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:

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Zaporizhzhia NPP warnings

5 07 2023

Here’s my read of what’s going on with all the recent warnings surrounding the fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP).

All signs point to a Russian plan to do something with or at the plant — something that could potentially contaminate a large portion of Ukrainian territory and decommission at least part of the ZNPP (so that Ukrainians wouldn’t be able to use it or the land around it) — and that would have enough ambiguity around it as to allow Russian “deniability.”

The ZNPP is the largest such plant in Europe, and is currently, though barely, on the Russian controlled side of Ukrainian territory. As Ukrainian forces advance, Russia does not expect to hold onto it. As with the Kakhovka dam explosion, Russia will continue to blame Ukraine. Their propaganda players have been ratcheting up the “Ukrainian false flag” narratives for days (have a look at responses to Zelenskyi’s recent Twitter post warning of a potential Russian explosion at the ZNPP to see what that looks like).

The reality-check question here is: who would benefit from any ZNPP disaster and who would lose out? It is Ukrainian land, which Ukrainians expect to gain back and Russians expect (at this point) to lose. Furthermore, it has been historically significant Ukrainian land going back to the 17th century Cossack state, which Ukrainians consider an early progenitor of Ukrainian democracy. (As I and many have been arguing, culture and history are important in this neocolonial/anti-colonial struggle.)

Just as Russia hardly cares for its own conscripts, it doesn’t give a damn about Ukrainian land. Quite the contrary: Putin’s goal all along has been to either take over Ukraine, denying it the right to exist as an independent state (except perhaps as a minimal rump state in western-central Ukraine), or to take some of it “back” and prevent the rest from posing any challenge to his rule. An economically successful democracy at his doorstep, that would demonstrate to Russians that they need not accept his rule, would be the kind of “challenge” he has in mind.

Russia’s unstated precondition for “returning” militarily conquered land is that it will destroy its value for Ukrainians, with the message being “You want this back? Here, have it, it’s yours and it’s useless.” (This is what I recently described as Russia’s “colonial vengeance” for Ukraine’s decolonial trajectory.)

How likely is it that something serious will occur? Before February 24, 2022, hardly anyone thought it was likely that Russia will launch a full-scale invasion, but they did. So I would say that all bets are off. We hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, it won’t be unexpected.

How do we prevent it? The only way I can think of is through making clear why this is consistent with Russian strategies, and through putting international pressure on Russia not to do it.

May be an image of oil refinery

CERES: Kakhovka ‘ecocide’ resources

1 07 2023

The University of Toronto Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) held a conference on June 20 on the topic “After Ecocide: Grappling With the Ecological and Socioeconomic Consequences of the Destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Southern Ukraine.” A recording of the conference can be viewed here:

Conference organizers have kindly allowed me to share the following set of resources on the topic of the impacts of the dam’s June 6 destruction by Russian explosives. The list includes organizations that are collecting donations to help the victims of the disaster.

Read the rest of this entry »

Snyder’s & other aftermath analyses

26 06 2023

After about 24 hours of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s 24-hour abortive mutiny (judging by the major media, we haven’t even figured out what to call it yet), I posted the following list of uncertainties, intended to answer the common question “WTF is going on in Russia?”, on social media:

  • 1) If this was an attempted coup, it didn’t end convincingly.
  • 2) If this was an egomaniacal outburst within a long simmering battle of wills, it was bizarrely theatrical and not very smart.
  • 3) If this was a spectacular false-flag operation, it didn’t go according to plan (and it’s not very evident who was in the know and who wasn’t, except that most or all of the Russian media was not).
  • 4) If this was simply another day in the workings of an authoritarian kleptocratic-mafia state, it was a spectacularly entertaining one.
  • 5) If this was the beginning of the implosion of Putinist Russia, all bets are off on what that implosion will look like. (But, honestly, I can’t wait to see.)
  • 6) If this was a dress rehearsal, the real performance will be wild.

Since then, a consensus seems to be emerging among Russia observers (in the West) that, if we don’t know what exactly to call it yet (“armed rebellion,” “march on Moscow,” “abortive coup,” et al.), we know it was not a good thing for the Putin regime.

It revealed, and proclaimed, military weakness, as well as genuine brittleness at the top, challenged longstanding narratives of the “special military operation,” and showed the inability of state media to do much of anything when they aren’t given precise instructions. Its ending was anti-climactic — as the Columbia Journalism Review put it, “Putin, a man who punishes journalists and peaceful domestic opponents as if they were traitors, had apparently agreed to give an actual traitor no punishment at all. If only for now.” But it left wide open the possibility that this was no ending, just a temporary stopping point. As CJR puts it, “most observers seem to agree that the last shoe has yet to drop in this story.”

Outside of some circuitous (and rather touch-and-go) Twitter threads, the most useful analyses I’ve seen include the Institute for the Study of War‘s June 24 and June 25 assessments, and Timothy Snyder’s Substack piece “Prigozhin’s march on Moscow: Ten lessons from a mutiny.” Snyder summarizes the background beautifully:

Both the Russian state itself and Prigozhin’s mercenary firm Wagner are extractive regimes with large public relations and military arms. 

The Putin regime exists, and the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are relatively wealthy, thanks to the colonial exploitation of hydrocarbon resources in Siberia.  The wealth is held by a very few people, and the Russian population is treated to a regular spectacle of otherwise pointless war — Ukraine, Syria, Ukraine again — to distract attention from this basic state of affairs, and to convince them that there is some kind of external enemy that justifies it (hint: there really isn’t). 

Wagner functioned as a kind of intensification of the Russian state, doing the dirtiest work beyond Russia, not only in Syria and Ukraine but also in Africa.  It was subsidized by the Russian state, but made its real money by extracting mineral resources on its own, especially in Africa.  Unlike most of its other ventures, Wagner’s war in Ukraine was a losing proposition.  Prigozhin leveraged the desperation of Russia’s propaganda for a victory by taking credit for victory at Bakhmut.  That minor city was completely destroyed and abandoned by the time Wagner took it, at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives. 

But because it was the only gain in Russia’s horrifyingly costly but strategically senseless 2023 offensive, Bakhmut had to be portrayed by Putin’s media as some kind of Stalingrad or Berlin.  Prigozhin took advantage of this. He was able to direct the false glory to himself even as he then withdrew Wagner from Ukraine.  Meanwhile he criticized the military commanders of the Russian Federation in increasingly vulgar terms, thereby preventing the Russian state (and Putin) from gaining much from the bloody spectacle of invaded Ukraine.  In sum: Wagner was able to make the Putin regime work for it.

Snyder disputes the “realist” explanations for Russia’s war on Ukraine in ways that add to what’s already been said on this blog (e.g., here), and offers another kind of realism — one that sees Russia as a protection racket:

You can think of the Russian state as a protection racket.  No one is really safe, but everyone has to accept “protection” in the knowledge that this is less risky than rebellion.  A protection racket is always vulnerable to another protection racket.  In marching from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, Prigozhin was breaking one protection racket and proposing another.  On this logic, we can imagine Prigozhin’s proposal to Putin as follows: I am deploying the greater force, and I am now demanding protection money from you.  If you want to continue your own protection racket, pay me off before I reach Moscow.

Read the whole thing here.

Vienna update

11 06 2023

To update my last post about the Vienna “peace summit,” I recommend Fabian Sommavilla’s account of the day-long conference. Here’s some more context on the cancelation of the event.

I also recommend University of Salzburg economic geographer Christian Zeller‘s excellent analysis of the summit, shared at Emancipation, Journal of Ecosocialist Strategy; see “Somewhere between anti-imperialism, conspiracy theory, and the need to speak honestly.” Written on Friday, Zeller’s account describes organizers’ efforts to give the summit a “quasi-diplomatic status.” He notes:

The organisers did not conceive their “summit for peace” at all as a gathering of pacifist grassroots movements fighting dictatorships, occupying powers and war – everywhere and always  – but as an event that only apparently pursues alternative geopolitics against the hegemony of the “West”. This orientation towards multipolarity, which also respects dictatorships, is far from an emancipatory perspective, as the Indian communist and feminist Kavita Krishnan has clearly pointed out.

Zeller concluded:

The organisers of the “peace summit” have brought their fiasco upon themselves. The process of personal and political erosion in the run-up to the event shows that the strategists of the only seemingly alternative geopolitics, who are completely anchored in reactionary concepts of geopolitical camps (“campism”), are not succeeding in gaining hegemony on the broader left. This is a welcome outcome.

In response to the summit, Zeller proposed

that we organise — together with trade unions and groups in solidarity with the social resistance in Ukraine against the Russian occupation — an international conference to support the Ukrainian trade unions and civil society, both in their resistance against occupation and for a socially just and ecologically compatible reconstruction of Ukraine.

This ended up becoming Saturday’s alternative “solidarity summit,” which also took place in Vienna (but about which I have not yet seen any news).

Radynski: on Russia’s protracted collapse

16 05 2023

Oleksiy Radynski’s new article in E-Flux Notes (“The Case Against the Russian Federation: One Year Later“) almost reads like a response to the thoughts I posted yesterday. (No doubt because of the parallels in our thinking.)

Radynski writes:

In fact, since its emergence as a sovereign state in 1991, the Russian Federation had been mired in brutal internal strife, a series of civil and ethnic conflicts that have taken various forms over time (from open civil war in the streets of Moscow in October 1993, to the brutal suppression of Ichkeria during the “Chechen wars,” to the abolition of self-governance in the Federation’s “republics” since the early 2000s). But to prevent this internal strife from consuming the colonized territories still subjugated by the Russian Federation, the Russian government has continuously exported this suppressed violence beyond its own borders: to the territories of its former colonies, first Georgia and then Ukraine.

The protracted collapse of the Russian Federation is actually the reality we’ve been living in for decades now, and the invasion of Ukraine is just one of the symptoms of this ongoing cataclysm. In a botched Oedipal logic, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine because it assumed that this was the last chance to preempt its own demise. Instead, it’s been caught in the quagmire of a self-fulfilling prophecy. [paragraphing added]

Far from merely blaming Russia, however, Radynski astutely links the fate of the post-1991 Russian state with the “market fundamentalism” encouraged by western elites (some would say “imposed” — whether it was “encouraged” or “imposed” is worth a book-length study in itself). This, he writes, “swiftly led to monopolistic capitalism coupled with right-wing authoritarianism, then to outright militarized fascism.”

Historians would want to parse that “swiftly led” bit into the various twists and turns, “forks in the road” and “roads not taken,” that would help account for why things turned out as horrifically as they have. But Radynski’s overall argument — that the trajectory of Russian history leads to something like this, and that it requires a reckoning that neither Russians themselves nor the western experts who’ve studied it all these years have given it — is an important one.

The article ends hopefully:

“The demise of the Russian Federation will prefigure the demise of other extractivist empires, and the liberation of their subalterns.”

Russia, decolonization, & the capitalism/democracy muddle

15 05 2023

A slightly modified version of this article (with footnotes) can be read at E-Flux Notes.

The ideas of decolonizing Ukraine, and of decolonizing Russia, are both “in the air.” They are also two entirely different things.

Like many postcolonial scholars, Ukrainian intellectuals have a pretty good idea of what “decolonizing Ukraine” means: it means national self-determination on a political level, accompanied by some measure of cultural revitalization. The details of the latter are debated, but some measure of “Ukrainization” in education, language laws, and the like — echoing that which took place in the 1920s (and was subsequently and violently negated in the 1930s) — is part of the picture, if only because cultural change helps to consolidate political change. (For a sense of this, see these articles in Krytyka, the writing of Timothy Snyder, and the long list of sources on the Ukrainian Institute’s Decolonization page.)

That’s not to say that Ukrainian intellectuals are united in acknowledging Ukraine’s colonial status. Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak argued in 2015 that “Within the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Ukraine was more core than colony,” and that the postcolonial paradigm was “of little relevance” in explaining the events of 2014’s Maidan revolution and what led up to it. Still, the cultural dimension of decolonization has been prominent in the years since 2014, and it concurs with a view we’d get from any number of sub-state or neo-national peoples — think of the Québecois, the Catalans, the long-established (statified) Irish, et al. — that culture and language matter. By the same token, looking to India should suffice to remind us that culture, in a multi-ethnic state (no matter how successfully postcolonial), will always remain tricky and challenging; and given Ukraine’s historical as well as contemporary multi-ethnicity, may always remain so. (On Ukraine’s historical complexities, see, e.g., Brown, Abramson, and Durand.)

But what might “decolonizing Russia” mean? (Similarly, what could decolonizing the world’s other massive, historically imperial state — China — mean? Here’s a curious depiction of what this suggestion might entail.) And what forms could global solidarity with such a decolonial project take?

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Forensic Architecture: Mariupol bombing

12 05 2023

Forensic Architecture — which has done tremendous investigative “counter-forensics” work in Palestine/Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Myanmar, Colombia, Brazil’s Yanomamo territory, and Louisiana’s “Death Alley,” among other zones of war and human rights violation — has been working with the Center for Spatial Technologies on the March 2022 bombing of Mariupol’s Drama Theatre.

This 20-minute video presents the first part of their investigation. Their investigation of the Russian bombing of Kyiv’s Babyn Yar is also excellent, and viewable from their website. (See co-founder Eyal Weizman’s writings, including his co-authored volume on Investigative Aesthetics, and the “Methodology” section of their extensively documented web site for further information on their approach.)

“Before it was destroyed by a Russian airstrike, the Mariupol Theater was a key refuge in the besieged city, a unique site of solidarity and resistance. With Forensis & Forensic Architecture, the Center for Spatial Technologies interviewed survivors to tell the story of a self-organized commune: a city within a building.”

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