Eyes Wide Shut: What the Western Left didn’t (Want to) See
There is a deep-seated brutality that characterises Russian imperialist sensibility. Deftly hidden for over 30 years, or ignored by the West, it is now rearing its ugly face – and this time socialists and progressives cannot turn a blind eye.
My dad was playing with his dog when some armed men arrived in the village and bludgeoned the dog to death before his eyes.
My dad was six years old. The barbaric act he witnessed was part of the forceful embezzlement of people’s private property under the communist regime’s “industrial nationalisation and collectivisation” law, imposed in the decade after the Soviet occupation of Bulgaria at the end of WWII. Everyone was to give away their private property and whoever protested would be shot dead. Pets were of ‘no value’, so they were killed on the spot.
This personal family story single-handedly illustrates the horrors of living under communist rule.
My father had spared me that story until two years ago, when I suggested he get a dog to keep him company in his old age on one of my rare visits to Bulgaria. How could he get a dog when the image of his childhood friend’s lifeless body had haunted him all his life?
As a child, I had been shielded from the traumatic memories of the communist past, and so have moved through the transition to free Bulgaria pretty much unscathed. In the early 1990s, my dad took me freedom rallies and I have been nurtured with the ideals of democracy. I have since found a home in a relatively tolerant multicultural society and a liberal democracy where everyone is free to do, think, and be as they desire. I felt the power and vibrancy of freedom rallies post-1989 again in George Square in 2014 and in Scotland’s drive for independence. And in this hour, I am counting my blessings for the liberties I have enjoyed. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these are liberties we can no longer afford to take for granted.
Russia’s imperialist ambitions we failed to recognise
Caught up in the excitement of the campaign for Scottish independence at the time, we somehow missed a much darker development as Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sent paratroopers to Donbass. Whether because it was happening so far from here, we slept through the past eight years. Even when Russia intervened in Syria and helped Assad raze whole cities like Homs and Aleppo to the ground. Even when we saw people fleeing the war, when Europe closed its borders, leaving desperate families drowning and young children being washed away on Europe’s beaches. We closed our eyes and closed our hearts and homes to these people because they were not “like us”. Politkovskaya’s murder, Nemtsov’s assassination, the Salisbury novichok poisoning, MH-17’s downing, Navalny’s arrest… The signs were there all along and it’s only now that we are connecting the dots. Our eyes were wide shut to the Russian imperialist agenda. And we are being rudely awoken.
The war waged by Putin on Ukraine (and his threats to the whole world) did shock us but should not surprise us. This brutal sensibility is deeply rooted in the dark forces of Stalinism and Russian imperialism, which after the end of the second world war, occupied Bulgaria and the whole Eastern Bloc, and forcefully imposed a regime where there was no freedom, and it was okay for armed men to kill a dog before a child’s eyes. A generation grew up numb to these transgressions. Post-Soviet Russia never really overcame the collapse of the communist regime, and it is now looking to return to its former imperial ‘glory’. We look on in horror as Putin cuts off Russia from the outside world, realising it may soon be impossible to see behind the new Iron Curtain. Where that curtain falls remains to be seen. Brutalism, which I’d been spared when I was growing up in post-communist Bulgaria, is coming back full force.
There is a Bulgarian (and Russian) noun that describes this reality, which doesn’t have an exact English equivalent: мракобесие [mrako-besie]. It means a regime of the ruling elite imposed by physical repression and spiritual degradation in a society, and the cruel forcible imposition of someone’s will. Its root morpheme “мрак“ literally translates as “darkness”. It is synonymous with regress, backwardness, ignorance, degradation, reactionism, and obscurantism. Rather than achieving equality, Stalinist communism subjugated people, did away with their rights and created a brutal Orwellian order, which only the (missing from the English language) word мракобесие can describe. And now Putin is trying to reinstall that same world order – not just in Ukraine, but in Europe as a whole unless he is stopped.
Many analysts have argued that Putin is not Russia, that we need to extend a helping hand to Russian people in their darkest hour. And we certainly should to those who are suffering and willing to accept our help. But, sadly, and perhaps incomprehensibly for many in the West, a large proportion of Russia’s population still trust Putin and believe his propaganda. Many people in Russia, and other countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain, do not mind the мракобесие of a totalitarian dictatorship. Disenchanted with Western capitalism and neoliberalism with no better system to replace it, these desperate people look back nostalgically to a Soviet era past for meaning. Anything is expendable in the war against the perceived enemy – democratic values, human rights, global cooperation, and last but not least, truth.
Western socialists and progressives looked the other way
This is a time that we (liberals, progressives) should finally wake up and reflect on our cognitive biases. We are all partly to blame for failing to see the warning signs, for ignoring Eastern European voices and letting Putin divide us – and yes, even within the Scottish independence movement. We are guilty of falling for the moral relativism, false equivalences, and the anti-liberal spin, because Russia’s aggression has been happening conveniently far from home. But is it now when a mad dictator threatens to push the red button any minute?
On the first day of the invasion, Ukrainian journalist Taras Bilous wrote an emotional open letter to the Western Left from Kyiv under artillery attack: in their anti-imperialism, he argued, the Western Left had turned a blind eye to Russia’s aggression. Where was their international solidarity when it came to Ukraine?
Over the years, I have been astonished by the extent of people in Scotland declaring themselves “communist”, blind to the horrors of communism under Soviet rule. I have witnessed relatively influential figures in the Scottish independence movement engage in denialism when it comes to Assad and Russia’s war crimes in Syria, while others thoughtlessly parade Soviet symbols such as hammer and sickle images and play the USSR anthem at the start of podcasts – actions many born and raised in Central/Eastern Europe would find uncomfortable, if not insulting. Trivializing symbols of the terror enforced on whole nations by Russian imperialism is an act of symbolic violence.
Granted, the West doesn’t have a historical memory of Russian imperialism and its barbaric efforts to implement the communist doctrine. It never really experienced communism, which to Western lefties, has remained largely theoretical, a chimera, a distant and vague idea to achieve social justice and a ‘brighter future’. As such, Western lefties have watched events in Eastern Europe unfold from a convenient distance. While idealising the notion of a “communist revolution”, the Western left has pointed its finger at neoliberalism and Western capitalism as the world’s greatest evil. Capitalism is a flawed and unjust social system which is in desperate need of rethinking. But a communist revolution, as people from Eastern and Central Europe can attest, is a way darker reality.
We need to inoculate ourselves against Russian propaganda or risk becoming ‘useful idiots’ to a brutal regime
Whatever Western liberals now do would likely be too little too late. We let Russian propaganda seep through Western societies. We turned a blind eye to Russia’s atrocities in Syria and its culture war on truth, liberalism, and democratic values it waged in our media. We lost trust in pillars of society such as institutions and quality journalism. We let ourselves be divided into British people vs ‘Eastern Europeans stealing our jobs’. It’s been Kremlin’s aim all along, to divide us. And it’s all been leading to this moment.
One of the most insidious misinformation tactics that is currently employed, often unwittingly, by some people on the left is whataboutism – and it comes straight from the KGB ‘dezinformatsia’ warfare playbook: “Russia might be doing a horrible thing in Ukraine, but what about the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan?” An argument is created that whitewashes Putin’s invasion and almost makes it acceptable because ‘look at what the bad Americans did 20-30-60 years ago’. As if those of us who are outraged at Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine didn’t speak up against these wars and didn’t rise in protest around the world in our millions. This tactic of deflecting attention from the suffering being caused is typical of Russian propaganda, as Dr Idrees Ahmad explains in this VICE article, and has millions of lefties duped into spreading Russian propaganda. Some bright minds have inadvertently, and irretrievably, fallen victim to it.
In 2019, when I ran MisinfoconX, I was viciously attacked on Twitter by Scotland representatives of Russian state media (RT and Sputnik), and together with the event’s co-organiser, was labelled a US “deep state” operative. The attack was so fierce and militant, it felt like an invasion, the goal being to discredit us, to shut us up, and create the false impression that there was some ominous motive behind our event, which was in fact a meetup to discuss the problems of dis-/misinformation and possible initiatives Scottish civil society could cooperatively undertake. I was astonished at how somebody could come up with such a contrived narrative with “facts” so flimsy and shocked to see otherwise respected professors on the Left and independence campaigners join in by sharing Sputnik’s lies. In hindsight, that is how the well-oiled Russian hybrid warfare machine works – it is brutal, it is offensive, and it ‘strikes first’. This was, and remains, a war for truth, and it is a war we must win!
We need to inoculate ourselves against Russian propaganda and disinformation before we become, in Lenin’s words, ‘useful idiots’ in the hands of Putin’s brutal regime and his imperialist ambitions. Taking active steps to increase media literacy and shining a light on Russian propaganda tactics would be a good – and urgent – first step.
But there is also a deeper reckoning that is desperately needed on the Left if we want the democratic values and liberties that we have taken for granted for so long to continue to exist. By acknowledging that the world is chaotic and contingent, we can find an epistemic anchor in basic human rights – respect, care, and solidarity (real, not feigned). And it is high time we moved away from moral relativism. The historical moment requires us to take a side – civilization or aggression, light or darkness. There is no middle ground.
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