Ukraine: How Bolsheviks championed
right to self-determination
BY MICHAEL ITALIE
The revolutionary government that came to power in Russia in October 1917 freed oppressed peoples who had been under the tsarist boot of Russian domination from Ukraine to Mongolia, and guaranteed their right to national self-determination—the first government in the world to do so. The Bolshevik leadership of the revolution began to forge a voluntary federation of republics based on soviet power. This federation took affirmative action to develop the economies and culture of the oppressed nations in order to close the historical gap between them and the formerly oppressor Russian nation.
The course of the Bolshevik Party, which led the revolution, was reversed in the 1920s by the bureaucratic caste that took political power and led a political counterrevolution—although the caste was unable to destroy the economic foundations of the workers state. The second life the Stalinist regime breathed into Great Russian chauvinism and the oppression of non-Russian nations looms behind the current political crisis that has shaken Ukraine since mid-November, as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to support competing presidential candidates following the November 21 election.
The Russian government, which backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in the election, is trying to slow down the establishment of regimes in former Soviet republics on Russia’s borders that are more subservient to Washington and other imperialist powers. Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, has maintained substantial economic and military ties with Russia since declaring independence in 1991.
During the crisis, forces in the eastern section of Ukraine loyal to Moscow have threatened to split away from the newly constituted country if opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko wins the presidency. This reactionary political course would be a blow to the self-determination of the people of Ukraine, who have fought for decades to free themselves from the yoke of national oppression under a succession of Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union.
At the same time, Yushchenko’s perspective of greater integration into NATO and subservience to imperialism is equally reactionary to that of the pro-Moscow government in Kiev.
This article takes up the roots of Ukrainian nationalism and its evolution under the impact of the October 1917 Russian Revolution and its degeneration.
From tsar to Russian Revolution
Ukraine became the possession of the Romanov dynasty in 1654 under the Treaty of Pereyaslav. By the early 20th century Ukraine made up 20 percent of the population of the Great Russian empire. Its land was the most fertile and its industry among the most modern—Ukrainian coal and iron were indispensable to the industry of Russia as a whole.
The feudal monarchy that ruled in Moscow carried out a policy of Russification of Ukraine. In the decades following the Treaty of Pereyaslav the tsars banned the Ukrainian language and suppressed the Ukrainian church. The regime adopted a policy of colonization, under which a privileged Russian minority was fostered in Ukraine.
The October 1917 revolution in Russia brought to power a revolutionary government based on councils of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ delegates called soviets (the Russian word for council). It mobilized peasants to expropriate the estates of the big landlords and distribute the nationalized land to be worked by the tillers.
The Bolshevik leadership organized workers to expropriate capitalist property in industry and banking, and established a state monopoly of foreign trade. It fought to draw workers into taking increasing control of industry and on that basis advance toward workers’ management, making it possible to begin economic planning to meet social needs.
The Bolsheviks also launched an international communist movement to aid fellow workers and farmers around the world in a common struggle of social and national liberation.
The socialist revolution also sounded the bell of “nation time.” It gave an impulse to revolutionary uprisings elsewhere throughout the tsarist empire, which Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin described as a “prison house of nations”—from Central Asia to the Transcaucasus to the Baltic states.
The Bolsheviks defended the right to self-determination of the nations oppressed by the Romanovs, up to and including the right to form an independent state. Finland, for example, gained its independence at this time.
The Ukrainian struggle for national rights exploded in 1917-19. One of the groups that played a central role in this struggle was the Ukrainian Borotba (Struggle) Party. Convinced that the Bolshevik revolution offered the way forward for the workers and peasants of Ukraine, the Borotba Party merged with the Ukrainian Communist Party (CP) in 1920.
Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky later wrote that “the most important indication of the success of the Leninist policy in the Ukraine was the fusion of the Ukrainian Bolshevik Party with the organization of the Borotbists.”
Russification vs. Ukrainization
As opposed to the Russification of the tsars, the Bolsheviks adopted a policy known as Ukrainization.
The Central Committee of the Russian CP resolved in November 1919 that its members in Ukraine “must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet institutions; they must in every way counteract attempts at Russification that push the Ukrainian language into the background and must convert that language into an instrument for the communist education of the working people. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that in all Soviet institutions there are sufficient Ukrainian-speaking employees and that in future all employees are able to speak Ukrainian.”
The bureaucratic caste that usurped political power in Russia in the 1920s reversed the Bolshevik course all along the line. One of the questions in which this first became apparent was in the policy to be adopted by the government in Moscow toward those nations that had been oppressed by the tsar and were just beginning to enjoy a measure of self-determination. The opening of the struggle against the course of the rising caste is documented in Lenin’s Final Fight, published by Pathfinder Press.
In September 1922, just a few months before the stroke that finally debilitated him, Lenin launched a political fight around the question of the Georgian republic and of the voluntary union of Soviet republics.
In a letter to the party’s Political Bureau and addressed to Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev, Lenin criticized the proposal by Joseph Stalin, the CP’s general secretary, to incorporate five independent Soviet republics—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, and Ukraine—into the Russian Federation as “autonomous republics.”
Lenin proposed a completely different approach: that Russia join with the other republics “on an equal basis into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
Although Lenin and Trotsky, his principle ally in this fight, won approval for their resolutions at the time, Stalin’s reactionary policies prevailed following Lenin’s death in 1924.
Stalin’s course was intensified and institutionalized with the consolidation of the caste’s counterrevolution in the early 1930s. The “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” reemerged as a prison house of nations—it was no longer a voluntary federation, but a “Soviet” super-state.
By the late 1920s the former Borotbists had been driven out of the Communist Party leadership in Ukraine, and most of them were killed by the Stalin murder machine in the 1930s.
In 1929 the Stalinist bureaucracy began a half-decade of forced collectivization of agriculture. In the name of financing rapid growth of industry, Moscow devastated agriculture in the Soviet Union and shattered the worker-peasant alliance that had made the revolution and was its cornerstone.
The brutality of forced collectivization in Ukraine was doubly severe because Moscow was also determined to crush any nationalist aspirations among the Ukrainian people. The bureaucracy’s policy in the countryside produced a famine that killed several million Ukrainians in 1932-33.
“Nowhere did the purges and repressions assume such a savage character as they did in the Ukraine,” Trotsky wrote in the 1939 article “Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads,” which can be found in Pathfinder’s Writings of Leon Trotsky, [1939-1940].
The reactionary caste in power promoted Russification with a vengeance. Advances made in introducing the Ukrainian language into the schools and public administration were driven back by Stalin and his successors. Classes were given in Russian in the universities in Ukraine, and Russian culture and books became predominant.
Aping the policies of the tsars, the Stalinist regime carried out a course of forced dispersal of oppressed peoples and the colonization of republics with Russians settlers who would become a privileged minority, loyal to Moscow and against the majority of the local population.
Although a certain loosening of restrictions followed in the years after Stalin’s death in 1953, Russification remained in full force under Nikita Khrushchev and those who followed him.
The faintest nationalist expressions continued to be met with repression from Moscow. This occurred regardless of whether it came from the circles of industrial workers that were organized in the late 1950s or Stalinist officials in Ukraine who hoped to ride on nationalist sentiment to build a basis of support against their rivals, such as Ukrainian CP boss Petro Yukhimovych Shelest, who was unceremoniously driven from office in 1973 as a “bourgeois nationalist.” A signal of his impending downfall was when an opponent in the ruling caste condemned a book by Shelest for saying “nothing about the advantages gained [for Ukraine] on entering the unified, centralized Russian state” at the time of the Treaty of Pereyaslav—the agreement among thieves that brought Ukraine under the tsarist yoke three centuries before!
In his 1939 article, Trotsky defended the Leninist policy of establishing the USSR only as a voluntary federation of workers and farmers republics, guaranteeing the rights of national self-determination. He outlined the importance of the working class championing the call for “A united, free, and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.”
Only through the struggle for self-determination can the road be opened to a voluntary union of soviet republics, Trotsky explained. “To speed and facilitate this process, to make possible the genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future,” he wrote, the workers of Russia must “without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Ukraine in a joint struggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.”
Once Stalinism had transformed the Soviet Union into a new prison house of nations, its break-up, its disintegration from within, was inevitable. This became a precondition to a new advance of the worldwide struggle for national liberation and socialism.
Today the workers and farmers in Ukraine need time to build a working-class leadership in the struggle against the devastating economic conditions that are the product of years of Stalinist misrule followed by a decade of efforts by a succession of petty-bourgeois regimes at reestablishing capitalism. Through these battles working people there will learn over time to reject the various choices for misleadership they are presented with today—of the Yushchenko or Yanukovich variety—and forge links with militant workers and proletarian revolutionists worldwide.