Usually when I talk about bad comparisons it’s a case of “whataboutism,” or maybe an inaccurate comparison of two things which share superficial commonalities but which are extremely different just beneath the surface, i.e. Putin’s Russia to the Soviet Union. The bad comparison I found this morning is something else entirely.
“Ukrainian-American political scientist” Alexander Motyl wrote a piece for Huffington Post(Why would anyone do that?!) entitled “Ukraine’s Donbas Is Like America’s Deep South.” Now there are a few things that need to be qualified before the guns open up. First, this comparison is not entirely off the mark, as I will show later. In fact it’s a pretty good analogy. He very correctly smacks down idiotic analogies which compare Russian-speakers in Ukraine to black Americans suffering discrimination. The problem, unfortunately, comes from his lack of American historical knowledge and a possible deliberate attempt to conflate two radically different, even contradictory movements. Then to top this off, his final conclusion is a bit of a mystery. This seems like a pro-Ukrainian article from a nationalist-sympathizer(very common in the US and Canada), and yet the conclusion seems to be that Ukraine needs to just sit there and wait everything out.
First of all I can personally attest to some of his comments about the Russian attitude toward other languages of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine. Deliberate suppression of the Ukrainian language in the Russian empire was real. Under Stalin’s Ukrainization, the state attempted to make many people speak Ukrainian, an effort which obtained some success but which was met with hostility in mostly Russian-speaking urban and industrialized areas. Some of those city names are familiar to us today in this current conflict- Kharkov, Odessa, Donetsk. The problem with Soviet nationalities policy is that it often tried to draw clear lines where they hadn’t been before. The lines between Russian and Ukrainian were as blurry then as they are now. Industrialization and the fear of the coming war were major factors in the downfall of Stalin’s “localization”(коренизация) policy and the march toward a more Russian-dominated Soviet Union.*
The Second World War ended with the crowning of a Muscovite Russian-dominated Union which would increasingly alienate non-Russians. During the war, propaganda glorifying Muscovite Russia, including its tsarist past, was allowed and promoted, whereas patriotic propaganda aimed at Ukrainians, Tatars, etc. were often still officially banned. The only exception to this which immediately springs to mind is the Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, an award proposed by Nikita Khruschev for exceptional service in the liberation of Soviet territory, specifically Ukraine. Of course this order existed alongside other orders glorifying tsarist commanders, the orders of Kutuzov and Suvorov. This in an army which at the same time(1943) adopted tsarist attributes such as shoulder boards and gold braid, and shortly after the war went from being known as the Worker and Peasants Red Army(RKKA) to simply the “Soviet Army.”(SA) The Soviet Union began to evolve into Soviet Russia, which is one of the reasons why so many Russian citizens today cannot grasp the contradiction between the USSR and the Russian empire. It’s treated as a sort of re-branding.
My experience is even more personal, having seen Russians who lived in Crimea talk about how horrible the Ukrainian language is though they were never required to speak it. Back in the spring of 2013, one girl in my course aged maybe 21-22 told me she was from Yalta and that she “hated” the Ukrainian language. Russians constantly complain about non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation speaking their native languages. Some react with horror upon learning that some street signs in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, are in both Russian and Tatar. The attitude of these people can be summed up in two sentences. “If you’re in Russia, speak Russian! If we’re in your country, speak Russian!” I should also point out that Motyl is probably telling the truth when he says that he doesn’t know of anyone facing discrimination for speaking Russian in the Donbas or Crimea since 1991. Kyiv, which Russians decided to magically assign to “Western Ukraine” after February of 2014, was always a mostly Russian-speaking city. That is based on my own personal experience and plenty of others can attest to the same.
So where does his analogy go wrong? Comparing the Donbas and Crimea to the Deep South, or perhaps the Confederacy, isn’t too ridiculous. They did secede and use force. They are, as he said, highly intolerant and illiberal. They also didn’t raise the topic of independence or joining Russia until they had lost power in Kyiv, much in the same way that the antebellum slave states weren’t concerned about states’ rights and “tyrannical” executive power until they lost their dominant position in congress and finally the executive branch in the election of 1860. Up to this point the analogy is solid. He should have quit while he was ahead.
Motyl totally destroys his credibility by then likening what he no doubt sees as “real” Ukrainians to black Americans, proving that he knows little of the latter’s history of struggle. Even more monstrously, he compares neo-fascist individuals such as Oleh Tyahnibok of Svoboda and the leader of the fascist-dominated “Azov” battalion to Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. Their movements are compared to the Black Panthers. At this point only two things can explain Motyl’s horrible analogy. Either he is extremely ignorant about history of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the civil rights movement, or he is deliberately lying, i.e. purposely trying to mislead people as to the nature of these Ukrainian nationalist movements.
The Ukrainian nationalist movements he inexplicably defends can only be compared to the white supremacist-manufactured caricatures of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Even today this mainstream myth persists, which portrays these figures and organizations as “reverse racists” who countered white racism with black nationalism. This is as idiotic as it is ignorant. For one thing, the Black Panther party was opposed to black nationalism and it was a Maoist organization. Last time I checked, Svoboda fans aren’t too fond of Communists. More over, anyone who follows the Ukrainian nationalist propaganda and trolls on the Russian-speaking internet can see how racist these people are. One of their favorite arguments against Russia is how non-Russian or non-Slavic it is. Svoboda and its allies’ solution to Ukraine’s problems is to impose their contrived “national idea” on Ukrainian society. This is a textbook fascist idea and it is word-for-word identical to the core concept of Russian imperialist organizations. In fact Alexander Dugin himself, the man who exhorts Russians to kill Ukrainians and wipe that independent country off the map, also promotes this concept of a “national idea.”
This is why Motyl would have done well to at least Google the Black Panther party before making that idiotic comparison. The irony is that one of the most important Panthers ever, Fred Hampton, totally repudiated the kind of politics of groups like Svoboda when he said: “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
No matter how much groups like Svoboda and their allies claim to oppose capitalism, their ideology is incompatible with socialism. There simply cannot be any accurate comparison with the Panthers. The nationalists’ solution involves raising one group above another based on arbitrary features and contrived identities. At the same time, people who are in the “correct” group are said to have a common interest with other group members, even when material reality says otherwise. Like Putin’s pseudo-intellectual circus, the Ukrainian nationalist ideologues promote fantasy over reality. All these things white supremacy did in America, and this is also what the Kremlin’s chauvinistic ideology promotes. Most Ukrainian-speakers do speak Russian and are tolerant of Russian-speakers, even though the reverse is not true. Svoboda just aims to make Ukrainians as intolerant and monolingual as the imperialists of the Kremlin.
In the end Motyl reached too far and his analogy crashed and burned. The worst part is that he went out on a limb to defend organizations and parties which Ukrainians mostly rejected last October. Sure, they have not fully rejected some of those ideas, but they made it clear they don’t want Motyl’s bizarro-world version of Malcolm X ruling over them in any way. Poor Motyl. He was really onto something there with the Deep South analogy. Sadly, he went too far and ended up looking like a very white bread suburbanite trying way too hard to appear “down” with black America.
*For more information on “localization” and “Ukrainianization” I highly recommend Terry Dean Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-1939