Anarchism in the context of civil war (on Ukraine)‏

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Anarchism in the context of civil war

On Friday, the 2nd of May, the House of Trade Unions in Odessa caught on
fire. Altogether at least 42 people lost their lives during the clashes
in the city, most of them in the fire and the others in streetfights.
There is an excellent Russian language, eyewitness account of the events
available here.

Events began to unfold when armed pro-Russian AntiMaidan fighters
attacked a demonstration organised by football hooligans with
nationalist sympathies. This attack resulted in lethalities, but soon
the pro-Russians were overpowered. They escaped back to their protest
camp in the Kulikovo field, but pro-Kiev demonstrators followed and lit
the protest camp on fire. The pro-Russians then escaped to the House of
the Trade Unions, which soon caught on fire. The fire spreading, is
visible in this video. At the 2 minute mark, you can see a flame behind
a closed window, making it plausible that some of the fires were started
from the inside. For example, due to accidents with Molotov cocktails
which were used by both sides during the fight. However, you can also
see pro-Ukrainian nationalists throwing Molotov cocktails, making them
at least partially responsible for the fire.

There are doubts as to whether the core group of pro-Russians who
attacked the demonstration with firearms were outside provocateurs. But
certainly, there were people in the House of Trade Unions, who had
nothing to do with the attack. In a number of photographs, you can see
police protecting the core group of attackers. Otherwise, police were
very passive during the fire, and did not interfere in the events. Even
if the police were not part of a conspiracy, at the least, they acted
completely unprofessionally.

During the weekend, troops of the central government and local
«federalists» had been waging war in the city of Kramatorsk in Eastern
Ukraine. This means, that what is happening in the Ukraine can already
be considered a civil war. In the upcoming weeks, it will become clear
how widely the warfare will spread and if Russia will interfere.
I consider myself an expert on the Russian context as I lived in Moscow
for more than 12 years, but this does not mean that I am an expert on
the Ukrainian one. I have only visited the country three times in the
last years, and have hardly more than 20 friends there. Still, when
getting myself acquainted with the Ukraine, I quickly understood that
civil war could be a possible scenario there. All of my Ukrainian
friends, however, were absolutely certain, that nothing like that would
ever happen there. That even with all the differences between Eastern
and Western Ukraine, no-one was prepared to kill in their name. They
were convinced, that Ukraine could never become another Yugoslavia. All
of them had acquaintances, friends and loved ones on both sides of the
river Dnieper, both Ukrainian and Russian speakers. But if you only ever
take into consideration your own friends, you will fall into the trap of
scaling, obstructing those mechanisms which create hatred on a large scale.

War does not require personal hatred between people, geopolitical and
economical reasons are good enough for that. And in the Ukraine, the
geopolitical interests are far greater than in Yugoslavia. If you have
an interest in flaring up ethnic hatred or war, a rather small ethnic
rift is enough. A few abuses, murders, and kidnappings, and everyone
will be ready for battle. This has now succeeded now in Ukraine, just as
it has succeeded in many other places.

At the moment, the Western «left» seems to be pretty much clueless in
terms of the events taking place there. This is because the «left,»
broadly speaking, is not a very useful concept in the former Soviet
Union, as it can mean anything from social-democrats and anarchists, to
stalinists supporting Putin. Personally, I prefer to always write the
word in quotation marks. I identify with anarchists, not the «left,»
since, for quite a while now anarchists have been the only political
force in Russia which united the ethos of opposing racism, sexism and
homophobia to the ethos of social equality. Until very recently, there
had not been much of any Western «new left» in Russia, with the
exception of a handful of Trotskyists.

A split within the «left» in Ukraine is completely predictable and even
necessary. In Kharkiv the streetfighting, Stalinist organisation,
«Borotba» (meaning Struggle) has been on the opposite side of the
anarchists. In this region of the former Soviet Union, 99.9% of the
«left» will always support imperialism for the sake of «being with the
people.» It is about time that anarchists refuse the «left» label. We
have nothing in common with these people.

But anarchists, too, can be easily manipulated with buzzwords such as
«self-organisation» and «direct democracy.» For example, Boris
Kagarlitsky, a Russian intellectual widely known amongst the Western
«left» and a frequent guest of World Social Forums, has found favorable
ground in the West by using these buzzwords.

Apparently, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchists could not foresee the
developments which lead to the civil war. Maidan had only been discussed
from the point of view that it could offer something better than the
Yanukovich regime. It was not expected that Russia would react to a
Maidan victory with a conscious escalation of the conflict, and which
could eventually lead to civil war.

Whereas Russia is the major propaganda machine and arms provider in the
conflict, Western countries are not doing much better, as they only
acknowledge the interests of the new government in Kiev and present the
movement in Eastern Ukraine as mere Russian puppets.The armed wing of
the «federalists» are definitely Kremlin puppets, but if it were not for
the widespread discontent and protests against the new regime in Kiev,
this armed wing would not have emerged.

I do not believe that a civil war was the Kremlin's aim. First of all,
it wanted to destablizie Ukraine to the maximum in order to have Kiev
give up any attempts to gain back control over Crimea. Now the situation
is out of the Kremlin's control, and it may have to send regular troops
to Ukraine in order to fulfill the promise of support it has given to
the «federalists.»

The government in Kiev has given so many «final ultimatums» which were
quickly forgotten, and has announced so many unexisting «anti-terrorist
operations,» that it is clear it has very few battle-ready troops. A few
times, the central government troops have actually taken action and the
results have been tragi-comic. Thus, the government understands that
it's still in question whether it would succeed in a full-scale civil
war. However, it also understands, that war can help discipline society
and stabilize the new order to the extent, that any promises given to
Maidan would be forgotten. With time, both sides have come to understand
that a full-scale war might be necessary for their interests, even if
neither was initially planning for this.

Disagreements within the anarchist movement

Over the course of events, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchist movements
have split into three different sides. A first group concentrated on
producing internet-statements against both sides of the conflict. For
them, keeping out of any social processes is a matter of principle, and
they only want to monitor and assess. Participation in the social
protest is not a goal for them, as they prefer to keep their hands
clean. Since every process has input from either disgusting liberals,
hated nationalists, awful stalinists, all three at the same time, or
other undesirables, one can never fully participate in anything and the
only alternative is to stay home and publish statements on the internet
about how everything is going from bad to worse. However, most of the
time these statements are just self-evident, banalities.

A second group, was made up of those who got excited about all the
riot-porn and anti-police violence in Kiev, without considering who was
carrying out this violence and in whose interests. Certain antifascists
drifted as far as to defend the «national unity» in Maidan, and
threatened particular Kiev anarchists due to their criticism of Maidan
and refusal to participate. Most of the people in this camp are just
fans of anti-police violence without any theoretical frame, but some
want to give Maidan an imagined anti-authoritarian flavor, by equating
the general meeting of Maidan («Veche») with the revolutionary councils
established during 20th century revolutions. They base this claim on the
social demands occasionally presented at Maidan, but these demands were
always at the periphery of the Maidan agenda.

One of these peripheral demands was the proposal that oligarchs should
pay a tenth of their income in taxes and was generally in tune with
nationalistic populism. However, the demands of the Kiev Maidan were
still far from returning the billions stolen by oligarchs back to
society. In Vinnytsa and Zhitomir, there was an attempt to expropriate
factories owned by German capital , but this was the only case going
beyond the national-liberal context that I am familiar with.

In any case, the main problem at Maidan wasn't the lack of a social
agenda and direct democracy, but the fact that people did not even
demand them. Even if everyone kept repeating that they did not want
another «orange revolution» like in 2004, nor for Yulia Timoshenko to
return, at the end of the day chocolate industrialist Poroshenko and
Vitaly Klitchko are leading the polls. This was the choice the people
made as they grew weary of the revolutionary path as proposed by the
radical nationalists of the Right sector. As of now, people want to
return to «life as usual,» to life before Yanukovich, and are not
prepared to make the sacrifices that further revolutionary developments
would demand. Representative democracy is indeed like a hydra, if you
cut one head, two will grow in its place.

However, none of the fears of «fascist takeover» have materialized.
Fascists gained very little real power, and in Ukraine their historical
role will now be that of stormtroopers for liberal reforms demanded by
the IMF and the European Union — that is, pension cuts, an up to five
times increase in consumer gas prices, and others. Fascism in Ukraine
has a powerful tradition, but it has been incapable of proceeding with
its own agenda in the revolutionary wave. It is highly likely, that the
Svoboda-party will completely discredit itself in front of its voters.
But anyone attempting to intervene, anarchists included, could have
encountered the same fate — that is, to be sidelined after all the
effort. During the protests, anarchists and the «left» were looking
towards the Right sector with envy, but in the end all the visibility
and notoriety, for which they paid dearly, was not enough to help the
Right sector gain any real influence.

If Kiev anarchists would have picked the position of «neutral observers»
after Yanukovich had shot demonstrators, it would have completely
discredited them. If after being shot, the working class, or more
exactly «the people,» that is, the working class along with the lower
strata of the bourgeoisie, would have failed to overthrow Yanukovich,
Ukrainian society woul have fallen into a lethargic sleep such as the
one Russian and Belarusian societies are experiencing. Obviously, after
the massacre there was no choice left except to overthrow the power, no
matter what would come in its place. Anarchists in Kiev were in no
position to significantly influence the situation, but standing aside
was no longer an option.

And thus, we come to the third, «centrist,» position taken by
anarchists — between the brainless actionism and the «neutral» internet
statements. The camp of realist anarchists understood, that even if the
Maidan protests pretty much lacked a meaningful positive program,
something had to be done or the future would be dire.

The limits of intervention

In Kiev, anarchists took part in a number of important initiatives
during the revolutionary wave — first of all the occupation of the
ministry of education, and the raid against the immigration bureau by
the local No Border group, which was looking for proof of illegal
cooperation with security services of foreign countries. But the most
succesful anarchist intervention was the one in Kharkiv, where Maidan
was relatively weak but also freeer of nationalistic influence.
Still, such centrism has its own problems. For one, you might
unintentionally help the wrong forces gain power, also discrediting
radical protest. A second problem would be that you might end up
fighting a fight which is not your own. When AntiMaidan attacked the
Maidan in the city of Kharkiv, its imagined enemy were not the
anarchists, but NATO, EU or Western-Ukrainian fascists. Since anarchists
had joined Maidan, it would have been cowardly to desert once the fight
started. Thus anarchists ended up fighting side by side with liberals
and fascists. I do not want to criticize the Kharkiv anarchists, after
all they made, perhaps, the most serious attempt among Ukrainian
anarchists to influence the course of events, but this was hardly the
fight, and these were hardly the allies they wanted.
And so, comes the point when desertion becomes imperative, and that is
when civil war begins. As of now, it's still too early to make any final
assessment of the anarchist attempts to influence Maidan, but after the
beginning of a civil war, Maidan will no longer play a role. From now
on, assembly will gradually turn to the army, and assault rifles will
replace Molotov cocktails. Military discipline will replace spontaneous

Some supporters of the Ukrainian organisation, Borotba (meaning
Struggle) and the Russian Left Front claim that they are attempting to
do the same things as the anarchists did at Maidan, that is, direct
protest towards social demands. But AntiMaidan has no structures of
direct democracy, not even distorted ones. It quickly adopted the model
of hierarchical, militaristic organisations. The AntiMaidan leadership
consists of former police and reserve officers. It does not attempt to
exert influence through the masses, but with military power and weapons.
This makes perfect sense, considering that according to a recent opinion
poll, even in the most pro-«federalist» area of Lugansk, a mere 24% of
the population is in favor of armed takeovers of government structures.
That is, AntiMaidan cannot count on a victory through mass demonstrations.

Whereas at its essence Maidan was a middle-class liberal and
nationalistic protest, supported by part of the bourgeoisie, AntiMaidan
is purely counter-revolutionary in tendency. Of course, AntiMaidan has
its own grassroots level. One could attempt to intervene, but an
intervention by joining would mean supporting a Soviet, imperialist
approach. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Borotba, the
Russian Left Front and Boris Kagarlitsky have all joined this Soviet
chauvinist camp. Intervening in Maidan made sense only as long as the
enemy were Berkut police forces and paid thugs. When the opponents are
mislead AntiMaidan participants, it no longer makes sense to fight in
the streets.

When looking at either side of the conflict one can see a dangerous
tendency, which every anarchist and anti-authoritarian will face in the
future: the recuperation of anti-authoritarian rhetoric and terminology
for the purposes of hierarchical ideologies. On the one side,
«autonomous nationalists» who have found sympathy amongst many
anarchists, and on the other, intellectuals such as Boris Kagarlitsky.
Both characterising warring factions with attributes such as «direct
democracy» and «self organisation.» In reality, these characteristics
are either present in a distorted form or not at all. When two different
flavors of nationalism are «self-organising» in order to maim and murder
each other, there is nothing to celebrate. Subsequent to the events in
Ukraine, it is clear that anarchists must explain the essential
difference between «self-organisation» and self-organisation to the world.

According to the opinion poll referenced above, in Eastern Ukraine as a
whole, only 12% of the population supports the «federalists'» armed
actions, whereas the Kiev government is supported by some 30%. The
remaining 58% supports neither, and in conditions of civil war, this is
the majority on which we should count. We should encourage desertion and
conflict avoidance. Under any other conditions, and if anarchists had
more influence, we could form independent units against both warring

Unarmed civilians have stopped bloodbaths in several places by moving in
between the troops as human shields. If not for this kind of civil
disobedience, a full-scale war would have been launched much earlier. We
should support this movement, and attempt to direct it against both
«federalist» and government troops simultaneously.
In case Russia reacts either by occupying parts of Eastern Ukraine or
the country as a whole, we could take the example of anarchist partisans
in World War II era France and Italy. Under such conditions, the main
enemy is the occupying army, as it will antagonise the whole population
very quickly. But it is also necessary to keep the maximum distance from
the nationalistic elements of the resistance, as any alliance with them
would hinder anarchists from realising their own program in the
framework of the resistance.

The events in Odessa are a tragedy, and it is possible, that among those
who died in the House of the Trade Unions were also people who played no
part in flaring up the violence. People who threw molotov cocktails at
the House should have understood the consequences. Even if the fire
igniting was not solely due to them, it is not for lack of trying.

In case civil war spreads, these deaths are just the beginning. No doubt
that on both sides the majority only wants a better life for their close
ones and their motherland, and many hate governments and oligarchs to an
equal extent. The more sincerely naïve people die, the greater the
pressure to support one of the factions in the war, and we must struggle
against this pressure.

Whereas it may occasionally be worth it to swallow tear gas or to feel
the police baton for a bourgeois revolution, it makes no sense at all to
die in a civil war between two equally bourgeois and nationalist sides.
It would not be another Maidan but something completely ifferent. No
blood, anarchist or otherwise, should spill due to this stupidity.

Antti Rautiainen
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