An Interview with Denis Pilash by TSS Platform. 30 Apr 2022
TSS Platform: The war has been going on for more than two months and direct fighting have now shifted, at least temporarily, to specific areas. Can you tell us what is the situation from your activist perspective? How is Ukrainian society changing, and what spaces are left for social movement to impact the situation right now?
Denis Pilash: Everyone here has been affected by the war. Millions of lives are broken. The number of displaced people is above 10 million: half of them are now refugees in other countries, half are looking for relatively safe places inside Ukraine. The biggest cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa are still shelled from time to time so I cannot really say that any place is safe right now. In terms of social changes, it is not all about people at the front who chose to fight with weapons. Many people continued to work and worked overtime risking their lives and doing a tremendous humanitarian work around the country. I think of care-workers, nurses, doctors who keep working notwithstanding the bombs. Railway workers as well are giving a heroic contribution helping people to relocate. And the list could go on. You find people like these at the grassroot level giving their contribution either by not leaving their workplace, or by acting as volunteers to help people in any way needed. Local authorities are responsible only for partial organization of the reception of refugees, but most of the effort is being made by normal people acting spontaneously and doing what they feel is most needed: assisting them, helping them to reach the border, sharing stuff.
There are also many activists who are autonomously organizing in networks to feed people, accommodate them, distribute medicines etc. Almost all of us is now involved in such activities, also in contact with international solidarity networks; we have just received the first convoy from Bosnia and more are coming with leftists and unionists from France, Switzerland, UK, Denmark, and Poland.
One more thing I would like to add is that within this context, labour rights are being attacked with the excuse of the war. We at our socialist group, Sotsialnyi Rukh, are organizing an initiative called ‘Labour Defence’ to collect experiences and provide legal assistance to the workers whose rights have been violated, who are receiving no salary or are being fired. We think this is important also in light of the recent moves of neoliberal MPs in Ukrainian parliament who are pushing for reforms aimed at liberalizing the labour market, which only means reducing workers’ protections and union rights. We managed to stop the bill, which eventually did not have enough support to pass and this tells us that class struggle is not over inside the ongoing war.
You said that grassroot unions and social movements are the only ones opposing the attempt to pass this law, which we know is part of a long wave of liberalizations of the labour market. Do you think that you were successful in stopping the law because of the crucial role grassroots movements are playing in assisting people right now?
About your first question: I would say that our success is mostly a lucky coincidence. Partially the role of grassroot movements helped, but mainly they could not pass the law because parliament was not consolidated that time. Still, the more we manage to organize the better are our chances to push for a different political agenda and stop laws like this one also in the future.
This brings us to the second point we wanted to raise. What you said before about class struggle is crucial as we need to find ways to think inside the dynamic of war going beyond its logic, not getting trapped by it. The war narrative tends to hide every other kind of division within society. How do you link the continuation of class struggle with this situation and what space social struggles find in Ukraine right now?
I must start from the fact that resistance here is really popular and is marking a sign of union within society. Everyone living in Ukraine now feels this existential threat to their lives so this is keeping people closer in mutual support. Even the most discriminated people, like the Roma community, volunteered to territorial defence units. At this level society is united. Still, in terms of social class composition interests are different. At the eve of the war, the majority of Ukrainian oligarchs fled the country, bringing as much money with them as they could. The elites left the country abandoning its defence to common people. They are not part of the resistance. We think that in the best-case scenario, the solidarity movement built from below can outlast war and be effective in reassessing class power distribution. We need to politically organize to create a progressive working-class politics against parties connected to oligarchic groups.
In big cities across Ukraine there were attempts to organize different kind of workers, including riders, care workers, etc. before the war. Are these experiences continuing to raise demands, or are they shifting to different goals? Are there labour struggles in ‘classical’ terms even within the war?
Yes, there were initiatives by nurses and care-workers, but most organizations shifted to humanitarian efforts because of the war. But it must also be said that efforts from below would now be undermined by bosses’ attacks on workers’ conditions. It is very dangerous for them right now to give the impression that they want to undermine people who are helping with the resistance. There are not strikes or street protests since mass gatherings now are dangerous, but discontent can be communicated through other channels like collective petitions. Everything is intense, right now we have no time for doing something more besides what is needed for survival; but in this experience you can see ways of expressing discontent and contrasting attacks on workers.
How important is for you to develop transnational connections apart from the urgent dimension of international solidarity?
I would start from what we are already doing in terms of practical solidarity. With Polish comrades we are organizing to raise voices against refugees’ rights violations, assessing issues like the one of rents. There is also the issue of women’s rights: the Russian invasion resulted in a terrific number of sexual violence against women, with many Ukrainian women being raped. These women then see their right to get an abortion denied in Poland due to their national anti-abortion legislation. Here we have a coordination that is aimed at helping women who try to reach Poland.
On the political level, promoting the cancellation of Ukrainian debt would be a great example for other countries which are as well trapped in this infernal circle of debt; many European leftist parties are raising this issue in their Parliaments also in connection with our other demands, for example concerning the reconstruction of the country. Huge investments will be needed and usually foreign capital profit from these situations; we will need more labour rights and more socially oriented frameworks included in the packages of policies that will be enacted to rebuild Ukraine. There is also the general issue of how to stop this war, like many others. So, we ask ourselves what fuels this war machine? If you get to the root of the capital’s machine you see expansionist military actions are at the order of the day, so this is why we need an eco-socialist alternative to put an end to fossil fuel capitalism and authoritarian regimes that keep waging war to other countries also with the support of big western capitalists. I see how this interconnects the two threats humanity is facing right now: extinction by nuclear war or by ecological disaster.
You participated in the meeting of the Permanent Assembly Against the War promoted by the Transnational Social Strike Platform. As you know we promoted a collective thinking about what a transnational politics of peace could mean today. It is meant to talk to social movements, not States, armies or diplomacy. When we proposed it, we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the discourse of pacifism as such and pointing out at different struggles we discussed also in this interview: you mentioned the debt issue, the patriarchal issue, labour rights, climate crisis. All relates to issues that are not specific of this war, but are exacerbated by it. The war itself is not an isolated event. Do you perceive a call for a transnational politics of peace useful in a moment like this? And do you think that transnational connections can be useful also to overcome nationalistic discourses that are now legitimized by the invasion and the need to resist?
Great powers are now trying to divide the world once again in spheres of influence; under this system you lose agency and subjectivity. The majority of the people are viewed as objects; this brings in the same position Ukrainians targeted by Russians and Palestinians hit by Israelis, as well as populations of Latin American countries subjugated by US influence and interventions. I think that people should always have the right to self-determination and to resist any kind of imperialistic aggressions. I know military help for Ukraine is a controversial and divisive question; still, now weapons are crucial for the survival of people resisting. We saw mass executions by Russians; stopping resistance does not mean to stop the war, it just means to pave the way for a dictatorial regime in Ukraine. People are oppressed and subject of terror: in order to have proper negotiations and prevent Russia from grabbing bigger portions of Ukraine we need some power on our side. Unfortunately, this power also relies on military resistance right now.
To comrades who think that is wrong to help Ukrainian military resistance I would ask to think what they would do in this situation. It is counterproductive to prevent military aid to Ukrainians in this situation. But I would also like them to consider that if it is against their principle to support armed resistance they can provide other kinds of help, with refugees for example, but also by promoting political initiatives.
All the issues you mentioned are global issues: climate justice, women and migrants’ rights. we need to go beyond national borders and act on a transnational level if we want to pursue such goals. The war in Ukraine is part of a chain of imperialistic and nationalistic wars. War inevitably stirs up nationalistic sentiments, it happens every time. So, it is really important that we show that international solidarity exists and also that our suffering nowadays is connected to the suffering of other people around the world. Millions of refugees are desperate to find a place and this reminds us of refugees coming in these years from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan etc. that have faced discriminations and obstacles. This has to teach us to treat people humanly and to combat all discriminations. We would like to change the way of thinking not only regarding Ukraine, we want to highlight the situation of oppressed people so we need to connect with the global context, especially people who suffer like us for injustices and inequalities. This means that we have to put forward demands able at pushing for a more egalitarian view of the world.
The Permanent Assembly Against the War published a call to ‘strike the war’ on the 1st of May, for a transnational politics of peace. Do you plan any initiative on the 1st of May and do you think that the 1st of May can strengthen communication between movements across borders?
We want to have some sort of event in Lviv for the 1st of May, maybe in some other places as well. We want to celebrate workers’ solidarity and invite international guests; an international solidarity convoy is also expected to arrive that day. I think staying in touch and enhancing contacts and communication is important.