Lenin led the fight for Ukrainian self-determination

September 12, 2022

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine over six months ago, he argued that the country was never a sovereign nation at all, but a “creation” of V.I. Lenin, central leader of the Bolshevik Party that led millions to overturn capitalist rule, bringing to power a workers and farmers government in 1917.

What the revolutionary government Lenin led actually did was recognize that a Ukrainian nation — along with a number of other peoples who suffered under czarist domination — had been forged over centuries in struggles against foreign occupation, including against the Russian czars. Lenin fought for their right to self-determination.

Lenin “was the most ardent adherent to the real equality of nations not only during his prerevolutionary activities, but also during his work as head of the Soviet government,” wrote Christian Rakovsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Party, in a 1924 tribute to Lenin after his death. Rakovsky headed the Soviet government in Ukraine from 1919 to 1923.

“It is due to his firm leadership,” Rakovsky wrote of Lenin, “that the old Russian empire, which was previously strangling scores of nationalities, has now been transformed into the Union of independent autonomous republics.”

Those conquests — and Rakovsky’s position — were overturned in a counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin after Lenin’s death.

Below are excerpts from the November 1919 draft resolution of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) on Soviet rule in the Ukraine and the “Letter To The Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine Apropos of the Victories over Denikin,” written by Lenin Dec. 28, 1919, marking the defeat of the army of czarist general Anton Denikin. The two pieces are in Vol. 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works.

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The C.C., R.C.P.(B.), having discussed the question of relations with the working people of the Ukraine now being liberated from the temporary conquest of Denikin’s bands, is pursuing persistently the principle of the self-determination of nations and deems it essential to again affirm that the R.C.P. holds consistently to the view that the independence of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic be recognized. …

In view of the fact that Ukrainian culture (language, school, etc.) has been suppressed for centuries by Russian tsarism and the exploiting classes, the C.C., R.C.P. makes it incumbent upon all Party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture. Since the many centuries of oppression have given rise to nationalist tendencies among the backward sections of the population, R.C.P. members must exercise the greatest caution in respect of those tendencies and must oppose them with words of comradely explanation concerning the identity of interests of the working people of the Ukraine and Russia. R.C.P. 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. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that in all Soviet institutions there are sufficient Ukrainian-speaking employees and that in the future all employees are able to speak Ukrainian. …

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We Great-Russian Communists must repress with the utmost severity the slightest manifestation in our midst of Great-Russian nationalism, for such manifestations, which are a betrayal of communism in general, cause the gravest harm by dividing us from our Ukrainian comrades and thus playing into the hands of Denikin and his regime. …

And what the bourgeoisie of all countries, and all manner of petty-bourgeois parties — i.e., “compromising” parties which permit alliance with the bourgeoisie against the workers — try most of all to accomplish is to disunite the workers of different nationalities, to evoke distrust, and to disrupt a close international alliance and international brotherhood of the workers. Whenever the bourgeoisie succeeds in this the cause of the workers is lost. The Communists of Russia and the Ukraine must therefore by patient, persistent, stubborn and concerted effort foil the nationalist machinations of the bourgeoisie and vanquish nationalist prejudices of every kind, and set the working people of the world an example of a really solid alliance of the workers and peasants of different nations in the fight for Soviet power, for the overthrow of the yoke of the landowners and capitalists, and for a world federal Soviet republic.