Today many in Ukraine and around the world know little about this unparalleled period of nation-building and cultural expression. Even among those who know, many are not aware of the indispensable role played by V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the Russian Revolution, in advancing the fight for sovereignty of Ukraine together with the self-confidence and national pride of toilers there. Nor do many see that the murderous course later implemented under Joseph Stalin was part of a conscious campaign to reverse those gains.
Long before the opening of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin led a political battle to educate workers and peasants that their struggle to throw off czarist rule was inseparable from the national struggles of peoples oppressed under the empire, what he called “a prison house of nations.” Because of this, Lenin explained, the fight against the monarchy, the landlords and the capitalist exploiters could only be successful if it was led by a workers party that championed the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Only on that basis could working people throughout the empire gain self-confidence and come together to accomplish the monumental task. The largest and most weighty of the imprisoned nations was Ukraine.
“Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations?” Lenin wrote in 1914. “It cannot. The interests of the freedom of the Great-Russian population require a struggle against such oppression.”
In August 1919 Lenin wrote a letter to the workers and peasants of Ukraine drawing some of the lessons of the fight against the army of landlords and capitalists who were seeking to overturn Soviet rule.
“In Great Russia the system of landed estates has been completely abolished. The same must be done in the Ukraine,” Lenin noted. “Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed.”
Speaking to Russian communists, Lenin said even “the slightest manifestation in our midst of Great-Russian nationalism” cannot be tolerated, because it would prevent working people from fighting together to “uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat and Soviet power in the fight against the landowners and capitalists of all countries and against their attempts to restore their domination.”
Basil Dmytryshyn, in his book Moscow and the Ukraine, 1918-1953, documents the fight by Lenin and Leon Trotsky to lead the Bolshevik Party along this course. But he concludes that the theory and practice “proved in actual test” to be incompatible. A close look at the facts, however — including in Dmytryshyn’s own book — shows that Lenin’s words were put into practice. The national rights and aspirations of Ukrainians and other oppressed people were later crushed not as the inevitable result of the Russian Revolution, as Dmytryshyn and others claim, but by a bloody counterrevolution led by Stalin and falsely carried out under the banner of 1917.
Ukrainian nation forged in battleThe Ukrainian nation was forged in battle against Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Austrian occupation over centuries. Serfdom was first introduced in Ukraine by Polish landlords in the western part of the country during the late 1400s and 1500s.
In 1783 Czarina Catherine II imposed the particularly onerous Russian serf system on the areas under czarist domination and organized to “Russify” Ukraine, encouraging thousands of ethnic Russians to displace other inhabitants of the region.
In the mid-1800s cultural and political stirrings in Ukraine began to concern the ruling classes of the empire. Among these was the creation of the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, a secret society that existed from 1845-47. It advocated a program of social equality, the end of serfdom, an end to national oppression and a federation of Slavic states. The czar suppressed the Brotherhood, arresting and exiling its leaders, including former serf Taras Shevchenko, today considered Ukraine’s national poet.
In 1863 the czar banned virtually all publications in Ukrainian. In 1876 this was extended to the importation of Ukrainian-language books and even public readings and theater.
Czarist regime swept awayWorkers and peasants swept away the czar in February 1917 and began to organize themselves into soviets, including in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. Like in other parts of the Russian empire, the first government coming out of the revolution in Ukraine was led by Mensheviks, a split from the Bolsheviks that sought an end to the monarchy but opposed the overthrow of capitalism or the establishment of a government of workers and peasants.
Consistent with its bourgeois-nationalist course, the Menshevik provisional government based in the Russian city of Petrograd refused to recognize the demand for autonomy by the Rada, the new government in Ukraine.
“With force you will not keep but only anger the Ukrainians,” Lenin wrote. “If you yield to the Ukrainians you will then open up the road to trust between both nations, to their brotherly union as equals.”
In October, working people led by the Bolsheviks, demanding all power to the soviets (workers councils), overthrew the provisional government and took political power. The Bolshevik-led government immediately recognized Ukraine’s Rada. But the capitalist-dominated Rada opposed the October Revolution, fearing the support the Bolsheviks were winning among working people in Ukraine, especially among peasants who had already seized control of almost a third of the estates of the large landlords. The Rada allowed the German, Austrian and other imperialist armies to operate freely in territory under its control.
The German and Austrian governments soon “repaid” the Rada by overthrowing it and returning property and political power to the landlords under the rule of Gen. Pavlo Skoropadsky.
For the next several years Ukraine was embroiled in war. Control over much of the country shifted back and forth between the Red Army and worker and peasant soviets on one side, and on the other the imperialist-backed forces of czarist generals Anton Denikin and Pyotr Wrangel, with help from invading armies of Poland and Germany.
The civil war devastated Ukraine. According to Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth-Century Ukraine by Bohdan Krawchenko, by 1921 industrial production was one-tenth the 1912 figure. A famine caused by the war that ravaged the Soviet Union killed 1 million people in Ukraine.
Lenin fights for ‘Ukrainization’In November 1919, as soon as the Red Army had dealt decisive blows to Denikin’s White Army, the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party took measures to increase the political action and self-confidence of peasants — then comprising 80 percent of Ukraine’s population — and draw them into the government. The resolution ordered the “transfer of the landed estates to peasants possessing little or no land.”
At Lenin’s urging the Central Committee passed a resolution instructing party members in Ukraine to “remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture. … [Party] members on Ukrainian territory 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.”
Despite resistance within the Bolshevik Party in Ukraine and Russia, including from Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin won the political battle. As a result the Bolsheviks won over the Borotbists, a faction of the Social Revolutionaries who were fighting for Ukrainian independence. The Borotbists fused with the Ukrainian Communist Party in March 1920, helping to transform the party there from majority Russian to majority Ukrainian. Ukrainian communists held key posts in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the party, replacing communists from Russia. Mykola Skrypnyk, a key fighter for Ukrainization, held numerous positions in the party and government. Oleksander Shumsky, a leader of the Borotbists, became people’s commissar of education. Mykola Khvylovy edited a weekly supplement to the Ukrainian-language daily Visti VUTsVK.
While revolutionaries led by Lenin had the upper hand, the fight was not over. Between late September 1922 and early March 1923, the final months of his active political life, Lenin waged a battle within the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to combat Stalin and the growing privileged government bureaucracy he spoke for and which threatened to undermine the alliance of workers and peasants.
A central part of Lenin’s final fight was against the resurgence of opposition to self-determination for oppressed nations led by Stalin. “I declare war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism,” Lenin wrote in October 1922. “I shall eat it with all my healthy teeth as soon as I get rid of this accursed bad tooth.”
Even after Lenin’s death in January 1924, the course he set in motion in Ukraine continued almost through the end of the decade.
Flowering of cultureDmytryshyn reports that the number of publications written in Ukrainian mushroomed — from 747 books in 1917 to 2,920 in 1927-28. Circulation of Ukrainian language periodicals rose in 1924 alone from 72,000 copies to 205,000.
In 1922 less than 20 percent of students in Ukraine were Ukrainian. By 1928 they were more than 50 percent.
Among other examples was the rapid growth of cinema. According to the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, just four films were produced in Ukraine in 1923. This grew to 16 in 1924, 20 in 1927 and 36 in 1928. The number of movie theaters went from 265 in 1914 to 5,394 in 1928. Many films dealt with Ukrainian national themes, including a 1926 film on Shevchenko.
That all came to an end as Stalin consolidated control over the Soviet government apparatus and the Communist Party. At first he began reversing the Leninist course “silently, ‘quietly,’ without public justification,” Ivan Dzyuba, a Ukrainian communist, wrote in 1965 in Internationalism or Russification? which called for a return to the Leninist road of Ukrainization. The resolutions Lenin fought for “were simply put aside and replaced by quite opposite decisions.” By 1926 Stalin was pushing out of the party or trying to silence some of the most prominent proponents of Ukrainization.
In 1932 Stalin launched a reign of terror against Ukraine’s peasants, workers and revolutionaries. In order to impose a truly crushing and demoralizing defeat, Stalin consciously organized to starve millions to death.
“Several million peasants were wiped out in the artificial famine of 1933,” Dzyuba wrote. They died during the forced collectivization of Ukraine’s peasantry and confiscation of food that was then exported to capitalist countries.
Stalin “liquidated” virtually the entire leadership of the Bolsheviks in Russia. From 1936 to 1938, 99 of the 102 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine were murdered.
“Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence,” Trotsky wrote in April 1939.
Anyone who defended Ukraine’s sovereignty against the extreme Russian nationalism was slandered as a “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist” and an opponent of internationalism, Dzyuba noted.
The bloody repression unleashed on Ukraine by the Stalinist murder machine — under the false banner of defending the revolution — was not an inevitable extension of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The truth is the opposite. It was the “truly internationalist Leninist policy which safeguarded the interests and the full development of the socialist Ukrainian nation,” Dzyuba wrote.
Ukraine opposition spreads to provocations by Moscow:
Miners build protests, organize self-defense
Whoever the oppressor, Ukrainians continued to struggle
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