This part of Europe has already changed in a fundamental way. Nearly 2 million refugees from Ukraine reached Poland by March 18. Ten thousand refugees are arriving in Berlin every day. At the Romanian border, children fleeing Ukraine cross a footbridge lined with toys volunteers have left to welcome them.
To understand how each of these places is connected to the other, you need to know that the distance between Berlin and the Polish border is shorter than distance between New York and New Haven, that there are no hard borders between most countries in the EU, that both university instructors and house cleaners sometimes commute to work from one country to another. And to understand how close the war feels, you need to know that, when rockets struck Volodymyr Ukraine, windows shook in Poland.
Approximately 80 years after the Second World War and 30 years after the end of the Cold War, in Central and Eastern Europe the memory of both remain very present. Stories of life during invasions, said Zosia Brom, are “passed from generation to generation.” Brom, editor of the anarchist journal Freedom, grew up in Poland.
“Like most Eastern Europeans, I have spent the past week or so living in some kind of haze, where news cycles really last 24hrs, there is no sleep, and your phone rings constantly,” Brom wrote in a recent essay titled “Fuck leftist westplaining.” Written like an angry letter to a friend, the piece calls out Western leftists for their lack of knowledge about Eastern Europe and their disregard for the perspectives of people who grew up in countries that were colonised by Russia.
Brom’s missive is one of the “Many vital texts…on the problems with #westsplaining, coloniality and the denial of a voice, agency & self-determination in debates on Ukraine, Central & Eastern Europe,” identified by political philosopher Tereza Hendl, who grew up in Prague. Hendl created a much-referenced Twitter thread linking to work by writers from the East European left.
When we spoke recently on Zoom, Hendl, like many of those writers, expressed her appreciation for the anti-imperialist and anti-racist work produced by the US left, but noted: “It’s really remarkable that when the Western left discusses Russian imperialism, it so often does not engage and build on the voices of those who have survived those imperial acts of aggression…and the long history of colonial violence in Central and in North Asia and of course Syria as well.”
Central and East European progressives do not view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “return to the Cold War”—a framing primarily promoted by Russia and some of the US left. “Given that the only combatants on the ground are Russian invaders and Ukrainian defenders, the implication that this is a battle between the U.S. and Russia over influence is ridiculous,” Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz wrote in their essay about Western pundits who speak over voices from the East European left.
This is a picture of pro-Ukraine demonstrators stage lie-down protest in Warsaw. Now people around the world rally in support of Ukraine amid Russian invasion. Join the protests in your countries! #StandWithUkraine pic.twitter.com/nCN3g9kVS6
— Alex Bornyakov (@abornyakov) March 26, 2022
Commentators who try to draw parallels between alliances now and alliances during the Cold War, wrote Ukrainian historian Taras Bilous, ignore “a fundamental difference between the current conflict and the Cold War. If the West has not changed much politically since the Cold War, the other side of the conflict, Russia, has changed dramatically.”
So, too, has Eastern Europe. The world in which Central and East European activists came of age was post-Communist. Some are organizing in countries that have right wing governments. These activists’ progressive politics belong to 21st-century social change movements.
Bilous is a contributing editor of Commons, a left Ukrainian journal about economy, politics, history and culture. In a city under artillery attack, he wrote “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” calling out DSA International Committee’s “shameful statement failing to say a single critical word against Russia.”
“US-centric explanations are outdated,” wrote Volodymyr Artiukh, in an essay for Open Democracy. “I see how the Western left is doing what it [does] best: analysing the American neo-imperialism, the expansion of NATO. It is not enough anymore as it does not explain the world that is emerging from the ruins of Donbas and Kharkiv’s main square. The world is not exhaustively described as shaped by or reacting upon the actions of the US.”
When we spoke about his essay on Zoom, Artiukh, a Ukrainian anthropologist specializing in labor and migration, said he feels “heavily indebted to the US scholars and left wing activists in elaborating my own perspective, which is anti-capitalist.… So my appeal was a gesture of friendship.”
The Central and East European left’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes from people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. However, all of the writers offered examples of the Western left’s denial of East European agency (for example, suggesting that Ukraine must be a “buffer zone”). Many noted the Western left’s fixation on Ukraine’s far right; the far right is indeed a problem, but has less political power in Ukraine than in many other countries in Europe, they point out. No one accepted the assertion that Russia viewed “NATO encroachment” as a security threat (though Artiukh noted Russia does perceive NATO as a political and cultural threat).
Many in the East European left have felt obliged to point out that “NATO expansion” only comes about when each country decides to apply for membership. And they emphasize that decision belongs to the citizens of those countries—not to former colonial powers.
They are not uncritical of NATO, but, said Brom “the reality is that NATO—and in general being part of the West—is protecting millions of people from potential Russian invasion. Calling this ‘NATO expansion’ while just typing in the comfort of your home in New York or London” means you have not understood the perspectives of people in Eastern Europe.
“The further west you go away from our region, the less understanding you have,” Zofia Malisz, a representative of the Polish left party RAZEM (“Together”), observed. RAZEM withdrew from Progressive International, a coalition that promotes progressive groups, when it failed to make “an unequivocal declaration recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty.” RAZEM continues to work internationally through other progressive networks. “RAZEM is against imperialism everywhere,” said Malisz. “Always has been.”
The Left Alliance of Lithuania and Demos, responding to West Europeans’ call for peace, wrote: “We…are wholeheartedly in favour of diplomatic solutions and other non-violent attempts to restore peace in Europe. However [this] is plausible in peacetime only and it is no longer valid when Russian tanks and missiles are crushing civilians in their residential areas in Ukraine’s cities, towns and villages.”
Germany, once more, is somewhere in the middle. For years, West Germany promoted Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) based on the idea that engaging Russia in trade with the West was a positive thing—a moderating force. This approach continued after German unification and the dissolution of the USSR. Nord Stream, the pipeline that brings gas from Russia to Germany, grew out of this policy. Angela Merkel, once praised for her diplomatic interactions with Vladimir Putin, is now recognized to have erred in proceeding with Nord Stream 2, and German certification of Nord Stream 2 was suspended on 22 February in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Germany’s government, led by the center-left SPD in coalition with the center-left Greens and business-focused FDP, has long supported a policy of disarmament. As have the Greens. So SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s February 27 announcement that Germany will create a €100 billion special fund for the military, and increase defense funding to 2 percent of its GDP came as a shock to all except those who work most closely with him. But 79 percent of Germans support this policy. To understand what a seismic change this is, you need to understand that Germany’s population, overall, has been largely pacifist since the end of the Second World War, and that this pacifism is part of German identity.
Germany also made the decision to deliver arms to Ukraine. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Green Party foreign minister, explained: “If our world is different, then our politics must also be different.”
“We are doing this because human lives are at stake,” said Baerbock. “We are doing this because our international order is at stake. We are doing this with prudence and out of responsibility for our peace in Europe.”
Not everyone supports this. There are two political parties in Germany who have issued statements objecting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also saying they do not want Germany to increase military funding or provide Ukraine with arms: Die Linke (“The Left”), which had so little support at the last general election that it nearly missed the electoral threshold to sit in the Bundestag, and the AfD, Germany’s party of the far right.
Berlin is a city where the no man’s land that once divided east from west is now filled with new apartment houses. The replica of Checkpoint Charlie on Freidrichstrasse is a place where tourists pose on sandbags, laughing while their friends take photographs. And Teufelsberg, once a listening station for Western intelligence, is a glorious wreck that graffiti artists paint and repaint—a place reclaimed.
This is what it’s like now, almost 80 years after the end of the Second World War, almost 35 years after the Cold War. This is what peace looks like. And if the Western left is serious about wanting peace, and justice too, they will be listening to the East European left and working with the groups that have the same aims they do.