The tragedy of the Ukrainian working class

Reposted from Karmina, July 11, 2022.

At the end of 1965, the apparatchiks of the Communist Party of Ukraine received an outrageous samizdat – in Ukrainian: samvydav – entitled “Internationalism or Russification?”. It argued that behind the facade of fraternal coexistence of peoples in the USSR, there lurked a Great Russian chauvinism that prevented the real development of national culture, suppressed the history of non-Russian peoples, promoted Russification and encouraged Ukrainophobia. Using references to Lenin’s writings, the manuscript argued that this was the result of “a complete revision of Leninist party policy on the national question, a revision carried out by Stalin in the 1930s and continued by Khrushchev in the last decade.”

The author of these words, Ivan Dziuba, a native of the Donetsk Oblast, a Ukrainian literary critic and dissident, died only recently: on 22 February 2022. The attack on Kiev began a mere two days later.

Russian representatives have laid out various arguments to justify and legitimize the invasion. The emphasis they put on the various objectives of the so-called special operation is also changing, from the protection of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in the East to the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, to regime change or the creation of a corridor from the Donbas to Transnistria. However, a central message has gradually crystallized from their statements: first, the Ukrainian state has no claim to existence, at least within its current borders; and second, there is in fact no separate Ukrainian nation, it is a mere variant of the triune Russian Nation which includes Great Russians (i.e., Russians), Belarusians, and Little Russians (i.e., Ukrainians and Ruthenians).

The actions of the Russian military in occupied territories reflect this. Soldiers remove signs in Ukrainian and all sorts of Ukrainian symbols. FSB agents interrogate school principals and teachers. The emerging military-political administration has announced the transition of the education system to the Russian curriculum and instruction in Russian only. Many refugees who pass through the “filtration camps” find themselves thousands of kilometers away from their home, deep in the territory of the occupiers. There are speculations that the existing “republics”, as well as possible new formations of this kind (e.g., in the Kherson Oblast), could become part of the Russian Federation.

The current war against Ukraine is irredentist: its aim is to bring back to the empire (“federation”) a territory it considers its own. According to this view, Ukraine has only been lost temporarily, and is inhabited by a population that has simply forgotten its true national identity. The theory and practice of this conflict is the same Great Russian chauvinism that Dziuba protested. Sometimes, it appears in its classical, tsarist and Orthodox form, at other times, it employs Stalinist imagery in which the cult of the Great Patriotic War plays a central role. A bizarre mixture thus emerges. The new coat of arms of the occupied Kherson Oblast makes references to Tsarist symbolism. At the same time, the occupiers raise red flags with a hammer and sickle that once heralded the doom of the Romanov dynasty. One can only make sense of this hodge-podge if one understands that the unifying ingredient is Great Russian chauvinism.

The national question, so central to the concerns of revolutionaries operating on the very same territory over a hundred years ago, plays a key role in this war. That is why this conflict appears to some as anachronistic, out of place in contemporary Europe. Over the last seventy years, most European countries have experienced conflicts related to national self-determination only in the form of anti-colonial uprisings that took place in the global South (i.e., the numerous wars in Africa or Southeast Asia), or in the form of separatist struggles that were much less intense (e.g., Northern Ireland, the Basque Country). The bloody demise of Yugoslavia has simply been forgotten, albeit unjustly. Like the six wars of 1991–2001 that accompanied the breakup of the Balkan federation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be seen in the context of the transformation of “state socialism” and the failure of its attempts to resolve the national question on the former territories of the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary.

The deep crises and subsequent economic and political changes that these states have undergone since the mid-1980s have brought to the surface national tensions that the Eastern bloc regimes tried to keep in check. At the same time, nationalism – from its extreme chauvinist versions to the “peaceful”, civic ones – played a key role in legitimizing movements against Stalinist regimes. It experienced a major renaissance in the political arenas of the new states. The calm division of the ČSFR into the Czech Republic and Slovakia or the peaceful “reunification of the German nation” after the fall of the Berlin Wall were exceptions. The demise of the USSR was accompanied by a series of armed conflicts, from clashes between demonstrators and the militarized police and army to the brutal wars in Chechnya. Russia’s war with Ukraine, which began in 2014, is a continuation of this series, while the invasion in February 2022 is but an escalation of an existing conflict.

The current war can only be understood against the background of the development of Ukrainian capitalism and its specifics. In this text, we trace it from Ukraine’s independence and the emergence of regional and sectoral “clans” within the capitalist class, some of which had close links to the economy of the Russian Federation. In politics, the competition of these clans took the form of vying for lucrative positions that allowed access to state resources. The national question – in part, for historical reasons – became part of this struggle and was used as an instrument of mobilization by the political projects of the oligarchs. While the power of the clans acted as a brake on economic development, their rivalry was the basis for the political instability. The latter culminated in 2013–2014 with the Euromaidan, the emergence of self-proclaimed “republics” in the Donbas, as well as the beginning of a military conflict with Russia.

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