oDR: Opinion

Russia’s working class and Ukraine: hope for an end to Kremlin expansionism?

While Russia’s ruling elite clamps down on anti-Ukraine war protests, its working class could be the key to a progressive, post-imperial future

Zakhar Popovych
17 May 2022, 9.11am
The letter "Z" has come to symbolise Russia's brutal military invasion of Ukraine
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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock. All rights reserved

More than 70 years ago, Allied victory in the Second World War brought with it a powerful wave of hatred for all things German. Since the end of the war, the Germans repeatedly accepted responsibility for their actions. They made reparations to the Allied nations and lifelong compensation payments to concentration camp survivors. Nevertheless, it took decades for the hatred to subside in countries that had suffered under their occupation.

Today, Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, committed in the name of of ‘denazification’ and ‘protecting Russian speakers’, have inspired many Ukrainians to reject everything Russian: to try to forget the Russian language and erase all Russian classical literature – with its imperial flavour and patronising of conquered peoples – from memory.

How and in what form Ukrainian culture will retain its Russian-speaking component will become clear only when the war ends. But the longer the war continues, the more Russian-speaking culture will suffer in Ukraine, Russia and the world.

The genesis of hatred

The growing hatred for everything Russian in Ukraine began with hatred for Vladimir Putin, who supported ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies, annexed Crimea and started a war in Donbas. But until recently, most Ukrainians did not blame all Russians for the Putin regime’s crimes.

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This changed with Russia’s open aggression against Ukraine. It has become increasingly clear that most Russian soldiers joined the army more or less voluntarily, under contract. Of course, most professional Russian soldiers come from the country’s most depressed regions and join the armed forces primarily due to a lack of decent education and other work opportunities. Undoubtedly, the social catastrophe in these regions is the result of many years of rule by Moscow and St Petersburg big business, which has methodically extorted and neglected them over many years.

But whatever the social causes that lead Russians to join the army, they must take personal responsibility for their actions. Russian soldiers are committing war crimes. How else can the bodies of civilians found in Bucha –with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the back of the head – be explained? They certainly didn’t die by accident. It was a deliberate killing of already detained civilians who could no longer resist and posed no threat.

But even more appalling is the fact that so many Russians seem to support this war, believing the cynical statements of the Russian General Staff that the army has nothing to do with these killings. Instead of even pretending that they are ready to participate in an investigation, the Russian authorities simply deny the obvious facts.

Despite the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Ukraine, opinion polls suggest that support for the war is actually growing in Russia. Even many of those who initially believed it was a mistake, or were against it for humanitarian reasons, now appear to consider that, in light of the US’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia has the ‘right to do what it wants in its own backyard’. While the numbers supporting Putin could be inflated, international sanctions and the ‘cancelling’ of Russian culture have definitely hurt people’s pride.

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5 May: a bomb shelter in Saltivka, a working-class district of Kharkiv

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(c) ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Natural feelings

In this wartime situation, Ukrainians’ hatred of Russians seems quite natural, justified and inevitable. But what concerns me more is why so few Russians seem to hate the Russian imperial regime and its disgusting imperial history, and the current Russian ruling class and its henchmen, who wave Russian flags and sport ‘Z’ symbols on their cars. After all, these people are dancing on the bones of Russian-speaking children in Mariupol.

That said, perhaps the polarisation of Russian society is quietly increasing. Perhaps, while the Russian elite and its henchmen consolidate their power, resistance to Putin’s brutality is growing.

While the Russian police detain anyone who displays the slightest glimpse of a public anti-war position, the number of socioeconomic protests is growing in Russia. Even under a new wave of repression and the establishment of a military dictatorship, there are strikes in the country’s car industry, strikes by delivery couriers and other acts of civil disobedience. And initiatives that consistently and radically oppose the war still operate.

Perhaps the ‘Russian people’ should be thought of as the community that associates itself with the imperialist state and supports the criminal regime. But the ‘Russian working class’, on the other hand – aware of its own condition, interests and goals – deserves our respect, support and solidarity. It deserves our support to the extent to which it can become a class acting for itself – with Russian workers finding the strength and dignity to turn against the rule of the oligarchs and the secret police. After all, only then will Ukrainian workers be able to move on from destroying Russian forces to removing Ukraine’s oligarchs from power and establishing real social justice and democracy.

A different path?

For better or worse, Ukrainians and Russians have close cultural roots. One key difference today, though, is that Ukrainians have chosen to fight against imperialism instead of complacently belonging to it.

But Russia can also choose this path. Most Russians are working class, and young people also suffer oppression by Russia’s imperial authorities, though certainly not to the extent of Ukrainians.

Of course, these people are largely constrained by state propaganda, but the level of support for the war among the working class is much lower than among Russia’s petty-bourgeois ‘middle class’. The chance to build a world order without imperialism lies, in part, in mobilising Russia’s working class against Russian imperialism.

One step on this path has to involve abandoning the dehumanisation of Russians. The Ukrainian authorities, including the Office of the President, emphasise the need to treat prisoners humanely and investigate reports of violations of their rights. Yet there are an incredible number of posts on social networks that, in various ways, suggest the inferiority of Russians, whether in ‘genetic’ or ‘cultural’ terms. The main mouthpiece of Ukrainian state propaganda, United News, which is followed by half the country’s journalists, constantly refers to Russians as ‘orcs’”. If we don’t want to follow Russia’s path, we need to reject this kind of language.

No matter how much we hate our enemies and no matter what crimes they commit, they remain human and will be held accountable for all their actions. We want criminals to be punished, but we don’t want to dehumanise an entire nation.

This article has been translated and adapted from Social Movement, a Ukrainian political organisation.

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