Interview with Lugansk communists
By Jane Letova
We continue our series of interviews with the communists of Donbass. A conversation with Alexey Albu, former deputy of the Odessa Regional Council, coordinator of the Borotba Union and a survivor of the Odessa House of Trade Unions, and Maxim Chalenko, leader of the Lugansk Communists and former deputy of the Lugansk Regional Council, about the situation in the Republic, the past and future communist movement in Ukraine, international solidarity and U.S. imperialism.
Jane Letova: What is the current situation of the communists in the republic and what prospects do you see?
Maxim Chalenko: In connection with the decision – the law on martial law of 2014 — since May the professional activities of all political parties on the territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic have been suspended. This is due to the military situation, in principle, a fairly objective decision. In this regard, the structures of the Communist Party of Ukraine, which operated in this territory, are temporarily on standby. The structures are preserved, they have not disappeared, but they do not conduct any systematic public political activity.
Alexey Albu: I would like to add that all the communists who were engaged in political activity here before the war and who came here later, let’s say, like me, almost all participated in the struggle against Ukrainian neo-fascism, Bandera-ism, the struggle to preserve the remnants of state property and so on. And many communists at different periods of time held posts, including key posts, in the Lugansk People’s Republic. Some remained in public service, some left, some served [in the People’s Militia], some left the service, but I would like to emphasize that almost all the communists did not remain indifferent, everyone was involved in the process of fighting against the Ukrainian junta. I represent the Borotba Union, we have a cell here in the territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic. It is quite small, some of the people came with me from Odessa, some of the people are local youth, working youth, students who want to change the existing foundations, not only in the LPR, but in general, for the better, on the side of social justice. But, as Maxim said, many forms of work that were possible until 2014 are unavailable today because of wartime. Because many forms of work can, let’s say, contribute to our common enemies. Therefore, today the activity of the left organizations in the LPR differs from the activity before the war.
MC: At the same time, we do not exclude what Alexey said about participation, and our communists are also involved in the administration of the republic. In the people’s council there are a number of deputies who are members of our party, in the ministries of cities and regions there are deputy mayors who are communists. We see no problems in this, and today our structures are interested in the Republic getting on its feet, so that it develops and strengthens. In the classical sense, today, of course, it is very difficult for the communists to work. Here in the LPR there is no socialist system, there is no communism, the direction is capitalist, rather harsh, difficult, but at the same time people here have stood up to fight against Ukrainian neo-fascism, and we are unequivocally united in this, and we were also active participants in the events of 2013-2014. When people went out to the squares, we not only participated in these rallies, we also organized it, everything was done through the apparatus of the regional committee of the Communist Party, our vehicles brought the equipment, various materials, and so on … Therefore, the structures of the Communist Party are here inside this process.
AA: When we talk about the prospects of the left movement, it is necessary to first determine the goals. We do not have the goal of overthrowing the authorities in the Lugansk People’s Republic because this would be wrong from our point of view. Today, the goal is to overthrow the current government in Ukraine. Therefore, the majority of the left who are here are involved in the armed, informational, or diplomatic struggle against the regime that has been established today in Ukraine. The reactionary regime, Bandera regime, ultra-right, neoliberal capitalist regime. We think that the situation will not develop in favor of the Kiev junta, and we, the residents of Odessa, Kharkov, Kiev, will be able to return to the territory of Ukraine and continue the class struggle in our hometowns.
MC: There is another important point — we are well aware that now the communist movement in Ukraine practically does not exist. This is due to a number of reasons. On the one hand, the authorities did everything to kill it, on the other hand, the Communist Party itself, in particular, the Communist Party leader Petro Simonenko, who, in our opinion, in the Lugansk region, just surrendered the party, agreed with representatives of the nationalist camp, those who came to power after the events on the Maidan. It is difficult to argue with this because the Communist Party faction in the Verkhovna Rada in 2014 voted for the appointment of Turchinov to the post of acting president, and with some exceptions, the majority of the faction voted for him. Therefore, we, understanding the situation, are ready to develop the left movement in Ukraine in the future … We have preserved our structures here, saved people, retained personnel, we are ready to help restore the Communist Party in Ukraine in one form or another, but of course this will not be the old Communist Party, it will be something else. But we are ready to deal with this issue on the “other” side. This is the main reason because here today everything is fine, more or less.
JL: What do you think is needed for the military conflict to end here?
MC: It is necessary to implement the Minsk agreements. Ukraine, in the first place. Because they’re sabotaging this process. From the side of the LPR, the DPR, everyone is ready to move in this direction, more than once it was proved during the Minsk talks, including on the withdrawal of military equipment, our side always withdrew troops, always adhered to those decisions that were made during the negotiations. As for the Ukrainian side, they merely create the appearance of their execution, and often they do not even create the appearance. There is a solution to the problem: the Minsk agreements, and they must be implemented first.
AA: I fully agree with Maxim that the Ukrainian side does not want to follow the path of reconciliation, it in every way sabotages the agreements that were reached within the framework of the Minsk talks. They did not release a single political prisoner (at the time of the interview – Ed.). About a hundred political prisoners remain in Ukrainian dungeons at this moment, and people who were supposed to be released in the spring of 2015 are still in prison. It has not fully withdrawn heavy weapons and prohibited weapons from the front line. The Verkhovna Rada did not amend the Constitution of the country. More precisely, deputies of the Verkhovna Rada voted on the amendments, but they were not ratified. Now that the new composition of the parliament has been elected, there is hope that some healthy forces will emerge that will strive to fulfill the obligations undertaken by the past government of Ukraine.
JL: What is the situation with class consciousness? Does it exist, how has it changed during the war?
MC: People are not up to it on the one hand because there are other problems. War puts other problems into people’s heads. At the same time, the Donbass has always been quite left — there is a lot of industry, a lot of proletarians as we understand it. So here you have people with left-wing views, people who want social justice. As for the current situation — if you ask what kind of society you want to build, most people will answer: “We want the war to end first. When the war is over, then we’ll figure it out.” But in any case, I think that when this whole problem is solved, the left political force will dominate here.
AA: Indeed, leftist sentiments are strong in this region. But if we talk about class consciousness, we remember the theses put forward by Lenin in the work “What Is To Be Done?”, that class consciousness does not come from nowhere, that it cannot originate within the class of the proletariat by itself, it can only be introduced from outside. Since today the Communist Party, as we said earlier, is focused on other goals and objectives, now practically no one is engaged in the agitation of the class struggle, in the form in which the communists should be engaged. But again, this is due to the state of war. Because all social issues have been sidelined to some extent compared with the fact that people want to save their lives. In a sense, people are now not up to the class struggle, but only solving the most basic problems — how to survive, how to feed the children, how to repair the house. Therefore, now they are not up to the class struggle. But, as Maxim said, left-wing moods dominate here, they are very common, left-wing ideas are in demand here. Many people would like to participate in political life, but a new entity has not yet formed or the old political entity, which was the local Communist Party, has not fully recovered. It is too early to talk about the class struggle while martial law remains here.
MC: Yes — the majority of local residents favor social equality, social justice, that is, such views dominate, from social-democratic to left-wing communist. In the other part of Ukraine, they are closer to the center-right, they also want social equality, but they want it at the expense of others, and we want it for everyone, these are different things. If we talk about the situation inside the republic, there are problems — there would be things for the communists to do, that is, miners have problems with receiving their salaries, there are other problems. But people, even realizing that we should fight today for their rights, for their interests, for their salaries in the framework of the trade union movement, they will not do this today because they understand this will only harm the republic and can just break it, because today the situation is quite unstable.
Although, of course, there are problems, they are everywhere, we cannot say that “happiness has come here.” Absolutely not, objectively everyone understands this …
AA: Yes, I would also like to add that the social problems that exist here today are not completely dependent on local capitalists, they depend on the imperialist center located in the United States. It was this center that unleashed the civil war in Ukraine, it is because of it that the communication lines and railways are blocked, and the Donbass is almost completely cut off. It is precisely because of the contradictions between the imperialist center and the Russian periphery that the trade blockade, the industrial blockade of Donbass was organized by the hands of Ukrainian neo-Nazis. That is, everyone understands that this was organized by our class enemies, the imperialists, but this is a higher level problem, not a local one. The people who live here understand that they cannot get to the United States. And so they understand that the social problems that exist, they are not completely dependent on the local bourgeoisie, which has remained here. Although of course, their role is also huge.
MC: But there is a desire to get to imperialist America.
AA: And great. Local youth hold solidarity actions with workers in other countries when they seek support. They understand that what is happening here is the result of a major capitalist conspiracy, the redistribution of markets, the result of the contradictions between the imperialist center and the imperialist economic subsystems, it is all reflected here in the Donbass.
MC: In fact, speaking of the international communist movement, in 2014 we did not expect that we would receive such powerful support from the left of other countries. That is, all the left-wing organizations of Europe especially, and Latin America, expressed their solidarity, they came here, they brought humanitarian aid here, they fought and continue to wage an information war against their own governments in order to help us in any way possible. We held a number of events in 2014, 2015, 2016, and representatives from more than 30 countries came. And they still continue to come and provide assistance, especially from Europe — Germans and Spaniards come to us, and the French come. And eastern Europe. The Greeks came in large delegations. In this regard, the European left is great, many thanks to them. Various parliamentary and non-parliamentary organizations and parties. We felt their support and continue to feel it. We found many comrades, who until 2014 we had little contact with.
AA: The fact is that now, in the classical understanding of the Marxist project, of successfully winning and implementing its principles somewhere, it is nowhere to be found. That is, in some places the left is stronger, in some places they have a stronger influence in politics, they are trying to introduce different principles of Marxism into society. We can take an example from different left organizations that are in power today. Such as, say, Venezuela. Although there is a strong economic crisis there today, it is precisely because of the complete blockade against them organized by the United States and its allies. But their social programs, which they are implementing, deserve great respect. They build a huge amount of social housing, they feed a large number of people, they save thousands of Indigenous people who need assistance. That is, there the government is trying to introduce Marxist principles into the life of the country. Yes, some things may not work, but the direction they are moving is basically correct.
Many criticize the [Syrian] Ba’ath Party and Bashar al-Assad, but in 2016 I was in Damascus and in the vicinity of Damascus, in refugee camps. I saw that the government, despite such a difficult war, took upon itself a huge social burden and provided huge social support to the population, that is, they, they are building refugee camps that do not just look like tents in a field, but which are normal houses with water, sewers, where people can live — those families that lost their homes as a result of ISIS terrorists. That is, some elements of communist ideas were reflected even in the Ba’ath Party.
You can look at organizations that today are not in power, but are fighting, and which could be equal in this regard, forces like the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Basques in the Basque Country, a powerful communist organization in Turkey called the People’s Front and their armed wing DHKP-C. They are banned in Turkey, just as we are in Ukraine (“Borotba” – Ed.), but they have managed to find forces to organize armed resistance in different regions of the country.
There are good examples of legal struggles by various left organizations, such as the Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil (MST). Despite the fact that very reactionary forces have come to power there (Jair Bolsonaru – Ed.), similar to those that came to power in Ukraine, this movement mobilizes hundreds of thousands of people in the fight against right-wing neoliberal reforms. This is the NUMSA metal workers union in South Africa, which is striving to improve the rights of workers, helps various left groups and movements throughout the South African region, and in fact it has grown from a classical union into a whole political formation.
We can look at the Chinese Communist Party, although China, of course, is not a communist country, a socialist country. We understand that this is a completely capitalist country, but the social burden that they have taken upon themselves is very great. They brought millions out of poverty. They are implementing colossal scientific projects that ordinary capitalist countries could never have realized, and China itself could not have realized it without the leadership of the Communist Party. Although for us, from the point of view of classical Marxism, this is not enough, it is still better than nothing, and these social transformations are at least progressive.
MC: Trade unions in the LPR today are trying, one way or another, to solve the problems of workers. But they have taken on a different role than promoting the health of employees of enterprises. That is, they are social. The main direction is assisting children who have problems. That is, the current trade unions in the LPR do not fulfill the classical role as such, in fact, the state itself is socially oriented today. This is because if people are not protected in the conditions that the republic is in today, in a war, nothing will function. Therefore, I am afraid that it is difficult to talk about trade unions as a force that in one way or another educates people in class consciousness.
JL: What would you like to say to the Russian communists?
MC: A big hello to the Russian communists. We are with them, we are with the United Communist Party (OKP), with the Communists of Russia, with the various left groups that are in Russia, we communicate with them. The first thing I would like to say to them is thanks for the support they have given us. Not only to the communists, but also to the Republics as a whole — informational, media, sometimes material aid. They come here, constantly from the OKP, comrades constantly travel here with humanitarian aid, on humanitarian missions, information missions, for which we give many thanks to them. Regarding the official Russian Communist Party — I will probably refrain from commenting. Objectively, individual members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) — many thanks to them, I won’t single them out now — these have done a lot for us, for the people, brought help from our neighboring regions, and the Moscow members of the KPRF, and helped take out the wounded. But this is not the standpoint of the whole political organization, it is private initiatives of members of the KPRF.
AA: I agree completely. I can express my gratitude to many members of the KPRF, but their leadership for me is a symbol of betrayal, not only that, but a symbol of profit, political deception and a certain kind of political cowardice.
MC: This, you know, is like old Soviet asphalt — it is good, high-quality. But it was already cracked, and they are trying to patch it and patch it, and they are not allowing new sprouts, new left organizations, to grow. They constantly trample them. In Ukraine, there is hope that in connection with the situation that has developed, a new political force will be formed, whatever it may be called, which can, in modern conditions, wage an active political struggle, appealing not to the past, but speaking about the future. This is the most important thing right now. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation today in in such a situation that it is not alive, but also not yet dead, that’s the problem.
AA: For me, there is no fundamental difference between United Russia and the Communist Party. Yes, the symbols of the Communist Party are dearer to me, but I can’t say that the capitalists who are in the Communist Party are better than the capitalists who are in United Russia. Probably the capitalists who are in United Russia are more honest, sincere, and most importantly, efficient.
We can criticize left-wing forces in Russia for a long time, we have something to compare with. We lived in Ukraine, our left movement developed a little differently, we can compare what is in the Russian left movement today with what we had in Ukrainian. And it is worth noting that today the Russian left movement is undergoing a certain renaissance, there are a huge number of different YouTube bloggers, some small groups, circles, people who want to study Marxism and put its ideas into practice, are appearing. But the bad thing is that these groups are usually fragmented, the bad thing is that many of them don’t understand the seriousness of the class struggle, don’t understand the responsibility that lies with them, don’t understand what the aggravation of the capitalist crisis in Russia can lead to, they don’t understand how to react to those things that can happen in Russia. Sure, things are not exactly the same, but we see that everything follows the same path which it followed in Ukraine. And if the same thing happens there that happened in Ukraine, the Russian left will have to face a huge amount of reactionary right-wing forces, with all kinds of neo-fascists, nationalists, monarchists, Orthodox fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and so on and so forth. And, looking at today’s left movement, one can regretfully say that there is practically no one to fight.
MC: I agree. There are a number of people, especially in the regions, who have good ideas, who do good things, but they are few. There is no force that can consolidate all this.
AA: As a consequence of the fact that everyone is not united, the Russian left cannot offer society a real left alternative. That is, the KPRF does not offer a left alternative, and the non-system left, they also do not offer a left alternative because they are all fragmented and, unfortunately, now in the Russian left environment there is a prevailing opinion that you need to be some kind of tail for the liberals, that you need to fight the system together with the liberals, just because the liberals are supposedly fighting it. Leftists do not understand that the liberals are much greater enemies than the national bourgeoisie that now governs Russia. Because these are representatives of the comprador bourgeoisie, which will not stand on ceremony with the left at all. After their victory, the left can just start being hung from posts.
Today there is still the possibility of conducting legal political activity, so the left must use every opportunity to stay in the legal field. In Ukraine today there is no such possibility, and the left of Ukraine has to look for methods and forms of work that are prohibited by the current Ukrainian authorities. Therefore, I believe that today we need to work in the legal field, but keep in mind that there may come a time when you have to work in a semi-legal position, in a semi-legal status.