Meet the Ukrainian leftists resisting Putin’s war: Interview with Sotsialnyi Rukh's Nataliia Lomonosova and Oleksandr Kyselov

Nataliia Lomonosova Oleksandr Kyselov Dick Nichols
June 9, 2022

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Nataliia Lomonosova and Oleksandr Kyselov of the Ukrainian left organisation Social Movement (Sotsialnyi Rukh) attended the May 13-15 annual conference of the Danish radical left force Red-Green Alliance (RGA), where they gave greetings on behalf of their organisation.

Nataliia Lomonosova is an editor of the web-based journal Political Critique and Oleksandr Kyselov is a student activist.

On May 15, the two Ukrainian comrades talked about the history and work of Sotsialnyi Rukh with Dick Nichols, European correspondent of Green Left and Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Origins of Sotsialnyi Rukh

Could you explain how Sotsialnyi Rukh emerged as a left current after the 2013-14 Euromaidan protest? After all, there were all sorts of political currents at Maidan.

Oleksandr Kyeselov: Although the Maidan protesters were driven by social grievances, from poverty and inequality to corruption and the authoritarianism of the government, the agendas that framed this discontent, both in liberal pro-European and in nationalist versions, were problematic for the left. However, it was clear that this was a popular movement, so all the left had to go and see what was going on.

When the government tried to disperse it and set the police force against the protesters, the issue wasn’t any longer whether you shared the idea of European integration, but whether you would allow this repression to happen.

With this understanding more leftists got involved, as rank-and-file volunteers, paramedics or even Samooborona (Self-Defence) members. There were also attempts to introduce libertarian/anarchist ideas in the discourse. Activists were organising education events and assemblies, putting forward an interpretation of what was happening from the left perspective.

Was the left at Maidan basically a university student left?

Nataliia Lomonosova: Well, we had a strong student movement called Direct Action, but by the time of Maidan it wasn’t as strong as previously, although it still existed. All the initiatives that were organised at Maidan, including the “Free University of Maidan” and the medical units were the result of different left groupings and individuals, including environmentalists.

As an example, the medical volunteers would also do patrols of the hospitals, because the police were also kidnapping people from the hospitals: they were patrolling to make sure the police didn’t do that.

On your web site, you note that the embryo of Social Movement formed at Maidan in the “Ten Points of anti-capitalist and pro-labour demands countering the conservative nationalist and liberal mainstream”. Social Movement is then founded as such in 2015, already with a working-class base, especially in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih.

How did you move from being a mainly student organisation to acquiring a working-class and trade union base so quickly?

NL: Well, there’s the obvious explanation that you cannot be a student forever, so you grow up, your comrades grow up, and you all become workers and face the problems that all workers face in Ukraine (laughs).

But then there was our strong focus on labour rights and a labour agenda, and the idea that we wanted to form an organisation that would represent the views and hopes of those who are not represented anywhere in the Ukrainian political system.

Politics in the Ukraine is limited to those who have money. We don’t have ideological parties and basically working-class people are unrepresented in politics. They have problems demanding to be solved and that can only be done through classic trade unions.

This was our basic aim: to tackle this problem, to address the needs of working-class people — this unrepresented “category” of the population, so to speak — through driving trade union organisation.

We have been helped in this because some of the most active people in Sotsialnyi Rukh, like Vitaliy Dudin, are labour lawyers and experts in social rights, while others were, or became, trade union organisers. Others were researchers or journalists covering social issues.

And this process started after Maidan?

OK: No, it started before Maidan because of the natural aspiration of the left to build connections with the working class. For example, many of the people who came to support struggles at, for example, Kryvyi Rih, were students who were taking time off study or during their breaks. Many leftists, especially from the alternative left currents, have been seeking this connection.

There was a discussion around Maidan within the Western European left about the extent to which it was dominated by right-wing nationalist and even fascist elements, influenced by the study that Volodymyr Ishchenko did for the Die Linke delegation to the Left group in the European Parliament...

NL: I may not have read it, but in general we are familiar with Volodymyr’s position, and I think he exaggerates the weight of right-nationalism and Nazism at Maidan. Of course, Maidan wasn’t dominated by the left, or left ideas, but I don’t believe it was as nationalistic as Volodymyr has written. That’s my personal position as an observer of Maidan.

OK: With regard to this question, there was and there is a problem indeed, and there are of course a lot of rather nationalist ideas circulating, but they might not in normal times be so rooted, so unquestionably held as they appear.

However, when we have this constant Russian interference in our affairs it gives extra credibility to the right-wing ideology and, emotionally, people could turn to their sort of answers.

For example, after this conflict started, after Euromaidan, there was a really weird atmosphere politically, due to the Communist Party’s and Borotba’s positioning, and, in a certain way, due to the way the old left phraseology was utilised in general: well, it was associated with Russia and wasn’t enthusiastically welcomed.

So, for a long time the alternative left focused on trying to rebuild from the roots. In Kryvyi Rih, for example, they were organising May Day for many years.

How Sotsialnyi Rukh functions

Sotsialnyi Rukh had a founding conference, I imagine...

NL: Yes, but it took place seven years ago and neither of us were at it. There was a plan to have the next conference in May, to bring our members, especially our newer members, together to further develop our strategic perspectives and communication strategies, but the war intervened, so everything is on hold.

OK: We need it also because the program was adopted a long time ago and many things may have changed since. It’s not comfortable to rely on the proposals that are out of date and don’t answer to present needs only because they are the only ones having the legitimacy of being adopted by the convention. Currently, we often have to improvise. But if we decide to proceed with the registration of the party, we’ll certainly need to have an updated program.

How does decision-making take place in Sotsialnyi Rukh?

OK: Main strategic decisions are made by the general congress; for operative issues, we have a council; its current composition was elected by a Zoom-based conference.

NL: But now, unfortunately, we have to make a lot of decisions very quickly and a lot is going on, with an explosion of work, especially international work. We had some sort of international connections before, but they weren’t as broad as they are now. And all this humanitarian aid is a big, big thing to do. So, we have to do a lot very quickly, via working groups.

OK: When the war started, there were daily online meetings, with more people taking part when there were important things to discuss. Most activities are done via working groups, but if there are more important decisions to be taken, the council can be called for this.

What is the relation between Sotsialnyi Rukh and the journal Commons? Commons is not the official journal of Sotsialnyi Rukh, obviously.

NL: Well, the left in Ukraine is not super-broad (laughs), and we all participate in many things. Like, we have Commons, we have Political Critique, the journal that I’m working for, and we have some more liberal magazines that sometimes write about labour rights but really in a different manner. So, there is not much besides Commons and Political Critique and some editors and writers are members of Sotsialnyi Rukh.

It’s not that the two magazines produce articles about Sotsialnyi Rukh as such, but when we’re doing analytical articles or social reporting, whom shall we interview or ask for background? Obviously, comrades from the Sotsialnyi Rukh or the NGO Labour Initiatives with the greatest expertise and inwardness.

Or, if there is a workers’ protest and Sotsialnyi Rukh is going there to support the workers, we’ll do an article about it and spread it everywhere to build solidarity. This way we try to make strong ties of solidarity between the workers, Sotsialnyi Rukh and our magazine. Then, when something happens, they can write for us, we can be there and they can spread our coverage among their networks, and we all empower each other. So, it’s not like there is a “party organ”.

NL: I don’t think Sotsialnyi Rukh could presently sustain a journal of its own, but having the website, Facebook and the collaboration with Commons and Political Critique gives us the impact needed. It also means that we get out to sections of the left who are not workers—to artists and academics, for example.

You’re still trying to get registered as a political party, is that right?

OK: We are not trying to do it at the moment, given the war. There are two requirements you have to fulfil to register a party. First, collect ten thousand supporting signatures, which will require some resources but is doable. And second, to pay a registration fee of around €10,000, which many may feel wrong about handing to the state for a piece of paper, especially at the present time. Our ultimate ambition is to do it in the future but currently we’re discussing whether it’s the right time. We’ll most likely proceed as soon as we feel that it gives us extra opportunities.

Work of Sotsialnyi Rukh in the trade unions

The Ukrainian trade union scene is complicated for an outsider to understand. There’s the continuation of the old Soviet-era unions, such as the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), dating from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the Independent Miners Union of Ukraine (NPHU) as its main affiliate. And there are also smaller union centres, non-affiliated unions and new unions, like the nurses.

Does the trade union intervention of Sotsialnyi Rukh focus on building new unions, working in existing unions, or both?

NL: It depends a bit on what you mean by the term “intervention”. We wouldn’t be involved that much in building the new unions as an organisation, but we have active members of Sotsialnyi Rukh who are trade union organisers.

In existing and new trade unions?

NL: We are trying to build new unions, but we are also trying to get members of existing unions to join Sotsialnyi Rukh, so that we can influence bigger audiences.

How active are the old trade unions, which were once part of the governing system?

NL: I wouldn’t say that they are totally inactive, that they don’t do anything or don’t have any power. We have collective agreements and sectoral agreements, between the ministries and the trade unions, and the FPU-affiliated unions can push for something in these agreements because they are officially represented.

But I think there are big differences within the official trade unions. Some of them are basically non-existent, like the trade union of cultural workers, which just signs papers. But, on the other hand, you have the official unions of public servants or construction workers. They are particularly active, especially their youth wing.

OK: So, there are new unions, which were not a project of Sotsialnyi Rukh, but some of whose organisers joined us, and there are members of Sotsialnyi Rukh who have become organisers in the trade unions. To add to the complexity, the union our activists helped to create, the crane drivers’ union, belongs to the official construction union, affiliated to the FPU.

Work of Sotsialnyi Rukh in the social movements

What about your work in the various social movements, how is that decided?

NL: We have our positions stated more clearly in spheres which are priorities for us such as labour rights and social guarantees, and the ways for economic development of Ukraine. I think in these we have really strong positions, which we get across through our campaign articles.

What is important to underline is that — of course — we have this climate protest movement, we have International Women’s Day on March 8, and we are starting to have an urban movement against unfair rent and speculative building development.

There are a lot of protests, for example, for better city development, and people involved will say “please don’t come with any political statements”. We will still go there with a political statement, and we’ll be the only group with one.

March 8 is also a very good example. There are a lot of people there who share left views, but they have to have their own bloc within the demonstration and arrange this with the organisers.

OK: Last time [March 8, 2021], International Women’s Day was actually a huge success for the left, despite our participation being hurriedly organised. There is a tradition of big feminist demonstrations in Ukraine on March 8, but it is now controlled by liberal feminists. It’s not that they are raising wrong demands — they focus on the “glass ceiling” and the need for quotas — but the majority of women in Ukraine are working class, and for them such demands are not their primary concern. We were trying to bring a social, or even a socialist, message there.

In general, where we’ve got clear positions, it corresponds to the interests and maybe expertise of the members. If we say little about some issue, it’s probably that we don’t have many people working in the area.

To take a specific example, how was your intervention on International Women’s Day worked out?

NL: Well, first you need to apply to the organisers, saying that you want to form a bloc. Some of our members will do that. Then we all meet and think about what sort of statement we will write. Then we go there, and there’ll be other leftist people who are not members of Sotsialnyi Rukh, but they will join our bloc with their slogans. We’ll also publish our statement on the website, and we’ll also discuss it with others, but it’s not like we spend that much time on that.

What we do spend time on is working out a concrete theme, because the main banner of the bloc is usually also about this theme. There was one year when the theme was about sharing domestic labour and the right of men to have paternity leave.

Another year, we had the nurses’ protest, so we took as our theme the need for better wages for nurses and teachers.

Language conflict

Putin gave a triple justification for his invasion of Ukraine: the need for “denazification”, “demilitarisation” and legal protection for the Russian language. ‘Denazification’ has become such a sick joke (especially after Odessa’s Jewish community asked not to be denazified) that Kremlin propagandists themselves are soft-pedalling itwhile Russian military aggression has inevitably generated “remilitarisation” as the Ukrainian army and people resist.

That leaves “legal protection for the Russian language in Ukraine”. What substance, if any, does the Kremlin’s claim of official discrimination against Russian have? What has been the effect of the invasion on that issue, which has been the subject of near permanent conflict in Russian-Ukrainian relations?

NL: Sotsialniyi Rukh hasn’t published anything on the language issue since the war began, but personally I am rather critical of some parts of the Language Law [adopted by the parliament in April 2019, found to be constitutional by the Constitutional Court in July 2021 and reinforced by a new provision in January] and the Education Law.

They really narrow the possibility of getting a secondary education in your national language [such as Russian, Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, Romanian and Crimean Tatar]. Before, it was possible to get a secondary education in this language and then pass your exams in this language.

But if you look at it from the practical perspective, what’s the point of getting an education in a national language if the universities are in Ukrainian? You wouldn’t have a university in Ukraine that is teaching a subject in Polish, Hungarian or Russian...

OK: But you have it in Russian...

NL: But not officially, not as an official language of instruction.

OK: We had different streams in my university with both Russian and Ukrainian as language of instruction. Though I think there might be less space for Russian now, obviously.

NL: I think the government was pushed to react because of what Russia is doing, but I still think the language law could be different. It’s my personal position — but we have what we have.

OK: The law produces some types of ugly real-life situations where middle-class activists go into cafeterias and restaurants and try to discipline service staff: “I asked you to speak to me in Ukrainian [and you didn’t].” Then they take out the smartphone. “Now I’m going to report you to a very high level.” For me, it looks very ugly.

Accepting that the law is really going to be applied — which is not guaranteed because after a new law comes in people often behave carefully for a couple of months and then forget about it — the language by default in public always has to be Ukrainian. So, if you go to the supermarket or the railway station, staff have to address you in Ukrainian. All that means is that the first phrase they use should be in Ukrainian. But no-one is forcing you to reply in Ukrainian, and as long as they understand your language you can both switch: “Can you speak Russian?”, and the conversation continues in Russian (or Hungarian, for example).

Also, all product labelling was changed to Ukrainian. Maybe that’s a sad story for small businesses that have to pay for this. But it’s nothing like what you can see in the Russian media.

NL: Whatever our shortcomings on the issue, I can’t imagine any Ukrainian president behaving towards speakers of languages other than Ukrainian in the way Putin relates to minority languages in the Russian Federation — on television making fun of people speaking in their native tongue.

OK: There is no worse enemy of Russian language, culture and people than Putin, because he’s using it, he’s appropriating it and it just makes things worse. Now, also on the emotional level, because many Russian-speaking people here refuse to speak Russian because “we don’t want to be ‘protected’ by Putin”.

Finally, what does the left in the rest of the world most need to grasp about the present war?

NL: It’s important to maintain the distinction between the Ukrainian government and people. Here [at the RGA conference] we’ve heard delegates saying the “government is neoliberal” and has passed bad laws etc, with the implication that leftists don’t have to choose between equal evils, Zelensky’s government and Putin’s.

And the Ukrainian people? The left’s position has to be one of being with the people, and it’s important to understand that whatever criticism can be made of Zelensky`s government, it has the support of the people as far as defeating the Russian invasion is concerned.

Maybe for some on the left the Russian government is somehow a continuation of the Soviet Union and has maintained some of the good things it had, but it’s not. Russia is a neoliberal state — even more neoliberal than Ukraine — and it is chauvinist, expansionist and spouts exaggerated militaristic propaganda.

If Ukraine were occupied under Russian “protection” there wouldn’t be any alternative way of economically developing the country. Of course, it’s questionable which way Ukraine will go if Russia is defeated — that will be determined by future struggles — but there’s absolutely no future for Ukraine under Russian occupation. Yes, the Western powers forced loans and a massive debt on us, but there’s no way things wouldn’t be worse under Putin.

OK: Also, the European Union, for all its shortcomings, still provides more social democratic ideology, especially compared to that of our government, as well as avenues of appeal against bad decisions and policies of any Ukrainian government. There are mechanisms provided, for example by a human rights regime. In Russia there is nothing, and even less so in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk and in Crimea.

NL: Even at not so “high” a level, but at that of workers’ struggles for labour rights, the situation in Russia is much worse because of the absence of anything approaching the rule of law. For example, in the last year two nurses committed suicide after their labour rights were systematically abused and they experienced psychological violence and pressure from the management, but the prosecutors refused to take a case against the employers. Besides, independent union activists are often jailed in Russia.

In Ukraine, the court system works to some degree. For example, last year a majority of appeals against violations of the labour law were actually won.

OK: Our government is also weaker and exposed to international scrutiny, to UN bodies and to European bodies. Ukraine is more transparent, and however bad the government might be, even if it wanted to violate basic human rights, its hands would be tied.