These words are for a friend and colleague whose life is in danger. In the Ukrainian political landscape, increasingly poor, decadent and predictable among so many puppets and so many fanatics, there are few political people left. The flames that are now rising over the country, more clearly than ever, light up the scorched black earth, without ideas, without thought, without looks, a territory that long before this war, was stripped of any possibility of a future, generously sown only with the poisonous seeds of nationalist hatred.
By Oleg Yasinsky
In the midst of this desolate landscape, despite, and against all laws of logic and nature, great people survive and their greatness is only of these fucked-up times. The black sheep that are actually the elephants or the whales that sustain the world. The name of one of them is Volodymyr (in Ukrainian) or Vladimir (in Russian, as you prefer) Chemerys. Thinking of him, I am always reminded of this song by Silvio about the black sheep:
“…It’s the same dark sheep that by night
Can’t be seen under the moonbeams.
It’s the same one that gets stuck in the ravines.
It’s the same one that the day before yesterday the priest cursed…”.
The first time I saw him on the TV screen, in Kiev, in October 1990, he was one of the main student leaders, protagonists of the “revolution on the granite floor”, a broad movement of Ukrainian students who among their various demands, demanded new parliamentary elections, military service of Ukrainians only on the territory of Ukraine, a new constitution, the postponement of the ratification of Ukraine’s membership in the USSR until “an independent, politically and economically stable constitutional state”, and the resignation of the Prime Minister.
The fall of the prime minister and the government’s acceptance of most of his demands was a decisive event for the proclamation of Ukrainian independence in less than a year.
Volodymyr looked thin, he was one of more than a hundred students who were on a 15-day hunger strike in tents on the central square of Kiev, when the word “Maidan” was not yet known to the world. I remember an exemplary organisation of security at the protest. Among the demonstrators there were those in charge of preventing any violent expression, they were very disciplined and maintained permanent informal contact with the police who also did not want to repress.
In the three weeks of daily marches, with hundreds of thousands of participants, there was not a single incident of violence. Like a large part of our generation at that time, he was disappointed by the double standards of bureaucratic socialism, believed in the values of liberal democracy, shared its great idealism with the enormous naivety so typical for our society without a tradition of political debate.
It was a broad democratic nationalist movement, (still quite democratic and not very nationalist), very inclusive and very much believing in the then popular nonsense of thinking that there could be a convergence between the best of socialism and capitalism to move forward as a society. Despite our total ignorance of the real world, in the midst of these movements, we had some quite interesting and profound discussions. Politics didn’t yet seem to us to be something dirty, let alone a business, we thought it was a matter for idealists and revolutionaries. We had no idea about anything.
For the second time, I met him again some 15 years later. I was already living in Chile and when very occasionally I travelled to Ukraine, my leftist friends invited me to talk about Latin America, as there was always a lot of interest and little direct information.
I remember that once we did so at the headquarters of the Instituto República, founded and directed by him. It was a strange project for the construction of civic thought open to all (when it was still possible). To our conversation on Latin America came communists, anarchists, Trotskyists and Ukrainian nationalists. We debated various topics for hours. We could still talk to each other and despite the very clear disagreements, almost on everything, and the political banter between us all, we could still shake hands and go out for a drink together to continue the discussion. I was asked a lot about the Zapatistas. When we were alone with Volodymyr for a while afterwards, he told me about his lifelong admiration for the Cuban Revolution, the Sandinistas and Allende. It was the left he believed in. Ukraine was still a very peaceful place and wars seemed to be a matter of other exotic and distant worlds.
Some will remember that during the US invasion of Iraq on 8 April 2002, two foreign journalists were killed by tank fire at the “Palestine” hotel in Baghdad: the Spaniard José Couso and the Ukrainian Taras Protsiuk. Taras was a friend of Volodymyr. In the following years Chemerys, faced with the total indifference of his government, organised a campaign in Ukraine demanding that the US government acknowledge its responsibility and pay compensation to his family. Obviously, no response was forthcoming.
A few months after the coup d’état, mediatically known as the “Maidan revolution”, in May 2014, he told me in an interview:
“What is now known as Euromaidan had its origin in a protest of a part of the educated middle class (“creative class”), due to the government’s refusal to sign the agreement on association with the European Union. It started on 21 November 2013 and practically petered out by the end of the month. The demonstrations were about to die down, but on the night of 30 November, in violation of the constitution and with unusual cruelty, they were suppressed by special police forces, the Berkut, and the next day, on 1 December, several hundred thousand outraged Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev. But this was no longer Euromaidan proper.”
The fund “Democratic Initiatives” points out that the demand for a partnership with Europe was supported by only a minority of those protesting; the majority (more than 70 percent), wanted, first and foremost, improved life in Ukraine and the resignation of the corrupt President Yanukovych. The words “system change” were the most popular words in the Maidan, but their voice was hijacked by representatives of the bourgeois opposition, two liberal parties and one nationalist party. They were the ones who had the resources to impose their agenda, while the far right was busy destroying monuments to Lenin, marching with torches and physically attacking trade unionists.
The people who protested did so because of social demands and wanted to end the power of the oligarchs in the first place; but these demands did not become the demands of the Maidan. This happened because the left is literally atomised, and civil society was not strong or organised enough to resist the avalanche of economic resources from the parties. In the end, the leaders of the political opposition, repeatedly booed by the Maidan, were the only ones who managed to capitalise on the fall of the Yanukovych regime by forming their transitional government.
In the east of Ukraine there was perhaps even greater potential for protest than in the west; in the spring of 2013, for example, in the Lugansk region, miners seized the mining administration building to demand the fulfilment of their social demands from the notorious oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. But the East did not support the Maidan rebellion: first of all, because it did not see its social demands expressed, and also because it rejected the aggressive actions of the far right. Another reason was that the workers were almost not represented: according to the information of the same organisation “Democratic Initiatives”, the workers in the Maidan were only 7 percent”.
He was one of the very few protagonists of the struggle for Ukrainian independence, who unequivocally and categorically condemned the Ukrainian government’s military attack on the pro-independence republics of Donbass, accusing the power of military crimes and demanding an urgent dialogue with the rebels. As one of the authors of the current Ukrainian Constitution, he was among the first to denounce its systematic violation, first by Petro Poroshenko’s government, and now by Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. He spoke clearly and sharply about the enormous risks of IMF, NATO and US interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs, calling their puppet governments by name.
When I was in Kiev in October last year, and left-wing organisations and organisations independent of power, as well as the media, were already practically banned by the government, he invited us, some 20 or 30 trusted friends and acquaintances, to plant a Freedom of the Press grove in front of the US embassy. We were afraid of a Nazi or police attack but nothing happened. It was funny that we were helped to plant trees by a Ukrainian guard of the embassy. Unlike us, he was from a peasant background and knew how it was done. The first tree was planted in the name of Taras Protsiuk, the Ukrainian cameraman killed by Americans in Baghdad, others in memory of journalists and communicators killed by paramilitaries in the Ukraine and with names of closed newspapers and TV channels. Another was dedicated to Assange. Among these trees, there was one in homage to the communicators and social activists killed in Latin America.
When the war began on 24 February and with it a brutal repression by the Ukrainian government against all non-conformists, suspects and critics, and several of our comrades were arrested, kidnapped, disappeared and, if we were lucky, sentenced to long sentences for crimes they never committed, Volodymyr, despite constant threats, opened his channel on Telegram https://t.me/repressionoftheleft where he denounced the political persecutions in his country.
On 19 July, Ukrainian SBU intelligence agents, accompanied by Nazi activists as witnesses, broke into his house, and after beatings, insults and taunts, seized all his electronic devices. He is charged under Article 436-2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine for “Justification, legitimisation, denial of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine and glorification of its participants”, which, if found “guilty”, would mean up to 8 years in prison with expropriation of all his property.
The interrogation is scheduled for 26 July. As his computer and phones are in the hands of the SBU, it would not be surprising if the prosecution were to present as “evidence” something as stupid as “letters from Putin” or Lavrov, things they usually fabricate. The other permanent risk for him is that of being targeted by the paramilitary groups that have always threatened him.
Already many words of encouragement and proposals of support have been pouring in from Ukraine, Donbass, Russia and other parts of Europe, from good people of different political persuasions and different views on the current war. Then there are the others: some, celebrating that “it comes back to him like a boomerang” for being one of the “culprits of Ukraine’s independence” and others, the Ukrainian Nazis, who consider him a “traitor to their cause”. Extremes and stupidities, as always, touch and embrace each other.
We need all the diffusion and solidarity we can get.