What to defend in Ukraine? An interview for the Italian Anarchist Federation


Probably the most detailed conversation with our team since February 24, given to FAI on the last day of summer and originally published in Umanita Nova. Conclusions from the six months of the war, its impact on the Ukrainian working class, why "listening to local voices" cannot be synonymous for solidarity with the Ukrainian state, and many other topical issues. It may be of interest to both our regular readers and those who have only recently began to concern about the meat grinder we live in!

Submitted by Thunderbird on September 11, 2022

CRINT-FAI: Given the lack of information among the Italian public on the situation in Kharkiv, can you tell something on the history of your group and your insertion in local political dynamics?

Assembly: In general, we have really been active since March 30, 2020 – as soon as there was a feeling in the air that this habitual status quo had finally cracked. The start of a global pandemic took us by surprise! It was unusual to stay at home all the time. At some of our comrade’s workplaces, the salary was cut by 20% and there was a fear of staff layoffs. But a couple of weeks after the start of quarantine, she started development of our website and so began to talk about acute social problems and help people unite to directly help each other in the face of a crisis.

Our reasoning went something like this: if at least 10% of the population of our city understands, for example, the public transport system better than the mayor and the city council do, then why do we need their administration? Something like that… The journal soon became a place where the peaceful segment of social struggle and self-organisation could meet with the radical underground, and began to really live up to its name. We covered street events, workplace struggles, and urban development issues in our metropolis. We have also tried to restore historical memory on the revolutionary workers’ traditions.

Since the outbreak of hostilities, our magazine has become a platform for presenting and coordinating self-organized humanitarian activities, as well as for highlighting how the local ruling class is benefiting from this massacre. And if in the last year we had 20-30 thousand visits per month, then since the beginning of spring it’s jumped to between 80 to 120 thousand!

CRINT-FAI: You managed to keep activity alive during the conflict. How is it deployed in daily work?

Assembly: Fortunately or unfortunately, we are the only anarchist collective in Ukraine whose fame has grown significantly during these 6 terrible months. Probably, because we give useful information for workers in their daily confrontation with bosses or officials, and our position with the condemnation of both warring states – the aggressor commits open genocide against everything Ukrainian, the "small suffering democratic victim" keeps most of the population as hostages to show more bloody pictures abroad demanding more money, also robbing its serfs by all available means, while not a single Russian missile has yet flown into the government quarter – is quite close to those who have nothing to defend in this bleak hole with no clear future. The main problem that is such support does not transform into a desire to study anarchism and spread its ideas – even grassroots volunteers and other active parts of society are maximally de-ideologized here…

A funnel from the Russian missile strike right on Pavlovskaya Square in the downtown of Kharkov on the night of August 27. One of us lives nearby

CRINT-FAI: What about Zelensky’s government? We read about the new labour legislation. What are the implications of the state of emergency on daily life?

Assembly: If for Russia defeat in the war means some political changes (at least a palace coup, and possible disintegration into parts or partial loss of sovereignty), the future of Ukraine seem to be very sad in any case. Long before the war, Zelensky was often compared to young Putin not without reason, and as a result of victory, we can get a regime no less dictatorial than the Russian one. A very telling example came this month when he stated that the borders for men would not be open until the end of martial law, don’t caring that it’s the most popular petition topic on his website.

With regard to labour legislation, it is very indicative that we see only Europeans concerned about this. Because at least half of those employed in Ukraine work in the informal sector, and even officially employed ones rarely hear anything about the compliance with labour rights and guarantees – it all depends on individual agreements.

Most of all, the working class is now worried about other things: the already mentioned street raids for the issuing of subpoenas (the most active in the eastern and western borderland regions) and the need to open departure from the country for those who are liable for military service. Yes, petitions make only information sense, however it is the first attempts of Ukrainian workers on our memory to express their own agenda at the nationwide level. Since street actions are now impossible, they resort to the only remaining mean of communication with the authorities.

We can only imagine how many Ukrainians would be happy if the state loosened its grip as the result of the international anarchist movement’s campaign. If this movement had taken its anti-war statements as more than just words, we would have seen its massive rallies for opening the borders near Ukrainian embassies many months ago. What to talk about, if even on the May Day you found more important affairs? It seems that there is nowhere to wait for help, and one can only guess how many more Ukrainian families will die, because they don’t want to part with each other. How do you differ from politicians if you declare things that you are not going to fulfill?

The only mass libertarian structure whose words did not differ from deeds is the EZLN. Shortly after the invasion, they filled the streets of their municipalities, unconditionally condemning this aggression, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the Russian military, at the same time not considering the Ukrainian bourgeois state as something principally better. This protest was symbolic, hardly anyone in the Kremlin even saw it at all, but it seems they did the maximum that is possible in their mountain jungle…

CRINT-FAI: Are there any other activist or solidarity realities/networks with which you are in connection that emerged during the conflict making social work?

Assembly: Of course, there is, and not even one. Firstly, our large information partner is Telegram channel "Subpoenas giving. Kharkov" with almost 75,000 of subscribers, appeared at the end of May, where people promptly warn each other about raids on conscripts and other arbitrariness of law enforcement agencies. We also cooperate with a volunteer organisation Build Help for the prompt repair of houses damaged by shelling in poor areas. To discuss broader issues of the post-war development, we participate in the Alternative Kharkiv (founded exactly two years ago). It is an informal, horizontal coalition of urban planners, environmentalists, architects and local historians committed to making our city more decentralized and less commercially oriented. The general concept of our joint vision was presented at the end of May.

Obviously, we will be able to seriously start implementing these ideas only when the invaders stop destroying the city with ballistic missiles every night and 220-mm cluster rockets when people go to work – if by that time it does not get completely empty – but there are already some successes. Kharkov authorities and developers associated with them plan to demolish historical buildings damaged by bombing for the construction of commercial facilities instead of their restoration. And their attempt to finish off in this way one of the oldest houses in our city, almost 200 years old, has already been stopped by the intervention of us and our readers. Monitoring of the situation must be continued daily, because they are hoping precisely for weakening our vigilance.

The meeting of sun and shadow at the site of the collision of shattered history with shattered modernity near the Court of Appeal - in a central neighbourhood with revolutionary background about which we wrote in this article

As for solidarity at the international level, this is a completely different matter. Last year, the international anarchist movement raised 5,000 euros for Afghan anarchists in about a month – we received from foreign comrades 1,500 euros in half a year. This is despite the fact that our work is in the public domain, while in that case nothing is known about their activities either before emigration or after (although we donated them too). What can be said here?

CRINT-FAI: How can we help you through concrete international solidarity in humanitarian help to victims of war?

Assembly: Since the occupiers have regularly bombed critical civilian infrastructure throughout the siege, the upcoming heating season may be the biggest problem for our places. We are now preparing a community heating point in the house of our participant on the marginal industrial outskirts of Kharkiv. You can support both this and the purchase of humanitarian goods from local farmers (though we have suspended it in August as funds are limited and how long the war will last is unknown). Please join our main fundraising Mutual Aid Alert East Ukraine.

CRINT-FAI: What is your position on matters of desertion and conscious objection as for both the Ukrainian and Russian armies?

Assembly: Oh, comprehensive coverage of anti-war boycott, sabotage and other direct action is the main topic of our English international rubric since the first days of the full-scale invasion! Along with this, we should understand that the national unity of Ukrainians around Zelensky’s power rests only on fear of an external threat. Therefore, anti-war subversive acts in Russia are indirectly a threat to the Ukrainian ruling class as well, and that is why we consider its informational support to be an internationalist act.

It should be also taken into account that despite the absence of a qualitative difference among the warring states, they differ quantitatively: if all Russian soldiers stop fighting, the war will end, if Ukrainian soldiers do this, Ukraine will end. The zone of occupation begins 20 km from the ring road of our city, and we know what this means: the "disappearance" of all at least a bit of active and the Stone Age for the rest of population. At the same time, after the Russian troops mostly lost their offensive potential, a wave of social discontent began to show up in Ukraine as well – we have already talked about this.

CRINT-FAI: What effects did the war on Ukrainian anarchist and radical movements?

Assembly: Some groups just disappeared, the rest – except for us – continue to operate as state units, but as a political entity (even if far from anarchism) are actually dead, and no prospects for their revival in this capacity are now visible. It should be noted that different Ukrainian anarchists joined the army for different reasons. Black Flag rather tried to promote the anarchist agenda in the ranks of the military and broader defense movement. We consider their experience valuable, although unsuccessful, and assumptions about this were expressed by us in an interview from the first days of the war. Others, on the contrary, rather protect the Ukrainian state from attacks by anarchists – therefore, we treat them as negatively as we treat the state as such.

In words all of them are not for the state, but only for the Ukrainian people, however even such Jesuit rhetoric they cannot use in a revolutionary way. If you want help the Armed Forces, many of whose soldiers don’t even have body armor, not to mention other ammunition – okay, help them, make useful contacts for the post-war time, as Malatesta supported the Cuban rebels against Spain and the Libyan ones against Italy… But why even Zelensky’s right-wing opponents are not shy to use every case of such injustice to undermine trust in the Ukrainian authorities, while they, on the contrary, only advocate Ukrainian state interests in the libertarian circles? Those who do not want to obey any government have no reasons to see such groups as a real alternative to it, and those who love the state do not need such schizophrenic exoticism – there are ordinary nationalist parties and movements for them.

We do not think that this would radically change the situation: the example of the same Black Flag shows that any revolutionary agitation in the Ukrainian troops is now meaningless, as soldiers are generally satisfied with their salaries, quite solid even by European standards (100,000 hryvnias or about 2700 euros at the front line). Nevertheless, the majority of those who identify themselves as anarchists in Ukraine were not even going to do this, but immediately merged with the ruling class in a single nationalist impulse.

Meanwhile, the number of the Ukrainian army is approaching a million people, and a few dozen fighters under black flags are a drop in the ocean, unable to demonstrate anything but their own futility and helplessness. However, the relative success of our media in comparison with pre-war times also should not give us the illusion that anarchist views have become more popular in at least one of the regions of Ukraine. We need to be ready for the fact that the political situation in the country may be like in Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia for a very long time, and nothing can guarantee the growth of the influence for anarchism, but the only chance for this is the refusal to flirt with some or another authorities/politicians as a "lesser evil", and a resolute and unconditional opposition to them all. Otherwise, the masses will increasingly perceive anarchists as strange and incomprehensible clowns which do not need to pay attention at all.

What remains of a residential house after spring bombing on the historic Mironositskaya Street - one of the central ones in our city

CRINT-FAI: We heard from collectives such as former Operation Solidarity, and from some Black Crosses of Eastern Europe, international calls to make pressure on our respective governments for supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces, even evoking an ongoing “alliance” between the people and the state there. What is your opinion?

Assembly: The same Zapatistas rightly noted at the very beginning of the war: "Big capital and its “Western” governments sat down to contemplate and even to accelerate the deterioration of the situation. Once the invasion had begun they were anxious to see whether Ukraine would resist and to calculate what they could get out of each possible outcome. Now that Ukraine is resisting they eagerly extend offers of “help” for which they will expect payment later". Western governments and the military-industrial complex have their own financial interests, and these interests are not in a quick victory for Ukraine, but in making the war protracted. Otherwise, they would have already delivered enough heavy weapons to Ukraine, and the war could have ended until this autumn. From a purely everyday point of view, it would be more comfortable for you if the West again hid its head in the sand, as in the case of Chechnya and Syria. If you lived even one day here, most likely, on the contrary, would begin to blame your authorities for the ongoing appeasement of the botox midget, due to which our city becomes a shooting gallery every day without any fire punishment. In any case, the objective reality is that the Western leadership is interested precisely in the gradual weakening of its imperialist rival without excessively sharp confrontation.

As for the collectives you mentioned, their lamentations about "free Ukraine defending the entire civilized world" are too boring to even waste time on their analysis. For those who are very worried about the Ukrainian democracy from abroad, we can only advise to renounce their European/American citizenship, apply for Ukrainian resident card and quickly move to here for delights of life!

This is not relevant to anti-war resisters in Russia and Belarus. These people are really taking a huge risk to stop this carnage, and that is enough to be grateful to them. With the exception of not numerous far-rights, we support them regardless of whether their position is pro-Ukrainian or internationalist.

Of course, our own agenda, if desired, can also be called beneficial to the bourgeois class: mass departure of angry unreliable proletarians will prevent a social explosion in Ukraine, which is possible in the case of a further prolongation of the war, and European bosses are very interested in cheap Ukrainian labour. But where are the more favourable conditions for a strike movement – in a warring country or in a peaceful one? And why not to develop cooperative self-employment in Europe, involving Ukrainian migrants in it?

CRINT-FAI: We likewise heard calls to defend “liberal democracy”. What is your take of this concept, and how important is for you the concept of class-struggle anarchism?

Assembly: Apparently, you are talking about the Ukrainian state, if we understand correctly? Such speeches usually come from a comparison of government-controlled territories with total devastation, famine and white terror in the occupied territories of the country. But does the fact that one gang makes less outrage than another mean that hundreds of thousands of people should die and be maimed for it, and millions of others should drag out a half-starved existence under bombs locked in a cage? We don’t think so!

Empty eye sockets of the Palace of Labor - rightly near the Kharkov city hall

If we compare the government-controlled part of Ukraine with the EU countries… Believe it or not, even the historic downtown of a typical Ukrainian city, including ours, may be a much less habitable thing than the Western slums. We have nothing to defend here, except for the thrones of authorities and the fields of corporations. That’s why our officials are so afraid of free departure: army service to defend the plantations of the oligarchy is not the most desirable option for many soldiers but the single available income in such conditions. Ukrainians are not forced to fight by police repressions, because those who really don’t want to do it can avoid mobilisation even without bribes. At the same time, economic forcing is really strong: in our city, for example, there are 19 job seekers on each civil vacancy

CRINT-FAI: How central are gender and LGBTQ+ matters in today anarchist and radical movements in Ukraine?

Assembly: Within our team there are different points of view on this issue: someone personally identifies themselves as a feminist, someone thinks in Ukraine this topic is so discredited by the right-wingers that it has completely lost any revolutionary potential. Before the full-scale war, the feminist and LGBTQ+ movement in Ukraine was closely associated with nationalist, clerical and militaristic circles. After February 24, those who advocated the expansion of women’s service in the army, etc. fled en masse from Ukraine to European countries, often not even bordering on it, and from there they call to fight men, who cannot afford the luxury of free emigration. What will be with this movement next – we will not guess. Our activities are currently organized on a class and territorial basis, although, if such initiatives appear, at least partially close to our views, it would be nice to work with them.

CRINT-FAI: Some comrades told us how much nationalist rhetoric penetrated Ukrainian society, especially since 2013-14 and the Crimea war? What are the existing or potential political spaces for political activism excluding nationalism?

Assembly: Anarchy is the youth of the world, and to build it first of all by the young. Like in Italy, the problem of nationalism in Eastern Europe goes hand in hand with the extinction of the nation and its sliding into senility. Ukraine, like Russia, before the war has long been a country of alcoholics, pensioners, officials and cops, and when free exit becomes possible, even those workers and intelligentsia who still remain will probably go out from here, especially from the destroyed regions. There are figures that about 100,000 men voluntarily returned to Ukraine from abroad since February 24. But then again – will they stay here after the war? In general, the Ukrainian demographics are not very conducive to the spread of libertarian ideas, as you can see.

The only chance for a happy ending is such huge investments from the West, China and Turkey that we will not only rebuild what was destroyed, but also make an economic leap from pre-war levels, which will attract many migrants from the Global South. Then a mass working-class movement, a revolutionary situation, etc. will really become possible. But so far, even the restoration of what we had before the war is not being seriously guaranteed, mostly promises.

Beyond any doubt, in this case, interethnic conflicts are also possible. However, already in the first months of our work, we almost exclusively supported the protests of Arab and African students against the provocation of bribes at the final exam. So, we hope that we will be able to find a common language with new foreigners too.

CRINT-FAI: Finally, is there anything else you wish that Italian-speaking anarchists know?

Assembly: We understand that Ukrainians in Italy are treated with clear prejudice, and that Ukrainian communities are notorious for their reactionary views. But they will never change it for the better if anarchism in Italy is just a beautiful rhetorical figure turned into a void. Agitate among them, educate them, help them fight employers and landlords, contact us if need to prepare texts in Ukrainian or Russian!

If refugees from Africa and the Middle East are reading this, we know many of you are angry because Ukrainian refugees have some better status in Europe. Please keep in mind that this is only half the truth. The other half is that the safety and income here are comparable with your countries, while the cost of living is comparable to the European one. We have common interests and need to look for ways to act together!

And also we would love to sincerely greet the Olga Taratuta Solidarity Initiative in France, Final Straw Radio in the USA, Enough 14 in Germany, 161 Crew in Poland, alasbarricadas.org in Spain, aitrus.info in Russia, all other our readers, translators and donors. Your contribution to our work is startling, and we try to do the maximum that is possible in these conditions!

No borders, no nations! Peace to the huts, war to the palaces!

31 August 2022