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‘Let’s not exaggerate Russian propaganda’s influence’ Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous serves in the Territorial Defense Forces. He’s also fighting the Western Left’s stereotypes about Ukraine.
Interview by Alexey Kovalev. Abridged translation by Eilish Hart.
Tara Bilous is a Ukrainian socialist, editor of the left-wing publication Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, and an activist with the organization Sotsyalnyi Rukh (“Social Movement”). After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Bilous signed up for the Territorial Defense Forces. But in his free time, he takes part in lively debates with Western left-wing activists, intellectuals, and politicians on Twitter and advocates for solidarity with Ukraine in the pages of the most prominent left-wing publications. Meduza sat down with Taras Bilous to talk about the Ukrainian political landscape, the Western Left’s stereotypes about Ukraine and Russia, and how to counter them.
People in Russia know very little about the internal structure of Ukrainian politics. Usually it’s discussed only in the context of “pro Russian vs. pro-Western.” Please explain what place you and the organization Sotsyalnyi Rukh (“Social Movement”) occupy in it.
We need to start with the fact that in Ukraine, as in Russia, there’s systemic and non-systemic politics. There’s electoral politics that take place in the parliament and on television — these are parties that are sponsored by oligarchs. And the lower level is civil society. There are also parties there, but ones created from below — usually they don’t get into the parliament.
A more realistic way for activists to get into electoral politics is to go through the party lists of [someone like Svyatoslav] Vakarchuk. We also tried to register our own party, but this turned out to be too difficult in terms of bureaucratic and financial resources. That said, parties that get into parliament usually can’t mobilize people on these. [Whereas] activist organizations and parties, although they can’t get into governing bodies, are able to put pressure on the authorities from below.
Russian spin doctors who [worked on] Ukrainian elections thought that they understood electoral politics — and even then, only [the electoral politics] that existed before Zelensky. A lot changed with his arrival. This is probably one of the main shortcomings of Putin’s team. They strongly underestimated the mobilization potential of Ukrainian society, including volunteer organizations that were created after the start of the war [in eastern Ukraine in 2014]. Yes, some of them grew out of some pre-existing civil institutions, but many were created, broadly speaking, from scratch by ordinary people; local leaders, who before that had never been involved in political activity. This is what Russian spin doctors didn’t understand.
Ukrainian civil society also has its own segments. The liberal segment is like the mainstream. There’s also the far right, which although it doesn’t get into parliament, has street assets. The “new” left had a period — sometime between 2008 and 2012 — when they were on the rise, but with the Maidan [Revolution in 2014] and especially the start of the war in the Donbas, they gradually fell into decline.
What was the reason for the decline of the Ukrainian grassroots left after Maidan?
At the time, I participated in an organization of the national-liberal persuasion. I myself am from a nationalist family from Luhansk. And we cooperated with left-wing activists from the trade union Direct Action (Pryama Diya), when they staged student protests.
But leftists weren’t ready for the Maidan. Due to the deviation towards nationalism, this didn’t turn out to be the revolution they dreamed of. Many quarreled — and even more quarreled when the [Donbas] war began. Part of the left began to adhere to pro-Russian views, part went to the front to fight for Ukraine, and others tried to take up a kind of compromise position, which ultimately led to the fragmentation of the left-wing milieu. As far as I understand, a similar situation occurred with the far right in Russia.
From the spring of 2015 to the spring of 2019, four new people joined the Commons editorial staff, including myself. We were united by the fact that we are all from Donbas, all supported the Maidan, but our attitude towards the war wasn’t mainstream for Ukraine: we advocated for dialogue and a compromise solution to the conflict.
Do you have any contact with Russian leftists?
The Russian left also split because of the Maidan, and we severed ties with those who supported the [Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”]. Our main allies in Russia are the RSD [the Russian Socialist Movement]. We signed a joint appeal with them after the start of the war [on February 24, 2022].
What exactly did you do before the full-scale war?
From 2014 to 2019, I traveled to the Donbas as part of the projects New Donbas, Building Ukraine Together, and other volunteer initiatives. I took part in repairing schools and other buildings damaged as a result of the hostilities and I worked with children. And because I gradually transitioned from activist work to editorial work, I started to write texts on the topic of the Donbas. I wrote a lot on the topic of civilian victims of the war in the Donbas on both sides.
But all of the actions of the Ukrainian authorities in relation to the Donbas that deserved criticism pale in comparison to what Russia is doing now. The Donbas, my little homeland, is being destroyed by Russia right now. Under hypocritical claims about the “genocide of the people of the Donbas,” which [Russia used to justify] the invasion, the Russian army destroyed Sievierodonetsk, Popasna, Mariupol, and other Donbas cities. They talked about Ukraine’s failure to comply with the Minsk agreements and were silent about their own violations of these same agreements. Now they say that the West is prepared to fight “to the last Ukrainian,” while they themselves forcibly mobilize men in the [Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”] and use them as cannon fodder.
If we’re talking about our organization [Social Movement], then we deal with social issues in a general sense. The organization’s head [Vitaliy Dudin] is a lawyer who deals with labor rights issues. Some of our activists work as trade union organizers. A few months before the invasion, for example, we organized a rally in Kyiv against the increase in public transport fares. We [also] support various environmental initiatives and feminist ones, we take part in the March 8 [International Women’s Day] marches.
Why did you switch from activism to polemics with Western leftists about Russia’s war in Ukraine?
When in the fall [of 2021, Russian] troop movements began on the border once again, I planned to take a sabbatical and left for an anarchist cooperative in Zakarpattia. But it became clear that something needed to be done and no one else was ready to write articles. At first I wrote two, [one] for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s website and [one] for Open Democracy. In these articles, I tried to carefully address the Western Left’s stereotypes [about Ukraine] and influence them, talk [them] round.
I was working on a third article when the invasion started. At the time I was living near Kyiv and I had to return to the city literally on foot because public transport was no longer running. A few weeks before the invasion, we had a meeting involving a number of socialists and anarchists. We discussed who would do what if [a full-scale war] began. Several other people and I agreed to create a volunteer initiative that would help leftists and anti-authoritarian volunteers in the Territorial Defense Forces and involved in humanitarian aid. But when the invasion began, I changed my mind and decided to enlist in the Territorial Defense Forces as well. The very next day, I was told that Jacobin magazine wanted me to write an article for them about the Ukrainian left at war.
Jacobin is the Western left-wing publication that I read the most and I’ve already published with them once. After that, readers criticized my article for “Russophobia” because although they have an American audience, a significant portion of it has illusions about Russia. It’s probably because of this that they changed their editorial policy, and in the months before the invasion they published terrible articles on the topic of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. When they reached out to me, I replied that I was only ready to write an article for them critiquing the Western Left’s approach to Ukraine and their [Jacobin’s] editorial policy on Ukraine.
They refused, and as a result my “Letter to the Western Left” was published on the Open Democracy website on the second day of the war. It was actively discussed in left-wing circles both in the West and in Latin America, it was translated into Spanish and even into Chinese. After that activists from Hong Kong contacted the Social Movement and said that they have the same problem with the Western Left, who say, “Oh, you’re against the Chinese Communist Party, which means you support American imperialism.”
What exactly are these stereotypes about Ukraine that you’re fighting against?
Well, for example, that the Maidan [Revolution] was a U.S.-backed right-wing putsch, practically a fascist coup, and the like. Here the question is how correctly people perceive both Ukraine and Russia. For example, some may understand that Russia is a capitalist state with a reactionary regime, but — apparently under the influence of Russia Today — they have some illusions that there’s a strong trade union movement in Russia.
In discussions with Western leftists, I often hear arguments saying that NATO supported and used the far right during the Cold War. But the Cold War ended 30 years years ago and even the example that in Syria they [the U.S.] chose the socialist Syrian Kurds as their allies and not some other force seems to me like a good indicator of how far U.S. foreign policy is now from the logic of the Cold War. At the same time, these leftists ignore the fact that in recent decades, Russia has been supporting the far right in Europe.
They may also call to mind that the Ukrainian regime is repressing the left. And it’s a separate problem to explain to the Western Left that when they read names like the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, that this means something quite different than they might think. [The party’s leader, Natalya] Vitrenko, cooperated with [Russian ideologue Alexander] Dugin, they had an overtly racist election ad, and so on. In general, all of the banned parties that had some kind of leftist name were approximately the same.
Western leftists often criticize Ukraine. For example, they write about the political influence of oligarchs. But what are the practical conclusions from this? I’m also very well aware that there’s a bad government in Ukraine, it’s carrying out neoliberal policies. We fought against this before the war, we have to fight this now — for example, when they’re trying to curtail labor rights. I know the many shortcomings of Ukrainian society, government, and politics, but this doesn’t mean that resistance to Russian aggression shouldn’t be supported.
Where do these stereotypes come from? Is it just the influence of Russian propaganda or are there other factors?
I think we shouldn’t exaggerate Russian propaganda’s influence here. The main negative impact of Russian propaganda is that it imposes a distorted view of post-Soviet realities. When it comes to this, Western leftists have neither their own experience, nor information sources, nor an understanding of what’s happening here. And since they don’t trust the mainstream media, Russian propaganda often becomes their main source of information.
But Western leftists don’t need Russia Today’s help to dislike American imperialism, U.S. hegemony, the unipolar world, and NATO. They have enough of their own reasons. The older generation often took part in protests against the Vietnam War or other U.S. operations during the Cold War, and the younger one was shaped by the Iraq War. For them, opposing NATO often simply becomes part of their identity, instead of considering a specific political issue that needs to be resolved within the framework of a leftist strategy.
The main reason is probably that in recent decades, the left has been in decline and hasn’t contributed to the development of political thinking and strategy. This is even noticeable among those who have a more adequate stance [on Ukraine]. Even many of our allies in the West pay more attention to getting on the right side and convincing others than to discussing what could be done practically to influence the situation.
For example, I think that in the sphere of international politics, one of the left’s most important demands should be the reform and the democratization of the United Nations. But many don’t want to discuss this at all, because the UN is still an association dominated by imperialist states. Well okay, but what’s the alternative then?
Have your efforts produced any practical results? Have you managed to convince many people?
The irony is that my article that I’m the least satisfied with was the most widely circulated in foreign circles. I literally wrote it on the go, sent it off, and went to enlist in the Territorial Defense Forces. [People] from various countries wrote to me and thanked me for it, not just [people] from the West, [but] from Brazil, Japan, and so on. They said that I helped them understand what’s going on here. Again, because they didn’t trust the mainstream explanation.
But even if other Ukrainian leftists and I had stayed silent, the Western Left still would’ve split over the issue of attitudes towards this war. Therefore, the main thing that we managed to do was reinforce the position of those who immediately took a more adequate stance.
Another thing is that the more pro-Russian segment of the Western Left was silent in the first days of the war. They were shocked by what had happened, because for the three months beforehand they were busy ridiculing U.S. warnings about Russia preparing for war and saying that there would be no war. Now, they’ve reoriented themselves and are once again trying to influence public opinion. It would seem that after what happened people should have understood, but no. So, despite a number of successes, there is also a regression.
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How do you assess the efforts of the Russian anti-war opposition?
At the start of the war, many Ukrainians hoped that the Russian anti-war movement would be able to influence things. But then they saw that instead, some [people] began criticizing trends in Ukrainian society. About a month ago, one author complained that Ukrainians were canceling Russian culture and dismantling monuments to Pushkin [Editor’s note: Bilous was referring to this column by Leonid Bershidsky in the Washington Post]. But this is not at all what the Russian intelligentsia should be doing right now. They definitely won’t influence the situation for the better like this. If they have access to Western media, may they better use it to convince the Western public to act more courageously and decisively. When Ukrainians demand weapons, that’s one thing, [our position] is clear, but it’s a completely different matter if opposition Russians do it.
Of course, I understand that such statements can cross out any political prospects in Russia for such people. But after February 24, any prospects for democratization in Russia depend on Russia’s military defeat and how fast it happens. And when Germany was delaying the supply of weapons [to Ukraine] for months, it was the Russians who could have influenced that. I know that some have tried, but it wasn’t enough for Ukrainians. This is definitely more needed than articles about Ukrainians insulting Pushkin. I really don’t like the discourse about how all Russians are supposedly the same, but the fact is that even members of the Russian opposition are showing imperialist tendencies.
Instead of complaining about the consequences of the war, it’s better to try and solve the root problem. Of the entire anti-war movement inside Russia itself, for me the most positive example, free from any imperialist complexes, is the Feminist Anti-war Resistance. On the other hand, I understand that now their activities in Russia aren’t very effective.
At the moment, protests in Russia can only lead to an increase in the number of political prisoners, there will be little benefit from this. Therefore, it’s better for those who are in these specific circumstances to decide how to act. Another thing is the [Russian] anarchists who sabotage the railways. I understand that not everyone will dare to do such acts, but so far this is one of the best ways to hasten the end of this war, because it directly affects Russia’s ability to fight.
It seems to me that many Russians, even the opposition, don’t understand that Ukraine will not capitulate. And the point here isn’t [President Volodymyr Zelensky] — he’s only fulfilling the will of the people on this matter. After what Russia has done, the absolute majority of Ukrainians oppose concessions to Russia. Ukrainians are already preparing to survive this winter without gas and electricity. Everyone understands that the continuation of the war means further losses, but Ukraine is ready to fight until victory.
Russia can’t win and the only reason why this war continues is because some miserable dwarf in a bunker can’t admit that he screwed up when he gave the order to invade Ukraine. When Russia loses, he [Vladimir Putin] will lose power, and through this [the war] he’s delaying that moment and dragging his country into a bigger and bigger hole. But the sooner Russia admits its defeat and withdraws its troops from Ukraine, the better it will be for Russians themselves.
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