You will, by now, have read dozens of takes on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Outside of the gross delight that is clearly coming from some quarters — finally, a real clash of civilizations! Finally, we can prove our mettle, and prove how committed we are to NATO! — some true and accurate things have been said.
David Broder, for instance, is absolutely right to say that attempts to pin any of this on the Left are grotesque, as if it was our parties that were funded with Russian money, as if it weren’t Jeremy Corbyn who demanded Britain properly implement a Magnitsky Act against Russian capital — only to be ridiculed by the Tory government; as if those who supported the Iraq War have any right to be horrified by an invasion so clearly modelled on it, from the ludicrous, manufactured pretexts to the macho cynicism of the leaders behind it.
But it is important in all of this to understand what is happening in Ukraine, and what this is horrendous invasion is likely to mean for the people who are going to be its victims — Ukrainians.
What is happening now, for all the blustering sentimentality of our leaders, is not like “brave little Belgium” in 1914. It is the humiliation and punishment of a desperately poor country, one which has never economically recovered from the end of the Soviet Union, and which has faced a cruel, bloody, and allegedly “limited” war (which has killed 14,000 people) for the last eight years. Its cities are, right now, being bombed by a large, rich, nuclear-armed petrostate led by an absolutely ruthless, hard-right government, one which came to power on the Western-applauded bombing of Chechnya back into the stone age. This invasion is a war crime, and a war crime is a war crime is a war crime.
I will admit this matters to me personally. Ukraine is a country I know well. I have friends who are, as I write this, sheltering in Kiev and Kharkiv and Dnipro from shelling in Metro stations and under apartment blocks, and I can do nothing much but ping them pointless messages asking if they’re ok, knowing they’re not.
I started visiting Ukraine regularly in 2010, when working on its architectural history in the 1920s, when it was a world center of the socialist avant-garde, with Futurist poets, Constructivist designers, brilliant filmmakers, and modernist architects who dreamed of the world revolution flowing westward through cities such as Kharkiv, Odessa, and Kiev, before it was crushed under Joseph Stalin’s heel in the 1930s. I quickly made friends there with the many people in Ukraine working on the same subjects, and I’ve maintained those friendships ever since.
I’m sure some edgelords would sneeringly call these people the “NGO Left,” though we at Tribune magazine often published them. They have written about issues with as little to do with geopolitics as possible — though it can never be completely kept outside. They work in institutions such as the Visual Culture Research Center in Kiev, the Urban Forms Center in Kharkiv, and the Izolyatsia gallery, originally based in Donetsk, which was forced to move to Kiev as its home region became a farcical “People’s Republic” at the start of 2014.
All of these people I know supported the uprising in Kiev in 2014 to oust a ludicrously corrupt capitalist gangster, but none of them had much hope that the European Union would ever do much for them bar perhaps making it easier to travel and work abroad (not a meaningless demand — I remember when a British university paid a friend of mine for a lecture in book tokens, because he wasn’t legally allowed to be paid in the UK). They were all squeezed between a “Western” far-right nationalism, funded by Europe and the United States, embodied in the Right Sector and later the Azov Battalion, and an “Eastern” far-right nationalism, embodied by the “People’s Republics” created by LARPing cretins such as Igor Strelkov.
My friends’ exhibitions have been broken up by gangs from each of these competing bands. Most of my friends, like most Ukrainians, voted in 2019 against the increasingly nationalistic oligarch Petro Poroshenko and his program of “army, language, faith,” and, with some reluctance, for Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish, Russian-speaking president of a country now being invaded by a country that alleges Russian speakers are the victims of a “Nazi” “genocide.”
Even by post-Soviet standards, Ukraine has been unfortunate in its leaders: thuggish capitalists with or without ties to organized crime, whether “pro-Western” and called Viktor Yushchenko and Poroshenko, or “pro-Russian” and called Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych. It has been unfortunate in its friends in Western media and Western politics, who have loved to live out their Cold War fantasies through it. But it has been particularly unfortunate in having a very large, heavily armed, paranoid, and mind-bendingly cynical government neighboring it to its east.
I know Ukraine as a beautiful, unusual, and intrinsically multicultural country full of interesting people who would love to be able to start to build a fairer, decent, equal country, maybe building on some of its own recent history and maybe not. They have constantly seen their efforts wasted in a country turned by its neighbor into a punching bag and by its rulers into a personal cashbox.
I cannot see any future in which this war will not make everything for them worse in every possible way. The small but heavily armed Ukrainian far right, on the other hand, will be delighted to find that the predictions we (myself included) on the Western left always thought were over the top — that Russia would literally invade Ukraine and enforce regime change, and deny its right to exist as a sovereign state — have come true.
I want to end on that last point. In his frothing, disgustingly self-pitying speech a few days ago, Vladimir Putin blamed the existence of Ukraine on Vladimir Lenin. He blamed it upon Lenin’s insistence in the early 1920s that Ukraine, like all republics of a Soviet Union, should have the right to autonomy, the right to its own language, and the right to secede — over the objections of the “Great Russian Chauvinists” among the Bolsheviks, and causing a deathbed battle with Stalin.
It is sometimes claimed that Lenin did this as more Realpolitik, as some means of committing smaller nations — some of which, like Ukraine, became briefly independent during the Civil War of 1918–21 — to the Soviet project. Sure, that was some of it. But it was also a matter of principle.
Lenin was appalled by the way leftists and working-class organizations lapsed into support for their own imperialisms, whether Germans voting for World War I in 1914, English leftists sitting by as James Connolly was tied to a chair and shot in 1916, or Russian Communists lapsing into “Great Russian Chauvinism” in 1922. Lenin insisted that “a free Russia is impossible without a free Ukraine,” just as for him, British socialism was meaningless without Irish independence. As he put it in more colorful language: “The Great-Russian chauvinist is in substance a rascal and a tyrant.” He continued:
Internationalism on the part of oppressors or “great” nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question, he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.
Ukrainian nationalism in its far-right variant during the 1940s was exceptionally brutal, but always marginal outside of the far-western regions annexed by the USSR from Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. That nationalism had nothing to do with Ukraine’s independence, which was supported overwhelmingly in a referendum in 1991, in the aftermath of the August Coup in Moscow. Independence was supported across the country, from the Donbas to Lviv, because Ukrainians, whether their first language was Russian or Ukrainian, no longer wanted to be tied to a Russia descending into great-power nationalism. Who can say they were wrong?
Ukraine is a fake country only in the ways that all countries are fake, and it is real in the way that any others are real. It has the same right to exist and the same right to peace as any others. That should be axiomatic for socialists. That’s why we should go to rallies to demand an end to the war, whether they’re organized by Stop the War or whether they’re outside the Russian Embassy.
That’s why we should do all we can to support the thousands of Russians who have already marched against this appalling war. It isn’t much. The Left — out of power almost everywhere — is condemned to powerlessness in a world run seemingly entirely by gerontocrats who want to rerun World War II. But we need to be clear. First things first — solidarity with Ukrainians.