In conversation with Ukrainian grassroots collectives

Social ecologist Davide Grasso, who is currently in Ukraine, speaks about his dialogues with local leftist activists on the situation in the country. Available also in Greek HERE.

I am currently in Ukraine to learn about the voices of social and military resistance to the Russian invasion that are closer to my worldview. The hegemony of public narratives about the war based on neoliberal, or red-brown rhetoric, the idealization of NATO or that of its enemies, are not enough for me from the start. Yesterday, finally, in Lviv (Lviv) I had the opportunity to participate in a long and passionate meeting between Italians and Ukrainians who share the need to counter the hegemony of neo-liberalism in Europe (including Ukraine) and of oligarchic and homophobic obscurantism in the former Soviet space (starting with Belarus).

Joining me, and the collective of Municipi sociali di Bologna, were activists from Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) and Feminist Workshop: respectively a socialist organization with branches in Lviv, Kiev and Kharkiv and a feminist network active in Lviv and Kiev that also works with Crimean women. The discussion focused on their plans for affirming an authentically democratic society in Ukraine that will be necessary to build during and after the resistance, on the relevance of the concepts of anti-imperialism and post-colonialism in relation to Ukraine’s historical condition and armed resistance, on women and self-defense, on the ambivalence of the socialist legacy for the Ukrainian left and society, on the affirmation of Ukraine’s linguistic and religious plurality as an asset, on the need for decentralized institutions, on the willingness to defend the spaces of autonomy and democracy against the imperial project of United Russia (Putin’s party) with all the necessary determination.

It was an impactful meeting (albeit one interrupted by airline alerts that impose inconvenience and unavoidable concerns) and one that I had honestly been seeking for some time. Interesting how these activists reported of widespread social hostility among Ukrainians to the prevailing neoliberalism, how the idea of social rights, public housing solutions, public health and reasonable distribution of wealth are widespread among the population and clash with Kiev’s government line. At the same time, the general cultural trend is one of radical rejection of the terms “left,” “communism,” or “socialism” because of past oppression, and this creates the paradoxical and very dangerous situation of a population that, we are told, “desires forms of socialism but rejects any leftist identity.”

This is why Social Movement and Feminist Workshop are trying to build a concrete social intervention (the former with trade unions, the latter with women displaced by the war) that makes it impossible for sectors of the population not to recognize the historical and social role of a left that rejects as much the models of liberalism as those of actually existing socialism, and can thus spread its evolving paradigms. The discourse they seek to bring out is that the Ukrainian leadership is trying to turn the war into a business for private oligarchies, while the political and moral paradox is that this is incompatible with the culture of enormous collective solidarity that spreads as the new reality among the popular strata during the resistance.

Of utmost importance is the analysis they shared with us on historical memory, where the authorities mythologize the founding figures of the Ukrainian national experience of the years following World War I while suppressing the socialist character of the political and intellectual figures of that period, to the benefit of those who wish to associate them in an anachronistic and contradictory way, with the fascist nationalism that matured in the West in the later 1930s, after the Stalinist massacres in the country, directed against the peasants and the communist vanguards of the October Revolution, had completed the destruction of a Ukrainian left.

They say they are interested in developing international relations, though not only or not necessarily toward the West: they believe their history has much in common with that of many colonized countries in Asia and Africa, and they intend to learn from the histories of these geographies. Note that the phrases “anti-imperialism” and “post-colonial,” they tell us, were virtually nonexistent in the language of the Ukrainian left until 2022, while since the Russian invasion these terms have invaded the debate. I was struck by how the girls referred to feminist groups from abroad that deny Ukrainian women’s right to armed resistance as “Western feminists,” pointing out that, from their perspective, not supporting the cause of those affected by a colonial invasion, carried out by a transphobic and misogynistic leadership such as the one that qualifies United Russia, is in no way a solution for Ukrainian women or women anywhere in the world.

They know that the Russian invasion will impose difficulties on social struggles in Ukraine and will have side effects in terms of cultural militarism, but that they will deal with these problems without denying themselves and the Ukrainian society the right to reject the imposition of a retrograde model such as the one the Russian government would like to export on gender relations. (They say they have enough trouble with the anti-abortion policies promoted by the Ukrainian neoliberals in power along with the local church hierarchies.) They say they see no contradiction between feminism and armed self-defense.

I am glad to have finally heard not others speaking on behalf of Ukrainians* in general, but people in Ukraine who take political sides along lines that are compatible with other desires, needs and interests. I have always been as suspicious of those who talk about the interests and characteristics of a social group without listening to the voices emerging from within it, as I am of those who listen to voices undifferentiated from that group, without taking into account the political and value-bias inherent in any human positioning.

In other words: just as Syrians with whom I am in dialogue with and from whom I am learning about the democratic forces of Syria (the multi-ethnic confederal movement promoted by the Ypj-Ypg), and not Islamists or Baathists, so Ukrainians from whom I am learning and listening to are not the fascists of Azov or Zelensky’s party, but the democratic forces of Ukraine. The fact that they are little seeds today, determined to fight against all odds to germinate in the future, only makes it more urgent to build political friendship with them.

Second day of conversations in Lviv with Ukrainian youth who support the resistance by taking sides against or beyond the government line. We first meet Ihor, a university student from the Direct Action collective. This is a historic student group, which between 2008 and 2014 had led several mobilisations where many Ukrainian activists and fighters of the present were politically educated. Then, after Euromaidan, the entire Ukrainian radical left split because of the very different interpretations of what was happening. Direct Action dissolved. A few months ago in Lviv some students organised a conference on anti-fascism, but the university made it impossible through bureaucratic obstructionism. Ihor believes that it was not the topic that was disturbing, but the fact in itself that students were regaining their autonomy, at a time when political freedom is often denied in the country, using the ongoing war as a justification. The students decided to respond by re-founding Direct Action after nine years of absence and are now busy gathering new activists in the faculties. Ihor says that creating student political collectivity is a goal that is in itself strategic in Ukraine.

We meet Anastasia, from Feminist Workshop, an organisation that tries to act in schools (despite a boycott by local politicians who find the term feminist ‘dangerous’) and runs a shelter for women displaced from areas occupied or affected by military operations. With her, we discuss how Ukraine can overcome past and present conflicts and avoid internal or foreign instrumentalisation of its regional differences. In her opinion, the only way is to invest in communities on a micro and local level, to create non-bureaucratic activation and a sense of belonging and solidarity in the concrete, as happened in the first weeks of the war, when, she says, a widespread self-organisation developed condominium by condominium. Families organised themselves to cope with needs, including surveillance against possible enemy infiltration, first in Kiev when it was surrounded. That experience should be the starting point, not least because resistance to invasion is the starting point of the new Ukraine.

Strengthening concrete social identification on the local level could, she says, oppose the interested and artificial narratives. Thay try to suggest a sense of identity from delusional references to blood communities of a remote, perhaps medieval past, as both the Russian government and the Ukrainian extreme right do. On the other hand, it is necessary for Ukraine to become the most general space of belonging, without ethnic references but understood as a civic space.

In this space, she explains, Feminist Workshop is trying to promote feminism and it is not easy, especially with older males in positions of power, while it is easier, though not always, with women. The Soviet legacy takes the form of a number of women’s associations, while the prevailing desire for EU membership creates an expectation in terms of gender rights. It is important, she says, to act so that this image of the EU becomes more realistic: many in Ukraine identify the EU with the German culture of rules, and imagine it as a uniform space. Anastasia and many others who have travelled know that it is a much more different and contradictory reality if understood as a real historical and socio-political space, as the Ukrainian refugees are also realising. Moreover, the neo-liberal orientation of the EU will produce a series of frustrations and disappointments, she tells us, in the Ukrainian population. She believes that they will have to fight for an accession that protects the (few) remaining social rights in the country. In general, she says, the reference to the EU is one of the greatest barriers to reactionary and far-right ideologies in the country today.

There is a deep-rooted patriarchal culture, she points out, towards which the war has ambivalent effects. On the one hand, mass indignation has emerged at the rapes perpetrated by Russian soldiers, for example in Kharkiv, which is her city. On the other hand, this indignation has been ethnicized by the media and a large part of society. This is demonstrated by the fact that when a 14-year-old girl was raped by schoolmates in the Carpathians (western Ukraine), many started to ask the usual questions: why was she alone with them? Why was she dressed like that? Anastasia’s organisation intervenes in such cases by pointing the finger at the hypocrisy of this attitude, which treats women as intangible national ‘property’ for the foreigner, but potentially available for indigenous violence. The feminists address the public debate and ask: why should the victim be surreptitiously blamed when the rapists are Ukrainian students, if we realise that rape is unjustifiable when perpetrated by Russian soldiers? All in all, she reports that this public debate has opened spaces for the advancement of social consciousness on gender-based violence.

One element that exposes the backwardness of the state on gender issues, she explains, is precisely the military management of the resistance. Women are in fact given very little space in the army, and are often relegated to specific roles, such as nurses, or in the kitchens. She is surprised when we tell her that the western media have tried in recent months to spread the idea that the Ukrainian army is in fact open to women. She says it is the opposite. Many Ukrainian women would like to fight but are hindered or relegated to non-military roles, sometimes even without the proper documentation and with difficulties when they return to civil society. This is why a ‘Veteran Women Movement’ was formed to support women who are (have been) in the armed forces. In her view, compulsory conscription, which the government is intensifying, should be abolished. It only applies to men, creates suffering and humiliation in many males who do not want to fight, while it does not facilitate women’s participation in military resistance, sanctioning for them a gender role that would be incompatible or less suitable for this kind of responsibility. In her opinion, a volunteer army is also more motivated and therefore more effective.

Anastasia is worried about the state of dependence her country is accumulating on foreign powers, the USA in the first place. Today Ukraine does not have the money to cope with the war, she points out, which is why it is forced to run up a debt that can be turned against it tomorrow. What foreign politicians say today, she tells, is not what they will say tomorrow. They always act this way. So Ukraine’s challenge is to shift its politics to the left, to produce social gains and challenge the logic of impoverishment that will follow the war. The indebtment logic could create unemployment for thousands of weapons-trained veterans, who would become an uncontrollable factor for the future society. On the other hand, her concern about American pressure on Ukraine is more immediate: she fears that the US may soon impose a peace on Ukraine that challenges its historical borders, something she would like to see categorically ruled out.

We then meet Valery from the Social Movement. He explains the impact of the war on labour relations. First of all, he recalls, the war makes martial law necessary, which suspends the right to strike. However, his group co-operates with various trade unions, for example strong among nurses or railway workers, and the strength accumulated by them during the strikes prior to the invasion means that they have social strength even now. However, he points out, the neo-liberal forces supporting Zelensky, instead of protecting social ties at a time when solidarity is needed, have taken advantage of the war to frontally attack workers’ rights. These are contained in a labour code that is part of the Soviet legacy, and has been the favourite target of oligarchs and businessmen for decades. Before the war, the current government had tried to propose a reform in the sense of greater contractual flexibility, but without success. With the Russian invasion, it promulgated a number of emergency decrees weakening the position of the workers vis-à-vis the employers. It subsequently presented a project for the substantial demolition of the labour code, which would make these changes permanent. This project fortunately did not find a majority in parliament. Nevertheless, the precarisation due to the emergency regulations remains, in which activists see the government’s betrayal of the resistance, which is carried out by the Ukrainian working class.

This is why, despite the state of war, Social Movement works for continuous union aggregation, launching campaigns for the restoration of labour rights, achieving good results in some cities, including Lviv itself. Here, workers have higher wages on average, which causes internal immigration from other cities of people willing to work for less. Social movement and the Ukrainian Workers’ Union in Lviv opened offices to inform workers of their rights and fight for an overall increase in wages in Lviv as well. All of this stems from the socialist conviction of Valery and his organisation.

However, he believes that the Soviet model of socialism not only cannot, but should not, be revived. He says that he appreciates the definition of the Soviet system as ‘state capitalism’: it was, in his opinion, a radical communist movement that was normalised over time, becoming a form of accumulation and expropriation similar to the liberal one. Not surprisingly, he says, the latter is far from free of oppressive planning, even in the internal bureaucratic structure of corporations. They after all reflect in the private sector, according to him, forms of oppression and exploitation that were in use also in real socialism.

He believes that the growth of the bureaucratic-state apparatus is what has most disturbed the actual development of socialism in Ukraine and the USSR in the past. As a precarious worker in information technology, he gives the example of a plan for computerised automatization of the socialist system that an ingenious Ukrainian computer engineer had promoted in the 1970s USSR. It was instead halted by the elites, for fear that it would let the bureaucratic class lose power.

The conversation goes on and on. It becomes mopre complicated. I did, in any case, point out that, in Italy, many paranoid and one-sided opponents of technology, who present themselves (who knows why) as ‘defenders of freedom’, have lately created small but noisy social movements. The latter have, in some cases, gone seamlessly from opposing vaccination campaigns to sympathising with the Russian government during the invasion of this country; and the bombing of this city…

Second segment from social ecologist Davide Grasso’s conversations with Ukrainian grassroots collectives. Grasso is currently travelling throughout Ukraine to meet political activists from anarchist, feminist, and socialist movements.

In Kiev I met several militants of the Solidarity Collectives, known for their support of resistance and internationalism. They were founded by anarchists and now group together people from different political backgrounds, though with the lowest common denominator being what they call “anti-authoritarianism.” That is why they do not identify with the patriotism and nationalism advocated by the Ukrainian state, let alone those promoted by the Russian government, but identify with the genuine popular struggle that has developed within Ukrainian society since the invasion.

Together with a friend from Bologna’s Social Municipalities, I help two of them, Sergey and Alex, collect goods from the city to send to the front, this time to the town of Lyman, where many families are in need of basic necessities. We store blankets, pillows, cell phones, kettles. Sergey and Alex are keen to emphasize that they plan on bringing movies, books and music to those on the front lines, so that these months are not just spent in the mere hope of survival, but also, as much as possible, to living.

We cross the large bridge over the Dnipro River and Sergey shows us the large and famous Motherland statue, dedicated to the Soviet victory over the Nazis in Kiev. The Poroshenko-linked government banned communist symbols from the country in 2015, absurdly equating them with Nazi symbols. As early as 2018, officials from the Ukrainian Department of Fine Arts demanded that the hammer and sickle placed on the statue’s shield be replaced with the Ukrainian trident. The Russian invasion of 2022 has led even more people to support these policies, and just a few days ago, on August 6, the symbol on the shield was changed.

This intervention is not only disrespectful to the urban heritage on a philological and historical level, but also to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army. The latter brought together soldiers from 15 republics, including Ukraine, and not only from Russia. Instead, it is true that Stalinist iconographic policies following the war sought to reduce Soviet and anti-fascist memory to an imperial magnification of Russia that had nothing to do with the national and anti-imperialist policies proposed by Marx, Engels and Lenin. If the statue in Kiev was named after the Motherland, like the one in Volgograd or the Treptow steles in Berlin, it was because of an even too veiled reference to the traditional expression “Mother Russia.”

Sergey, an anarchist, has no sympathies for Stalin or the Soviet Union. He knows the history of the imperialist degeneration of Stalinist socialism and does not identify with the hammer and sickle. However, he does not hesitate to denounce the dangerous and problematic nature of what he sees as a general vulgarization of memory and an increasingly superficial conception of Ukrainian history, symbolized by these attacks on the traces of socialism.

The action of Sergey and the Solidarity Collectives today is to protect the critical core of Ukrainian resistance, which must and can have a voice in the however-renewed country that will emerge from the war, preventing Ukraine from falling into the abyss of exclusive and integral nationalism.

It is primarily a matter of dignifying political action. In this country, he explains, the term “politics” has struggled since at least 1991 to acquire meaning. From a one-party system before the final phase of Perestroika, Ukraine has become, he says, a seemingly multiparty system, but one that is actually partyless. Zelensky’s election in 2019 is an expression of this: his party is nothing more than the creation of a political infrastructure to accompany his personal campaign and political experience.

Far from being a phenomenon that concerns only his figure, this personalization of representative democracy (also well known from Italy to the rest of Europe, not to mention Russia) is present in Ukraine with an increasingly intense process of emptying and detaching electoral political organizations from the population. “The parties in the Ukrainian parliament are a nothing, they are spectacular shells, and they often divide in parliament into ever new factions.”

What remains are the leaderships, from the hyper-liberal or nationalist ones to the populist one embodied by Zelensky. This applies all the more to the parties opposed to Maidan and EU membership, considered close to Putin, disbanded immediately after the invasion: their parliamentarians, expressions of careers founded on semi-legal entrepreneurship and savage exploitation of labor power, remain in place, and now support Zelensky behind threats or blackmail. Not coincidentally, as Olenka, a young sociologist linked to the Ukrainian Commons magazine and an activist of Sozialnyi Rukh (Social Movement), had told us in Lviv, Ukrainians’ fondness for their politicians is demonstrated by the fact that no president has been reelected in the past two decades.

Alex tells of the surprising social landscape along the front lines. Picaresque figures emerge in the bombed cities, sons of former mayors or renowned politicians with ties to the underworld of illegality, who have the means and contacts to hold the community together in times of crisis.

Paradoxically, they are similar figures, in some ways, to those who led to the establishment of the “people’s republics” of Donesk and Luhansk in 2014: it was a political-economic class, Sergey explains, that saw its decades-long power without Yanukovich threatened. Today, as then, it seems to take part primarily on the basis of convenience.

Alex and Sergey were recently in a large southern industrial city not far from the front, Kryvyi Rih, with one of the strongest trade union presences in the country. Alex also tells of the peculiar habits of the youth of Kryvyi Rih and the East, also devoted since the 1990s to forming gangs. In Kryvyi Rih a number of gangs had formed under the English name of Runners (in obvious reference to the 1980s cult film ‘Midnight Runners’). Sergey refered to a story of one such gang declaring war to another by gathering around a Soviet war monument in the center of the town, depicting a huge gun, and “moving it” in the direction of the neighborhood against whose gang the “war” had been declared.

The social fabric of eastern Ukraine and the Donbass, an industrial area already under Alexander III and linked to the military complex throughout the history of the USSR, is leathery and complex. Sergey recounts how, after the Russian attack on Kherson and the initial retreat of the Ukrainian army, neighborhood residents who volunteered to join the Territorial Defense Units challenged the tanks with Kalashnikovs in one of the city’s parks, most of whom ended up being killed. Few survived to tell the story. In Kherson, recounts Nelia, a longtime activist on the Marxist left in Kiev, thousands of people took to the streets, positioning themselves in front of the tanks with their bare hands. The Russian army was thus pinned down for days until it fired on the crowd, killing several people. The anger and bitterness of the residents of Kherson, whose streets were recaptured by Ukraine in the counteroffensive, was increased by what is believed to have been the betrayal of a senior Ukrainian officer who now lives in Russia, and who provided the invaders with strategic information in those days.

Alex, Sergey, and Nelia agree that the 2022 invasion changed everything: the huge range of opinions and nuances that people, leftist and non-leftist, had about Maidan and anti-Maidan, or the “popular monarchist republics” as they ironically call the institutions of Donesk and Luhansk, vanished. The invasion has compacted all in support of a resistance that no longer has to do with Ukraine’s internal divisions but with its very existence as a political entity.

Alex, Sergey, and Nelia know far better than anyone else that it will continue to be difficult in this entity to pursue alternative social and cultural battles to those of the neo-liberals and nationalists. Their determination to face this challenge is impressive. Of course, they do not recognize the fragmented and neutral Western lefts as inspirational, nor do they recognize a distinct ability to understand their own situation or that of their country. They know that any space for critical thinking will be built and defended in Ukraine together with the people in the flesh. Whatever political direction these people choose, it will still be decided in the struggle against military invasion and Russian imperialism.