“USSR, Twenty Years After, A Trip in War-Time Ukraine”
by Danielle Bleitrach and Marianne Dunlop
Delga Publishing, Paris 2015. (Extract translated from the French by C. Winch)
[Danielle Bleitrach is a retired University teacher and journalist, ex member of the French Communist Party Central Committee. She is the co-author of L’Usine et la Vie [Factory and life] Maspero 1980, Classe Ouvrière et Social-Démocratie [Working Class and Social Democracy] Editions sociales 1985, Cuba est une île [Cuba is an island] Le temps des cerises 2004, Cuba, Fidel, le Che ou l’Aventure du Socialisme [Cuba, Fidel, le Che or the Adventure of Socialism] Le Temps des Cerises 2006, and Fritz Lang et Bertolt Brecht, le Nazisme n’a jamais été éradiqué [Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht, Nazism has never been eradicated] LettMotif 2015.
She made a trip in 2015 with Marianne Dunlop, a linguist and retired teacher, to conduct interviews with non English (and non French) speakers in the Crimea, then in Odessa, Moldavia, Transnistria and Gagauzia, with the intention of finding out about the situation in parts or ex parts of Ukraine, while keeping at the forefront of their mind the question of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Members of the Ukrainian communist Party came to France to launch the book, with members of the French CGT union. The book is in its second edition.
In the introduction, the authors quote E. Hobsbawm:
‘More history than ever is today being revised or invented by people who do not want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose. Today is the great age of historical mythology.’
[The modern way of writing history] ‘undermines […] the belief that historians’ investigations, by means of generally accepted rules of logic and evidence, distinguish between facts and fiction, between what can be established and what cannot, what is the case and what we would like to be so.’
Readers of this magazine can agree with this analysis. Bleitrach and Dunlop’s book is a step in the direction of establishing or re-establishing the facts about Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.
(Delga Editions have published French editions of Lukacs and Losurdo among others.)]
The First trip
The trip to Crimea in June 2014
In fact we made two trips, each lasting about a fortnight. The first took place in early summer, in June 2014, in the Crimea, the second from mid-October until 10 November. Remember, in early June, everyone was talking about the annexation of the Crimea by Putin. The unfortunate and virtuous little Ukraine, because she had chosen democracy and the West, had suffered an amputation of its territory by its dreadful neighbour, the Muscovite bear. This is at least is how the story was told and became gospel at dinner parties, where, as everyone knows, the opinion of people who matter is formed.
Crimea, the Donbass and the two grandmothers.
We have been in the Crimea for three days already. Last night in our host family, Marianne and I discover Putin’s interview on French TV with the famous presenter Elkabbach : (we are reminded of George Marchais’ interview with the same man “Shut up Elkabbach !”) But Putin belongs to another political reality. A reality that our media prefer to ignore, not because he is—which nobody denies—a man of the right, the representative of the oligarchy in his country, but because he tries to be independent. To say he is a Gaullist is an analogy which goes only so far, precisely because the Russian world, or more generally the post-Soviet and Eurasian world, is so different.
1-The journey to Yalta
How to being explaining ? But in fact we do not want to explain, but only to share impressions with readers. On Wednesday, we went by trolleybus to Yalta, two and half hours away. The landscape is Mediterranean. The weather is superb, bright without being overwhelmingly hot. There are few advertising boards, but everywhere electoral boards celebrating the referendum. Every 50 meters, similar posters celebrate May 9, the Day of Victory in World War II. One half, sepia coloured, shows young joyful soldiers and the other half, in bright Technicolor, shows the same men today as medal clad veterans. With the legend: “Thank you, grandfather, for Victory! ”
Two young men sitting on the seats in the same row as us, ask if we are French and why we are here. Their attitude is friendly and polite. On the flight from Moscow to Simferopol, we had also been spoken to by our fellow passenger, also a young man around twenty, a kind of genius, on his way to a geology course in Crimea.
Among these young people, we found the same need to explain the political situation, the same consciousness that we were not informed and were victims of a misunderstanding. What they express is not only curiosity, but the belief that when Europe and the Europeans know the truth, they will have no alternative but to agree with the choice Crimea made and denounce what is hatching in the Donbass: a genocide in the worst circumstances, that of civil war.
They are actually a group of four young people, on their way to work on a construction site in Yalta. We proposed to interview them and they agreed. When we get off the bus we sit down together for an hour and a half in a little bar in the bus station. Four fellows, of whom two only speak, Anatoly and Sergei, while Slavik and Alexander approve. They describe a very hard situation in the Donbass. This is where they have come from on the way to meeting their employer this afternoon. The war took them by surprise and their indignation is as great as their surprise: to be bombarded by your own country, see your schools hit by your own army and suffer the lies of Ukrainian TV, is almost inconceivable.
“It is abominable, but they will hold firm! ” says Sergei. Anatoli adds, laughing, “They’re tough guys.” They are from Droujkovka in the Donetsk oblast. They state “It is a small town of no strategic importance, so it’s still quiet.” Slavjansk has water and gas, Kramatorsk the airport; at home, factories closed, so they have to look for work, as they do every summer. These four friends met at vocational school, from which they emerged turners and welders. Sergei was a policeman. Anatoli jokingly calls him a cop. All approve when Sergei says they will have nothing to do with the government of Kiev. The reason seems obvious to them: “How could we possibly agree with people who laugh at our grandparents? They do not celebrate May 9.”
Between the young workers from the Donbass, the gifted student on the plane, and our interlocutor met later in the afternoon, a Jewish mathematician who got into trouble in the past for his Zionism, but who presents himself as a Russian patriot, there is a common trait, the same refusal to make a clean sweep of the Soviet past, especially the Great Patriotic War.
While we were talking in the bus station café with the youths from the Donbass, the bar owner got involved, as did a little old veteran sitting there letting the hours pass hoping for a little controversy. Today we are the attraction: imagine, two foreign ladies, quite elderly, sat at table with four young workers, when the tourist season has not even started! When Sergei denounced the lies of Ukrainian TV, the owner who was listening behind the counter came near the tables, strongly approving and came up with a story of his own: recently, some Ukrainians came to tell him that Crimea was Ukrainian. “No, we are not Ukrainians, we are in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, we gave you twenty-three years to prove yourselves, and all you did was send us oligarchs and corrupt officials, real bandits, you wanted to take away our autonomy, which is why it was legitimate for us to separate from you.”
The veteran nods with conviction, sipping his glass of coffee. He sits there patiently, like a Russian peasant before an administration building, but he is passionately interested in the topic, as are all those whom we will meet in our journey.
Like the café owner, most of our interlocutors in Crimea welcome the fact that following the coup d’état of February 21, three determined individuals rose from the ranks, three paladins as Zyuganov called them— the party secretary of the Russian Federation who often makes unexpected references. They took everyone by surprise and organized a referendum in their autonomous republic. The café owner insisted on the special status of Crimea. The peninsula was moved administratively from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, without its inhabitants being consulted. Which posed no problem, since the transfer took place within the same state framework. On the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it was assumed, again without asking anyone’s opinion, that the Crimea would remain in Ukraine, with the recognition of its status as an autonomous republic and respect for the Constitution. And the café owner says vehemently that the regime that emerged from the Maïdan coup, not content with abolishing Russian as a regional language, immediately decided to suspend the autonomy of the republic.
On February 21, 2014, there was no qualified authority (the Constitutional Court being dissolved by the new government) and the Rada endorsed the decision of the Maïdan, that is to say of the Americans, without even having the necessary quorum, and appointed a new government. This new government did not by a long way represent all Ukrainians, and those from Russian-speaking areas did not recognize it. In Crimea, they took advantage of the constitutional power vacuum to claim their right to self-determination. All against a background of discontent about this twenty-year reign of oligarchs: “Twenty-three years to prove themselves and now a catastrophe, we’ve had enough.” Crimea resolved in its own way the contradiction of international law between the inviolability of borders and the right of peoples to self-determination. The authorities of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea considered that driving out an elected president and installing a junta in his place created a new situation in which the rights of Crimea were no longer guaranteed, and they decided to hold a referendum for the 16 March. Their action was neither legal nor illegal in so far as constitutional order was no more. In fact the real problem, they conclude, is not the choice made by Crimea, but the way the US and the EU endorsed a coup d’état and brought to power a junta associated with the extreme right, which began a reign of terror in all the territories in the East and the Southeast against the Russian population.
The first fact which we must try and grasp in order to understand what happened here is this panic which gripped the inhabitants of the Crimea but also those in the Russian areas of South and East Ukraine. We don’t mean those who speak Russian, almost everyone speaks Russian in Ukraine and many members of the new government or even the most excited nationalists have trouble speaking correct Ukrainian. We mean Russians, that is to say people who have dual citizenship, inherited from the complex Soviet system. There is the nationality of the Republic in which people live and work, comparable to French territorial rights (jus soli) on the one hand, and on the other hand, family and cultural nationality, inherited from one’s parents. Thus one can be a Russian or Belarussian Ukrainian or a Jewish, Greek, Armenian Ukrainian. Crimea alone has hundreds of nationalities. The wave of nationalism, tainted with Nazi overtones, of a Ukraine über alles has upset the balance between family and civic nationality and sparked a fear of an anti Russian pogrom, which actually happened in Odessa and is now happening in the attack on the Donbass. The overwhelming majority of Crimeans feel they have miraculously escaped a bloodbath, a St. Bartholomew of Russians and perhaps even of other nationalities also.
A slogan printed on a T-shirt proclaims, “We in the Crimea, we are so smart we brought our peninsula with us when we joined Russia.” Unfortunately if the operation was a success in the Crimea, it has not been a success in Odessa where it produced a terrible massacre in the Trade Union House, let alone in the Donbass where we are dealing with a veritable genocide 1. [Footnote 1. We use here and in the following text the term “genocide” as do the Russians and even the Ukrainian authorities (see below, about Odessa, where a massacre can be qualified as genocide from 50 dead ); words do not always have the same meaning from one language to another.]
Everyone here is anxious for news from the East.
The young workers of the Donbass sitting with us that day in Yalta, do they feel the same as the owner of the bar? Historically the Donbass is far from central power, a state within a state, to the point that in 1917 they wanted to constitute an autonomous Republic. It took Lenin’s authority to make them accept Ukrainian rule.
– Whom do they trust?
Without hesitation they respond “Ourselves.” After a moment’s silence, Sergei says that he did not vote in the presidential elections because he did not agree with this consultation, but would have voted for the Communist candidate if he had been obliged to vote.
– What does the Soviet Union mean to you?
– Peace and equality, we were all equal and that’s very important.
When we shook hands on parting, I said: “I am a communist,” he said: “me too” blushing. His white skin easily turns red at the least emotion. It is not easy to talk about one’s experiences in the Donbass.
The young geology student, on the plane, told us: “The Soviet Union was one of the most glorious periods of our history, why should we turn our backs on it? It put our country on the road to modernity, made it a great power and succeeded in defeating an abominable enemy.” This young man, a ‘fourth generation’ Muscovite, is an avid student of World War II, but he will never speak of the Communists, however many hints we dropped. He admires Putin who he says has shown “wisdom and mastery” but he despises Medvedev. His love for history has nothing to do with any Great Russian fantasies, even if he stresses the chivalrous side of the Red Army. He shrugs when Cossacks are mentioned: “It’s folklore, a reenactment for tourists.” However, he reminds us of the recent display for the opening of the Sochi Olympic Games, “It was very beautiful and very deep. There were scenes of conquest and happiness in the Soviet Union then suddenly the night of the war stretched over it, a silence under a black veil. It was not possible to say more because at this international celebration were present some of the peoples who were guilty of this terrible war.”
2. Sergei, the Communist Cop: what happened on the Maïdan?
Sergei and his friends had opened their hearts to us; they left us their e-mail addresses so we could send them our articles concerning them. Yet they did not want to be photographed for fear that employers would recognize them and withdraw their offers.
When he confided in us that he had been a policeman, I quizzed him: “Berkut?” 
He shook his head negatively. Sergei is well above average in height, with a clear skin, a round nose like Gagarin, widely spaced bright blue eyes, which give him a thoughtful air; when he speaks he searches for words, in order to be precise and at the same time not offend his interlocutor. Shy, romantic, he takes everything seriously, unlike Anatoly, his friend, a smaller, brown haired young man with a tanned complexion, the Gavroche of the gang.
– Oh! No, Sergei protests, I am not a Berkut. I would have liked to be, but it wasn’t possible!
– But why work on a building site instead of carrying in on as a policeman?
He launches into an explanation from which we understand that he does not want to wage war against his own people and that Pravy Sektor hangs policemen who do not obey orders.
Sergei holds up a picture on his mobile phone, showing the shoulders of a young girl lifting her hair to reveal a tattoo on the back of her neck, a phrase in French: “The happiness of a life.” He blushes once again, asking us to translate what it means. Marianne obliges and Anatoli says with a smile, “That’s our girls!” Anatoli has a smirk at the corner of his lips but at times the mask hardens, and he seems to stare into a future which does not bode well, and his expression seems to say ‘I won’t be fooled again.’ This joker will die for a cause he laughed at a quarter of an hour before. Perhaps to follow and protect his quixotic friend … He intervenes to specify:
– Policemen were sacked en masse.
There were two types of dismissals, those by the Kiev people, and those in the Republic of Donetsk, deemed “self-proclaimed”, a generic category in this most unclear period of Ukrainian history.
Sergei turns out to be a strong supporter of the new Donbass authorities:
“It is a government trying to create something new. Corrupt people have got to be got rid of. The insurgents are people like us, very simple people, and they took up arms to defend their homes and their families; they want to establish a new order. There is too much corruption, you can’t imagine it; there was an official body that was supposed to fight against drug trafficking, in fact, they were organizing the traffic and they themselves were the godfathers of the business.”
Sergei idolises the Berkut. “Competent men, above the fray, the protectors of ordinary people in distress.” He is insistent in his desire to make us understand who seized power in the Donbass, and we cannot drag out of him a single word about outside help or the presence of foreign troops. “These are simple people who took up arms to defend their homes, their schools, their children,” he repeats.
– But who have they taken up arms against?
– But against the Maïdan, of course!
Anatoli says in a harsh voice, no longer laughing:
– We should have nipped the Maïdan in the bud. You heard what Poroshenko said: “We must crush the Donbass, shoot first and talk afterwards. There is no alternative if we want to have done with these people.”
Gavroche is not sentimental … he is convinced it’s a fight to the death, while his friend still has dreams; the other two are silent.
Sergei continues his train of thought:
– Let me give you a piece of advice: look at Ukrainian TV, listen to the rubbish they come out with, it’s unbelievable! They bombed a kindergarten. That becomes either: “Terrorists seized a kindergarten” or “Russian aircraft disguised as Ukrainian aircraft bombed a kindergarten! ”
Then there is Pravy Sektor , which he hates.
Sergei says “The Ukrainian army does not want to fight against the people of the Donbass, anymore than young policemen like him do, so Pravy Sektor does the dirty work. They are high on drugs,” he says.
The fear that gripped the south and east of Ukraine has a name, that of ultra-nationalist movements who make explicit reference to WW2 Nazi collaborators, movements such as Pravy Sektor but also the Svoboda party and also the punitive battalions who weigh increasingly heavily in all the “democratic” that is to say, pro-Western, parties, as the situation deteriorates.
What we can confirm of Sergei’s account of the refusal of the Ukrainian army to fight is that sending young people to the eastern front is becoming increasingly unpopular. Some young people, called up for short periods, are sent to the front and there is now, including in the West of the country, a movement of mothers who demand the return of their children. They are not political, they simply demand the return of their children. This weekend, according to Russian TV, the only TV people listen to here, they took action and stopped military convoys. They are particularly active among minorities in the West of the country, Romanians and the Ruthenes of Transcarpathia, who dream of being reattached to Hungary.
This state of affairs, like the massive support of the population of Crimea, is difficult to contest, but I still have trouble being completely convinced of the existence of the assault sections of the extreme right. We quiz all our interlocutors systematically on the reality of the omnipresence of Pravy Sektor. One imagines rumours, similar to the great waves of panic of the Middle Ages, that spread from village to village, of an invisible enemy. It will take the second voyage and the discovery of what really happened in Odessa for us quite to believe in the existence of these Nazi hordes.
– Have you seen these Pravy Sektor people, with your own eyes, not by hearsay? That is the question I ask my interlocutors.
Sergei saw them twice, when he went to Kiev as a young policeman, during the events of Maïdan. He was the target of their Molotov cocktails. Around him his colleagues were burned. They had no weapons, only simple shields. He describes the far-right activists as junkies. These are the same people who lurk in our Donbass villages in gangs, they use “propeller” fragmentation bombs. He returns to what he saw on the Maïdan, “These people were paid a hundred dollars a day, more than we earn in a month, not to mention all the drugs they wanted …” And he sums up: for him the Maïdan is these Bandera types, Nazis, and corrupt politicians who are making fortunes at the expense of the people, appointing officials who are themselves corrupt.
“They threw Molotov cocktails at us, young unarmed policemen. When they took power, they disbanded the Berkut. Except the one in the Western region who promised to serve them. The Berkut is the power of the state. They had to go. The most famous Berkut was that of Kharkov. They put a price on the head of their leader, who eventually escaped to Russia. In a demonstration, six Berkuts can isolate provocateurs, get them out of a crowd of hundreds of individuals and prevent them from causing trouble.
Have you seen the photos of men with their clothes off in Kharkov? They were
Pravy Sektor people; when they saw they were recognised and could not escape, two of them doused themselves with petrol, threatening to become living torches in the crowd. The Berkuts isolated them in no time at all, took off their clothes and used that to tie them up.”
Who fights in Slavyansk according to them? The population, responds Sergei, and his comrades agree and approve his description. “Former army soldiers, young people and even old people.
You see in the newspaper that killing is taking place, all of a sudden you can’t stand it any longer and then you go to a place where you know you can join up and you find yourself on the front line. From that point on the priority is to send the women and children away, this is the most urgent, send them to Rostov or the Crimea where they will be safe. ”
To Sergei, and his is the general opinion, corruption is pervasive, from the top of a failed state to the base. It means a permanent taxation of the fruits of labour together with the humiliation of the weakest, resulting in despair at daily suffered injustice; the worst is this accumulation of small humiliations. For years they have bent the shoulders, alcoholism has spread … until the explosion, the context of fear and the unexpected resistance of apparently quiescent populations.
Some days ago, Marianne translated a text, I placed it on the blog with the link to the original. A wise guy commented: “I don’t trust this, given its origin, the Cyrillic writing, Russia.” In terms of indoctrination, we have nothing to envy the Russians now. Their press is a lot more diverse than ours, since the pro-Western oligarchs own some of the newspapers, and defend the Western point of view as faithfully as our own obedient press.
The government press, as well as that of the Communists, second political force in the country, are forced to argue, to fight the battle of ideas. The Russian public is often more keen on culture and debate than we are. All these factors produce a lively press, keen on giving the facts, in a very direct tone. This man posting comments on my blog did not know that. We must get used to the idea that despite our tendency to judge everything, we are ignorant of almost all the things we talk about.
1. Berkut, (in Ukrainian: Беркут, “Golden Eagle”) are former special riot police units serving in the Ukrainian Militsia under the Ministry of Interior. They were accused of perpetrating the massacres on the Maïdan but other theories— which neither Kiev nor the EU seem eager to investigate, although they were corroborated by exchanges between the European Commissioner and the Latvian Prime Minister and other testimonies—attribute the murders of demonstrators and police to snipers belonging to the extreme right.
2. Pravy Sektor. It would take too long to explain Right Sector, which our readers will discover throughout this book. Let us quote what Wikipedia says: The right sector is a far-right Ukrainian nationalist political party that originated in November 2013 as a paramilitary confederation at the Euromaidan protests in Kiev. The coalition became a political party on 22 March 2014.
Founding groups included extreme right-wing Trident (Tryzub), led by Dmytro Yarosh and Andriy Tarasenko; and the Ukrainian National Assembly–Ukrainian National Self-Defense (UNA–UNSO), a political/paramilitary organization. Other founding groups included the Social-National Assembly and its Patriot of Ukraine paramilitary wing, White Hammer, and Carpathian Sich. It is essentially anti-Russian. It is headed by Dmytro Yarosh. The ideas defended by Right Sector refer to the independence of the Ukrainian nation vis-à-vis Russia, the fight against people linked to the former regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, but not along economic lines. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Right Sector and Svoboda distributed recent translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on the Maïdan, and expressed concern about the significant presence of members of both ultra-nationalist movements among the demonstrators.
The billionaire Igor Kolomoïski, a character we’ll see frequently mentioned, is close to this movement.