Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda
Interestingly, the message from authoritarian regimes in
In fact, it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. This leader came to power in democratic elections, to be sure, but then altered the system from within. For example, the leader had been a common criminal: a rapist and a thief. He found a judge who was willing to misplace documents related to his case. That judge then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were no constitutional objections, subsequently, when the leader asserted ever more power for his presidency.
In power, this leader, this president, remained a thief, but now on a grand, perhaps even unsurpassed, scale. Throughout his country millions of small businessmen and businesswomen found it impossible to keep their firms afloat, thanks to the arbitrary demands of tax authorities. Their profits were taken by the state, and the autonomy that those profits might have given them were denied. Workers in the factories and mines had no means whatsoever of expression their own distress, since any attempt at a strike or even at labor organization would simply have led to their dismissal.
It is hard to have all of the power and all of the money at the same time, because power comes from the state, and the state has to have a budget. If a leader steals so much from the people that the state goes bankrupt, then his power is diminished. Yanukovych actually faced this problem last year. And so, despite everything, he became vulnerable, in a very curious way. He needed someone to finance the immediate debts of the Ukrainian state so that his regime would not fall along with it.
Struggling to pay his debts last year, the Ukrainian leader had two
options. The first was to begin trade cooperation with the European Union. No
doubt an association agreement with the EU would have opened the way for loans.
But it also would have meant the risk of the application of the rule of law
In December of last year, the leader of this neighboring authoritarian
regime, Vladimir Putin, offered a deal. From
The first was the gay conspiracy. This was a subject that had dominated
Russian propaganda throughout last year but which had been essentially absent
Putin’s second preoccupation was something called
Enter a lonely, courageous Ukrainian rebel, a leading investigative
journalist. A dark-skinned journalist who gets racially
profiled by the regime. And a Muslim. And an Afghan. This is Mustafa Nayem,
the man who started the revolution. Using social media, he called students and
other young people to rally on the
When riot police were sent to beat the students, who came to defend
them? More “Afghans,” but “Afghans” of a very different sort: Ukrainian
veterans of the Soviet Red Army, men who had been sent to invade
In December the crowds grew larger. By the end of the year, millions of people had taken part in
protests, all over the country. Journalists were beaten. Individual activists
were abducted. Some of them were tortured. Dozens disappeared and have not yet
been found. As the New Year began the protests broadened. Muslims from southern
In all of these ways, the “decadent” West, as
On January 16, Yanukovych signed a series of laws that had been “passed” through parliament, entirely illegally, by a minority using only a show of hands. These laws, introduced by pro-Russian legislators and similar to Russian models, severely constrained the freedom of speech and assembly, making of millions of protesters “extremists” who could be imprisoned. Organizations that had financial contacts with the outside world, including Catholic and Jewish groups, were suddenly “foreign agents” and subject to immediate harassment.
After weeks of maintaining their calm in the face of repeated assaults by the riot police, some protesters now chose violence. Out of public view, people had been dying at the hands of the police for weeks. Now some of the protesters were killed by the regime in public. The first Ukrainian protester to be killed was an Armenian. The second to be killed was a Belarusian.
Then came the mass killings by the regime. On
February 18 the Ukrainian parliament was supposed to consider a compromise that
many observers believed was a first step away from bloody confrontation: a
constitutional reform to return the state to parliamentary democracy. Instead,
the riot police were unleashed in
On February 20, an EU delegation was supposed to arrive to negotiate a truce. Instead, the regime orchestrated a bloodbath. The riot police fell back from some of the Maidan. When protesters followed, they were shot by snipers who had taken up positions on rooftops. Again and again people ran out to try to rescue the wounded, and again and again they were shot.
Who was killed? Dozens of people, in all about a hundred, most of them young men. Bohdan Solchanyk was a young
lecturer at the
Has as it ever before happened that people associated with Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Polish, and Jewish culture have died in a revolution that was started by a Muslim? Can we who pride ourselves in our diversity and tolerance think of anything remotely similar in our own histories?
The people were victorious as a result of sheer physical courage. The EU foreign ministers who were supposed to be treated to a bloody spectacle saw something else: the successful defense of the Maidan. The horrifying massacre provoked a general sense of outrage, even among some of the people who had been Yanukovych’s allies. He did something he probably had not, when the day began, intended to do: he signed an agreement in which he promised not to use violence. His policemen understood, perhaps better than he, what this meant: the end of the regime. They melted away, and he ran for his life. Power shifted to parliament, where a new coalition of oppositionists and dissenters from Yanukovych’s party formed a majority. Reforms began, beginning with the constitution. Presidential elections were called for May.
Still, the propaganda continued. Yanukovych
stopped somewhere to record a video message, in Russian, claiming that he was
the victim of a Nazi coup. Russian leaders maintained that extremists had come
to power, and that Russians in
The Ukrainian far right did play an important part in the revolution. What it did, in going to the barricades, was to liberate itself from the regime of which it had been one of the bulwarks. One of the moral atrocities of the Yanukovych regime was to crush opposition from the center-right, and support opposition from the far right. By imprisoning his major opponents from the legal political parties, most famously Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych was able to make of democracy a game in which he and the far right were the only players.
The far right, a party called Svoboda, grew larger in these conditions, but never remotely large enough to pose a real challenge to the Yanukovych regime in democratic elections. In this arrangement Yanukovych could then tell gullible westerners that he was the alternative to the far right. In fact, Svoboda was a house opposition that, during the revolution, rebelled against its own leadership. Against the wishes of their leaders, the radical youth of Svoboda fought in considerable numbers, alongside of course people of completely different views. They fought and they took risks and they died, sometimes while trying to save others. In the post-revolutionary situation these young men will likely seek new leadership. The leader of Svoboda, according to opinion polls, has little popular support; if he chooses to run for president, which is unlikely, he will lose.
The radical alternative to Svoboda is Right Sector, a group of far-right
organizations whose frankly admitted goal was not a European future but a
national revolution against all foreign influences. In the long run, Right
Sector is the group to watch. For the time being, its leaders have been very
careful, in conversations with both Jews and Russians, to stress that their
goal is political and not ethnic or racial. In the days after the revolution
they have not caused violence or disorder. On the contrary, the subway runs in
The transitional authorities were not from the right, or even from the
western part of
The provisional authorities are now being supplanted by a new government, chosen by parliament, which is very similar in its general orientation. The new prime minister is a Russian-speaking conservative technocrat. Both of the major presidential candidates in the elections planned for May are Russian speakers. The likely next president, Vitali Klitschko, is the son of a general in the Soviet armed forces, best known in the West as the heavyweight champion boxer. He is a chess player and a Russian speaker. He does his best to speak Ukrainian. It does not come terribly naturally. He is not a Ukrainian nationalist.
As specialists in Russian and Ukrainian nationalism have been predicting
for weeks, the claim that the Ukrainian revolution is a “nationalist coup,” as Yanukovych, in Russian exile, said on Friday, has become a
pretext for Russian intervention. This now appears to be underway in the
Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails. The young leaders of the Maidan, some of them radical leftists, have risked their lives to oppose a regime that represented, at an extreme, the inequalities that we criticize at home. They have an experience of revolution that we do not. Part of that experience, unfortunately, is that Westerners are provincial, gullible, and reactionary.
Thus far the new Ukrainian authorities have reacted with remarkable
calm. It is entirely possible that a Russian attack on
Insofar as we have accepted the presentation of the revolution as a fascist coup, we have delayed policies that might have stopped the killing earlier, and helped prepare the way for war. Insofar as we wish for peace and democracy, we are going to have to begin by getting the story right.
March 1, 2014, 11:15 a.m.