Ukraine. The following interview was conducted by Tous Dehors. The interview of March 11, 2022, is part 1 of a series on interviews.
Originally published by Tous Dehors.
Perhaps you could explain how the situation has evolved from the beginning of the war, the russian takeover of the cities, and « day-to-day » life now.
I’m originally from Kharkiv but have been studying in Lviv for the last few years. I had to flee Lviv to meet my family evacuating from Kharkiv, but I am still on the unoccupied territory in Western Ukraine, and am mostly relying on reports from my relatives and friends that are still in the east, some of them as a part of militias or regular army, as well as the wide array of public information posted in channels and chats to understand what’s happening closer to the frontlines.
The cities and villages that have been captured so far have all been occupied in the first few days during the Russian blitzkrieg and therefore it has often been a kind of “woke up in a different country” situation. I know several people who woke up too late and didn’t have the time to flee and now they can’t evacuate: either because the cities are contested with battles and shellings still ongoing, or because the frontline has moved further and evacuating west means moving towards the frontline which is really dangerous – photos and videos of dozens if not hundreds of civilian cars crashed and attacked on the roads are a confirmation of that, as if one was needed…
Situation in Kherson and in Kherson oblast’ (a Ukrainian administrative unit, something like a state or France’s regions) is still developing: although the Ukrainian army had to leave these cities pretty early on as well (Kherson has been immediately abandoned in favour of better defences in Mykolayiv), the population has mobilised and several pro-Ukrainian (“peaceful”: only fighting with songs, flags and slogans so far) protests in the occupied cities have been organised. They haven’t died down even as Russians have brought in more riot police units, but sadly the warning shots that the soldiers has been firing into the air have turned into real violence: several people have already been killed and dozens injured in multiple cities (combined). I am not sure how these actions can develop in long-term, especially as the Russian army settles down in Kherson and establishes the city as the base for further attacks west towards Odessa and north towards Zaporizhia: mass civilian actions that were able to slow down the Russian advance are clearly temporary and have often been limited to the first day of confrontations (see Enerhodar, Balakliya, etc.), and the Russian army has shown its full fascistic intent in not being afraid to shoot at the crowds.
We are interested in looting which is for us a certain mark of class conflict, especially in times of war. We have heard of repression of looting by citizen militias, and also by the state. Can you tell us more ?
Looting did not occur en masse before the Russian invasion, no. Even worse, it was not a huge part of Maidan 2014 protests: they were relatively “civilized” and the only lootings were in Kyiv (the buildings that the protesters used as hospitals and camps), and in Western Ukraine once the harsh repression set in: the police headquarters were looted, cars burned etc, but there was no widespread looting of commercial streets.
During the beginning of the 2014 invasion of Donbass, there was some looting, and it mostly happened on the territories Ukraine did not control anymore, which served as a great excuse for propagandists to show the photos of empty destroyed hypermarkets right next to “civilized”, “european”, full Ukrainian store shelves. Therefore, looting and maraudering have become attached to the image of a pro-russian “barbarian”, they are seen as the sign of the coming “horde” of the Russian world. These days it’s the continuation of the trend seen in 2014: looters are seen as equal to Russian soldiers.
I’ve heard reports of looting in the first hours on the 24th, right after the invasion, when the banks stopped working for a while and people weren’t able to buy the rapidly diminishing supplies. Once the Russian advance slowed down and the capitalist civilization asserted its hold, looting became more dispersed, but extremely widespread: people are looting small stores for food, cigarettes and drinks (it’s illegal to sale alcohol during the war in Ukraine) in small groups or individually, people are breaking in electronics stores, car dealerships; and there are also bigger groups collectively looting larger stores for food, this is more widespread in encircled or occupied cities. Not sure I’d be able to point to a number here, but I’ve seen at least a hundred looters captured and taped to telephone poles, most by civilians, without any police involvement, and several dozen CCTV videos of people breaking in stores. Although in the beginning arrests might have been made mostly by the police or nationalist militia groups, now it’s kind citizens doing their job.
Population at large tends to support these anti-looting measures, especially because the looters are often described as “marauders” (a heavier term, implying they’re robbing someone’s house instead of an abandoned store). Official reports cover up what the looters have actually been stealing, and blow up the actual maraudering way out of proportion. To me it’s incredibly clear that the Ukrainian authorities, amidst all talk of heroism and patriotism, is ready to sacrifice thousands of people stuck in the cities under attack. The state and the police aren’t concerned with our survival, they’re concerned with the survival of the law as such, and with the survival of the economy.
Zelenskyy issued an amendment to several laws that you can find over here: https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/2117-IX#Text
It basically increases the punishment for maraudering, and reduces the requirements to qualify for a criminal act, before you had to steal in “large amounts”, now any kind of related crime during the war qualifies.
Do you know if some strikes did happen in Ukrainia since the war has begun ?
I haven’t seen any strikes happening, no, but the economy is disrupted anyway as quite a lot of people fled without any regard for their place of work. Most firemen, policemen, garbage men and various other services in the cities currently encircled or under heavy shelling are still continuing to function, which is actively used by the propaganda praising people slaving off for poverty-level wages as “patriotic heroes”.
Ukraine doesn’t have meaningful trade union presence, although there are plenty “yellow” state unions remaining from the USSR, but they basically do not exist and haven’t organized a single strike in their existence.
Is there a grassroots movement that would oppose war on a non-nationalist basis ?
I do not think there is any possibility of a “people’s” anti-state resistance to war arising, although we definitely should keep an eye out for civilian resistance, looting and protests. But I think there is a high probability of nationalist militias mobilising their strength to try and assert power “in the streets”, and possibly to influence political decisions if Zelenskyy decides to accept a “pro-russian” peace settlement.
There are several anarchist organizations that have been giving out food and organising shelters in the peacetime, and they have transitioned to help out the militias and refugees, and especially queer people that are under a huge risk of conscription right now. Ukrainian anarchist organisations are relatively small, and have a highly militant, male composition, so they’re mostly training to fight, or fighting Russians as part of militias or regular army battalions.
Do you have any information on what is happening in Russia in opposition to the war (demonstrations, strikes…) ?
Yes, there have been small strikes in Russia, but trade union presence there is similar to Ukrainian one: trade unions are seen as ancient soviet institutions that would probably never get involved in anti-state actions (Ukrainian unions didn’t do anything even during the Maidan). Mobilizations that have been possible in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (similar countries, although with certain differences of course) have been spontaneous and centered around squares and streets rather than classic factory-floor organisation, as could be expected in the modern times.
The first protests against the invasion have been almost completely spontaneous, but there were more “official” calls issued for later demonstrations by Navalny and other liberal forces, and there has been some slight “innovation” in tactics on these protests too. The next demonstration is set to occur on Sunday, March 13th.
There is not enough room allowed by the police for these protests to be directed by liberal parties, therefore the calls for them by Navalny mostly serve as time-and-place coordination efforts. Nevertheless, I haven’t yet seen anything to suggest that “black bloc” or “anarchist” tactics of agitation might be spreading in these crowds: there have only been several de-arrest attempts that have disrupted the usual “come to a demonstration -> get arrested without any opposition from the crowd by cops surrounding you on all sides -> spend the next night in jail” routine, with some protestors arrested for several days and then facing the charges that can send them to jail for years. I still think that protestor’s actions have to occur on a larger scale with better success rate to meaningfully disrupt the war efforts, and I hope that either individual sabotage actions or new mass tactics will be able to escalate the protests.
Do you want to add something ?
The situation is quite bleak: not only “class”, but “poverty” is a non-word, with Ukrainians presenting themselves as a country of respectful middle class people. You can see this in widespread looting condemnations, in “heroisations” of service workers instead of acknowledging their limited options. Widespread xenophobia and calls for Russian genocide co-exist with people denying fascism in Ukraine: “well, you see, Azov haven’t made a photo with a Third Reich flag in two years!”. People are struggling to find a way to flee their hometowns and to find refuge in the West, the officials have taken a “back-seat” approach, mostly encouraging volunteer efforts and “protecting” them with the police.
I do not endorse the calls for solidarity with the state, the police and the army because of an “emergency situation”, but I think examples of organisations and solidarity on the ground give hope that something can yet change and we’ll be able to destroy not only this fascism and this war, but the ground for fascisms and wars! The system we live in not only causes destruction, but feeds on it, it is destruction, we’ll have to learn to live with it and organize within it, smashing its fragile links and creating the possibility for collective freedom on top of it.