Renee Nal wrote earlier today about the Yanukovich government trying to intimidate opposition protesters in Kiev by sending a threatening message to their cell phones. As she notes, selecting their phones to receive the message required the government tracking their phone activity.
Creepy, indeed, as Renee says. But in a sense, it’s just a modern, technical method of fomenting the kind of violent, “dirty tricks” political conflict in which Bolsheviks specialized a century ago, and which disciples of Saul Alinsky sought to perfect in the 1960s. What this set of tactics is about is creating chaos, fear, conflict between groups: whatever it takes to make middle class and sensible people hide indoors, demand order, and lose their heart for organized, responsible political opposition.
We can call it ‘Bolshelinskyism’ – especially when we see the other reports coming out of Ukraine about the handling of the protests.
In this case, the protesters aren’t the Bolshelinskyists. The Bolshelinskyists are from the government, and they’re there to shut down the protests by whatever means necessary. Those means include bringing in rent-a-thugs to intimidate the peaceful protesters. They also include kidnapping opposition leaders, making them “disappear” for periods of time, roughing them up, and presumably seeking by those methods to frighten their families and associates.
You have to read a long way into the most recent New York Times account to get to this part. But here’s a summary of what the opposition protesters are seeing from the rent-a-thugs (emphasis added):
[O]ther groups have also appeared in Kiev, adding to the sense of chaos. Young men carrying sticks wandered side streets near the central square threatening to beat protesters who walked alone. One group shattered a shop window.
The opposition leaders have said they believe that these people are soccer hooligans and unemployed men bused into Kiev by the government to provide a proxy force to intimidate protesters and darken the image of the movement by highlighting the violence.
“Disorders should not be allowed to happen,” Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion and the leader of the political party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, wrote on Twitter. “This is a plan of authorities to introduce a state of emergency.”
Early Tuesday, opposition activists detained about a dozen of these rival young men and marched them to one of several buildings occupied by protesters, where several admitted in videotaped conversations that they had been promised 200 hryvnia, or about $25, to cause trouble. But they were not able to explain clearly who had hired them.
(Many readers’ thoughts will stray, quite naturally, to the barely less uncivilized practices of ACORN and its affiliates – conscious Alinskyites all – in paid “protest” activities in the United States. See here, here, here, here, here, and here, in case you need reminders. Most of you don’t.)
Meanwhile, opposition activists Igor Litsenko and Yuri Verbytsky were abducted from a hospital where they were being treated for injuries inflicted by government security forces. (This appears to have happened on Monday.) They were taken into a forested area and put in separate cells in a garage-like building for 10 hours. There seem to have been political arguments with the abductors; Litsenko thinks at least some were ideologues, and not just rent-a-thugs.
At the end of his confinement, he was forced to kneel down against a tree, and thought he was about to be executed. He was apparently facing the tree with his back to his captors, and eventually realized that they had left him by himself. He walked, “almost fainting sometimes,” back through the woods, and is now being treated in a different hospital. If he knows what happened to Verbytsky, he hasn’t said. Verbytsky’s whereabouts are unknown.
The proximity of these tactics in the same political conflict – rent-a-thugs on the streets, “non-violent” intimidation with spooky phone tricks, actual kidnappings – is a reminder that the line between them is a very thin one.
When the Bolsheviks operated, the lawless period of World War I was dragging on to an agonizing “conclusion”: an uneasy armistice in which millions of East Europeans and Russians saw their way of life vanish forever. The chaotic conditions existed then for brutal, murderous Bolshevism to predominate, in the mix that makes up Bolshelinskyism. Today’s conditions, for now, seem to permit only Alinskyism: less shooting and outright murder, more shouting and political extortion.
But the political bottom line can still be the same. Power can still change hands, and cast a punitive pall over the futures of millions of people. And Ukrainians have reason to know that. It’s why they’re fighting this so hard.
The last time rent-a-thugs were roaming their streets, trying to terrorize a nationalist political opposition on behalf of a faction that wanted to throw in with Russia, Ukraine ended up going through hell – a hell so indescribable that many in the West are still only barely aware of it. For Ukrainians, the political conditions of today, with Russia trying to decide Ukraine’s fate through intimidation, are far too much like those of the period 1917 to 1921, when Ukrainian nationalists fought a losing battle against Russian-backed Bolshevik factions – and, ultimately, against the Red Army itself.
Ukraine – especially western Ukraine, which is not ethnically Russian – had to be subjugated in the old Soviet Empire by force of arms. That went as badly for peasants and shopkeepers as it does anywhere; perhaps considerably worse than in some times and places. After Stalin came to power in 1924, the treatment of Ukraine by her Soviet rulers in Moscow became increasingly harsh. In 1928, Stalin launched his program of forced agricultural collectivization, and in 1932, after several years of determined grassroots resistance from Ukrainians, he began simply confiscating all the food in Ukraine.
Estimates of the dead in the resulting famine run as high as 10 million, but the generally used figure is 6-7 million dead in the horrific, man-made famine of 1932 and 1933. The pre-famine population was about 29.5 million. The Ukrainians call it the “Holomodor”: extermination by hunger.
Not content to kill off Ukrainians en masse, Stalin decimated the ranks of their Russia-friendly political leadership, treating them as he treated his own loyalists in the “purges” of the 1930s. He also had tens of thousands of Ukrainians deported, not only into the Gulag penal system but into nominally non-penal collective work camps in Central and Eastern Russia. Another 1.8 million (and perhaps more) Ukrainians fled to the West from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Now Ukrainians are faced, once again, with extortion by Russia, and thugs in the streets. In 1921, neither they nor anyone else could foresee how surpassingly gruesome the future would be. But they fought then. How much more will they want to fight in 2014, when they – and we – know what happened the last time these evil conditions settled on them?
With the recession of a positive American influence abroad, the ghosts of the past walk the earth again – and if we think the Ukrainians are being paranoid about that, it’s we who are wrong. The ghosts are coming out everywhere, from the resurgence of maritime and border disputes long held in check, to the rise – once again – of anti-Semitism in Europe.
The old patterns may be tiresome. But they are lethal. And we have no excuse for ignoring them, much less for failing – or refusing – to recognize them. Evil only has so many tricks; it just keeps trotting out all the same ones as the generations pass. Bolshelinskyism means the same thing now that it meant 50 years ago, and the same thing it meant 100 years ago. We pretend it isn’t happening at our peril.