Thinking about solutions, we must at least not
mistake the causes
Interview with Hanna Perekhoda
by Arthur Borriello
November 16, 2023
Historian Ukrainian and left-wing
activist Hanna Perekhoda has been a doctoral student in political science in
Lausanne since 2013. Between Ukraine and Switzerland, she observes for us the
mix of positions taken by European lefts. And the mirror held up to Western
European activists is not the most flattering.
Can you tell us about the Ukrainian
left? What are its main components?
Hanna Perekhoda: With all the weight
of the legacy of the Soviet era, it is not at all easy to declare oneself
left-wing or even worse, to call oneself a socialist, in Ukraine and in general
in the post-Soviet space. Socialism is a discredited ideology in this part of
the world, as it is associated with genocidal Stalin-era policies and, in
general, national oppression and political terror.
The Soviet legacy also made any
form of self-organization of workers or any other social group from below very
difficult, because all attempts at collective action were nipped in the bud for
decades. And then came the 1990s and the unfettered capitalism which
definitively transformed Ukraine into a kind of scorched earth in terms of the
collective defense of social rights or even in terms of collective mobilization,
the capacity of the working classes to self-organize to defend their rights —
something that began to change only in 2013, with the Maidan revolution.
Parties of the institutional Left are
currently non-existent in Ukraine, because the label of socialism and communism
has been used by ultra-conservatives nostalgic for the imperial grandeur of the
USSR, by pro-Russian forces. Faced with this absence of the left in
institutional politics, there are interesting initiatives from below –
feminists, environmentalists – the “new left,” as it is called, that is to say
the democratic, anti-authoritarian left. Since the start of the Russian invasion
in 2022, these organizations have an important role to play. I would even say
that they have become stronger. All these organizations participate in the
collective effort of Ukrainian resistance against the occupying forces: armed
resistance, but also civil resistance.
“By fighting for Ukraine’s victory we
don’t align ourselves with the government’s neoliberal policies”
With my organization, Sotsialnyi Rukh
(Social Movement), which is based on the principles of democratic socialism, we
oppose the government’s neoliberal and anti-social measures. We work together
with trade-union activists to provide legal support on labour issues to
Ukrainian employees who are fighting for their social rights in the context of
the war. We are also trying to exert pressure internationally so that Ukraine
respects its commitments with regard to labour law standards.
We encourage our allies around the
world to exert pressure, on the one hand to request military, financial and
diplomatic support for Ukraine as a country, so that it can defend itself, but
at the same time, we reject subjecting this aid to conditions of a neoliberal
and anti-social nature. We are also campaigning to obtain the cancellation of
Ukraine’s foreign debt. In short, we fight unambiguously for Ukraine’s victory
in this war of aggression but we don’t align ourselves with the neoliberal
policies of our own government. Fortunately, in Ukraine, unlike Russia, we still
have the means to carry out this type of campaign, even in times of war.
In this dual position, do you see
tensions on the left or rather a form of holy alliance?
Hanna Perekhoda: I think that, in war
conditions, any kind of tension that might have existed before has faded away.
In this situation, we actually have a lot more things in common with the other
components of the left than things that disunite us. Within the left, people of
different tendencies – the anarchists, the democratic socialists, the
anti-fascist militants, everyone except the Stalinists – came together, even
before the invasion, because a number of people were aware that the new military
aggression was probably going to take place.
Who will go to the army, who will
stay to take care of logistical aid, humanitarian aid? Roles were distributed in
advance in case this event occurred. We of course have disagreements between us,
but for political debate to be possible we must first ensure that our society is
viable and that we have basic rights and freedoms, something impossible under
the occupation of the foreign army which denies Ukrainians not only the right to
political sovereignty but even the right to exist.
The positioning of European Union
countries or NATO members is often debated. What about in Switzerland where you
live? Are you faced with any reluctance within the left in this conflict? How
much is attributable to the Swiss tradition of neutrality?
Hanna Perekhoda: Switzerland’s place
in this conflict is peculiar. It is first of all the main trading platform for
raw materials, and especially fossil fuels, the extraction and sale of which not
only destroy the planet, as we know, but also strengthen authoritarian regimes
and in this specific case the Putin regime. Switzerland is also, thanks to its
banking secrecy, the safe for all those who make money through pillage and the
illegal exploitation of resources, whether in their own country or elsewhere.
Those close to Putin keep their wealth and their families hidden from view.
There are between 150 and 200 billions in deposits of Russian oligarchs close to
Putin in Swiss banks and Switzerland has blocked only a tiny part of them. In
addition, many Swiss companies are circumventing sanctions and continuing to
sell to Russia dual-use components, such as electronic chips, that can be used
to build weapons.
The position of the committee that we
founded in Switzerland is to ensure that Switzerland ceases to be a comfortable
shelter for the business, wealth and families of those who wage wars, of those
who exploit populations, who use repressive policies and who destroy the planet.
On the right of the political spectrum, there is no desire to talk about it,
because it requires questioning the entire system that allows Switzerland to
remain so rich and “neutral.” Neutral is not the right word for me. I should
say, which allows Switzerland to remain so economically cynical in its
The left is also reluctant to talk
seriously about these issues. People like to talk about geopolitics. On the
other hand they are less inclined to question the source of Switzerland’s
wealth, from which the local left also benefits. And above all, what is the
price of this wealth? For us, these questions must appear in the public debate.
We must ask ourselves these questions, even if they are uncomfortable.
In terms of support and
solidarity, what demands does the Ukrainian left make of the rest of the
Hanna Perekhoda: I think the number
one request is to be in solidarity with all the oppressed and against all the
oppressors, and above all not to confuse the two. Once we are clear on this, it
would be good to ensure that the voices of progressive organizations,
initiatives, personalities, Ukrainian and Russian, are heard.
“Sotsialnyi Rukh and the Russian
Socialist Movement published a joint manifesto, but their opinion counts less
than geopolitical experts who have never set foot in Ukraine”
The demand that we share, both the
Ukrainian left and the anti-authoritarian left in Russia, is the defeat of the
Putin regime. On the one hand, this regime is massacring Ukrainians and on the
other hand, it is sending hundreds of thousands of Russians, like cannon fodder,
into a war that they have no reason to wage. If we are in solidarity with our
class and not with the great revanchist powers who present themselves as
“humiliated,” we have every interest in supporting the Ukrainians who defend
themselves against imperialist aggression, as well as the Russians who refuse to
go to a foreign country to kill. There are several organizations in Russia that
understand this, but what surprises us is that many organizations in Europe seem
not to understand it... Sotsialnyi Rukh and the Russian Socialist Movement even
published a joint manifesto at the very outset of the invasion, but obviously
the opinions of Ukrainian and Russian socialists count less than those of
geopolitical experts who have never set foot in Ukraine or Russia.
What obstacles does the Ukrainian
left encounter in building these bonds of solidarity?
Hanna Perekhoda: We have found
that several left-wing organizations or figures who are otherwise respected for
their strong positions against American imperialism have demonstrated
astonishing complicity with their right-wing adversaries on the subject of the
invasion of Ukraine. We often find among them an ignorance, even a complete
denial of the historical experience of a number of countries which suffered the
oppression of the imperial Russian and then Soviet regime. I think there is a
strong psychological component that comes into play. We are facing
methodological egocentrism. It is easier to believe that the West and especially
the United States are behind all the wars on the planet than to assume that
non-Western countries can act on their own. According to this logic, even the
Russian state is deprived of its own capacity for action and can only act in
response to the actions of the all-powerful West. It is the only real actor in
the story, whether good or bad. Thus, the most virulent critics of Western
imperialism do not escape Western-centrism, but are a paradoxical expression of
“We are faced with methodological
egocentrism: it is easier to believe that the West is behind all wars than to
assume that non-Western countries can act on their own.”
Of course we must oppose the
imperialism of the United States and Western hegemony, a declining hegemony in
fact. But let’s not linger in this binary logic of opposition between the West
and the rest of the world, composed only of the oppressed it would seem. In this
logic, we find ourselves, sometimes without understanding it, supporting the
ruling classes of countries which claim to be oppressed by the United States,
but which, in reality, are seeking to redistribute the spheres of exclusive
Concretely, the Western left often
finds itself justifying the actions of the Chinese, Russian or Iranian ruling
classes under the pretext that they are directed against the United States.
This strato-centric approach is intrinsically incompatible with left-wing
political values, because it renders the working classes of these countries
invisible. Some left-wing activists in Europe, too busy contesting American
hegemony, apparently feel closer to Putin, Xi or Raisi than to workers who
resist these dictators and fight for freedom and dignity, often at the cost of
their lives. If we think in terms of class solidarity and not in terms of state
interests, how then can we not be in solidarity with those who fight for their
freedom, whether against the imperialism of the United States or against that of
China or Russia?
To welcome the rise of non-Western
imperialisms because they present a so-called “multipolar” alternative to
Western hegemony would above all be irresponsible towards those who actually
experience the consequences of this “multipolar” world, the emergence of which
involves wars and the strengthening of dictatorships. I mean, these people
who live peacefully in rich countries protected by the NATO umbrella do not
suffer the consequences of what they defend as the “multipolar world.” But it is
the Ukrainians, the Syrians, the Kurds, the Uighurs who are already paying the
price of this “multipolarity.”
“Neither Ukrainians nor Palestinians
are perceived as active subjects, but only as objects of fantasies and
I have the impression that what
matters most for activists here is not so much solidarity with societies
fighting against oppression, but the desire to go against the “mainstream.”.
And often, the only reason why they support, for example, the struggle of the
Palestinians and not that of the Ukrainians is that the Palestinian struggle
allows them to assert their anti-mainstream identity in their membership’s eyes.
In reality, neither Ukrainians nor Palestinians are perceived as active
subjects, as flesh-and-blood human beings, but only as objects of fantasies and
projections. To foster real, tangible solidarity with people fighting against
oppression, the left will have to come out of this identity bubble.
There are also concepts like
internationalism and pacifism, which are at the heart of the legacy of the left,
and which we hear a lot about in debates about the Russian invasion. They are
used both to defend a position and its opposite. In your opinion, why do these
notions not allow us to come together today?
Hanna Perekhoda: Internationalism,
solidarity across borders, class solidarity, are indeed at the heart of the
legacy of the left. But I’m not at all sure that pacifism is part of it.
Throughout history, people have fought for their rights and freedoms. In most
cases, this involved taking up arms. It didn’t happen with flowers. I also don’t
think pacifism is relevant for Ukrainians. On the other hand, for the Russians
it is, and we are also campaigning in favor of Russian pacifists to make their
“Throughout history, people have
fought for their rights and freedoms. In most cases, this was not done with
the invasion, Putin said it explicitly: independent Ukraine is a historical
error, it has no right to exist as a society and as a country. In this context,
if you invoke pacifism to deny to your neighbor who is facing a deadly danger
the right to defend himself, you either like living in a world where the right
of the strongest prevails over everything else — and this is the case of such
celebrated pacifists as Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, or Jaïr Bolsonaro (who have
an interest in Putin’s methods becoming normalized) — or you are afraid and you
hope that the aggressor will only kill your neighbor, and not you. What
surprises me most is that we already have fairly dark precedents in European
history which should have taught us that we have never managed to stave off war
by hoping that the aggressor who killed his neighbor was going to stop at our
Faced with obscurantist, fascist,
ultra-conservative and authoritarian forces, we must act. There is an impression
that concepts like peace or democracy have fallen from the sky. No, these are
the achievements of a social struggle, and a result of our victory in a war
against fascism in 1945. Putin is counting on our moral laziness and our short
memory in Western Europe. We must not forget the lessons of the 1930s, where we
find the same divergences within the European left. There were also
organizations for whom British imperialism was enemy number one in 1939 and who
hoped that the rise of Nazi Germany would create a more balanced international
To follow up on your comments on
pacifism, one of the arguments on the left is precisely linked to armed support
for the Ukrainian resistance. Part of the European left is worried about this
support, in particular military and logistical support, which could fuel
right-wing, or even far-right, violent and revanchist nationalist components, in
the worst of cases. In the best-case scenario, this support could help a regime
that you yourself have described as neoliberal, with very little concern for
social and civil rights. How do you respond to this type of argument which
highlights the indirect consequences of supporting the Ukrainian resistance?
Hanna Perekhoda: It is perhaps worth
remembering that Zelensky is a Russian-speaking Jew, who did not even speak
Ukrainian before being democratically elected president. Unlike previous
presidents, Zelensky emphasized unity between Ukraine’s different regions,
between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, going against ethnonationalist
discourse. And yet, more than 70% of the Ukrainian population voted for him.
Strange for a country that is presented as right-wing nationalist, isn’t it? The
far right, despite having an electoral coalition, could not obtain more than 2%
in the last parliamentary elections. Do I need to remind you of the score of
far-right candidates in many European countries?
“The far right could not obtain more
than 2% in the last parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Do I need to remind you
of its score in many European countries?”
Ukraine is a complex society, like
all other societies. Yes, the extreme right exists in Ukraine, as in all
countries, but despite its presence in society, in culture, in the media, it has
not been able to become a legitimate political subject. The violent and
revanchist far right, as you say, is indeed in power, but not in Ukraine, it is
in power in Russia. They have gone from a kind of form of neoliberal
authoritarianism to a form of fascist dictatorship. And when I talk about
fascism, it’s not an insult. Fascism is a very concrete form of political
regime. To resolve its own crisis and the challenges arising inside the country,
the Russian authoritarian regime introduced increasingly radical measures, until
it became ready to invade the independent country and threaten the world with a
It is important for me that we do not
mistake our target and that we do not exaggerate the presence of obscurantist
forces in Ukraine, while turning a blind eye to the fact that in Russia, the
extreme right is in power and is waging a war of aggression while advancing a
discourse that can be described as incitement to genocide.
“It is important for me that we not
mistake our target and that we do not exaggerate the presence of obscurantist
forces in Ukraine, while turning a blind eye to the fact that in Russia, the
extreme right is in power”
In an ideal world, there would be no
war, and no choices to make. However, we are faced with this choice today.
Either we support the victim, or we abstain and give the attacker the
opportunity to continue killing. It is important to note that this goes beyond
just Ukraine: regimes that resemble Putin’s will become the norm, if Putin gets
his way. This would be a signal to all aggressors in the world that it is now
legitimate and acceptable to resolve questions of internal political legitimacy
through wars of aggression. If we do not act, we will wake up in a world where
all the countries that consider themselves great powers will try to redistribute
areas of influence, in other words, we will wake up in a world of generalized
and total wars.
“Some activists will say ‘you are not
left-wing enough, I don’t want to support you’ to people who are fighting arms
in hand to defend fundamental rights and political sovereignty. This is a very
As for the concerns around supporting
Ukraine, it made me think of Lenin’s comments during the Irish revolution of
1916. Many people on the left did not support it, saying it was a putsch and
that socialists had nothing to gain from supporting the Irish nationalists.
Lenin responded that anyone waiting for a pure social revolution would never
live to see it. This is a bit like what is happening today: some left activists
are going to say “You are not left-wing enough for me, I don’t want to support
you” to people who are fighting arms in hand to defend the fundamental rights
and political sovereignty that we take for granted here. This is a very arrogant
To conclude, why are these two
readings of the war in Ukraine on the left — that of a clash between two
geopolitical blocs in which NATO shares responsibility, and that of a conflict
determined by factors internal to the Russian regime — necessarily
contradictory? Couldn’t they both be true at the same time?
Hanna Perekhoda: In theory, we might
not want to favour one reading to the detriment of the other. In practice, I
have noticed that once we postulate that NATO has a large share of
responsibility in the outbreak of the war, we are laying a bad foundation for
its rationale and therefore for the structure of its thinking as a whole. There
is this idea that NATO has encroached on the Russian zone of influence and that
Russia is only reacting to this Western threat. This interpretation leads to a
conclusion with important political implications: if Russia started the war
because the West allegedly encroached on its legitimate zone of influence, this
means that the war could have been avoided or even ended if Russia’s demands
First of all, this reasoning overtly
tells us that if your country is not a “great power” like Russia, the United
States or China, you have no right to sovereignty and you are forever doomed to
be a colony. But even if we put aside all moral and ethical questions and admit
that the key to peace in the world is to accept that it is divided into several
exclusive zones of influence (let’s even forget that this type of global
architecture has already led to two world wars), several questions nevertheless
Let us imagine that, in pursuit of
the noble goal of stopping the war, we partitioned Ukraine and “guaranteed”
Russia that what remained of that country could never join Western military,
political, and economic alliances. What makes us think this will appease Putin?
I remind you that, in his ultimatum to the West made in December 2021, he
demanded all of Eastern Europe. The Russian zone of influence imagined by Putin
does not end in Ukraine and in truth no one knows where it ends. The most likely
answer is that it does not stop anywhere, because any democratic country on its
borders is a threat to Russia, not to the security of the Russian population but
to the security of the authoritarian regime.
When we attribute the causes of the
war to a clash between two blocs, our underlying assumption is that NATO poses
an objective threat to Russia’s security. And that’s where we’re wrong, because
we’re taking Putin’s speech at face value.
A quick reminder: Finland joined NATO
this year. At the same time, the Finnish foreign minister states that no
additional Russian troops have been moved to the common border since Finland
joined the alliance. If NATO was the objective threat to Russia, why are there
no troops, or even official propaganda presenting Finland as a threat?
Obviously, the NATO membership of this country, which has a 1,340 km border with
Russia, is not a problem for Putin. In contrast, Ukraine, which has never been
an official NATO candidate, is presented as an imminent threat to Russia’s very
existence. So maybe it’s not NATO that threatens Putin, but something else?
We tend to forget it, but Putin
has not always been anti-Western. It was only in 2011 that he began to say that
Russia was in danger and that this danger was coming from the West. What
happened in 2011? Was this a year when a Western country was particularly
aggressive towards Russia? No way. The only thing that happened that year was
that ordinary Russians took to the streets to protest against Putin, who was
violating the constitution to get elected a third time. The elites’ fear of
losing power generated a discourse that presented Russia as a besieged fortress,
surrounded by enemies, and Putin as the only leader capable of protecting Russia
from this existential danger. “Without Putin, no Russia,” said Vyacheslav
Volodin, one of the leaders of the Putin party.
In my opinion, this war is not a
response to an objective threat to Russian society, nor to the external threat
that would result from tensions between the blocs. This war is a response to a
subjective threat against the Russian mafia which has seized the state apparatus
and which does not want to let go of the slightest bit of its power. It is
therefore not Russia that is in danger, but its political regime and this threat
results from tensions between class interests within the Russian state itself.
It is not easy to retain power within a country where 1% of the population owns
75% of the total wealth. This is why the regime is doing everything to stifle
democratic tendencies in the neighborhood, and especially in Ukraine. Ukraine is
a country with which ordinary Russians have the greatest cultural proximity. If
it succeeds in building a democratic and prosperous state, it risks awakening
dangerous ideas among Russians. They might indeed ask themselves the question:
if Ukrainians do not need an authoritarian and repressive state to live
normally, why do we Russians need one?
And finally, we must admit that
NATO is not the initiative in Eastern Europe: it is the countries themselves
that desperately want to join the alliance and are exerting pressure to do so.
Why? Because Russian imperialism, for them, is a very real threat. And above
all, they do it because we are incapable of offering these States security
guarantees other than membership in NATO. As a reminder, Ukraine has the
Budapest Memorandum in 1994, under which it gave up its entire former nuclear
weapons arsenal, the third largest in the world, in exchange for a guarantee
that Russia would respect its sovereignty and borders. When Russia violated
this agreement and the world fell silent, all the countries of the post-Soviet
space realized that all these papers are worthless, and that Article 5 of the
NATO treaty, which provides for mutual assistance by Member States in the event
of aggression, is the only valid way to protect ourselves. As long as the UN is
brain dead and the international community is incapable of proposing alternative
security mechanisms, it is cynical to call for the dismantling of military
To think about possible solutions to
this war, we must at least not be mistaken about its causes. I do not believe
that geopolitical reasoning is adequate to understand this war, and even less to
propose exit routes.