The national question in Ukraine

Image: Mathias PR Reding


Ukraine is today one of the most militarized states in the world; the Russian invasion is consolidating strong anti-Russian nationalism


Osvaldo Coggiola, in the article “Ukraine-Russia: a troubled history”, posted on the website the earth is round, provides an indispensable summary of the history of the countries in conflict. From your reading it becomes clear that without knowledge of this ancient history it is not possible to understand the conflict and, in particular, three phenomena related to it, of a historical, political and ideological nature that are at the essence of the conflict: nationalism, the cold war between the two great powers (1945-1991) and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Here I will seek to value the endogenous causes of the conflict, without neglecting its context in the crisis of power in the current world, which tends to create, through many situations of tension, a multipolar or, at least, bipolar world.

Osvaldo Coggiola's article exhaustively shows the importance of history to understand not only the conflict, but the succession of territorial and imperialist wars, in the sense of expanding the territories of a given power, which marked Europe several centuries ago. The professor clarifies and forgive me for the long quote: “Historically, contrary to Putin, it could be said that it was Russia that emanated from the primitive Ukraine, not the other way around. The first Slavic (or “Russian”) state in the region was Kievan Rus': from the XNUMXth century onwards it was in the orbit of Byzantium, with its “mystical” Christianity (called orthodox) and its liturgy in the Greek language, differentiated of “neoplatonic” and Latin Christianity in Rome. Shortly afterwards, the region’s first code of laws, Russkaya Pravda, was introduced.”

Since these ancient times, Ukraine has been the object of constant invasions, whether by barbarians (Mongols in 1240) or by its more powerful neighbors, Poland, Lithuania (XNUMXth century) and Russia, both Tsarist and Soviet. territories of Ukraine and Belarus (XNUMXth century), which challenged Polish domination, also marked the history of the entire region.

Osvaldo Coggiola explains: “The peasant community was made up of Ukrainians and Belarusians who were fleeing the oppression of the masters, the dvoryane and their officials. Around 1640-1650 a large-scale popular uprising broke out across Ukraine and Belarus. The peasants, led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky, had the support of the Cossacks and the poor inhabitants of the cities; the war began in the spring of 1648. The peasants began to settle scores with the Polish nobles and the local Ukrainian landlords: soon the revolt spread throughout Ukraine and Belarus. After some time, the Russian state supported the Ukrainian peasant struggle against the Polish overlords. Detachments of Don Cossacks and townspeople took part in it.”

“At the end of the 1793th century, between 1795 and 1796, the division of Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia was defined, which was left with the territories located east of the Dnieper River, while Austria was left with Western Ukraine (with the name of the province of Galicia). In XNUMX, Russia also began to dominate territories west of the Dnieper, the “New Russia”. Ukrainians played an important role in the Russian Empire, participating in wars against Eastern European monarchies and the Ottoman Empire, as well as rising to the highest positions in Russian imperial and ecclesiastical administration. Subsequently, the tsarist regime began to implement a harsh policy of “Russification”, prohibiting the use of the Ukrainian language in publications and publicly. In the XNUMXth century, “pan-Slavism” developed throughout Russia as an ideology of “conservative modernization”, favored by tsarism in its relations with the West.”

All this information, although incomplete, in relation to so many invasions, wars, annexations and de-annexations of many territories in Europe east of Germany, is illustrative of the inconstancy and violence of the domination or intervention of the strongest empires, Russian, Turkish, Austrian , English (Crimean war) in the territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and other dominated zones.


The other side of the coin of domination is the resistance that we can call, with some freedom of expression, nationalist and defending the interests of the subaltern classes, especially the peasants. There has been, for centuries, a class character, sometimes diffuse, in the affirmation of national values ​​and symbols (language, religion, customs and culture) of Ukrainians, in the face of their many rulers, especially Poland followed by Prussia and Austria to the west and Tsarist Russia in the XNUMXth century. The history of Europe is marked to this day by the diffuse ideology of Nationalism and there are several examples that are still active (Scotland, Catalonia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Chechnya, Georgia...).

In the XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, the national question was one of the most important, alongside the growth of workers' struggles and socialist ideas disseminated in the XNUMXth century. Nationalism, the struggle for the creation or affirmation of national and democratic states in territories that were dominated by foreign powers, foreign and hostile to the majority of inhabitants, was the order of the day. Just remember that it was the action of a Serbian nationalist, executioner of the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, that triggered the First World War.

The domination in Europe east of Germany, over vast territories and stateless nations by the great empires (Russian, Turkish, Austro-Hungarian, Prussia and then German, after the unification of Bismark) marked these years and gave rise, in the first years of the XNUMXth century, an intense debate on the “National Question”. Lenin debated harshly with Rosa Luxemburg, who despised the said issue and the ambitions of many people, including part of the economic elites in the democratic-nationalist camp.

Paul Mattik, an Australian Marxist, wrote in 1935: “In the manner of Kautsky, who in many ways was his spiritual teacher, Lenin was convinced of the progressive character of national independence movements, given that – he said – “The national state offers indisputably better conditions for the development of capitalism”. Maintaining against Luxemburg that the slogan of self-determination of peoples is revolutionary, because it is “a demand that in no way differs from other democratic demands”, Lenin proclaimed: “In every bourgeois nationalism of an oppressed nation there is a content democratic and it is this content that we support without restrictions”… “It would be a capital error to believe that the struggle for democracy is likely to divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, eclipse it, weaken it, etc. On the contrary. In the same way that it is impossible to conceive of a victorious socialism that does not achieve integral democracy, the proletariat cannot prepare victory over the bourgeoisie if it does not carry out a general systematic and revolutionary struggle for democracy.”

“It is thus clearly seen that, according to Lenin, movements and wars with nationalist tendencies have the sole objective of establishing democracy, and the proletariat must participate in them since, still following Lenin, “democracy is an obligatory stage in the struggle for socialism”. “If the fight for socialism is a fair fight, he says, the war for democracy is just as well” and, consequently, “in a truly national war the words “defense of the homeland” are in no way a mistake”. This is why Lenin is of the opinion that in such a case and “as long as the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation fights against the nation that oppresses it, we will always be on that side and more decisively than anyone else”. And he adds: “because we are the fiercest and most consistent enemy of oppression”[I]


Lenin wrote texts on the self-determination of peoples, which he defended, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, who only saw one way out for the success of the Russian revolution, the triggering of proletarian revolutions in other European countries, especially in Germany. This did not happen, despite some heroic attempts. Rosa Luxemburg was brutally murdered by right-wing militias in 1919. Russia was left isolated and terribly poor after a succession of civil wars supported by great powers. But he overcame them and extended the Soviet model to the regions of the East, the Caucasus and the Urals, mainly through the strength of the Red Army led by Trotsky.

The Russian revolution was a bold and successful assault on power, led by a party with connections and prestige to the working masses of a few cities and part of the soldiers of the tsarist army defeated in the First World War. The power of the party and the new army in formation grew in the heat of the civil war and spread to regions other than European Russia. Faced with its isolation and the non-extension of the revolutionary wave to the west, its national interests and the need for survival and economic recovery came to be at the center of its politics, to the detriment of the old internationalist ideas of the generation of Marxists at the beginning of the century. . The internationalism defended by Lenin only materialized in the creation of the USSR, under the rule of the strongest State.

Thus the interests and needs of Mother Russia took precedence over the development of a true union of sovereign Soviet states. The exalted greatness of the tsarist empire in the 1904th to XNUMXth centuries was followed by the exaltation of Mother Russia and its maximum leader, in short, another type of nationalism. In terms of freedoms and the construction of the power of the CPSU, the prophetic diagnosis that Troski wrote in XNUMX came true: “… the organization of the party (its leadership) places itself in principle in the place of the party as a whole; then, the Central Committee takes the place of leadership; Finally, a single “dictator” takes the place of the Central Committee”. Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg critically the party conception defended by Lenin in What to do?.

Another revolutionary leader of those times, arrested and later shot by Stalin in 1941, wrote: “Before our eyes, a large class of rulers has been formed who have their own internal interests and who grow through well-calculated co-optation, through bureaucratic promotions and of a fictitious electoral system. The unifying element of this original class is a singular form of private property: state power.” (Rakovsky and others from the left opposition of the CPSU, 1930)

Alongside the growing bureaucratization and centralization of power by the Bolsheviks, then the CPSU, the other left-wing parties existing in 1917 were illegalized, the Soviets were losing their revolutionary strength and the dictatorship of Soviets it soon became confused with the dictatorship of the CPSU, its central committee and at the end of the 20s and especially in the following years, in the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, the “genius guide of the people”, as acclaimed and even venerated by communists in everyone in those times.


In the logic of “Russian national interests come first” we understand the dictator's decision to expropriate the grain harvests in fertile Ukraine in 1932/33, which caused the Great Famine, the Holodomor. Estimates vary, but it is certain that 3 to 4 million Ukrainians died of starvation, in addition to another 2 to 3 million in other Soviet states. Stalin's poor agricultural management of forced collectivization cost many people their lives in the Soviet Union. O Holodomor It is one of the basic causes, among others, of the anti-Russian nationalism of many Ukrainians, which even led some to support the German invasion in World War II. But they soon found themselves facing the brutality of the German army. Hitler despised all Slavs, considered useful only as “slaves/Slavic”. Millions of Ukrainians died in World War II.

Later, in the 50s and 60s, similar errors in agricultural policy also cost the lives of millions of Chinese.

The Soviet collectivist economic model, despite extraordinary advances in industry and science & technology, proved to be inferior to capitalist development in the seventy years of competition between the two systems.

The USSR and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe collapsed (in Fidel's ironically bitter expression) like a sandcastle, showing that the Soviet economy had feet of clay and that the political and ideological domination of the CPSU was no less . Defeat that tarnished the generous dream of socialism.

While it is true that the United States characterized itself throughout the XNUMXth century and already in this century as an imperialist power, in the sense of marking its influence in the world and its domination through diplomacy, military action and ideological dispute, it is no less certain that capitalism prevailed over real socialism, after almost a century of dispute at all levels. Economically, politically and ideologically.

When we talk about the victory of capitalism, we cannot help but characterize the Chinese economy as capitalist, at least to a large extent. Even large state-owned companies compete on the world market and are governed by the rules of capitalism. In China we have the paradox of a regime led by the CCP for 74 years, the result of a true popular, national and anti-imperialist revolution, which has been promoting for decades a true capitalist revolution and the cult of wealth and consumption, but which does not give up power. policy on the economy.

It is in this context that the much-vaunted multipolar world must be seen. In the context of market disputes, typically capitalist, where “those who can least cry the most”, in the context of the dispute over zones of influence to… guarantee reliable markets and suppliers, for the dispute over commercial exchange currencies. China has been a master at this, they are wise, they “eat their porridge at the edges”, their companies, their economic and military power, their extraordinary investment and scientific and technological development and their diplomacy open doors all over the world. They are strong without being arrogant like the United States has been for many years. He learned from the mistakes of the USSR, with whom they always had bad relations and to whom they never submitted. It also learned from the successes of capitalism and sent its best students to the best Western universities decades ago. They are the Middle Kingdom, they have 3 thousand years of history.


Nationalism is often related to fascism and Nazism. The current far-right parties in Europe call themselves “nationalists”. Putin, more than a nationalist, cultivates the idea of ​​“Mother Russia”, the “Russia of all Russias”, the greatness of the Tsarist empire and Soviet Russia, not shying away from praising Stalin. It is no coincidence that he considers the end of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the XNUMXth century”. His life mission is to reverse this “tragedy”, at least in part. This is how the loss of Ukraine to the West was the final straw that triggered a military response, a “special military operation” to the insidious penetration of the Western world into that enormous country, always considered for many centuries as a natural extension but also birthplace of Russia, “Kiev Rus”.

This new multipolar world order does not dispense with growing militarization throughout the world. Virtually all European countries have increased their military budgets. It would be naive not to consider Russia as a threat, particularly in Eastern Europe. Result: more NATO, more war economy. It would be equally naive to believe that the vast Western alliance will accept a humiliating defeat in its efforts to support Ukraine. The desire to seize the opportunity to induce Putin's fall and the rise of a truly threatening regime is growing in the minds of European leaders. A risky move, as cornering autocrats can generate dangerous reactions. But living in fear is already accepting defeat.

The invasion of Ukraine was not the only one during the post-Soviet period. In Chechnya, a small state forming part of the Russian Federation, Moscow's iron fist, especially in the Second World War, managed to crush separatist attempts and impose a pro-Moscow government in 2. Other countries and regions of the Caucasus also suffered military interventions and creation of autonomous regions pro Federation in the last 2007 years. But the West closed its eyes to the conflicts and watched these manifestations of Putinist centralism from afar, which understands that its close neighbors must align themselves and submit to Mother Russia.

In Ukraine, in 2022, Vladimir Putin's calculations went out the window. The Russian leader and many “left-wing people”, all over the world, believed that once again the “decadent” West would accept, even if reluctantly, the Russian strategy of dominating its neighbors in one way or another, considered as part of their “living space”. Just as he accepted the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for the separatists in Donestk and Lugansk, fueling a regional armed conflict, following the fall of the pro-Russian president Yanukovych, after the Maidan Square revolts in 2013/2014. Contrary to Putin's expectations, Kiev did not fall, Ukraine did not capitulate like all-powerful France in 1940, nor did its government collapse like the American puppet governments in South Vietnam and Afghanistan when U.S. troops They fled with their tails between their legs.

For Vladimir Putin, the plan backfired and the West took the invasion as an unacceptable challenge. The objectives proclaimed by the Russian Federation are to “denazify” Ukraine, that is, to overthrow the elected government of Volodymyr Zelensky with the seizure or siege of Kiev, annex the 4 Oblasts borders (east and south of Ukraine), demilitarize what would remain of Ukraine and prevent it from becoming part of NATO and the European Union, were not achieved. If they were and the West digested them, the Russian Federation would emerge as a new pole of the new multipolar world order. It would partly recover the greatness and influence of the best times of the USSR and honor the memory of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. After all, the imperial weapons are the ones that fly on the Russian flag.

The almost closing of the doors of Europe and the West extended to the Russian Federation, the departure of so many Western companies, the multiple sanctions, all of this was a blow to Putin and the Russian economy. It is known that the Russian oligarchs, that is, the owners of the capitalist system as practiced in Russia and in some countries of the former USSR, felt an enormous attraction to business and European luxury. Currently, with the freezing of many of their assets, they must miss their villas on the Côte d'Azur, from their yachts, from their mansions in central London, from their now-blocked bank accounts. Russian elites have always been westernized; French was spoken at the Tsarist court.


Ukraine is today one of the most militarized states in the world. NATO has grown stronger in members, resources and political influence. The global war economy, the large arms manufacturers and certain “clusters” are “in the clouds”. Even the inflation caused by the war and the partial breakdown of logistics chains, which already came from the pandemic, brought more wealth to certain business groups and, in general, to the very rich. The right-wing and autocratic regimes or “electoral autocracies like Hungary have also strengthened.

The European Union did not split and, in essence, significantly increased its military budget. Its historical alliance with the United States, to its great advantage, has become closer. For the so-called West, the war on Ukrainian soil became an opportunity to undermine or even contribute to the overthrow of the Putinist regime. The Russian economy is increasingly suffering from sanctions of all kinds and the loss of customers for its exports, especially oil & gas. It had to give huge discounts to ensure customers moved towards Asia (Turkey, China, India).

Many said that the economy of Western Europe, particularly Germany, would suffer terribly with the partial or total cutoff of Russian energy supplies and the collapse of Russian-German gas pipelines. This did not happen and we are witnessing a formidable change in the energy matrix in Europe. And moderate GDP growth since 2020, despite the war and the pandemic and inflation that insists on not falling to the 2% target.

The possible conclusion, albeit with doubts, is that Russia will hardly be a major pole of this new and warlike multipolar world. It is true that the Russian Federation is a nuclear power and has made threats to use tactical nuclear weapons. But how to be a first-team hub, alongside China, the United States and the European Union, while being a constant threat to its neighbors? Having an economy that is vastly inferior to these three would-be peers, being very dependent on the export of oil & gas, and behind in the knowledge economy? And having to spend a lot on the military budget? Not to mention the wear and tear on various levels that has already caused, is causing and will continue to cause this war that is expected to be prolonged with Ukraine.

If Vladimir Putin and many people consider that Ukraine is a mere extension of Russia, politically dominated by Nazis and waging a proxy war for the West, especially the United States of America, it is also true that the destructive action of the armed forces Russians, the violation of human rights, the suffering, deaths and material destruction of a poor country consolidated an anti-Russian nationalism that will long linger in the hearts of the majority of the 42 million Ukrainians, many of whom are refugees in Europe. If there was no national feeling, or it was weak, the enormous resilience of Ukrainians proves otherwise. The weapons are Western, but those who use them and die, apart from so many innocent civilians, are Ukrainian soldiers. We'll see until when.

One thing seems likely to me: Russia will not be a major star in this much-vaunted New World Order, still in the making.

*Carlos Henrique Vianna is an engineer. He was director of Casa do Brasil in Lisbon. He is the author, among other books, of A question of justice.


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