Picture a British second-year Sociology student holding a Socialist Worker’s Party placard and shouting “hands-off DPRK” outside your student halls (that image in your head, he’s male and wearing cargo shorts, right? He’s going to ask you out for a chai latte, take you to Bookmarks, explain the women’s lib. section to you, and then ghost you for six months). Now imagine a room full of them. This is my fresher’s week Socialist Society meet and greet.
It’s September 2013 and three people in front of me are reading RT on their macbook pros, “an unofficial survey showed the majority of Crimea would choose an economic partnership with Russia over the EU”. It’s not a good start.
A boy from Cambridge in a keffiyeh he bought from Camden Lock whips his head around when he hears what he thinks is a Russian name called on the register. He later tells me if he could marry into any nationality it would be Russian. I don’t smile at him, I tell him I don’t have Russian citizenship and he leaves me alone.
The London Marxist Society is here handing out flyers and their header is a picture of Mount Rushmore with stone faces of Lenin, Marx, Stalin, and Putin. If this isn’t baffling enough, these symbols are followed with the words “down with imperialism”.
Later we all go to The Lexington, there’s a pub quiz where the team with the funniest name wins a bag of Doritos. When the names are handed in, the man with the microphone is astounded that 6 out of 10 are called Crimea River. It’s weird and almost as disappointing as the Doritos being fucking Cool Original.
It’s 2017 and I’m standing outside SOAS with a friend, and Jonty Leff, the Worker’s Revolutionary Party candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch, comes over to us. He begins badly, “Hey you gorgeous ladies”.
He hands us a leaflet for a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the February Revolution (first outrage, attendance costs £48), and tells me they want more women involved in their movement because, after all, it was in 1917 Petrograd where sexism met its final demise. He turns to my friend (a Moroccan woman) and adds “you know, the 1917 revolution was also the first defeat of racism in the modern world!”
I want to add here that I read Jonty Leff’s manifesto, and I agreed with every policy. I am a socialist, I believe in the redistribution of wealth, free welfare, and dismantling hierarchies of power. I believe Jonty Leff has good ideas and I would be happy to see him elected one day. I don’t believe the USSR upheld the values of socialism or Marxism, and I don’t believe in defending and re-evaluating a regime which on thousands of well-documented occasions used mass rape as a tool of war, sent women and children to gulags, and carried out countless ethnic and religious genocides during its reign (ended sexism and racism, my fucking hat). What I don’t believe in is uncritically standing up for Sovietism to defend the ideologies of the Left. We have come a long way and we can do better than 1917. These views are like the intellectual manifestation of those inflatable things with flailing arms outside car dealerships. They’re ugly and they don’t make sense. We need to finally dispense with the unconditional celebration of Sovietism. 2017 is over. It’s now 102 years since the Bolshevik revolution, and 102nd anniversaries don’t mean shit.
I know the Soviet aesthetic is edgy and quirky and kids like to have a hammer and sickle as their Twitter names or some vapourwave Stalin cover photo. Soviet tower blocks look fucking cool, I know. The USSR was important and fascinating. Gulag jokes and genocide denial look less cool. What looks like an innocent Weeaboo 2.0 aesthetic of Stalin’s face and glitch filters, with deeply misapplied Cyrillic letters, has become a cover-story for the denial and appropriation and revision of a history which has been set in the minds of the Eastern bloc for centuries.
The age of leftbook has brought explicit prohibitions on racist, transphobic, homophobic, colourist, biphobic, aphobic, anti-semitic behaviour, yet only a handful of groups ban “tankism”. Plenty of users see no problem with the tankies’ characteristic support for (or denial of) Soviet violence, repression, and imperialism. The debate is wide open and it seems like everyone has an opinion. Yet, people who grew up in Soviet and post-Soviet nations are being silenced by Soviet apologist Marxists who insist that “Stalin Did Nothing Wrong”. You know, those lads who have “PLEASE DON’T BRING UP AFGHANISTAN” written in their eyes. “Stalin can’t have murdered thousands of Muslims because there aren’t any Muslims in Russia”.
Those boys from the home-counties who fetishise the Eastern Bloc, deeming any critique of Soviet-Communism as “US Imperialist Propaganda” while refusing to listen to anyone who experienced Soviet colonialism. The same ones who shout “religion only causes wars!!” from beneath their fedoras while defending the secular ideology which calculatedly burned Muslims out of the Caucasus, because their Socialism doesn’t leave space for the religious. The ones who are rightly calling out imageries of slavery and the holocaust in veganism campaigns, while in the same breath firing out gulag jokes from every platform. The ones who think Stalin fought off the Nazis because he hated racism SO MUCH. The ☭ Twitter ☭ accounts constantly fantasising about lining up their ideological opposites against the wall or sending them to gulags while insisting that the Soviet state did not use any excessive violence. It’s the Worker’s Lib leaflets denouncing antisemitism yet unequivocally denying Stalin’s. It’s the new waves of the same old people calling for Corbyn to resign over his promise to renew Trident while defending the right of Russia and North Korea to buy and sell nuclear arms (…without wanting to add to the imbalanced negative coverage of Corbz in the press, his stance on Syria would make me shout “STFU tankie” at him in any undergrad common room.) It’s the dude in my undergrad anthropology module wearing a “Free Tibet” t-shirt while arguing that “communist” nation-states never play Imperialism.
Schrodinger’s Marxist insists that communism ought not to be reduced to the views and actions of totalitarian leaders while shutting down those who deign to criticise them. It is more damaging to try to defend the actions of extreme war criminals associated with left movements than to critique them, develop our views, and move on.
I kind of understand why some Lefties would feel defensive of the USSR. It is all too often used as the litmus test of all Left-leaning morality. Communists must be sick to death of trying to justify state communism given the terrible attempts we’ve seen so far. As much as I wish we had been given a great example of living Communism, we haven’t. Only when we accept that, can we work to make it actually happen. It does not undermine the ideologies of communism and socialism, and even Marxism-Leninism, to accept that Stalin Did a Bunch of Stuff Wrong.
A history which no longer matters, apparently
I’m not writing a mere list of the hypocrisies within a single London activist scene (honestly, I’d be typing for weeks), and I’m not (just) being snarky. There is a huge problem when teen hipsters who discovered Marxist theory at a freshers fair three months ago try to explain the USSR to people who have known about it since they were in the womb.
Since most of the people who should be saying this were forcibly starved to death, deported to slave camps, and/or lined up and shot, parts of me made it through the gene pool, into the delightful world of English-language online discourse, and I’m here to blog about it. Like most people with post-Soviet heritage, my family history is disjointed, depressing, and confusing. Having ancestors from what are now known as Armenia, Uzbekistan, Russia, Britain, and Pakistan, I grew up in a gloriously multicultural Northern town and I am lucky to have (almost) always been comfortable asserting a British identity. I am very white, I have a strong regional English accent, and in the UK it’s only upon seeing my name that people start to realise there is something foreign going on.
Many of the generations born out of the Soviet era have a sense of disconnect with their cultural and ethnic roots due to the mass campaigns of cleansing and deportation perpetrated against them. The resulting trauma and erasure of their histories is a living remnant of Soviet rule.
Furthermore, much of contemporary Russian politics and public opinion is still swayed along similar lines to that of Sovietism. People from the Caucasus and Central Asia are routinely discriminated against in Russia and the nations are still bearing the harmful effects of the USSR’s and the Russian Federation’s colonial campaigns.
A large section of humanity’s existence hangs by a thread made up of recent multiple genocides, forced deportations, and famines directly executed by leaders of the Soviet Union. We have to muster some understanding and empathy for the histories of those who suffered under “Communist” rule. We have to listen and learn from this.
There were a huge number of deliberate and pre-meditated massacres perpetrated on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, class, and more. Pleas of “Western propaganda” cannot conveniently explain away the mass graves of those targeted by Soviet leaders. Nor can any ideological argument about the invalidity of religion, precisely which classes are counter-revolutionary, or who conspired with the Germans, be used to justify such a scale of suffering.
It’s a fucking outrage that I have to even give examples again, especially as these are the most well-documented, well-researched, and widely available instances. But here we go. Mass rape was planned and used by Soviet soldiers across Poland and East Germany to punish ex-POWs. Jewish communities were wiped out across countless nations. 2 million Afghans were killed in a Soviet genocide. 18 million people were sent to gulags. 10 million deaths resulted from the 1932-3 deliberate, man-made famine. Ethnic genocides of Poles, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachay, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks and so many more. 4 million people were forced to migrate within the Soviet Union, around half of whom died as a result. Need I fucking continue?
Denying genocides and war crimes simultaneously denies the voices of surviving populations and their right to accept and overcome trauma. It removes the possibility for tackling the roots and causes of these atrocities, and it prevents us from being able to move on and stop this shit happening again. It is also horrifying that I have to even try to summarise to someone why they maybe shouldn’t roll their eyes at victim testimonies and deny recognised massacres.
Can you imagine being the last living member of your family, bartering with your food allowance and not eating for three weeks, then using the cigarettes you earned to bribe a guard to give you one metal spoon, then sharpening the spoon gradually over two months, using it to cut your way through a fence and threaten the guard who tries to apprehend you, and walking for twenty eight days to the nearest liberated village (that was a true story btw) where you run into some kind of Vice contributor from Dorset who shouts “HoLOLdomor was fake go to gulag peasant hahaha!” You crumble, all hope is lost, you drop to your knees and shout to the sky “WHY DID I FALL VICTIM TO WESTERN PROPAGANDA”.
The Cold War instilled in both parties a binary view of geopolitics that we need to deconstruct. It also cemented the binary outlook on geopolitics, which largely essentialises ideologies into Capitalist and Communist. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Hating the US doesn’t mean you’ve gotta love and believe the Russian state. What sort of world must this be if we have to choose between the US/UK alliance, and Russia/DPRK/China? Acknowledging and remembering the millions killed by Soviet famine does not mean you can’t also acknowledge and remember that Britain forcibly starved three million to death in Bangladesh.
We don’t have to pick a side. We all have a duty to dismantle power imbalances around the world. To claim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is a very Western-centric way to view the Soviet Union and all it left behind. When you deliberately ground your viewpoint only in precisely that which “The West” despises, you are still basing your view on the Western worldview, and that is still not very cool nor subversive. Attempting to retroactively justify the deaths and suffering of millions of civilians is dangerous, baseless, and absurd. This categorically vague and ideological (and shockingly individualistic) notion of who does or does not deserve to live, within the strange utopia called “The Soviet Union” which lives only in the minds of 20-year-old-white-boys, is no more offensive than it is fucking meaningless.
The conjecture which fills the online duels between Tankies, Ultras, Ancoms, Brocialists, etc. is so empty of any worldly referents that it’s largely impossible to engage with. Sometimes I latch onto something I recognise and get involved. Usually it’s famine denial or any mention of Crimea, and usually, I get called a Nazi sympathiser by three 19 year-olds from Nottingham and sent a link to a Reddit thread describing how the documents must have been forged by bourgeois new-world economists because you can see the different pixels throughout the text.
But, how can you argue with somebody who’s attacking epistemology itself? Fighting against narratives can feel like you’re in a dark room trying to catch a mosquito that you’re not sure actually exists. Is Twitter the forum to discuss historicism? The Tankie’s idea of the Soviet Union, the picture in their mind, is of some rose-coloured, radical and glorious thing which never actually existed. What the Tankie says of the USSR says more about the Tankie than the USSR itself. God bless Edward Said. On the whole, I’m glad people are interested in the Soviet Union. But that interest should go further, we need more nuance, new voices, and better arguments.
A present that matters less:
The impact of “Tankies” has become damaging in contemporary discourse. Real, wonderful, radical socialist movements are out there fighting against the real living legacies of Russian imperialism. Unfortunately, Western politics students with 3000+ Twitter followers are taking up their space. They are wasting our energies on discourse about 100-year-old propaganda. The Russian state and its surrounding colonial legacy is still harmful and still worth debating.
For example, since the USSR enforced unwanted borders and governance, regions in the Caucasus have been fighting for their right to independence and self-determination. You can read more about these fights here. After Russia invaded, Crimean Tatar populations have faced violence and discrimination in their own lands, many being unlawfully detained, forced to leave their homes, and there are numerous missing persons still unaccounted for. You can read more and offer your support here. Meanwhile the usual suspects of the UK far left; Worker’s Hammer, the Socialist Worker and the Morning Star, each unequivocally supported the 2014 “referendum” which refused to give Tatars votes as justification for Russia’s invasion of the Crimea.
Vital and important histories of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Crimea, Siberia, Ichkeria, and so many more, are being co-opted, appropriated, and re-written in Leftbook groups made up of middle-class students in Paris. People whose Google searches only bring up English-language articles and archives should not be telling Georgians and Uzbeks that they are just passive victims of Western propaganda. The creeping Russian occupation of Ukraine and the Caucasus is being bolstered and supported by Twitter warriors who have never been East of Berlin (okay, Chiang Mai doesn’t count).
People who open up a critical discourse about the Soviet Union are excluded from certain Western leftist spaces. Whether explicitly, like this…
Or like this…
The exclusion of post-Soviet voices goes further. We still have worrying misunderstandings of the post-Soviet nations, they are under-represented in the press, popular culture, and academia, and for many historical reasons, few people travel or migrate outside of their nations, particularly from Russia and Central Asia. Few people from Europe travel beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Post-Soviet voices are already marginalised in Western spaces. The left-leaning agenda simply has to fight against this.
For example, a few years ago, Chechnya started trending on every platform. At the same time, “Where is Chechnya” was searched in Google just over 178,000 times. International Business Times broke the first English-language article “Chechnya detains 100 gay men in first concentration camps since the Holocaust”
Firstly, Chechnya isn’t actually a country (not that it shouldn’t be, but the fact that so many individuals and news outlets are writing it as a nation in itself shows how little they understand).
Secondly, Russia, which Chechnya resides within (for now – freedom and justice for the North Caucasus will come), has been systematically detaining, torturing, and by extension killing LGBT+ folks for a long time now. I have to add, this probably isn’t the ‘first concentration camp since the holocaust’ – ethnic Chechens were not long ago put in what I would call concentration camps. This isn’t one of those “how did you not know this has been happening for AGES???” arguments, but when the IBT reports that Chechnya is doing it, why does this trend instantly? A particular Russian (and European and American) Islamophobic agenda currently marks the, predominantly Muslim, Caucasus and Central Asia as a space of terrorism and general barbarity.
In a flash-back to denial of Stalin’s crimes against ethnicities, the Unconditional-Russophiles are aligning themselves with Islamophobic forms of racism once more. Thus the people and campaigns defending every facet of the Soviet Union keep backsliding into support for Putin and the modern state of the Russian Federation. For example, in early 2016, a historian exposed new accounts of Stalinist crimes via the unearthing of a mass grave containing 9000 bodies from the 1930s, (yeah, deny that Tankies) now a remembrance site known as Sandarmokh. He was swiftly sent to a psychiatric ward by Putin and was evaluated at the Serbski centre, an infamous interrogation centre around which several propaganda efforts are spin-doctored, and remains on trial.
Since his re-election campaign, Putin has strongly emphasised that what he calls an “excessive demonisation of Stalin” was being used to undermine Russia and its government. Along with the instrumentalisation of Victory Day, this has led to Stalin’s popularity rising to a “record high” among Russians today. He denounces all attempts to dredge up negative accounts of Sovietism precisely because it undermines the primacy of the Russian state and the rampant Russian nationalism it spreads.
Putin is arming and supporting violent states and armies around the world. He is brutally repressing LGBT+ and women’s’ rights within his own nation and imprisoning protestors. He has solidified a system of oligarchy and corporatism, a form of state-regulated capitalism which centres the profits of the government and its aristocracy. He has restored the Russian Orthodox Church in the government, bolstered by repressions of other religions throughout the nation. His foreign policy has seen the occupations and/or invasions of Chechnya, Ingushetia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia Georgia, Ukraine, and Crimea. He is perpetrating daily massacres in Syria. Saying all of this doesn’t mean “Putin is worse than America or Britain!” It means “apply the same critical lens to Putin’s Russian Federation as you do to Western nation-states”.
Tankism often goes hand-in-hand with a particularly gruesome form of Assadism. These are the chemical weapon deniers (or even celebrators), the militarists, so-called “kebab removers” recapitulating the same excuses of “Western propaganda” and endlessly bootlicking Russian geopolitical interests through any possible man or medium.
Yet, many seem to feel that Russia is an oppressed underdog which needs its name and reputation protected. It’s somehow become impossible to consider that the Russian Federation in all its forms throughout modern history has been little more than a mirror of the US (and its lap-dog, the UK). Russia has colonised or attempted to colonise most of central Asia. It’s aligned itself with the cruellest forces in the world (now including the USA and the UK). Throughout each of its eras, it has systematically cleansed itself of religious and ethnic minorities. It’s fully terrible. It is imperative that all Tankies re-evaluate their priorities and direct their dubious critical thinking capacities elsewhere. Leave this mess behind.
Tankie Discourse is over for me. I’m not engaging in it anymore. It surrounds a set of ideological referents which respond to nothing in the living or dead world. It is a toxic network of arguments and counter-arguments based upon unfounded claims and empty accusations of propaganda. It’s a disaster of a fashion parade by people who have no idea about the still-living experiences of the Soviet world. Bin this arrogance, the dialectical nonsense, the cultural insensitivity and sheer ignorance of Tankism.
We don’t have a choice. Stalin Did Some Things Wrong. Stalin’s state was dramatically racist, sexist, and destructive and the effects of his failures are still ringing out through the Eastern Bloc. Ignoring, denying, or re-writing What Went Wrong only undermines socialist and communist movements today. If we can’t find a way for our movements to progress from this, then I’ll happily watch them die out. Tankies are regressive and, frankly, a fucking embarrassment to the Left.
Reposted from Mangal Media
Featured image: Zeynep Beler
Note: The organisation referred to as “Worker’s Lib” to Worker’s Liberation Group (not Worker’s Liberty) and Worker’s Weekly, an archive of their publications can be found here