|Set design by A. Tarasov for Eduard Bagritsky's play, Duma pro Opanasa, 1966. (c) A. Chernyak / VisualRIAN.|
Reblogged with permission from Open Democracy Russia.
Anarchism may be a popular political brand in Ukraine today, but it’s not anarchism as we know it.
By Denys Gorbach
For westerners on the left, including anarchists, the Maidan protests of 2013-2014 turned Ukraine from an unknown quantity into the home of a mass grassroots movement—and one they had to understand. For many on the left, this meant a trip to our country: 2014 was Kyiv’s year of ‘revolutionary tourism’.
But the ‘tourists’ involved in anarchist movements at home were dazed and confused on the streets of Kyiv: why was their red and black flag flying alongside the swastika and Celtic cross? Why was there a portrait of Nestor Makhno, the anarchist revolutionary leader of a century ago, on a tent belonging to a nationalist group? And why were locals who called themselves anarchists one moment calling for the creation of a mono-ethnic state the next? Anarchism occupies a very specific place in the worldview of your average Ukrainian, and their perception of it differs from sympathetic westerners.
The origins of this difference go back, as it often does, to the Soviet Union. Like other left wing opposition tendencies, anarchism as a political movement was annihilated by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.
By the time Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the late 1950s, when the oldest Ukrainians still alive today developed their world views, anarchist organisations and groups were a thing of the distant past. So what they knew about anarchists was learned either from school history lessons, which described them as either naive bourgeois muddlers or evil traitors to the workers’ revolutionary movement, or from Soviet film.
|Vitaly Matveev as Nestor Makhno in Khmuroe utro (1959), from kino-teatr.ru.|
These people, according to the myth, may have thought of themselves as defenders of the workers’ interests, but in fact were ordinary criminal elements, strangers to constructive labour and therefore against the Bolsheviks.
The social structure of the anarchist forces was always shown as strictly authoritarian: the loyal but simple-minded fighters would be in thrall to a cynical and calculating leader (‘Father’ Makhno or a nameless Cossack chieftain) who lived a life of luxury, often in the company of bourgeois women. And there would be merciless executioners to deal with anyone who tried to rebel. Makhnovists were sometimes portrayed as Ukrainian separatists (given that, in 1917, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire) and almost always as anti-Semites.
The second popular image of the anarchist was of a naive intellectual dreamer unable to cope with reality, living in a world of his own and taking his precepts from books. And while the first anarchist caricature in his striped sailor’s tunic or peasant cap represented a threat, the second, in his straw hat and spectacles, was a harmless figure of fun, though he was still a ‘positive character’ of sorts.
In post-Soviet Ukraine, many ideological concepts were turned upside down, without any further attempt at re-evaluation.
For instance, one thinks of the popular joke about how, after Ukraine became independent in 1991, the Faculty of Scientific Communism (the most dogmatic of institutions) at Kyiv University was quickly renamed the Faculty of Scientific Nationalism.
Something similar happened to anarchism, a new social phenomenon that had to be absorbed into people’s existing perceptions of the world, and ideally in step with the nationalist aspirations of the intelligentsia working on the cultural policies of the young Ukrainian state.
|Nestor Makhno. WikiMediaCommons / Koroesu. Public Domain.|
As all this took place during the Civil War (a conflict which, in the new post-independence historiography, was seen as a war of liberation in Ukraine), the situation was clear: Makhno’s army represented one of the forces fighting for Ukrainian independence.
‘Popular history’ fixed the idea in people’s heads that Makhno fought for an independent Ukraine alongside the nationalist forces of Simon Petliura’s Ukrainian People's Republic. In fact, Makhno fought against them, and nationalist writers instead spread legends about Makhno’s wife personally sewing him a yellow-and-blue national flag.
But how can people not see the obvious contradiction here: what kind of anarchist fights to set up a state?
The issue here is that Ukraine’s patriotic mythology is based on a romanticised image of the Zaporozhian Sich, a semi-autonomous Cossack territory in central Ukraine in the 15th-18th centuries.
Writers and artists of the Romantic school were equally enthusiastic about the Cossacks, and Soviet historiography supported this tradition of viewing the Zaporizhian Sich as a progressive entity. The result was a powerful romantic national ancestor myth: Cossacks living in the wild steppe, valuing their freedom and independence higher than anything, refusing to recognise any monarch and taking up arms against every neighbouring state in the name of the Ukrainian nation.
Ukraine, unlike most of its neighbours, has no history as a state to pin its national myth to: Kievan Rus was destroyed by the Mongol Horde in the 13th century, after which the territory of today’s Ukraine was governed by Lithuania, Poland, the Crimean Khanate and Russia.
Thus the Cossack military-democratic republic was adopted as a model and ‘precedent’ by Ukrainian historians in the 19th century. Most of these historians, as socialists, were favourably disposed to the archaic democratic system in the Sich, in contrast to the authoritarian rule of the Tsars. Over the border, in Russia, the Cossack myth paints this group as the one most loyal to the Tsar and the Ancien Régime.