Dzyuba: new edition of “Internationalism or Russification?”

3 06 2024

Ivan Dzyuba (Dziuba) passed away earlier this year. The dissident theorist’s role in developing what could have been Ukraine’s version of “socialism with a human face” (the movement that emerged under Czechoslovak Communist party leader Alexander Dubček before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to quash it in 1968) was an important one. Arrested and jailed in 1972, Dzyuba was silenced by the Soviet authorities until re-emerging as a literary critic in the 1980s and a political activist during the Perestroika years. He served as Ukraine’s Minister of Culture in 1992-94.

Dzyuba’s Internationalism or Russification? (1965) was a powerful, Marxist-based critique of Soviet nationalities policy as a continuation of the colonialism of the tsarist Russian empire. A new edition of the book has just been jointly published by the ecosocialist International Institute for Research and Education and anti-capitalist publishing house Resistance Books. It includes a new introduction by John-Paul Himka. Bohdan Krawchenko’s introduction to the book’s original English (1968) edition can be read at Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign’s tribute page to Dziuba. The earlier edition is also available at the Internet Archive and at Diasporiana (but please support the publishers of the new edition if you can).

Tributes to Dzyuba can be found in leftist (e.g., The Militant) as well as human-rights media (e.g., Euromaidan Press).

Kharkiv’s legacy: Slovo House

28 05 2024

As Russian attacks get ever closer to Kharkiv, striking publishing houses alongside megastores, it’s helpful to remind ourselves how important this Ukrainian “second city” is in the country’s history.

Taras Tomenko’s 2017 documentary Slovo House (Budynok Slovo) is a powerful and moving tribute to Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance — the generation of Ukrainian writers, poets, filmmakers, composers, and visual and theatrical artists that flourished for a decade or so in the 1920s before being silenced, many of them brutally executed, by Stalinist persecution in the 1930s. It focuses on the the Slovo (Word) artist’s residence in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, which housed dozens of the most creative minds in the country with their families.

A film like this can only be a first stab at documenting its subject matter. Its first half perhaps overfocuses on many of the artists’ bohemian lifestyles at the expense of detailing the ideals that drove them and with which they, in varying measure, hoped to build a new Ukraine. I wish it provided a bit more insight into what historian Mayhill Fowler, in her excellent Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine (U. of Toronto Press, 2017), calls the “unique connection between the arts and the state in the Soviet Union,” “a place where dictators called writers at home and personally involved themselves in the aesthetics of their work” (p. 3).

But by the time we get to the Holodomor of 1932-33 and the first arrests that began the years of purges, it becomes clear where the story is heading. The climax, to my mind, is the brilliant writer and theoretician Mykola Khvylovy’s 1933 suicide, by which he performatively accepted the blame for “the murder of an entire generation” for the crime of being “the most sincere Communists.” Ukrainian culture never truly recovered until the 1960s, and even then all too haltingly. Today’s arts scenes in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and elsewhere echo the brilliance of what seemed possible for a brief period a century ago. They also go far beyond it. (That will be a topic in my conversation with author Larissa Babij tonight, viewable online at 6 pm Eastern Daylight Time.)

While Slovo House suffers a bit from an underattribution of quoted materials, its formal elegance and rigorous research make it an important document. The film can be viewed in its complete form here:

2 years of “this sadistic violence of destruction”

24 02 2024

On the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what more can be said except that the invasion needs to end. For that, Ukraine needs more support. Negotiation cannot happen with someone who wants to eliminate you.

There are many excellent films that have been made to document the Russian war on Ukraine. Among the better post-invasion documentaries are Vitaliy Manskiy and Yevhen Titarenko’s Eastern Front, Oksana Karpovych’s Intercepted, Albina Kovalyova’s Occupied, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters, and the ones described here.

Perhaps the most riveting is Mstyslav Chernov‘s Academy Award nominated 20 Days in Mariupol, currently showing online at the PBS Frontline web site. The line quoted above is taken from the film. In perhaps the film’s climatic scene, Chernov, who wrote, narrated, directed, and produced the film, says, “If someday my daughters ask me ‘What did you do to stop this madness, this sadistic virus of destruction?‘ I want to be able to give them an answer.”

He’s able to give an answer because, against all odds, he survived to tell the tale, staying behind with a small Associated Press crew when all other international film crews had left Mariupol, and successfully getting out of the surrounded city on day 20. The city capitulated on day 86, but 20 days is sufficient for gauging the full horror of the experience for those who stayed behind. (The fall of Azovstal is another story, yet to be told in a suitable feature-length documentary. The same can be said of the bombing of the Mariupol Theatre, though Forensic Architecture’s and the Center for Spatial Technologies’ work on documenting the event has been incredibly valuable.)

The truth is that Chernov could easily have been killed, as other photographers, journalists, and filmmakers have been in the course of documenting this and other wars. Despite his previous experience as a war correspondent, the odds at the time of the filming were better that he wouldn’t have made it out alive, and that his daughters would have asked him, “Why did you leave us? What heroic urge were you pursuing against any odds of surviving the effort?” It’s our collective gain (and not just his daughters’) that Chernov survived to tell this tale.

What all these documentaries have in common is that they activate feelings of empathy and compassion for those who suffer in this war. In some cases they activate anger at those responsible for the suffering. They activate a sense of justice, according to which humans might get angry, might get into conflicts, but would never unleash mass murder on this scale — because it goes against the possibility of building a common world together.

War cheapens human life. It renders us into meat. War for sheer territorial gain cheapens it all the more.

The Putin government is counting on our society — the one that values human life and strives to follow norms that enable coexistence — not outlasting his society: the one in which a single group of people, an ethno-civilizational collectivity (in his twisted imagination) following a top-heavy, imperial script, gets to define what is right and what is wrong, and what story will be told to future generations.

Just as Hitler envisioned a future in which he would be messiah and the Nordic race would rule over humanity’s lesser classes, Putin has envisioned a story of the Russian race (or civilization, in his telling) in a similar position — not ruling over all humanity perhaps, just over its own domain, its “Russkii mir,” yet leading the entire world toward something known only to Putin himself.

Both are abominations — hysterical visions of worlds cleansed of otherness, purified and ordered so that only a certain image of humanity can endure and all others be ground into dust.

Modernity, Enlightenment humanism, cosmopolitan liberalism, or whatever it is that has spread over the planet in the last few centuries, has a very mixed track record of accomplishments. Some of them — colonialism, imperialism, extractive capitalism — have left behind deep scars on the earth and its people. Others — humanism and liberal democracy, for all their flaws — follow the best inclinations of our nature insofar as they see humans as alike and as equally worthy of life and of dignity. (We can continue debating the details, for instance, the virtues of liberalism as opposed to socialism, communitarianism, libertarianism, and so on, without disagreeing on these basic grounding principles.)

Putin’s war negates human dignity. It crushes difference, even — and perhaps all the more — the difference that is closest to one’s own perception of self. The “Russian soul,” so lauded by Russian poets and Russophilic western dreamers, is a dead one in Putin’s grip.

Two years of this full-scale war (and ten years of the war itself) is two years (and ten years) too many.

Zygar & Gladstone on Tucker’s Putin

14 02 2024

WNYC’s (NPR’s) On the Media has created a wonderful 17-minute segment examining the historical claims reiterated by Vladimir Putin in his recent interview (/monologue) with Tucker Carlson. The conversation between host Brooke Gladstone and Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar is well worth listening to. (I should probably specify “dissident journalist,” since “Russia” and “journalism” does not make for a persuasive combo these days. Zygar was the founding editor-in-chief of now banned Russian news channel TV Rain/Dozhd, which continues to broadcast from abroad.)

The conversation covers only a few of the 14 “tales” or “myths” related to the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine that Zygar describes in his recent book War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. Zygar’s book is one of the first serious efforts by a Russian journalist or historian to begin the process of decolonizing Russian history. (And perhaps the first time U.S. public radio has compared Taras Shevchenko to African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but it’s an apt comparison.)

The full radio segment can be listened to here.

Snyder on Carlson’s Putin interview

11 02 2024

Timothy Snyder’s Substack post dissecting Vladimir Putin’s rabidly (and genocidally) imperialist view of history, as revealed (again) in his interview with Tucker Carlson, is brilliant. It packs in a lot of what Snyder covers in his 23-part online course The History of Modern Ukraine, and includes a handy bibliography.

The whole post, “Putin’s Genocidal Myth,” found here, is well worth reading.

Putin’s prison-military complex

4 12 2023

Vladimir Putin’s two main advances on Stalinism are (1) the digitization of propaganda and its spread into social-media systems, making for a much more sophisticated penetration of contemporary global information systems, and (2) the mobilization of Russia’s vast prison system — the “Gulag archipelago” made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — into a war machine, a prison-military-industrial complex.

The New York Times’ analysis of the latter, published this morning, presents it in its broad contours:

“In some ways, Mr. Putin’s war has turned the country’s entire criminal justice system into a military recruitment tool, experts say. Russia’s extremely high conviction rates — 99.6 percent — its long prison terms, and inhumane conditions inside jails create strong incentives to risk death to obtain freedom.

“Wagner said that about 50,000 inmates served in their ranks in Ukraine, and that one in five of them died.” [. . .]

“But one of three recruits was serving time for murder. This rate is more than 30 times higher than the overall percentage of murder convicts in the Russian prison system, underscoring the attraction of military service to men with long sentences.” [. . .]

“[Mr. Mokin’s] experience appears typical of inmates who struggle to fit into the brutal caste system of many Russian jails. Enforced by underworld leaders known as bratva, the system ostracizes and humiliates inmates deemed to have violated complex social rules that govern Russian criminal life.

“Inmates in the bottom rungs are forced to act as servants, carry out demeaning tasks such as cleaning toilets, and can be subjected to sexual abuse. Drug dealers like Mr. Mokin are traditionally assigned low social status.

“’All you need to make sure that people keep enlisting is to create bad conditions’ in prison, said Anna Karetnikova, a former senior prison official in the Moscow region, who left Russia in protest of the war. ‘This is not patriotism. It’s survival.'”

For the entire article, see “A Prison at War: The Convicts Sustaining Putin’s Invasion.”

Commons: The struggle for a social Ukraine

11 11 2023

Leading Ukrainian left-wing journal Spil’ne/Спільне/Commons: Journal of Social Criticism has published an all-English-language issue entitled “The Russian Invasion and the Ukrainian Left: The Struggle for a Social Ukraine.”

The issue includes a collective interview with editors that outlines the history of the Spil’ne project, alongside a selection of texts published earlier or reflections on the war. In the editors’ words, these include “texts that are our intervention in the Western left’s discussion on Ukraine,” others “devoted to the experiences of war — primarily occupation and refugeeism, but also the experience of solidarity and mutual support,” and articles that “criticize neoliberal solutions to the country’s economic problems, calling for a just and socially oriented post-war reconstruction.”

The full issue can be read here:

or downloaded here:

Epstein: on Russia’s “anti-world”

13 10 2023

Scanning the Israeli press (for reasons unrelated to Ukraine), I came across an interview that came out earlier this year with Mikhail Epstein, who is one of the most prolific (he has reportedly published 37 books and some 700 articles), creative, and (to my mind) enjoyable of Russian expat philosophers and intellectuals. Epstein’s books on Russian philosophy, spirituality, literature, and culture include After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), A Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities of Thought and Culture (Brill, 2019), The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), the weirdly brilliant quasi-fiction Cries in the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism (Paul Dry Books, 2002), and most recently, in Russian, Русский антимир: Политика на грани апокалипсиса (The Russian Anti-world: Politics at the Edge of Apocalypse, 2023).

The interview, entitled “Russia Became an Abyss and We Might All Fall Into It,” was carried out by Israel Hayom‘s David Baron. Its themes echo an article Epstein published last year in Studies in East European Thought entitled “Schizophrenic Fascism: On Russia’s War on Ukraine.” In that piece, Epstein traces the roots of Russia’s “schizophrenic fascism,” or “schizofascism,” which he describes as “fascism under the guise of the fight against fascism.” Schizofascism, he writes, is a “serious, dangerous, and aggressive caricature” of fascism, which “embraces the contradiction between archaic myths, chauvinism, and xenophobia, on the one hand, and corruption and cynicism, on the other.”

Part of the “schizo” nature of this fascism is the simultaneous dependence on and opposition to the West, a “love-hate relationship” that manifests as overt demonization of all things Western — “a hysterical hatred of freedom, democracy, everything foreign, and people of a different identity,” he writes in the article — even as the Russian elite has driven incessantly to purchase assets in the West. This results in “a culture of jealousy and competition that finds its purpose in challenging other cultures and marginalizing them based on the accomplishments that were adopted from them.” Putin has become the world’s Dostoyevskian “underground man,” who is “incapable of suggesting anything to the world but rather only annoys it and tries to pinch it.”

Among other things, the interview traces the “Russian world” (Russkii mir) ideology — “the primary guiding concept of today’s Russia” — to Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov. Compared to previous ruling mythologies — such as “Orthodox Kingdom,” “Third Rome,” and Center of World Revolution — the current one is curiously vacuous, based mostly on a territorial vastness accompanied by a feeling of historical loss.

When asked about how to prevent Russia from “galloping toward its history’s depths,” Epstein replies:

“If Russia’s central government were to be taken apart, different ‘Russias’ could be created – Ural’s Russia, Siberia’s Russia, etc. – that together can create something like the European Union. Maybe this union will be even more organic because of the language all the new Russias share. This is the only way this territory will not threaten the world. We speak about the fear of what will happen to nuclear weapons if Russia falls apart. Let’s start with the fact that it is most difficult to supervise nuclear weapons in the hands of an imperialistic superpower like Russia in our times. If Russia falls apart, we can negotiate how to destroy its threatening nuclear arsenal.”

The full interview can be read here.

Letter to some anti-Ukraine solidarity activists

3 10 2023

Here’s what I just sent to Bread & Puppet Theatre, which is preparing to appear alongside a group of others protesting U.S. military support for Ukraine, in Burlington, Vermont, tomorrow. The group organizing this event is small and not very consequential, but Bread & Puppet’s participation, or at least that of some of their members, is troubling. While I agree with their views in favor of negotiation and diplomacy to end the war, I disagree that it’s the U.S. that needs to be pressured into negotiation and diplomacy. It is Russia that needs far more pressure to end its invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine, as the victim, needs support. (Note that the list of links is taken from the right-hand sidebar of this blog. I welcome your suggestions for other links to be added there.)

Dear Bread & Puppeteers:

Read the rest of this entry »

James Meek from Kyiv

21 08 2023

Western journalists writing from Kyiv today can at best only provide impressionistic glimpses of a country caught in the passionate everydayness of wartime life. Sometimes these glimpses cohere into a detailed and evocative mosaic. That’s the case with James Meek’s “Every Field, Every Yard,” a piece that takes up six whole pages of the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The glimpses touch on a lot of things — art exhibitions, reconstruction rave/work parties, language politics, trauma, bombings, corruption, LGBTQ+ issues, interviews with philosophers and activists, et al.

A few snippets:

“One​ of the most striking things about Kyiv this summer is the freedom with which people are imagining, and in some cases already making, their own future. There is a recurring motif in recent Ukrainian history in which entities set up as imitations actually become the thing they were only supposed to pretend to be, beginning with Ukraine’s parliament, a fake Soviet legislature that became a democratic body with real powers and destroyed the country that created it. Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor playing the president, who became the actual president. The Ukrainian army, a crumbling façade in 2013, which ten years later fought the Russian military leviathan to a standstill. St Michael’s church is a replica, built from the ground up in the 1990s to replace the original, blown up by Stalin, but it has in a way become the real thing just by being there. There was a plan in Soviet times to build a Lenin Museum on the site, but they ended up building it on Kreshchatik instead; it’s the building that is now the Ukrainian House. The externally imposed cult of Lenin became a centre of actual culture.

“Ukraine, as a country, and Ukrainian as a language, were never fake, but it was awkward for the patriotic tendency that the Russian language was so dominant in the Ukrainian capital. The Putinists’ inability to distinguish between Ukrainians who habitually use Russian in everyday affairs, who were many, and Ukrainians who wanted to be controlled from Moscow, who were vanishingly few, doomed the invasion. Since then, the use of Ukrainian has surged.”

[. . .]

“What are the ‘European values’ Ukraine aspires to, when its staunchest West European ally [the U.K.] has flounced out of the European Union that Ukraine is desperate to join? One obvious aspect of European values is essentially leftist, a welfare-rooted social contract between capital and labour, but socialism, even social democracy, is all but dead in Ukraine. Mention of the executed renaissance [generation of artists and intellectuals decimated in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s] seldom leads to discussion of the nature of the communism under which it flourished. [. . . N]either the Zelensky nor the Poroshenko camp have ideologies in the usual political sense, just a list of tasks: beat Russia, join Nato and the EU, fight corruption. […]

“Tymofii Brik, a sociologist, rector at the [Kyiv School of Economics…] has carried out research showing that while terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t have much meaning for ordinary Ukrainians, the country sits overwhelmingly on the traditional left in terms of what it expects of the state, and by a similarly large margin on the more conservative side of the libertarian-authoritarian axis. ‘Ukrainians tend to be very pro-social, caring about the elderly, caring about children, caring about community, believing the state is important, the state should provide us with health, education,’ he told me. ‘It’s just a big part of who we are, of our history and culture over generations. We should accept this as our reality. If you propose some crazy liberal reform, it will not happen, because Ukrainian society will not accept it.’ The seemingly contradictory message given by the country’s high score on the Cynicism Index, a unique feature of Ukrainian sociology, may be resolved by a reality where Ukrainians are communitarian in respect of people they know, but extremely mistrustful of people they don’t. Brik’s positive spin was that this would at least make the country recoil from a homegrown authoritarian leader.”

[. . .]

“In Kyiv I met Alisa Shampanska, a gender-fluid queer anarchist and member of the Ukrainian feminist group FemSolution, which until the invasion took a pacifist, anti-militarist line; Russia’s limited intervention in eastern Ukraine, starting in 2014, didn’t seem to them worth fighting over. Shampanska was in Odesa in the early days of the Russian assault. Overnight they went from being a pacifist to filling sandbags and trying to enrol in the territorial defence force. Their girlfriend lied that she knew how to weld so she could get a job building tank traps. Gradually Shampanska came to the difficult conclusion that one of the country’s most unpleasant social minorities, the queer-bashing ultra-nationalist racists, had been right about one thing all along. ‘All those years, they told us Russia is the main enemy,’ they said. ‘That Russia will attack us, that the Russians don’t give a shit about us and they will come and kill us and we should prepare … at the time I thought yeah, this is populism. And this is bad populism and they are bad for human rights. But about this, they were correct.’”

Read the whole article here.

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