Ukraine: The Tsar is naked - Interview with Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) activist Denis Pilash

First published at European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine on October 8. Translated from Jacobin Italia.

Denis Pilash is a socialist activist and associate professor of political science at Kyiv University. Over the last few days, together with a hundred or so comrades, he has been attending the congress of the Sotsyalniy Rukh movement, one of the most active anti-capitalist and trade unionist voices in Ukraine, which within the support of popular resistance to Russian aggression is trying to emphasise social conflict, and issues of class and gender inequality. Often, even entering into opposition with government choices, as in the case of the labour laws recently approved by Zelensky against which the movement has launched an international campaign.

Admittedly, the left-wing movement is a small reality in Ukraine, and the climate of patriotism generated by Putin’s invasion does not help to question certain issues and problems. But, at the same time, the great popular mobilisation that has taken place since 24 February is setting new social and political dynamics in motion, and more and more people seem to want to commit themselves to changing Ukraine in a more progressive direction. We then asked Pilash to analyse these trends, also in the light of the recent counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army and what was discussed at the movement’s congress, which was attended by trade unionists, feminist and Lgbtq activists, members of student associations, comrades from other countries.

What is your comment on the congress? On the one hand, the war leads people to focus on more immediate problems, but on the other hand there was a new participation and interest in progressive political issues...

This is clearly a very complicated and difficult time, full of obstacles. But, on the other hand, we have to act now because otherwise we would risk precisely having no say at such a crucial juncture: for example, the neo-liberal and worker-damaging labour laws proposed by the Rada could have been passed without any opposition had it not been for Sotsyalniy Rukh. In fact, even in the trade unions themselves, awareness of these issues is rather low, so a political intervention such as the one we are trying to put in place is absolutely necessary.

In addition, the question of the reconstruction of the country is now opening up: not only the post-conflict social and economic reconstruction, but also that which is taking place here and now, while the war is still going on. Both the ruling and opposition parties are unclear on this point: there are even those within the political class who think that post-conflict reconstruction can be carried out by distributing private micro-credits and further liberalising the market. On the contrary, it should be just the opposite: there needs to be decisive state intervention in the market, with more social spending, etc.

Without the development of a left-wing perspective, all those subjectivities that are bearing the brunt of the war situation, that are paying the highest price for it, and that, in this sense, constitute the heart of the resistance to the invasion, both military and civil, would remain voiceless. Namely, the subjectivities that make up the working class. At the moment, in fact, practically no one is looking after its interests. So who should do it, if not us? It is a historical responsibility, and that is why I believe our task is to organise social mobilisation and move towards the creation of a political party that will serve the interests of the working class.

However, the war situation is opening up unexpected and unprecedented possibilities. There has been great spontaneous solidarity on the part of people throughout the country who have supported the resistance and set up humanitarian relief actions. It is no coincidence, I believe, that attendance at our congress doubled compared to previous years. We were approached by people from the most diverse backgrounds and paths, who were in search of a political alternative, as well as people engaged in humanitarian relief networks, recognising in us a point of reference and aggregation for many left-wing subjectivities. Our mission is therefore to build a platform for the elaboration of progressive policies that counter neo-liberal capitalism, which is now widely in the majority in the national context.

Thus, a civic mobilisation and popular resistance to the invasion continues in the country...

There is an overwhelming sense and widespread awareness that this is an existential struggle and that we have no other viable option. It is simply about the right to exist as a people, but also as individuals. I am really talking about a very widespread sensibility, which transcends the differences between the various regions of the country, between social classes, which is common to people even very far apart, and you can see this from the fact that millions have actively engaged in this struggle.

I am not just talking about military defence, which also saw a great participation of volunteers, but also about less visible activities that contribute just as much to the functioning of the whole resistance machine. There are those who, even now, despite having gone back to work, still find time to help displaced persons, those who engage in various types of humanitarian assistance, etc. Truly, we are talking about millions of people, united in a common commitment, which at least in part overcomes and transcends differences, creating a shared space of organisation. Another interesting element in this regard is the fact that in many cities in the occupied territories where there is a majority Russian-speaking, or at least bilingual, population, during the first weeks of the invasion, which caused obvious devastation, large groups of civilians, regardless of language differences, tried to oppose the Russian military with their bare hands. These were very courageous attempts that were suppressed and obviously this kind of possibility no longer exists. Perhaps the latest occurred in the town of Enerhodar, near the Zaporižžja nuclear power plant, where firemen and security personnel tried to animate a strike, which was, however, promptly silenced by the occupying forces. We can therefore say that fighting on the same front are people who speak different languages, have different political orientations, and even people who before 24 February had a very favourable and accepting opinion of Russia - many of them were later shocked and devastated by what happened. In short, there is a degree of participation in popular resistance that in my opinion does not primarily depend on linguistic or ethnic factors, and this is a very important fact for us.

How have these events changed and are they changing the identity of the Ukrainian left? Over the past eight years, the history of the country and also of the country’s left-wing forces has been deeply intertwined with social conflict and war: from the Maidan and the subsequent Donbass war to the ongoing invasion.

First of all, if we talk about the Ukrainian left, a distinction must be made. There are parties, some of which have been outlawed, most of which derive from the Soviet Communist Party and which, in my view, have totally lost their left-wing essence (if they ever had one): they combine the worst forms of class collaborationism, i.e. support for oligarchic groups, with social conservatism (the tendency to support the death penalty, for example, or opposition to gender and minority rights). In short, these are political realities that have a left-wing appearance in terms of names and symbolism, but in fact represent populist right-wing forces. Therefore, if we speak of the left, I would refer exclusively to those small anarchist, anti-authoritarian or Marxist-derived subjectivities that are commonly grouped under the term ’new left’ in the post-Soviet space.

This is a distinction that was already present before Euromaidan, but which, following the events of 2013-2014, has become permanently sharpened. Therefore, if we talk about an identity of the Ukrainian ’new left’, we are talking about an identity that is not crystallised but fluid, a kind of continuum of political forces that share a critical stance of the Soviet past. The Maidan, as well as the Donbass war, have produced shifts and readjustments within this continuum. Specifically, the 2013-2014 protests led some to distance themselves from that street experience, despite having taken part in it at least initially, and to become disillusioned with activism, moving towards a substantial depoliticisation. On the other hand, an internal opposition was also created within the ’new left’: there were those who tried to participate and intervene politically in what was certainly a contradictory but mass movement, which could be compared to other popular uprisings of that period following the economic crisis of 2008 such as the Arab springs (without forgetting the peculiarities of regional and national contexts, of course), while others from the outset branded the protests as illegitimate, given the presence (not majority, but tolerated by the mainstream) of extreme right-wing elements within it, which were in any case a source of concern for all left-wing subjectivities. This sceptical party towards the Maidan ended up taking a sort of ’loyalist’ position, in essence pro-government and ultimately pro-Russian.

In short, it was a complex situation that has been interpreted on the left in different ways: there were very different social strata in the square, the class composition was not linear, but - I would say - the demands that animated the protests were certainly similar, as already mentioned, to popular uprisings of the same period such as the Arab springs: inequality, poverty, brutality of police repression, crisis of political representation, popular anger that steadily increased, especially after the violence by the police forces came down on the crowd.

In similar vein, the Donbass war reproduced a split within the left: going broadly, there are those who sided with Russia and portrayed the people’s republics as a kind of anti-fascist resistance (within the new left, I am referring almost exclusively to people who had left the Communist Party and the Borotba group, who however - by ending up in that context collaborating with Russian far-right groups - alienated any sympathy from the rest of the Ukrainian left) and there are those who, especially from an anarchist background, adopted positions of anarcho-nationalism, i.e. supporting the anti-terrorist operation launched by Poroshenko (interestingly, these were often the people who were initially sceptical of the Maidan). Even in that situation, however, a highly contradictory process was set in motion: at one point, in Donetsk, there were mobilisations of more or less equal size, pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan, and the interesting thing is that the people who adhered to one side or the other, leaving aside the completely insane positions that openly sided with Russia, had more or less the same objectives. That is, both sides said they were taking to the streets to prevent the country from being seized by the oligarchs.

Despite this, the country has plunged into a kind of civil war...

The tragedy of that moment was the absence of a progressive political subject and force capable of devising a convincing programme for the two factions, but it must be said that in Donbass the anti-Maidan demonstrations had practically from the very beginning a strong component made up of the old regional elites who wanted to stir up separatist sentiments probably to maintain their own dominance in the area, while they realised they were losing it in the rest of the country (the Party of Regions was basically the party of the major oligarchs like Akhmetov). In addition, there was the big elephant in the room of Russian imperialism. Therefore, immediately after Janukovich’s deposition, Russia took advantage of the situation to occupy Crimea and then continue its work of destabilisation, using the anti-Maidan discontent for its own geopolitical purposes. In fact, the Donbass war began with the arrival on Ukrainian territory of the Russian soldier Strelkov, who took control of some centres by killing local administrators.

Only after these events did Ukraine launch the so-called anti-terrorist operation, which, it must be reiterated, was a big mistake. But, in any case, the major force that led towards war was Russian intervention: direct intervention in Crimea and indirect intervention in Donbass. Two moves that, in retrospect, should be read as the result of two different dynamics: on the one hand as elements of a broader imperialist strategy aimed at subjugating those regions or nations perceived to be within its sphere of influence and, on the other, as a reaction of the ruling elites to the panic generated in them by popular uprisings. Similarly to the 19th century, when Russia presented itself as a force for European stability in a reactionary sense, any revolution or mass protest was always inspired by some external interference and it was therefore necessary to preserve and safeguard any authoritarian regime.

Already in 2014, this kind of interpretation of the Russian attitude was quite shared within the left-wing forces. Some activists, most of them from the subculture of football supporters, therefore joined the Ukrainian military forces in the anti-terrorist operation. Others, on the other hand, held the position that, while recognising that the major driving force behind the events in the Donbass was Russian interventionism, a totally different political and humanitarian strategy was needed to engage in dialogue and persuade the people who remained in the independent or irrational territories: while the ruling class was adopting more conservative and nationalist laws, such as the de-communisation laws, part of the left among us was instead proclaiming itself in favour of actions of the opposite sign, much more open towards those who supported the separatist republics.

At that point, the political forces linked to Soviet nostalgia and the Communist Party in Ukraine, so blatantly pro-Russian, had spontaneously died out because they were unable to express any project palatable to anyone. Their official ban took place at this stage. What was left was therefore a rather disorganised ’new left’ and a few more structured groups of anarchist tendency, such as the student group Azione Diretta (whose foundation was anarcho-syndicalism, but who had already passed their peak). Sotsialny Rukh was therefore created in the wake of that conjuncture and in the wake of the Maidan protests, precisely because we had become aware of the lack of an independent and organised socialist political project in the Ukrainian context. This awareness was also shared by some of the most militant and combative elements of the trade union realities. More or less, this is therefore the scenario that led to the present invasion, which also saw a resurgence of activity by the anarchist movement, which was engaged both at the front and in humanitarian support initiatives for the civilian population.

How did these events affect the development of the extreme right-wing forces?

Many of us come from anti-fascist left-wing backgrounds and militancy. I remember how for a long time street violence by the extreme right against us was a problem and how institutional politics always turned a blind eye to the issue. On the other hand, it happens very often that the ruling elites exploit for their own purposes or otherwise tolerate the activities of subversive far-right factions. But, if we think back 10-12 years ago, there was little attention even from the international left: the extreme right in Ukraine did not seem to be something very important.

But, especially towards the end of the 2000s, we experienced a very intense period of clashes with extreme right-wing factions and activists, which were on the rise, and they often carried out attacks on left-wing events, beating up activists (not only anti-fascist militants, but people from the student movement, feminist movement, Lgbtq, etc. etc.). Then, almost suddenly, all these dynamics took on an extraordinary importance for the international left, and it happened exactly at the moment when this could serve to legitimise pro-Russian positions and deny any kind of solidarity with the Ukrainian people with the excuse that we are talking about a fascist nation.

Obviously, the extreme right and in particular groups with a Nazi or para-Nazi ideology represent a threat to which attention must be paid. Especially those who were willing to fight in 2014, and had formed their own battalions such as the Azov (certainly the most recognised openly far-right battalion), gained a lot of legitimacy from the war in Donbass and, clearly, also from resisting the ongoing Russian aggression. However, at the electoral level, forces like Svoboda miserably reduced their support just after the Maidan and, in the elections following those events, could even be said to be a basically right-wing populist party, although it still had some fascist or para-fascist characteristics.

In any case, even now I believe that the problem of the extreme right is characterised by a strong media overexposure. In defending Mariupol, for example, there were thousands of people, including many marines, but almost only Azov was discussed. And in Azov itself or in the various battalions that were formed in 2014, the presence of individuals with clear Nazi or para-Nazi ideological affiliations has been diminishing, precisely because so many people from the most diverse backgrounds have joined the resistance. This clearly does not mean that the power relations and political dynamics have changed definitively. It is still an open process.

Given the territorial reconquests of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, paradoxically, the issue of the Donbass is back on the agenda. What seems to you to be a sensible, left-wing perspective for the self-determination of those regions?

It has to be acknowledged that the greatest amount of destruction and worsening of the living conditions of the civilian population in the Donbass was caused by Russia and that Putin’s decision to launch this new large-scale offensive in Ukraine resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in those areas. Something that cannot even be remotely compared to the worst moments of the 2014-2015 war. In addition, one must bear in mind the fact that a forced military mobilisation is taking place in the area, whereby the people living in Donbass are basically being used as cannon fodder by the Russian army (as is the case, for example, with Syrians by Turkey in the case of the Syrian Turkmen brigades).

So, it may be that depending on how the counteroffensive develops, the question of the reintegration of the Donbass into Ukrainian territory will arise. I think that, of course, in the event one has to work for a peaceful reintegration, but this was already a point in the programme with which Zelensky was elected, and until the last moment even the country’s military general staff had emphasised that they would not commit themselves to recovering the region by force. But now, clearly, the situation has changed. Russia’s invasion has hypothetically given the go-ahead for a military reconquest of the territory. So I think we really have to rethink how best to take into account the perspective of the people who live there and the people who have fled since 2014. But then there is the very sensitive issue of ’collaborationism’.

In this sense, we are receiving very contradictory signals from the authorities: there are those who are more compliant and those who, on the other hand, are pushing to consider as traitors anyone who has even agreed, for example, to take a Russian passport (a decision that is obviously forced, most of the time), or medical personnel who, quite rightly, feel the duty to assist and treat Russian soldiers in the occupied areas as well. I think then that we must draw a clear distinction between those who voluntarily and at high levels engaged in supporting the occupation (those who joined the administration or propaganda channels, or those who joined the United Russia party active in the puppet states of the Donbass) and those who were mobilised against their will and had no other options. Unfortunately, any possibility of peaceful resistance to the occupation has been violently repressed, and even the armed resistance that has developed in the occupied territories has so far been mainly directed against the most hated collaborators in high positions of power, or some old, blatantly pro-Russian political figures, or propagandists who have adopted absurd conspiracy theories. It is problematic, but it is something common to all guerrilla movements, the same could be said of the French partisans during the Vichy Republic who were certainly not gentle with the collaborationists...

Ultimately, I think what needs to be prioritised are the rights of the people who have suffered the most in the context of the occupation, including those who have developed a legitimate sense of resentment towards the Ukrainian state. Perhaps the fairest and most inclusive approach would be to propose a general amnesty for all those who have not committed any kind of war crime, but at the same time those who have been responsible for violence and torture must be brought before some international tribunal similar to the one used during the Second World War. But this clearly also implies that the Russian elites must be put on trial.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is increasingly shaping its national identity in a direction that seems to involve abandoning the influence of Russian culture and language. How do you read this process of de-Russification?

In pre-Soviet times, the Ukrainian language was repressed in ways not unlike the way Catalan was repressed in the Franco era. It was seen by the Russian elites as something not ’real’, a deformation of official Russian. But apart from an initial period of ’Ukrainianisation’ of our community, which followed the 1917 revolution and was then repressed again by the Stalinist recovery of ’Russian greatness’ and a more chauvinist approach, all those who were enthusiastic about Ukrainian national liberation, in a mainly socialist and progressive sense (but not only in Ukraine, the discourse is valid for almost all national identities in the former USSR), were silenced or mostly killed. An imperialist tendency was thus established, whereby Russian was the dominant language that subjugated the others, and especially those linguistically related to Russian, such as Ukrainian or Belarusian. When Ukraine achieved independence, a sort of discrepancy was created: Ukrainian became the state language, while Russian was still mentioned in the constitution as a minority language to be preserved and respected along with others, but at the same time it was the ’market’ that decided which was really the dominant language.

For example, in the early years of independent Ukraine, there were many more books and newspapers printed in Russian than there probably were during the Soviet Union (during which, by the way, a debate had been opened concerning the status of Ukrainian, thanks above all to Ivan Dzjuba) precisely because it was market trends that ’dictated the law’, much more than the intentions of those in government, with dynamics not dissimilar to those whereby English became established as an internationally widespread language. At that point, the question of linguistic identity was widely exploited by political forces, because it was an element of easy aggregation and ’distraction’ from more concrete and social issues that would instead have been more divisive. Starting with the elections that kicked off the Maidan, these issues were widely used by forces across the political spectrum, both the more nationalist Ukrainian ones and the Party of Regions, which instead promised the preservation of Russian. There was then informal discrimination on both sides: if Russian could be considered bad in some more nationalist Ukrainian communities, so Ukrainian was often considered an inferior and ’peasant’ language in some pro-Russian circles.

In the current situation, however, people are mostly driven by their feelings and emotions: many refuse to use Russian because they do not want to identify with the aggressor and his culture. And this is understandable. Others, however, continue to use the idiom because they clearly understand that it is not something that can be totally absorbed by the will of the Kremlin. As is the case with so many other imperialist languages, from Spanish to French. But it is worth remembering that the majority of people in Ukraine are essentially bilingual. In addition, there is the Creole variant of Surzhuk, a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, as well as numerous varieties of dialects. Just as there are other linguistic minorities who want to preserve their identity. In short, there is a complex history in this regard. I believe that, in order to support and strengthen the Ukrainian language, we must first of all have a Ukrainian culture and concrete and appropriate policies that support its dissemination: for example, promoting education, the printing of books, artistic works, and the circulation of scientific texts in Ukrainian. At the same time, the cultural and linguistic rights of minorities must be preserved. Precisely because there is no true Ukrainian identity, from a strictly ethnic point of view.

By sharing a common fight against the invasion, these communities could claim their right to full citizenship within the broader Ukrainian community. Let us not forget that many members of the Roma community, who usually bear the brunt of discrimination, are fighting at the front. Any political project that focuses on ethnocentric nationalism must therefore be opposed. But this still brings us back to the question of a political and social transformation also within the Russian Federation, without which there is always the risk of a kind of imperial revanchism. And this transformation can only be brought about by Russian citizens themselves.

In this regard, how do you see the future of the Ukrainian left and the Belarusian and Russian lefts? Considering the fact that, unfortunately, Putin’s invasion is dividing these post-Soviet communities ever more deeply...

Well, let’s say that we certainly have a common enemy at the moment. It is true: even in the past, there have been developments and processes that have taken the anti-fascist and left-wing movements in these countries in very different directions, but I think that, in general, if you are on the same political side, it doesn’t really matter whether you are physically in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus or in Myanmar or Latin America or anywhere else in the world. You are still sharing the same view on what you are for and what you are against.

Specific to our context, I think that for a long time the spectre of the Soviet past hovered over the left. There was a certain obsession with and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which was seen by some as something to be rebuilt at all costs. I would say that this has now completely changed. But, from my point of view, our task should be to rethink solidarity from a global perspective, including solidarity with people active in the other post-Soviet republics. There are clearly specificities: in Belarus, as we have seen, people were really on the verge of overthrowing the regime and the largely spontaneous role that elements of the working class played in the protests surprised everyone a bit, while one of the most active sectors in the opposition to Lukashenko has always been the anarchist movement, which was among other things active in sabotage during the current war. In Russia, too, there seems to be resistance of this kind, while many democratic-socialist movements - with which we have been collaborating for a long time - have unreservedly expressed their opposition to the current war. And, I have to say, they very often speak out against Russian imperialism in a much more militant and combative form than their ’western’ counterparts, who sometimes claim the need to remain neutral or to have to fight NATO in the first place even in the midst of a conflict in which another specific imperialism is the main actor.

On the other hand, it is true that many within Ukrainian society are disillusioned with Russian society: a more massive and widespread protest reaction was expected at the start of the war, and many people have friends or relatives in Russia who still refuse to acknowledge the atrocities their country is committing in Ukraine. At the same time, the opposition in Russia must be supported and it must not be forgotten that the support for Putin and his war is not total. The fact is that authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s operate in order to de-politicise and de-mobilise society. Quite the opposite of historical fascisms, even if the war hysteria that came with the war and is being spread by Russian propaganda is a new attempt to galvanise the crowds, ominously reminiscent of some past examples. Yet, one does not see much enthusiasm around. So the problem is passivity and the fact that the majority of people in Russia are basically in agreement with maintaining the status quo, which also means that the political work to change this state of affairs will necessarily be hard and arduous. But it is not hopeless political work. Now partial mobilisation has been announced but, as yet, Putin has not uttered the ’magic word’, namely war. It is a sign that the elites themselves realise that there is no general enthusiasm among the population for the idea of going to die for ideals that are not clear to anyone.

Russia is thus conducting a neo-colonial war, mainly employing contractors and private military groups, or forcibly mobilising ethnic minorities and parts of the poorer population, who are sent to Ukraine to kill not only Ukrainians but also other ethnic minorities. In short, this war makes it clear that among the victims of Russian imperialism are also and above all the poorest strata of the Russian population. But it is difficult to predict what will happen. I do not believe that the conditions are in place for an anti-war movement like that of the Vietnam War to form. On the contrary, the Russian oppressive machine is doing everything it can to ensure that there will be no mass mobilisation, but who knows, maybe by now - with the defeats that have taken place on the ground - it is beginning to be clear even to the Russian population that ’the Tsar is naked’.