Workers of Donbass Divided by Kremlin-Backed Violence

Gabriel Levy with his latest take on the situation in Ukraine. It initially featured in People and Nature on 15 April 2014. 

The Russian state is encouraging, and possibly directly perpetrating, the violence tearing apart working-class communities in eastern Ukraine – violence which seems likely to escalate, after the launch of an armed attack on the separatists today by the Kyiv government. Working-class consciousness is being “eaten away and crushed by nationalism”, D., a radical left activist writes from eastern Ukraine on this site.

Vladimir Putin’s military adventures in Crimea and support for separatists are aimed at destabilising the pro-western government in Kyiv, according to the western media. But that’s not the Kremlin’s only target. Right now, D. says, it is the people of Donetsk and Lugansk – communities that grew up on mining, steelmaking and heavy industry, and that have been ravaged by two decades of post-Soviet recessions – that are being turned against each other. His email says:

The situation remains very tense in Donetsk and Lugansk – that is, in the Donbass region, the centre of the Ukrainian coal industry. In [my nearby city], everything is calm. But I am getting news from Donbass from the media, plus from friends and acquaintances who live there.

I already wrote in early March (see here, under the heading Activists in eastern Ukraine) that these events were a catastrophe for the socialist and workers’ class movement. All that has happened since then confirms my prognosis. All the civil and social activism now is either Ukrainian or Russian nationalism.

The majority of those in Donbass who are taking action against the current Ukrainian government are workers: miners, metalworkers, machine-builders, and so on. But there is NOTHING AT ALL workerist in their appeals, their demands and their slogans.

Paradoxically, the working class as a subject of social life has disappeared, although it is certainly representatives of the working class who are the main forces taking action. But the movement in Donbass is only concerned with the issue of which government (which bourgeoisie) people should be subordinate to – Russian or Ukrainian; in which country do we need to live – separate, and go over to Russia, or keep the region within Ukraine.

The very low level of class consciousness that is present – for simple economic struggle of hired workers for their interests – seems to have been eaten away and crushed by nationalism.

This is just my personal opinion of course. But I hardly know of any facts that contradict it. One and only one time, at a meeting of the Russian nationalists in Donetsk, someone shouted: “for our struggle we need money, and we don’t have any – so let’s take it from the rich”. In that primitive way. But that proposal was not developed, it just remained hot air.

Of course we need to take into account that it is widely believed that the Donetsk businessman Rinat Akhmetov – the richest man in Ukraine, who controls practically all business in eastern Ukraine – is the behind-the-scenes leader of the Russian nationalists. I don’t know how true this is: Akhmetov has not given interviews and has not expressed his view on what is going on. [On Monday, after D. sent this email, Akhmetov released a statement calling for negotiations, and speaking in favour of an independent and united Ukraine – but this has not undone the widespread suspicions about his role.]

On the other hand, there is clearly a consolidation of the majority of the Ukrainian population in other regions of the country, and a growing unity around the current government. I will risk calling this the establishment of the Ukrainian nation (200 years late). This coming-together includes the great majority of those who are ethnically Russian, many of whom don’t speak a word of Ukrainian, and who are clearly Russian in terms of culture. But, faced with the threat of Rusian intervention and under conditions in which Russia is openly interfering in Ukrainian affairs, these people express very strong support for the government and for “the country”.

To “save the country” they will be prepared to suffer a great deal. But no class struggle can be expected from their side either.

I wrote to D that some western leftists see the conflict in Ukraine fundamentally in terms of a clash between NATO and Putin, in which Putin is the lesser of two evils. He commented:

I completely agree that it’s wrong to look for the “lesser of two evils”, that we need to build solidarity with the working class. The problem is that RIGHT NOW there is no movement here to build solidarity with. The small, scattered groups fo socialists are in no condition to substitute themselves for the working class, which is not inactive so much as being drawn into nationalist and patriotic movements. And another point. I just don’t understand how anyone can consider Putin the “lesser evil”. There’s no way I want to speak up for the Ukrainian government or Ukrainian capitalism, but Putin is “worse” than them.

In my view, Putin considers those on the streets in eastern Ukraine – whether “pro Russians” who have seized government buildings, or “loyal Ukraine, with Donetsk in red.

Ukrainians” who have formed self-defence units in response – as pawns in his power game. He fears the social movements that erupted against the Yanukovich regime. He fears even more that the notes struck in those movements against corruption and oligarchical power relations will find an echo in Russia.

Through the fog of disinformation, it is clear that the Russian government wants to strengthen the hand of reactionary separatist politicians – so that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is supporting the ridiculous claim by Mikhail Dobkin of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions that he should be admitted to the peace talks in Geneva on Thursday.

Is Moscow financing and arming the separatists? The wealth of reports from a range of sources – that the Ukrainian security services have recorded separatists in conversation with their sponsors in Moscow; that soldiers in unmarked uniforms carrying heavy Russian-made weapons are present in Donetsk, as they were in Crimea; that Russian citizens, including security services officers, have been arrested in Ukraine – can not be dismissed as western propaganda. The actions of some separatist leaders, who believe Moscow will support them to the hilt, also tells a story.

Does the Kremlin have a plan? Many in Kyiv believe Moscow wants to annex some or all of Ukraine east of the Dnipr. I hope they are wrong. But if they are not, the Russian elite – and, in other ways, the Russian population as a whole – might have to pay a heavy price. Russia is an economically and demographically declining nation, deeply dependent on its relationship with the western powers and, specifically, on revenues from its exports of oil, gas and metals. A further land-grab could severely disrupt that relationship, and there is little evidence that the Russian population would thank Putin for it.

Even without such a plan, it seems certain that Putin will step up the bullying, the interference, the covert incursions and the game-playing with local oligarchs.

I hope that labour and social movements in western Europe will denounce Putin’s aggression clearly. On what other basis can we support the rebuilding of class and community solidarity that is being so badly damaged?

■ See a well-informed article on the Donetsk revolt’s quasi-fascist leader Pavel Gubaryov here.


  1. Here we go, yer man's monthly it's all Putin's fault article. The dog on the street know who the aggressor in eastern Europe is and for what end. Expansionist bastards.

  2. Putin is not blameless.. An either/or mentality will not cover everything that is happening in the Ukraine.. I think this article does call attention to this fact, tho working class solidarity would probably be it's main point..

  3. Strand peanut,
    Whatever Putin's faults his hand has been forced on this issue deliberately by nato and to listen to your man Levy you'd think Putin invaded Ukraine without any provocation. What happened in Ukraine was a coup by the very definition. Putin maybe a sociopath, i am not disputing that, however on this issue n.a.t.o expansionism is the chief provocation at play.