The British Left’s affinity for Russian imperial lies
The willingness of figures on the left-wing of British politics to repeat Kremlin soundbites about Ukraine remains ubiquitous and stunning.
Four years ago, British trade unionist and political campaigner Andrew Murray gave a speech at a gathering of various left-wing groups . He described the event as a protest against “the takeover of Ukraine by ultra-nationalists,” after the country’s government was ousted following three months of street protests.
As a result of his comments, albeit four years later, Murray received a ban on entering Ukraine by its security services – the SBU – for, as they put it, being part of “Putin’s global propaganda network.” In a later op-ed written for the New Statesman magazine Murray rather disparagingly described Ukraine as “a land where the morality of the brownshirts meets the methods of the Keystone Cops.”
Despite the SBU’s assertion, Murray says he is not an admirer of the Putin regime and its “authoritarian conservative nationalism.” Yet he espouses the tired stereotype – that Ukrainians have a proclivity for fascism – that is often employed by the Kremlin. Murray may not believe he supports Putin, but the way he speaks about Ukraine certainly helps legitimise the Russian President’s neo-imperialist campaign in its Western neighbour.
The pervasive ease with which this kind of “disinformation” (plain falsehoods, lies would be better terms) is shared by Murray and others is a grave concern, not least for Britain’s many, well-established ethnic-minority diasporas. For Ukrainians, this has especially been the case since the revolution of 2013-14 and the subsequent war in the country’s east.
Murray has failed to acknowledge that nationalist leaders gained less than two percent electoral support in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election In later parliamentary elections, nationalist parties won seven seats out of 450. Nationalist parties are less popular in Ukraine than in any European country, hardly a takeover. After the ousting of President Yanukovych in 2014, unidentified armed men (suspected, proven, and later admitted to be Russian soldiers) took-over strategic positions and infrastructure on the Crimean peninsula before holding a widely-condemned farsical referendum which resulted in Russia illegaly annexing the territory.
Similarly, Russian military vehicles and equipment have frequently been witnessed illegally crossing into Ukraine to support and lead separatist rebels in a war against the legitimate government. Open source investigators Bellingcat traced the missile system used to shoot down Malaysian Airways flight MH17 – above Eastern Ukraine in 2014 – to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade in Kursk, Russia.
In all the above instances, Russia has – through its Internet troll factories and state-controlled media – presented a myriad of contradictory theories which serve to confuse the Russian, Ukrainian, and international public while defaming or discrediting those who deviate from the Kremlin narrative by presenting facts and truth.
So, in 2014, rather than condemning a warmongering Russia, Murray – joined, among others, by Richard Brenner from “Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine” and Alan Woods of “International Marxist Tendency” – condemned Ukraine, a nation democratising and defending its territorial integrity; preferring to parrot the Kremlin lie that Kyiv had been taken over by bloodthirsty fascists, itching to persecute Russian speakers in the East.
Aside from Murray, Russia – a bastion of authoritarianism and national chauvinism – seemingly found an unlikely ally in key figures in Britain’s political left. George Galloway has had a long established relationship with Russia’s state-controlled broadcaster RT, which regularly hosts prominent figures of the British left like Ken Livingstone.
Why would key figures in the so-called progressive movement align themselves with, and do the bidding for, Putin’s regime – infamous in its deadly attacks on the press, LGBT rights and individuals’ rights and freedoms? The seeming inclination of prominent figures in the British Left to parrot Russian lies about Ukraine is fixed in a ‘racist stereotype of Ukrainians with Nazi inclinations’ as well as an inclination to see conspiracy theories ‘everywhere’, argues prominent scholar and journalist Taras Kuzio.
Murray’s assertion that “a favourable mention of the Red Army’s wartime record risks prosecution” in Ukraine is another such example. Kyiv was proudly a ‘Hero City’ of the Soviet Union, but it is in Russia where this fact is neglected, not in Ukraine, where it’s monument still stands on Victory Avenue.
Admitting that while there may be a degree of nostalgia in the British left, particularly with regard the Soviet aesthetic, Kuzio argues, “Today, that same stereotype is alive and well in Russia’s information war; portraying the Euromaidan as a Nazi putsch funded by the CIA, bringing Nazis to power who are suppressing Russian speakers. Like pro-Putin scholars, notably Richard Sakwa, they blame the West – and let Putin off the hook.”
Unite Union and, later, the Stop the War Coalition conducted fallacious ‘anti-fascist’ protests as Ukrainians – together with Syrians, Chechens, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Poles and many others – made their own protests in Whitehall in solidarity with those in Kyiv during the winter of 2013.
A visit to London’s annual May Day march shows that reverence of Soviet figures and symbols remains. Though he later claimed to have been unaware, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell spoke under a backdrop of Communist symbols and Putin-backed Syrian regime flags in 2017.
While at this year’s march, a man wearing a Soviet Pilotka carrying the flag of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ drew condemnation from Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK, Natalia Galibarenko who described the use of these symbols as ‘absolutely unacceptable’.
In Jeremy Corbyn’s current Labour Party, anti-globalist and anti-US elements favour Russian narratives as a rejection of the Blairite ‘special relationship’ with the US, Kuzio suggests. Disappointingly, their legitimate anti-American grievances manifests as pro-Putinism, despite Murray’s assertions, rather than suggesting an alternative course.
Stefan Jajecznyk is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies at University College London and has an MA in Journalism from the University of Salford. He is a freelance reporter with extensive experience working in the UK and across Europe.