On Applebaum and the Holodomor

So last night I was reading a piece from The Nation reviewing Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. You’d think it would be highly critical but in fact it is extremely balanced, acknowledging the genuine research Applebaum did on the subject of the Holodomor while pointing out its flaws (HINT: it has to do with Applebaum’s barely-concealed ideological biases). But just like with articles in other left-wing mags, it strays away from history and into the present, where it can’t help but regurgitate the Russian narrative.

In terms of the history, the author Sophie Pinkham is mostly dead on, though I’d have to dispute her claim that the Bolsheviks didn’t have a Russian imperialist view toward Ukraine. This issue is tackled in painstaking detail by Stephen Velychenko’s Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925. There is a very clear case that Lenin himself had a huge blindspot in regards to imperialism and colonialism when it came to Russia, and that his concessions toward Ukraine were more a matter of pragmatism than sincerely acknowledging his ideological mistake. The chauvinism shown by members of the Russian-dominated Communist Party of Ukraine was even more pronounced.

The idea that national chauvinism still existed in self-proclaimed socialist societies really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to modern leftists, many of whom acknowledge that the struggle for socialism goes beyond the core class struggle to encompass other forms of domination and hierarchy such as sexism, racism and national oppression, homophobia, etc. Also, Applebaum, like many anti-Communists, contradicts herself by acknowledging the Russian chauvinism of Bolshevik leaders. Anti-Communists typically want to claim that socialism always leads to authoritarianism, mass death, repression, etc. By the same token, they are fond of accusing historical socialists of being total hypocrites, not actually achieving or standing behind their stated beliefs, and so on. Thus there’s a bit of a conundrum here for the anti-Communist. If the Marxists of the 20th century betrayed their own values, then all the problems that occurred under those regimes really can’t be attributed to socialism or Marxism since they did not really implement either. If they actually did implement those values (which is a dubious assertion), then they cannot be accused of being cynical liars who would readily betray their stated goals and values just to maintain power. Yeah I know it’s a bit confusing, but blame the anti-Communists; they came up with it.

Apart from this minor flaw (many Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, were more or less sincere about their beliefs in internationalism and Marxism; the Russian chauvinism was largely a blindspot), the historical aspect of the review is fairly solid. Where things go off the rails is when it comes to recent history, and I think the long-time reader knows where this is going to go- to Maidan.

There is good justification to discuss Applebaum’s bizarre admiration for nationalism, because this affects her analysis of the Holodomor in her book. But rather than tackling the flaws of Applebaum’s opinions on nationalism head-on, the author goes off on Ukraine with the old Russian narrative- “Maidan was a nationalist phenomenon, nationalists dominate the new government, bla bla bla.” Let us look at how she does this.

In an article in the New Republic in May 2014, when Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution had been followed by a war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions, Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation.

Let’s be a bit clearer here- a war did not simply “follow” Maidan. A Russian invasion and annexation followed. Had Russia not acted as it did, there would be no war in the East- period. To speak about Russian-backed separatists is to pretend that there was some substantial separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine where there was not- even the early incarnation of a separatist movement (totally obscure and marginal prior to 2014) was the creation of Russian “political technologists” and groups like the Eurasianist movement of Alexander Dugin. The war was started by Russia, just as Russian citizen and “Novorossiya” armed forces commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin admitted.

Now since the quote above does touch on an article by Applebaum which the author thinks is relevant to her work in Red Famine, rest assured I will get to discussing Applebaum’s thoughts on nationalism because they are indeed extremely problematic. But bear with me for a bit while I tackle these nuggets of the Russian narrative that are used to refute Applebaum’s ideas.

Across Europe and around the world, stark economic inequality and the capture of political and legal systems by the ultra-rich have fed popular anger and resentment. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, this anger can be misdirected—often intentionally, by self-serving politicians—into a populist nationalism that encourages hatred and exclusion rather than economic and political reform. Instead of asking why power has been concentrated in the hands of a corrupt elite, nationalists put the blame for social problems on migrants, minorities, and foreign influence. Relatively small groups of extreme nationalists can help stymie political reform.

While all this is undoubtedly true in general, it really doesn’t apply to Ukraine. Even Ukraine’s weak nationalists typically aren’t peddling the usual anti-migrant or anti-Semitic scapegoats on a day-to-day basis. And for those who do, they are easily matched by Russian propaganda that also echoes the same claims, such as “Ukraine is controlled by Jews!” Given Ukraine’s specific and very obvious problems, it’s kind of hard to garner support with anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s a lot easier to join the chorus of slogans against “oligarchs,” “treason,” etc.

By far the worst salvo is to be found here:

Over the years since the Maidan Revolution, it has come to light that right-wing nationalists not only physically attacked unarmed leftists at the protests, but helped to initiate the turn to violence that led to the deaths of some 100 protesters at Maidan Square. Since the revolution, right-wing nationalists have been able to take important positions in government, manipulate policy and the judicial process, push forward a blockade that helped cause a humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, and harass minorities with impunity.

Lot to unpack here. First of all, a lot of people at Maidan had what could be called left-wing views. To date, I have heard one specific story of nationalists attacking left-wing protesters during the march. If the nationalists had been doing this on a large scale, eventually it would have caused a rupture in the camp. This does not seem to have happened throughout the movement. Whether it did or not, it’s important to note that there is evidence to show that Yanukovych and his party had a long history of supporting and even funding the far right in Ukraine as an electoral strategy.

The more egregious claim in the excerpt, however, is that it was the nationalists who sparked the violence during the revolution. In reality, it was the police who turned the protest violent with their brutal suppression of Euromaidan at the end of November. This movement consisted mainly of young students- not right-wing nationalists. Their is no concrete evidence to suggest that nationalists were behind the killing of protesters either (apart from one unconfirmed claim reported by the BBC).

The claim that the radical nationalists have important positions in government is also overstated. As for the blockade- I’m sorry but who started the war? These so-called “republics” declared themselves to be independent and essentially at war with Ukraine. Did they expect friendly trade relations? And if the author actually believes these to be genuine separatists as opposed to Russian puppets, why not spare a word about their nationalism? One could argue that their entire governments are dominated by “nationalists.”

As for harassing minorities with impunity, this is not nearly as frequent as the sentence implies. Ukraine has problems with racism just like any Eastern European country- perhaps a bit less than some other Eastern European countries, in fact (ahem). The problem of attacks with impunity has a lot more to do with shitty police than nationalists being in charge of anything. Just to give you an example, while doing a story on an agency that helps sex workers, the NGO employees told us that one of the worst enablers and beneficiaries of the human trafficking business in Ukraine is…get ready for it…the police anti-human trafficking unit.

And while I agree with the author’s sentiment in the next passage, I must remind the reader that no modern leftist piece on Ukraine seems complete without a reference to Azov.

Having witnessed a torchlight march of hundreds of balaclava-clad nationalists from the Azov Battalion in Kiev last year—their insignia was a modified Wolfsangel that, they claimed, represented the initials of the phrase “national idea”—I am not convinced that more nationalism is what Ukraine needs.

This, folks, is what I mean by regurgitating the Russian narrative, which demands that critiques of Ukraine always need some reference to the Azov battalion. The so-called “DNR/LNR” have battalions made up of Serbian nationalists, Greek neo-Nazis from Golden Dawn, Hungarian members of Jobbik, “cossacks,” Italian neo-fascists, and many other scumbags whose ideology does not significantly differ from that of the more political members of the Azov regiment or Pravy Sektor. Yet when we speak of the war in Ukraine, it seems that right-wing extremism is always made a feature of the Ukrainian side of the war and not the Russian side. The few positions that self-proclaimed nationalists have in Ukraine’s government are used to spread the narrative that post-Maidan Ukraine is dominated by nationalists, whereas people often totally miss the fact that Russia’s pro-Kremlin nationalists (imperialists, really) and their foreign allies are backed by a massive state that is a regional military power.

I really wish leftist publications like The Nation or Jacobin would stop falling for this trope again and again. It’s not that we should be ignoring the far right in Ukraine or pretending there is no problem. Rather it’s that we should talk about the far right when it’s appropriate because it’s the subject of the article rather than shoehorning it into other topics. Moreover, it would be grand if people could stop internalizing the Russian narrative that says any outward display of Ukrainian national or cultural identity goes hand-in-hand with right wing nationalism. Even many, if not most of the people you see waving red and black flags often have no idea what that flag is (I’ve had at least two people tell me they thought it was the “original” Ukrainian flag), and those who engage in apologetics for Bandera or the UPA typically have very little real knowledge about either and believe them to have been anti-Nazi fighters who did not subscribe to exclusionary, genocidal nationalism. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory doesn’t just engage in the glorification of the nationalist resistance; it has also spent a lot of time trying to convince people that it was anti-fascist and all-inclusive. Now none of this makes that narrative true or justifiable (it is, after all, lying), but you can’t pretend that people who believe these myths are right-wing exclusionary nationalists when their knowledge of the subject is extremely poor and consists of the anti-Nazi, diverse Disney-version of the UPA. That is a completely different issue.

Now to get to Applebaum, Pinkham’s criticisms are rightly damning. Applebaum is basically the darling of the amoral neoliberal community, and as such, she apparently sees nothing wrong with changing her beliefs to suit her needs. When nationalism threatens EU integration or centrist neoliberal politicians or their policies, it’s “populism” and bad. When it supports them, it’s great. The wording Applebaum uses is also curious.

Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation. She blamed political apathy on the lack of “national identity” in post-Soviet Ukraine, a place where, for example, a half-Polish husband and his Russian-Jewish wife—two acquaintances who hosted Applebaum during a visit to Lviv—could look upon the removal of a statue of Lenin with a dismaying lack of enthusiasm. “Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf,” Applebaum claimed. Of war-torn eastern Ukraine, she wrote: It “is what a land without nationalism actually looks like”

And again:

Applebaum believes that the Soviet destruction of Ukrainian national identity has caused Ukrainians to have “mixed and confused loyalties,” which “can translate into cynicism and apathy.” She argues that ”[t]hose who do not care much or know much about their nation are not likely to work to make it a better place.” But “mixed loyalties”—which could also be called, less pejoratively, “multifaceted identities”—aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they are part of what has made Ukrainian culture so rich and, arguably, what has kept the country relatively open and democratic despite acute corruption and oligarchy.

Pinkham astutely points out that the kind of nationalism Applebaum is talking about fueled the rise of imperial nationalism in Russia, as well as things like Brexit, the Hungarian pro-Putin government, and other things Applebaum wouldn’t approve of. I would go even further.

A lot of the wording used by Applebaum in those quotes could just have easily come from a far right nationalist from any country. Rare is the far right activist who tells you they simply hate people who are different and they wish to subjugate or exclude them by force. No, they are almost to a man “just patriots,” defending their language, national tradition, and so forth. Applebaum, to the best of my knowledge, is no fan of Poland’s right wing Law and Justice party, and yet any Polish nationalist might, with some argument, claim that they are merely proud patriots without Applebaum’s hated “mixed and confused loyalties,” which incidentally is a charge often used against Jews by anti-Semites.

And while we speak about people without roots and loyalty to their native land, what of Applebaum herself? After all, she fled her country to live abroad and married a Polish ex-diplomat. Applebaum is a fierce supporter of international capital, for example when Greece had an outburst of populism due to its debt situation. And of course she is critical of “country first” politicians in both Europe and the US. It’s almost as if Applebaum’s position on right wing nationalism depends on the geopolitical goals she’s supporting rather than any set of concrete principles.

And that really shouldn’t be surprising because neoliberals and their shills don’t really have any principles. If promoting blood and soil nationalism is useful to your sponsors- go ahead and back it to the hilt until your words are indistinguishable from that of a European neo-Nazi. If the same nationalism suddenly becomes inconvenient because it leads to Brexit or the rise of a pro-Kremlin politician, you can suddenly switch back to your cosmopolitanism and pretend to be a defender of human rights and universal values. When you believe that your side has no ideology, just cold hard facts and data, morality or consistency go out the window.

The real lesson of the Holodomor has nothing to do with Communism or Marxism. Rather it was the inevitable result of any state which reduces human beings to a mere factor in its calculations. In the case of the USSR, collectivization was aimed at industrialization and modernization, and human costs were secondary at best. In other words, the USSR did the same thing that capitalist governments have done throughout time and continue doing to this day.  In the logic of Applebaum and her supporters, the Holodomor is also a utilitarian thing, to be used in service of what is essentially a system that also reduces humanity to numbers on a balance sheet. Applebaum’s anti-Communist rhetoric and praise for nationalism obscure this central fact. To her, the Holodomor is useful for achieving geopolitical goals in the present, when in reality it should be seen as a call to the action against any system that results in people starving when food is available. Today, that system is overwhelmingly the one that Applebaum enthusiastically defends.

At the end of the day, it’s a good and balanced review. Where I think it went off the rails is ironic, considering how Pinkham calls out Applebaum’s use of history to support political goals. I’ve often noticed in these Nation and Jacobin articles the authors tend to get the historical criticisms dead-on, while failing to grasp reality in the present when it comes to Ukraine. It’s as if the Applebaum’s and Snyder’s creatively interpret history to support their present political ideas, while many Western leftists get the present wrong because they’re critiquing bad history. Any way you slice it, it’s still doing the same thing- bending reality to fit a narrative instead of looking at all claims objectively and weighing the evidence.


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