In-depth: In an exclusive interview, Vladyslav Starodubtsev of the leftist Ukraine Social Movement discusses resistance against Russia’s war, solidarity with global struggles, and the importance of consistent anti-imperialism in leftist politics.
Vladyslav Starodubtsev is a history student based in Kyiv. He is a member of Sotsialnyi Rukh, or the Ukrainian Social Movement, a democratic socialist organisation dedicated to working-class organising.
The movement works with traditional trade unions as well as organising new and independent trade unions to advance an anti-capitalist and democratic program.
Sotsialnyi Rukh also advocates against the neoliberal reforms pushed by President Volodymyr Zelensky and works to defend women and LGBTQ+ rights, fight against environmental depredation and climate change, and counter the xenophobia and racism instigated by the government and right-wing organisations.
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, they have also played an active part in the resistance.
Overcoming the difficulties of advocating socialism in a country still under the burden of a Stalinist past, they promote publications about the history of Ukraine’s socialist movements, translations of critical theory, and their own analysis of the Ukrainian economy and society.
The New Arab contributor Simón Rodríguez spoke to Starodubtsev about his experiences with the socialist movement, the ongoing Russian invasion, and international solidarity with other movements.
“I have truly felt what Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth about how the mobilisation of the masses during the war of liberation strengthens a sense of belonging to the common cause”
Simón Rodríguez: A month from the beginning of the invasion, how do you perceive the mood in the streets?
Vladyslav Starodubtsev: Since the first days of the invasion, people have been very militant. There was no way to get to the military registration and enlistment office without standing 3 to 5 hours in a queue. The same mood is pretty much everywhere to this day. Everyone wants to help, and people who are in safety mostly have some form of survivor guilt.
People are organising and volunteering in every possible way. The level of organising is so strong that I have truly felt what Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth about how the mobilisation of the masses during the war of liberation strengthens a sense of belonging to the common cause, and that liberation is a task for everyone rather than just the leaders.
Kyiv, as well as other cities, is the target of missile strikes that mostly fall on civilian structures. Air sirens have become part of our daily routine. But life in the city has stabilised, people just got used to seeing destroyed buildings and rockets flying in the sky. The people are sure of their victory, and they have an energy I have never seen before.
SR: How is Sotsialnyi Rukh taking part in the resistance?
VS: We are supporting the military actions for the defence of Ukraine. We participate in the general mobilisation and have incorporated into the army or the regional defence, as well as taking part in the humanitarian aid efforts, helping refugees with housing, supplies, transportation, finding and delivering medicines to those in need and working directly with trade unions, especially medical workers.
At the same time, we oppose social and economic reforms that the government is undertaking in the context of the war. At this time, it’s hard to oppose neoliberal reforms, as strikes have been declared illegal, but we are pursuing other ways of passive resistance to limitations on workers’ rights. For example, we are collecting a list of businesses that take advantage of the war to push for more exploitation. Our lawyers work hard to help workers defend their rights in this complicated scenario.
We are also campaigning for the cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt as an important way in which the resistance and reconstruction efforts can be effectively supported, in the short term and also in the long term. Without this, after the war Ukraine will stay in the colonial dependence of creditors, subjugated by the policies of the IMF, without a chance to build a strong economy.
We hope that this campaign will contribute to a general discussion about creating a new economic international order, where countries are not destroyed and placed in neo-colonial submission by neoliberal reforms and impossible-to-pay debt.
SR: Some Ukrainian parties that label themselves as leftist have recently had their activities suspended due to their pro-Putin position. Does this pose a threat to leftist organisations that are taking part in the resistance?
VS: The suspension of these pro-Putin parties doesn’t pose a direct threat to genuine socialist organisations, who obviously are not collaborationist, but such actions and right-wing discourse can push the idea of the Left as agents of the Kremlin, which is indeed dangerous.
These associations and connotations are there, although the measures are not directed against the Left in general. Because of the work of the campist and pseudo anti-imperialist left internationally, many people see leftism somehow linked to support for Putin.
Most of these sanctioned parties have radical Russian nationalist programs, with elements of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and sexism, and some of their members have direct links with the Putin regime, so they actually have nothing to do with socialism.
We also have the problem of the far-right. While their influence has been greatly exaggerated by pro-Putin analysts, and it’s surely not enough to impose government policies as their power is very limited, they have gained some legitimacy in their participation in the armed struggle against the invasion, and the government turns a blind eye to some of their actions. To stop the growth of the far-right, we must stop Russian aggression.
“Ours is an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and even anti-fascist struggle...The Ukrainian people are fighting for their right to be themselves, to develop independently”
SR: Part of the Left from Western countries either supports Putin or adopts a ’neither-nor’ position. How do you respond to this?
VS: Ours is an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and even anti-fascist struggle. I think there is a parallel with the struggle for independence of Algeria, when some on the Left also supported France hiding their racism behind dogmatic arguments. The Ukrainian people are fighting for their right to be themselves, to develop independently. It’s not a war between the US and Russia.
The ideological base for the invasion is Russian radical ethno-nationalism and irredentism. For Russian imperialism, the dilemma is ‘Independent Ukraine’ or ‘Strong Russia’. They want to rebuild their empire, and Russian official media shows how much this war is based on horribly fascist ideological elements.
Putin talks about Russians as the masters and creators of the Ukrainian people, who can therefore end our existence. He pursues the idea of uniting the Russian world against the West. Some left-wing groups find this appealing because of a primary anti-Americanism and hidden nostalgia for Stalinist USSR.
Therefore, I think that giving NATO a primary role in the Ukrainian conflict is an evasive manœuvre. Nobody considered the US invasion of Iraq as inter-imperialist based on Hussein’s international alliances. That reasoning isn’t valid in this war either.
SR: Do you see connections between the Ukrainian resistance and other struggles for self-determination?
VS: Ukraine has a long history of fighting for its independence and self-determination. 1917 and 1991 were the years when Ukraine was closest to it, but it still stayed in the Russian sphere of influence, economically, culturally and politically.
A radical break with the idea of Ukrainians as their little brothers angered the Russian bourgeoisie and state elites, who saw Ukraine, even after 1991, as their backyard. The 2014 revolution in Ukraine, which overthrew the corrupt pro-Russian government, was a final break from Russia.
“With Syrians, we are fighting together against Russian imperialism, which bombs Syrian cities the same way it bombs Mariupol or other Ukrainian cities”
Palestinians fight a similar struggle for the right to exist and for their homes. Israel’s ambiguous answer to the Russian invasion shows that colonisers tend to have sympathy for one another. Kurds fight a similar struggle, for the right to self-determination. With Syrians, we are fighting together against Russian imperialism, which bombs Syrian cities the same way it bombs Mariupol or other Ukrainian cities.
With all this said, we must be consistent in supporting every people struggling for self-determination against imperialism. We must stand for democracy and liberation for all, and oppose Chinese, American, Russian, and European imperialism and colonialism.
As an integral part of that orientation we must speak out for a non-discriminatory acceptance of all refugees. In the context of this war, some European governments tried to push discriminatory laws for having only Ukrainian refugees, while denying entry to Syrians, and other refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Such initiatives are harmful and show a great deal of racism. All people deserve the same treatment and have the same rights.
SR: How does news of international solidarity have an impact in Ukraine?
VS: International solidarity boosts the morale of Ukrainians in these hard times. News of workers blocking Russian ships circulated in Ukrainian media and showed a great degree of solidarity.
The anti-war resistance in Russia, unfortunately, has been less widely perceived. War is always pushing chauvinistic ideas in society, especially in the middle class, and Russia and Ukraine are no exception. Many Russians supported the invasion, and because Ukraine shares similar media space with Russia, it can be easily seen.
We support comrades in Russia that oppose imperialism and Putinism, and those who speak for sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine, and especially those who sabotage the Russian military. Unfortunately, the movement is very marginal, partly because of Putin’s repressive machine, and partly because of patriotic hysteria.
I think that a victory of the Ukrainian resistance would destabilise authoritarian regimes in Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, strengthening the struggle for democratic rights and inspiring struggles for self-determination around the world.