Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Russia and Ukraine: Culture and Conflict

In a capitalist world there are just too many wars, and the Ukraine conflict is a fairly small one compared with Syria. Syrian refugees are counted as about half the population displaced - 8 million within Syria, and 4 million scattered in other countries. In 2014-5, during the first period of conflict in Ukraine, about 8000 were killed and about one million displaced, mostly moving from eastern Ukraine to the west of the country, mostly around Kiev.

Ukraine is not so much at peace as simply a “frozen conflict”, an armed truce since the Minsk agreement (spring 2015). Russia holds onto its annexation of Crimea and control over eastern Ukraine, with the mining and heavy industry areas around Donetsk and Lukhansk.

As Socialists always argue, the real cause of war is conflicting interests: this was about control of oil and gas, and the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Black Sea and Crimea. On the one hand there are real, economic and political, interests. But on the other hand, there is the rhetoric, what politicians and most of the media say the war is all about. Most often they appeal to workers on grounds of nationalism, a spurious sense of ‘national identity’.

With Ukraine there is the ideological Cold War propaganda about the forces of ‘freedom’ fighting against an evil dictatorship. This is countered by the Kremlin line that the Ukraine conflict is about resisting an aggressive NATO invasion backed by Kiev’s neo-Nazi fascist politicians.

Successive Ukraine governments have had to take account of the fact that their policy decisions, alternately favouring Moscow or the West, are thought obnoxious by a large section of their public, and popular mass protests can topple governments. While Belarus under its Moscow-friendly dictator had political stability, Ukraine’s corrupt governments became increasingly unstable.

National identity

Socialists argue for class consciousness and internationalism as a way of uniting the working class and ending support for divisive, fratricidal conflicts. Civil wars especially are fuelled by questions about ‘national identity’, cultural differences and loyalties, and workers are divided and motivated by these issues.

So what is it that goes to make up a sense of a ‘national identity’? Sometimes it may be down to religion or language, or it may be historic.

For instance, in Northern Ireland the dividing line was mainly sectarian, about religious differences between Catholics and Protestants. In Sri Lanka the issue seemed to be ethnicity plus religion: the Tamils being Hindu, the Sinhalese being Buddhists – but not the peaceful sort. In the Pakistan civil war which led to the birth of Bangladesh, as West Pakistan was dominant politically and economically, Bengalis had a political and economic grievance but the trigger was the language issue.

In Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats spoke almost the same language. If Serbs were religious, they were likely to be Orthodox, whilst Croats were Catholics. Serbia had for centuries been under the Ottoman Empire, Croatia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In World War II many Croats supported the Nazis while many Serbs opposed the Nazi occupation.

With different histories there are different cultures and ‘national identities’. Yet within each ‘nation’ there is class conflict between the working class and their exploiters, a class war waged even in so-called peacetime.

Ukraine and Russia – language and culture

Many Russians do not accept the idea that Ukrainians are a different nation as many argue that Ukrainian is only a crude dialect, not a language. Traditionally for Russians language is the key determinant of nationality. Some Ukrainians have a mixed sense of identity; many speak Russian at home and have grandparents who migrated from Russia.

The question of Russian identity led to a long-running historic debate between Slavophiles and Westernisers. Through the 19th century, the Russian upper classes admired French and English culture, Russian identity was defined in relation to Europe and the civilised West, and they thought of Russia as backward.

In Tsarist times Ukraine was simply part of Russia. But in the 19th century, there came change. The Romantic poet, Pushkin, admired peasant folk tales and wrote great original Russian poetry. Others realized that the West was not the only source of literary inspiration and civilisation. Two great 19th century writers, Gogol and Chekhov, actually came from the Ukraine but both wrote in Russian.

Many others chose to write in Russian, not Ukrainian. The problem was that educated Russians dismissed Ukrainian as being merely a crude dialect, used only by illiterate peasants.

Just as the British made the English language into the lingua franca of the British Isles and later the empire, even now, long after the end of that empire, this linguistic imperialism remains a powerful influence. Irish poets like W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney wrote in English, as did the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, so too do almost all American, South African, Australian and Indian writers.

As a matter of policy the Tsarist empire and later the Soviet empire imposed the Russian language. Ukrainian as a language was officially banned in 1720, 1863 and during most of the 20th century. There are still numbers of Russian-speaking people in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc.,.

Legacy of empire

Eastern Ukraine, mainly under Russian rule through the 18th and 19th centuries, has coal mines, minerals, industry, and major conurbations and cities. Ukraine’s economy without these assets will be weak. In Stalin’s time Russian workers were encouraged to move there, and a majority are Russian- speaking at home. There was a minority of Ukrainian speakers but most of these felt forced to leave and seek asylum in western Ukraine.

Western Ukraine was partly under Polish rule. Before1914, its agriculture was advanced with vast sugar-beet areas and sugar refineries, rich wheat and other crops, fertile black soil and a warm climate. This was Russia’s bread-basket: before 1914 it was a major wheat-exporting region.

After WWI, Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, though a part of western Ukraine was ceded to Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ten years later, Stalin imposed forced collectivisation and de-kulakisation on peasants throughout the Soviet Union, resulting in famines, especially in Ukraine. The effect was a massive loss of life, as peasants were forced to surrender much of the grain they needed to feed their families and livestock, and many were deported.

It is estimated that in 1932-33, 4 to 5 million Ukrainians, maybe 7 million, died in the Holodomor (death by starvation). Locally, family memories of that awful period are still strong. In the 1950s, a Russian eyewitness told this writer of having seen abandoned orphaned children in Ukrainian villages starving as, from fear of being denounced as kulaks, neighbours could not help them. In 2006 the Ukrainian government officially recognised this as genocide but even now the Russian version of history only says the disaster was caused by drought and a poor harvest, by natural causes not government policy.

When the Nazis invaded in 1941, a few years after the famine and Stalin’s 1937 purges of intellectuals, some Ukrainian nationalists, like Stepan Bandera, fought against the Russians, hoping that after the war they could achieve an independent Ukraine. A small nationalist, terrorist, armed struggle continued until 1954, when Khrushchev relaxed the official ban on the Ukrainian language and gave Crimea to Ukraine.

Patriotism as propaganda

This history is now invoked to justify the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, supposedly under the iron heel of a fascist regime.

Russian propaganda taps a deep well of nationalism, artfully playing off sentiments and imagery from World War II. Known in the country as the Great Patriotic War, the effort to defend the country from German invasion remains sacred to many Russians. That is why the Kremlin has repackaged derogatory historical terms like “Nazis” to refer to Ukraine’s current political elites.
Koleznikov, MOSCOW TIMES 2015

The nationalist President Poroshenko has been only too happy to oblige! The shooting and shelling war of 2014, was replaced by a war of symbolic signals. The Kiev government re-named monuments, parks and streets so as to remove anything that might commemorate the Soviet era, including war memorials. This official re-naming of places means that in western Ukraine it would be hard now to find memorials to the heroes of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Instead there are memorials to Bandera and other Ukrainian ‘heroes’ who fought against Russia as allies of the Nazis - those that Russians see as traitors.

From Putin’s point of view, Poroshenko is not a legitimate President at all. The Maidan protest which led to his predecessor Yanukovich running from the comforts of Kiev for a bolt-hole in Russia was simply a CIA coup. NATO, the CIA and the EU wanted someone less friendly to Russia as Ukraine’s president, and as Putin sees it, Poroshenko is their puppet.

The ideology of nationalism is now again being fuelled by Cold War rhetoric and even nuclear brinkmanship. Both Russian forces and NATO have been enlarged and ostentatiously engaged in exercises.

In any war in Europe, the territory in question has a history with a hold on people’s minds, on how they are motivated and divided, on their loyalties. Ukraine and other central European states have done a lot of moving about, each treaty at the end of a war resulting in their borders being re-drawn.

Yet whichever way a state’s borders are defined, workers on both sides of these borders remain an exploited class, having neither gained nor lost. They were powerless before and remain powerless after. Workers have nothing to gain from waging war on each other.

Global politics

A matter of vital interest to the Kremlin is Ukraine’s policy regarding Russia’s gas and oil exports to the West. Ukraine’s increasing political instability has made its recent politics seem increasingly complicated.

After 1991, when Ukraine was declared an independent state, there was a period of some stability but increasing corruption. In 2004, a year with two elections and a coup after the Orange Revolution protests, a Ukrainian nationalist Yushchenko was elected President, with Yulia Timoshenko as his Prime Minister.

A few years later, in 2008, Russia was at war with Georgia, and there were other ongoing conflicts (e.g. South Ossetia, Abkhazia). Yushchenko declared he would increase Ukraine’s defence spending and move to join NATO, but then did not. His government was stymied as he and the PM Yulia Timoshenko obstructed each other. With political deadlock, the economy went downhill. The Kremlin and Kiev were at loggerheads, and Putin cut the gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe, in winter, due to Kiev’s unpaid bills.

The next President was a Moscow ally, Yanukovych, from eastern Ukraine. His pro-Russia policy went down well in eastern Ukraine with its industry and close links with Russia, but was unpopular in western Ukraine which had looked forward to more trade with the EU.

Again Kiev saw massive street protests in the Maidan, lasting for months, and in 2014 Yanukovych left for Russia. This Maidan protest movement and the coup were seen by Russia as a ‘CIA/neo-Nazi plot’.

In his short time as President, Yanukovych had acquired a lavish mega-mansion surrounded by his own private zoo, at vast expense. Like Ceausescu with his marble palace in Romania and Putin with his vast palace complex near Sochi: these corrupt kleptocrats do so love a nice bit of real estate!

With the 2014 coup, when the Kremlin’s ally Yanukovich departed and was replaced by Poroshenko, the resulting change in policy was seen by Putin and his advisors as a danger to Russia’s vital economic and strategic interests. If such a thing had happened in one of America’s client states, Washington would have made plans for regime change.

Until it became politically unreliable as a Russian ally, Ukraine was the obvious line for oil and gas pipelines taking Russia’s key exports to their main markets in Europe. But since 2014, Russia has constructed other pipelines to avoid reliance on Kiev’s unwilling goodwill.

Yanukovich’s pro-Russia policy had been popular with those grassroots people who thought of themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian. But at the same time that policy was absolutely toxic for those who thought of themselves primarily as Ukrainians, who were looking forward to joining the EU, and many of whom had reasons for hating the idea of the Russians returning. A pro-Russia policy was one which could simply not be sold to many, especially in western Ukraine.

After Yanukovich fled to Russia, the 2014 election brought a new government led by the chocolate king, Poroshenko. Soon after his switch of policy came the invasion by ‘the little green men’ and other Russian ‘volunteers’ (from the Russian army but ‘on leave’), and a civil war which is also a proxy war between Russia and the US, a very dangerous situation.

From war to collapse

How far is Russia actually involved in this war? Officially, it declares it is not involved. For Putin, deniability is important: he wants to be seen as legitimate, a man of influence on the global stage.

After the annexation of Crimea, Putin stated his position:

I remind you that the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine... We were once promised in Munich that after the unification of Germany no expansion of NATO would happen to the east... Then it started to expand by adding former Warsaw pact countries, former USSR countries

He reminded the world that he had always objected to NATO expanding in Russia’s ‘near abroad’. Putin wanted to make Russia great again and so guarantee his own place in history. That ambition is typical of his nationalism, his macho sense of national pride.

Even with the Russian economy going belly up, Putin is still thought of as the Russians’ great Leader, a strong leader, one who can make Russia great again. Like Bonaparte or Stalin, he “bestrides the earth like a colossus” and lesser mortals had better just get out of his way.

In the paranoid, xenophobic climate of suspicion in Putin’s Russia, most foreigners are seen as dangerous. The MOSCOW TIMES has reported regulations to stop any foreign funding, especially foreign media ownership. Even environmental groups like Greenpeace have been forced to return foreign donations. Any NGO receiving even a small amount must face punitive fines or register as ‘foreign agents’.

This is in a climate where Putin’s nationalist and racist followers are encouraged to beat up anyone who looks different. In some Russian cities there are gangs of ‘patriots’ who go round armed with knives, ready to attack any one they encounter.

Counting the costs of conflict

The Ukraine conflict took off at a time when the Russian economy was strong, with its oil and gas exports at high price.

But with the world markets being glutted with overproduction, the price of Russia’s all-important oil and gas exports fell. At the same time, the Russian economy was hit by EU and other Western sanctions, the result of the invasion of Ukraine. In return, Putin imposed his own retaliatory sanctions, barring many imports from the EU. Any imported food smuggled in was seized and destroyed.

With all this huge dislocation of Russia’s economy, the workers and their families are having to cope with high inflation, massive unemployment, falling real wages, shortages, loss of their homes as they find themselves unable to keep up with rent or mortgage payments, working for weeks without pay, cuts to medical services, and so on.

For the first time ever, there is a new law allowing Russians to file for bankruptcy. That is a clear indication of how badly the Russian economy is doing with the toxic combination of falling gas and oil prices, and at the same time Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

For most workers in Russia, Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine came at a high price. Just how many soldiers and volunteers were killed is not known as officially no casualties were announced.

In eastern Ukraine, towns and villages were reduced to rubble and some were besieged for months on end; those who relied on state pensions or allowances found that Kiev stopped paying these; and the Ukrainian-speaking minority mostly became refugees. In western Ukraine, as well as coping with refugees and training men to fight, the economy struggled with the loss of eastern Ukraine’s coal and industrial products. In Crimea, local people faced daunting bureaucratic difficulties. The Crimean Tartars, re-established after Stalin’s mass deportation, again face discrimination.

Along with expanding the Russian naval port facilities, Putin plans to establish Crimea as a casino-based resort. Perhaps this is what he admires about Donald Trump? Trump in the past has owned casinos, running them into bankruptcy, a rare achievement.

As with those who followed the leadership of so-called Great Men in earlier wars, workers caught up in this conflict are expected to get themselves killed or injured in a quarrel from which they will gain nothing. With all the resource wars of the Middle East, it is not the workers who end up owning the oil-fields.

The Socialist message to the working class is clear and consistent: wars are not fought over the interests or concerns of the workers. It is high time the working class united on the basis of our common interest in working together to end this system of class exploitation and fratricidal conflict.

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