In conversation with Ukrainian grassroots collectives (Part 2 – Kyiv)

Second segment from social ecologist Davide Grasso’s conversations with Ukrainian grassroots collectives. Grasso is currently travelling throughout Ukraine to meet political activists from anarchist, feminist, and socialist movements.

In Kiev I met several militants of the Solidarity Collectives, known for their support of resistance and internationalism. They were founded by anarchists and now group together people from different political backgrounds, though with the lowest common denominator being what they call “anti-authoritarianism.” That is why they do not identify with the patriotism and nationalism advocated by the Ukrainian state, let alone those promoted by the Russian government, but identify with the genuine popular struggle that has developed within Ukrainian society since the invasion.

Together with a friend from Bologna’s Social Municipalities, I help two of them, Sergey and Alex, collect goods from the city to send to the front, this time to the town of Lyman, where many families are in need of basic necessities. We store blankets, pillows, cell phones, kettles. Sergey and Alex are keen to emphasize that they plan on bringing movies, books and music to those on the front lines, so that these months are not just spent in the mere hope of survival, but also, as much as possible, to living.

We cross the large bridge over the Dnipro River and Sergey shows us the large and famous Motherland statue, dedicated to the Soviet victory over the Nazis in Kiev. The Poroshenko-linked government banned communist symbols from the country in 2015, absurdly equating them with Nazi symbols. As early as 2018, officials from the Ukrainian Department of Fine Arts demanded that the hammer and sickle placed on the statue’s shield be replaced with the Ukrainian trident. The Russian invasion of 2022 has led even more people to support these policies, and just a few days ago, on August 6, the symbol on the shield was changed.

This intervention is not only disrespectful to the urban heritage on a philological and historical level, but also to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army. The latter brought together soldiers from 15 republics, including Ukraine, and not only from Russia. Instead, it is true that Stalinist iconographic policies following the war sought to reduce Soviet and anti-fascist memory to an imperial magnification of Russia that had nothing to do with the national and anti-imperialist policies proposed by Marx, Engels and Lenin. If the statue in Kiev was named after the Motherland, like the one in Volgograd or the Treptow steles in Berlin, it was because of an even too veiled reference to the traditional expression “Mother Russia.”

Sergey, an anarchist, has no sympathies for Stalin or the Soviet Union. He knows the history of the imperialist degeneration of Stalinist socialism and does not identify with the hammer and sickle. However, he does not hesitate to denounce the dangerous and problematic nature of what he sees as a general vulgarization of memory and an increasingly superficial conception of Ukrainian history, symbolized by these attacks on the traces of socialism.

The action of Sergey and the Solidarity Collectives today is to protect the critical core of Ukrainian resistance, which must and can have a voice in the however-renewed country that will emerge from the war, preventing Ukraine from falling into the abyss of exclusive and integral nationalism.

It is primarily a matter of dignifying political action. In this country, he explains, the term “politics” has struggled since at least 1991 to acquire meaning. From a one-party system before the final phase of Perestroika, Ukraine has become, he says, a seemingly multiparty system, but one that is actually partyless. Zelensky’s election in 2019 is an expression of this: his party is nothing more than the creation of a political infrastructure to accompany his personal campaign and political experience.

Far from being a phenomenon that concerns only his figure, this personalization of representative democracy (also well known from Italy to the rest of Europe, not to mention Russia) is present in Ukraine with an increasingly intense process of emptying and detaching electoral political organizations from the population. “The parties in the Ukrainian parliament are a nothing, they are spectacular shells, and they often divide in parliament into ever new factions.”

What remains are the leaderships, from the hyper-liberal or nationalist ones to the populist one embodied by Zelensky. This applies all the more to the parties opposed to Maidan and EU membership, considered close to Putin, disbanded immediately after the invasion: their parliamentarians, expressions of careers founded on semi-legal entrepreneurship and savage exploitation of labor power, remain in place, and now support Zelensky behind threats or blackmail. Not coincidentally, as Olenka, a young sociologist linked to the Ukrainian Commons magazine and an activist of Sozialnyi Rukh (Social Movement), had told us in Lviv, Ukrainians’ fondness for their politicians is demonstrated by the fact that no president has been reelected in the past two decades.

Alex tells of the surprising social landscape along the front lines. Picaresque figures emerge in the bombed cities, sons of former mayors or renowned politicians with ties to the underworld of illegality, who have the means and contacts to hold the community together in times of crisis.

Paradoxically, they are similar figures, in some ways, to those who led to the establishment of the “people’s republics” of Donesk and Luhansk in 2014: it was a political-economic class, Sergey explains, that saw its decades-long power without Yanukovich threatened. Today, as then, it seems to take part primarily on the basis of convenience.

Alex and Sergey were recently in a large southern industrial city not far from the front, Kryvyi Rih, with one of the strongest trade union presences in the country. Alex also tells of the peculiar habits of the youth of Kryvyi Rih and the East, also devoted since the 1990s to forming gangs. In Kryvyi Rih a number of gangs had formed under the English name of Runners (in obvious reference to the 1980s cult film ‘Midnight Runners’). Sergey refered to a story of one such gang declaring war to another by gathering around a Soviet war monument in the center of the town, depicting a huge gun, and “moving it” in the direction of the neighborhood against whose gang the “war” had been declared.

The social fabric of eastern Ukraine and the Donbass, an industrial area already under Alexander III and linked to the military complex throughout the history of the USSR, is leathery and complex. Sergey recounts how, after the Russian attack on Kherson and the initial retreat of the Ukrainian army, neighborhood residents who volunteered to join the Territorial Defense Units challenged the tanks with Kalashnikovs in one of the city’s parks, most of whom ended up being killed. Few survived to tell the story. In Kherson, recounts Nelia, a longtime activist on the Marxist left in Kiev, thousands of people took to the streets, positioning themselves in front of the tanks with their bare hands. The Russian army was thus pinned down for days until it fired on the crowd, killing several people. The anger and bitterness of the residents of Kherson, whose streets were recaptured by Ukraine in the counteroffensive, was increased by what is believed to have been the betrayal of a senior Ukrainian officer who now lives in Russia, and who provided the invaders with strategic information in those days.

Alex, Sergey, and Nelia agree that the 2022 invasion changed everything: the huge range of opinions and nuances that people, leftist and non-leftist, had about Maidan and anti-Maidan, or the “popular monarchist republics” as they ironically call the institutions of Donesk and Luhansk, vanished. The invasion has compacted all in support of a resistance that no longer has to do with Ukraine’s internal divisions but with its very existence as a political entity.

Alex, Sergey, and Nelia know far better than anyone else that it will continue to be difficult in this entity to pursue alternative social and cultural battles to those of the neo-liberals and nationalists. Their determination to face this challenge is impressive. Of course, they do not recognize the fragmented and neutral Western lefts as inspirational, nor do they recognize a distinct ability to understand their own situation or that of their country. They know that any space for critical thinking will be built and defended in Ukraine together with the people in the flesh. Whatever political direction these people choose, it will still be decided in the struggle against military invasion and Russian imperialism.

August 23, 2023

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