What's the deal in Ukraine after a year of war? Let Leon Trotsky explain

What century is this, anyway? How a long-ago split in the Marxist left helps to explain the Ukraine conundrum

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 26, 2023 12:38PM (EST)

Leon Trotsky, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Leon Trotsky, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Just about a year ago, shortly after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine that has since bedeviled the globe, protests erupted in cities all over Russia. It was no surprise to learn that not everyone in that huge and troubled nation was on board with Putin's war — or was fooled by his mystifying rhetoric about "denazifying" and "demilitarizing" Ukraine — especially not among the younger, better educated and more Europeanized populations of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Still, Russian authorities were clearly not expecting the scale and energy of those demonstrations, and it took them a couple of weeks to get the public disorder under control.

Arguably, that was an early sign that nothing about this war would go according to plan. Of course the protest movement was ultimately crushed with brute force, in the great Russian tradition that stretches back for many centuries. Something like 20,000 people were arrested, quite possibly more. There is obviously continuing discord within Russian society — both about the invasion itself and about its notable lack of success — and some reports (possibly inflated by Western media) suggest that significant numbers of affluent and middle-class people have left the country. But nothing like those early large-scale public protests has recurred.

During those early days, a prominent Russian legislator from Putin's political party gave a memorable interview to the BBC, which strikes me as offering both a profoundly mysterious and strangely clarifying insight into this murky, bloody historical episode. The protesters, said Vitaly Milonov, amounted to a few thousand "gays, lesbians, Trotskyists and left scum." (For unclear reasons, the interview itself appears to have disappeared from BBC archives, leaving only a handful of social media breadcrumbs behind.)

On one hand: LOL and WTF? What century are we in, anyway? On the other: Hey, sign me up! I may not personally belong to any of those categories (granting that "left scum" is an inherently subjective judgment), but I'm proud to say that much of my life as a journalist, a writer and a human being has been spent among that approximate constellation of identities and orientations. Furthermore, I observe an inflexible rule when it comes to governments that start putting poets, artists and sexual renegades in jail, whatever their supposed ideology: Not a fan!

I claim no expertise in Russian politics, but it's fair to note that Milonov is a well-known troll, bomb-thrower and bigot who represents the far right of Putin's United Russia party. He wasn't directly speaking for the government, although we can safely assume that he didn't appear on the English-speaking world's leading news outlet without official approval. Milonov seems to play something like Marjorie Taylor Greene's role within Russia's governing party, espousing overtly homophobic and xenophobic positions that make Putin sound reasonable by comparison. 

When I say that Milonov's words were mysterious, I mean that they reflect the long, long tail of the historic divide among 20th-century Marxists between followers of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, which no doubt feels like inscrutable ancient history to nearly everyone in the West and seems utterly irrelevant to the geopolitical conditions of the 2020s.  

I observe an inflexible rule when it comes to governments that start putting poets, artists and sexual renegades in jail, whatever their supposed ideology: Not a fan!

When I say that they were clarifying, however, I mean that I hope everyone in what we might call the internationalist radical left who has felt tempted to make excuses for the Russian invasion or to see Putin — in some cold-blooded, "great game," deep-focus historical sense — as the lesser of two evils was paying attention. Because that's the guy you have chosen to ally yourself with, however reluctantly and with however many asterisks, in the supposed interest of opposing U.S. imperialism and neoliberal gangster capitalism and whatever else.

Vitaly Milonov may be a clown, but he's no fool. Along with the random homophobic insults — if you oppose Putin's manly cartoon-conception of Russian identity, you must be gay! — he was drawing a line in the sand, and asking listeners which side they were on. "Trotskyist," in the Russian vernacular imagination, still signifies renegades, rebels, internal dissidents and exiled radicals, individualists and intellectuals. It also signifies Jews, by the way: The purge of so-called Trotskyists in the Soviet Communist Party of the 1930s became a thinly veiled campaign of antisemitism, and that energy is never far below the surface of Russian society.

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To state the obvious, if Milonov was calling the antiwar protesters in the streets of Petersburg and Moscow "Trotskyists," he was explicitly identifying the Putin government with — yeah, with the other guy. That makes the small coterie of Western leftists who are Putin-apologist or Putin-curious or Putin-squishy into latter-day Stalinists or, to recycle another lost 20th-century term, into "tankies" — those who justified Soviet military intervention in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 on the grounds that "socialism," however badly it had screwed the pooch, had to be defended against the corrosive effects of Western-style liberal democracy.

But let's back up a little here — or a lot, actually. When I say that I know for sure which side of Milonov's line I fall on, I'm using the Stalin-Trotsky split as a governing metaphor about the left's relationship to state power. I have zero interest in re-litigating the ideological particulars, and still less in pointless what-ifs about how the gruesome history of the Soviet Union might have turned out differently if Trotsky had ousted Stalin and claimed the throne after Lenin's death. (Short answer: We'll never know, and that was never a likely outcome.) 

Defending Stalin was historically inexcusable from the beginning, and looks a hell of a lot worse now than it did at the time, when his apologists could at least cling to the fading hypothetical promise of the Russian Revolution. Defending Putin, who is no better than a third-rate facsimile of Stalin — with the "Great Russia" nationalism, small-minded bigotry and police-state repression intact but the pretense of egalitarian ideology entirely stripped away — is just bizarre and pathetic. 

But hang on: Does that mean that leftists or progressives or whatever term of art you prefer should offer unquestioning support for what now looks like an intractable, destructive and dangerous U.S. proxy war in Ukraine? Of course not. The Ukraine war is a classic "security dilemma," as my friends and Salon contributors Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies have argued, and in political and ideological terms, it's something of a Gordian knot that defies any facile analysis. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a global celebrity, and the cause of a smaller nation defending its autonomy against a great power is inherently sympathetic. But to call Ukraine's semi-autocratic and corruption-plagued government a democracy only suggests how much that term has been degraded, and it's painfully naive to believe that the vast U.S. investment in military aid to Ukraine has anything to do with such airy-fairy concepts. It is almost certainly an attempt to reassert American hegemony in Europe and beyond, and to re-establish the primacy of the damaged neoliberal economic order — and even without American "boots on the ground," there are already signs that it won't end any better than all the other misbegotten U.S. military adventures of the last five or six decades.

Neither side is likely to "win" this war, in any conventional sense: The U.S. and NATO will never allow Russia to conquer Ukraine entirely, but Ukraine will never realistically retake the 15 to 20 percent of its previous national territory that Russia now controls. Exhaustion, bloodshed and economic suffering will ultimately compel some kind of unhappy negotiated compromise; that's honestly the best we can hope for.

Those on the left (or on the right, for that matter) who conclude that a malevolent and vainglorious ideology of American expansionism is fundamentally to blame for the whole Ukraine disaster may have a point. But as Vitaly Milonov suggested a year ago, Leon Trotsky — who was a brilliant writer and thinker, if a terrible politician — could have elucidated the contradictions below the heavily propagandized surface of this ugly 20th-century throwback. The enemy of your enemy is often not your friend at all, he would have told us, and not every story has a hero or a villain. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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