ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2014
Political Radicalism: The (Far) Left and Right
Ukraine’s EuroMaidan is recognized as a multi-faceted phenomenon; with demands ranging from the resignation of Yanukovych to the lustration of all former members of the government, Maidan was a space for established organizations and political parties to grow, and it also gave rise to myriad new organizations of various stripes. Many discussions have recognized the complexity present throughout the mobilizations, but one essential group of participants has so far been ignored: the Ukrainian left, made up of various groups of socialists, anarchists, and social democrats, among others. Organized leftist columns participated in every aspect of Maidan; they were present from the first inklings of protest, where they were often targets of attacks. But leftists were also central organizers in multiple Maidan-based initiatives, including the Student Assembly and subsequent occupation of the Ministry of Education. I will show how leftist groups responded to shifting attitudes on Maidan to go from being marginal participants against whom violence was acceptable to being central players in an essential and broadly-supported initiative. My discussion is informed by my own fieldwork in Ukraine, which began in September 2013 and ended in June 2014, encompassing most of the period during which Maidan took place.
I suggest that there are two reasons for the erasure of leftist voices from Maidan. One is the focus on right-wing groups and their potential to influence the future of Ukrainian politics. Studies of the right must also recognize that a left must exist in a given context in order for the “right” to have meaning. The radical right and radical left have shaped each other since before Maidan, but because of the advancement of several prominent right-wing organizations on Maidan, mainstream media has focused exclusively on the radical right. Academics have largely ignored the participation of leftists, which may be because leftist participation was not as visible, but it may also simply not occur to researchers to study such groups in a critical way because of their small size and their non-threatening positions to Ukrainian governmental institutions. The second reason leftist groups have been ignored is that internal disagreements among the role of leftists on Maidan mean that there is no united leftist front to present to media or researchers. There is not even a single, agreed-upon definition of what the left is and what leftists should do in Ukraine. I consider the contributions of self-identified leftists to Maidan without suggesting that they represent any kind of unified “Left” in Ukraine. I use the term leftist because my interlocutors use this term. Both they and I recognize that leftism is itself very complicated, and these leftists are constantly engaged with the changing definitions of the left.
“Tolerance is a European Value”
When I stood in the middle of Maidan with a radical leftist companion on November 22, I first heard the nationalist slogans that would dominate the protests and become common greetings among Maidaners (Слава Україні, героям cлава!/Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes in particular). Leftists are often critical of this kind of nationalism because it so easily links with exclusionary ideologies which base the “nation” on an ethnic identity of Ukrainian-ness rather than on an idea of civic participation and diversity. Adherents to this nationalism associate all “left” with Communism because of the residual influences of the Soviet economy and social structures. Current forms of leftism, usually enacted by young political activists who are often students, are included with this association of “left” with Communism, making the contemporary Ukrainian context a challenging and often dangerous place to be an overtly leftist person. In other words, it is easy to condemn the current left because it is not distinguished from state socialism in the minds of most people, even though most of today’s leftists do not support an imagined return to the Soviet Union or even participation in Russia’s Customs Union. But, as others have noted, Maidan was not just nationalist but anti-Communist at its heart, and many participants saw the mobilizations and the overthrow of Yanukovych as the final step in freeing Ukraine from Russian/Soviet tethers. Any possible representation of Communism – including contemporary leftist slogans and ideas – was unwelcome on Maidan.
Despite their criticisms of overt displays of nationalism, leftist activists used the massive mobilizations on Maidan to express their ideas as well, tentatively recognizing the importance of leftist participation in what might become a mass movement because of the possibility to use it as a platform for their own ideas. As November came to a close, leftist activists used mass marches as a space to present their campaign for free municipal transportation, free and accessible education, and a world without borders. These ideas were more or less ignored, however, because they appeared alongside slogans about equality, tolerance, and feminism, which not only drew attention away from economic campaigns like transport and education, but there were also several direct attacks on those holding signs with these latter themes. Activists promoting feminism and against homophobia were attacked with lead pipes and pepper spray, and they were continually verbally abused by many passersby and protesters. Following these attacks, the participants recognized the problems associated with this kind of presence on Maidan. Much of their focus turned to ideas about self-organizing and non-partisan politics. The ideas of self-organizing became a more viable solution as the Opposition candidates continually proved themselves to be unable to satisfy protesters' demands.
Leftist ideas became even more essential to Maidan after the night of the 30th of November, when police violently attacked protesters sleeping on Maidan in order to make room for the New Year's Tree. Slogans among non-leftists were largely focused toward Yanukovych. But leftists began to assert their relevance, because instead of simply blaming one person for the violence, they were already well-versed in language critical of a police state and linked this language to the Yanukovych regime. This allowed them to fit into criticisms of Yanukovych but with a broader language that condemned more than just the president but the entire system holding him up. At a march in early December, a leftist group hung a huge banner with the slogan, “We are against a police state” (Mи проти поліцейської держави) on the main street leading to Maidan, the banner was later relocated to the occupied City Hall. The language of the police state and the protection of human rights from the hands of state violence were formulated largely by leftist activists and were adopted into the rhetoric of others on Maidan as part of their criticism of the governing regime.
A Student-Organized Occupation
The notion of self-organizing and standing against state violence led to leftist-influenced developments that would otherwise not have been possible. After the occupation of the Ukrainian House in late January, students claimed a space in the building, known as Student Assembly. It was used as a meeting point for general assemblies, at which students pursued various campaigns through working groups, like picketing courts and supporting economic boycotts of oligarch-owned companies. The students worked with other organizers in the Ukrainian House to schedule lectures and film screenings, which were attended by activists and protesters of all backgrounds. For one week at the end of February, students occupied the Ministry of Education. The students had a medical point, a kitchen, places to sleep, and their own self-defense brigade who guarded the gates and only let student card-holders into the building. At the Ministry, they held massive student assemblies, elected a presidium to represent students, chose three student-approved candidates for minister and created a “road map” of demands for the improvement of higher education. When Serhiy Kvit was named the new minister and the Ministry re-opened for work, students meticulously opened each office in turn, followed by a livestream, showing that they had not damaged possessions or stolen documents during their occupation. By February 28, Kvit had accepted the students' road map.
The students' occupation of the Ministry of Education presents an interesting conundrum for leftists on Maidan: while its success was clearly based on progressive ideas like self-organization, transparency, accessibility, and consensus, and while the leftist student union was prominent in organizing and supporting the occupation, many students present identified with right-leaning, nationalist ideas. Serhiy Kvit, while considered to be in touch with modern Ukrainian education, was not the first (or second) choice of leftist groups. He is known for his own nationalist ideas and often condemnatory attitude toward active leftists and leftist spaces, like the Visual Cultural Resource Center. While he was certainly amenable to student demands in his first days in office, whether he will continue with these progressive actions remains a concern. Many leftist student activists have considered the adoption of Law 1187-2 on higher education to be a success, but others are not fully satisfied with such legislative changes.
Leftist “Success” on Maidan
That a tactically radical move like occupying a government building continued until students elected to leave the building suggests significant student support, from left- and non-left-identified students. On one hand, this has brought student issues to the forefront of the new education minister's concerns, and student issues have been a central focus of leftist organizations in Ukraine (in part because many leftists are students themselves). On the other hand, the broad support of the Ministry occupation and the participation of multiple organizations has meant that the possible influence of leftist activists has been minimized, because their political identification marginalizes them. Considering the latter, is it effective for leftists to continue to participate in a movement in which, no matter how essential they are in its organization, their fundamental ideas are constantly devalued?
The occupation of the Ministry of Education mirrored nearly exactly the organization of Maidan: while all needs, including food and health care, were provided, it relied strongly on a militarized protective structure to guarantee the well-being of participants. Criticisms about this type of militarization and the hierarchies it can reproduce – in its own organization as well as between militants and “civilians” – were not part of the discussion. The structure of the Ministry occupation did not create space for multiple voices, similarly to the way Maidan excluded these participants in its early days. However, the Ministry occupation did require many participants to set aside stark political differences in order to have an influence on the newly forming government, allowing for a non-partisan opposition that challenges assumptions about “right” and “left,” while not entirely eliminating their undertones.
Is There a Future Left?
Maidan did not give leftists an opportunity to solidify themselves as a unified political voice that could be presented as a counter to radical right-wing attitudes. The mainstreaming of these attitudes is not balanced by a mainstreaming of leftist ideas, and it is even possible that leftists will be even more marginalized than they were before Maidan because of the wide acceptance of right-wing and anti-Soviet stances. While leftists have provided extensive critical commentary about the events on Maidan that consider the influence of austerity measures on social welfare programs in Ukraine and the lack of systemic change that came with new elections, such ideas have, as yet, not been put into practice.
Education-based activism continues to be the one place that leftists have seen success, which is in part because this sphere does not demand a radical restructuring of institutions but instead considers legislative changes a success. But other social changes suggested by leftists are not taken seriously by mainstream political institutions. There seems to be a growing distinction among leftists between those who think political representation is a success and those who do not. The particularities of smaller political organizations with little representation, such as leftist groups, might get lost in the fray. As studies of the radical right become more expansive and more necessary, I suggest that tracking these possible paths of leftist groups should be a parallel engagement for scholars concerned about current situation so we can honestly represent the multitude of political voices present in Ukraine today.
Emily Channell is a doctoral candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation research focuses on the politicization and socialization of postsocialist youth in contemporary Ukraine, where she spent the 2013-2014 academic year with support from the Fulbright-IIE program.