Between 2 and 5 July I was in western Ukraine (Lviv, Novovolynsk and nearby), delivering trade union aid and meeting labour movement and left activists with the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (USC). (For more see the report on the USC website.)
What I saw and the conversations and discussions we had underscored the urgency of defending Ukraine against Russian imperialism and defending its working class and labour movement against both Russia and the Zelenskyy government. At the same time, some things surprised me.
Why and how we went
Alongside political campaigning, USC has organised various forms of practical aid. This includes fundraising to deliver vehicles — eight so far — to various unions to pass on to their members in the army (people in the Ukrainian diaspora are apparently doing similar, usually without the union connection). The vehicle we drove to Ukraine in, a 4x4 pick-up truck, was bought in response to a request by the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), the more militant of the country’s two federations. It went via KVPU members to the brigade they are serving in, the 80th Air Assault. The back was full of equipment and supplies, including firefighting gear for the rescuers’ section of KVPU miners’ union NGPU.
In addition to money USC crowdfunded, we got sizeable donations from unions including GMB and ASLEF. The person I drove with, Chris Ford, did a huge amount of logistical work to make it all possible.
We got the Eurotunnel on Friday 30 June and drove to Antwerp; on 1 July to Dresden; on 2 July through southern Poland to the Ukrainian border. It took us more than four hours to get over; the military-related nature of our visit seemed to speed things up in some respects, but then we ran into the bureaucracy of customs. Although the customs officer was helpful, they couldn’t find the right forms, the email didn’t work, they couldn’t get hold of their manager and so on for a long time… It was almost 5am when we finally got to our hotel in Lviv, and we were meeting people from KVPU to hand over the truck at 9am.
On the way back it was worse: our bus got through quicker, but then Polish border guards took a Ukrainian woman and her kid off the bus and held them for three and a half hours. We never found out why; and it was surprising, since in general Ukrainians seem to move over the border relatively freely (though non-refugees can’t live in Poland). In total it took us over six hours to get through, so our planned time in Kraków was reduced to meeting someone from Polish left party Razem for half an hour before we rushed to the airport.
Lviv is the largest city in western Ukraine, the most “purely” Ukrainian part of the country. However it was the countryside that was traditionally Ukrainian in this way; until after World War 2 Lviv had a Polish majority (Polish name Lvov). It was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (German name Lemberg). Although the vast majority of people in the city are now Ukrainian, its history is still marked in various ways, including central-Europe-reminiscent architecture (it’s very old-worldy beautiful) and the prevalence of a version of Catholicism.
A lot of the lefties we met were from the east of Ukraine; several said that for all its size and cosmopolitan heritage Lviv is rather conservative.
As soon as we got there we were stopped by a police roadblock, and struck by the ubiquitous metal anti-tank spikes — albeit many of them now moved out of the way. Lviv is pretty much the safest part of the country. Yet the day we left the Russians bombed the city again, destroying a block, injuring nine and killing four. A comrade we had spent the evening before with messaged to say they felt scared in Lviv for the first time.
The two young guys working for the KVPU took us to the local office of its education union, and we met three school teacher activists, members of the union’s Lviv council, for a short meeting, alongside a doctor who we’d spend most of the day with.
The three teachers, Halyna, Nataliia and Nadia, told us about the very difficult situation in Ukraine’s schools. In addition to the hundreds that have been destroyed or damaged, many — including in Lviv — have to support large numbers of internally-displaced children, many of them traumatised or with a variety of difficult needs. And Ukrainian children who have fled aboard are still doing their Ukrainian school work as well; teachers are helping them largely in their own time, and without any extra money.
We told them about the moves by school workers in the NEU and education workers in UCU to set up solidarity networks. They would be keen, they said, to get stronger links with teachers and their unions in the UK — partly to help raise money and support for their schools, but also just to learn about what the education system and trade unions are like in a very different country.
The doctor at the meeting, Mahomed, drove us to his home town, Novovolynsk, about two hours from Lviv — where he is secretary of the KVPU health union at the local hospital. With translation from Denys, an activist in socialist organisation Sotsialniy Rukh, he told us his life story.
Mahomed was born in rural Dagestan and, against the wishes of his village elders, came to Ukraine in the 70s to study medicine. (He is in touch with friends and family back home, who are apparently divided over Russia’s attack on Ukraine.) He described healthcare in the Soviet Union: free and socialised on paper, but heavily rationed for the majority and usually requiring payment due to pervasive corruption. He became a doctor to promote a different set of values, he said, and the same values led him to become a trade union activist.
I asked Mahomed what he thought about socialism and was surprised by his answer. He said he thought socialism was a good idea, but that the Soviet rulers didn’t actually believe in it; he wished their system had been replaced by a more meaningful version of socialism with democracy and — he stressed this — open borders, instead of the chaos of private capitalism.
Mahomed told us that, in the midst of the war, Ukraine’s economically Thatcherite government is closing down numerous hospitals, particular in small towns. Volyn, the region of Novovolynsk, is one of few places where they have so far managed to block this, with the campaign ongoing.
He took us round the hospital — for which, at the request of the union, USC is now running an appeal. We met a variety of staff (all apparently employed by the hospital, with no outsourcing) and some patients.
We were joined by two miners from nearby Mine No 9, site last October of a strike against corruption (illegal under martial law). The NGPU branch secretary, Serhiy, had recovered at the hospital after being wounded at the front. They took us to the mine, where we met other workers and Serhiy inscribed an NGPU flag to take to Durham Miners’ Gala.
The startling thing about both hospital and mine was the antique equipment and facilities. Both are predominantly using machines from the 1980s, or earlier. The mine in particular looked to us like a film set; one room we thought was dilapidated and out of use turned out to be showers. Workers at both confirmed there had been very little investment for decades, even before Covid and the Russian invasion.
Mine No 9, and Ukraine’s mines generally, face near-future closure, and there is little discussion about what might replace them in terms of jobs.
On the second day we met socialist and feminist political activists, and I’ll write about that next time.