Monday, 21 July 2014

Ukraine & Spain, is it the same?

Does the Civil War in east Ukraine resemble the Spanish War?

LAST Thursday, Sabrina Tavernise in the International New York Times wrote a report of an incident that reminded me of my experiences in Spain under Franco in the early 1960s, Albania, Hungary, and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  She was in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine at a checkpoint held by a 'pro-Russian rebel with bad teeth and aviator sunglasses [who] was trying to help (her)'.  These rebels had been fighting Ukrainian regular troops but they were protective towards her an America journalist as they waited for orders from 'a higher-up'.  Later a brown Lada with tinted windows screeched to a halt at the check-point and a man got out wearing a maroon beret and black leather fingerless gloves.  He had little time for the men who were chatting to Sabrina and wouldn't give them his contact details, he merely indicated that she should get into the back of the Lada.   

The Ukrainian rebel insisted she write down her telephone number and other details before getting into the car 'just in case', and he said 'Don't be afraid  they're just going to check you out.'  The man in the sunglasses and 'arms slathered in tattoos' drove off with Sabrina into 'a strange slide into a Wonderland world, were fact was hard to tell from fiction and reality and absurdity came in equal portions.'  They ended up at his girl friend's flat in a 'dingy one room apartment', and he told her that his name was Denis and that he was head of an intelligence group in Luhansk.  He said he was tired and didn't want to be bothered checking her documents at the office.  A woman who introduced herself as Tamara Vladimirovna exclaimed at the pleasure of having such a lovely guest and shook Sabrina's hand warmly.   

These kind of incidents often happened to me in such situations in other countries in Europe:  people who one may expect to be hostile such as the Civil Guards in the mountains in Segovia in the summer of 1963, when I was returning from a trip to the Asturias where the miners were on strike, who detained me while the authorities did checks on my papers in Alicante, surprised me and I ended up being treated to Sunday dinner by the wives of the Civil Guards together with wine and Sherry; I don't recall them offering me a Cognac with my coffee though!  Something similar happened to me in Belgrade in December 2000 after the fall of Slobodan Milošević, in 1989 in Visigrad, Hungary  before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Sarranda in Albania at the time of the rioting and civil unrest over the Pyramid Sales scandal there.  The thing is to avoid the political rhetoric, the stereotype thinking and to realise that when you get involved politics and journalism in places like the Ukraine now, and Spain under General Franco you can't operate according to any political, ideological or a priori guide book; circumstances force you to think on your feet and if you don't do that you really could end up dead..  Sabrina Tavernise made a journalistic judgement and she was well treated well, and George Orwell made similar judgements in the Spanish Civil War but in his case he and his wife only just escaped in one piece.   

The story of  Sabrina Tavernise's experience was published the day before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by persons unknown.  Sabrina's 'interrogator' Denis introduced himself as 'a mercenary from Russia' and he said 'I don't give a damn about any of this.'  Denis did not say who paid him but said that his group formed the heart of the rebel forces and that most of the 'insurgents here – about 80% in his words -  were were scrappy locals:  taxi drivers and coal miners who had never seen a battle'  He added:  '20% were better because they had fought in Afghanistan.'   

Reading Sabrina's account the involvement of Denis and what he says are 'about 50 Russians... being paid to fight against Ukraine's government' one could be forgiven for making a mental comparison between Denis and his Russian mercenary mates and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  The International Brigaders too were accused of being mercenaries in the 1930s, and they too saw the Spanish republican fighters militias as inferior and even racially less able:  there is plenty of documentation to demonstrate this attitude in the archives.  On the news today even the defenders of the Muslims fighting in Syria, are arguing that they are only like George Orwell who fought in Spain and wrote 'Homage to Catalonia'.  The truth is that the rebels argue that the Kiev government was installed as a result of a coup and the Spanish republican government in 1936 was threatened by military sedition which in some ways superficially represented a similar situation.  There is, however, a vast ideological difference between the participants in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and the Russian mercenaries in Luhansk, Slovyansk and Donetsk: in the case of the Russian mercenaries in east Ukraine – take Mr. Strelkov, a native Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin, who made a public appearance earlier this month at a news conference; Mr. Strelkov is described by the journalist Noah Sneider as having 'ideological rigidity [that] precedes any connections he has to Russia's security services, stretching back at least to at least to his days at the Moscow State Institute for History & Archives... [t]here Mr. Strelkov obsessed over military history and joined a small but vocal group of students who advocated a return to monarchism.'   

If Noah Sneider is to be believed it seems that under Mr. Putin people like Mr. Strelkov (or Mr. Girkin) are coming to the fore.  Mr. Sneider writes: 
'An ultra-nationalist and reactionary Mr. Strelkov fits an increasingly familiar profile in Russia, one that has emerged strongly with the re-election of President Vladimir V. Putin.  Messianic and militaristic, such figures combine a deep belief in Russia's historic destiny with a contempt for for the “decadent” West, while yearning for the re-establishment of a czarist empire.'   

Strangely (or perhaps predictably) in the West we have some people who are on the left who find themselves defending the Russian strategy and argue that poor Mr. Putin and Russia are in danger of encirclement by the ideas of wicked western liberal democracies.   Better a reactionary Russia or even an oriental despotism, than a decadent liberal USA or European Union.   

What ought we to do now that 298 passengers have died?   

Ought we to have more severe sanctions against Russia as a consequence of the plane that was shot down?  Ought the US or the EU to intervene to support the Kiev government?   

When America, France and the U.K. failed to intervene on the side of the Spanish republican government in the Spanish Civil War there was much criticism of them on the left.  And when, Orson Wells asked President Roosevelt in 1939 if he had any regrets, Roosevelt said 'Yes, my failure to support the Spanish republic in 1936.'  


Horny old goat said...

Yawn. That's 5 minutes of my life I won't get back.

Does anyone actually read Brian's painful pronouncements? Boring Bammy's Digital masturbation.

I hate Bammy! said...

"Does anyone actually read Brian's painful pronouncements?" asks 'Horny old goat'. Well obviously you do, you silly old goat, and judging from the number of silly comments you've left on this site, it's obvious Bammy has got your goat. It seems AF members these days serve no other socially useful function than attacking Bammy and Northern Voices. He's now become the sole purpose for their existence. The capitalist bosses and the state in this country have nothing to fear from this bunch of politically inept useless bastards.