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Ukrainian Far-Right Attacks a Book Launch

I accepted an invitation to write an introduction to a small collection of Trotsky’s articles and speeches translated from the Russian original into Ukrainian (see details of the publication below). These articles and speeches are related to Trotsky’s engagement with Ukraine from the time of the 1917 revolution, through the civil war when he commanded the Red Army, into the 1920s when he fought a losing battle with Stalin and up to the outbreak of the Second World War. In the last article of this collection Trotsky called for an independent Ukraine. He was assassinated by Stalin’s agent a year later in 1940.

The members of the Left Opposition collective in Kyiv, who compiled this slim volume, believe it can make a valuable contribution to the re-evaluation of Ukraine’s history since the country’s independence in 1991. At the end of the Soviet Union the extant published history of this country, indeed of the entire Soviet Union, was deeply marked by Stalinist ideology and by gross omissions – “blank spots” – of important people and movements in politics and culture that did not fit that ideology’s outlook. Trotsky was one of these people, who had fought Stalin after Lenin’s death, lost that fight and then lost his life and his name in the history of his own country.

I agreed to write the introduction to this collection because it is worth presenting to students of Ukrainian history a book that brings together for the first time Trotsky’s contribution to this country in his own words. I am critical of some of Trotsky’s actions, but I cannot accept his demonization in the historical and polemical writings of Stalin’s apologists. This image has to be debunked. Unfortunately, Ukrainian nationalists have now joined the Stalinists in propagating it anew. And they share some of their methods.

I came to Kyiv for the book’s launch on 13 November. The publishers chose the bookshop “Ye” on Lysenko Street for the event. It is a respectable bookshop known for its lively public debates. Its shelves are filled with books sought after by Kyiv’s patriotic intelligentsia. The meeting was planned to consist of presentations by two historians, Yuri Shapoval of the National Academy of Sciences and myself, and two members of the Left Opposition collective, Zakhar Popovych and Denys Pilash, followed by an open discussion.

As the meeting room quickly filled to capacity the organizers noticed that members of the youth wing of the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party were taking up the front rows of seats. Their appearance was a cause for some concern because far-right groups had come to earlier presentations of the Ukrainian Trotsky collection in Lviv and Kharkiv. They shouted down the speakers at Lviv meeting, but the meeting carried on, albeit under considerable duress. The organisers of the Kharkiv meeting had invited Serhii Zhadan, the respected novelist. His presence seemed to exert a civilising influence on the auditorium, and the meeting passed off without disruption, even though the Kharkiv far-right was present there too. The Kyiv meeting’s organisers hoped that my presence from abroad as well as that of Yuri Shapoval might have a similar calming effect on Kyiv’s svobodivtsi.

It was not meant to be. The meeting’s chairperson Vasyl Cherepanyn (Centre for Visual Culture) had barely opened his mouth when the shouting began. First two men stood up and began to denounce – in Ukrainian and Russian – the organisers as propagators of communism, genocide, homosexuality and paedophilia. They denounced Trotsky as a perpetrator of war crimes equivalent to Joseph Mengele and the organiser of the Famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine in 1932-33. (Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 and from the Soviet Union in 1929.) They vowed such a meeting would not be allowed to take place.

The first two men to their feet were followed by twenty others and a few women who quickly occupied the front of the room, shouting at the speakers’ faces, tearing down the audio system’s wires and breaking into a series of chants. Among them “Komuniaky na hiliaky!” (Commies – string them up) sticks in my mind.

The other fifty or so people in the audience remained seated, some of them smiling and apparently supportive of the disruption, while the majority sat embarrassed and silent. The chairperson and members of the bookshop staff repeatedly tried to calm the disrupters but had no effect on them at all. The book shop manager then cancelled the event altogether and asked people to clear the hall, at which point the crowd at the front burst into applause and chanted “Diakuyemo!” (Thank you). The speakers left the meeting room and returned to the bookshop office at the back of the building.

It did not end there. Groups of svobodivtsi stood around by the exits and on the street outside. Zakhar Popovych, whose van’s number plates the far right group has circulated on the internet, had two of the van’s tires slashed. The police arrived a half hour later. It was more than an hour after the meeting was aborted that the organisers and the speakers left the venue.

This is not the first time that meetings of new left groups in Ukraine have been disrupted by far-right nationalist forces. Publishers of the Spilne (Commons) journal have been intimidated and physically attacked when they tried to present new editions at public meetings in Lviv and Ternopil. Individuals have been beaten up and hospitalised. The far-right knows they can keep doing this with impunity because the police and the courts fail to uphold people’s constitutional rights and the corporate media ignores it. Will it take a fatality, as happened in Greece, before people recognise what’s really going on here?

By Marco Bojcun

Marko Bojcun is an ad-junct professor at the New York University in London