We Asked Post-Soviet Leftists What the Western Left Is Getting Wrong on Ukraine

"The world has changed – we can no longer use a unipolar framework to understand it."

by Diyora Shadijanova

31 March 2022

A woman with short brown hair and glasses, wearing a burnt orange tshit and a patterned shirt, stands in front of some concrete steps.
Oksana Dutchak

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, our TV channels, newspapers, social media platforms and group chats have been flooded with analyses trying to make sense of the unfolding situation. Everything from Nato expansionism, Europe’s racist refugee policies and neo-Nazis in Ukraine to whether reuniting the Soviet Union would be good, actually, Putin’s “childhood trauma” and Zelenskyy’s comedy career has been debated endlessly.

Yet throughout all this, I’ve had an unsettling feeling that some leftists I know have been hesitant in their analysis of the war because they’re not sure how their opposition to western imperialism maps onto it. Many of my friends and family have either been extremely quiet (understandably, given how complex the situation is) or have spouted iterations of Kremlin revisionist history that uses western hypocrisy to deflect from Russia’s war crimes. As someone who grew up in Uzbekistan, a country once part of the Soviet Union and with deep historical and economic ties to Russia, it’s been disheartening to see – as has a widespread lack of engagement with leftist voices from Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries.

Reductive arguments I keep hearing again and again mostly focus on the Cold War, ignore both Russia and Ukraine’s political ambitions post-1991, and offer little by way of insight in 2022. In the eyes of those who think like this, people are either team Nato or team Russia – there’s no in-between. Lives being lost in the war have become mere pawns in the wider game of arguing ideology. Some insist these views are marginal, tucked away in dusty corners of “extremist” online spaces. But these are genuine views I’ve come across in real life which only seem to have grown more polarised since Russia’s invasion.

I’ve even begun to wonder if apologist narratives justifying Russian aggression from western leftists are a manifestation of western imperialism, in the sense that everything is positioned as a byproduct of the West. It’s in this context that the term “Westplaining” has emerged. I don’t like this term because I don’t think identity inherently determines whether someone’s position is correct and because outside of the usual criticisms, Nato expansion in Europe and its approach to Russia has been a failure, as many post-Soviet leftists agree. Yet there’s something to be said about parts of the western left being both loud and wrong about the invasion while ignoring leftists living under Putin’s sphere of influence regarding the material realities of their respective countries.

Why does this matter? Because without a unified showing of international solidarity with the victims of this war, or any effective anti-war efforts, it will only grow uglier and more lives will be lost.

I wasn’t sure whether I was alone in these frustrations, so I spoke with other leftists from ex-Soviet countries about how and why some parts of the western left are failing not just in their analysis of the Russian invasion, but also in their solidarity. Here’s what they had to say.

The below interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

‘The world has changed – we can no longer use a unipolar framework to understand it.’

Oksana Dutchak, 34, is a sociologist studying female labour in the context of capitalism, and co-editor of the leftwing Ukrainian journal Common Struggle. Normally based in Kyiv, she is currently in western Ukraine.

What was evident from the beginning of the war was that many leftists, not only western ones, used dogmatic slogans instead of analysis. They didn’t even bother analysing what was happening on the ground and instead have been repeating the same old truth that has stopped being relevant some years ago. I also didn’t realise how different the situation would be now, however the world has changed – we can [no longer] use a unipolar framework to [understand it]. At least on the regional level, we are now speaking of another hegemony and [imperial power].

Luckily it’s not everyone; many people analysed and condemned what was happening instantly. But there is also this kind of logic when people recognise that yes, Russia is doing bad things, but at the same time, they’re trying to explain its action by referring to the actions of Nato and western countries, which is kind of weird because it denies agency [to] Russia; any country has the [option] to not react to provocation.

I also understand where it comes from: since the ‘90s, we have lived in a single hegemony. Yet this is precisely why the materialist left should analyse material reality and see how the power dynamics are changing.

This is partially [due to] a very western-centric way of thinking. Today, for example, I came across an online event organised by a British leftist group on the Ukrainian situation, and there was not a single Ukrainian person speaking. There are speakers from the decolonisation perspective, but not a single person from Ukraine. This points to some systemic mistakes in how we construct leftist knowledge.

‘It’s sad because we’ve had years to establish a serious anti-war movement to critique the Ukrainian invasion.’

Maria, 36, is an academic working on the Soviet legacy of the early revolutionary period from a Russian town close to the border of eastern Ukraine. She is currently based in London.

I think what has been frustrating is that even eight years ago, after the seizure of Crimea and all the events which then took place in the Donbas region, some of us here in London tried to bring the unfolding conflict to people’s attention. There have been protests, publications and attempts to launch the debate on how the west should react to this. The same happened with Russia’s involvement in Syria and support of Assad there. We found that it was very hard to not only organise an anti-war movement but also to have a serious discussion about the role of Russia.

We reached out to the Stop The War coalition, which you think would have been a good place to start as they protested against the Iraq war, but the group completely ignored us and supported the narrative of the Russian government about Syria and Ukraine. Overall, I think the tendency was just to blame the US in all this conflict and ignore the shifting geopolitical infrastructures after 1991 and the dangers they might bring.

I think you can link this to Nazism and paramilitary groups in Ukraine and the exaggerated narrative about them. There is no Nazi president [of Ukraine] no[r any] Nazi party in power. However, as a consequence of this war, the ideas might gain more popularity, not only in Ukraine but also in Russia. Violence produces violence, and the longer this war goes on, the worse it is for the entire post-Soviet space. Nationalism gets even more aggressive and people feel more “patriotic” because war tends to militarise minds.

It’s sad because we’ve had years to establish a serious anti-war movement to [critique] the Ukrainian invasion more coherently both politically and theoretically. Still, we lost this time because instead, we watched different marginal left groups competing over this kind of anti-Nato discourse. [Now], it [is] clear how this anti-Nato discourse is helpless to tackle what is going on. I think this has been the most frustrating thing to see overall regarding the left, especially in the UK, which has a strong tradition of anti-war movements and internationalist solidarity.

[Another issue is that] many contemporary left groups support Putin because they still identify Russia as the Soviet Union. So they think that it actually struggles with Nazism and they fail to understand that Russia now is a different state, that the Soviet Union collapsed. The Russian Federation is a different state and [while] of course it draws on some Soviet aspirations, [this is mostly] a cynical ideological [attempt] to reclaim the Russian imperialist agenda of the nineteenth century; Putin borrows many Stalinist and post-Stalinist ideas as well and also plays with the memory of the second world war and the anti-fascist movement. Essentially what [he] wants is to seize Ukraine and create a new state: a [union] of [the] Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine.

‘There’s been a lack of engagement with the left in eastern Europe and in post-Soviet countries.’

Severija Bielskytė, 28, is an NGO worker from Lithuania who lives in London.

I think there’s been a tendency to navel-gaze within some factions of the British left. And over time [that] means people don’t really understand the perspectives of leftists from eastern Europe or post-Soviet countries. Either that or they romanticise the Soviet Union. One example of this was when people were reluctant to even talk about Ukraine and Russian aggression in the years leading up to the invasion.

Perhaps our energy should be going into looking at how we can build alliances with the left in Ukraine and support them in whatever happens next I’ve said [the same] to my comrades in Lithuania.

Something that the Ukrainian left has called for is alleviating debt; which comes under the critique of the global financial system that the western left is great at analysing. So why aren’t we amplifying those calls?

What I’ve been talking about with other Lithuanians is that we essentially need to disentangle ourselves a little bit from the western leftist thought and start developing our own links across ex-Soviet countries.

‘Because many western leftists are anti-establishment, I wonder if they feel they must see some value in what Russia is doing.’

Aizada Arystanbek, 27, is a sociology PhD student from Kazakhstan who is based in New York.

Because I study sociology, I think about how people tend to think in binaries a lot of the time, as it helps them to oversimplify a situation. But doing so also makes them prone to choosing sides, feeling like they have to be pro-something or [anti-] something. Because many western leftists are anti-establishment, I wonder if they feel [they must] see some value in what Russia is doing.

Many see the Ukrainian invasion as a conflict between two actors, but they don’t realise that all of this has a chain reaction across the region: Central Asia, Georgia, Armenia. Some people are “stanning” Zelenskyy while others say “death to Putin”, but all of this overlooks the systems that normalise totalitarianism.

A big concern for me is how the war will affect central Asia and how the region may become collateral damage. We’re talking specifically about the collapse of very fragile economies and poor people getting poorer and lacking access to many things.

Then there is the fear that many people have in central Asia – and specifically in Kazakhstan, because we share a long border with Russia – about where Putin’s eyes will fall next. And then we’re also thinking about how people are now relocating from Russia to Central Asia, and how this throws us back in a lot of our own [post-Soviet] processes and struggles specifically when it relates to language and [decolonial] social movements. All of those things are incredibly important and they are going to echo in the region for like decades to come. But this [doesn’t seem] very interesting to anyone outside the central Asian and post-Soviet regions.

Diyora Shadijanova is a multimedia journalist and an editor at gal-dem magazine.

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