“Don’t exaggerate the influence of Russian propaganda” Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous serves in the military - and right from there he fights the stereotypes of the Western left about Ukraine (and Russia). We spoke to him

In Russia there is rather little knowledge about the inner workings of Ukrainian politics, it is usually discussed only in the context of “pro-Russian - pro-Western”. Please explain what place you and Social Movement have in it.

We should start with the fact that in Ukraine, as in Russia, there are systemic and non-systemic politics.

There is an electoral one, which takes place in parliament and on television - these are the parties sponsored by oligarchs. There were - and partially still are - old left-wing parties like the CPU (Communist Party of Ukraine - Meduza’s commentary) - such splinters of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This is a separate topic - to consider them leftists or not, but in recent years they did not represent any force at all. They were losing their electorate even before the Maidan and the decommunization laws, but after they supported Yanukovych’s repressive laws, a mass exodus of members began.

At a lower level, there is civil society. There are parties there too, but they are created from below - they do not usually get into parliament.

A more realistic way for activists to get into electoral politics is to get on some [Sviatoslav] Vakarchuk’s party list. So did we - we tried to register our own party, but it proved too complicated in terms of bureaucratic and financial resources. On the other hand, parties that make it into parliament usually fail to mobilize people in the streets. For example, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna - they simply hired flag bearers and staged paid rallies. Similarly, the Party of Regions and others. Activist organisations and parties, although unable to get into government, are able to exert pressure on the authorities from below.

The Russian political technologists who went to the Ukrainian elections thought that they understood electoral politics - and then only the one that existed before Zelensky; with his arrival it has changed dramatically. This is probably one of the main shortcomings of Putin’s team. They severely underestimated the mobilisation potential of Ukrainian society, including the volunteer organisations that were created after the war began [in 2014]. Yes, some of them emerged on the basis of some existing civil institutions, but many were created, roughly speaking, from scratch by ordinary people, local leaders who had not been involved in political activity before. This is what the Russian political technologists have failed to understand.

Ukrainian civil society also has its own sectors. The liberal one is sort of mainstream. There are also the ultra-rightists, who, although they do not make it to parliament, have a street asset. The “new” left had a period - somewhere between 2008 and 2012 - when it was on the rise, but with the Maidan and especially the start of the war in Donbass, it gradually fell into decline. The last few years have seen a cautious rise - more new young people are coming than leaving.

And I don’t know of any leftist organizations in Ukraine - feminist, anarchist, and so on - that disintegrated with the start of a full-scale war. The dynamics are very different now than in 2014.

And what was the decline of the Ukrainian grassroots left after Maidan linked to?

I have to say that I can only talk about this period as an outsider. I was involved in a national-liberal organisation at the time - I come from a nationalist family in Luhansk myself. And we cooperated with the left-wing activists from the trade union Pryamaya Diya (Direct Action) when they organised student protests.

But the leftists were not ready for the Maidan. It was not the revolution they had dreamed of because of its nationalist bias. Many people became divided - and even more divided when the war [in Donbass] started. Some of the left began to hold pro-Russian views, some went to the front to fight for Ukraine, while others tried to take some kind of compromise position, which eventually led to the fragmentation of the left milieu. As far as I can see, the situation is similar in Russia.

Between spring 2015 and spring 2019, four new people joined the editorial board of Spilne, including myself. We were united by the fact that we were all from Donbass and all supported the Maidan, but our attitude to the war was not mainstream in Ukraine: we were in favour of dialogue and a compromise solution to the conflict.

Did you have any communication with the Russian left?

The Russian left, by the way, also split on the grounds of Maidan, and we severed ties with those who supported the LNR and DNR. Our main allies in Russia are the RUD. We signed a joint appeal with them after the war started [24 February 2022].

What exactly do you do - or rather did you do before the war?

As far as our activities are concerned, there is one personal issue that I was dealing with outside our organisation. As I said before, the Ukrainian left was split on the issue of Donbass and we decided not to bring it up, so as not to cause unnecessary fuss.

And this is where my left-wing activism started: in 2014-2019, within the projects New Donbass, Building Ukraine Together (Buduyemo Ukraina Razom) and other volunteer initiatives, I travelled to Donbass, took part in repairing schools and other buildings damaged by the fighting, and worked with children. As I gradually switched from activism to editorial work, I started writing texts on Donbass. For example, about the airstrike on the Luhansk Regional State Administration - it was a very contraversive [controversial] issue in Ukrainian society, with officials saying that this strike could not have been carried out by Ukraine. Then there was the next [strike] in Luhanska village (which killed 12 civilians - Meduza’s commentary), and over the years no one has acknowledged what happened there. And I have written extensively on the subject of civilian casualties of the war in Donbas on both sides.

But all the actions of the Ukrainian authorities with regard to Donbas, which deserved criticism, pale in comparison to what Russia is doing now. Donbass, my small motherland, is now being destroyed by Russia. The Russian army has destroyed Severodonetsk, Popasna, Mariupol and other towns in Donbas, under the hypocritical cries of “genocide of the people of Donbas” used to justify the invasion. They talked about Ukraine’s failure to comply with the Minsk agreements and remained silent about their own violations of those very agreements. Now they are saying that the West is ready to fight “to the last Ukrainian”, while they themselves are forcibly mobilizing men in the LDPR and using them as cannon fodder.

If we talk about our organisation [“Social Rukh”], we deal in a general sense with social issues. The head of the organisation [Vitaly Dudin] is a lawyer who deals with labour rights. Some of our activists work as organisers in trade unions. A few months before the invasion, for example, we organised a rally in Kiev against an increase in the price of public transport. From the things that we did not organise ourselves, but joined others - we support various environmental initiatives, feminist initiatives, participate in March 8 marches. Among other things, we also organised actions in Kiev in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

One of which you once came to with a placard saying “Disband the Azov Regiment”.

I am still reminded of that. To be honest, if I had known what was going to happen this year, I’m not sure I would have come with such a poster. The founders of Azov in 2014 were people with neo-Nazi views, at least in the past. The same [Andriy] Biletskyy then denied such a past - and at the same time claimed that his views had not changed.

But even in 2014, not all Azov fighters were neo-Nazis, and even more so in subsequent years, when the leadership changed and many people went there simply because it was one of the most combat-ready units in Ukraine. Russian propaganda now can show individual fighters with [neo-Nazi] tattoos as much as you like, but there are more than a thousand soldiers in the regiment, among them people of various views.

In any case, the Azov fighters, regardless of their views, are Ukrainian servicemen and should be treated the same as any other prisoners of war under international law. This “tribunal”, like the attempt to cover up the murder in Yelenivka, are war crimes. Those who engaged in it will be tried sooner or later.

One of the heroes of Jonathan Littell’s report in Meduza, Dmytro Reznichenko, himself a former neo-Nazi, says that modern Ukrainians who have tried to articulate their worldview simply had nothing to turn to but the past, which has only the black and red flag of the UPA. Does this mean that in Ukraine, which is now united by the experience of a common war, as Littell writes, the need for such a symbolic projection of the past onto the present will disappear?

I do not think so. For the last 20 years in Ukrainian political life, one of the main axes of political confrontation in Ukraine has been the division between conditionally “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” politicians - this will definitely cease to be relevant. If after that, we still have some absolute minority with pro-Russian views, it will be so marginal that it can not even be taken into account. What will happen on those territories that are not now under Ukrainian control is another matter. But other political splits - for example between left and right - will probably become even more relevant. Politics in Ukraine will change a lot; the war will clear the field.

As for the symbolism of Ukrainian nationalism, there are two different issues. UPA flags, portraits of Bandera, and so on were used by people of very different views, including Ukrainian liberals, and put very different meanings into it. But the ultra-right differed in that they used not only symbols from the past Ukrainian nationalism, but all sorts of Kolovrats, “black suns” and other things that have nothing to do with Ukrainian history. These are all imports of the subculture of the European ultra-right, from there it all came to Ukraine and Russia - all these Celtic crosses and so on. And in their case, Reznichenko’s explanation does not work.

Why did you move from activism to a polemic with the Western left about the essence of the war in Ukraine? Do you have any experience of communicating with them?

Actually, I have never been to the West, only once to a conference in Vienna. Other editors and activists of “Spilne” and “Sotsrukh” have much more experience: many of them studied at Central European University and so on. I only communicate with some German leftists who have come to Ukraine to take part in some projects.

Spilne’s main financial partner is the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, linked to the Die Linke party, although this is not party money. Die Linke has a lot of internal currents in conflict with each other, it’s quite a heterogeneous party, where there are those who support us and those who don’t perceive us at all. So we tried to influence the position of the German left, since we already have links with them.

When the movement of troops on the border started again in the autumn [2021], I had planned to take a sabbatical and go to the anarchist cooperative in Transcarpathia. But it became clear that something had to be done, and no one but me was willing to write articles. I first wrote two - for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation website and for Open Democracy. In these articles I tried to cautiously address the stereotypes of the Western left [about Ukraine] and influence them, to change their minds.

I was working on the third article when the invasion had already started. I was living near Kiev at the time, and I had to return to the city literally on foot, because public transport was no longer working. A few weeks before the invasion, we had a meeting of a number of socialists and anarchists, discussing who would do what if [the war] started. I and some other people agreed to set up a volunteer initiative that would help the leftist and anti-authoritarian volunteers in the territorial defence and deal with humanitarian aid. But when the invasion started, I changed my mind and decided to sign up for the territorial defence too. The next day I was told that Jacobin magazine wanted me to write an article for them about the Ukrainian left at war.

Jacobin is the Western left-wing publication I read the most, and I have published with them once before. After that, readers criticised my article for being “Russophobic”, because although they have an American audience, much of it has illusions about Russia. They probably changed their editorial policy because of this, and in the last months before the invasion they had horrible articles on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. When they approached me, I replied that I was only prepared to write an article for them criticising the Western Left’s approach to Ukraine. Perhaps it was my lack of socialising experience in the Western left that helped me quickly change my tone with them - I did not even try to gently reassure them, but immediately started to criticise them harshly. And when they approached me with an offer to write an article, I replied that I was ready, but that the article would be about criticising their editorial position on Ukraine.

They refused, and my “Appeal to the Western Left” was eventually published on the Open Democracy website on the second day of the war. It was widely discussed in leftist circles both in the West and in Latin America, it was translated into Spanish and even into Chinese. I don’t know who did it, but afterwards activists from Hong Kong got in touch with Sotsialniy Rukh and said they had the same problem with the Western Left saying: ah, you’re against the Chinese Communist Party, so you’re for American imperialism.

I wrote this text, and then I couldn’t get into the Territorial Defence he first time I signed up, there were huge queues. So for a few weeks I volunteered and worked mainly in humanitarian aid and helping leftist and anti-authoritarian volunteers in the Territorial Defence and the-military.

After a few weeks, I did sign up for the Territorial Defence, and it turned out that there was sometimes time to write new articles. I had texts in [the left-wing publication] Dissent Magazine [after the invasion], in the same Jacobin, about why the Western left should support Ukraine, but I just don’t really feel like spelling out such elementary things anymore. There’s been a war going on for months now, there’s already been plenty of time to sort it out. I was more interested in writing about international security and spheres of influence because I was trying to say something new in them, but such articles are read less.

What exactly are these stereotypes about Ukraine that you are fighting against?

There is a very different range of opinions in the left-wing milieu - roughly from “everything is very bad” to “quite good”. There are Stalinists - with them everything is clear and there is nothing to discuss. Though there are some adequate ones among them too. I was surprised by one Indian Stalinist party which condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine with quotations from Stalin.

But more important for me are the cases when people of seemingly progressive views, from whom you expect if not support, then at least an adequate position... Like [Noam] Chomsky or [former leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy] Corbyn... Open support for Russia is still a more marginal phenomenon, and if it is visible, it is more in Latin America than in the West. Here more often a kind of neutral position is encountered - that we, they say, condemn the war in principle, but no more than that.

This is, for example, DiEM25, an association put together by [former Greek finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis. Or the “Progressive International” initiated by DiEM25 and some members of [left-wing representative of the Democratic Party of the United States and presidential candidate Bernie] Sanders’ team. After the outbreak of war, the Polish leftist party Razem (Together) and our magazine announced that they were withdrawing from this association. Their position is that war is very bad — basically “we call for negotiations and a speedy end to the war.”

This is worse than Die Linke. They have, thanks to our efforts, taken a more or less adequate stance. And DiEM25 and Progressive International, which have more democratic roots, call for negotiations, but do not call on Russia to take back its troops.

The next stage [among the positions of the left] is to openly condemn Russian aggression and demand that the troops return to the borders before 24 February, but not to support arms supplies [to Ukraine]. Well, OK, but it’s not clear - what’s next? By what means do you propose we achieve [these goals]? It is just Die Linke, but their position is hesitant - [the youth organisation] already supports arms supplies, although the party’s official position is still against it.

Generally speaking, this sentiment on the left is very much dependent on the country. The Scandinavian left-wing movements have quickly taken a very correct stance - both social democrats and radicals. They behave much more adequately than the southern European left - in Greece and Italy it is simply appalling. In German-speaking countries, the generation gap is very noticeable - in Die Linke, young people are in favour of supplying weapons, not all of them, of course, but the situation is worse with the older generation in that sense. In English-speaking countries, on the other hand, there is no such gap.

As for the stereotypes. Well, for example some say that Maidan is a US-backed right-wing putsch, a near-fascist coup and the like. The question here is how adequately people perceive both Ukraine and Russia. Some people can understand that Russia is a capitalistic country with a reactionary regime, but they, probably under the influence of Russia Today, have some illusion that Russia has a strong trade union movement. Well, here we are.

In discussions with Western leftists, I often hear arguments that NATO supported and used the far right during the Cold War. But the Cold War ended 30 years ago, and even the fact that in Syria they [the US] chose the socialist Syrian Kurds as their allies rather than some other force, I think, is a good indicator of how far removed US foreign policy now is from Cold War logic. At the same time, these leftists ignore the fact that it is Russia that has been supporting the far-right in Europe for the past decades.

They may also remind us that the Ukrainian regime represses the left. And it is a separate problem to explain to the Western left that when they read names like “Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine”, it means something completely different than they might think. The same [Natalya] Vitrenko (leader of the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine - Meduza’s commentary) collaborated with [Alexander] Dugin, they had openly racist electoral advertising and so on. In general, all the banned parties that had some kind of leftist name - they were like that.

The Western left often criticizes Ukraine, for example writing about the political influence of the oligarchs. And what are the practical conclusions? I am also well aware that Ukraine has a bad government with its neoliberal policies. We struggled with it before the war, we still have to struggle against it - for example, when they try to curtail labour rights. I know a lot of flaws in Ukrainian society, government and politics, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support resistance to Russian aggression.

Where do these stereotypes come from? Is it only influenced by Russian propaganda or are there other factors? It is known that Russia Today, for example, worked quite specifically with this environment: many of their hosts were left-wing activists, and they had a number of media products, like podcasts, aimed specifically at the Western left-wing audience.

I think the influence of Russian propaganda should not be exaggerated here. A prime example is Slavoj Žižek. Until recently he wrote texts on Russia Today about [Edward] Snowden and so on. But after February 24, he stopped any cooperation with them and now has a fairly adequate position [towards Ukraine].

The main negative impact of Russian propaganda is that it imposes a distorted view of post-Soviet realities. In this, the Western left has no experience of its own, no sources of information, and no understanding of what is happening here and how. And since they do not trust the mainstream media, Russian propaganda has often become their main source of information.

But the Western left does not need Russia Today to dislike US imperialism, US hegemony, the unipolar world, and NATO. They have enough reasons of their own to do so. The older generation often took part in protests back in Vietnam or other US operations during the Cold War, while the younger generation was shaped by the Iraq war. Another thing is that many people are totally uncritical of the idea of a multipolar world instead of figuring out how to democratise the world order themselves. Their opposition to NATO often becomes simply a part of their identity, instead of addressing the specific political issue that needs to be addressed as part of a left-wing strategy. Even those who unequivocally support Ukraine and arms supplies sometimes differ only in advocating the dissolution of any military alliances, including the CSTO.

All right, you dissolve both NATO and the CSTO, but what will be the alternative in international politics and how can you prevent the strong states from imposing their will on the weak? For the Eastern European states, the security guarantee is NATO membership, while for Armenia it is CSTO membership. I myself am not a fan of NATO, I believe that military alliances dominated by imperialist states are a bad tool for supporting global security. But that doesn’t mean that NATO is just some kind of world evil.

The problem here, it seems to me, is geopolitical logic. I have, for example, written that we need Russia as a counterweight to the US. But actually, in the logic of this confrontation, as long as Putin’s regime exists, it is more likely to strengthen NATO, as seen in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. We don’t need a multipolar world, we don’t need the counterweight of one imperialism to another. We need to fight for a common democratisation of the world order, and the contradictions between different countries can be used for that. But a multipolar world where every imperialist country has its own sphere of influence and pursues its own imperialist policy is a return to the 19th century. We do not fucking need that.

Often the Western left uses the argument that Russia is a weak imperialist state. OK, a weak imperialist state, thank God. Does that mean we should put less pressure on Russia because of that? They are understating it, but it is noticeable that many, in fact, think so.

If you remember Lenin during the First World War, he also wrote that Russia was the weakest of all the participants in the world, so it should be defeated first. The assumptions are the same, but the conclusions are quite different.

Or take your interview with Chomsky. At one point he says that this is the world, and if you don’t like it, then look for a new one. And he gives the example of Cuba. In his logic, Russia did not want Ukraine to be an ally of the USA. In fact we have a real example of Cuba, which was the ally of the Soviet Union. In fact military cooperation between Cuba and the USSR did not come to an end after the Cuban missile crisis.

In fact, during the Cuban crisis, it was a bit different than Chomsky presented it in his interview with you, because there were give-and-take concessions. In exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, Kennedy promised guarantees of non-aggression against Cuba and removal of American missiles from Turkey. There were in fact no guarantees [that this would be done], but nothing like the Bay of Pigs operation ever happened again. Who knows, perhaps Khrushchev saved the Cuban revolution with this gamble. In spite of everything, the military cooperation continued - for Cuba, it was one of the security guarantees that the USA would not attack them. Actually, it is an example of the fact that large countries do not usually become allies of large ones, but because they need protection from some other large country.

So the Left should rather defend the right of weak countries to choose their allies. But Chomsky, in an interview with you, once again declares that defending Mexico’s right to become an ally of China is pointless. How can you call yourself a critical intellectual after that?

This is simply an acceptance of the imperialist status quo, imperialist “common sense” in Gramscian terms. If some conservative was saying it, it would be understandable. When [John] Mearsheimer says it, it’s not so strange. But when it’s said by leftists, what is it anyway? Although with Chomsky it’s not so strange, given his position on Syria, the Syrian left has written a lot about it.

The main reason here is probably that the left has been in decline in recent decades and this has not been conducive to political thinking and strategy. This is noticeable even with those who have taken a more adequate stance [on Ukraine]. Even many of our allies in the West spend more attention on taking the right stance and convincing others than on discussing what could practically be done to influence the situation.

For example, I think that in the field of international politics one of the important demands for the left should be reform of the UN and democratisation of the UN. But many people don’t want to discuss this at all because the UN is still an association dominated by imperialist states. OK, so what is the alternative then?

Have your efforts had any practical results? Have many people been persuaded?

The irony is that my text, which I am least satisfied with, has been circulated the most in foreign circles. I wrote it literally on the fly, sent it off and went to sign up for the army. People wrote to me and thanked me for it from all over the world, not just from the West - Brazil, Japan and so on. They said that I helped them to understand what was going on here in general. Again because they did not trust the mainstream explanation.

But even if I and other Ukrainian leftists had kept quiet, the Western left would still have split on the question of attitudes to this war. So the main thing we managed to do was to strengthen the position of those who immediately took a more adequate position.

Another thing is that the more pro-Russian part of the Western left was silent in the first days of the war - they were shocked by what happened, because for the previous three months they had been busy mocking US warnings that Russia was preparing for war and saying that there would be no war. But now they have refocused and are again trying to influence public opinion. It would seem that after what happened people should have understood, but no. So despite a number of successes, there is also regression.

How do you assess the actions of the Russian anti-war opposition?

Many Ukrainians at the beginning of the war hoped that the Russian anti-war movement would be able to influence something. But then they saw that instead some start to criticise trends in the Ukrainian society - about a month ago one author complained that Ukrainians were cancelling the Russian culture and demolishing Pushkin’s monuments (meaning a column by Leonid Bershidsky in The Washington Post - Meduza’s commentary). But that is not at all what the Russian intelligentsia should be doing right now. That way they will definitely not affect the situation for the better. If they have access to Western media, let them better use it to convince the Western public to act more courageously and decisively. When Ukrainians demand weapons, that’s one thing, it’s clear with us, but it’s quite another if opposition Russians do it.

I understand, of course, that statements such as these can blot out any political prospects in Russia for such people. But after February 24 any prospect of democratisation in Russia depends on a military defeat for Russia and how quickly it happens. And when Germany was dragging its feet on supplying weapons for months, it was the Russians who could influence that. I know some have tried, but that is not enough for Ukrainians. It certainly needs more than articles about Ukrainians hurting Pushkin. I really don’t like the discourse that all Russians are the same, but the fact that even members of the Russian opposition have imperial intentions does exist.

But instead of complaining about the consequences of the war, it is better to try to solve the root of the problem. Those who help Ukrainian refugees are well done, there are no questions for them. This is very important work, someone has to do it, and those who are doing it should not expose themselves to additional danger. Of all the anti-war movements within Russia itself, for me the most positive example, free of any imperial complexes, is the Feminist Anti-War Resistance.

On the other hand, I understand that their activities in Russia right now are not very effective. Protests in Russia now can only lead to an increase in the number of political prisoners, there will be little benefit from this. So how to act in specific circumstances is best decided by those who are in those circumstances. The anarchists who sabotage the railways are another matter. I understand that not everybody would dare to do such activities, but so far it’s one of the best ways to bring this war to an end, because it directly affects Russia’s ability to fight.

It seems to me that many Russians, even those in opposition, don’t understand that Ukraine will not capitulate. And it’s not about Zelensky - he’s only doing the will of the people on this issue. After what Russia has done, an absolute majority of Ukrainians are against concessions to Russia. Ukrainians are already preparing to survive this winter without gas and light. Everyone understands that the continuation of the war means further losses, but Ukraine is ready to fight until victory.

Russia cannot win, and the only reason this war continues is because some pathetic dwarf in a bunker cannot admit that he screwed up when he gave the order to invade Ukraine. When Russia loses, he will lose power, and through this he is delaying that moment, dragging his country into a bigger and bigger hole. But the sooner Russia admits defeat and withdraws its troops from Ukraine, the better it will be for the Russians themselves.