Again and again in television reports on the mass protests in Kiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesters tearing down statues of Lenin. It was an easy way to demonstrate anger: the statues functioned as a symbol of Soviet oppression, and Putin’s Russia is perceived as continuing the Soviet policy of Russian domination of its neighbours. Bear in mind that it was only in 1956 that Lenin’s statues started to proliferate throughout the Soviet Union: until then, statues of Stalin were much more common. But after Krushchev’s ‘secret’ denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Stalin’s statues were replaced en masse by Lenin’s: Lenin was literally a stand-in for Stalin. This was made equally clear by a change made in 1962 to the masthead of Pravda. Until then, at the top left-hand corner of the front page, there had been a drawing of two profiles, Lenin’s and Stalin’s, side by side. Shortly after the 22nd Congress publicly rejected Stalin, his profile wasn’t merely removed but replaced with a second profile of Lenin: now there were two identical Lenins printed side by side. In a way, this weird repetition made Stalin more present in his absence than ever.
There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to break with Soviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. The golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was ‘indigenisation’. Ukrainian culture and language were revived, and rights to healthcare, education and social security introduced. Indigenisation followed the principles formulated by Lenin in quite unambiguous terms:
The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.
Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede.
The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimean referendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainian fascism. The events in Ukraine – the massive protests that toppled Yanukovich and his gang – should be understood as a defence against the dark legacy resuscitated by Putin. The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise good relations with Russia over the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece. In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.
Should we, then, simply support the Ukrainian side in the conflict?
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books, on May 8th, 2014. Also appeared in The Guardian under a different title; while a different article with the same title appeared in In These Times on November 23rd, 2010.]