Entendiendo Ucrania: A Spanish-language website for understanding Ukraine
Interview with Juan González, translator, activist with the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine (ENSU) and creator of the website "Understanding Ukraine", where he translates articles from the Ukrainian left into Spanish. The interviewer is Alfons Bech, trade union coordinator of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine.
Juan, why did you create “Understanding Ukraine”?
First, because my partner is Ukrainian. She is from Kyiv and her parents are there right now, in a village near the capital. Many of our friends are still in Ukraine, some are fighting, and others have had to leave their homes, family and work. Her uncle was killed almost a year ago. He lived in Popasna, in the Donbas, and refused to leave his home. When the Russians take a town, they reduce it to rubble, and he was killed by a bomb that fell on his house. His neighbour buried him in his own garden. Also, a classmate of my partner's, Yaroslav, was killed a few months ago. He was a well-known comedian in Ukraine who joined the army when Russia started the full-scale invasion. Also, relatively recently, the remains of a university biology professor of hers were found in a grave in Izyum. In the face of all this, it is impossible not to mobilise and try to do something. Here in Marseille, we have done some collections and helped refugees, but I started the website because I saw that there is quite a big problem in the way much of the left in Spain talks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
So, what moved you to create a Spanish-language website about Ukraine was the outlook of the Spanish left?
Well, yes. Let's say the outlook of the most widely read left-wing media, which is also reflected in the position of some political parties. I think it is a paternalistic and colonial vision. First, because it does not give Ukrainians a voice, they are not consulted and sometimes it gives the impression that they are being silenced. For example, it is beyond me that there can be a peace conference on Ukraine without any speakers from Ukraine, Poland or Lithuania. Moreover, the Ukrainians are treated as objects that are the objects of a geopolitical struggle but have no capacity for independent action. Sometimes it is argued that they don't have that capacity because Ukraine is a corrupt country. This is clearly a “civilising” narrative. It is also hypocritical because we on the left have been talking for years about rethinking the privileges we have and the legitimacy to deal with an issue that depends on these privileges. As the Ukrainian philosopher Tamara Zlobina rightly says, Western leftists do not realise that they are members of privileged countries, that they are not at war or threatened by regional powers, and that the wars they theorise about do not directly affect their lives.
Do you think such a website is useful for the left?
Much of the left when talking about Ukraine tends towards relativism. They often equate Russia with Ukraine. For example, several months ago there was an interview with Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, a man who has written a book on Ukraine, in which he said that in the Ukrainian war fascism is present on both sides. This is not true. It is in fact an aberration. There is no comparison possible. I do not share the narrative of those who say that Ukraine is fighting for European civilisation, because it is a racist discourse. But Ukraine is a democracy, with freedom of speech, with opposition, with trade unions and with a very active civil society. All of that, considering the fact that it is a poor country on the periphery of Europe. Russia, on the other hand, is an ultraconservative and authoritarian dictatorship which engages in terrorism in Ukraine, which has razed to the ground almost all the cities in Donbas that it has captured or that are on the front line, which systematically attacks civilian targets, which systematically uses torture, sexual violence, summary executions in the areas it controls, against civilians and prisoners of war, and which is kidnapping minors as a weapon of war. All this points to Russia committing genocide in Ukraine. There is no comparison. You cannot relativise the Russian invasion. And to turn a blind eye to Russia's systematic war crimes is to side with the aggressor.
Were you already in touch with Ukraine?
Yes, I was there the summer before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Visiting my partner's family and friends in Kyiv, Odesa, and several other cities in central and southern Ukraine.
And why is it so important to give a voice to the people of Ukraine and particularly to people on the left?
I think it is important because they are the ones who can speak about Ukraine with the greatest legitimacy. It is important to listen to them to have an idea, far from the parodies that get created, of what happened and what is happening in Ukraine. Moreover, I think we can learn a lot from them. On the one hand, we can learn a lot from Ukrainian civil society, which has been very mobilised since before the war, is very grassroots and reaches many places the state does not reach. Ukrainian society is very non-individualistic and there is a lot of mutual support between all its layers. I also think that the left here should listen to the left in Ukraine, or in other “peripheral” countries in general, so that its positions do not become irrelevant. For example, on the issue of security guarantees for small states, if the Spanish left does not consult the people of those states, it will never be able to offer realistic positions that are useful for them. Moreover, we are missing out on very interesting debates with other nations oppressed or threatened by major powers, like the debate in the Ukrainian magazine Commons.
What are these debates with other left forces around the world in Commons that you say are interesting?
They are organising debates and talks with other nations that unfortunately share borders with aggressive imperial powers or are living in war or under occupation. There is a lot of talk, among other topics, about how to offer real security guarantees to these nations without falling into empty proclamations that are of little use to the people of these countries. And also, about the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples, for this is the case of the Ukrainian resistance, which is defending itself against an empire that denies its existence and whose ultimate goal is to absorb and colonise Ukraine. The Ukrainian left is holding discussions with the left forces of other nations to unite their causes and struggles.
But that is breaking with the status quo! A good part of the left is now advocating multilateralism as the best option for the world.
If a multipolar world means a world where various regional powers can invade other nations and commit all sorts of human rights crimes with impunity, that doesn't sound good to me. Anti-imperialism should not resign itself to accepting division of the world into camps.
Does the language issue play as important a role as is said here in the Spanish state? In other words, did Russia go to the defence of Russian speakers who were completely threatened? How does this look from Ukraine and from the left?
Russia has used the language issue as a weapon to justify the invasion, with the fiction that Russian speakers are oppressed in Ukraine. To tell from my own experience, when I went to Ukraine I tried to communicate with people in Russian and nobody thought that was bad. My partner, until the invasion began, spoke Russian all her life without experiencing any oppression. In the videos of the liberation of Kherson you can see Russian-speaking Ukrainians celebrating the liberation with soldiers answering them in Russian. Many Ukrainians who used to speak Russian in their daily lives now use Ukrainian because Russian is the language of the invader and is used as a political weapon. Moreover, Russia's talk of oppression in the Russian-speaking territories makes no sense since the people of these territories suffer the most from the Russian invasion, they are the territories with the most civilian casualties and whose cities have been devastated or are constantly shelled by Russian artillery.
How do you understand that a left that defends the right to self-determination of nations is able to adopt neutrality in the face of an empire that is attacking another nation that is not imperialist? How do you explain that?
I find it shocking and lacking in solidarity. I think this situation arises because it is not well understood in the West that Ukraine has been colonised for centuries and that Russian aggression is purely imperialist. Russia wants to erase and absorb Ukraine. This ignorance is amplified by Russian propaganda which, in many left-wing media, finds more space than the voices of Ukrainians defending their own right to self-determination.
What do people who know your website here in France say: do they understand what you do, and what kind of reactions do you get?
Well, I haven't received many reactions from France because the site is in Spanish, but I have received good reviews from Spain. I have been told that it is useful to have better information about the topics that are usually used as propaganda.
Topics such as what?
The war in the Donbas, the Maidan, the importance of the extreme right in Ukraine, or corruption. These are topics on which there is a lot of misinformation, and which are exploited to shift the focus from the aggressor, which is Russia, to the victim of aggression.
However, all those aspects you point out: what happened in 2014, what happened in the Donbas or about corruption... are real aspects as well. Where is the nub of the issue?
It is true that the war started in 2014, or that the extreme right exists in Ukraine, but Spain mainly receives misinformation on these issues. For example, it is often said that Ukraine killed 14,000 civilians in the Donbas. This is a lie. This figure is the number of dead between the two sides, mostly in 2014 and 2015. Of these 14,000, 3400 were civilians and included the people who died on the MH17 flight shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft system. You do not hear, however, that the war was started by Russian mercenaries who took over administrative buildings in these regions by force, as the mercenaries themselves have acknowledged. When you read Ukrainian leftists, whether anarchists, Marxists, trade unionists or feminists, they explain very clearly what they experienced, and you understand how Russia manipulates the information to shift the focus from the aggressor to the victim of aggression.
In other words, do you think that there is a worldwide battle for the narrative? Is Russia interfering or manipulating the reality of these last years?
Undoubtedly. The worst thing is that it has an effect. When Russia commits any crime, they flood every possible outlet with different versions, no matter how contradictory, in order to overwhelm people and make it difficult for them to know what happened. Even if Russian guilt is eventually proven, the feeling of uncertainty remains.
How do you see an information website in Spanish in relation to the coming times in Europe? Do you think that information plays an important role in the future of Europe?
I think it does. I think it is a good practice to give a voice to the people who are suffering from a series of events, whether it is a war or any other situation, to have first-hand information. I think that when the voice of the protagonists is heard, propaganda and lies lose a lot of influence.
You have recently had a meeting with the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, and they have proposed that your website should form part of the network in order to achieve greater dissemination, because it is important for the network to reach all the Spanish-speaking public in Latin America and Spain, and even to go a little further (why not in Catalan, etc.) How do you see this proposal that has been made to you and how do you consider it?
I think it's great. The more it is a collective work, the better, and the more visibility Ukrainian voices will have. I am very happy to be able to work with the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine.
Do you want to add anything else?
Yes, I would like to add that not all the left has been getting it wrong. For example, there is the “Trasversales” project, which translates a lot of left-wing texts from Ukraine, and from a lot of other oppressed nations. You have several journalists who cover the Russian invasion and have therefore been to Ukraine, such as Manu Bravo or Hibai Arbide, who understand why the Ukrainians are fighting and who denounce the parodies that are made of the issue in Spain. And also, a large part of the population in Spain understands and defends the Ukrainians' right to resist a criminal invasion.