RUSSIA
What the Ukraine crisis reveals about the post-Soviet state
Megan Cornish
volume:  
volume 35
issue 2
April 2014
imagestuff

March 1: In the Crimean town of Balaclava, Orthodox monks supplement Russia's armed might with their prayers. Credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters

From the Sochi Olympic Games to the eruption in Ukraine that sparked Russia’s move into Crimea, recent developments have put Russia in the spotlight. But what do the complex events mean? Both Western and Russian mainstream media offer smoke and mirrors, not clarity. Only a look at history and class interests can pierce the fog.

Capitalist restoration: a grim reality. Today, 23 years after the Soviet Union fell, Russia is again a capitalist country — and one with imperialist ambitions. It is once more tied into the global profit system, subject to all its shocks and waverings.

Russia’s economy, based on a corrupt “lootocracy” still busy privatizing the formerly collective wealth of the country, is particularly unstable. Moscow has the highest number of billionaires of any city in the world.

Nationally, economic growth had improved somewhat since 2009, after a period of recession. Now, however, the economy is stumbling, and only partly because of events in Crimea and Ukraine. Investment is declining, capital is fleeing the country, the ruble is falling, and Russian officials themselves are predicting another recession.

Of course, just as is true elsewhere, the recession never really ended for the poor and for many working people.

Jobs have disappeared because industrial production has drastically declined. In some regions, more than half the working population is unemployed. One quarter of those working have jobs with no benefits or legal rights and are paid miserably or not at all. Migrants who worked for the Sochi Olympics were abused and in some cases cheated of their wages.

With the collapse of socialized medicine, health has decayed. Forest fires rage uncontrolled because forests are now privatized and equipment to monitor and fight fires no longer exists.

President Vladimir Putin’s regime is notorious for its repressive nature — which is necessary to enforce the acute social inequality. Police and neo-Nazi thugs at times use deadly force against Putin’s opponents, who include leftists, feminists, unionists, environmentalists, and LGBT activists. Popular opposition hit a high point in 2012, with militant mass protests against a fraudulent election that installed Putin back on top.

But it is not only repression that props up Putin. To the degree that he has popular support, it is based on his appeals to Russian nationalism and his pretensions to return Russia to its former glory as a great world power.

A history of national oppression. An essential component of Russian nationalism has always been the subjugation of smaller nations and national minorities that have been part of the broader Russian state.

Russian revolutionaries V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and their Bolshevik co-thinkers aimed to change this. They championed the democratic rights of small nations and national minorities oppressed by tsars and imperialists. They acted to create a freely federated Soviet Union rid of stifling and even murderous Great Russian chauvinism.

Once the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated power in the USSR, it cruelly violated this principle. Stalin deported whole peoples to Siberia, where many died: Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians. He carried out bloody purges in western Ukraine, and deliberately starved to death millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933.

Because of Stalin’s repression, in World War II many Ukrainian nationalists fought beside Nazi troops against the Red Army — although many more fought and died in the Red Army against Hitler.

Ukrainian resentment of Russia persists — and so do its causes.

Indignation manipulated by all sides. If conditions for Russians are harsh, for Ukrainians they are dire.

Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe. Since the 2008 global economic crash, it has been deeply in debt, largely to Russia, which supplies 40 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas. Fifty-six percent of the people live in poverty; great numbers of children live and die in the streets. Fury at “the oligarchs” of both Ukraine and Russia — including recently overthrown President Victor Yanukovych — runs high.

The Maidan movement started with several hundred university students, who camped out during a bitterly cold winter to protest Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a “free trade” and IMF loan agreement with the European Union. The lure of closer ties with Western Europe was strong, especially since politicians opposing Yanukovych urged them as the only alternative to the status quo.

These original demonstrators in Kiev were violently attacked by police, drawing ever larger numbers to their defense. A genuine popular movement was born against poverty, inequality, and repression, and, in February, it forced a hated autocrat to flee.

Nevertheless, U.S. and EU fingerprints were all over the protests. The U.S.-backed NGO CANVAS has been active in anti-government agitation in Venezuela, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and in the Maidan movement. Leaked phone conversations of State Department neo-con Victoria Nuland revealed that the White House handpicked current acting prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk before Yanukovych was deposed.

Also true is Nazi involvement in the movement and government. The Svoboda (Freedom) Party has toned down its Nazi image, but not its anti-Semitic and right-wing essence. It has five ministers in the new government. The paramilitary Right Sector beat up leftists participating in the protests, and possibly carried out the sniper fire that was blamed on the government and helped topple it. Right Sector’s first violence in Maidan Square was against feminists demanding equal pay and more kindergartens. Its leaders now run the Ukrainian National Security Council.

The popular movement is heterogeneous and contradictory. Unfortunately, from what can be learned from afar, right-wing opposition party leaders backed by the EU and U.S. seem to dominate — for now. But, if the left wing has time to grow, that can change.

For real liberation. What happens next will be determined by developments both inside and outside Ukraine. For one thing, Europe’s inexorable expansion of trade with former Soviet states, and NATO’s buildup of military bases right up to Russia’s border, are threats that Putin cannot ignore. At the same time, his Crimean adventure will be financially draining and politically problematic.

Any referendum held under military occupation is bogus, and cannot give the “winner” much sense of security. Many Crimeans abstained from the vote to leave Ukraine, including many indigenous Tatars, and Putin will have to reckon with their disfavor.

Between Russia, the imperialist West, and new would-be despots at home, Ukrainians seeking freedom and material security have little to choose from. The only real solution will be a multi-ethnic socialist Ukraine with democratic rights for all. The liberating promise of the Russian Revolution remains to be fulfilled for Russians and Ukrainians alike.

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