The tragedy in Odessa and the inexorable logic towards fratricidal war in Ukraine – a discussion
Reprinted below is a statement entitled “No-one wants to die” by Ilya Budraitskis, published in Russian on the Open Left web site in Russia. I have taken the English translation from the blog People and Nature, by Gabriel Levy, which has also carried a useful eye-witness report on the events in Odessa. When I posted the link to this statement on Facebook, it prompted comments from two of my Facebook friends. I am reprinting their comments, and some of my own, at the end of the statement by Budraitskis.
“No-one wants to die”: After Odessa, “remaining human” as a political programme.
In the two days that have passed since the tragic events in Odessa, we have heard dozens of versions of what happened. And all of these versions have been, one way or another, linked to the search for a “hidden hand” that sent two armed groups of demonstrators to clash with each other, and pushed one of them into the slaughterhouse at the House of Trade Unions. Most of these versions – from those of official Kyiv to those of Russian propagandists – point to the local police, who in a conscious and organised manner held back from any attempt whatsoever to prevent the mounting violence.
These versions of events as a rule then offer an explanatory “scenario”, that works in favour of one or other side: Yulia Timoshenko [former Ukrainian prime minister] will sabotage the 25 May [presidential] elections [in Ukraine] in order to ensure her own victory in future; the Kyiv government will intimidate the “separatists” and pin responsibility for a bloodbath on their supporters; the Russian government will get more than convincing arguments to discredit supporters of the [Kyiv] “junta”; the [former Ukrainian president] Yanukovich clan will push Russia into open [military] intervention.
In a way, each of these versions sound convincing to us – Russian and Ukrainian people – because we know that none of the forces mentioned would stop at carrying out any crime in order to achieve their ends. This readiness to make victims out of one’s own citizens was always a necessary condition for selecting members of the post-Soviet elite. In that elite, there’s no-one, no-one at all, who is not morally capable of mass murder.
But whatever might have been the initial intention of whoever organised the Odessa tragedy, there will be – or, more likely, already is – another result: the logic of civil war has been let loose, and it is now almost impossible to stop it. For the last month – with its expectation of military operations, occupation of buildings, hostage taking, local skirmishes in Donbass – many people nonetheless retained the timid hope that the whole process was being managed somehow by somebody, and that that meant that it could be stopped. The principal basis for such expectations was not only the will of Putin, the western powers or the Kiev government – but the fact that the majority of Ukrainians were simply not prepared to kill each other.
But we need to remember from the not-so-distant history of the 1990s that feeling of that awful crossing-over of a border: friendly neighbours, “soviet people”, who over decades had forgotten how to divide each other into “enemies” and “friends”, suddenly, within a few days, lose any human characteristics and become absolute beasts, the possible existence of which was known only from patriotic films about the fascist invasion.
That was how, after the question of the “state language” was raised, the war in Transdniestr started. That was how Serbs and Croats reached a point of no return, at that notorious football match in Split. All this is too well known not to understand that the losers in these wars are all the participants, without exception. Revenge for the first victims just produces new ones – and provides the basis for new and just acts of retaliation. This is the most frightful result of the Odessa events: for both sides, they have made any vengeance, even the most brutal, justified and inevitable.
In the flames that erupted at the House of Trade Unions it was not hard to see the depths of barbarism into which Ukraine could easily sink. Depths, the extent of which seem not to be fully understood by a single one of the bastards who choreographed the clashes on the 2nd of May. Not so long ago, the demand to “remain human” would have sounded like a completely abstract desire. Now, after the Odessa slaughter, it has turned into a political programme.
My introductory comment attached to the Facebook post
This opinion on the significance of the events in Odessa is worth thinking about. It reminds me of the stance on war taken by Jose Marti: ““He who wages war in a country when he can avoid it is a criminal, just as he who fails to promote war which cannot be avoided is a criminal.” Marti was no pacifist – he led a necessary war – but he still regards those who promote a war that can be avoided as criminal.
Comment by Ernesto Oleinik
I read this article James Robb and I appreciate your comment: still, no matter how hard I try, the article gives me the impression of putting a “plague on both your houses.” (A marked tendency I have noted among a lot of Russian – and even Ukrainian – “leftists”.)
Take this for example: “In a way, each of these versions sound convincing to us – Russian and Ukrainian people – because we know that none of the forces mentioned would stop at carrying out any crime in order to achieve their ends.” Yes, working people are being killed – or killing each other – and working people are to be found in the pro-Russian “camp”.
That is true, as it is true they are objectively acting against their own class interests, when marching with St Georgis ribbons and other czarist symbols in the pro-Russian demonstrations against Ukrainian unity and sovereignty. (I personally think a lot of the middle-class lefts statements about a preponderance of workers in these pro-Russian groups are greatly exagerated.) It is true that there have been a lot of different accounts, and many facts we do not know.
And nonetheless, I think it would be a political default to right now not put squarely the political responsibility for the events in Odessa at the feet of the Putin capitalist regime. (With the complicity of the police forces, the Kiev bourgeois government and US imperialism, each for its own class reasons.)
Thanks for your comment, Ernesto. I hesitated for a long time before posting it, for exactly the same reasons. I agree the article is ambivalent, at best, on the question of the Putin regime bearing the primary responsibility for the events in Odessa and eastern Ukraine. However, I decided to post it anyway, for this reason: I think the working class has a vital interest in avoiding war at this point.
One goal shared by all the bourgeois forces involved – the Kremlin, Kiev, Washington and the EU – is to disperse and demobilise the uprising that overthrew Yanukovich. And nothing would achieve this shared goal more effectively than a fratricidal Yugoslavia-type war. I think this article is correct to point to this danger. In Yugoslavia, too, at least one oppressed nationality – the Kosovar Albanians – was fighting for national sovereignty – and yet, due to the lack of a working class leadership anywhere in the region, I think the balance sheet of the entire series of wars that broke up Yugoslavia must be one of a huge setback to working class interests in the region.
This question is posed in very concrete way in Ukraine today, among those who defend a united Ukraine. I stand with those in Odessa who were marching for a united Ukraine – but especially with those who pushed the scaffolding over to the windows and allowed the pro-Russian demonstrators to escape the fire. I stand with those who formed a line to protect the pro-Russian demonstrators fleeing the fire from being torn apart by the angry crowd – even though those fleeing the fire may well have included snipers and firebomb-throwers. These actions showed real working-class discipline and resistance to the provocations by the rightists and fascists in both camps.
I feel far less inclined to say that I stand with the military action by Kiev to re-take Sloviansk that is under way right now. I defend a united Ukraine and oppose the provocations by Putin’s agents in Sloviansk. However, the most effective means to defeat the pro-Putin forces at this point is political discussion and the independent self-defence actions undertaken by workers organisations that rarely make the news. Intense political discussions are taking place among workers and others especially in eastern and southern Ukraine but also across the country right now in the political space that has been opened up by the overthrow of Yanukovich. Will the military drive by Kiev advance that process of political discussion? I very much doubt it – whether or not it is ‘succesful.’ I think the military action is closing off the political space that the working class deperately needs to defend (and at the same time providing political openings to Russia to intervene militarily with the same end).
I don’t claim to have all the answers, and am ready to be persuaded that I am wrong, making concessions to bourgeois pacifism, the ‘plague on both your houses’ position etc. But I am not yet persuaded of this. I would be very interested in hearing your response to these ideas, Ernesto, or anyone else.
Comment by Geoff Mirelowitz
I’d like to start with the obvious. I’m glad James posted the article because I think the article should be widely read. First because it is difficult to learn all the facts concerning this event (and others). This article helps fill out the picture of what happened. Second, I find myself agreeing with much of what James wrote above.
I am re-reading (again) New International # 11, “U.S. Imperialism has Lost the Cold War.” Again, as someone who voted enthusiastically for that resolution when it was adopted, I can see 25 years later that there are errors, especially errors of prognosis. But the resolution’s great strength is that it is firmly rooted in the traditions and continuity of the communist movement and in particular (for our immediate discussion here) the contributions made by Leon Trotsky in understanding the impact of the rise of Stalinism, the betrayal of the Russian Revolution and all the political, social and economic consequences that followed from it. I might add it is rooted just as firmly in the Leninist understanding of the connection between proletarian internationalism and active solidarity with all struggles against national oppression; in particular the lessons of Lenin’s final fight that, to quote the resolution, “The advance towards socialism is possible only on the basis of guaranteeing the right of national self-determination to all oppressed nations and nationalities…”
Back to the point at hand, I think there is no question that Moscow’s aggression, Putin’s restaking of Catherine the Great’s Great Russian territorial claims to “Novorossiya,” are the source of the current crisis. But that doesn’t answer all the questions about what fighting workers in the Ukraine should do in the very complicated situation they now face. Along those lines I think James’ instincts are right.
We should think about this point from the resolution: “What opens up with the disintegration of the Stalinist regimes…[is] the opportunity for workers to reconquer political space to defend and advance the class interests of the great toiling majority.”
Referring to those governments that then came into existence the resolution says, “While being prepared to march alongside these forces in actions aimed at busting up the previous secret-police regimes, communists oppose all the new governments, which are anti-working-class politically, as were the Stalinist apparatuses they are replacing.”
From this I draw two immediate conclusions. First, the recent tragedy in Odessa — and it is a tragedy — will be used by those who want to shut down the political space working people need and cut off the debate and discussion that is essential today. No matter how fully they had thought it through, this is exactly why those who rushed with ladders to try to save those inside, were doing exactly the right thing.
Second, among the political forces defending Ukrainian independence, especially those in the new government and those who seek to be in it in the future, are precisely forces that are as anti-working class politically as those who have come to constitute Putin’s government in Moscow. While taking a firm unequivocal stance for the Ukraine’s right to self-determination, fighting workers need to find a way to establish our own voice and, eventually our own party that can find a way forward. This article, whatever weaknesses it may have, strikes me as the voice of someone who is trying to find that way forward. The immediate response described to the recent events seems on the mark to me.
A few days ago another political friend of mine who has long experience fighting in the cause of the working class (and was tortured by the Pinochet regime in Chile for doing so) posted an article blaming the tragedy in Odessa on “fascists who had murder on their minds” – referring to the people marching for a united Ukraine. Earlier he had posted material, obviously drawn from an ultra-right website, sprinkled with anti-Semitic hints and full conspiracist garbage about how the Russian involvement in east Ukraine was purely a US invention. When I see experienced people like this losing their heads so badly on Ukraine, it reminds me of two things: the first is the importance of going back to the traditions and continuity of the communist movement – so thank you, Geoff, for the references to the New International and the historic experiences on which it is based.
The second thing it reminded me is how difficult it is to have a political discussion in times of war. It brought to mind some experiences in the time of the war in the 1990s that resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia.
In New Zealand at that time there was a very active Yugoslav society, serving the long-established Yugoslav community (some of whose ancestors migrated to New Zealand in the nineteenth century). As Croatia edged towards separation from Yugoslavia, there was a proposal in the Yugoslav Society to change its name to Croatian Society, since the vast majority of Yugoslavs in New Zealand were of Dalmatian, that is to say, Croatian origins. The proposal was rejected: the majority considered themselves Yugoslavs rather than Croats, and made the point that even if most were of Croatian origins, the society was open to all Yugoslavs. Then the military assault by the Serbian-dominated Army of Yugoslavia on Croatia escalated, and Croats were being killed in large numbers in the name of Yugoslavia. The proposal to change the name was put again, and again defeated. The third proposal to change the name of the Society was put only after the Yugoslav state had ceased to exist; even then the name Croatian Society was rejected as divisive, and the more neutral name Dalmatian Society was adopted.
Clearly, the fratricidal nationalism that fueled the wars of the 1990s in Yugoslavia was strongly resisted, by the Yugoslav diaspora and also in Yugoslavia itself. So why then did the country descend into this war so quickly?
I visited the Balkans in 1996, when the breakup of Yugoslavia was almost complete. The war in Bosnia had recently ended, and the struggle of the Kosovar Albanians had not yet developed into a war. In talking to people in Bosnia, I made the point of using the term Yugoslavia in preference to Croatia, Serbia, etc whenever I could, and sought out people who rejected the imposition of these narrower ethnic classifications.
Several people in Bosnia told me that they still considered themselves Yugoslavs, but added that it was hard to remain Yugoslav when people are shooting at you, shouting “kill the Muslims” [or Croats, or Serbs]. They told me you very quickly find that the only people you can depend on for your life are others who have also been deemed “Muslims”, and so you become a “Muslim” whether you like it or not. In the absence of a working class leadership capable of fighting for the interests of workers of all nationalities, it became impossible to avoid getting drawn into the ‘national’ conflict.
I think something similar is posed in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Odessa tragedy. The inexorable logic towards fratricidal civil war has been set in motion. While the Putin regime is chiefly responsible for this dangerous situation, just as the Milosevic regime was in Yugoslavia, I also believe that Kiev is as incapable of acting in workers interests as were Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic.
However, unlike in Yugoslavia, the situation in Ukraine has been preceded by a massive and determined struggle against the old corrupt regime of Yanukovic, in which the working class played a major role. The germ of independent working class leadership already exists.
The Militant reports in its May 12 issue, “The miner-led Donbass Self Defense Battalion issued an appeal April 28 to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov: “We call on you to involve Ukrainian patriots extensively to resolve this situation, help establish volunteer formations, coordinate our activities with those of the National Guard, and immediately give us arms.”
In the eastern cities of Krivii Rih, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and others local volunteer units have helped prevent pro-Moscow bands from taking over government buildings or carrying out other provocations.”
What these working class fighters need above all is the time and political space to develop this leadership and organisation. War would cut short both of those conditions.