A concern troll visits sites of an opposing ideology and offers advice on how they could “improve” things, either in their tactical use of rhetoric, site rules, or with more philosophical consistency.
So recently I was reading this article from Charles Turner about the issue of various people on both sides of the political spectrum turning a blind eye to the actions of the side they support, be it Maidan or what is perceived to be the “pro-Russian” resistance. I have some points of contention with the analysis, but I think it has just enough unique features that it deserves serious consideration. Most of what we read on the conflict is so ridiculously one-sided that articles like this deserve credit at least for being different.
First off, however, let me say I hate the first textwall of a paragraph. I get what the author was going for, but this just didn’t work. If you need to use a historical analogy to preface the point your article is going to make, either make it short or make it exciting. After this start, it seems the author unfairly targets “left liberals”(as though they are the same), claiming that they are being reluctant to criticize Russia in this matter because they are afraid of sounding like they are taking up Washington’s line. He compares this to their behavior on Syria as well. I have a few problems with this.
First, he doesn’t really identify which “left liberals” he’s talking about. When it comes to liberals, based on my own experience the opposite has been true, at least on this matter of Ukraine. As is typical for Western liberals, who so love living vicariously through any protest movement without knowing what it’s about or who is involved, I saw mostly support from them. When I posted in one left but ultimately more liberal group about the need to support anti-fascists in Ukraine, people who were supposedly supporters of non-sectarian anti-fascism suddenly wanted to have a debate about which country is truly supporting fascism. In other words, the typical Maidan apologist’s Fascism Negation Principle, which states that the existence of fascists in one country negates the presence of fascists in their rival country. To the sane world, this is known as a “tu quoque” fallacy, which is unfortunately a fundamental part of any discourse on Eastern Europe.
When it comes to the more radical leftist circles in which I inhabit online, this actually is a justified gripe. It’s easy to express disgust and revulsion at nationalists who praise Stepan Bandera and whitewash the history of the UPA, but many of them seem to find it hard to condemn a government which happily appropriates Soviet symbols, the most relevant in this case being Victory Day, of course. Russia, more than any other former Soviet country, wants to be seen as the heir to the USSR’s victory over fascism. Unfortunately fascist and far-right wing ideologies dominate Russian politics, to the point where the figure you see condemning fascism in Ukraine may hold beliefs which are more or less identical to that of Praviy Sektor or Svoboda. Also the blanket term anti-imperialism is often thrown about, and as the author of the piece suggests, they often liken it to the situation in Syria. The problem with playing the anti-imperialism card here is that the situation is different from the case of Syria or Libya. In those situations, two regimes, all shortcomings aside, were defending their own territory against insurgent movements. Say what you want about Assad, but his regime promotes tolerance among the different religious groups in his country, whereas the foreign-backed rebels are predominately Salafist fanatics who have demonstrated that they have no compunction against murdering even children who do not abide by their strict rules. Leftists in the West are easily able to watch RT and hear condemnations of fascism, and they see Soviet symbols used by Russians, but they are unable to read Russian and have no firsthand knowledge of Russian politics. If they did, they’d be shocked by some of the things one can hear from many Russian “Communists.”
Anti-imperialism doesn’t cut it here because in the Russian government and in Russia in general there is a very pro-imperialist sentiment which is in some ways far worse than that of the US or Europe when it comes to Ukraine. Both the EU and US clearly don’t give a shit about what regime dominates Ukraine so long as it is profitable to their interests, which is why they so readily turn a blind eye to the nature of the Maidan regime. Russian attitudes, on the other hand, are very different. The idea of an independent Ukraine is anathema to them. This is why they cheer on the Crimean annexation and hope that the new Donbass Republic(or whatever the fuck they’re calling it now) will be annexed by Russia. For a people who largely say they look favorably on the USSR, they are happy to piss all over its nationalities policy, drafter by Stalin and implemented both by himself and Lenin previously. Even when talking about the Ukrainian SSR, it is characterized as a “gift” that Moscow gave Ukrainians, and whenever Ukrainians fail to express sufficient gratitude the venom at “khokhly”(derogatory for Ukrainian) flows freely. This is why for me, as sad as it was to watch, it was no mystery at all why so many Maidan supporters were in fact Russian speakers, some of whom swelled the ranks of the extreme right. Ukrainian nationalists offer a fairy tale history, but it’s a flattering fairy tale. Russia’s post-Soviet fairy tale history is insulting and chauvinistic, with Moscow as the protagonist who plays Prometheus to all the former Soviet republics. So to sum up this point, yes there is the issue of American and European imperialism, but Russian imperialism is not only a factor in this conflict, but it is also one which fanned the flames of Ukrainian nationalism in the first place. What is more, it is weakening the country and making it damned near impossible to create a Ukrainian anti-Maidan, the only thing which could ever decisively defeat the nationalists permanently.
Getting back to the article, the author really shines when he gives his assessment of Tim Snyder’s fawning praise of Maidan with this satirical yet quite accurate passage.
From the other side there is not so much blind eye turning as dewy-eyed romanticism, led by the Yale historian Tim Snyder: where Putin saw only extremists in Maidan square, Snyder implies that Ukraine is already ready to join the EU because the leader of a group of frightening looking men in combat fatigues is really a gay hairdresser from the Donbas, while the new deputy minister for whatever is a Jewish transvestite whose mother was a disabled German preacher.
Right on the money. As far as I know, Snyder was not present at Maidan, yet he was eager to tell his audience about the vast diversity of the Maidan movement. He even went so far to tell us that maidan is an Arabic word. To me it came off sounding like the typical white-guy defense when being called out for racism. “What me, racist? But I once dated a Chinese girl! I have many black friends! My housekeeper is from Ecuador!” Snyder carefully downplayed the role of nationalist extremists, ignoring the fact that a memorial march for Stepan Bandera took place during Maidan and it garnered no criticism from the rest of the pro-EU Rainbow Coalition which apparently existed in Snyder’s mind. He also forgot to mention that the widely used chant “Glory to Ukraine” and its response “Glory to the Heroes” was in fact invented by the OUN(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). With this kind of open, brazen, and violent nationalist behavior, how could Russian-speaking Ukrainians not look upon these events with horror and believe that they may be at risk? Bottom line- I don’t give a shit if Synder is a professor at Yale. A PhD is not a license to re-write history or peddle bullshit about the present. And Tim, if you’re reading this, did you know that Bandera is a Spanish word?
As the author Turner moves on with his piece, he agrees with Snyder that Russia is afraid of having “democracy” on its doorstep. The idea is that if Ukraine joins the EU, something which wasn’t even on the table, it will acquire this “democracy” and then this will threaten the Russian regime. There are a couple problems with this though. The first is that for all its problems, Ukraine was pretty democratic compared to Russia, and this hasn’t made much of an impact. Sure there was election fraud in 2004, but the Orange Revolution overturned that and then fixed all of Ukraine’s problems. Oh…Wait…No. The Orange Revolution was pretty much a total failure, during which president Yushchenko’s approach to solving Ukraine’s problems consisted of virtually nothing other than trying to get Ukraine in NATO and rewriting history to whitewash and glorify the UPA. It’s worth noting in passing, however, that the Orange Revolution was not seen as so threatening to the East that it seriously considered separatism. The difference between the methods of that failed “revolution” and Maidan may account for this, for while nationalists were present in the Orange movement, their participation was nowhere near as blatant as it was with Maidan. Getting back to this point, Yushchenko was then ousted once again by Yanukovych in an election which European observers called fair. Russia has yet to achieve this level of liberal democracy.
The second point which derives from the previous one, is that liberal democracy alone is not enough to be threatening to the Kremlin regime. There also needs to be prosperity, something which the EU Association Agreement was unlikely to bring in the short term, and which is probably out of the question now, both for what’s left of Ukraine and the Eastern separatist region. Latvia and Estonia are both actual EU members which border Russia, yet neither impress Russians the way countries like Germany, Spain, the US, or Sweden do. That being said, if Ukraine had a functioning liberal democracy and maybe the economic success of say, the Czech Republic, that would indeed be threatening to the Kremlin even without EU or NATO membership. What you would have is a massive population of Russians and people who Russians see as Russians or “brother peoples,” living under very different conditions than themselves. I realize the reader may not be able to comprehend the significance of this but it is crucial and I will attempt to explain.
When people ask me about my visits to Kyiv, I would often say that to the untrained eye, it might feel as though they were in Russia but with different flags and a different language on the signs. People not schooled in Russian language might not notice the difference at all. Different money, different symbols, different flags, but in many ways Russian and with nearly everyone around you speaking Russian constantly. I have never been to Minsk in Belarus, but every Russian who has been there tells me how impressed they were at how clean and orderly everything is. The only thing that keeps Belarus from being a threat to Russia for this reason is that yes, Lukashenko has been there for so long, and the country is unfortunately totally dependent on Russia. But what if Ukraine were both successful and democratic in the liberal sense? Russians would go to this “other” Russia and see people like themselves leading better lives. They would see real opposition in the country’s parliament, not revolving around nationalist rhetoric but actual disagreement over policies. They would see citizens more freely protesting about various issues and there’d be less inclination to believe that many of these organizations are just government fronts. Then the question would arise. If these Russians in Ukraine can live this way, why can’t we? Maybe Russians actually don’t need a strong leader to tell them what to do. Maybe they don’t need to settle for poverty and “spiritual values” while their politicians and spiritual leaders cruise around in foreign-built luxury cars and reside in massive palatial compounds isolated from the lowly people.
Of course that scenario is unlikely to happen now. In fact it is the Ukrainian nationalists and Maidan which first fucked that dog. By clothing their struggle in nationalist symbolism and rhetoric, it ruined any chance to create a progressive Ukrainian movement which was resolutely in favor of Ukrainian independence and uniqueness, yet inclusive of all ethnic groups. Yes, I realize that Maidan supporters swear up and down that their movement was not anti-Russian, but I have yet to have met the Maidan supporter who freely condemns Bandera, the UPA or OUN, or the inclusion of these symbols and themes in their movement. Almost from the beginning, Maidan was characterized from both within and without as a movement against Russia, that is to say Russia versus Ukraine. It was heavily influenced by people who don’t see Russians, or those Ukrainians who do not conform to their nationalist ideology, as true citizens of Ukraine. Being excluded, many of those people did the most logical thing. Having been labeled Russian and indeed “Moskali,” they threw in their lot with Russia. Had the opposition done things differently, excluding instead the nationalists as outdated dead-enders who long since expended their chances to do anything positive for Ukraine with no success whatsoever, Ukraine might be solidly unified today, including the Crimea. Russia would not be able to touch it.
In my final thoughts on this article, I have to say that leftists can and should take sides on this issue, and our side should be resolutely anti-fascist. In no way does this mean we should or have to take Russia’s side. It is the fanatics of Maidan and Team Russia who want to force us to do just that, and we must consistently refuse. Unfortunately, there is nothing which can be done about the Russian government right now, and this is not our fault. The Western nations and particularly the Obama administration have bumbled around so much as to severely hamper Russia’s opposition movement and hand Putin the highest approval he has had in years, if not his whole career. We as leftists must not let our disgust with Kremlin politics allow us to support a regime which came to power under highly questionable circumstances, willfully associates with far-right extremists and apologizes for them, crushes dissent with conventional military forces, and sits back while armed fascist thugs murder people with firebombs. Nor should we act like racism against Russians is somehow acceptable. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget that there are significant groups among the anti-government resistance in Ukraine which do not support the Kremlin or annexation. In fact from the poll I’ve seen, a majority of people in Southeast Ukraine do not want to be a part of Russia any more than they want to be dictated to by Kyiv’s current regime. In short, leftists need to take a principled line. That’s easier said than done, but I have a general rule of thumb which works pretty well for this. Basically, if the Maidan supporters think you’re pro-Putin and the Team Russia supporters think you’re a Maidan-loving liberal sack of shit, you may be doing something right.
As for my final verdict on Turner’s piece? In some ways I feel it’s close to concern trolling, in this case causing leftists to second guess their positions on this matter while generally leaning closer to the EU side. Then again, it is often a sad fact that leftists and liberals will frequently second guess themselves and agonize over whether they are doing the right thing, something which isn’t a problem for the right. In other words, Turner probably is totally sincere but like many liberals(assuming he identifies as such), he’s having trouble dealing with the realization that Maidan was nothing but a big shit sandwich that totally squandered any positive aspect it could have had. He definitely makes some key points which are unheard of in Western Maidan coverage, and he took a courageous stand against Snyder’s bullshit, which itself came off as concern trolling. Snyder’s popular article tells us to take a look at Maidan through the “haze of propaganda,” but when we read it we find that all the propaganda comes from Russia’s side, and as it turns out the real fascists are only in Russia! That, my friends, is serious concern trolling. So aside from that slog through the opening paragraph, I think Turner did good work. Even where I disagree, I see merit in his points, and that’s about as much as you can ask for during this international cluster fuck.