Kononovich brothers, Ukrainian Communist youth leaders, confirmed to be alive
The imprisoned brothers who lead the Communist Youth Union of Ukraine, Mikhail and Aleksander Kononovich. | via WFDY

More than 100 days after they were snatched by the Ukrainian secret police, their fate unknown, two Communist youth leaders accused of spying for Russia are finally confirmed to be alive.

Mikhail Kononovich, leader of the youth wing of the outlawed Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), and his brother, Aleksander Kononovich, were arrested by Ukrainian authorities in Kiev in early March. Mikhail is the Communist youth group’s first secretary, and Aleksander is a leading activist in the organization; both are Ukrainian citizens.

There were widespread fears that they might have been executed, as hundreds of people taken captive by government security services and right-wing militias have permanently disappeared or been found dead.

The World Federation of Democratic Youth, a U.N.-recognized global alliance of progressive youth organizations, has mounted a campaign to raise awareness and demand the release of the brothers. This week, WFDY finally received word from Kiev that both Mikhail and Aleksander Kononovich are indeed alive, but they remain imprisoned and face an uncertain future.

“After being persecuted, repressed, kidnapped, and tortured by the…Ukrainian Security Service, now their right to defense from the accusations [against them] is being violated,” WFDY said in a statement.

The official charges against them include conspiracy to “forcibly change or overthrow the constitutional order or seizing state power” and making “public calls” to do the same. The charges could carry a sentence of more than 10 years under Ukrainian law.

Before their detention, the Kononovich brothers were most recently known to have participated in a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev demanding that the U.S. stop its military expansionism in Europe via NATO.

WFDY and dozens of international youth organizations have said the accusations of espionage are a cover for the latest stage of a broader anti-communist campaign carried out by the Ukrainian government in recent years.

The government that took power in Ukraine in the wake of the U.S.-backed “Euro-Maidan” coup of 2014 outlawed the Communist Party and banned it from running candidates in elections. The party’s youth group was also made illegal and its members were subjected to political persecution by the police and the courts.

Across the country, the government enforced a so-called “decommunization” law that not only outlawed the CPU but also forbid the use of any Communist names or symbols in public, mandated the destruction of Soviet war memorials, and prevented any teaching about the positive aspects of Soviet history in schools.

The Ukrainian government stepped up its persecution of the Communists even further following the outbreak of civil war in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014-15. The party had been warning that the state’s nationalistic policies would lead to conflict in the east and said it feared the establishment of a fascist dictatorship, given the growing power of armed neo-Nazi elements.

Instead of listening to the CPU’s pleas for negotiation, the government executed a war in the east that took an estimated 15,000 lives from 2014 to 2022. CPU leader Petro Symonenko was branded a traitor by the Ukrainian government for repeatedly urging ceasefires and direct negotiations to stop the fighting.

The CPU called for a federalist solution to the divisions within Ukraine in the early days of the civil war, foreshadowing the Minsk Agreements. The latter were meant to halt the fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk by granting autonomy to those areas, but the government in Kiev never abided by the accords.

As for CPU cadre and members, they remained undeterred by the government’s legal prohibitions and continued their political work underground.

In an interview featured in People’s World in November 2019, Mikhail Kononovich discussed Communist Youth Union mobilizations against the privatization of public farmlands by the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990-91, the Ukrainian government abandoned the collective farm system that had defined socialist agriculture in the USSR. The former collectively-owned land was distributed among the members of the farms, however, and bans on further sales were put in place to supposedly protect small farmers from being swallowed up by corporate industrial giants.

A banner drop action demanding freedom for the Kononovich brothers was carried out by the World Federation of Democratic Youth ahead of the NATO summit this weekend in Madrid, Spain. | via WFDY

The Zelensky government reversed that longstanding policy in 2019, leading to fears that Ukrainian farmland—which takes up as much space as France and Germany combined—would be gobbled up by foreign agribusiness giants.

Ukraine is a top wheat producer; together with Russia, it accounts for about 30% of the world’s traded wheat. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war have disrupted exports from both countries and sent global wheat prices soaring. International inflation of food prices, already on a steady rise before the war, has been accelerated—leading to higher profits for producers outside the conflict zone.

In 2019, Mikhail Kononovich situated the government’s persecution of Communists within the context of the neoliberal economic policies of marketization and privatization, such as the land sales, that have been pursued since the coup of 2014.

All through the 1990s and most of the 2000s, the CPU was the largest party in the Ukrainian parliament, and in the last election before it was banned, it received nearly three million votes. It often stood as a roadblock to multiple governments’ attempts to sell off more of the public property and resources inherited from Soviet socialism.

Kononovich said the outlawing of the CPU was intended “to clear the political field of left parties so they would not interfere with lowering social standards and selling land.” Comparing the fight to the resistance against Nazi invaders during World War II, Kononovich said, “The sale of [public] land is our Stalingrad—not one step back! No sale of land!”

The Kononovich family had been repeatedly targeted by both state authorities and fascist militia forces long before the brothers’ arrest. According to a filing on record with the European Parliament, while leaving flowers in 2016 at a monument to Red Army soldiers who fought against Hitler, Mikhail Kononovich and other members of the Komsomol were victims of an assault by right-wing militants. Kononovich suffered serious blows to the head and another member nearly lost his sight.

Fascist gangs attempted to pressure hospital staff not to treat the injured Communists and also regularly intimidated Kononovich’s wife and daughter at their home afterward.

The ongoing Russian invasion has allowed the Ukrainian government to expand its anti-communist policies, with espionage providing a new rationale for the rounding up of Communists, socialists, anti-war activists, and trade unionists.

WFDY argues this is the fate that has befallen the Kononovich brothers, who the group believes are imprisoned for the “crime” of being Communists, not spies. It is demanding not only the right to a fair trial but for their immediate and safe release and an end to the political repression of the left in Ukraine.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.