In 2014, prominent Ukrainian writer and intellectual Andrey Kurkov published a book called Ukraine Diaries. These are excerpts from diary entries Kurkov wrote during the Maidan protests. They cover not only what happened in Kyiv, but also in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Kurkov is no socialist, so we would differ with him in some of his views, but his entries are invaluable to anybody in the West (of Ukraine) who wants to understand what happened there during this critical period. It is impossible to understand the present situation without that understanding.
It is true that ultra-nationalist and outright fascist forces were involved in the Maidan protests. Some Western socialists use that to claim that the entire movement was fascist inspired and controlled and, in fact, was a “coup” that forced then president Viktor Yanukovich to resign (and flee to Russia). Kurkov sheds a lot of light on this claim, but first it’s necessary to make one point: Those who make that claim about Maidan tend to ignore the gross corruption of which Yanukovich was guilty, and as we described in our previous article. While it’s true that the immediate cause of the protests was the fact that Yanukovich reversed himself about moving towards joining the European Union, Kurkov makes clear that Yanukovich’s corruption was in the backs of people’s minds.
The Maidan protests started in November of 2013. Kurkov describes a near festival atmosphere in those early days, with music performances and even at least one wedding held at Maidan. As he describes it, the majority were more or less idealistic and possibly liberal youth. Contrary to what some may have expected, though, the protesters did not go away; they continued their occupation of Maidan, despite some police harassment.
By early February, the police started to move to make the occupiers leave. They moved to bring down some of the protesters’ barricades, for example. Things escalated from there. On Feb. 18, some of the Maidan protesters escalated by occupying the headquarters of Yanukovich’s party, the Party of the Regions (more about this party later). Kurkov describes the response of the Berkut (riot police) who “threw grenades and fired rubber bullets…. By four in the afternoon there were already three dead…” The next day, Kurkov reports that it has been confirmed that there are over 25 dead, including ten police. “As for the protesters, some were killed by firearms, others simply beaten to death with truncheons by police…. The retreating protesters gathered in the Maidan, about eight thousand of them. They set fire to anything they could find in order to create a barricade of flames.” Kurkov also reports that the injured “are afraid of going to hospital because the police have often abducted injured protesters from there…”
This attack resulted in protests throughout Ukraine except in the birthplace of Yanukovich – Donbas. Even in Sumy, on the border with Russia, there was a protest held. In Khmelnytskyi, SBU (secret service agents) fired on the crowd, killing one woman and two young men.
The Nationalist Far Right
Regarding the role of the far right, Kurkov’s entry for Feb. 20 is key. He explains that in the beginning there was a general absence of clear leadership. This created a vacuum. Protesters listened (politely) to speeches of opposition leaders simply because there was nobody else. “The heads of the nationalist party Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) gave newspaper and television interviews… That organization did not even exist before the protest movement started. [Emphasis added] In fact, it didn’t begin taking part in the protests until after the opposition parties, but now it is everywhere, fighting…. [R]ecently the only way to distinguish a radical [meaning the far right] from a peaceful protester is to see whether or not they have a Molotov cocktail in their hand.
“The protesters have already been through all the stages: from the romantic phase, where everyone thought they could achieve their aims within a few days, to a premonition of war, with revolutionaries covering their faces with balaclavas, wielding baseball bats and metal riot shields stolen from the police. Now we have entered a new phase, which can be summarised in five words: ‘The bridges have been burned!’”
In other words initially the protests were dominated by a more or less idealistic view. After several months the mood started to harden. This was met with attacks from the police and the mood hardened even further. From celebrating, many youth moved to street fighting. There were some anarchist groups, but evidently they were so insignificant that Kurkov doesn’t even mention them. Then there were the mainstream opposition parties, which contented themselves with making speeches. Finally, there was the “revolutionaries”, who in reality were the counterrevolutionaries of Pravy Sektor and Svoboda. When the mood turned to street fighting, these were the only groups willing and able to capture that mood; the street fighters turned to them.
Later, after Yanukovich was ousted, Pravy Sektor (PS) switched sides. On April 1, Kurkov reports that the (new) government moved to dismantle the barricades in Maidan. One PS member ended up shooting several protesters. There was also collaboration between the new government and the PS in allowing the latter to retain their arms and subsequently the PS threatened to dismantle the barricades, presumably by force. (They ended up backing down from this threat.)
Yanukovich’s silence only further enflamed the mood. Having lost all support in the great majority of the country, he fled to Russia on February 22. (According to Putin himself, Yanukovich’s flight was actually arranged by Putin.) One month later (March 22), Kurkov reports that 42 kg. of gold and several million dollars in cash were found in the apartment/office of Yanukovich’s former Minister of Energy and Natural resources, Eduard Stavytskyi. Stavytskyi must have been central to all the gas transfer ripoffs, but if that is part of what he stole, just imagine what his boss, Yanukovich, must have made off with! Kurkov reports that Yanukovich was joined in Russia by several dozen of his cabinet members and police chiefs. “In other words,” Kurkov writes, “an entire class of corrupt Ukrainian politicians (as if there were any other kind!) and civil servants have become political refugees.”
Yanukovich and his party – the Party of the Regions – did retain some support in Donbas, which is mainly Russian speaking. “In Donetsk [in the Donbas region] there are rallies against nationalists [presumably he is referring to the Right Sector] and against the Maidan, but order is respected; the police in the streets defend the handful of Euromaidan supporters from aggressive local citizens who are convinced – who knows why – that in the near future their city will be occupied by the inhabitants of western Ukraine.”
An imperialist power that wishes to influence or even control an area has to find a base of support within that area or country. This was the base that Putin needed in eastern Ukraine in order to move in.
And move in they did. On March 9 for the first time Kurkov reports on the entry of Russian agents in Ukraine. And not just any Russians – members of the fascist Russian Unity Party (RNE). “The members of RNE, swastikas tattooed on their necks and arms, have no qualms about negotiating with Ukraine’s regional governments and making ultimatums…” Kurkov compares the situation to the one in which Hitler and Stalin negotiated a peace pact. “This time round, Europe and Russia have switched places,” he writes. “Europe is fighting against its neo-Nazi groupuscules, while Russia’s are being fattened up and sent west, into Ukrainian territory. Simultaneously, patriotism in Russian society has been elevated to the point where it can easily turn to chauvinism. Twist it a little further and the next product of this approach will be simple fascism.”
On April 4, Kurkov reports that 15 Russian citizens had been arrested in Donetsk with 300 Kalashnikov assault rifles, a grenade launcher, ammunition and other military equipment. Putin was organizing an armed intervention with what Kurkov correctly describes as a “commando unit”. Putin responded to this arrest by arresting 25 supposed Pravy Sektor terrorists in Moscow. It turned out these 25 were simply Ukrainian migrant construction workers who were working there.
On April 7, Kurkov reports the arrest of a Russian GRU agent, Roman Bannykh. The Ukraine government seized his telephone records, which revealed that he had been coordinating the actions of the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk.
A situation developed similar to but worse than that in parts of the US where right wing thugs walk around with assault rifles. “Peaceful pro-Russian activists… walk around in combat uniform, with no badges or other signs of identification, carrying AK-100 assault rifles. The Ukrainian army does not possess those rifles but the Russian army does. [In other words, they got their arms from the Russian army.]…. Of the 117 Russian citizens arrested for having taken part in disturbances, at least ten are Russian secret service agents.”
One result of this intervention was that it became extremely difficult for those who opposed separatism to express their views. Whereas they had organized peaceful rallies earlier, by April 17 rallies of theirs were violently attacked.
On April 21, Kurkov reports that the separatists in Slovyansk attacked and pillaged the homes of gypsies in that city. Simultaneously, Nelya Shtepa was kidnapped. She was the former mayor of that city and had originally supported the separatists but broke with them because “they were being manipulated by Russian secret service agents”.
On March 18, a referendum was conducted in Crimea as to whether the region should either return to its 1992 status or become part of Russia. The overwhelming majority voted for the latter. Kurkov criticizes the referendum in that it was prepared in just seven days. He is right about that, although all subsequent polls seem to show that that was the actual view of the majority. However, as Kurkov explains, the result enormously complicated the lives of Crimeans. The major issue was that of citizenship. Formally, residents could have either Russian or Ukrainian citizenship or have dual citizenship. However, Russia made it enormously difficult to have anything but Russian citizenship. Crimeans who didn’t have Ukrainian or dual citizenship were in effect then cut off from their families in Ukraine.
Putin also used the annexation to further the mood of Great Russian chauvinism within Russia itself. Kurkov reports: “Half of Russia is joining Crimea in celebrating the results of the so-called referendum. On the Internet, Russian blogs testify to the vodka-fuelled enthusiasm for the peninsula’s return to Russian possession.”
The Division of the Ukrainian Working Class by Language
Kurkov himself is of Russian origin. He is proud of his grandfather, who was in the Russian army and gave his life fighting against the Nazi invaders. “The word ‘Russian’ does not awaken any aggression in ethnic Ukrainians, nor does it make you look bad in their eyes,” he writes. Putin and his agents have done all they can to stir up sentiment against Ukrainian speakers. In the breakaway “republics”, for example, Russian has been made the sole official language. Zelensky has responded by making Ukrainian the sole official language in western Ukraine.
Kurkov’s diary completely confirms and also deepens and richens the previous analysis of Oaklandsocialist “The Crisis in Ukraine: Imperialism and a Divided Working Class”. Kurkov does not mention some facts, such as who were the individuals leading the separatist movement, but maybe those facts weren’t fully revealed at the time he was writing. (Our article explains who these individuals were as well as going deeper into the nature of their rule.)
Kurkov explains that what was happening in the Donbas region was “hybrid warfare”. He writes that the term “mean[s] war initiated in any country by a neighbouring state without mobilising their own troops but by supplying arms and volunteers to rebel insurgents in the country loyal to the neighbouring state, who believe that life is better there. The neighbouring state – in this case Russia – persistently denies involvement in the military situation in eastern Ukraine, but when challenged directly to explain how the separatists come to be in possession of tanks and military technology registered to the armed forces of the Russian Federation they do not reply.”
Implications for the Present
At that time, Putin had also mobilized his army on the border to Ukraine, just as he is doing now. This has implications for today’s perspectives, since Putin did not launch an all-out invasion then. All analyses suggest that were he to do so today there would be fairly substantial casualties among his troops. Even back in 2014 he went to great lengths to disguise the casualties of his forces that had gone to Ukraine. Kurkov comments that “with the exception of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the Russian press does not even mention the Russian death toll in Ukraine. The funerals of these soldiers are conducted in virtual secrecy too, under the supervision of Russia’s FSB. Russian nationalists complain on social networking sites that no one is writing about those who are dying for the “Russian idea”, that they are not being honoured. The fact is that no one knows exactly how many Russian volunteers are fighting in Ukraine or how many have already died…. All we know is the number of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who have lost their lives.”
This must tend to cause Putin to hesitate today.
Another consideration must be the fact that evidently an anti-Russian sentiment has developed in much of eastern Ukraine, as this report on what is happening in Kharkiv indicates.
Uniting the Working Class
The question is how to reverse the rising divisions within the Ukrainian working class as part of reversing the situation as a whole.
In 2020, coal miners in Donbas struck against the anti-worker steps being taken by the breakaway republics (as reported by Oaklandsocialist). In that same year, a protest was organized by the All Ukrainian Trade Union Federation against anti-labor laws being promoted by Zelensky in Kyiv. This provides a glimpse of the basis for unity within the Ukrainian working class.
The Immediate Crisis
On this basis, would not workers be able to intervene as workers in the Donbas region to organize resistance to the reactionary forces that front for Putin in ruling the two “republics” as well as to put an end to the war there? Also, a united working class could organize a democratic discussion and debate, free of all threats of violence, on the future status of the region.
Of course, the immediate issue is the potential further incursion or outright invasion of Russia’s troops. In order to prevent that, a working class force in Ukraine would have to link up with similar forces in Russia itself.
Within the rest of Ukraine, nothing has evidently been resolved as far as the corruption. It would require the working class to clean up that capitalist mess. From here in the US, it’s impossible to know exactly how, through exactly what steps. Only the Ukrainian working class can answer that question.
The same is true as far as the issue of NATO and, underlying that, joining the European Union. There may be some illusions among Ukrainian workers as far as the situation in Western Europe. Western European workers can explain the attacks on the social programs are the order of the day throughout Western Europe. There may be some more “democratic” norms in the West, but even those are being eroded by attacks on immigrant workers. Further, as Kurkov pointed out, even back in 2014 there was the rise of fascist “groupuscules” in the west. That has not abated.
So it is that, exactly because they are in the eye of the storm, the Ukrainian working class can play a key role not only by uniting itself, not only by making links with the working class and with genuine socialists within Russia, but also with the working class throughout the continent. We should note that even Kharkiv has young people and workers from Africa and Asia, as do the overwhelming majority of European countries. Such a working class movement could help transform the world situation, therefore.
We once more recommend our previous article, “The Crisis in Ukraine: Imperialism and Divisions in the working class”, which supplements this book review. Among other things, as this article is mainly a review of a book, it does not really deal with the role of US imperialism and NATO. That previous article compensates for that.
Also, a clear understanding of who Putin is, how he rose from being mainly the head gangster in Russia to a leader intent of restoring Great Russia, what that means, his links with fascists throughout the continent – all of this is necessary to understand the present crisis (and, in fact, to understanding the world situation!). Oaklandsocialist’s pamphlet “Putin, Assad and the Syrian Disaster” deals with this in more depth.