Ukrainians resist Russian imperialism

Submitted by Matthew on 22 January, 2014 - 10:35

Anti-government protests have continued in Ukraine with tens of thousands gathering in defiance of anti-protest laws rushed through Parliament by President Viktor Yanukovych.

The protesters oppose the government’s plans to tie the country into closer relations with Russia, and many want Ukraine to develop closer relations with western Europe and join the EU. This article, by Stephen Velychenko of the University of Toronto, appeared on various left-wing websites, including New Left Project, in December 2013.

Workers’ Liberty does not share the author’s precise take on the situation, but we reprint the article to give background to the situation and as part of discussion.


The mass of Ukrainians and a majority of Russians and Russian-speakers, with the exception of the Crimea, alongside their national-democrat leaders, regard the EU as the only alternative to the neo-soviet Russophile oligarchic order in which they live.

They desire integration into EU, looking to Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary as models. For some European democratic and anti-Stalinist leftists who condemn the American-led neo-liberal corporatist offensive to destroy Europe’s post-war social-democratic order, this Ukrainian affinity to the EU can appear incomprehensible. Most ignore Ukraine. Others, despite professed support for oppressed and downtrodden groups, either implicitly or explicitly think Putin’s Russian bandit-capitalism preferable to American neo-liberal capitalism, and tolerate his neo-imperialist-driven objective to maintain at least Russian hegemony over Ukraine. Those who think in these terms overlook a number of issues that principled leftists should not.

First, the November 21 refusal by Yanukovych to sign the Association agreement [a deal tying Ukraine more closely to the EU] is a result of the very successful Russian colonialist project in Ukraine. Initiated by Peter I after the Battle of Poltava in central and eastern Ukraine, the project was successfully implemented in western Ukraine after 1945.

Like all colonialist projects, the Tsarist and soviet Russian project in Ukraine involved foreign-speaking colonists from the metropole settling in the periphery, centrally imposed governors from the metropole, a local collaborationist elite, and a reduction of the local population to ethnographic curiosities unsuited to modernity. The imperial centre then turned the annexed periphery into a supplier of raw materials and unfinished bulk-goods. This project was so successful that even today, Anglo-American and European commentators and politicians, who would not even think about referring to “legitimate” English or French interests in India or “Indochina,” can, with straight faces, talk about “legitimate” Russian interests in Ukraine!

This socio-political order was threatened in 2004, but in 2010 the world witnessed regime-restoration in Kyiv. The flag and the formal language became Ukrainian in 1991, but the public communications sphere remained Russian as did the underlying institutions and relations of power. In this broader context, the ruling elite, as represented by Yanukovych, his Party of Regions and the still existing Communist Party of Ukraine, was for all intents and purposes a continuation of the old Soviet-era colonialist administrative elite whose focus, allegiances, culture, and fortunes remain tied to Putin’s neo-imperial Russian centre.

As rulers and owners of a de jure independent country, some of Ukraine’s Russophile post-Soviet oligarch/capitalists began developing a territorial “national interest.” Like their counterparts in 19th century Latin America, this group, after 1991, began evolving into a “creole” elite, ruling an independent national state separate from the imperial metropole. As an incipient “national capitalist class” they see membership in the EU as a way to secure their local political power and stolen fortunes.

The November 21 decision suggests this evolution has stopped for the foreseeable future. Whether or not massive inflows of European capital will renew it remains to be seen. Whether police and special forces turn and support the pro-EU movement also remains to be seen.

Within this context, the average Ukrainian, even if such a person is aware of the neo-liberal corporatist destruction of the post-war order, sees the EU corporate neo-liberal capitalist order as one that still provides better conditions of life than the Russian-style robber state-corporatist capitalist order they live under in Ukraine. Re-establishing closer ties with Putin’s Russia would reinforce that criminalised order.

When the average Ukrainian looks at the EU, they see what Marx considered the great achievements of the 18th and 19th-century bourgeois revolutions: freedom of the press, elected representative assemblies, constitutions, the rule of law, and strong legal trade unions. These freedoms have yet to be enacted and enforced in Ukraine.

Today, transnational corporations, through their various “trade agreements”, usurp and destroy these freedoms in the countries where they were won, often by force of arms and bloodshed. Nevertheless, even in truncated form, today’s EU member countries remain as beacons of these “bourgeois freedoms” to people living in authoritarian post-soviet republics. These freedoms never existed in Stalin’s USSR and, after 1991, despite their formal adoption in a written constitution, Ukraine’s robber barons and their hired politicians ignore them whenever they please.

From a leftist perspective, the results of the “bourgeois revolutions” that occurred in eastern Europe only in 1989 have yet to reach Ukraine. Accordingly, leftists must realise that nationalism plays a different role in Ukraine than it does in the EU. Nationalism is simply a theory that says political and cultural borders should coincide. The policies enacted within those borders can be leftist or rightist, extremist or moderate. Everything depends on the leaders and the people. Ukrainian nationalism in Ukraine, accordingly, as in any other country, cannot be identified solely with the extreme right. Besides, leaders of such extremist, nominally “Ukrainian”, groups like Dmytro Korchynski of “The Brotherhood”, or “Patriots of Ukraine,” upon investigation, turn out to have links with Ukraine’s pro-Russian oligarch and the Russian FSB [ex-KGB].

Like any nationalism nurtured by and directed against any imperialism, Ukrainian nationalism directed against Putin’s Russian neo-imperialism, represents a democratic progressive force and must be supported.

• This article is abridged. The full version can be read online here.

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