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What Happened in Ukraine?

Sam Friedman
June 13, 2016

Voices from Maidan Square

by Sam Friedman

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

UkraineFOR MANY JEWS, whatever their politics, Ukraine is first and foremost a land of anti-Semitism: where Bogdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack uprising killed tens of thousands of Jews in the middle of the 17th century; where nationalist opposition to the Russian revolution killed thousands more; where the Orthodox Church rarely balked from instigating or justifying pogroms; where collaborators with Nazism helped prosecute the Holocaust with efficiency and glee. Ukrainian nationalism, in particular, has often been a cause that produces anti-Jewish violence. As a result, when Ukraine went through its Maidan Revolution (named for the central square in Kiev), which began in November 2013 and toppled the government the following February, many Jews were inclined to view it with suspicion or indifference.

In my case, I had several good friends in Ukraine before the Maidan Revolution began, whom I had met through my HIV/AIDS research and activism, in which I’ve been involved since 1983. In the 1990s, after the USSR broke up, HIV had begun to spread among Ukrainian drug users and sex workers. The people who later became my friends were involved in efforts to stop the spread of the disease and to help those who became sick. In 2010, they decided to use some of my ideas to stop HIV’s spread, and in my visits to Ukraine two or three times a year since then, as well as at international conferences, we became close.

Even before the Maidan struggles began, I was impressed with how deep was their sense of Russian imperialism, based on their understanding of Ukrainian experiences with Russia before 1917, during the Russian revolution, during the famines and Stalinist repression of the 1930s, and in the decades since. My friends considered what some of them call “state socialism” to be an oppressive system, and they deeply associated this oppression with Marxism and anti-capitalist thought.

During the months of struggle in Maidan, I had conversations via Skype and e-mail with several of them, and in late January 2014 I had several hours of face-to-face conversations with one of them outside of Ukraine, where we could speak freely and with much less fear that others would know what we were saying. My overwhelming impression was that there were great similarities between their descriptions of Maidan and my memory of attempts by the U.S. New Left in the mid-1960s to organize democracy from below while engaging in potentially mortal struggle with the “Establishment.”

IN MAY 2014, two Ukrainian friends were in my office in New York when we heard about the confrontation between pro- and anti-Maidan forces in Odessa, conflict that involved considerable violence on both sides. By then, it was clear to me that their thinking was being moved by events in a more nationalist direction. Since then, I have spoken with Ukrainian friends face-to-face in Australia during the International AIDS Conference and in Odessa and Kiev during two-week trips in May and September 2015.

What follows are descriptions of the Maidan struggle that they provided.

The first set of recollections comes from a woman who is a recent graduate in public health from Kiev-Mohyla Academy, the only university in the country that teaches public health:

When all these events began, nobody could have imagined that the situation would drop so far. It was the end of autumn, and everyone was waiting for [the] signing [of] the resolution on the accession to the European Union. For every Ukrainian it meant something different: for some it was an opportunity to travel, others saw it as a chance to live like in Europe. Everyone knew that this process would be difficult, but . . . very necessary . . .

When [then-President Viktor] Yanukovych [signed an agreement with Russia instead], it was the first signal that we were deceived. . . . The head of our student parliament, together with his colleague from National University, organized a students’ meeting and I knew that I had to be part of it. . . . There were at least 500 people. At that moment I could not even understand that we were at the beginning of the fight. . .

. . . Maidan had its three main [crisis] points. The first one was the night when police beat the tar out of students. . . . I had just left the main square several hours prior . . . Many people were upset . . . and went to Maidan to express their position. . . .

After the New Year, 2014, people lost their belief that something could be changed and went home. I was one of them . . . But events in the middle of January changed our mind. The laws that were adopted [criminalizing the protestors] forced many people to come back. It was the second main [crisis] point. We were afraid of staying alone; we walked only in big groups, because we knew that we had no protection. Our power was our voice.

. . . [I]n February . . . they started to kill people. . . . I could not watch TV without tears. When you came to Maidan, you understood that there was no stratification: Rich people stood next to poor and had the same aim . . . to protect their rights and stop the junta of Yanukovich. The positive side of these events was the changes in people’s minds. I had never heard how beautiful can be the hymn performed by millions of Ukrainians.

. . . I knew that I could not help those brave people at the front line, but I understood that I had to do something for them. We worked in the field kitchen: we made tea, cooked meals for our men. I was surprised by the cleanliness and self-discipline. I felt no fatigue at the end of the day, only happiness; it was my own drop in the freedom ocean.

. . . I grew up in a Russian-speaking family; I was never very patriotic and didn’t like the Ukrainian symbolism very much. But now I know that I am Ukrainian and proud of it. I know that if we do not change ourselves and our future, no one will do it for us. . . . It is silly to think that a new man will come [into office] and change everything . . . We can change the situation if we fight together every day. I understand that we are at the midway, but we have no right to stop, because so many people have been killed to give us a chance to be happy.

The next description is provided by a man I have known since 2010, and who has become a dear friend. I interviewed him over a long brunch in February 2015, and he added considerable detail to my notes.

Many donations were brought in buses and trucks from Western Ukraine. . . . Some came from political parties for their own . . . people or their own group’s tents. Most people in Maidan were volunteers and unpaid . . . maybe fifty people were paid [by political parties] out of the thousands who were there . . . There was less need of food and water as it was brought by the citizens of Kiev regularly in huge quantities, as well as warm new and used clothes. The more sophisticated supplies — toilets, electrical generators, petrol, big military tents, etc. — were likely supplied by opposition parties or some bigger civil society or political organizations.

. . . There was a well-organized hot-line with people volunteering to call to different people and arrange supplies and delivery . . . every day they updated the website list of needs (clothes, socks, tents, barrels, wood for fire, water, warmers, construction helmets, shovels for snow, sacks, charcoal ovens, large woods for barricades, wire, cold medication) . . . Smaller items were brought by individuals, larger quantities and oversized items by trucks like the one I used. . . . [G]asoline and oil (“tea for cocktails”) and empty beer bottles (“glass”), tires (“bagels”) probably were not officially listed, but everyone who could risk bringing them knew that it was needed and silently brought them through all the police blockades around Maidan.

The Centurions (Maidan self-defense) were from a wide variety of . . . backgrounds, including a few from [political] parties. Some were apolitical office workers, some were students. . . . The more “radical” joined fighting units of the Right Sector [a rightwing Ukrainian nationalist party] to some extent. . . . Those killed included students and workers, many from Western Ukraine. Who lived and died was in many ways a question of what part of Maidan they were in when the snipers started shooting.

. . . Barricades were three deep. Many nights police would capture and destroy an outer barricade . . . but then the next day the crowds would build them even higher. Barricades often were made of plastic garbage bags filled with ice and snow, large woods, steel wires, steel barrels. But once shooting started, tires and cocktails were key. The smoke blocked the police shooters’ and snipers’ aim. There was a tent filled with people making Molotov cocktails . . . Later, they added Styrofoam pellets and this made the mixture sticky like napalm — which meant that cops now became afraid of the Molotov cocktails. Before they had laughed at them.

. . . There were periods when we had huge numbers of volunteers and suppliers. Other times, people were too scared. For a few rather short periods, when people were not actively offering anything for free, my friend bought the wood out of his own money from the trucks standing outside of Kiev, because there was a huge need on Maidan, particularly when it was very cold and it was not clear what would happen next. . . . Trucks were not allowed into the city . . . but large cargo vans were. So he had to drive out of the city or to some distant areas to get stuff from trucks and load it on a van.Cops also had checkpoints in the city and would turn him away sometimes.Usually he would just find another route to Maidan. The balance of forces was such that the cops couldn’t get away with too much. Once he was near . . . he would call . . . and one or two dozen people from self-defense would come to clear the way for the van.

At one point, when the government had brought in criminals to attack the movement’s people at home or on the streets . . . many citizens decided to protect themselves, so one night there were about 2,000 cars patrolling the streets. They could get fifty cars somewhere in five or ten minutes using a common channel on the Zello app.

. . . [W]omen did food and nursing and made Molotov cocktails. During the fighting, the stage sound system would direct people on what to do. Women would be told to move to internal areas and men to go to the front lines. . . . The political control was not all that tight. Anyone from the crowd could go up to speak for themselves or at least with some public support from the people on the Maidan.

GIVEN THE REVOLUTIONARY spirit evinced in these accounts, why was the government that developed from the Maidan Revolution so rightwing? Why hasn’t the struggle developed into a social revolution or even a major social confrontation between the working people of Ukraine and the rightwing capitalist oligarchs who dominate the current state?

When an insurrectionary struggle ousts a government, sections of the ruling classes almost always dominate the immediate government that comes to power. This happened in Egypt earlier in this decade, in Argentina in 2003, in Germany in November 1918, and in Russia in February 1917. Such governments often include extreme rightwing elements (such as the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt).

Due to the extreme weakness of the organized left in the Maidan struggle — even though there were large numbers of vaguely leftwing participants and considerable numbers of organized feminists and LGBTQ activists, and even though the great bulk were radically democratic, anti-Russian-imperialist, and desirous of economic changes and an end to corruption — that is, they were open to moving left — the power of capital dominated. It was abetted in this by the United States, which supported the ascent of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a pro-Western, pro-austerity technocrat and banker. Some of Yatsenyuk’s opponents, in sadly classic Ukrainian fashion, then attacked him for allegedly having Jewish roots. Such attacks serve to reinforce the otherwise thin credibility of Vladimir Putin’s cover story: that the Ukrainian revolution was fueled by fascists trying to reverse the results of World War II.

It doesn’t require you to be a fascist, of course, to want to reverse the suffering of Ukraine both before and after World War II — suffering caused not only by the Nazis, but by Stalinist Russia. Millions of Ukrainians were killed under Soviet rule by starvation, war, and repression during the 1930s and ’40s. These decades were followed by some economic growth, various experiments with economic and political reform, and then the collapse of the USSR and the incredible economic depression and social demoralization of the 1990s. But in one perverse way, Stalinism was a success: It convinced the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (and Russians and indeed much of the world) that Stalinism was the true meaning of Maxism and socialism.

This ‘understanding’ posed a huge ideological barrier to the Maidan movement. While many of its participants supported radical participatory democracy, they stalled when it came to economic alternatives to modern capitalism. They saw all classes of Ukrainian society as participants in the struggle, and had no sense of working-class agency or of socialism at work in the mass movement. The failure of both the left and of labor-union activists to establish an ongoing presence in Kiev showed the enormous weakness of the left internationally.

The answer to this weakness lies not in interpretations of the Ukrainian crisis as an issue of fascism in Ukraine or as a testimony to the ‘legitimate’ right of Russia to control politics in countries along its borders. Progressives should defend the right of any small country to determine its own foreign policy, regardless of the wishes of its larger imperial neighbor, even if we disagree with the choices that smaller nation makes — for such is the principle of self-determination. Both of these pro-Russian interpretations help convince many left-leaning workers and activists in Ukraine, Russia, and other “post-Communist” countries that the left is either deluded or the enemy of their aspirations.

The Maidan Revolution did, in fact, have enormous potential to move sharply to the left, particularly when the incoming government proved to be corrupt and to accept the usual Western demands for “structural adjustments” and austerity. This led to a number of strikes and other class-based struggles, but these were muted and weakened by the Russian annexation of Crimea and its interventions in eastern Ukraine.

In addition, the activism of the LGBTQ left in Kiev and at other “Maidans” led many Right Sector activists to back off from their attacks on gays and, to some extent, accept them as fellow Ukrainians.

IT IS IMPORTANT to understand the potential impact the Ukrainian revolution might have had on the world had it evolved into a leftwing workers movement in 2014. There was a real but hard-to-quantify chance that it could have spread to other countries — to Bosnia, to Greece, to Italy, to Spain, and particularly to Russia. All of these countries had mass disaffection with their governments. Indeed, Putin and the capitalists around him saw this potential threat to their power and moved to prevent it by creating a threat to Ukrainian national independence, which they knew would strengthen the nationalist and militarist forces within Ukraine and thereby weaken the possibilities of an anti-capitalist movement evolving. Part of Putin’s success was based on his considerable distortion of the fascist threat. A fair number of Ukrainians, particularly those with less understanding of Russia as an imperialist power, believed this description, while others were simply confused or immobilized by it.Too much of the international left sees Russia’s actions in opposing the increase of American and European Union power in Ukraine or other countries near Russia’s borders as legitimate defense against Western imperialism. In a time of global climate change, not to mention severe strains among nuclear-armed states like the U.S., Russia, and China, I have trouble seeing how such an analysis, which views some capitalist powermongering as better than others’, offers much basis for hope or strategy. Neither petro-state Russia nor coal-mad China is going to move to end climate change any faster than the U.S.

Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that the peoples in former Soviet-dominated states see the “left” still supporting Russia, winning them to a progressive agenda will be impossible.

Sam Friedman, who holds a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is a major voice in both HIV/AIDS research and advocacy for harm reduction and needle exchange programs. He is a research fellow and the director of the Social Theory Core in the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research at National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., New York City, and has published over 300 papers in his professional field. Dr. Friedman is also a poet, author of several chapbooks. This article is adapted from a much longer piece in The International Marxist-Humanist, July, 2015.