Behind the lines – workers’ voices from the war zone

Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

Vladimir Putin’s ghastly “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine has led to a growing death toll. It is probable that thousands of Russian soldiers have now perished. Many were conscripts, still in their teens, with neither they nor their parents having any idea of where they were being sent.

During a third Sunday of anti-war protests across Russia on 13 March, hundreds more are reported arrested in 37 cities. Some can face 15 years and more in prison.

In Russia and in Ukraine, the small numbers of genuine socialists face a barrage of reaction, nationalism, and war-mongering coming from all directions.


‘K’, a friend in Saint Petersburg, says he believes the idea of re-establishing Russia’s hegemony in the region has popular support in Russia. He maintains that, “Putin is a Bonapartist, standing above society and acting indirectly on behalf of the oligarchic layer, not as one of them…”.

But Putin is, in fact, one of the richest of them. He has seen his popularity declining during the Covid pandemic and soon has to renew his position as Russia’s number-one politician.

‘Y’, a correspondent in Moscow, indicated that few people in Russia have a real picture of what this war is about. He said that so far there was at least 50% support for Putin. His ‘war against fascists’ is a powerful propaganda point in a country that lost more than 20 million of its citizens to Nazi-controlled forces in World War Two.

“At first”, said ‘Y’, “the loudest grumbles were heard in the massive queues at cashpoints that snaked around buildings, as citizens tried to withdraw their savings in whatever currency they could.

“Many workers are sitting at home as foreign firms withdraw their operations and workplaces close because of Western sanctions. Appeals for strike action are falling on deaf ears at the moment”. For generations, of course, there have been few, if any, independent, fighting workers’ organisations – unions or parties.

The so-called Communist Party (CP), led by the veteran Stalinist, Gennady Zyuganov, has been a loyal supporter of every government for the past 30 years – all of them capitalist, all of them dictatorships. The CP supports the war and Putin’s imperialist aim of subjugating a whole nation.

A couple of deputies and a few individual members are reported to have split away from the party. There are smaller parties and organisations that have come out clearly against the war from a socialist standpoint. But, at the moment, their voices are small.

“Anger is accumulating as the truth begins to circulate,” ‘Y’ says. “Over time, the situation can change, and change quite rapidly. It could become a 1905 (the first Russian Revolution following the Russia-Japan war) with a military defeat leading to a major movement from below.”


‘V’, is a socialist and member of a small trade union in Ukraine. He recently explained the problems of trying to organise any kind of workers’ units independently from the state’s armed forces. He spoke about a group of anarchists who had formed independent militias and then put themselves under government control… To fight the Russians!” .

‘V’ is no longer able to contact his own comrades. He said he was considering getting his family to safety in the north-west of the country. The next day, Russian bombs were reported to have been dropped in that very area and on Lviv itself with its massively swollen population of desperate refugees.


One workers’ leader spoke from Kazakhstan, scene just weeks ago of mass battles with state forces. “There is a great fear that food supplies will dry up”, he says. “There are long queues outside shops for sugar and fear of a bread crisis is looming. No grain can be planted in the wheat-fields of Ukraine, where most of our supplies come from.

“There is now talk of a call-up of men in Kazakhstan to serve in Putin’s war against Ukraine. In January, Russian army units were at the head of the armed forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) who came in to help Tokayev’s dictatorship drown our uprising in blood.

“Putin seems to have the idea of rebuilding Russia’s rule in the whole of its former empire or the USSR, involving troops of the CSTO from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as from Russia and Kazakhstan.”


Larissa who works in London, grew up in the ‘garden city’ of Donetsk (in eastern Ukraine, now in a separatist Russian-speaking statelet). Her father – a miner – died a few years ago when the fighting was already taking the lives and homes of people he knew.

A few days ago she heard from friends of hers who had moved to Kyiv with one of their sons. He had been conscripted into the Ukrainian army. The other son was already a serving ‘recruit’ in the Donetsk People’s Army.

“Imagine!”, says Larissa: “The way things are going over the next days and weeks, these two brothers could find themselves  coming face to face on the battlefield! It’s just a nightmare!”.

A strong socialist movement in any country beset by war can make a class appeal to workers in the opposite camp in the hope of having some effect on the situation and preventing further bloodshed. But the voice of socialists is still very small at this stage.