Open Letter to Chomsky

20 05 2022

Since my response to Noam Chomsky elicited quite a flurry of feedback, both pro and con (and occasionally in between), I suspect readers will also be interested in the Open Letter to Noam Chomsky published yesterday by four Ukrainian academic economists.

The authors challenge Chomsky on several premises underlying his arguments concerning Ukraine and Russia. These include his denial of Ukraine’s sovereign territorial integrity (violated by Russia in contravention of several international agreements to which Russia was a signatory), his treatment of Ukraine as a pawn on a geo-political chessboard, the misplaced causality of his argumentation about NATO, and his utter incomprehension of the genocidal and frankly fascist motivations underlying Russia’s invasion. All of these premises are rooted in a selective anti-imperialism that, as I have argued , ignores the multiple forms imperialism can take in order to fight a single imperialism, equated with the U.S.-led West. The risk with such selectivity is that it chooses “strange bedfellows” (since it actually aligns with some fascistic anti-westerners like Dugin and now Putin).

As I argued in my E-Flux piece, the only kind of anti-imperialism that makes ethical and political sense today is a decolonial anti-imperialism, and “Decoloniality is by definition not just an anti-imperialism, but an anti-all-imperialisms. That makes every place in the world an ‘obligatory passage point’ for decolonialism.” Ukraine today is a site for decolonial, anti-imperialist struggle against a force whose cutting edge is the neo-imperial Putin regime, but whose fellow travelers are found around the world (especially, but not exclusively, on the political right).

Read the complete Open Letter here.

Denazification, or “the solution to the Ukrainian question”

4 04 2022

The turns of phrase one finds in the echo chambers of the internet can be puzzling to newcomers. (Think of walking into a QAnon forum and hearing about the Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic, pedophilic babykillers of the U.S. Democratic Party.) That a state government might come to create its own alternate reality should, therefore, be not as shocking.

In the case of the current Russian invasion, the term “denazification” has played a puzzling role that some, like Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley, have tried to demystify. But Russian neo-imperialist (and former Yanukovych advisor) Tymofei Sergeitsev, in his new RIA Novosti piece “Что Россия должна сделать с Украиной” (“What Russia Should Do to Ukraine”), has just provided a pretty clear demonstration that it is really just a Russian code word for “de-Ukrainization” — in other words, for what may simply be called genocide. The Ukraine Crisis Media Center has helpfully translated the piece here.

Sergei Sumlenny’s Twitter thread from a couple of days ago suggests that mass executions, of the kind found these last few days in places like Bucha and Trostyanets, seem to have been part of Russia’s “solution to the Ukrainian question” all along. (Russian responses to these revelations have of course involved further mystification.)

Adding together the mass production of “unreality” by Russian state media with Putin’s now explicit targeting of “the West” as its enemy means that war — informational, and therefore hybrid war, that is, the kind of war that is native to the twenty-first century — is already upon not only Ukraine, but all of us.

Galeev: 3 scenarios for Russia

2 04 2022

Among the more interesting Twitter analysts these days (as I’ve mentioned before) is Kamil Galeev. In a new series of threads, he examines three possible scenarios for Russia’s future.

The first is a North Korean scenario, in which Putin stays in power and all of Russia effectively becomes Donbass, i.e., a “hypermilitarized kleptocracy.” Galeev notes that “Russia has been lowkey drifting to the Donbass state for years. It’s an oil exporter that is running out of cheap oil and wants to stay highly militarised. Thus it must reduce life standards and personal freedoms.”

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Bojcun: on a new peace strategy

27 03 2022

Jacobin has published an excellent interview with social historian and political economist Marko Bojcun, which covers the history of left-wing social and political movements in Ukraine, the specificities of national and regional identity (including in Donbas), and the prospects for peace today.

In case Jacobin‘s left-wing readership is unfamiliar with what happened to a generation of Ukrainian socialists, some of the details Bojcun provides are worth repeating:

“Ukrainian identity as a choice for self-determination, which grew stronger in the 1920s, in conditions that allowed Ukrainians to enter into political life, was brutally brought to an end in the 1930s and driven underground with the Stalinist purges and the terror. The large majority of all Ukrainian political and cultural leaders were eliminated: 140 out of 142 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in 1933 ended up in the camps and prisons or executed outright. There was a wipeout of the intelligentsia during the famine of 1932–33, which broke the back of the peasantry as an autonomous political force.”

As for the prospects for peace, Bojcun notes:

“Russia has twenty-one military bases and installations outside of its own borders, eighteen of them in independent ex-Soviet states. These are instruments of the Kremlin as a gendarme of the entire region. Ukraine finds itself caught between two regional military powers protecting their respective regional integration projects. […]

“Ukraine finds itself caught between two regional military powers protecting their respective regional integration projects. […] These two regional integration projects have been expanding for a long time now; it’s now come to a confrontation. […]

“We have to begin with first principles. That firstly means each country has a right to defend itself, but it should withdraw all of its military forces that are outside its own country if it has placed them there. Secondly, it means that we need to disarm, to reduce and eliminate offensive weapons. […] We need to talk about creating a cooperative environment and linking up people, that is to say, civic and social and human rights movements, productive collectives and labor organizations across borders, to build up mutual trust and support rather than relying entirely on governments. […]

“Right now, however, Ukrainians cannot take part in discussions about a durable future peace. That must come later, at war’s end. They are demanding an immediate end to the aggression against them, desperately asking for help from those who say they stand alongside them. […] Our task is to stay with them, build and maintain our links with them, and to demand that Putin’s regime stops the killing. The ties we make with them will lay foundations for in-depth discussions and decisions later about the long-term peace.”

The ethnopolitics of the Russian invasion

26 03 2022

When people ask “How can this be happening that two such close nations” — “brotherly” or “fraternal peoples,” as it’s often said — “are killing each other?” they are missing a crucial political piece, for which we need new terminology as well as a more complex set of lenses.

It’s helpful to compare this to the break-up of Yugoslavia, where similar questions were asked. To bewildered fellow Europeans, that break-up appeared to release an upsurge of primal, atavistic inter-ethnic violence that was incomprehensible except through the discourse of “Balkanism,” according to which the Balkans have long historically represented everything about Europe that was least European. The reality was more complex, and not all took up the effort to understand it.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine — with its inhuman fanaticism, as witnessed in the horrific assault on Mariupol (see below) and to lesser degrees in Kharkiv and other largely Russian-speaking, eastern Ukrainian cities — risks a resort to something similar, though it’s not exactly the Russophobia some have warned against.

Understanding the invasion requires examining not only the geopolitical and economic factors, which have been well covered in the western (especially left-wing) press, but also the histories and psychologies of imperialism (notably Russian), colonialism (ditto), ethnic chauvinism (especially Russian toward Ukrainians), Sovietization (of the entire Soviet population, but less so in western Ukraine, which experienced it for a shorter period), authoritarianism (Putinism) and its refusal (among Ukrainians), the draw of “Europe” for Ukrainians, and the basic connection to land that many Ukrainians feel “in their bones” even if that connection has been historically denied, if never fully severed, by those imperial/colonial histories.

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Decolonialism and the invasion of Ukraine

22 03 2022

Placing the Russian invasion of Ukraine into the context of postcolonial and decolonial theory can be a tricky business. This post takes a few recent articles as its starting point to explore some of its ambiguities.

Decolonization, take 1: Ukraine and Russia

Writing in e-Flux journal (and reprinted in left-wing German magazine Taz), Oleksiy Radynski, filmmaker and cofounder of Kyïv’s Visual Culture Research Center, astutely untangles the deeply colonialist underpinnings of Putin’s war on Ukraine and Ukrainians. In “The Case Against the Russian Federation,” Radynski briefly pursues two fascinating lines of argument. (Each of them has been developed in greater depth by others, but not to my knowledge combined in such a concise and currently relevant way, thus my focus on it here.)

The first argues that Putin’s, and many Russians’, anti-Ukrainianism — the “deep ethnic and political hatred towards Ukrainians” evident in his recent speeches — is a disavowal of that which threatens them internally. Ukraine today represents “a radically different Russia,” with the disavowal working in both directions.

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Laruelle on Putin’s ideological pasturelands

16 03 2022

Historian and political scientist Marlene Laruelle is unquestionably one of the leading western experts on Russian political thought. She has authored and edited numerous volumes including Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines and Political Battlefields (2018, and available in open-access), Understanding Russia: The Challenges of Transformation (2018), Entangled Far Rights: A Russian-European Intellectual Romance in the 20th Century (2018), and Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (2008).

In her new essay for UnHerd, “The brains behind the Russian invasion,” Laruelle takes on what for some is the all-important question, “Who is the President’s Rasputin?” She examines several key candidates for such an ideological whisperer — Ivan Ilyin, Lev Gumilev, Alexander Dugin, Konstantin Malofeev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishop Tikhon, the Moscow Patriarchate itself, and Putin’s close friend Yuri Kovalchuk — but argues instead that

The reality is more complex: there are multiple ideological sources who have blended to cause the disastrous invasion, all mediated through his “court” of  trusted people and group of military advisers, and many of whom unite in their vision of Ukraine as a country that needs to be brought back by force into Russia’s orbit.

More complex, then, but in some ways also more banal, in that the sources of Putin’s impulses may be much more broadly cultural:

Like many of his fellow citizens, [Putin is] probably saturated by political talk shows cultivating anti-Ukrainian feelings, as well as by patriotic movies celebrating the Russian Empire’s greatness and its territorial conquests. There may be no need then to look for a doctrinal text that would have inspired him, as the memory of Russia’s empire and the subordinated role of Ukrainians in it permeates so many components of Russian cultural life.

Putin’s worldview has been built up over many years, and is more shaped by his personal resentment toward the West than by any ideological influence. Readings of the classic works of Russian philosophy which insist on Russia’s historical struggle with the West, emphasise the role of Ukraine as a civilizational borderland between both, have simply reinforced his own lived experience. [emphasis added]

Why, then, such a seemingly disastrous decision to invade a country that will fight tooth-and-nail against the invasion? She blames this on “low-level intelligence-gathering.”

And it is here that the President’s mask slips. It becomes clear that Putin is an aging and isolated authoritarian leader surrounded by advisers afraid of bringing him a realistic assessment of the likelihood of victory, thereby accelerating Russia dragging a sovereign Ukraine along with the rest of Europe towards the worst catastrophe since the Second World War.

The entire article is worth reading. It’s accompanied by a video interview with Laruelle carried out by UnHerd‘s Freddie Sayers.

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New Fascism Syllabus: Russia’s irrational violence

15 03 2022

The collaborative New Fascism Syllabus, which provides scholarly perspectives on 20th and 21st century fascism, authoritarianism, and populism, has been publishing analyses relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine since that invasion began on February 24.

The articles variously discuss the weaponization of historical memory including the rhetorics of fascism and “denazification,” the new martial masculinities in evidence on both sides of the war, the recent blossoming of Holocaust scholarship in Ukraine (and worries over its fate), moral complicity in Russia’s political censorship, and Western strategies and perspectives on the invasion.

Omer Bartov’s bittersweet reminiscence of the beauty of Ukraine, its deeply troubled history (he is a historian of the Holocaust), and its recent “heroic efforts to reforge itself,” entitled “My Ukraine is Not Yet Lost,” is particularly moving. Bartov writes:

The war, the genocide of the Jews, the ethnic cleansing of the Poles, and the imposition of an oppressive and vengeful Soviet regime, seemed to have put an end to the world of the borderlands that lasted for centuries and, despite its many warps, prejudices, vast inequality, grinding poverty, and occasional bursts of horrific violence, was also the birthplace of much beauty and creativity, precisely because of its mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

Like several of the authors, Bartov worries that all of the progress made in recent years will be undone by Russia’s violent attempt to turn back the clock to a world ruled by imperial fiat.

Two of the articles dwell on the “irrationality” of the invasion. In Andrea Chandler’s case, it is Putin’s irrationality, which she sees in full evidence in the recent events, despite her best efforts to find reason.

The only way that I can make any sense of Putin’s actions in Ukraine is to imagine a secret-police frame of decision-making in which the strategic value of territory is detached from its inhabitants. This frame exaggerates the threat that a self-reliant Ukraine poses to Russian sovereignty: if we “lose” Ukraine, we lose our “krai” – so where will our new “krai” be? 

In Russian, krai (край) suggests “borderland” or “edge” (окраина), while in Ukrainian it is commonly understood as “our country,” “our land,” “in-land,” or “within-land” (україна).

In Alexander Reid Ross and Shane Burley’s “Into the Irrational Core of Pure Violence,” the irrationality is found in the “convergence” between Aleksandr Dugin‘s “neo-Eurasianism” and the war being waged by the Kremlin. While there is debate around the level of continuing influence Dugin’s neo-fascist geopolitics has on Putin’s own thinking, and so the authors may err slightly in overemphasizing it, there is no doubt that Putinism has been shaped by a broad swath of Russian ultranationalist, neo-imperialist (to the point of being messianic), Orthodox theocratic, and other far-right ideologists including Dugin, Ivan Ilyin, Lev Gumilev, Konstantin Leontiev, and cronies in the Russian media-political sphere such as Kiselyov, Malofeev, Prokhanov, and others.

The authors write:

the hypocrisy of the supposed “de-Nazification” of Ukraine can be found in the fact that the invasion has been, since 2014, the project of fascists, Orthodox ultranationalists, and Dugin’s own network of self-described “neo-Eurasianists.” From the start, the aggression against Ukraine was bankrolled by Dugin’s patron, Russia’s “Orthodox Oligarch,” Konstantin Malofeev. During the first years, on-the-ground efforts were led by Malofeev’s associates Alexander Borodai and Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist who participated in the Bosnian Genocide before becoming Malofeev’s security chief. Girkin and Dugin are listed together as among Russia’s “authentic high-principled Hitlerites, true Aryans” in a mordant article by Russian dissident Andrey Piontkovsky.

An influential figure amongst the alt-right and Europe’s fascist “identitarian” movement. Dugin’s ideology is somewhat more syncretic and convoluted than traditional Nazism: he believes in the total destruction of the modern world and the liberalism he feels it represents. This radical upheaval of the world would be followed by the rebirth of patriarchal blood-and-soil communities distinguished by a caste system ruled by warrior-priests, which he calls “political soldiers.” Dugin desires to see Moscow presiding over a Eurasian empire stretching from Dublin to Vladivostok in which Istanbul will return to Constantinople (or “Tsargrad”). For Dugin, the invasion of Ukraine represents merely the first step in this “Great Slavic Reconquista.”

With its apocalyptic struggle and “palingenetic” rebirth, Dugin’s program clearly falls into the “consensus” definition of fascism that historians like Roger Griffin have established. In 2015, Griffin himself demured from describing Putin as a fascist, and just last year referred to Putinism as a form of “resentment politics.” But seven years later, with the military invasion and the reasoning that led to it (and justifications provided for it), most of Griffin’s reservations no longer appear to hold.

Dugin’s projected alignment between Russia, Iran, India, and China appears to be incipient as Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine solidifies its own alienation from the “liberal-globalist” West.

The authors conclude:

Here, we have the irrational core of pure violence: the anti-European Europe, the anti-imperialist empire, the antifascist fascism, the anti-nationalist ultranationalism, and the defense against genocide through the obliteration of a nation’s existence and concomitant shelling of civilian targets. Without recourse to reason, Russia must resort to raw coercion, power politics, to exert its sovereignty, all while presenting its alternative to the unipolarity of the U.S. empire as the de facto liberatory choice. By offering itself as an enemy of the U.S., it hopes to court a new class of friends. Russian nationalism acts as part of the vanguard of far-right movements, helping to re-align geopolitics away from cooperation and toward a binary, illiberal opposition. 

Reid Ross and Burley see the Ukrainian resistance as a struggle against imperialism that “must be universalized on the level of a struggle for freedom and equality everywhere.”

Artiukh: Beyond western leftist misconceptions

13 03 2022

Jacobin magazine has published an interview with Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh, titled “A Ukrainian Socialist Explains Why the Russian Invasion Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise.” It comes hot on the heels of a piece Artyukh wrote for Ukrainian left magazine Spil’ne/Commons (see “US-splaining is not enough: To the western left, on your and our mistakes“). The Jacobin article is rewarding to see because the U.S. left’s engagement with, or even acknowledgment of the existence of, Ukrainian left-wing intellectuals has been spotty at best, nonexistent at worst.

In his Commons piece, Artiukh argues that for all the useful reading on capitalism and western hegemony the western left has provided, its reflexive desire to cast the current invasion in familiar terms has resulted in failure — an incapacity to understand what, it turns out was, “impossible” for it “to imagine.”

Having faced ‘the impossible to imagine,’ I see how the Western left is doing what it has been doing the best: analysing the American neo-imperialism, the expansion of NATO. It is not enough anymore as it does not explain the world that is emerging from the ruins of Donbas and Kharkiv’s main square. The world is not exhaustively described as shaped by or reacting upon the actions of the US. It has gained dynamics of its own, and the US and Europe is in reactive mode in many areas. You explain the distant causes instead of noticing the emergent trends. [. . .]

I have been reading everything written and said on the left about last year’s escalating conflict between the US, Russia, and Ukraine. Most of it was terribly off, much worse than many mainstream explanations. Its predictive power was nil. [. . .]

Russia has become an autonomous agent, its actions are determined by its own internal political dynamics, and the consequences of its actions are now contrary to western interests. Russia shapes the world around, imposes its own rules the way the US has been doing, albeit through other means. The sense of derealization that many commentators feel – ‘this is not happening with us’ – comes from the fact that the Russian warring elites are able to impose their delusions, transform them into the facts on the ground, make others accept them despite their will. These delusions are no longer determined by the US or Europe, they are not a reaction, they are creation. [. . .]

You face a challenge of reacting to a war that is not waged by your countries.”

Responding to Jacobin‘s questions about Russia’s motives, Artiukh notes:

I think we need to take a break analyzing the US hegemony, because we know pretty much everything about it already, and very little about how Russia came to be like this beyond this cliché caricature that American scholars paint of Putin and Russia.

Some parts of the Left also needs to abandon the idea that Russia is somehow a continuation of the Soviet Union, or that it is the underdog in the imperialist fight that needs to be supported. We need to pay closer attention to what Russian scholars have done. We need to think more deeply about how the Kremlin guys picture themselves, what they imagine is happening around them and what may motivate them beyond what the West imagines is rational. [. . .]

If you listen to Russia’s officials and read their ideological manifestos, if you read people who interpret Russian foreign policy decision makers in the Kremlin — they see these apocalyptic events coming. They see the world changing to the core. They see that we live in the new world and Russia needs to find its place otherwise it will be eaten by these predators, by China or the US. They’re reasoning along the lines of “we need to act now, it’s now or never, there is time and it will either be glorious or we perish.” They also hope that they will join China in a sort of alliance. And they already need to mark their territory. The logic is: “There’s seven bad years ahead, but then we’ll have our hundred years of empire.”

The articles can be read here:

Info war & peace, theories turning to ashes

10 03 2022

The invasion continues to horrify, with casualties mounting and humanitarian corridors failing to materialize. But one of its more interesting dimensions, from the perspective of media and cultural theory, is the role of information and cyber warfare. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel provides a good synopsis of the ways in which Ukraine has so far been “winning” the information war, but argues that it’s far from over. Others are less circumspect, and some, like Meduza’s Maxim Trudolyubov, argue that Russia lost it at the very outset, just by starting the war. The depravity of Russian disinformation, as Joanna Szostek argues, seems to know no bounds.

Peter Pomerantsev has cautioned, however, that we need to be careful with our terms here. The very notion of “information war,” he argues, may serve disinformational goals, in that it “reinforc[es] a world view the Kremlin wants—that all information is just manipulation.” To put this into a broader scholarly context, all reality may be “socially constructed,” all efforts to shape and know it simply forms of a Nietzschean “will to power,” but not all are equally durable, desirable, or ethically and morally satisfying. Some constructs are more worth pursuing than others.

Pomerantsev notes, “Sure the Ukrainian army do all sort of psy-ops to survive. But Ze[lensky] is treating people as equals, trying to engage and inspire them—that’s not ‘information war’. It’s the opposite.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s videos are certainly one of the data points that will be studied for years after this invasion is over. Where my initial sense about his election had been somewhat skeptical, seeing it as an instance of politics as reality-TV (and reality-FB), it’s clear to everyone that Zelensky has risen to the role of a genuine “reality president,” where reality is not in quotation marks but actually breaks into and challenges viewers’ mediated images of a war taking place far away.

Ze’s videos reflecting a kind of incontrovertibility: this olive-green fatigued everyman-turned-war-hero is speaking defiantly from a bunker, a presidential office, and outdoors in front of recognized buildings in a city being slowly surrounded and intermittently bombarded. He is addressing us directly — Europeans, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, and others — to unite for a cause we understand: the defense against a hyper-militarized, fascistic aggressor, of people trying to live normal lives in the place they know as their homeland.

Pomerantsev’s argument raises the question of what to call the opposite of “information war.” Is speaking the truth a form of waging “information peace“? By “speaking the truth” I don’t mean speaking literal facts. I mean something more like speaking ethical truths, engaging respectfully but directly with others, raising the quality and level of discourse, being open — and “open-source” — about one’s premises and goals, and so on.

As Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, the Columbia Journalism Review, and others have shown, pro-Ukrainian cyber activists — including the ranks of #Anonymous who’ve joined the anti-Putin campaign, but also more known quantities like the Center for Information Resilience, individual bloggers like Oryx, and many others — have been much more open-source in their methods than the pro-Russian cyberwarriors (see here, here, and here for more on this). Russia’s advantages in cyberwar have arguably come from the element of surprise, which in the present case is no longer there. Bellingcat’s Higgins argues:

In terms of the information war that happens around conflict, this is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

Then there are the forms of nonviolent civil resistance by everyday Ukrainians that have been going viral in social media: people stopping tanks with their bodies, road signs changed to read “Fuck you” (“Ha хуй,” which literally means something like “go fuck yourself” or “on your own dick”) and pointing back to Russia, and women like this one approaching and challenging Russian soldiers telling them to “Leave, occupiers, fascists!” and to “Put these sunflower seeds in the ground so that something grows from your bodies when you’re dead.”

For on-the-ground media theory, one could do worse than to follow Svitlana Matviyenko’s continuing “Dispatches from the Place of Imminence.” In her fourth installment, Matviyenko describes the emotional contours of life in a city just beyond the bombing (the medieval, west Ukrainian city of Kamianets-Podilskyi), interlacing this with analyses of the raging “multichannel information flow” that is her usual object of research. Matviyenko writes:

I do not want a full-scale WW3 erupting suddenly with all arsenals engaged; if indeed a No Fly Zone would cause that (I am not an expert), it would certainly bring an end to the not-yet-multiplanetary species. But, if you have already chosen us as a sacrifice in your rationalisations of our distant chaos, I wish I heard more horror in the words with which the matter of our life and death is waged so easily and with all that smartness, when one has no slightest idea how far ideological mapping could be from the dirty and blurry realities of war on the ground. When one builds these arguments hiding behind their bulletproof volumes of Nietzsche-Marx-Bataille, or using the outdated – but so comfortable – cold-war conceptual apparatuses, I swear, I see – so vividly – how theories that I teach and by which I live – turn to ashes.

Elsewhere in the same Institute of Network Cultures blog space, Kateryna Polevianenko describes the stink of her digital armpits and Lev Manovich, following a beautiful description of pre-invasion Kyïv, makes a case for continuing support of Russian cultural institutions. Meanwhile, the Union of Russian University Rectors has penned a statement in full support of the invasion. (Western institutions are beginning to respond in kind by severing connections with invasion-supporting academics.)

If that position of Russian university administrators is surprising, it’s only because we haven’t quite internalized the fact that, as the most recent data show, most Russians still support Putin.

Information warfare has been waged successfully on Russians for many years. The damage is already long done.

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