Above: Seumas (right) and his hero
By Dmitri MacMillen
I have made little secret of my disappointment with much coverage and discussion of the ongoing developments in Ukraine this past year, but rarely more often so than when it is stirred by certain elements of the British left. Earlier this week I happened to see Seumas Milne, a Guardian editor and columnist, as well as a leading voice on the British left regarding capitalism and imperialism, at an event and thought it appropriate to approach him and confront him over his poor reporting on Ukraine; unfortunately, the opportunity did not arise. As an individual who sympathises with many of Milne’s and the left’s arguments, I find it disheartening when they fail to apply standards of moral consistency and objectivity for the likes of Ukraine and not only.
So I wrote him two emails of varying lengths, openly expressing my frustrations with his coverage of Ukraine, and also his chairing, days earlier, of a discussion featuring Putin at the Valdai conference. To a large degree, I can say that the impressions penned in these emails are an accurate summary of not only my dissatisfaction with Milne’s politics, but also that of swathes of the left (John Pilger comes to mind) in this country and others, who refuse to contemplate embracing anything other than a ‘tunnel vision’ disproportionately suspicious of the West and its allies, consequently producing material which regrettably falls short of balanced and well-researched journalism. The correspondence is as follows:
Dear Seumas Milne,
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dmitri and I am a student at a London university. I was also present at the event last night at the Argentine embassy, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak to you as I would have hoped to.
There is much that I admire about your work and writings, in particular that what you have written regarding the War on Terror, Palestine and the effects of capitalism in this country. However, and to be frank, I have begun to despair of your writing of late.
As a matter of disclosure, I am a Russian citizen, and one appalled by the events for over the past half year in Ukraine, to a very large extent instigated by my own government. Your writing on Ukraine has been unimpressive to put it mildly, almost entirely pinning the blame for the conflict on the West (funnily enough, not a word from you about Russia’s own devastating intentions and actions – just mere apologism) as well as propagating the notion of swathes of fascists and neo-Nazis roaming in the Ukrainian establishment and society; the absurdity of your latter thesis was effectively laid to rest by the results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections and the nature of their conduct.
As someone whose reputation as a campaigner and journalist is to a large extent seen as having been consistently grounded on anti-imperialism, to see you sharing a stage with Vladimir Putin just days ago was bewildering, if not exactly surprising by now. If you are serious on seeking out the dangerous forces of fascism, I politely advise you to reread a transcript of Putin’s Q and A session at the session you moderated and look at his comments regarding ethnic Russians in Crimea, just for a start. If this does not incite concern in you, then that is unfortunate and equally inconsistent.
You are a powerful voice on the left and one which many read and look up to. You are a writer of considerable talents and one whose campaigning I have often admired. However, if moral consistency across the board is not something you wish to strive for, and your politics are really defined by an innate suspicion of the West, but not the rest, then so be it. If you want to exclusively judge the likes of Ukraine on the basis of a pre-conceived world view, rather than carefully examining the country’s own circumstances, then so be it. But that is a tunnel vision, and it is rarely worthy of wider respect. And I, alongside many other erstwhile enthusiastic readers of yours, deeply regret that.
A courteous reply promptly ensued, the exact contents of which I shall not publish here but instead paraphrase. In brief, Milne said he disagreed with my interpretation regarding responsibility for the events in Ukraine over the past year as well as my criticism of his portrayal of the far right’s significance. He added that moderating Putin’s speech in no way constituted endorsement of him, given that journalists are often asked to fulfil such a role. He did not accept that his politics are innately anti-Western, but underlined the imbalance in power between the West and its allies and that of powers such Russia and others in world affairs. I followed up with a reply.
Dear Seumas Milne,
Thank you for courteous reply, for which I am grateful considering how harsh some of what I may have said did sound. I hope you don’t mind if I make a few points regarding the aforementioned.
Regarding the far right in Ukraine, I in no way dismiss it. I am of direct Ukrainian Jewish descent and my family have had their own experiences with Ukrainian nationalism, so I am more than aware and also wary of its potential dangers.
But the role of the far right in Ukraine, as you and others have put it, as it now stands, is too often exaggerated and overblown. You may insist otherwise, but the impression that many gathered from your readings was that Maidan was effectively a fascist coup (and no, I do not subscribe to the comfortable and simple narrative of a pro-Western, pro-democratic revolt against Russia). Maidan was complex, as were its origins – there is no straightforward interpretation. The nature of Ukrainian nationalism and the far right is also fairly complex and deserves scrutiny. But to describe it all with broad brushstrokes, often entirely ignoring the real significance to modern-day Ukrainian nationalism of basic figures such as Stepan Bandera, no matter how unpalatable to some like myself, is intellectually dishonest. Accusations of an astronomical surge in xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as a result of the protests, have time and again been disproved by public figures and protestors, many of them of the very ethnic backgrounds that you would believe are most at risk from marauding fascists. In fact, many of these communities have stated time and again that those most responsible for fascism in Ukraine are not the far-right, but Putin and his very actions in Ukraine.
At the beginning of the Maidan, the fascists were almost invisible. After the New Year, as the protests radicalised in the face of government intransigence and the subsequent crackdowns on the square, their presence grew (although they were still a minority). You suggest Yanukoyvch was overthrown in a coup. A figure as repulsive as Yanukoyvych, who in the face of popular pressure was prepared to resort to armed force on his own people, plundered the national budget in the billions and ran away to Russia of his own volition (a coup?) at a time when statesmanship was most needed (with the assistance of the Russian state, as you would have heard at Valdai), surely also merits some condemnation from you too.
To say the government that came after Maidan had many fascists is dishonest; there were at best a few. To see how badly the far-right did in this Sunday’s elections (and this at a time when Ukraine is fighting a war with an external aggressor, that has historically been a catalyst for Ukrainian nationalism, struggling to retain its eastern provinces and fighting on so many other domestic fronts) is by and large a testament to the maturity of a great deal of the Ukrainian electorate and also the relative irrelevance of fascists in Ukrainian politics, at least on a substantive level.
Yes, the West no doubt bears some responsibility for what has taken place; but why cannot you bring yourself to recognise Russia’s more than considerable role? If fascism is what you feel strongly about, why don’t you also condemn Russia for fuelling some of its worst effects, especially in Ukraine? Why cannot you condemn the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea (especially when it is grounded on such spurious and equally disconcerting arguments such as a supposed threat to Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians – why is it neither imperialism)? Is it not fascism when Russian rule has led to thousands of Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and others having to leave Crimea, or the abductions and murders of local pro-Ukrainian activists and Tatars (none of which have been investigated), coupled with attacks on local religious minorities or communities, all with Russian acquiescence? Or is the installation of puppet states in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, professing totalitarian and rabidly pro-Russian nationalistic narratives, ostracising and oppressing, with often murderous and gruesome consequences, locals supportive of Ukraine and its territorial integrity, not fascism? That is fascism and its real life consequences; overtly totalitarian and militaristic tendencies, insisting on dividing people on ethnic markers which until recently were of very little relevance on a daily basis, and now bearing devastating repercussions.
I am not advocating whataboutism; I am in no way blind to abuses committed by the Ukrainian establishment. But I ask for consistency – something which I have not felt apparent in your writings.
Regarding moderating the Putin event; I understand journalists might need to moderate these events, but where does the buck stop? You have accepted that he is authoritarian (although to leave it at there would be simplistic); but is it still acceptable? If you were invited, in the unlikely event, to moderate an event featuring Barack Obama, would you go? Would you reject an invitation by a certain government? Is there not a moral compromise in any case by involving oneself in these events in such a capacity?
I am happy to discuss this further.
I rest my case.