Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2014

Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:01 am

Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong

On February 24, 2014


Although I’m deep into the reporting of my next story about the Silicon Valley Techtopus, it’s hard for me not to get distracted by events in Ukraine and Russia.

I haven’t lived in that part of the world since the Kremlin ran me out of town, so I’m not going to pretend that I know as much as those on the ground there. Still, I’ve been driven nuts by the avalanche of overconfident ignorance that stands for analysis or commentary on the wild events there. A lethal ignorance, a virtuous ignorance.

Virtuous ignorance about world affairs used to be the exclusive domain of neo-con pundits, but now it’s everywhere, especially rampant on the counter-consensus side — nominally my own side, but an increasingly shitty side to be on.

Nearly everyone here in the US tries to frame and reify Ukraine’s dynamic to fit America-centric spats. As such, Ukraine’s problems are little more than a propaganda proxy war where our own political fights are transferred to Ukraine’s and Russia’s context, warping the truth to score domestic spat points. That’s nothing new, of course, but it’s still jarring to watch how the “new media” counter-consensus is warping and misrepresenting reality in Ukraine about as crudely as the neocons and neoliberals used to warp and Americanize the political realities there back when I first started my Moscow newspaper, The eXile.

So, yes, I wanted to comment on a few simplifications/misconceptions about Ukraine today:

1. The protesters are not “virtuous anti-Putin freedom fighters,” nor are they “Nazis and US puppets”

In fact, the people who are protesting or supporting the protesters are first and foremost sick of their shitty lives in a shitty country they want to make better—a country where their fates are controlled by a tiny handful of nihilistic oligarchs and Kremlin overlords, and their political frontmen. It’s first and foremost a desire to gain some control over their fate. Anger at Kremlin power over Ukraine is not necessarily anti-Russian—although the further west you go in Ukraine, the more this does become about nationalism, and the further east you go—including Crimea and Odessa—the more the politics are a fearful reaction against west-Ukraine nationalism.

This is kind of obvious to anyone who’s spent time in that part of the world. I’ll quote from Jake Rudnitsky’s great piece about the Orange Revolution published in The eXile nearly a decade ago, which aptly describes both what an awful political figure Yanukovych is, what role the US played in that “revolution,” and the aspirations of most Ukrainians who took to the streets. It’s amazing how little has changed in this dynamic:

“Almost all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are from the east or Kiev, and they almost exclusively lined up in support of Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. There are a few exceptions, notably Petro Poroshenko, the owner of car and candy factories and a ship-building yard. He also owns Channel 5, which was an invaluable tool in helping Yushchenko [the pro-West leader of the Orange Revolution] compete….A large part of [Channel 5] programming consists of watching Yanukovych’s team make asses of themselves. They often repeat a speech Yanukovych gave where he was gesturing with his fingers in the air, “paltsami,” a classic bandit gesture. Still, the biggest and most powerful clans are still behind Yanukovych, who is their man.

“Yanukovych is a truly loathsome character. Most Ukrainians agree that if a more palatable candidate had been given the nearly unlimited access to “administrative resources” that Yanukovych had, he would have won handily. But Yanukovych twice served jail time in the Soviet Union, he has no charisma, and is obviously a tool of powerful Russian and Ukrainian interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, is considered by most western Ukrainians to be something between Gandhi and Christ, while many people in the east worry he has it in for everyone who speaks Russian. Many people who voted for Yanukovych did so out of suspicion of Yushchenko, not because they like Yanukovych (except perhaps in his home turf, Donetsk).”

As for the US role in the Orange Revolution, what Rudnitsky wrote in 2004 applies to the US/EU role today:

“The protests have come under fire as an American-funded coup, particularly in the Russian media. And there’s some truth to it — the US has been bringing in Serbs and Georgians experienced in non-violent revolution to train Ukrainians for at least a year. One exit poll — the one finding most heavily in favor of Yushchenko — was funded by the US. The smoothness and professionalism of the protest, from the instant availability of giant blocks of Styrofoam to pitch the tents on to the network of food distribution and medical points, is probably a result of American logistical planning. It’s certainly hard to imagine Ukrainians having their act together that well. The whole orange theme and all those ready-made flags also smack of American marketing concepts, particularly Burson-Marstellar.

“But the crowds in Kiev, which can swell up to a million on a good day and are always in the hundreds of thousands, are there out of their own homegrown sense of outrage, not because some State Department bureaucrats willed them there. The meetings that happen every day in virtually every city in Ukraine (and in literally every western Ukraine village) are not the result of American propaganda. Rather, they are the result of the democratic awakening of a trampled-on people who refuse to be screwed by corrupt politicians again.”

full article


  1. Good idea Louis tp have an article by a non Marxist, his “peoples power” analysis seems to fit your inclinations at the moment, maybe I’m wrong. So he gets that the leaders are oligarchs but that doesn’t matter the croeds in some Ukrainian cities are enough for him.
    So lets just think on this, a democratically elected government in Europe has been overthrown, and the west is recognizing those who overthrew it. There is not the slightest shred of evidence for independent working class self activity in this. Now this is where I as a Marxist depart from all the populist shit, individual workers in the crowds have no more weight for me than individual workers staying at home in fear of the violence or individual workers joining militias in the Crimea. Non of that demonstrates Class activity but pleas stick with the populist nonsense.
    A EU rep lays a wreath to the dead killed by the corrupt government, do you think she’s now on her way to Dublin or Belfast to lay wreaths for those killed by Crown Forces!
    Perhaps the opposition in Ukraine enjoyed 60% support at the start, as the violence increased and Nazis emerged support dropped to maybe 50%. So crowds with the backing of maybe 50% of the population rejected early early elections and overthrew an elected government. Actually given the ethnic dimension of all this Marxist should be really worried and not supportive. None of this means Marxists have to defend Putin and his oligarchic puppets, nor back Russian nationalism building up in Crimea or Easter Ukraine.
    I understand US populism has a long history, but once there was Marxist tradition in the US that battled for working class politics, but it seems to have disappeared where ever I look, here, the ISO web site. The Ukrainian opposition was not created by the west, it is the result of corruption, yet the leaders recognized by the opposition are as corrupt as the people they want to overthrow, the people aren’t stupid they know this, so whats the difference, the new pro-Western leaders are Ukrainian nationalists and that is the politics of the movement. The Nazis are are a small component now, but who do you think will grow as Russian nationalism builds in Crimea and the west demands cuts for its loans. There is no left force for people to turn to, the few individuals are allowing them themselves to be swallowed by nationalism, egged on most of the wests left.
    You know Marxists are supposed to hate their bosses and their policies, when did you all start to love them. Anyway Neither Washington Nor Moscow for me.

    Comment by Harry Monro — February 25, 2014 @ 8:09 am

  2. You know Marxists are supposed to hate their bosses and their policies, when did you all start to love them.

    Well, I retired from Columbia University in mid-2012 so your question does not exactly relate to my situation. But even when I was there, I loved my boss–a Jamaican woman named Joan who was the best I ever had. It made going to work each day a real pleasure.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 25, 2014 @ 9:50 am

  3. Latest news: Oleg Makhnitski, a lawyer in the Svoboda Party, has been appointed the prosecutor general. Ukraine now has its very own Roland Freisler.

    Comment by Dr Paul — February 25, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

  4. Hey Harry. Don’t knock “People’s Power”. Look what it did for the Philipino masses in 1986 with the rise of Corazon Aquino!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 25, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

  5. “But even when I was there, I loved my boss”

    That is what we get when we allow the radical bourgeois on the left! Marx warned us about people like you!

    I was watching the BBC news last night and the main story wasn’t Ukraine but Syria! I think events in Ukraine blow out of the water your belief that the West secretly want Assad in power. They want exactly what happened in the Ukraine. I.e. one of their puppets in power. watch this space.

    Harry has it correct, this is ‘people power’ gone mad. It certainly cannot be called Marxist, unrepentant or not.

    I now expect that the new puppets will seek to de-radicalise the radicals and put the brown shirts back in their cages. The Luxembourg prime minister has already said that the extremists need tackling. Not a day after the radicals brought about this ‘revolution’ and the backers are calling for them to be put down. Now there’s gratitude for you!

    Comment by The Man With No Name — February 25, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

  6. Marx warned us about people like you!

    How did you achieve such longevity? Vegan?

    Comment by louisproyect — February 25, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

  7. touche louis

    Comment by Harry Monro — February 25, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  8. Is ‘comedy’ the new deflection?

    The question isn’t how did I achieve such longevity but how did Marx.

    When I say that Marx warned us about people like you, I am referring to his numerous writings, all available on the internet.

    Comment by The Man With No Name — February 25, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

  9. Comment by godoggo — February 25, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

  10. To be wrong, you first have to know something. What i know is inferred from historical circumstance or impressions gleaned from current events. There can be no doubt that masses are put into motion on the basis of real and profound grievances, as in any other country. But it is our job to see who is likely to become the new leaders of the country and I see no left force on the Ukraine scene, not even of reformist stripe, to contend for leadership of the mass movement. That leaves the two gangs of capitalists, one backed by the EU – the US is playing a different game, IMO – and the EU-backed gang has de facto relied upon a mass movement led by a far right Ukrainian nationalist vanguard, who have almost certainly been at the front lines of battle (I’d love to be proved wrong on that, but while there are many nasty words I could call neo-fascists, coward would not be one of them). Their counterparts in the Russian far right almost certainly want the breakup of Ukraine on a revanchist policy of absorbing the eastern Russian-speaking provinces back to Mother, or perhaps as another “little Russian” independent state. The Ukrainian far right is not separatist but pan-Ukrainian, with a policy resting upon the national oppression of minorities, Polish or Russian. That will play right into the hands of the Russian far right.

    So it will be very interesting to see how the EU tries to put the far right genie back in the bottle. This is no wimpy Greek Golden Dawn shower they are dealing with, but determined, and now hardened and organized, fighters. The asshole liberals who helped them to power thought they could “control” Mussolini and Hitler too. I see Beer Hall putsch 1923 stage right now, not an imminent crypto- or neo-fascist takover. The Ukrainian far right gaining the political upper hand will be a nightmare embarrassment for the EU. But not for the US, who might favor backing such a regime for its own purposes, one that includes effing up the EU, without causing the structure to collapse. That in a post-Obama timeframe.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — February 25, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

  11. And, as clarification, just in case it’s necessary, no, “The Man With No Name” is not me.

    Comment by godoggo — February 25, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

  12. Another self appointed expert (Ames) criticizing other self-appointed experts.

    Let Ukraine enjoy the IMF support they protested so bravely for.

    Comment by jeff — February 26, 2014 @ 3:09 am

  13. Yanukovych has retreated to his pro-Russian enclave and is plotting with Putin to retake Ukraine from the popular revolution or at least splitting the nation. Let us hope that Kiev does not end up as flat as Homs or Aleppo. In the meantime the people need to make the revolution permanent before the old regime sneaks in the back way via the corrupt bunch of gangster capitalism’s crony politicians in the joke parliament. The Ukrainian working class must take the lead. They have already shown that with great courage they can take advantage of the split in the gangster capitalist Ukraine ruling class and their imperialist backers Russian or EU.

    Comment by davidellis987 — February 26, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

  14. I know that Ukraine’s Jewish population used to be several times larger; I know that the west of Ukraine is more Catholic than the East; I know that even though the Crimea Tartars were declared innocent of collaboration with the Nazis by a court in 1967, they still haven’t been allowed to come back except as individuals. I know that Crimea is neither Ukrainian the way western Ukraine is nor “pro-Russia” the way eastern Ukraine is.
    This is part of the “everything I know about Ukraine”; is it wrong?

    Comment by George Waite — February 26, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

  15. Thanks for posting this article. IMHO, as a lefty of Ukrainian background (grew up in the U.S., but my first language was Ukrainian and I’ve tracked Ukrainian politics closely my entire life), Mark Ames gets much of it correct. To quote a phrase you used a while back, it seems to me that, with situations like this, too many on the left can’t “walk and chew gum at the same time” (i.e. recognizing the nature of American imperialism, etc., while not reducing situations such as these to kneejerk caricatures).

    Comment by affinis — February 26, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

  16. it was surprising to find such an objective (though not 100%) vision in the western media…
    marxists, jesus)…

    Comment by serge — March 4, 2014 @ 2:19 am

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