Dialogue on the Origins and Concerning Ideologies in the Russia-Ukraine War

In a series of emails, alumnus David Green ’71 reveals his opinion of Professor Kassow’s webinars, which concern evaluation of the Russia-Ukraine war. A dialogue develops as the two converse, beginning with their shared discussion of the history leading up to the Russia-Ukraine war and evolving into a discussion of the motivations and troubling ideologies on both sides of the war. Mr. Green’s final remarks emphasize the need for critical analysis in history programs.

Jan. 26, 2023

From Mr. Green:

Dear Professor Kassow,

I have registered for the webinar on the Ukraine war that will be held next week. The title, “Continuing the Conversation” strikes me as somewhat ironic because a conversation implies the exchange of a variety, and even opposed, views. That was entirely absent from the previous webinar, where the entire discussion of the war was framed within the ahistorical, essentially propagandistic, narrative that characterizes all public discussion of this war.

Following the first webinar, I received requests from several alums who were interested to know my opinion of the “conversation.” My reply to these inquiries were posted on the World Socialist Web Site. In this public reply, I chose not to identify the college that hosted the webinar, nor identify the professor whose remarks I was criticizing. But as one who has studied and respected your work, I was deeply disappointed that you did not bring to bear a historical perspective in your evaluation of this war.

Judging from the format of next week’s webinar, I fear that it will hardly be more informative than the first. The only other speaker participating in this conversation is Mr. Sven Holder, a man with obviously close connections to the US government. There is no indication that the “conversation” will explain the present conflict, which threatens to escalate into a nuclear war, in terms other than the propagandist denunciation of “Putin’s unprovoked War,” which explains absolutely nothing about the complex historical origins of the conflict.

It does not appear that the webinar’s format will make any provisions for audience comments and questions. I would urge that you open the webinar up for participation from listeners. I, for one, would appreciate having the opportunity to pose questions that direct attention to the complex historical origins of the war and the geopolitical and financial interests that underlie this terrible and increasingly dangerous conflict.

Feb. 1, 2023

From Mr. Green:

Dear Professor Kassow,

I listened to yesterday’s webinar. I appreciate that two of the questions that I raised in my letter were cited by the moderator, though he chose not to ask the question which referenced the many illegal wars conducted by the US—in violation of international law—over the last 30 years. As a result, the discussion portrayed the Russian invasion as a uniquely criminal act, without taking note of the US “wars of choice” that have resulted in the deaths of at least one million people since 1991.

The portrayal of Ukraine as a budding democracy bears no resemblance to reality. Virtually all left-wing organizations and activities have been banned. I have contacts in Ukraine—opponents of both the Russian and Ukrainian regimes—whose lives are constantly under threat of pervasive fascistic violence. The anti-labor laws passed in Ukraine rank among the most repressive in Europe. Moreover, I was deeply disappointed that the issue of Bandera and the glorification of his filthy legacy was treated in such a cavalier manner, as if it has little to do with contemporary developments.

Permit me to call to your attention that several weeks ago, the Ukrainian parliament (Rada), celebrating the birthday of Stepan Bandera, tweeted an image of Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the head of the armed forces, under a portrait of Bandera. The tweet quoted Bandera, “The complete and final victory of Ukrainian nationalism will come when the Russian empire ceases to exist.” The Ukrainian parliament’s account added, “A fight against the Russian empire is currently underway. And the guidelines of Stepan Bandera are well known to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.”

In the face of protests from Poland, the tweet was deleted, but an image can still be found on the Internet.

There were other issues which were dealt with in a manner that distorted facts, such as the celebration of Navalny as a great prophet of a future Russian democracy. As any careful study of his record shows, he is an out and out racist and political reactionary. In an article posted on the WSWS in January 2018, Clara Weiss (who wrote the detailed WSWS review of your book, Who Will Write Our History) subjected Navalny’s political history—which includes long-standing ties to Russian fascists—to a devastating analysis. Why is such an odious figure being promoted as an alternative to Putin’s regime?

I was also disappointed by the indifferent attitude to the real dangers posed by the escalation of the war—which includes the potential use of nuclear weapons. My question, “What are the ‘non-negotiable’  issues that justify the Biden administration’s willingness to take such a risk?” was not asked.

As a scholar who is well versed in the socialist opposition to both Stalinism and Russian nationalism (you wrote a scholarly essay on Trotsky in the 1970s), you will understand that I am writing as an irreconcilable opponent of Putin’s reactionary invasion of Ukraine. But the efforts of the Putin regime to justify the invasion can only be effectively countered within  Russia by an exposure of the predatory and thoroughly imperialistic policies of the US and its NATO allies. This is the only way the unity of Russian and Ukrainian workers against the reactionary war aims of their governments can be achieved.

As a matter of intellectual principle, the Trinity faculty should be seeking to raise debate on life and death political issues above the level of media and government propaganda. So far, it has fallen short of this critical responsibility.

Feb. 2, 2023

From Prof. Kassow:

Your points on Bandera are well taken, and I have made them myself. I do not think I’m being cavalier, just aware of the following:

  1. There is massive support in Ukraine for this war of national defense.
  2. Russia is committing terrible war crimes.
  3. I go to Poland often and speak with Ukrainian refugees. I am convinced that they are telling the truth.
  4. As you can see from the attached article that I wrote, I am very well aware of Ukrainian history and of Bandera…and Shakheyvich…and the UPA massacres of Poles…and the Lvov pogrom of June 1941…and Petlyura…and Khmelnitsky…and the Ukrainian police units that participated in the 1942 massacres in Belarus that killed most of my family. (My mother fought in the Soviet partisan movement against Ukrainian police units.) But it’s also a fact that not only is support for right-wing groups very low, as shown by election results, not only does Ukraine have a Jewish president, but most of the Ukrainian Jewish community now supports the war against Russia.
  5. We can agree to disagree. But I respectfully ask you to reread the sordid record of communist parties between August 1939 (Stalin’s pact with Hitler) and June 1941 (the German attack on the Soviet Union). During that time they equated Churchill and Hitler, called the fight against Hitler an “Imperialist war” and did their best to sabotage the war effort in France and Britain. To say that the British Empire was despotic and repressive does not mean that it was as bad as the Nazi Empire. To say that Ukraine is deeply flawed in many ways does not mean that it is as bad as Putin’s fascist regime.

At some point in the future Ukraine will have to reckon with its history. That process will not be easy. Bandera is a national hero in certain circles, and he’ll remain so in the eyes of many Ukrainians for a long time. But the best way to deal with this is to keep the door open to democracy and intellectual freedom.

Feb. 3, 2023

From Mr. Green:

Dear Professor Kassow,

Thank you for your reply to my criticism of the Jan. 31 webinar hosted by Trinity. For reasons of space, I will concentrate my reply on your point number 5, in which you suggest that I “reread the sordid record of communist parties between August 1939 (Stalin’s pact with Hitler) and June 1941 (the German attack on the Soviet Union). During that time they equated Churchill and Hitler, called the fight against Hitler an ‘Imperialist war’ and did their best to sabotage the war effort in France and Britain.”

As a Trotskyist, I hardly need to be reminded of the countless crimes of the Stalinist regime. I have devoted more than a half century of political and intellectual activity to exposing the crimes of Stalin and Stalinism, which include the signing in August 1939 of the Non-Aggression Pact with the Nazi regime. Moreover, Leon Trotsky was an implacable opponent of the Stalinist regime’s repudiation of the democratic principles upon which the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 was based. The original Soviet constitution recognized the right of the socialist republics, including Ukraine, to secede. In the months preceding his assassination in August 1940 by a Stalinist agent, Trotsky wrote several essays passionately defending, in opposition to Stalinist despotism, the right of Ukrainian self-determination. 

It is entirely correct to reference the crimes of Stalinism, whose legacy is such a critical element in the chain of historical events that have led to the present war however no less critical for an understanding of the policies of the Kiev regime is the genocidal record of Ukrainian nationalism. But your attitude toward the historical record is paradoxical. On the one hand, in the interests of condemning Russia, you invoke Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler, but, on the other hand, in the interests of supporting the regime in Kiev, you adopt a strangely passive attitude toward the Ukrainian nationalists’ enthusiastic support for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and their present-day glorification of the fascist mass murderer and virulent anti-Semite Stepan Bandera, whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) collaborated with the Nazis in the implementation of the Holocaust.

You write: “At some point in the future Ukraine will have to reckon with its history. That process will not be easy. Bandera is a national hero in certain circles, and he’ll remain so in the eyes of many Ukrainians for a long time. But the best way to deal with this is to keep the door open to democracy and intellectual freedom.”

I find this statement deeply troubling. The Ukrainian nationalist falsification of history that glorifies a fascist murderer and legitimizes the OUN’s collaboration with the Nazis is inextricably bound up with the policies of the present-day Kiev regime. To deny this painful fact is to sever the deep links between past and present. The study of history thereby loses all significance.

The war in Ukraine, which is rapidly evolving into a full-scale confrontation between the United States and Russia, requires the most careful and critical study by students. Given the potential for this war to go nuclear, their lives may well depend on their ability to understand and, through conscious action, influence the future course of events.

In the interest of developing a more critical understanding of the war, permit me to suggest that the Trinity Department of History organize another public discussion, in which time is given for the presentation of views that challenge the prevailing propagandized narrative of the government and media. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to return to my alma mater and participate in such a discussion.

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