Ukraine on the Brink: From the Soviet Union to Euromaidan to the Crisis Today. - International Strategy Center Interview with: Volodymyr IshchenkoRead Now
The chain of events that led to today’s current crisis in Ukraine is connected to the 2014 Euromaidan protests. The year prior, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a pending free trade agreement with the EU, choosing instead to pursue closer relations with Russia. This sparked protests and occupation of Kyiv's Independence Square that spread to Ukraine’s other western provinces. In the more pro-Russian eastern parts of Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests sparked counter protests. The situation eventually escalated into a military conflict between pro-separatist groups with Russian support on one side and the Ukrainian government on the other.
As a result of this protracted conflict, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian forces control the eastern part of the mining Donbass region. In 2021, despite Russia’s insistence that it will not invade, its troop movements towards the Ukraine border have re-ignited fears of a potential invasion. From the Russian side, they have stated that their actions are a response to the possible expansion of NATO into Ukraine, which would put NATO right up against Russian borders.
To help explain the crisis in Ukraine, the International Strategy Center (ISC) interviewed Volodymyr Ishchenko (Ishchenko), a Research Associate at Osteuropa-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin and a member of PONARS Eurasia. Ishchenko’s work on deficient revolutions and Ukrainian protest movements have made him a sought out left wing voice on Ukrainian politics, including interviews and articles with the Jacobin Magazine, Al Jazeera, and Truthout. Below is an excerpt of an interview with Ishchenko by the International Strategic Center for our monthly Progressive Forum.
ISC: The contemporary narrative in much of the world about Ukraine during the Soviet period is that of a colonized people who suffered under Soviet oppression. Conjured up is the Holodomor, in which millions of Ukrainians died in a famine between 1932 and 1933. Notably missing from the narrative is the fact that under the Soviet Union, Ukraine became one of the most industrialized soviet republics or that even as late as 2002, the Communists still had the single largest plurality. In your view, what is the legacy of Soviet Communism in Ukraine today?
Ishchenko: This is understandably a very important question. One can debate whether or not Ukraine was a colony during the Russian empire, but I would say Ukraine as a colony in the Soviet Union would be considered a marginal position among the scholars. Despite all the terror, the Great Famine (better known as the Holodomor), Ukraine made enormous progress towards modernization. The Soviet Union turned a country that was 80% peasant, with about the same number of illiterate people, into one of the most industrial nations in the developed world. For example, the first computer in the USSR was developed in Kyiv. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine’s industry took a severe blow. Much of it was stolen, degraded, and it couldn’t find any alternative markets after the former Soviet trade links were broken. In that sense, the Soviet Union transformed Ukraine in a revolutionary way.
The vision of Holodomor is a big part of the nationalist narrative about Soviet Ukraine, projecting it [Holodomor] as an ethnic genocide of the Ukrainian nation, consciously designed by Stalin or the Communist party elite in order to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But this narrative is contested, not just in Ukraine, but also among historians, who would point out, for example, that in the same year, peasants were dying in other parts of the Soviet Union. It is literally impossible to find any evidence that Stalin wished to kill millions of Ukrainians. What is also not discussed is how the Holodomor was connected to the crisis of capitalism in 1929 which caused prices of Soviet exports to drop and required much more extraction from the peasant economy in order to fulfill their industrial targets during the first five year plan. So, certainly it’s more complicated and contested than the narrative about colonial oppression and there are different positions among scholars of Ukraine.
ISC: In 1998, the Ukrainian Communist Party took 121 seats, more than any other political party in the Rada. By 2012, the Communist Party’s presence in the Rada fell to 32 seats. The fact that the party had won so many seats right after the collapse of the Soviet Union does speak to how the legacy of Ukraine’s communist past has not been portrayed accurately in much of the popular media. Nevertheless, the party had seen some pretty bad losses in recent elections, so why has the Communist Party’s influence declined over the past few decades?
Ishchenko: It’s true that the Communist Party was the most popular party until 2002. There were even left wing majorities in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, that allowed a socialist, Oleksandr Moroz, to become the Chairman of the Rada for several years. He was one of the most outspoken critics of Leonid Kuchma, the president at the time. This does indeed debunk the anticommunist narrative that the moment Ukrainians were free from the Soviet Union, they would choose liberal nationalism, because they didn’t choose liberalism or nationalism. They continued to vote for the communists. The people saw that the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t lead to any progressive development, which steered many people back towards the Communists.
So why did the left’s influence start to decline after 2002? One needs to understand that ideological politics, both right and left, started to decline in Ukraine. They were overtaken by oligarchic parties that were built more on paternalistic relationships than on any kind of ideology. So the people who voted for the Communist Party started to vote for the Party of Regions, which was made up of some of the most influential oligarchs in the country. They had instrumentalized many of the grievances in the South and Eastern parts of the Ukraine, which were also some of the most industrialized regions in the country.
The same process was happening in the Western part of Ukraine, when the ”People’s Rukh” (“Movement”), an important movement during Perestroika, consolidated the liberal and nationalist intelligentsia. This party was actually the 2nd most popular after the Communists until the end of the 1990s. However, they started to split and lose support. Eventually, they were overtaken by other oligarchic parties.
By the start of Euromaidan, the only other really relevant ideological party besides the Communists was the far right Svoboda party. They used to be called the “Social-National party of Ukraine” which as you know sounds just like “National-Socialist” switched around. They later rebranded themselves as the Svoboda party, which means “freedom.” They actually had support from the Party of Regions, who hoped they would mobilize an eastern electorate that was terrified of the rise of Ukrainian fascists. But even after Euromaidan, the far right didn’t turn into a strong electoral force. They have only a few seats in the parliament. They grew stronger in the streets but not in other ways. What mattered mostly in Ukrainian elections was the media and money of the different oligarchic groups. But ideology, whether it was communist, liberal, or nationalist don’t play a big role.
ISC: What do you contribute to this loss of ideology in Ukraine, which has led to the situation today where the only political party with an ideology is the far right?
Ishchenko: The crisis of ideology is what we see globally. We see it among the populist movements that have swept the world. These movements have very amorphous claims, they’re not really structured, and there’s no political program or ideology like say those in the 60s, where one could call themselves committed communists, nationalists, fascists, or liberals. The Soviet collapse meant the destruction of society and politics itself. What happened was the majority of society saw a handful of individuals take large chunks of state property and privatize them in a matter of months and become super rich, while most of the people were collapsing into poverty. So, ideology became seen as just a way to deceive people. The people who were voting for communists were not necessarily doing so because they were committed to building the dream of a stateless and classless society, as it was discussed a 100 years ago. They voted for the communists because they were just trying to save what they had, the last remnant of a normal life.
This explains the enormous support for the Communist Party in the 1990s, but when the oligarchs consolidated power in the 2000s, the people were moving towards them, not because they believed the oligarchs could lead Ukraine towards progress and development, but because they offered a means to deliver at least some kind of stability. It’s the same reason people started to vote for Putin in Russia or Lukashenko in Belarus, because these were the leaders who were able to stop the post-Soviet collapse. Even if there weren't any real progressive breakthroughs, people still remembered when they couldn’t get their pensions or wages for months. They lost everything in a very short time, so they were just glad that there was some stability coming to their lives.
ISC: Many have characterized Euromaidan as having been driven by far-right nationalist forces, such as Svoboda. As you’ve pointed out, these parties don’t have a lot of formal representation in the legislature. However, in your interview with Jacobin, you mentioned that far-right politics in Ukraine resembles 1930s fascist street level organizing rather than contemporary nationalist movements in Western Europe. Is the influence of the far-right overstated or are elections not an accurate way of measuring their strength?
Ishchenko: Yes, thank you for this question. The role radical nationalists played in post-Maidan politics is critical to understand the whitewashing of Euromaidan by so called liberal civil society, and the so called “friends of Ukraine” in the West. Contrary to the liberal narrative, the far right, particularly the Svoboda party and Right Sector coalition, played a crucial role in sustaining the Euromaidan protests and escalating the situation to a violent uprising. It should come as no surprise then that Svoboda had the largest number of ideological militants. Most of the centrist parties are just electoral machines for oligarchs, while most of the liberal NGOs have influence because of their connection to western embassies, not because they can mobilize people in significant numbers.
If you looked at nationalist campaigns before Euromaidan, to ban the Communist Party, for Ukrainization, for glorifying Ukrainian nationalist collaborators with Nazis, these were all implemented by nominally non-far right politicians after Euromaidan. They needed to go into this agenda, even though it wasn’t actually that popular among Ukrainians. In polls, Ukrainians have rated questions about history and language quite low. When ranking priorities, Ukrainians care more about wages than whether a statue should be taken down or not. But these nationalist policies create an illusion of change, when nothing else has really changed, when the same oligarchs retain their wealth or some got even richer. You see the same people on the list of Forbes richest Ukrainians, before and after Euromaidan. The one exception may be Poroshenko who improved his relative position making him the perfect example of exploiting one’s political office for personal profit.
Some people may say the Ukrainian far right isn’t powerful, they may say, “look at Le Pen who can regularly count on 20-30 percent of the vote,” but come on, that's a very narrow view of the politics of the far right. The far right in Western Europe don’t have paramilitaries. After Euromaidan, these radical nationalist politics became stronger because they exploited the war situation. They built up armed units and their party infrastructure. The most notorious example is of course the Azov regiment, which was founded by extreme right militants, turned into a regular unit in the National Guard and later founded an affiliated political party. The far right in Ukraine isn’t influential in the electoral sense, but they are influential in the streets, and this requires a totally different approach in how to deal with them.
ISC: Do you have any final words? Where do you find hope in this difficult current situation?
Ishchenko: It’s not the best time to ask for hope in Ukraine. This is not like your usual discussions, where you have a progressive side in the conflict you can sympathize with or social movements that the international left can align with. We are bombarded with news that the Russians are going to invade everyday. It’s difficult to project anything beyond the next week. Ukrainian neutrality and progress with the Minsk agreement could be a solution to this crisis, but whether we have time for this or if it’s possible is hard to say.
Most Ukrainians are just living their normal lives. A poll had recently shown that nearly half of Ukrainians don’t believe that there’s going to be an invasion. If you looked at the patriotic marches, you’d be shocked at how small they are. There was this protest in Kyiv, a city with several million people, and they were able to mobilize at most several thousand people. It really goes to show how distant these discussions are to the daily lives of most Ukrainians.
 Editor’s Note: The Nationalist Socialists in Germany are commonly known as Nazis.
 Editor’s note: Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko was the Ukrainian president from 2014 to 2019.
 Minsk Agreement, or Minsk Protocol, is a 2014 agreement to try to stop the fighting in the Donbas. The agreement was between Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mediated by France and Germany.
*This article is an excerpt from an interview the International Strategy Center (ISC) had conducted with Volodymyr Ishchenko. You can catch the whole interview during the ISC's Progressive Forum on Sunday 2/27, 7pm (Seoul) 12pm (Kyiv) 10am (UK) 7am (Brazil). RSVP here:
RSVP for event here.
Interviewer: International Strategy Center (ISC)
The International Strategy Center (goisc.org) is a non-profit organization rooted in Korea's social movements and reaching out to struggles, campaigns, movements, and experiments abroad. Our strategy is to bring the alternatives and struggles of those abroad to Korea's social movements, and vice versa. We are driven by the belief that in our globalized world, greater exchange and solidarity between social movements is the only way we can strengthen our local and global movements.
Interviewee: Volodymyr Ishchenko: is a research associate at the Institute of East European Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. His research focused on protests and social movements, revolutions, radical right and left politics, nationalism and civil society. He authored a number of peer-reviewed articles and interviews on contemporary Ukrainian politics, the Euromaidan uprising and the following war in 2013-14, published in Post-Soviet Affairs, Globalizations and New Left Review, among other journals.