Oct 1, 2023
Content Warning: State and colonial violence
Art by Petro Martynuik (Public Domain)
This is not an essay about the far-right’s relationship with the Russian state, as plenty of other journalists have already covered this, and re-hashing it here wouldn’t be worth your time. This is actually about the pro-russia and pro-”peace” rhetoric that has infected every tendency of the left, particularly though not exclusively in western1 countries. I’ll primarily be focusing on two particular types of pro-Russia leftists and attempting to understand their arguments and reasoning, as well as naming names as far as organizations that fall into these camps.
Firstly, looking at the unapologetic pro-Russia left, there aren’t that many large organizations that fit this bill, but they tend to be almost entirely of a Marxist-Leninist (or let’s be honest, Stalinist) tendency. Some ‘democratic socialist’ organizations such as the African National Congress2 in South Africa also fit into this camp. The primary argument they make is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and more broadly any actions of the Russian state are actions for the purpose of countering American imperialism. The expansion of NATO into Eastern European countries since the fall of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 is often cited to explain this, as it is seen as a violation of Russia’s sphere of influence. The problem with this viewpoint is that it rests on some faulty assumptions that are simply untrue. Firstly, it should be noted in contrast to the assumption that the post-Soviet expansion of NATO was a hostile takeover, the reason why countries in Eastern Europe largely joined NATO following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact was to protect themselves from future Russian aggression.
Regardless of whether or not NATO is truly a defensive alliance in its entirety, it certainly is from the perspective of those who would prefer not to be under the boot of yet another Russian Empire. Another faulty assumption of the unapologetic pro-Russia left is that two wrongs somehow make a right. One example of imperialism does not justify another imperialism. A “multipolar world” is not really any better, because now there are more empires when the goal is ostensibly the abolition of empire entirely. Invading a country in “defense” is hardly different from the “preemptive strikes” of other empires such as the United States or the British Empire. In short, the unapologetic pro-Russia left bases their support for an empire on perhaps the shakiest ground for an ostensibly left-wing grouping.
This one is a lot harder to write about, but also more common from my experiences interacting with leftists both in-person and online. An example of the type of argument made is that of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who while condemning Russia, which is a step above the Unapologetic Pro-Russia Left, he creates a false equivalence, stating, “This guy [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy] is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty.”3
In order to understand what’s wrong with this, it is important to consider the history between Russia and Ukraine. In the year 1764, the Cossack Hetmanate, located in what is now northern and central Ukraine, was fully annexed into the Russian Empire. It remained under Russian imperial dominion, with a significant program of settler-colonialism known as Russification until 1917, when it declared a short-lived independence in the form of a state entity, the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Republic was led primarily by the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and the Free Territory of Ukraine. It was an attempt by anarcho-communists to establish a stateless and classless society. Ultimately, this was short-lived however, as the Bolsheviks crushed both movements, in spite of the latter initially siding with them in the wider Russian Civil War.
Now is a good point to bring up Vladimir Lenin’s definition of Imperialism, which as the title of the work of the same name suggests, is “The Highest Stage of Capitalism”. The core of Lenin’s argument is that imperialism is by definition, a product of capitalism. This was certainly convenient for him, as he (and those who subscribe to his definition of imperialism) could argue that the Soviet invasions of countries such as Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan were not imperialist because after all, only capitalist states can do imperialism. What then, might be a better definition that accounts for the fact that not all empires were capitalist or motivated solely by the accumulation of profit? Imperialism could be better defined as “when a state pursues the conquest of other territories, and [reaches] the status of a superpower,”4 Using this definition, we can then understand that Ukraine is a former colony of the Russian and later Soviet Empire. Once we understand this, it is no longer feasible to draw such a false equivalence, as Lula and so many others on the left do, between Ukraine and Russia in the context of the current invasion. One side is an empire fighting for the “Russian World”, the other is not. Are so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ seriously going to not support a fight against an empire? I would certainly hope not.
This sort of stuff really should not have been a ‘debate’ in the first place. The people of Ukraine are suffering immensely right now as you are reading this, facing everything from airstrikes on their homes to the horrors of occupation, and there are still some on the left trying to be apologists about it. Do these apologists seriously lack any empathy? This is absolutely shameful, and I sincerely hope that those who genuinely stand for the oppressed peoples of the world consistently will reject this apologist nonsense. Remaining silent on this issue for this long has been my biggest regret as a member of The Student Insurgent, and for that I apologize. Please consider visiting https://edist.ro/solidarity and reading up further as well as providing actual support to those resisting the resurgence of the Russian Empire as much as you can.
The term “western” is vague, but for the purposes of this essay, it refers to the territories controlled by states in North America, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand ↩︎
The ANC Youth League sent several members on jets owned by the Russian Air Force to the oblasts of Crimea, Donetsk, and Zaporizhia as foreign observers of the ‘referendums’: https://www.info-res.org/post/explainer-the-foreign-observers-behind-ukraine-s-sham-referendums ↩︎