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Marx's last stand: Eastern Ukraine

What is unfolding in Eastern Ukraine has all the makings of a classic Marxist drama.

Last updated: 23 Apr 2014 06:42
Vladimir Golstein

Vladimir Golstein teaches Russian literature and film at Brown University. He is the author of Lermontov's Narratives of Heroism (1999) and numerous articles on all major Russian authors. He was born in Moscow, went to the US in 1979, and studied at Columbia and Yale Universities.
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Pro-Russian activists guard a regional administration building that they had seized earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine [AP]

The "Ukrainian Spring" has been a popular subject for all people. Various perspectives have been exhibited: US and Russian, Ukrainian and European. When not viewed as the manifestation of Vladimir Putin's megalomania, or US overreach, the conflict has been interpreted as the rebirth of the Cold War, as Russia's belated attempt at empire restoration, or as Western expansion.

Some basic categories were invoked, be they of national character, or morality, good and evil, Nazi vs democratic. Some saw the events as the clash between a corrupt political system that is failing to stop the march of liberal democracy; others as US-driven globalism hitting against the rock of some backward particularism, informed by Orthodoxy and an outdated political system. More sophisticated and informed concepts such as historical development or complex make-up of the Ukrainian nation were also invoked.  

However, what is mostly missing is old-style class analysis of the type I thought I left behind when I emigrated from Russia some 30 years ago. The West has generally entered the post-industrial stage; it tends to find the category of proletariat-bourgeoisie conflict as outdated and less useful than, say, ethnicity or religion. But what is unfolding in Eastern Ukraine has all the makings of a classic Marxist drama.

Corrupt, Kiev-based oligarchs have entered into alliance with ultraconservative forces of the western Ukrainian region, a region which is agricultural, pre-modern and is extremely hostile to all things Russian, including modernisation. The rather obvious purpose of this alliance is to impose a Western version of shock-therapy upon a country that has so far resisted it, because its economy is heavily intertwined with Russian resources and consumption.

Expansion of Western capital

What for Russians might appear as "NATO expansion", or for the West, "the march of democracy" is, in fact, the expansion of Western capital, which needs the guarantees of Western legal and political system to function. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich resisted this pull towards the West not because of his loyalty to Russia, but because the Western system would have been too complex and cumbersome for him to steal on the scale that he got used to. But once he was removed, it become easier for the pro-Western Kievan economic and political elite to embark on this project, while relying on the loyalty of Ukraine's western regions - the regions that could not wait to leave Russia's influence and try their luck at competing with the Polish plumbers for the few good positions left in Europe. These groups saw the rapid Westernisation as liberation, not as a threat.

Maybe the fanatics from western Ukraine can feed themselves on their hatred of all things Russian, but the working men and women of Donetsk, Lugansk, or Kharkiv need bread and butter on their tables.

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine's population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.

They might have as many anti-Russian grievances as anyone in Ukraine, but they also live on the ground and they know their own conditions better than anyone. These are "Reagan democrats": Hard-working, law-abiding, vodka-drinking people who want their paycheck and pension and some social services instead of corruption. They also have a rather strong and proud working-class tradition that goes back at least a century and a half. In 1918, they formed a short-lived Donetsk republic that refused to join either Ukraine or Soviet Russia

The loss of a local son, Yanukovich, was not a big deal for the region. But besides paychecks and social guarantees, the new rulers have failed to provide the region with basic human respect that any well-organised and hard-working group has the right to expect.

One of the demands that St Petersburg workers articulated to their bosses before they embarked on the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the need to address them in polite form of "vy" and not the rude "ty". But that kind of respect was not coming from Kiev. Instead of politeness, there was sloppy tinkering with the Russian language, there was rewriting of history that tried to present the tortured Ukrainian past from the perspective of staunch anti-communists and Nazi collaborators, most of whom were rewriting Ukrainian history in emigration. And there was the hostile, polarising rhetoric that would cast anyone not immediately agreeing with Kiev as "slaves", Russian lackeys, or even "creatures" as the deputy from Lviv in western Ukraine, Iryna Farion, likes to refer to Russian speakers.

This cultural denigration might be less obvious to Western audiences, who rely on news reports or translations. They also cannot imagine that any "Western-type" politician could get away with such language. As recently as April 17, the bank co-owned by the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region could not come up with anything better than to offer a reward of $10,000 for any "Moskal", which is a pejorative term for a Russian; Western translation of this banner was "Ten thousand for a separatist". For anyone who reads things in the original, such rhetoric is quite shocking. Even though the Russian and Ukrainian working class has been further denigrated with the collapse of the Soviet system, these additional insults stung after their expectations had been raised by Yanukovich's ouster. The cultural humiliation makes these workers suspicious of the new government, but the looming material degradation will surely push them over the edge. 

Delusional politicians

Delusional politicians in Kiev can blame Russian - or Putin's - interference, they can try to capture some soldiers and politicians, put them on their knees and otherwise humiliate them (as they did with the pro-Russian candidate, Tsarev, by beating him up and parading him in his underwear), but these attacks are as effective as Aztec human sacrifices when faced with Spanish arrival. Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia's own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU.

The pro-Western Ukrainian government has done very little to dispel the fears of Donbas working class, be they ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian. Maybe the fanatics from western Ukraine can feed themselves on their hatred of all things Russian, but the working men and women of Donetsk, Lugansk, or Kharkiv need bread and butter on their tables. These staples are slipping away, however, as it is becoming more and more obvious that the price of gas will go up, that Russia will stop buying their products, and that the West will close their factories.

Furthermore, this population is so well organised, and is so angry, that even if Kiev decides to resort to violence against them, it would result in a very brutal civil war. So far, the Ukrainian government has more or less resisted using violence, but the virulent rhetoric of various Ukrainian publications doesn’t seem to abide even after the signing of the Geneva agreement.

Kiev can surely exploit Ukrainian fears against Russia by invoking Holodomor (Stalin-induced starvation of millions of Ukrainians) or Stalinism or even Putinism. It is easy to tempt them with the promises of Western abundance or its advanced political and economic system. But all these historic anxieties and promises hardly dissuaded the fears of working class men and women who inhabit Eastern Ukraine.

I suspect they have already made their choice or will be pushed towards it very soon by the incompetence of their new government, which in its reckless and impatient desire to join Europe could not come up with anything better than to insult its own hard-working population before sacrificing them on the bonfire of corporate capitalism, the economic system that is barely functioning in the West, and will surely fail in Ukraine.

Vladimir Golstein  teaches Russian literature and film at Brown University. He is the author of Lermontov's Narratives of Heroism (1999) and numerous articles on all major Russian authors. He was born in Moscow, went to the US in 1979, and studied at Columbia and Yale Universities.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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