Ukraine: Listening to voices “from below”

A woman standing outside the maternity hospital in Mariupol after it was shelled by Russia. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

It is one year today that Russia invaded Ukraine, with all of the horror and barbarism that follows any war.

Over this time, we have sought to understand the conflict as best we can from a distance, without premade judgements.

What we have not been able to understand is how “leftists”, from a distance and of many different colours, have been able to defend “realist” political interpretations of the conflict – e.g., that NATO is responsible for the Russian invasion or that Ukraine is merely a proxy of U.S. imperialism –, and/or abstract “revolutionary defeatism”, opposing “class war” to “inter-state” war, when Ukrainians are faced with the immediacy of an invasion by an authoritarian state, and/or an equally abstract anti-militarism and anti-nationalism, when the invasion is a military invasion and when the immediate frame of the war is nationalism, with the invasion justified in nationalist terms, something which however does not and never exhausts the motivations and aims of those who take up arms to defend themselves as a community – nationally identified or not – against imperialist conquest.

Would a pacifist response, a strategy of passive resistance, to the invasion have been possible? Who can categorically say, yes? And what could this have possibly looked like, when pacifist responses to war in Russia to Russian wars is repressed?

Anarchists historically have been overwhelmingly anti-militarists and internationalists. Yet, equally, historically, for reasons that may be judged – usually in hindsight – as good or bad, anarchists have participated in military engagements and in what have often been national contexts, without thereby feeling themselves to be “traitors to the cause”.

Judgements come easy. To listen is much more difficult. And to act from what one hears is inevitably fraught with uncertainty, regardless of what “our ideologies” may suggest.

We share below a video report by Enguerran Carrier entitled Ukraine: Revolutionaries at war, along with two published interviews with Carrier.

Kyiv, end of February 2022: the Russian army is at the gates of the city. Faced with an imminent onslaught, each one has to make a choice. For some, it’s about running away; for others, to fight. A handful of revolutionary militants, ultra-minority in Ukraine, meet in several cities of the country. If no consensus appears on what should be done, all agree on one point: the Russian army must be driven out of Ukraine. Their names are Anton, Yuri or Dmytro. Of all ages, they are political refugees, antifas used to stadium brawls, university Marxists or minor trade unionists. This film, shot in April and May 2022, intends to give them a voice. Without comment and without bias, without caricature or idealism, simply to understand what pushed these militants to take up arms.

Enguerran Carrier: ‘In Ukraine, as in Rojava, we have a defensive war provoked by the other side’

Having previously worked as a translator and historian, Enguerran Carrier decided in 2015 to volunteer with the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a mainly-Kurdish militia then engaged in a war to protect Rojava, in Syria’s north and east, from Islamic State (ISIS).

Seven years later, Carrier once again found himself in the middle of an armed conflict, travelling to Ukraine to film Revolutionaries at War. The documentary focuses on a volunteer battalion comprised of anarchists, anarcho-communists and socialists from Ukraine and Belarus fighting back against Russia’s invading army and why they chose to take up arms.

Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to Carrier about his motivations for the film and lessons from his experiences in Rojava and Ukraine.

Prior to making this documentary about a left-wing battalion inside the Ukrainian armed forces you spent several years volunteering with the YPG. What motivated you to go to Rojava?

Soon after the battle of Kobanê in early 2015, the YPG made a public appeal for volunteers to join their ranks. The creation of a specifically leftist unit, later in 2015, motivated me to join them.

For the first time in many years, an opportunity was given to leftists to not only observe, but to directly take part in a revolution and in a war. I thought that European leftists, who are a minority in their own countries, should go to Syria to learn from a movement that had managed to “take power”.

On the surface, Rojava and Ukraine appear to be completely different situations. On one hand, you have an armed resistance led by leftists. On the other hand, you have an official state and an armed forces often known mostly for the fascist Azov battalion. Why did you decide to go to Ukraine to make Revolutionaries at War?

Many reasons brought me to Ukraine when the war broke out

I feel the task of any leftist is not to post a comment on Facebook based on information collected from the internet. When photos started circulating of an anarchist unit fighting in Ukraine, I wanted to see for myself what it was all about, because I knew from experience that most anarchist or leftist units in Rojava have never existed anywhere other than on Facebook.

My objective was simple: to make the voices of those most affected heard by asking them directly the questions I kept hearing in France: “Why would you fight for a semi-mafia state?”, “Isn’t this just a proxy war?”, “How could you fight alongside the far-right Azov Battalion?”.

The arguments of those who are sometimes called “NATO anarchists” are worth listening to, regardless of what you think of them.

Based on your experiences, what would you say are the commonalities and differences between the struggles in Ukraine and Rojava?

In both cases, these are defensive wars provoked by the other side. And, in both cases, the people largely support the forces that are defending them against the enemy, whatever their political opinions are.

In Rojava, many joined or gave support to the YPG, even if they were opposed to the PYD [the Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish left party in government in Rojava] or to Apoism [the ideology of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, which PYD follows], just because they were the only military force capable of defeating the Free Syrian Army and Daesh [ISIS].

In Ukraine, many opponents of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his party have joined or given support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces because nobody else can currently defend the country from Russia’s invading forces.

The main difference, among many, is that in Rojava the war was caused by a social and national revolution, while this was not the case in Ukraine.

According to the militants I interviewed in Ukraine, some believe that the war will give birth to, probably not a revolution, but at least some radical changes in Ukraine. And, in fact, it is hard to imagine that the established order in Ukraine could survive a war such as this intact.

The hunger for real changes, the sentiment against corruption, against the oligarchy, against lawlessness, is something that is very tangible. It will be interesting, if such changes happen, to see how the West will react to them.

One complex issue for the left in both these struggles has been the involvement of outside powers in the conflict. Sometimes this has led to unexpected alliances, such as the one between the YPG and the United States, or the military support provided to Ukraine by the West. Was this an issue you discussed with leftists engaged in these struggles? How did they view this question?

Of course this issue has been discussed in both cases. But we must underline that in Rojava, leftists are in power, so it is an issue that is being discussed by the ones heading the army and the country.

The question of the involvement of foreign powers has also been discussed by the left in Ukraine, in particular the possibility that the US and Europe will seek to “bargain” with Russia once the war is over, at the expense of the Ukrainian people.

But we must be careful to avoid any hasty parallels between the powers present in Ukraine. One cannot compare Russia’s direct involvement in the war with that of NATO, because, while the latter is spending billions to support Ukraine, the pretext for this has been provided to them by Russia’s invasion.

Moreover, their support for Ukraine was belated: the first reaction of the US was to offer Zelensky help to flee the country. NATO has never cared about “defending” Ukraine — its support is only about defeating and weakening Russia.

Most Ukrainian leftists do not understand why the left in Europe mechanically puts NATO and Russia on an equal footing. By making NATO co-responsible for the war, Russia is cleared of its undeniable responsibility.

It is not naive to write this: Russia was not responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or for France’s intervention in Chad. But, at the same time, neither the French state nor NATO provoked the war in Ukraine.

The fact that some leftists in Europe openly oppose the delivery of arms inspires even more disgust among Ukrainian leftists. These are the same people who confine themselves to online activism while never participating in any concrete action of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Paradoxically, while the YPG are carriers of an emancipatory social project, they seem much more dependent, for their immediate survival, on US support than Ukraine. Ukraine is a recognised state, with a professional armed forces and significant industrial and economic potential, whereas the YPG is, from the point of view of the US, simply an unrecognised “non-state actor”.

Finally, what is the message you hope to convey through your documentary to leftists outside Ukraine?

We, in Europe, have gotten used to carrying out our activism amid conditions of peace for many decades now. War, military questions — both theoretical and practical — have completely disappeared from our reflections and discussions.

We need to be aware that this can change very quickly or otherwise we may find ourselves powerless when anything unexpected happens, such as occurred in Ukraine.

To put it simply: We need to look at how the Ukrainian left, although much less numerous and much less organised than leftist forces elsewhere, reacted to a situation of war.

These militants did not flee. They have not confined themselves to the role of passive commentators, nor do they indulge in a pampered marginality.

They are taking part in the battle, as an ultra-minority, without hiding any of their ideas or their objectives.

Hopefully, other leftists will do the same when the quiet circumstances in which they currently carry out their activism comes to an abrupt end.

(From Green Left/The Anarchist Library)

Enguerran Carrier: “I wanted Ukrainian activists involved in the war to have the opportunity to respond to the questions and criticisms that are often made by the left in Europe.”

Enguerran Carrier has made the film L’arme à gauche: 23 minutes of testimonies of activists from Ukraine and Belarus, who explain their involvement in the Ukrainian resistance. Very useful. He is also the author of Kurdistan: once upon a time the revolution, to be published by Syllepse. The Editorial Solidarity Brigades interviewed him.

To make this film, you went to Ukraine. Can you tell us about this trip and your stay there, and tell us something about your personal itinerary, what brought you there?

I have been more or less closely linked to Ukraine for a good fifteen years. Emotional, friendly and political ties that led me to learn Ukrainian. The Maïdan movement had already revealed, in France, to what extent Ukraine was misunderstood: the media and activists often had a binary and caricatural reading of the events (civic revolution vs. fascist coup d’État) because they didn’t have a minimum knowledge of the country. I also fought in the ranks of the YPG [People’s Protection Units] between 2015 and 2018. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was inconceivable to remain a passive spectator. I looked for ways to act positively, not wishing to fight myself, and the opportunity was given to me, somewhat by chance, to go as a freelance journalist on the spot.

Can you introduce the people you interviewed in this video?

I first met members of the anarchist organization the «Black Flag» (?????? ????), from Lviv. They were Dmytro and Anton, who made the choice to join the Territorial Defence at the time when a Russian attack on the city seemed imminent. They were joined in their unit by Taras Bilous, one of the leaders of the «Social Movement» (?????????? ???) with whom you are familiar. Other anarchists made the choice to create a specific unit in the Territorial Defence. This one is composed mainly of Russian, Belarusian and many other countries’ activists. Let us specify in passing that the unit does not claim to be anarchist, contrary to what has been said on the web, even if anarchists form the most important contingent (about 2/3). This is where I met the Belarusian activist whose face and name have already been revealed in the press in his home country.

I thought it was important to give the floor to a representative of the Ukrainian working class. So I met Yuri Samoilov, a seasoned activist whose experience commands respect, and a member of the «Social Movement». A former miner, he has been an activist in free trade unions since the 1990s, for which a notorious oligarch put a price on his head. I do not despair that he will one day take up the pen and write his memoirs!

Finally, I would like to stress that the absence of women in the film is in no way due to negligence. But, during my stay, I did not meet any female activists willing to speak on camera. This is unfortunate, but revealing: there is a gendered division of labour even in the war and the Ukrainian army; it is not the YPG-YPJ.

The people you interviewed have a strong left-wing political orientation, why this choice?

Firstly, because they are absent from the media which, as usual, privilege the emotional and the spectacular to the detriment of the political and the explanatory. It is understandable that the mainstream media has little interest in this handful of activists, that the subject is not a seller. But some left-wing media, which often seek to make Ukraine co-responsible for this war, voluntarily conceal their existence. L’Humanité [daily newspaper of the French communist party], for example, met Taras Bilous. But his statements did not fit in with that newspaper’s line, so his interview was simply not published.

Then photos started circulating about a mysterious anarchist unit. I know from experience that photos circulated on social networks in times of war are often misleading. How many fictitious units have we not heard about in Rojava! So I wanted to see what the reality of this unit was, what the place of revolutionaries, of all tendencies, was in this war.

Finally, I wanted Ukrainian activists involved in the war to have the opportunity to respond to the questions and criticisms that are often made by the left in Europe.

Several of them refer to the anarchist, libertarian movement; others we would call here «revolutionary communists», some have a trade unionist practice. What do they say about the real international support of these different currents?

Anarchists are generally satisfied with the support they are receiving. It must be said that the photos of «anarchist unit» have circulated a lot and have aroused the sympathy of many anarchists. All the more so as some of them skilfully played on the legend of Nestor Makhno. Some anarchists do refer to «Ukrainian neo-Nazis» and «fascist Russia» back to back, but this tendency seems to be in the minority, or at least is perceived as such in Ukraine.

The «revolutionary communists» (who do not define themselves as such, given the connotation of the word «communist» in Ukraine) are the most critical towards their sister organizations. They regret that many socialist, Trotskyist and other organizations regularly take up Russia’s arguments in a more or less watered-down version. The position of the British SWP, in particular, which cynically calls for opposition to arms supplies to Ukraine so that the war can be ended as soon as possible (to Russia’s benefit), arouses anger. It should be noted that the positions of foreign revolutionary socialists are often perceived as unanimously anti-Ukrainian, which is not the case. Hence the importance, it seems to me, of maintaining or establishing links with organizations on the ground and, above all, of participating in concrete solidarity actions.

Yuri Samoilov told me that he was pleased with the support of the European trade union organizations with which he is in contact (including the CGT and Solidaires). He regrets, however, that the Russian unions, with the exception of one teachers’ union, have unanimously welcomed the Russian invasion or, at the very least, have observed an approving silence. This says a lot about the control of the trade union apparatus in Russia.

You have written a book, Kurdistan: Once Upon a Revolution, which will be published very soon. What similarities and differences do you see between these two struggles?

In both cases, it can be said that they are defensive and «popular» wars, in the sense that there is widespread support for the objectives set. The rejection of the Russian invasion is almost unanimous, including among those who were yesterday labelled «pro-Russian». Wanting a strategic, cultural and «civilizational» rapprochement with Russia and being annexed by force, seeing cities razed to the ground and civilians summarily executed are two different things. The turnaround of the Borot’ba militants, yesterday volunteers in the Donbass, is significant in this respect.

But there the comparison ends. The war imposed on Rojava by the ASL [free syrian army], Daech, the Syrian regime and Turkey was the result of a popular revolution and an armed insurrection. It was about defending revolutionary gains against mostly ’intra-state’ actors (with the exception of Turkey), against its own government. In the case of Ukraine, we are dealing with an interstate conflict dictated by the geostrategic interests of an aspiring «Russian empire». There is an aggressor and an aggressed, a monolithic state against a plural state, but the war was not provoked by a social revolution in Ukraine. Russia wants to conquer territory, not stifle a revolution that would threaten its existence. It is worth remembering that the oligarchic, corrupt and mafia-like system in Ukraine was unfortunately hardly shaken by the Mayan movement of 2013–2014.

The representative of the miners’ union explains that after the war, after people have experienced their power to act, there will be «a great movement of protest against the established order». What do you think about the different conversations you had in Ukraine?

It is difficult to say. There is a definite frustration that the demands of 2014 have never been met. The political class is as corrupt as before, the mafias still operate freely and the economic boom promised by the liberals is still to come. Many had many grievances before 24 February, but the Russian invasion has pushed the thirst for social reform into the background. Criticism of V. Zelensky and the political staff, the clans of oligarchs still exist, but they are more discreet because nobody wants to give arguments to the enemy in what is experienced as an existential war.

Indeed, since 2014, Ukrainian governments have often used the war to divert attention from potentially destabilizing social elements (notably the far right). Yet the will for social change is there, the gap between the country’s wealth and living standards is glaringly obvious, and speculation, which poses serious supply problems, is increasingly unbearable. «We win the war, and then we will be called to account» is a phrase I have heard regularly.

So yes, I believe that radical changes will be inevitable. The question is whether it will be from above or from below. V. Zelensky could use his authority to purge the administration and the economy of the most corrupt «middle» elements. But it is possible that Ukrainians will take to the streets again, as they did in 2013–2014, this time with weapons in their hands, experience of combat and a rage proportional to the number of people killed. However, in this case, I think that these social demands will be justified, as in 2014, by a national and liberal rhetoric («freeing the market» by firing parasitic and unpatriotic oligarchs). But nothing has been decided yet, of course, and it is rather futile to indulge, for the moment, in conjectures about a more than uncertain future.

(From Ukraine Solidarity/The Anarchist Library)

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