Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2015

The Novorossiya Follies

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Separatists in the vanguard of the struggle against neoliberalism?

Only six months ago I got into a brouhaha with David North, the cult leader of the Socialist Equality Party whose online newspaper WSWS.org was running around like Chicken Little squawking that nuclear war between the USA and Russia was about to break out.

This was the downside of east Ukraine’s separatist movement—it might lead to H-Bombs leveling every major city on earth. But perhaps it was a risk worth taking since the upside would be a kind of liberated territory like Rojava if you took Boris Kagarlitsky at his word: “By contrast [to Maidan], the Donetsk … is the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order.” His co-thinker Roger Annis created a website called www.newcoldwar.org that provided a platform for separatist ideologues such as Halyna Mokrushyna who described her comrades as creating a “new state, free from corruption and nationalism.” The enthusiasm for militias that put a Vice reporter in a makeshift jail might have been lost on some but beauty is in the eyes of the beholder one supposes.

Things have not quite turned out either on the downside or the upside as the pro-separatist left predicted. The only mushrooms to be seen now are those on sale at Whole Foods while the resemblance between the People’s Republics and Kropotkin is purely coincidental.

On November 10th, the NY Times reported on the grim situation facing people living in the breakaway republics:

Children and older people suffer disproportionately. There is little money for schools and to pay teachers’ salaries. Many teachers have simply left. Food is also running short, and hunger is a daily fear for many youngsters.

Many older people have nowhere else to go, and their pensions have been cut off by a hostile government in Kiev. Russia, burdened by its annexation of Crimea and the collapse of oil prices, has no interest in filling the void.

Maybe if Russia weren’t spending all that money on bombing ISIS into the stone age, it would have more money to spend on teachers’ salaries. Then again, the strategy in Syria is not that different than the one for Ukraine, namely to defend Russia’s spheres of influences. In the first instance a warm-water port on the Mediterranean and in the second a block against NATO expansion as the NY Times article points out:

The guns went quiet in eastern Ukraine in September, wrapping up with a cease-fire but with no final settlement. This is a common arc of post-Soviet conflict, visible in the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and in Transnistria, a strip of land on Moldova’s border with Ukraine.

In each case, the Kremlin intervened or provided arms on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians or local allies, then it installed pro-Russian governments that it has used to manipulate events in the host countries. The contested borders of frozen zones also effectively guard against any further expansion of NATO, since no country with an unresolved border conflict can join the alliance.

Get that? No country with an unresolved border conflict can join NATO. Pretty damned smart of Putin. Start a war over “fascist threats” to make people in eastern Ukraine speak Ukrainian or else they would be put into gas chambers, if you believed Russian television. In my view, the Kremlin’s hostility to Ukraine has more to do with Putin’s ambition to restore Russia’s Great Nation status going back to Catherine the Great than fear of countries like Ukraine or Georgia becoming a launch pad for a war on Russia. Keep in mind that the Czech Republic, which joined NATO in 1999, is one of Russia’s most reliable allies today.

For all of the vain hopes in a Novorossiya, Putin never had any intention of expanding his borders outwards. It was to his advantage to keep Ukraine in a state of limbo and hence to keep it as an irritant to the West.

For an in-depth study of the costs of separatism for the Donbass region, I recommend Pavel Kanygin’s article in Meduza, a journal based in Latvia. Titled “The Donbass War. Assessing the Aftermath How the ‘Russian Spring’ came to an end in eastern Ukraine”, it describes the same precipitous decline as the NY Times.

The war has come and gone, leaving behind poverty and pain. The buses and trams have been stripped of their wifi routers. High-voltage cables smashed in the shelling have been sold for scrap. Half-empty shelves in the stores have become customary. The city’s Petrovsky district still has many living in the bomb shelter of the local mine, fearing renewed artillery strikes. The nearby municipal psychiatric hospital has become home to fighters for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Already last winter, I joined volunteers taking food and medicine to the neighborhood, where typhoid plagued people crowded in basements. What goes on now in Petrovsky and other areas around Donetsk is virtually unknown. This fall, DPR authorities banned volunteers from bringing in medicine and equated NGO activity with espionage.

After examining reliable statistics on Donbass, Kanygin concludes that the region’s economy has fallen by two-thirds since the start of the war while the price of essential commodities has increased by 50 to 60 percent. Meanwhile showing the same disrespect for independent media that it displayed early on in the jailing of a Vice reporter, the authorities in the “liberated” republics have jailed 8 local reporters. There is also hostility toward NGO’s—probably cheering the heart of Putin’s “anti-imperialist” supporters in the West. Doctors without Borders, whose hospital was bombed by American jets in Kunduz, has been banned for supposedly engaging in espionage and distributing mind-altering drugs.

Meanwhile the armed “liberators” of Donbass would seem to have more in common with the Hell’s Angels than the Kurds in Rojova:

Once, while photographer Pyotr Shelomovsky and I watched, in the center of Donetsk, an intoxicated fighter from the armed group “Oplot” killed a passerby as he left a store with his purchases. The man was talking with somebody on the phone, and the soldier thought he had a background with the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag on his screen. “You ukrop [a slang pejorative for Ukrainians]!” the fighter yelled. “Go work for them, bitch!” With one strike he knocked the man off his feet, and the impact of his fall broke his neck. Somebody called an ambulance out of habit. But first a minibus with tinted windows and no license plates arrived and whisked the “Oplot” fighter in an unknown direction. Then the ambulance removed the body. After an hour the DPR police showed up, and one of them said with frustration: “Fuck, why did we [even] come?”

As might be expected, some of the separatists have buyer’s remorse over the way things have turned out. The WSJ reported on November 13th:

“It’s more circuses than bread,” said Sergei Baryshnikov, a history professor and doyen of the tiny separatist movement that existed in Donetsk before the conflict.

Mr. Baryshnikov is one of several local ideologues and independent-minded military commanders who have been gradually purged from leadership positions. He was fired as dean of the university just as he had been appointed last year: by a rebel government minister flanked by two men with automatic rifles.

“They tossed out the ideas people,” empowering more malleable satraps, he complained.

The sad state of Donbass could have easily been predicted as I pointed out in a review of “Tangerine” the made-in-Georgia film of 2014 that I reviewed for CounterPunch.

As is the case today with the Crimeans and the Donbas separatists, hope was placed on unity with Russia and still lingers on despite all evidence to the contrary. On May 31, 2014 Russian journalist Yuliya Latynina, reported on Abkhazia’s problems for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of Vladimir Putin:

There is collapse and devastation. Agriculture is finished; tobacco [manufacturing] is ruined; tourists living in rundown Soviet sanatoriums and ordering one portion of ice-cream for two people in beach cafes make a poverty-stricken segment; even maize has become an imported [product] in Abkhazia, where mamalyga [which is made from maize] is a national food. In addition to this, there is destructive logging of fine wood – as if it was happening somewhere in Papua New Guinea – which is exported to Turkey. However, even this business is coming to an end: Forests have been completely cut down.

As for Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests have had little effect on power relations in the western part of the country according to a Vice news report titled “Two Years After Ukraine’s Euromaidan, Protesters Say ‘Nothing Has Changed’”. One protestor told Vice: “The country is still ruled by corruption. It is still the same people in power, nothing has changed.”

In fact it is exactly the continuation of the status quo that made the prospects of nuclear war so ludicrous. What David North, Boris Kagarlitsky and Roger Annis could not seem to grasp was the class affinities of Barack Obama, Petro Poroshenko, and Vladimir Putin. In the 1950s, during the depths of the Cold War, nuclear annihilation was a much more palpable threat because two irreconcilably opposed social systems existed in the West and the East. The Cold War ended because the bureaucracy in the East learned that it could do even better as managers or owners of capitalist enterprises.

But unlike the situation in 1914 or 1940, there is not the same kind of dead-end inter-imperialist rivalry today. Exxon-Mobil gets the red carpet treatment in Moscow because it has a shared investment in energy exploration with its Russian partners while Putin’s cronies continue to buy 20 million dollar apartments in New York condominiums. This is not exactly what confronted Lenin in 1914. The world has changed a great deal. It is too bad that the left continues to act as if time stood still.



  1. Another sad but brilliant expose’ on not only the pathetic folly of Doomsday WW3 Chicken Little leftist websites that sound almost indistinguishable from paranoid rightist libertarian sites but also a depressing commentary on how the momentous energy of so many mass protests over the last 1/4 century get squandered into status quo oblivion by the Iron Heel.

    From Corazon Aquino’s “People’s Power” (and some might rightly include Tiananamen Square) to Occupy Wall Street — through Egypt’s Tarhir Square and the Arab Spring, there’s scant few bright spots of successful resistance outside perhaps the nominal gains made in Tunisia and the Bolivarian Revolution.

    Nevertheless it goes to show that just like Hitler’s plans to conquer all of Europe and then some in the thousand year reich — the fascist plunderers always underestimate the relentlessness of human resistance.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 23, 2015 @ 1:19 am

  2. It should be added that whatever one wants to think about the role of Leon Trotsky in 20th Century politics it’s impossible to deny that his insight on the eve of WWII that the gravest crisis in the world at the time was the profound lack of proletarian leadership — should be extended through not only the last 1/4 century but also the foreseeable future.

    I urge all young people to read Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours” for an indispensable materialist grounded worldview that will serve them well for today’s and tomorrow’s struggles.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 23, 2015 @ 1:50 am

  3. Isn’t Kiev’s suspension of pension payments a form of mass reprisal?
    Even the IMF demanded they resume the payments – but there’s no sign of it happening.
    The DPR authorities set up a pension fund last March and have paid 600,000 pensioners since then. Given the war and exodus of a large percentage of the working-age population, this is probably the best they can do.

    You might have mentioned that your source Pavel Kanygin writes for the Russian paper “Novaya Gazeta”. This is part-owned by the billionaire Alexander Lebedev (who also owns the Independent, “Evening Standard” and “I” in Britain) The other major share-holder is Mikhail Gorbachev, who invested his Nobel prize money in the paper.

    “unlike the situation in 1914 or 1940, there is not the same kind of dead-end inter-imperialist rivalry today.”

    It’s quite possible for world powers to form an alliance against a joint enemy, which is followed by a war between them.
    e.g. At Navarino in 1827, the British, French and Russian navies destroyed the Turkish fleet in Greece.
    This enhanced Russia’s influence in the Balkans – which was not what the British government wanted at all. By 1853, Britain was in an alliance with the Ottomans and France against Russia in the Crimean War.

    I’d suggest reading this:-

    There are regular reports in the British Press like this one :-

    Comment by prianikoff — November 23, 2015 @ 11:50 am

  4. “Isn’t Kiev’s suspension of pension payments a form of mass reprisal?”

    Of course.

    “The other major share-holder is Mikhail Gorbachev, who invested his Nobel prize money in the paper.”

    So should I stop citing the NY Times and Washington Post as well? This sort of aspersion on the ownership of a particular newspaper is vulgar Marxism, especially in light of the fact that Karl Marx wrote for the NY Tribune.

    “It’s quite possible for world powers to form an alliance against a joint enemy”

    That was certainly more true in an epoch before capital grew wings and took flight.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 23, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

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