Good (“Democracy”) and Evil (“Autocracy”) and to the conclusion that to combat the latter we must unite with the former.

Lenin were he alive today would no doubt point out that Russia today, as well as the U.S., is a capitalist-imperialist country. He would promote (as he did during World War I) a strategy of “revolutionary defeatism,” based on the expectation that defeat in war would weaken the (current Russian) bourgeois state, allowing for a workers’ revolution. He would urge the same for the Ukrainian workers of all nationalities. He would warn as he did against “Great Russia chauvinism.” Putin, again, rejects all this. He is a Russian nationalist with (very traditional) Russian anxiety about border security. (If you ask why it is traditional, 1. look at a map; 2. read Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) He is despicable, but his demand that NATO ceases expansion is as eminently reasonable and Biden’s desire to expand it seems crazier by the day.

How should a Marxist see this situation? The principle contradiction here is certainly not “democracy” versus “autocracy,” although it’s telling that the opinion shapers need to speak in such primitive terms, as though addressing a third-grade civics class. It is the desire of the post-Cold War USA to maintain and expand its “full-spectrum dominance” as the planet’s sole superpower, able to use it’s terrifying military resources, control over the world banking system, access to private communications everywhere, manipulation of the flow of information and all the resources available to prevent the emergence of any rival—versus the post-Cold War Russia, again a capitalist power, driven by the same basic imperatives as the U.S. and similar toolbox of devises to pursue its “national interests” (which are now, of course, Russian bourgeois interests).

Repeat: it’s not Democracy, led by the Leader of the Free World, versus Autocracy, led by Putin (or Putin and Xi, or Putin, Xi and the new Iranian leader). No. It’s an expanding capitalist-imperialist superpower, one of the most racist, oppressive, and violent countries on earth, hell-bent on expansion at Russia’s expense, versus a middling capitalist-imperialist power hell-bent on stopping NATO’s expansion to its borders.

Rather like the U.S. would be hell-bent on preventing the Warsaw Pact, when there was such a thing, from expanding to include Mexico and Canada. If you are looking for truly appropriate analogies, linger on that one.

The worst thing that might happen—it is in fact happening already—is for leftists of shallow understanding to conclude that, in this one instance, yes, we should support the mounting sanctions, rejoice at the suspension of Nord Stream II, endorse the shipping of more weapons including those from Germany. Because Russia is the aggressor here! Such thoughts, reflecting no knowledge of (real) historical context, are as dangerous as the invasion itself.

Unity with Biden, who has supported every NATO war, plus the war on Iraq based on lies, who refuses to even think about a world without an expanding NATO, versus Putin who has (understandably!) protested with mounting intensity NATO’s expansion to surrounding European Russia, is impossible for a Marxist or any consistent anti-imperialist. Not that we say, “A plague on both your houses,” since we wish nobody an epidemic. We should say: the workers of the world HAVE no country. When we do, we can talk about defending it.

I do hope that, and would not be surprised if, Putin’s attack on Lenin has provoked some outrage among Russians who continue to read Lenin’s works. Such as “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914), “On the National Pride of the Great Russians” (1914), and “The Ukraine”(1917). In the latter essay, Lenin wrote:

…Ukrainian people do not wish to secede from Russia at present. They demand autonomy without denying the need for the supreme authority of the “All-Russia Parliament.” No democrat, let alone a socialist, will venture to deny the complete legitimacy of Ukraine’s demands. And no democrat can deny Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia. Only unqualified recognition of this right makes it possible to advocate a free union of the Ukrainians and the Great Russians, a voluntary association of the two peoples in one state. Only unqualified recognition of this right can actually break completely and irrevocably with the accursed tsarist past, when everything was done to bring about a mutual estrangement of the two peoples so close to each other in language, territory, character and history. Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue.

Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession.

We do not favour the existence of small states. We stand for the closest union of the workers of the world against “their own” capitalists and those of all other countries. But for this union to be voluntary, the Russian worker, who does not for a moment trust the Russian or the Ukrainian bourgeoisie in anything, now stands for the right of the Ukrainians to secede, without imposing his friendship upon them, but striving to win their friendship by treating them as an equal, as an ally and brother in the struggle for socialism.

Putin has attacked this view, and specifically the “Communist” view of the right of self-determination. He employs a few facts (such as Ukraine’s historical absorption into larger entities) to deny Ukrainians’ national identity, treating them paradoxically as both a sub-category of Russians and ridden with Russophobic neofacists. Here he is the one who sounds fascist, while Biden poses as the decent defender of the “rules-based world order.” That’s the order Russia has supposedly threatened more than the U.S. has done since the commencement of post-Cold War NATO expansion in 1999, the same year the U.S. and NATO waged a criminal war on Serbia to create a new state in open defiance of all those rules. But in fact the U.S. has been the aggressor here, Russia the threatened party, for a quarter-century. NATO expansion has proceeded in the dark, well below the radar of public concern or interest. Now finally it becomes the subject of discussion because Putin made it so.

But now, you say, is not the best time to condemn NATO. We’ll be called treasonous. But no; now that the issue is on the table, this could be a teaching moment. We could say, “Well, this time, at least, America’s on the right side!” But it’s not. It’s trying to salvage an ongoing project, and, whatever happens, this round, prepare for a grand conflict to come, by further binding Germany to its diktat, wooing Finland and Sweden into NATO, stationing more troops in Poland and Romania, etc. What we should say is: This is all about imperialism, and NATO expansion as a tool of U.S. imperialism. It is also about Russian chauvinism, but more about very real Russian security concerns. And about rage that Russian protests have only met with smirking references to the right nations have to make their own alliances.

The best thing we can do to support the Ukrainian people (excepting the fascist element, including the Azov Battalion) is to demand “our” country keep its hands off Ukraine, stop interfering in its affairs, permanently end NATO enlargement, and withdraw the invitation to Ukraine to join. One should also demand the removal of warmonger Victoria Newland (also known as “Fuck the EU!” Vicky) from her State Department post. As for the Russian people, let us wish them well in organizing against their own oppression avoiding any association with U.S. regime change efforts.

Recall that the U.S. LOVED Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, as Russia slipped into abject misery under oligarch capitalism. Recall how Clinton arranged for an IMF loan to secure Yeltsin’s victory in a 1996 election it appeared a “Communist” would win. Yeltsin, who bombarded the Russian parliament building when the Duma refused to dissolve at his order, was Washington’s idea of a fine Russian partner, who would protest only meekly when Clinton expanded NATO and used NATO to aerially bombard the first European city so attacked since 1945. (Why do I mention this? Because reporters now keep saying that the Russian bombing in Ukraine is the first. They lie. In fact, the bombing of Ukraine is in a way a response to the earlier bombing of Serbia.)

What the U.S. cannot tolerate in Yeltsin’s successor is his persistent opposition to NATO expansion. Thus he is depicted as an autocrat (such as U.S. allies who fit the bill are not), a moral monster (such as the Saudi crown prince is not), a fountain of corruption secreting away billions. He was not so depicted when he offered to permit NATO to transport weapons through Russia to Afghanistan in 2002. He became a villain when he began to sharply protest NATO expansion, and has been vilified all the more after each measured response to that expansion. For the left to join the chorus now would make us like the “socialist” French and German legislators who voted war credits to their respective governments in 1914, abandoning any pretense of proletarian internationalism and lining up behind their bourgeoisie. Three years later Lenin published his famous pamphlet, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” noting the shamelessness of the Second International and its failure to grasp that modern wars are waged by competing capitalist blocs, in which the workers have no stake but are pitted against one another by state forces using coercion, nationalism and fear.

We remain in the historical era of capitalist imperialism. This is not a time to make peace with it. Our task in this country is to defeat our ruling class, and nobody else’s, surely not in tandem with a president every bit as cracked and dangerous as the Russian leader.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu