It is impossible to understand what is happening in Ukraine today without some knowledge of its past.
The first stable state in Ukraine was Kievan Rus, established by the Scandinavian Varangians who settled in Kyiv in the late ninth century CE; only in 1654 was Kievan Rus colonised by Russia. Indigenous Crimean Tatars constituted over 80% of the population of Crimea when it was annexed by the Tsarist empire in 1783 during the reign of Catherine the Great, who proceeded to settle it with Russian colonisers.
There was a revival of Ukrainian culture in the 19th century, in the latter part of which both nationalist and socialist parties grew as Ukraine was integrated more closely into the Tsarist empire as a provider of wheat and raw materials such as coal and iron, and as a market for Russian manufactured goods.
This was a typical colonial relationship; as Lenin observed in 1914: “What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme and getting nothing in return. Thus, the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs’.
It is therefore entirely understandable that it would have a national liberation movement, which succeeded briefly in establishing Ukraine as an independent Soviet Socialist republic from 1920-1922. The Crimean Tatars were also granted special status under Lenin.
All that changed when Ukraine was recolonised by Stalin in a process described by Raphael Lemkin as “the classic example of Soviet genocide”. The intelligentsia was destroyed by deporting, jailing or killing teachers, writers, artists, thinkers and political leaders; Ukrainian churches with hundreds of priests were destroyed; lay-people were killed and thousands were sent off to forced labour camps; and finally, in 1932–1933, around 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants – men, women and children – were deliberately starved to death. The dead and deported Ukrainians were replaced by non-Ukrainians, altering the ethnic composition of the country.
In 1944 the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse by Stalin; a crime against humanity in which almost half the population perished.
Russia was not the only country to occupy Ukraine in the 20th century; the Nazis, with their own genocidal agenda, also occupied it. Timothy Snyder argues that Nazi policies – including the Hunger Plan to starve millions of people in the winter of 1941; the Generalplan Ost to forcibly transport or kill millions more thereafter; and the ‘final solution’ to exterminate the Jews – were centred on Ukraine.
Consequently, some three-and-a-half million civilians in Ukraine – of which an estimated 1.5 million were Jews – were killed by the Nazis, in addition to roughly another three million Ukrainians who died as soldiers in the Red Army fighting against the Nazis. In fact, more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in WWII than inhabitants of Soviet Russia; more Ukrainians died fighting against the Nazis than French, British and Americans put together. In other words, Ukrainians played a crucial role in defeating the Nazis. At the end of the war, Ukrainians were subjected once more to Stalin’s rule.
Almost miraculously, the Ukrainian sense of national identity survived this horrendous history and in the referendum of 1991, 84% of the population participated and more than 92% voted for independence from the Soviet Union. When the votes are disaggregated by region, it is notable that every region had a majority in favour; the lowest majority (54%) was in Crimea, but in each of the majority-Russian-speaking Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, over 83% voted in favour.
This was partly because citizenship was defined not ethnically but inclusively, and although the constitution adopted in 1996 proclaimed that the state language would be Ukrainian, it also promised that ‘the free development, use and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed’. The positive outcome of the referendum cannot be attributed to interference by the US, because President George H.W. Bush was strongly opposed to independence for Ukraine.
This history puts Soviet-controlled Ukraine firmly in the category of colonies. Most of us refer to colonies and former colonies of Western imperial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America as the ‘Third World’ or ‘Global South’, sharply distinguished from the imperial powers that exploited and oppressed them. Yet, we are guilty of lumping together the imperial power with its colonies and former colonies in the Soviet Union. From this perspective, the disintegration of the Soviet Union can be seen as a process of decolonisation.
The main reason George H.W. Bush opposed Ukrainian independence in 1991 was that the new nation became the world’s third-largest nuclear power after the US and Russia. Negotiations to persuade Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons resulted in Ukraine signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear power, while on December 5, 1994, the US, the Russian Federation and the UK signed the ‘Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’ (the Budapest Memorandum).
Among other things, the signatories undertook to ‘respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine’ and to ‘refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine’.
The Russian Empire
The Tsarist Empire was an absolute monarchy, which was overthrown in 1917 by the Russian Revolution. Among the enormous challenges facing the revolution was the question of what to do with the colonies of Tsarist Russia. There was a debate on this issue between V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, with Lenin upholding the right of all colonial peoples to self-determination, but conceding to Luxemburg’s point that this should not result in handing over power to regressive, authoritarian regimes.
Lenin did not come to this position alone, but by listening to comrades from the colonies. During 1920 and 1921, Ukraine, Georgia, Byelorussia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were treated as independent republics.
In one of the articles that came to be called ‘Lenin’s Last Testament‘, Lenin expressed anguish that a close associate of Stalin had hit a Georgian Communist who disagreed with his plans to terminate Georgia’s independent status, and continued:
“It is quite natural that in such circumstances, the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves [against Western imperialist powers] will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant.
[…] I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism’, played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles…
In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation; the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation. In respect of the second kind of nationalism, we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. [He goes on to quote the racist epithets by which Ukrainians, Georgians and non-Russians in general are insulted.] …
The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of ‘nationalist-socialism’ (whereas he himself is a real and true ‘nationalist-socialist’, and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice…
Lenin made mistakes in theory and practice that we can debate, but his anti-racism, anti-imperialism and identification of ‘Great-Russian chauvinism’ as the Russian version of White supremacism set an example for all socialist internationalists to follow. However, he died soon after making these remarks, and Stalin went ahead with reducing the Tsarist ex-colonies back to the status of colonies. In Russia itself, his counter-revolution erased all the gains of the revolution except for the transition to state capitalism.
Stalin exterminated communists as ruthlessly as Hitler and converted the Communist International into an arm of the Russian state’s capitalist empire. His totalitarian state ruling Russia and its colonies was distinguished not only by its extreme brutality, but also by a systematic war on the truth, analogous to the Nazi use of the big lie repeated over and over again. Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler from August 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941 was possible only because the politics of the two men were so similar.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, a movement of disgust against the prevailing culture of corruption, lies and assaults on the dignity of the individual was already underway:
“A new moral atmosphere is taking shape in the country,” Gorbachev told the Central Committee at the January 1987 meeting where he declared glasnost – openness – and democratisation to be the foundation of his perestroika (restructuring) of Soviet society. Later, recalling his feeling that “we couldn’t go on like that any longer, and we had to change life radically, break away from the past malpractices,” he called it his ‘moral position.’
Democratisation, Gorbachev declared, was “not a slogan but the essence of perestroika.” That reforms gave rise to a revolution by 1989 [the fall of the Berlin wall] was due largely to another ‘idealistic’ cause: Gorbachev’s deep and personal aversion to violence and, hence, his stubborn refusal to resort to mass coercion when the scale and depth of change began to outstrip his original intent. (Leon Aron, Foreign Policy).
Gorbachev’s plans for a new treaty that would create a truly voluntary federation were thwarted by a coup against him by Stalinist hardliners in August 1991; the coup was met with public outrage and defeated, but Gorbachev was side-lined and the USSR, disintegrated. While the economic plunder and corruption which followed were disastrous, it should not be forgotten that in his own way, Gorbachev initiated a democratic anti-imperialist revolution.
This is what Vladimir Putin set out to reverse. The pretext for his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which violated the Budapest Memorandum, was the same as the pretext given by Hitler for the annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia: protecting speakers of Russian and German respectively and uniting them with their homeland. Instead of opposing this blatant aggression, British Premier Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier negotiated with Hitler and, on September 30, 1938, signed the Munich Agreement in the hope of avoiding war.
As we know, the outcome was World War II. Since then, the Munich Agreement has become a byword for the futility of appeasing expansionist totalitarian regimes. The Minsk Agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which was signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany and in Putin’s interpretation, allowed him to use the occupied Donbas territories to control the whole of Ukraine, were not quite so bad; at least the victims of aggression were allowed to participate in the negotiations and there were weak sanctions against the aggressor, which probably prevented Putin from launching an all-out war until he had sanction-proofed Russia.
But in 2022, even as the Western powers were talking about the Minsk Agreements, Putin tore them up by recognising Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.
Putin’s agenda is best expressed in his own words. In his speech on February 21, 2022, he claimed that the Ukrainian state had been created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks “by separating, severing, what is historically Russian land.” He fully supported Stalin’s counter-revolution, deploring only his failure to delete the reference to “the odious and utopian fantasies” about the right to self-determination from the constitution. His nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia comes through clearly.
At a press conference with Emmanuel Macron, he made his aim even clearer, quoting Soviet-era punk-rock lyrics to demonstrate what Russia wants from Ukraine: ‘“Whether you like it or don’t like it, bear with it, my beauty,” Putin said. Russia experts noted that Putin appeared to be quoting from “Sleeping Beauty in a Coffin” by the Soviet-era punk rock group Red Mold.
“Sleeping beauty in a coffin, I crept up and f***** her. Like it, or dislike it, sleep my beauty,” the English translation of the Russian lyrics reads.’ By invading and heading for Kyiv, he has confirmed that raping a dead Ukraine is his objective.
The difference between Stalin and Putin is that Stalin carried out a counter-revolution, but had to maintain the façade of being Lenin’s closest comrade, whereas Putin is openly anti-communist at home and abroad. In Russia itself, journalists, human rights defenders, whistle-blowers against corruption and even investigators into the Moscow apartment bombings of September 1999 (which unleashed an Islamophobic ‘war on terror’ against Chechnya and swept Putin to power in 2000) have been murdered; huge protests against rigged elections in 2011-2013 were met with arrests and police violence; opposition leaders were poisoned, framed and incarcerated.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead yards from the Kremlin after writing an op-ed about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, in which he said: “This is not our war, this is not your war, this is not the war of 20-year-old paratroopers sent out there. This is Vladimir Putin’s war… Through his bloody actions, though he is fomenting a fratricidal war, one can see his main goal – preservation of personal power and money at any cost… “
Despite censorship, little by little the society started to understand that those in power are greedy and amoral people whose main goal is personal enrichment.
Ukraine became an example of an anti-criminal revolution, which overthrew a thieving president. ‘Oh, so you dared to get out onto the street and throw off a president?’ Ukraine needs to be punished for it to make sure that no Russian would get these thoughts.
Historian and opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov outlines the anti-Muslim racism that accompanied Russian annexation of Crimea:
“The Tatars’ leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, current head of the Mejlis, have been barred from entering their homeland for five years and are now living in Kiev against their will… On May 18, the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, a day when many thousands of people usually assemble in the centre of Simferopol to remember and mourn, the Crimean authorities banned the gathering… The ban was an insult to the Tatar people, for whom the deportation remains the most terrible tragedy in their history.
Mosques, schools (madrasas), community centres, firms and private homes belonging to Tatars have been searched and raided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (‘anti-extremism’ special branch), prosecutors and the Special Purpose Police, as well as so-called ‘self-defence forces’. The Crimean Tatars’ only independent television station, ATR, has come under heavy pressure and many activists, journalists and bloggers have been forced to leave Crimea.
All these violations are set out in a report written by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, who himself visited Crimea. He pays particular attention to the killing, abduction and disappearance of people in Crimea.”
These Russian critics of Putin see the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine as part of his assault on democracy. Putin has extended this assault well beyond Russia by sponsoring extremist right-wing authoritarian groups and parties around the world, and is, in turn, admired by them.
Such parties from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain have a symbiotic relationship with his regime and neo-Nazis from Germany, Greece, Britain and Norway have praised him. White supremacists from the US have close ties with their counterparts in Russia, and former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Grand Wizard David Duke has travelled to Russia several times to promote his anti-semitic book, Jewish Supremacism.
The Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, whose brutal neo-Nazi Rusich unit was active in Donbas, has fought for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Khalifa Haftar in Libya, both guilty of crimes against humanity, and has been associated with mass murder and military coups in the Central African Republic, Mali and Burkina Faso.
With this assault on democracy has come an assault on the truth, magnified since Stalin’s time by new technology and social media. This was on full display in this latest crisis. Putin kept denying he was planning to invade Ukraine, and then he invaded it. But his state-controlled media call it a ‘special military operation’ and schools were forced to teach children Putin’s version of what was going on in Ukraine, while independent media and social media users who reported on what was actually happening, or so much as mentioned ‘attack’, ‘war’ or ‘invasion’, were blocked and threatened with fifteen years in jail.
What about Putin’s charge that “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism… have been elevated in Ukraine to the rank of national policy”? It is true that Ukraine has a history of anti-semitism and collaboration with the Nazis. It is also true that during the Euromaidan movement, the neo-Nazi Azov brigade played a disproportionately large role in responding to the violent crackdown by the Yanukovych regime.
Undoubtedly these facts are a cause for concern. But they have to be considered along with other facts: that far-right parties in Ukraine have consistently polled pathetically few votes; that Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew, won the last presidential election with a landslide majority; and that the neo-Nazi and anti-semitic forces on the Russian and separatist side, are incomparably stronger.
Zelensky himself, in an address to Russian citizens, asked, “How can a people support Nazis [when they] gave more than eight million lives for the victory over Nazism? How can I be a Nazi? Tell my grandpa, who went through the whole war in the infantry of the Soviet Army… You’ve been told I’m going to bomb Donbas. Bomb what? The Donetsk stadium where the locals and I cheered for our team at Euro 2012? The bar where we drank when they lost? Luhansk, where my best friend’s mom lives?”
Jason Stanley explains that Putin’s grotesque claim to be ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine by toppling a Jewish President whose family fought against the Nazis rests on the Holocaust-denying neo-fascist myth that the ‘real’ victims of the Nazis were not the Jews but Russian Christians. Putin is the living embodiment of the Stalin-Hitler Pact: the ex-KGB agent who has absorbed the fascist nostalgia for absolute power, imperial glory and blood-and-soil nationalism.
The culpability of Western imperialist powers
Numerous Western imperialist attacks on democracy in the very name of democracy have helped spread scepticism about democratic values. Most recently, the 2001 war on Afghanistan and 2003 war on Iraq violated and undermined international law. Perhaps as damagingly, given that the Taliban had virtually nothing to do with 9/11 and Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, they destroyed the credibility of Western media, creating an environment in which even well-researched and reliable reports could be dismissed as ‘fake’.
While Putin prepared for war after invading Ukraine in 2014, it was business as usual for the Western imperialist powers. Just a few examples illustrate this criminal negligence.
On September 30, 2015 Putin started bombing Syria to support his genocidal protégé Bashar al-Assad, targeting hospitals, schools, markets, residential neighbourhoods and mosques, with massive civilian casualties. Yet, on September 10, 2016, the Obama administration signed a ceasefire deal with him, treating the perpetrator of crimes against humanity as a partner in the ‘war on terror’. It is not surprising that the Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets were among the earliest to offer solidarity with the beleaguered Ukrainians.
Then, it is almost beyond belief that instead of diversifying their sources of energy, the EU allowed construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to go ahead, despite it being so clear that its purpose was to starve the Ukrainians into submission.
Thirdly, investigations have established that Russia provided at least social media support and probably also money to the Brexit campaign in the belief that it would weaken the EU, demonstrating the cosy relationship between Putin and this section of UK politics.
What can be done now?
It is too late to prevent the war, but how can it be ended as soon as possible?
The only people who can really end this war are the people of Ukraine and Russia and they should be given all the assistance they need. The Ukrainians need humanitarian and military aid to defend themselves as well as help to repel cyberattacks and convey what is happening to the rest of the world. Sanctions should target Putin’s inner circle of ex-KGB oligarchs until they vacate the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea: appeasement has been shown not to work. Refugees need to be cared for and solidarity demonstrations with Ukraine should continue.
Ways of communicating with the Russian public, bypassing the censorship, should also be found. Solidarity with the incredibly courageous anti-imperialist, anti-war activists risking arrest and jail to speak out and demonstrate against the Russian invasion in locations throughout Russia should be conveyed to them. It appears from some reports that the Russian soldiers invading Ukraine have been told, as American soldiers were told when they invaded Iraq, that the locals would welcome them as liberators, and are shocked to find out the real situation.
Ukrainians have two advantages over the Iraqis: (1) a democratically elected government and (2) the ability to speak the same language as the invaders, and some of them have been appealing to Russian soldiers. But these young soldiers, and their parents, should know that they are being sent to kill and die for Putin’s imperial delusions before they leave Russia; they should get accurate information about what is happening in Ukraine, and this is something that people outside Ukraine can help with; indeed, Anonymous is already operating a kind of modern samizdat.
What about NATO and security guarantees for Russia? Shortly before the invasion, Putin recognised the regime of Lukashenka – who couldn’t even win a rigged election in Belarus – and sent in troops to crush a popular uprising against the brutal regime in Kazakhstan. These are the kind of neighbours he wants – dictators whom he can dominate – and in his mind, NATO is the main obstacle to realising this dream.
The dreadful irony of the present situation is that, as Lithuanian socialists say in a statement of solidarity with Ukraine and the anti-war movement in Russia, NATO membership is probably the only thing that stands between them and a similar invasion.
So, winding up NATO is a worthy goal, but it will have to wait until Putin stops acting as its recruiting agent. In the meantime, progress towards global nuclear disarmament and moving weapons delivery systems back from both sides of Russia’s borders with its neighbours will help to guarantee Russia’s security as well as theirs. The UN, too, needs to be reformed to be able to achieve its goal of eliminating the scourge of war, and the first requirement is abolishing the veto powers of the permanent members of its Security Council.
Rohini Hensman is a writer and independent scholar whose book, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism, tackles the pernicious legacy of Stalinist imperialism.