Following the Kiev Euromaidan Coup d’etat and outbreak of hostilities in 2014, the world has turned its attention to the Ukraine. For three years, this divided post-soviet nation has been engaged in a bloody civil war between the Kiev backed Ukrainian military and militias defending the newly established Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Pro-western journalists and activists have brought back to the United States reports of “Kremlin-backed Separatism”, comparisons between the region and “America’s deep south”, and even a purported admission by Russian President Vladimir Putin of direct Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Likewise, western media has rejected Donbass’ claim that fascist organizations heavily influenced the events of Kiev’s 2014 political turmoil as nothing more than Russian propaganda, created by forces that would see Russia annex further regions of the Ukraine. Since the events of Euromaidan in 2014, I have asked myself: Are these stories accurate and unbiased assessments of the political situation in Ukraine? Or are they simply attempts to foster further animosity for Russia within the American people, in agreement with our government’s foreign policy objectives? But most importantly, I asked myself: what do the people of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics have to say about their history? I was invited to see for myself in May of 2017 at the annual International Antifascist Conference, organized by the Luhansk People’s Republic Trade Union Federation. Throughout my travels, I witnessed the unfolding of history in a country embodying the same antifascist heroism that swept across Europe in 1945. The optimistic spirit of the nation’s political rallies, the profound content of my conversations with locals, and the deep emotion present at vigils held in memory of those who died in the struggle against the barbarity of fascism, among many other factors, formed within me a new understanding of the Donbass people – an understanding that ultimately answered the questions which once obstructed a concrete perception of the region’s political situation.
My initial observations of the Luhansk People’s Republic both highlighted differences between the Republic and my homeland, and provided me with great insight into the military recruitment of foreign nationals in Donbass. Immediately following our success getting across the border, my fellow travelers and I were greeted at the border by two friendly police officers who offered to escort us to our hotel, after we explained how behind schedule we were. These officers drove with us, a group of random internationals, across the country, simply to assure that we reached our destination by our own timetable and were pleasant company throughout. I must say, this experience made apparent that my initial anxiety upon encountering these police officers, an anxiety most working class Americans silently share regardless of background, derived specifically from the state of American policing, and that our authoritarian policing system requires serious reform. Upon our arrival to the hotel, I met two off duty Donbass soldiers who were also preparing to attend the international conference. One of whom, Anton, came from Moscow but lived in Donbass for extended periods of time, serving the militias to defend the country from what he described as “NATO encroachment on the national sovereignty of Russia.” Anton was a perfect indicator of how western media’s depictions of “Russian military intervention in Ukraine” often distort the truth, in order to frame the Russian Federation as a hostile, imperialist state. When President Vladimir Putin stated “we never said there are no people [Russians] there dealing with issues in the military field,” he qualified his assertion in stating that “this does not mean that regular Russian military forces are present there.” Enlistment of Russians in the Donbass Armed Forces has become quite commonplace since 2014, as motivations from nationalism to a dedication to friendship between anti imperialist peoples continue to draw people into the Eastern Ukrainian fray. However, the continued lack of evidence pointing to formal Russian military intervention in the region fails to substantiate the assertion that Russia ever invaded the region, and the continued perpetuation of this accusation threatens to dismantle attempts at improving relations between the United States and Russian Federation. The other soldier I met, Rav, came from India to fight what he described as “the re-emergence of fascism” and to defend the national sovereignty of the newly established Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. He illustrated the necessity of challenging the Ukrainian government, which draws support from fascist organizations such as Right Sector, Freedom Party, and the Azov Battalion, to name a few. Many of these organizations’ members take inspiration from a man named Stepan Bandera – a Ukrainian Nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, and was subsequently imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for his “inferior slavic heritage.” Bandera’s modern supporters view him as Ukraine’s George Washington, and regularly attempt to whitewash his nazi collaborationist past. Throughout the remainder of my trip, I learned that most of the international military volunteers in Donbass were, in fact, non-Russian combatants like Rav. Many of these soldiers trace their reverence for these foreign republics to the international antifascist brigades of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 – one of which, called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was entirely formed and staffed by American nationals. Just as in antifascist Spain, so too are many Americans serving in the Donbass Armed Forces with the intent of protecting the world from fascism’s vile influence. It is in this spirit of antifascism, that people from across the globe have assembled in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to fight in their militias.
The next day, May 1st, celebrated as International Workers’ Day in most ex Soviet countries, afforded me an even better understanding of Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics’ dedication to internationalism and the welfare of their people. Bright and early in the morning, the Luhansk Federation of Trade Unions invited us to their headquarters for a welcome ceremony and breakfast. In attendance were members of our international delegation, senior elected officials of the Trade Union Federation, the Federation’s President, who became our guide for most of the conference, and one of the Federation’s translators, a woman named Sana. Sana and I became good friends, as she shared with me the story of her Sudanese background and how Donbass had evolved into an international haven of opportunity in the East – for people all over the world. The numerous immigrants, particularly from Africa, whom I met throughout what remained of the conference reasserted the region’s internationalist atmosphere for me and other foreign visitors. The Trade Union Federation’s warm welcome, and their involvement in all of the political machinations of the conference, revealed to me how strong of a political presence workers’ organizations had in Luhansk, and our arrival at the International Workers’ Day parade only reinforced this observation. My fellow travelers and I marched in the International brigade of this 15,000 strong march comprised of people from all walks of working class life, all bearing the flags of our respective countries. Coal miners, teachers, soldiers, office workers, politicians, and people from all other professions marched amidst colorful decorations, flowers, and music that emanated throughout the capital, waving as the procession passed its sidewalk audience of onlookers and nation’s leaders. At the conclusion of the march, we danced, sang songs, and exchanged flowers with complete strangers who were happy to be amongst fellow workers from across the globe. Indeed, this experience threw a wrench in western media’s portrayal of these “Ukrainian separatist states”, who apparently are only following Russia’s geopolitical lead and lack a sense of independent political consciousness. On the contrary, this parade demonstrated the immense power Luhansk workers exert in society and the overwhelming pride they enjoy in their new autonomous revolutionary state.
Although only fanfare and celebration can be seen throughout Luhansk on May 1st, the following date of May 2nd evokes more solemnity in the recent memories of the republic’s citizens. Our May 2nd excursion began with a visit to a monument memorializing the 2014 Odessa Massacre, during which Neo-Nazis barricaded the exits of the Central Federal Trade Union building and burned 48 people alive while injuring over 270 others. Local media anxiously requested interviews from each and every foreign visitor regarding the massacre, as a NATO imposed information blockade impairs citizens of Luhansk and Donetsk in their search for information as to how westerners perceive the events of Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Civil War. Also as a result of this blockade, massacres and human rights violations committed at the hands of the Kiev government, such as their sustained artillery bombardment of entire cities and protection of neo-nazi constituencies, rarely receive attention in western media outlets. After explaining the lack of American media coverage on the events following Euromaidan to my interviewers, our tour guide spoke about the monument’s significance and how the struggle against Ukrainian fascism continues to affect everyday life in Luhansk, despite the fact that the frontline has advanced towards Kiev since 2014. Nevertheless, the monument retains damage from artillery bombardments to serve as yet another reminder of the historic and contemporary threat of fascist ideology and those who support western imperialism in Eastern Europe. Following our visit to this monument in memoriam of the 2014 Odessa Massacre, the other international visitors and I prepared for the main event of our trip – a roundtable conference with Luhansk President Igor Plotinsky titled “Our Strength is in Unity”. In attendance was a diverse crowd of international guests, European Parliamentarians, Donbass politicians, soldiers, and workers from throughout the region. While President Plotinsky spoke about plans to rebuild the country from the ruins of war, international activists from Germany, Italy, and other nations expressed their eagerness to form an international antifascist organization that would encourage friendship between progressive peoples of all countries and stand united against the rising forces of fascism, particularly in Europe. With Luhansk media’s national coverage of the event, attendees not only reminded the Luhansk people of the international support they enjoyed, but also reinforced their determination to continue their antifascist struggle until its final battle. Apart from the conference’s political content, President Plotinsky invited attendees to join him in venturing down into the depths of Luhansk’s economic crown jewel – their nationalized coal mines. Unfortunately, our trip’s timetable did not allow us to join the President for an exciting journey into the mines, as we intended to travel to Donetsk the next morning. Later that night, we returned to the Odessa memorial for a mass vigil in memory of not only those who died at the 2014 Trade Union building attack, but all who died at the hands of fascism throughout the 20th century. In attendance was our international delegation along with people from all across Donbass, many of whom tragically recalled how Ukrainian fascism had destroyed their homes, murdered family members, and changed their lives forever. As international visitors, my fellow travelers and I spoke, offering international solidarity with those fighting against fascism and imperialism, and condolences to those devastated by war and these disastrous ideologies. Hearing individual recollections of how fascist ideology bombs towns, terrorizes innocent civilians, and destroys entire families brought my understanding of fascism, and my urgent desire to put a stop to it, out of the realm of historical literature and into my material world. I will never forget the faces of those who recalled before us the stories of how they lost everything they held dear to the forces of fascism.
Upon the vigil’s completion, we packed our bags and prepared to travel south to Donetsk. Passing through the Donbass countryside and witnessing what the war had wreaked upon the country’s beautiful landscape was certainly a daunting experience. The Luhansk/Donetsk border checkpoint consisted of a destroyed town occupied by Donbass armed forces, at which soldiers expressed utter shock at the appearance of an American. Far from being confrontational, these soldiers’ curiosity took the form of many light hearted questions about life in America, people’s political opinions, and so on. In fact, most citizens of Donbass, soldiers or not, shared a similar curiosity of American life in light of their imposed information blockade – a fact that reflects all peoples’ natural tendency towards international friendship as opposed to war. Once we arrived in Donetsk, our international delegation’s first stop was the National Museum of the Red Guard. The Red Guard was an antifascist resistance organization comprised of young communists in Ukraine who, exposing themselves to certain death, attempted to violently disrupt the operations of the Nazi Party in Ukraine and their collaborators. One of such Nazi collaborators, Stepan Bandera, is often praised as a hero of Ukrainian Nationalism in west Ukraine, by neo nazi’s and more moderate nationalists alike. The museum, stocked with original letters, pictures, and equipment from the period, was dedicated to extreme sacrifices of these resistance partisans, as the entire organization was exterminated. The people of Donbass look to such heroes for inspiration in their contemporary struggles against western Ukrainian fascism, and considered it a great honor to share their history of antifascism with an international audience. After our tour of the museum, the Donetsk Communist Party invited us to an event called “The Antifascist Forum of Donbass”, celebrating the region’s history of antifascist struggle, and a public banquet. Unlike in the west, the Communist Parties of Luhansk and Donetsk continue to enjoy immense political popularity as a result of their long standing tradition of antifascist struggle and their leadership of partisan movements during World War II. The ceremony included communists from all different backgrounds and regions; young communists, Party members, and old Marxist-Leninists reminiscent of Soviet times all welcomed us, giving impassioned speeches which emphasized international solidarity and social progress. At this Communist Party function, I recognized some key differences that set these leftists apart from many western ones – differences that I believe to be the indicators of their social success. First, Party members and their functions were very formal; most people wore suits and conducted themselves as professional revolutionaries. These communists also resounded themes which appealed to the social, as well as national, sentiments of working class people despite the country not being exactly communist – anti-imperialism, the country’s history of socialist construction, and the people’s history of partisan resistance to fascism to name a few. Eastern leftist tendencies to appeal to the progressive aspects of their country’s history and instill pride within working people stood, in my mind, in stark contradiction to how western cultural leftists too often attempt to defame the western working class’ history, burn their national flag, or guilt them into following radical politics. I realized we have much to learn from our friends of the old Eastern Bloc in terms of our approach to becoming political representatives of the working class and we should conduct ourselves as radical leftists.
On my long trip back to America, my experiences in Donbass had left me exploring several important conclusions about our own country’s political situation. First and foremost, peoples who struggle against our government’s imperialist policies or its client states across the globe do not hate the American people. I received only curiosity and surprise from the people of Donbass upon disclosing my national identity, giving me the opportunity to make international friends and improve the relation between our peoples. Victims of fascism and imperialism want the people who live under the yoke of the perpetrating governments to understand the position of the oppressed, and to act in solidarity with their struggles within the empire. Our submission to hatred and the lie that our government’s political enemies want to exterminate us only perpetuates imperialist policies which make the world a more dangerous place – and eventually lead to fascism. Therefore, it is in the interest of world peace and antifascism, that we must encourage friendship between peoples and understand all regional perspectives in geopolitics. The people of Donbass also provided me with valuable insight into how to improve our attempts to build a popular movement for American rebirth. We must learn to use leftist political organizations to represent the interests of working class Americans, not force ideology upon them. This especially applies to the masses of white working class Americans whom so many leftists write off as “racist”, “uneducated”, or “hopeless”. White people comprise the majority of the American working class and yet many radicals, especially cultural leftists, only attempt to shame them for some ancestral compliance with slavery or choose completely ignore their political significance. It is precisely because of the left’s refusal to understand the social perspective of white workers, that many have joined the right-wing in reaction. In order to counteract white workers’ retreat into reactionary politics, we radicals must appeal to that which working class people hold dear – the welfare of our people, social & material advancement, and the progressive features of our country’s history. Although our country harbors the administration of international imperialism, our people share a strong history of opposition to exploitation and societal progress. The abolition of slavery, the organization of unions throughout the industrial revolution, and the Communist Party’s relief programs in the Great Depression all represent examples of great socially progressive feats, accomplished through cooperation between working class people of various national origins. In short, we as American leftists must appeal to the political interests of the white working class and join them with black nationalism, for the construction of a popular working class movement. Lastly, it is important we realize that fascism is once more on the rise, globally. Slowly but surely, organizations such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, the Kiev Junta in West Ukraine, and the Ku Klux Klan in our own homeland continue to gain popularity and increase their public presences. Unlike in the 20th century, the left is now divided along sectarian lines and lacks a geopolitical superpower to stem fascism’s growing tide. If we allow nations such as Donbass to stand alone in their antifascist struggle or fail to convince our countrymen of the dire threat fascism poses to world peace, we may, in several decades, face a political outcome drastically different from that which transpired in May 1945. Therefore, I encourage young socialists and communists to travel the world and visit regions like Donbass – areas of the world currently and actively struggling against foreign imperialism. The people you will meet and the experiences you will gain will only improve your understanding of different peoples and your approach to organizing for a better tomorrow!
Luhansk media coverage of “Our Strength Is In Unity” conference with English Translator
Part 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7Rn8GaGvdA
Part 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yKxGNUW4-E&t=786s
Don Courter is the Organizational Secretary of Students & Youth For a New America and a specialist in Russian and Soviet history.