Kiev: Chestnuts Blossom Again
• JUNE 17, 2015
I had to whip up my courage to go to the Ukraine. There was a recent
spate of political killings in the unhappy and lovely land, and the
perpetrators never apprehended; among those killed was Oles Buzina, a
renowned writer and a dear friend. Two years ago, well before the
troubles, we had a drink under a chestnut tree in a riverside café.
Buzina was in his forties, rather tall and slim, had a narrow sarcastic
face of Mephistopheles, a bald head, a hint of moustache and a bad
temper. He was a Thersites among the warlike nationalists of Kiev,
laughing at their sacred myths of eternal Ukraine Above All. He called
their beloved nationalist poet, the first one to write in the local
dialect, “a vampire” for his predilection to bloody scenes. Buzina wrote
in Russian, the language educated writers of the Ukraine preferred and
perfected since Gogol, and he rejected the parochial narrative of the
recent coup d’état.
He was shot at high noon, in a street near his home in central Kiev, and
the killers just vanished in thin April air. He was not alone:
opposition journalists were killed, shot like Buzina and Suchobok,
parliament members, governors and officers of law were defenestrated
like Chechetov, MP in the “epidemics
of suicides”. Were they killed by local extremists freely
operating in the land, or did they become victims of Seal
Team Six, the feared American assassins who kill enemies
of the Empire by their thousands from Afghanistan to Ukraine to
Venezuela? Who knows. Many more independent journalists and writers
escaped by the skin of their teeth – to Russia like Alexander Chalenko
or to Europe like Anatol Shary.
I’ve met them in Kiev before the troubles, I’ve met them in their exile,
and they told me of threats, of gangs of armed football fans and
neo-Nazis roaming the land. I was scared, as in my advanced age I did
not fancy a sojourn in a torture cellar, but curiosity, desire to see
with my own eyes and judge for myself, and above all, the attraction of
chestnuts in full tender bloom defeated the fear, and I took a rare
Moscow-Kiev train. Always full in normal days, it was half empty. Other
travellers were also worried: the Ukrainian border guards were known to
arrest people on slightest suspicion or to ban entry after a few hours
in a police cooler.
The border guard that checked my Israeli passport was a huge man in a
military camouflage with a large strip displaying his blood type in bold
Latin numerals: IV
Rhesus-. Still, he let me in after checking with his computer
and asking a few questions. I was to see many soldiers and officers in
battle dress all over Ukraine, as many as in Israel, perhaps. The Kiev
government obviously took a leaf from Israel’s cookbook: schmaltzy
advertising for military is ubiquitous, including calls to join the
army, to support soldiers, to feed soldiers, to entertain soldiers, as
if these soldiers of theirs are defending the homeland from barbarians.
In reality, they are shelling and looting the breakaway provinces, like
the Yankees in the Gone
with the Wind.
The looting made the war quite popular for a while with an average
Ukrainian. That is, until coffins began to arrive from two major defeats
of the Kiev army, under Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo. Pictures of young men
who died fighting to regain Donbass are displayed in prominent places in
Ukrainian cities – there are too many of these martyrs for a small
victorious war. The stream of volunteers dried up, and the regime began
drafting able-bodied men. A number of draftees chose to flee to Russia
or went into hiding, but the army is being beefed up all the same – by
the mercenaries of Western private companies as well.
The Minsk agreements quelled the war, though shooting and shelling goes
on. The Renewal of full-scale hostilities is still very possible: the US
wants a proxy war against Russia. The regime may choose war for economic
reasons as things go from bad to worse. Standards of living dropped
the currency, went down, prices went up, while salaries and pensions
remained as they were.
Do people complain, do they regret the February 2014 coup? Not really.
They blame Russia’s Putin in all their misfortunes and refer to him by
an obscene nickname. “Putin is envious of us for we shall join the EU”,
a burly internet café owner in camouflage told me, though at that very
time, in Riga, the EU leaders made it clear that in no way Ukraine will
become a full member of EU. Rather, an associated one, like Turkey or
North Africa. Militarist propaganda (“stand by our boys”) made an
impact. As does the nationalist one. Many Ukrainians speak with palpable
hatred of Russia, though with surprising ease they go to work and live
in Russia if and when an opportunity arises.
Russians believe that deprivations will sober the people of Ukraine, but
it seems unlikely. The Ukrainians, like all Russians (and that’s what
they are, for Ukraine is the south-western part of historical Russia,
and as Russian as any place) are hardy, stubborn, patient, frugal and
able to survive in most adverse conditions. A reverse could be possible:
in 2004, the first Maidan coup (also sponsored by the West) installed a
pro-Western president, but he earned universal scorn and failed to get
re-elected. The second Maidan coup could suffer a similar fate, but this
time the regime decided to ban the opposition parties. The Communist
Party is banned, and the previously ruling Regions Party was dismantled
and its members are forbidden to participate in elections. The Kiev
regime does not need an appearance of democracy, as they have the West’s
I do not want to exaggerate: Kiev is not hell on earth; it is still a
comfortable city. People are reluctant to express their views in public,
and some do not want to be seen with a man from Moscow, but their fear
is not overwhelming. Communists and pro-Russian people in general are
more likely to lose their job than their life. And a lot of Ukrainians
look at Russia with love and sorrow, and express it. These are the
Communists, who suffer daily threats; these are the Orthodox Christians,
for the regime favours the Uniate Catholic Church of Eastern Rite and
strong-arms the Orthodox from their churches; these are Russian-language
writers and intellectuals who had their newspapers closed down and books
removed; last but not least, there are industrial workers employed in
still-surviving industries, for the Ukraine was the most industrialised
part of Russia.
In the South-East of Ukraine, they fight with weapons; elsewhere, a
slow-going war of words and ideas goes on. What do they fight for? The
Russian version of the story – ethnic Ukrainian Neo-Nazi followers of
Bandera persecute Russians of Ukraine – is a great over-simplification.
So is the Ukrainian version of Ukraine choosing Europe against Russia
pulling it back into its unwanted embrace. The reality is quite
different. You understand that when you encounter pro-Ukrainian Russians
of Russia. They are numerous, influential, prominently placed in Moscow,
as opposed to numerous but disenfranchised pro-Russian Ukrainians of
Kiev. The civil war goes in Ukraine and Russia, and it is not ethnic
strife, as both sides often pretend.
This is the ongoing struggle between comprador bourgeoisie and its
enemies: the industrialists, workers, military. This struggle has gone
on since 1985, for 30 years. In 1991, the Empire won. The Soviet Union
was undone. Its Industry and armed forces were dismantled. Science was
eliminated. Workers lost their jobs. The state (in both Russia and
Ukraine) became subservient to the Empire. This was a tragedy for
ordinary people, but an opportunity for collaborationists.
Many people prospered at the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Not only
the oligarchs – a whole class of people who could get a piece at
privatisation. The Western companies bought a lot of industries and
dismantled them. The agricultural complex was destroyed. Russia and
Ukraine were hooked to the global imperial economy: they bought
manufactured goods and food from the West, or from China for US dollars.
The only produce of Russia has been its oil and gas.
There were two failed attempts to reverse the tide in Russia. Yeltsin
blocked both with tanks. Worn and hated, he appointed Putin to succeed
him. Putin was chosen and supported by oligarchs and by the West to rule
Russia with an iron fist in a velvet glove and to keep it hooked and
subservient. Very slowly he began to shift ground to independence.
Putin’s Russia is still far away from full independence; it is far from
clear Putin even wants that. Putin is not a communist, he does not want
to restore the Soviet Union; he is loyal to Russia’s rich, he sticks to
the monetarist school of thought, he trades in dollars through Western
banks, he did not nationalise the many industries and lands taken over
by the crooks.
Still Putin’s became the third attempt to reverse the tide. He did much
more than it was permitted by the Empire. He crossed red lines in his
internal policies by banning Western companies from buying Russian
resources; he crossed the red line in his foreign policy while
protecting Syria and securing Crimea. He began to re-industrialise
Russia, produce wheat and buy Chinese goods bypassing dollar. He limited
power of oligarchs.
But Yeltsin’s people, the Reaganite compradors, retained their positions
of power in Moscow. They control the most prestigious universities and
the High School of Economics, they run the magazines and newspapers,
they have financial support of the oligarchs and of foreign funds, they
are represented in the government, they have the mind of Russian
intelligentsia, they miss Yeltsin’s days and they do love America and
support the Kiev regime for they correctly see it as direct continuation
Yes, there is a big difference: Yeltsin was an enemy of nationalists,
while Kiev uses nationalism as the means to consolidate its hold. Kiev
is also much more militarised than Moscow ever was. The common ground is
their hatred of the Soviet past, of communism and socialism. Kiev
decided to destroy all monuments of the Soviet era and rename all the
streets bearing Soviet names. Moscow anti-communists loudly supported
this move and called to emulate it in Russia. Gorbachev’s intellectual
elite, elderly but still going strong, also supported Kiev’s resolute
Putin hardly moved these people out of power. He cherishes his ties with
Anatoly Chubays, an arch-thief of Yeltsin’s days, and with Kudrin, the
Friedmanite economist. Recently he began to deal with their supply
lines: Western NGOs and funds have to register, their transactions have
been made visible and revealed huge financial injections from abroad
into their media. Still, people identified as pro-Putin are a minority
in Moscow establishment. So much for his “ruthless dictator” image!
This duality of Russian power structure influences Russian policy
towards Ukraine. A minority that is “more pro-Putin than Putin”, calls
for war and liberation of the eastern provinces of the Ukraine. They see
confrontation with the West as unavoidable. The powerful comprador group
calls to abandon Donbass and to make peace with Kiev and with New York.
They want Russia to follow in the footsteps of Kiev, minus its
nationalism. Putin rejects both extremes and treads the middle ground,
annoying both groups.
The Kiev regime could use this reluctance of Putin and broker a good
stable peace. But their sponsors want war. The breakaway Donbass was the
power engine of all the Ukraine. The new regime is keen to
de-industrialise the land: industrial workers and engineers speak
Russian and relate to the Soviet Union and to Russia its heir, while
Ukrainian-speakers and supporters of the regime are mainly small farmers
or shopkeepers. This is a standard fare of ex-USSR: de-industrialisation
is the weapon of choice for pro-Western regimes from Tajikistan to
Latvia. Of Russia, too: the first thing carried out by pro-Western
reformers in Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s days was de-industrialisation. It
is said that Obama’s Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) will
de-industrialise Germany and France. Thus industrial Donbass has good
reasons resisting its inclusion in the Ukraine, unless this will be a
federated state leaving much of its authority to the provinces. Kiev
prefers war depopulating the region.
So in Ukraine I found a follow-up to dramatic events of 1990s. Who will
win: the next generation of Gorbachev’s reformers in the nationalist
folkish dress – or the industrial workers? Perhaps Putin could answer
this question, but he is not in haste. In the second article we shall
look at Moscow and its recent moves.
• Category: Foreign
Policy • Tags: Russia, Ukraine
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