The War is a Confrontation between Independent Post-Colonial Ukraine and Russian Imperialism

Kay Mann interviews Clara Sedova

Posted March 1, 2024

This article is an interview with Clara Sedova, a militant of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM), by Kay Mann of Solidarity. The interview is from October 2023. We publish it on the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

KM: Can you explain the position of the RSM on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

ES: For us, the war is a confrontation between independent post-colonial Ukraine and Russian imperialism. This is not a proxy war, and we need to analyze the situation on the ground, not on the basis of abstract quotations from Lenin. Realistically, there are no viable positions for negotiations right now. Forcing Ukraine into negotiations right now would force Ukraine to make concessions. The pacifism of the Western left is not necessarily supportive of Russia, but it often plays into Russia’s hands. Pacifism is possible, but only in conjunction with strong calls for justice, recognition of the victim’s right to resist, and the political agency and sovereignty of Ukraine. That is why along with the comrades from the Ukrainian left we support arms deliveries to Ukraine.

KM: The war seems to be the personal project of Putin, rather than that of a larger social group with clear material and political interests. Can you speak about the social basis of the regime?

ES: The number of state employees or people depending directly on the state has reached 42% of the total population in 2021. We are talking about pensioners, civil servants, law enforcement officers, military personnel, doctors, teachers, and other workers. We can say that this is the social backbone of the regime. For example, in every election, a huge number of people from these sectors are mobilized to vote for the party of power, the United Russia party. They are brought to the polling stations, asked to take pictures of the ballot paper for the bosses, and so on.

However, support for the regime is tepid for many people rather than an active and politically charged position. If we talk about the war, we must understand that before it started, no one imagined that such a thing could actually happen. Surveys on the level of support, including those massively quoted in the Western media, should be taken critically. Standard measures for identifying public opinion are not accurate in times of war and in the context of authoritarianism. But if one wants numbers, the results of one of the reliable studies show that about 40% of Russians (22% (supporting) and 20.1% (not supporting) have some definite opinion about the war. Sociologists claim that a definite position of “support” or “condemnation” does not play a big role in the lives of all Russians. For 60% it is more of a resignation to the inevitable.

We also see that if Putin announced the end of the war tomorrow, there would be support for this decision. This signals a deeper problem: the equation of the three separate entities “the people”, “the nation/country” and “the state” (represented by Putin) in the eyes of many.

KM: How would you characterize the social and political environment in Russia since the beginning of the war against Ukraine?

ES: That is a big question. At the political level, of course, we have seen a massive strengthening of the repressive apparatuses of the regime. There are more and more prosecutions for treason and “discrediting the army.” It has become incredibly easy to be labeled an extremist or terrorist in the eyes of the state. Simultaneously, the application of laws targeting “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents” has escalated, resulting in the dismantling of the remaining opposition organizational structures and free media sources. The implementation of homophobic and transphobic laws further underscores a conservative turn within the country.

Since the beginning of the war, everyone expected a rapid economic decline, but it did not happen. Despite the international sanctions, the state managed to somehow hold the economy together. The economy rapidly shifted to a war footing. We now have what is called “military Keynesianism,” together with large-scale assistance to families with children, pensioners, and mobilized people, as well as an increase in the minimum wage. Nevertheless, this is a deceptive picture. Real incomes are not growing, and progress in the fight against poverty has obviously been lacking for many years.

The authorities manipulate the numbers of poor people in the country to downplay the actual poverty rate. However, a close look at data on poverty reveals a grim reality. A substantial portion of the population is burdened with debt, with a significant number allocating 80% of their income to loan repayments. Moreover, a staggering 85% find themselves living in unsatisfactory, poor, or dire housing conditions.

When we talk about Russian society both before the war and now, we need to grasp the very high level of social inequality, poverty, and social atomization. The atomization of society suggests the disintegration of social ties. Collective institutions are very underdeveloped, and people generally neither trust each other nor the state. This results in depoliticization and cynicism, which fosters the belief that meaningful change is unattainable. I remember an experience that made a big impression on me when I was in High School. My teacher (whose opinion of me was high) told me that if I go into politics, I will end up being corrupt, because power corrupts.

The feeling of lack of control over one’s life leads to “learned helplessness”. We see this in a widespread lack of a sense of responsibility for the community and for the state. This tendency was born in the totalitarian past and the current authoritarian regime continues to contribute to its survival.

Even with all things considered, Russia still has a vast civil society, which has developed despite state pressure over the years. Much of it is now, of course, in exile. Also, within Russia, people have often spontaneously united around issues that directly affect their lives. The environmental situation often served as such a trigger. Examples of protests and horizontal connections are undeniably part of our recent political history.

KM: Russia has been described by you and others as a “post-fascist” state. What is meant by this?

Post-fascism is, of course, not my term, but we find it very useful for analyzing the Russian current regime. While classic fascist movements mobilized masses in the streets, the contemporary post-fascist state cannot resort to mass mobilization of supporters without risking itself. Russian post-fascism suppresses any form of self-organization that it cannot control. Suppression happens via direct repressive actions and ideologically by promoting a cynical morality of non-participation and individualism.

Following Enzo Traverso’s analysis, post-fascism is rooted in an individualized neoliberal society, although it gives the appearance of opposing neoliberalism. In the character of Putin’s regime, we should see the crisis of neoliberal capitalism of today and more broadly a global post-fascism that combines authoritarianism with nationalism and ideas of “national renaissance.”

Classical fascism also had a kind of utopian project for the future, while post-fascism’s only project is a conservative grip on the past. Today’s Putin regime is particularly notable for its lack of any program for the future. The absence of an alternative is, in fact, a political strategy itself.

KM: Can you explain the general program of the Russian Socialist Movement and its work inside and outside of Russia?

RSM is a movement whose goal is democratic socialism. We are a broad leftwing platform built on democratic principles that emerged in 2011 and has since united activists in different Russian cities and in exile. We fight for political rights, redistribution of property and public ownership, the right to self-government, gender equality, and equality of peoples within the Russian Federation.

Political work is difficult and obviously very restricted in Russia, so we try to work in a way that does not endanger activists. Currently, our goals are to shift the oppositional political conversation to the left and do some practical, meaningful work on the ground. I find it crucial that we are actively developing a feminist platform within the movement, one that writes and agitates against anti-abortion rhetoric. We have established a decolonial working group. We understand that we need to look for leftwing alternatives to the rightwing, ethno-national view of decolonization. We need leftist emancipatory practices of decolonization and a rethinking of the legacy of the 20th century.

Union work is important but also very challenging. Most unions are established or coopted by the state and we ourselves lack union organizers in our movement. However, there is a union for delivery workers which we have been helping to organize and support. If the activists and union leaders are imprisoned, we organize to help via media and financial support.

We try to build networks and provide a space to discuss politics to overcome the atomization in Russian society. For example, we are a part of a university coalition that unites professors and students to defend their rights and freedoms. When possible, we align with grassroots initiatives to defend people’s rights against the influence of construction companies and protect the environment.

Outside Russia, we work more publicly and try to establish contacts with European and non-European left groups. Firstly, to build broader solidarity networks, and secondly to educate on the nature of the Russian political regime.

KM: Are the writings of Trotsky available in Russia? Are they studied by Russian socialists?

Somehow the myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy has survived from Stalin’s time right up to the present day. It is not so much talked about now, but sometimes echoes are heard. I think the fact that this myth continues to live testifies to the conservatism and reactionary nature of the regime.

I have not heard that Trotsky’s books have been banned in modern Russia. We have our own book club in the movement, and we read a lot of things there. Of course, Trotsky’s books are an important part of the classics for leftist thought, but we are also making a conscious effort to broaden our horizons toward contemporary critiques of neoliberalism, postcolonial theory, feminist literature, and so on.


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