This interview with VT, an anarchist based in Donetsk, was conducted by the Russian anarchist group Avtonomnoe Deistvie, in early May – that is, before the intensification of military conflict and the Kyiv government’s “anti terrorist operation”. So VT comments not on the effect of the conflict, but on the character of the separatist movement and its relationship to the working-class community – and that is why I publish it here. GL.
Are there anarchist groups in the Donbas?
Anarchist activity is low, there isn’t much of it. So its influence on the political situation is small. There are “unorganised” anarchist groups in several cities in the Donbas: Donetsk, Avdiyivka, Kramatorsk, Horlivka, Mariupol, and Yasynuvata. Each group probably includes less than ten people. There is also a Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists (RKAS), but their last action was a march organized on 1 May, 2013. The activity of these groups varies: from organizing five-a-side football tournaments, concerts, agitation (stickers, graffiti), through occupying the Donetsk Regional State Administration Building (DonOGA). But their activity isn’t systematic. These groups function more like groups of friends.
What is really going on in your part of the world?
The events in our region can be described as a gangster-police putsch, presented in “people’s” wrapping. The whole violent wing is represented by former and current employees of the MVD [Ministry of the Interior], former soldiers, paratroopers, and military specialists, with the support of petty and less petty criminals and unemployed marginal elements. It can’t be called an uprising of Russian nationalists, because until these events the nationalists’ strength and influence hardly outweighed that of our own movement. You can judge the nationalists’ numbers by looking at the “Russian parade” that took place in Donetsk in November of 2013. Russian nationalists mobilized all their support for that. But in the recent events the nationalists happened to be in the right place at the right time, and now they provide political cover for the openly police-run state of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The mass character of the anti-Maidan movement is conditioned by significant financial and armed support from local “businesspeople” and strongmen. And of course from the Ukrainian bureaucracy and citizen-nationalists, who let themselves be carried away by the turns of events and by the enormous information war that is carried out in the mass media and on online social networks; by the inaction of the police; and especially by the commercial interests of various groups.
Is there any room for libertarian influence in the anti-Maidan movement?
Not really, it seems to me. We’ve been numerous times on the barricades. Some of our comrades are permitted to enter the occupied DonOGA building and have spent nights on the barricades. They spoke with the people there and saw the situation from within. We do not want to participate in that movement openly as a political force, because the entire movement is foreign not only to our specific beliefs, but to the very thought of struggling for freedom and rights. So everything we do in the movement we do on a personal level, but this hasn’t yielded any noteworthy results, because the rank and file of the protests – whose political literacy is very, very low –don’t analyse what is going on around them; they repeat slogans and chants and often spread distorted rumors or flagrant misinformation. Or they spread totally insane fears about poisoned water in reservoirs, about hundreds of buses full of members of Right Sector [a grouping of Ukrainian fascist and ultranationalist groups] heading for the city, etc.
Until the recent events, all political forces in the Donbas were weak, and the main factors shaping political opinion were the mass media and several political talk shows that were watched by a majority of the population. The young people who have been participating in the anti-Maidan movement are for the most part unemployed; they come from the lowest social strata, and they are often under the influence of alcohol or even stronger drugs. They explain their presence by saying that they are “against fascism”, “For the Donbas! For Russia!” or “against the Banderists [Ukrainian nationalist militiamen], the Jews, and the USA”. The fact that they are following the orders of former or current cops, against whom only six months ago they would have been willing to “draw their knives”, doesn’t matter anymore. It’s absurd: some of these individuals “of all political stripes” shout “Berkut! Berkut!” [That’s a Ukranian special police force, accused during the Maidan protests of killing protesters and subsequently dissolved by the new Ukrainian government.] And as I said, many of the ordinary protestors have a clear economic interest in uniting with Russia. Retirees want higher pensions; armed militants want to remain in their positions with higher salaries; the unemployed want to work in Russia; businesspeople want tariff-free access to the markets of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and they want gas at local Russian prices for their factories and firms. These kinds of considerations are foreign to libertarian thought; they mean accepting “strength and order,” in order “to have things as they are in Russia”.
Now the whole city is filled with checkpoints. It’s really a hellish rabble that gathers around them. It’s hard to give them any other name: bich-gopota [a violent subculture linked with petty crime, comparable to gangs], junkies, drunks, criminals, trash wearing masks and wielding guns. I was personally stopped by a man whose hands were covered in rings, and he tried to dig through my pockets. When I asked him, “What, no decree against thieves issued yet?…” he lowered his eyes and apologized. Overall, the situation in the city is strange: there are no police; there are no traffic controllers in the streets; it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any patrols in the city. According to their former co-workers, almost all the rank-and-file police changed uniform and are now on the barricades and at the checkpoints. People live today out of habit: they go to work, they pay for things in the stores, and there is little looting, but if something starts to shake the situation up, they real dance might begin.
Why do the police and the criminals come out in support of the DPR?
Already in the 1990s, although the Donbas was formally a part of Ukraine, all the power in the region (the SBU [state security], the MVD [interior ministry troops], the courts, the regional and municipal councils) were in the hands of a few criminal-oligarchical groups, whose names everyone knows very well. After the events in the Maidan they made it their mission: not to lose their positions. This is the main focus of their activity. One also can’t deny the pressure placed on the region by Russia: a very high percentage of industrial production in our region is exported through the port of Mariupol, and since the Crimea is now a part of Russia and the Sea of Azov has become de facto an internal Russian waterway, they don’t have a lot of room to maneuver. That’s only one pressure mechanism among many, it seems to me. We shouldn’t forget the profit motive either (as I said earlier, [the aspiration for] the removal of [customs] tariffs, cheap gas, and sales to Russia). And within the repressive apparatus it’s simple: functionaries want to keep their positions, and the lower ranks want to earn Russian salaries.
What does the RKAS do?
Members of RKAS participate in the DPR. I know one veteran of the labour movement, a miner. For many years he has been a part of practically every action organized by workers and students; he has organised strikes in the mines where he worked and has been fired more than once for his activity. He considers himself an anarcho-communist. He’s of the opinion that in so complicated a time he can’t just remain neutral, so along with his collaborators he joined barricade no. 1, right under the walls of the DonOGA. He’s been there since the beginning. They have a self-defense unit and call themselves the “Workers’ Front.” They call for nationalising industry, workers’ control, and so on. They understand that the base of the protest movement is formed by supporters of Russian imperialism, but they consider that they are forced to work together, exclusively in the fight against capital and oligarchy. In
addition, there are miners under a black flag who call themselves “Lava” [coal shaft], and they protest against the oligarchs, but in favor of Russia. In interviews with them they claim that they and other members of the RKAS, alongside those who’ve poured into Donetsk, are defending us against the imperialist aggression of the United States and Europe, and they are for the brotherhood of all Slavs within a single country – a USSR #2! All in all, opinions vary a great deal among the miners. Everything depends on emotions. Some love Ukraine; others want a USSR #2, still others dream of Russia or of life in the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, and they don’t have the slightest suspicion that this entity was created as a way of justifying an influx of Russian tanks. The latest events in our region – the unsuccessful counterterrorism operation, the victims from among the peace-loving segment of the population, and above all those who fell on 2 May in Odessa – these events have made an already tense situation still worse, and the so-called “insurgents” gain increasing support among the population. But the essence and goals of the DPR as such do not change.
How visible are Russian agents in the protests?
I can’t provide any reliable information about Russian agents, because none of us have access to that kind of information, and it would be pointless just to repeat rumors. If there really are some agents here, they don’t go around announcing their identity in public.
Do the “Workers’ Front” and “Lava” have any potential for the future?
It would seem that they don’t have much potential. Although formally the DPR operates on the basis of councils, in which the movements that took part in the Republic’s formation are represented, and the Workers’ Front is represented there, its influence on the activity and decisions of the DPR is minimal. Moreover, the decisions of the council are not in harmony with how the DPR responds to these decisions. And with the escalation of armed confrontation the military apparatus comes to the fore, and they have their own goals. The members of the Workers’ Front really only work with the DPR on the struggle against oligarchy and they try to “overlook” all else. In the Workers’ Front, elected representatives of the Communist Party of Ukraine have a lot of influence, and of course they can’t do without Great Russian Rhetoric. (Interview by Valeriy Listev, May 2014.)
Afterword by Gabriel Levy: This interview was published in Russian on 7 May by Avtonomnoe Deistvie (Autonomous Action) in Russia, and has also been published in Czech. I am publishing it here in English for the first time – with thanks to the translator – because, although it is a little out of date, it makes important points about the character of the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which is a key issue of discussion among socialists, communists and anarchists in the UK and internationally. The interviewee, VT, argues that – notwithstanding the fact that some workers are participating in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – it is a movement in which former policemen and criminals comprise the front line, using reactionary Russian nationalist ideas as an ideological cover. This is a counterweight, from an activist who lives in Donetsk, to those living far away who glamourise this movement as “anti fascist”. (For chapter and verse on that glamourisation, see Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski’s polemic with Russian leftists-turned-nationalists here.) I have published other articles reporting news from friends and comrades in eastern Ukraine here, here (specifically on Odessa), here and here (on the Crimea annexation).
Some friends have accused me of a disproportionate obsession with combating the idea of an “anti fascist” uprising in Ukraine. I have two answers.
1. This is important not just for Ukraine but internationally, because the spiral degeneration of the traditional “left” has taken a new turn: in the face of mountains of evidence that the separatist “republics” are led by fascists and ultra-nationalists, people who call themselves socialist try to identify these movements as something anti-fascist or anti-imperialist. This is linked with a view according to which what matters is not the class struggle and the action of masses of people to change their lives, but the geopolitical confrontation between the US and other capitalist powers … and therefore Putin’s government, which so successfully guards the interests of international capital in the former Soviet space, should somehow be given support “against imperialism”. What a degeneration, since the 1970s! Then, Communist party members used to denounce angrily all types of anti-Stalinist communism (Trotskyist, anarchist, libertarian, left communist, etc) on the grounds that, by criticising the Soviet Union, they were undermining the “workers’ state” and the “gains of the October revolution”. Those Communist party people, who had never seen with their own eyes the anti-worker dictatorship in the USSR, were wrong – but I could understand their wrong logic. Now, people come to socialist meetings and praise not the “socialist” Soviet Union, but openly declared fascists such as Pavel Gubaryov, one of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic. (I’m not exaggerating. At a meeting (reported here) of the Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity group in the UK parliament, a supporter of the “anti fascist” campaign loudly insisted that she supported Gubaryov “because he was the first to take up arms against the Nazi junta in Kiev”.) To my mind, anti-fascism in Europe needs to define itself against “anti fascism” that sides with the ultra-nationalists of the DPR, and Putin’s government, which has so viciously repressed Russian anti-fascists.
2. It’s obvious that the character of the DPR is not the only important issue in Ukraine. The development of working-class struggle against the right-wing government in Kyiv, against its militarism, and against the emergence of armed fascist groups in western and central Ukraine, is all important. That’s why I’ve published stuff about those issues on this site. But I’m not running a newspaper responsible for some kind of “balance”, or pretending to be a socialist “party” with all the answers. I am trying to offer comment where it might be useful. And … discussions and disagreements about the political situation in central and western Ukraine, important as they are, will probably not redefine the “left” – but putting to rest the phantom of “anti fascism” in the east might do. 20 July 2014.
Hi Gabriel! To my mind you are doing a valuable job in posting these opinions from within Ukraine. I also agree with your critical assessment of much of the left. My own take on Ukraine and the hypocritical posturing of the neo-liberal elite over the downing of flight MH17 is at critical-mass.net regards, Roy