In our earlier commentaries and statements, we have covered some of the recent background to Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. We have considered the post-Cold War geopolitics of the region. We have criticised the Modi government’s refusal to clearly condemn the invasion, as well as to effectively plan the evacuation of Indian students from Ukraine, and noted the affinity between the far-right expansionist visions of Putin and of Hindu supremacists. We have urged progressive forces across the world to support the anti-war movement in Russia and to stand with the Ukrainian people. We have also highlighted the hypocrisy of the mainstream US and European approaches which recognise the brutality of the invasion of Ukraine but erase the ongoing bombing of Yemen, which celebrate Ukrainian resistance but demonise that of the Palestinian people, and which welcome Ukrainian refugees but build walls against those from the global South. In this article, Kavita Krishnan explores, in particular, two aspects of the war on Ukraine which have been neglected in wider coverage and analysis: firstly, the longer history of relations between Ukraine and Russia and specifically, Lenin’s approach to the question; and secondly, the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s brand of fascism. - Ed.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, it seemed to many that the small nation was no match for Russia’s formidable military machine. After all, Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic; which on becoming an independent nation following the Soviet collapse, had given up its nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia in its 2014 invasion of Ukraine had already cut Crimea off from Ukraine and annexed it. Further, the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of Ukraine (where the majority of people are Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians are 40% of the population) were controlled by Russia-backed separatists and on 22 February itself, Putin had declared these two areas to be independent Republics.
It was widely expected that people in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas would greet Russian troops as liberators; and that the already weakened Ukraine would quickly fall to the troops of the Big Power Russia. However, Russian troops were met with determined and united resistance all over Ukraine. Kherson, a predominantly Russian speaking province, has been occupied by Russian troops – but its people have continued to defy and resist the Russian occupiers with fierce courage. The mood in Ukraine is summed up by the old woman in Kherson who, in a now viral video, is seen offering seeds of the sunflower (Ukraine’s national flower) to Russian soldiers, telling them, “You are occupiers, you are fascists! What are you doing on my land with guns? Here, keep these seeds in your pockets, so that where you fall and die, sunflowers will grow on this land!” In the Russian-speaking regions, thousands of people can be seen waving Ukraine’s flags and marching in cities against armed Russian troops.
Russian bombs have destroyed residential buildings, even hospitals, and killed civilians including children. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have been forced to flee the country. There is a real fear that Putin will bombard and raze Ukrainian cities to the ground and massacre civilians as he did to the Syrian cities like Aleppo in 2016. In spite of this fear, Ukraine’s people are united in their resistance to the Russian invasion.
To understand this Ukrainian spirit, it is necessary to understand Ukraine’s history of facing centuries of oppression and occupation; and Putin’s deep ideological hostility to Ukraine’s very existence as an independent nation.
In a speech made just before his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared that Ukraine was not a legitimate nation; it was an “inalienable part” of Russia’s own “history, culture and spiritual space.” After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, he said, Stalin had wanted to create a centralised Soviet state, but Lenin had instead insisted on a “confederative state arrangement” based on “the right of nations to self-determination, up to secession.” In Putin’s eyes, this was an unforgivable break with the “historical tradition” of Russian nationhood as represented by the Tsarist “Russian Empire.” Modern Ukraine as a nation, Putin said, existed only due to Lenin: it was “Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s Ukraine.” Pointing out that Ukrainians were now demolishing statues of Lenin in the name of “decommunization”, Putin declared, “"You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.” In other words, Putin threatened to erase Ukraine’s identity as a separate nation: an identity he claimed was created thanks to a mistake by communists.
Putin praised Stalin for running the USSR as “a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state,” but lamented that Stalin retained the “super-democratic” Leninist Constitution on paper. He said that it was a “great pity” that under Stalin’s regime, “the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.” In other words, he lamented that Stalin failed to remove all references to the legal rights of the nationalities to be Soviet Socialist Republics enjoying the right even to secede from the USSR.
When Putin calls Ukraine an “inalienable part” of Russia rather than an independent nation, is it merely warmongering rhetoric or does he really mean it? To answer these questions, let us first study Putin’s brand of fascist ideology more closely.
Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin is widely considered to be the fascist ideological inspiration for Putin. In a 1997 article titled ‘Fascism - borderless and red’ Dugin states that he wishes to see “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism” established in Russia. He claims to be inspired by Stalin and the Soviet Union as well as Russian occult traditions. In 1997, Dugin published The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia. While Foundations is not a straightforward policy playbook for Putin or the Kremlin, the book along with other writings by Dugin held to illuminate the latter’s ideological thinking.
Foundations outlines a new sort of “Clash of Civilisations” theory: according to Foundations, the world today is marked by competition between various “civilisational” forces; above all, between “Eurasianism” which is imperial Russian civilisation, and “Atlanticist” civilisation which represents liberal democracies of the “West”. In the course of this and subsequent books elaborating on the same theory, Dugin argues that the great civilisational powers, led by Russia-controlled “Eurasia” and including China and India and the pan-Arab world, should control the world, and defeat the modern hegemony of liberal democracy with its concepts of “human rights”, “parliamentary democracy” and so on.
Dugin defines “geopolitics” as a “worldview” based on political control over space: states and “civilisational” powers simply try to expand their influence and control as much “space” as possible, and there are no ethical considerations that can limit such expansion. Dugin derives this theory from German thinker Friedrich Ratzel, the man whose concept of “Lebensraum” (Living Space) was embraced by the German Nazis. Dugin quotes and adopts Ratzel’s theory of the state as a living organism that naturally “expands by consuming and absorbing units of lesser political significance.” (From Foundations, translated by Grant Scott Fellows, 2018)
Foundations makes an elaborate argument for the “Geopolitical decomposition of Ukraine”, identifying independent Ukraine as a major impediment for the realisation of Russia’s “destiny” to reintegrate all those territories which were once part of the Russian empire as part of a modern “Eurasia”. Indeed, reading Foundations today can help us understand how its ideology of “Eurasianist” imperialism could help Putin justify his invasion of Ukraine (as well as Georgia in 2008 and the dismemberment of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014) by presenting it as a natural expansion of the Russian state “by consuming and absorbing units of lesser political significance.”
In an opportunist manner, Dugin’s (and Putin’s) brand of fascism tries to appropriate the language of the Left (“multipolarity” for example, and “anti-globalisation”) while seeking to rally those on the Left as well as rightwing, authoritarian, and anti-democratic forces. In his book Eurasian Misson: An Introduction To Neo-Eurasianism (Arktos, 2014) Dugin spells this out quite clearly: “I think we should welcome all those forces that struggle against the West, the US, liberal democracy, and modernity and postmodernity. Our common enemy necessitates all kinds of political alliances. Muslims, Christians, Russians, Chinese, Leftists, Rightists, Hindus, Jews — all who challenge the present state of things, and globalization in particular, should be our friends and allies.”
Note that for Dugin, opposition to the US or NATO is not based on “anti-imperialism”; it is a straightforward opposition to liberal democracy. He openly calls for a world where powerful nations will be free to run totalitarian, authoritarian, and fascist regimes and invade neighbouring nations, without having to be accountable to the UN or any international body for violations of “human rights” and “democracy” which Dugin deems to be “western” values that are alien to “Eurasia” and the “East”. India’s PM Modi strikes a very similar note when he brands “human rights” to be an alien and western concept, and like China, shifts the goalposts to claim that “economic growth” and “national security” (war on terrorism) are human rights in the true sense of the term.
American propaganda has for long accused Putin of wanting to “recreate the Soviet Union”. But as Putin’s own speech reveals, he is deeply hostile to the Russian Revolution and if anything seeks to restore the Tsarist Russian empire.
Putin’s rant against Lenin should serve to remind us that the Bolshevik Revolution, in a sense, was a freedom struggle not only for the workers and peasants of Russia, but for the many nationalities oppressed under the Tsarist yoke, which Lenin had called “the prison-house of nationalities”.
Lenin had described the relationship between Russia and Ukraine as a colonial one, comparing it to the relationship between England and Ireland. Struggles of the peoples of Ukraine for national liberation span several centuries, ever since they were colonised by Tsarist Russia over the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1917, Lenin vehemently defended the national assertion and aspirations of the Ukrainian people, writing “No democrat can deny the Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia. Only unqualified recognition of this right makes it possible to advocate a free union of the Ukrainians and the Great Russians, a voluntary association of the two peoples in one state. Only unqualified recognition of this right can actually break completely and irrevocably with the accursed tsarist past, when everything was done to bring about a mutual estrangement of the two peoples so close to each other in language, territory, character and history. Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue.” (Pravda No. 82, June 28 (15), 1917)
In his “Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine: Apropos of the Victories Over Denikin”, (28 December, 1919, Pravda No. 3; January 4, 1920) Lenin wanted the people of Ukraine to know about the steps being taken inside the Russian Bolshevik party to combat a chauvinist approach towards various strands of Ukraine’s communist movement, including one which demanded outright independence rather than autonomy as a Soviet Republic. He wrote: “For centuries the indignation and distrust of the non-sovereign and dependent nations towards the dominant and oppressor nations have been accumulating, of nations such as the Ukrainian towards nations such as the Great-Russian.We want a voluntary union of nations—a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another—a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent.”
Noting that besides the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists, there were also the Ukrainian Borotba Communists who insisted on unconditional independence of Ukraine, Lenin wrote: “The Bolsheviks will not make this a subject of difference and disunity, they do not regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort...In this long and hard fight we Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers must maintain the closest alliance, for separately we shall most definitely be unable to cope with the task. Whatever the boundaries of the Ukraine and Russia may be, whatever may be the forms of their mutual state relationships, that is not so important; that is a matter in which concessions can and should be made, in which one thing, or another, or a third may be tried—the cause of the workers and peasants, of the victory over capitalism, will not perish because of that.”
In 1922, Lenin had become seriously worried about the mishandling of the question of integrating the various Soviet Republics, due to the continued prevalence of Greater Russian chauvinism in the party leadership and rank and file: “A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation. In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. It is sufficient to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated; how the Poles are not called by any other name than Polyachiska, how the Tatar is nicknamed Prince, how the Ukrainians are always Khokhols and the Georgians and other Caucasian nationals always Kapkasians.” (Note dictated in 1922)
He expressed his concern that the bureaucratic state apparatus was still “a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch”, and as a result, “the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.”
If the words Lenin used for the typical Russian bureaucrat were harsh, his words for the party leaders including Stalin himself were no less so. He was especially shocked to hear of an incident in which a Bolshevik leader had physically hit a Georgian one. He wrote: “I think that Stalin's haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious "nationalist-socialism" [Stalin criticised the minority nations for not being "internationalist" because they did not want to unite with Russia], played a fatal role here.”
He stressed yet again that the confidence of the non-Russian workers and peasants for the class struggle could not be won by “merely formal equality”. Rather, it was important that “by one's attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russian for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the "dominant" nation subjected them in the past.”
Stalin himself was Georgian but, as Lenin noted, “it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified over-do this Russian frame of mind.” Lenin wrote: “The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect [the need for patience and compromise towards oppressed nationalities] of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of "nationalist-socialism" (whereas he himself is a real and true "nationalist-socialist", and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice.”
The tragedy was that after Lenin’s passing, Stalin could unleash unfettered “Great-Russian bullying”, indeed reducing the Constitutional rights of the Soviet Republics to “a mere scrap of paper.” Ukraine in particular bore a terrible brunt of the Stalin regime’s exploitation and repression. Soviet Ukraine, often called the “breadbasket” of the USSR, suffered a terrible man-made famine in 1932-33, in which some 4 million Ukrainians starved to death due to Soviet policies of forced and mismanaged collectivisation resulting in unharvested and rotting crops; coercive grain procurement from the Ukrainian peasants; followed by cutbacks in rationing. Ukraine remembers this famine as the “Holodomor” – a phrase which means “to kill by starvation.”
The 1930s were a period of severe state terror in the Soviet Union, in which more than 7 lakh people were executed; 15 lakh forced into prisons and labour camps; and 20 lakh forced into exile in labour settlements in remote regions. A large number of the victims were Communist Party leaders, but “the overwhelming majority of victims of the Great Terror were ordinary people, mainly peasants, caught up in two large mass operations launched in these years: one against former kulaks, recidivist criminals, and other “antisoviet” and “socially dangerous” elements, and the other against a series of non-Russian nationalities.” (Viola, Lynne, Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes From The Great Terror In Soviet Ukraine, OUP 2017). Likewise, in May 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population was forcibly deported to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, in the process of which half the population was killed.
Lenin had warned that even rudeness and impatience on part of the Russian communists could alienate the non-Russian nationalities which bore the scars of Tsarist colonisation. Under Stalin, fresh wounds were inflicted, which naturally resulted in a lasting suspicion of Russian power among Ukrainian peoples, who continued to aspire for national independence.
After the Soviet collapse, a referendum in Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence. In return for assurances by the Russian Federation, USA and the UK to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” Ukraine gave up its nuclear arms and signed a non-proliferation treaty.
Russia violated that treaty for the first time in 2014 when it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. For the Crimean Tatars who had returned to Crimea in the 1980s following 45 years of exile, it was a rude shock to find themselves once again part of Russia. Tatar leaders have been exiled by Putin and live in Ukraine; and the Tatars in Russia-controlled Crimea face severe repression and Islamophobia at the hands of the state.
The pretext for the 2014 invasion was the “Maidan” mass movement in Ukraine which led to the fall of the Yanukovich Government. Allegations of corruption as well as Yanukovich’s sudden U-turn away from an agreement with the EU, towards an agreement with Russia were central issues in the Maidan movement. Lakhs of Ukrainians participated in the movement. Putin claimed that the movement was a “fascist” one sponsored by the West, and that the new Government was a “neo Nazi” one. These claims are not true. In Ukraine, there are indeed neo-Nazi groups but the vote share of these parties has continued to shrink, although their access to external funding and integration with the military does give them an influence out of proportion with their share of votes. Kunal Chattopadhyay and Achin Vanaik (No to Russian Imperialist Aggression, No to US/NATO interference, for a Democratic, Socialist Ukraine, for the Right of Self Determination for all Oppressed Nationalities, Radical Socialist, 28 Feb) write of the Maidan movement, “There was a considerable far right presence, which included neo-fascists. In reality, only a tiny minority of the protesters at the rallies were from the far right. However, they acted in a united way and managed to mainstream their slogans.”
Putin’s claim that his 2022 invasion is “deNazifying” Ukraine is nothing but an attempt to equate Ukrainian nationalism with Nazism. It must be remembered that 35 lakh Ukrainian civilians, 15 lakh of whom were Jews, as well as 30 lakh Ukrainian soldiers are estimated to have been killed by Nazi Germany. While there were Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, as well as far-right Ukrainian nationalists, there can be no question of equating the whole population of Ukraine with them.
The memories of the Nazi occupation have been passed down generations of Ukrainians. A Ukrainian journalist, in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion, wrote: “There is a famous phrase, ‘4am Kyiv is bombed’. Every Ukrainian and Russian kid knows it. That’s how the announcement of the German bombardment of Kyiv in 1941 sounded. And here we are: 24 February 2022, 5am Kyiv is bombed by Russia.” (Nataliya Gumenyuk, Guardian, 24 Feb 2022)
As Chattopadhyay and Vanaik remark, “The NATO has, in our eyes, never had any justification whatsoever, so we oppose its existence ever. However, even by the logic of the Cold War it had advanced, it should have been wound up once the Warsaw Pact ended. In fact, of course, the US-led NATO not only did not wind up, it broke promises not to expand further but has deliberately done so to extend its reach to come as close as it can to the borders of Russia.” NATO’s role in wars of aggression and occupation bely its claim to be a “defensive” alliance.
However, are Putin’s invasions of Ukraine really due to the threats posed to Russia’s security by the possibility of Ukraine getting NATO membership? There is much more evidence that Russia’s wars are motivated by its own imperialist purposes. Commenting on the claim that the 2014 Maidan was a NATO-backed coup, Chattopadhyay and Achin write, “The sectors of the left that see in Maidan simply US/NATO conspiracy are thus effectively tagging all Ukrainians as fascists and the Russian speakers as progressives. As a matter of fact, what happened since 2015 is very different. Volodymyr Zelensky is no radical. But the electoral triumph of this television comedian represented a moment when Ukrainians were trying to reject the oligarchy. With 73% of the votes, he won a landslide victory. In fact, however, there was, once again, simply a reconfiguration of the oligarchs.” Like many of his predecessors Zelensky too has tried to balance the contradictory sentiments in sections of its population: by trying to maintain a relationship with both Russia and Europe/EU. It seems that the Russian invasion has ended up uniting the whole country against Russian imperialism, and perhaps creating a similar sentiment in the whole region, along with sparking massive anti-war protests in Russia in spite of severe repression unleashed by the Putin regime. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several of the former Soviet Republics neighbouring Russia, which had till now never sought NATO membership, are now discussing that possibility.
As it is, there is very little likelihood of Ukraine getting NATO membership in the near future. Zelensky has repeatedly said that he is reconciled to agreeing to Ukraine refraining from NATO membership. In fact, Zelensky has indicated his unhappiness at the cynical game being played by NATO member countries. He said that he asked NATO member countries “to say directly that we are going to accept you into NATO in a year or two or five, just say it directly and clearly, or just say no,” and that “the response was very clear, you're not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open.”
It is unclear how and when the invasion by the fascist and imperialist Putin regime will end, and on what terms. We can only support the people of Ukraine and Russia who are resisting Putin’s war, and hope that their resistance can indeed end this war.
1. Grant Scott Fellows, in his thesis ‘The Foundations of Aleksandr Dugin's Geopolitics: Montage Fascism and Eurasianism as Blowback’, University of Denver 2018, observes: “Dugin’s direct influence on the path of policymaking in Russia is difficult to trace, as he has had no formal positions in either the military or government, but vocabulary from Foundations of Geopolitics has unquestionably found its way into the highest levels of political and military discourse in Russia. The Kremlin and those trying to curry favor with it have employed the terms and ideas found in Foundations of Geopolitics for both national domestic politics and as foreign policy tools over the past two decades. ...His ideas have been echoed by Putin and others in the Kremlin at times and certain strategic elements have been extracted from his writings. But Foundations is not a playbook for the Kremlin by any means, as many of Dugin’s fantasist ideas would be immensely impractical or impossible to achieve. Still, there is no doubt that many of Russia’s top military leaders have read or are familiar with Foundations, and have been uniquely influenced by it.