Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 7, 2016

Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

The last thing I would expect from a knucklehead Putinite like Mike Whitney or Pepe Escobar is any kind of engagement with the history of Ukrainian national oppression but it never fails to amaze me how little interest there is for the Marxist traveling circus consisting of people like Roger Annis, the ex-Trotskyist in Canada, Renfrey Clarke, the Socialist Alliance member in Australia, sect leaders Alan Woods and Jeff Mackler et al. Most of these people probably were exposed to what the Fourth International said about Ukraine in the 1960s and have either forgotten it in their dotage or more likely sweep it under the rug. If there’s anybody who can be called the leader of this new breed of Great Russian Chauvinism, it is Boris Kagarlitsky who has a material incentive to be Putin’s spin doctor. His think-tank is funded by the Kremlin.

Stephen Velychenko

There’s one man who has their number. He is Stephen Velychenko, the chair of the Ukrainan studies at the University of Toronto who wrote a two-part series on the traveling circus. This is from part one:.

Kargalitsky’s pro Kremlin audience finds his worker revolution scenario appealing. But given their preconceptions, ignorance of Russian and Ukrainian, and minimal knowledge about either country, they either cannot, or choose not to, know what he omits from his articles. For example, he makes no mention of Russian imperialism, great power chauvinism, non Russian national movements, linguistic and cultural russification of non Russians, or the link between the national and the social questions. He does not dwell on how his imagined “working class” movement was aided and funded in its origins by Ukraine’s pro Russian capitalists (oligarchs); in particular, Rinat Akhmetov, nor that the local Russian extremist leaders are not interested in nationalization – least of all Akhmetov’s holdings. He does not mention either the small size of the neo-Nazi section of the Ukrainian right nor how few Ukrainian citizens support the Russian neo nazi right. [9] For all their Marxist rhetoric neither Kargalitsky or his likeminded reflect on why the Russian neo-Nazi leaders of Ukraine’s imagined proletarian revolution do not associate themselves with Marxism of any kind, why they sport double headed eagles and tsarist colours, rather than hammers and sickles and red banners, why they use Orthodox symbolism, or, why they wax nostalgic over the tsarist empire rather than the short-lived Russian Bolshevik Krivoi-Rog Republic of 1918.

In order to correct the “preconceptions” and “ignorance” that plagues so much of the left, Velychenko has just written a book titled “Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925” that demonstrates in copious detail how the Bolsheviks treated the Ukrainians just like the British treated the Irish. Lenin was probably the most committed to breaking with Great Russian Chauvinism and probably would have been a force for combatting Stalin’s open embrace of it but even he was not immune.

What you can read below is the first nineteen pages of chapter one, a section titled historical background. For people committed to understanding the roots of Ukrainian resistance to Russia domination, even when expressed in a distorted form, Velychenko’s book is essential.

 * * * * *

We propose Union and they want to dominate.
Letter to the editor, Chervonyi prapor, 25 February 1919

In the early twentieth century, the people we now call Ukrainians were much like other peoples in the world. Most were rural, did not live in independent national states, and had little influence on politics. Ukraine, like Poland, was not on any political map of Europe. There were eight Ukrainian provinces in the Russian empire, all centrally administered units with common characteristics that distinguished them from Russian territories. Like Ireland in the United Kingdom between 1801 and 1918, they retained regional particularities that allow them to be classified as a “mixed settler” colony. Ukrainian peasants spoke Ukrainian and did not practice land repartition. In 1900 the numerically small but economically powerful Polish nobility still dominated the three western provinces of Kyiv, Volyn, and Podillia.

The first significant Russian settlement into Ukrainian territories, comprising merchants, administrators, and soldiers, dated from the eighteenth century. Massive settlement of Russian migrant workers, began in the late nineteenth century. By 1900 approximately 2 million Russian speakers, most of whom were Russian, were concentrated in Kharkiv and Katerynoslav provinces. This averaged 10 per cent of the total population of the Ukrainian provinces. Declared Russians constituted 33 per cent of Ukraine’s total urban population, 43 per cent of the population in its eight largest cities, and 52 per cent in its four largest cities. Between 40 and 50 per cent of government administrators were Russian speakers. There was no controlled border between the Ukrainian and Russian provinces to hinder Russian inmigration as there was between the Duchy of Finland and Russian provinces. No border and a century of direct rule by Saint Petersburg, during which time education, administration, the print media, and high culture were all in Russian, meant that Russian settlers had no sense of themselves as immigrants or colonists. They did not become an immigrant minority whose social mobility depended on learning a foreign language and assimilating into the host community. Nonetheless, the Ministry of the Interior in the 1897 census clearly identified Ukrainians (Malorossy) as the “native [korennoe]” population in Kharkiv province and Russians (Velikorussov) as the “immigrant population [prishlym naseleniem].”1

The Ukrainian provinces had fewer industrial workers than Russian provinces because state policy developed Ukraine’s extractive industries and agriculture while neglecting its manufacturing sector. Also factory owners tended to hire incoming poor but semi or highly skilled Russian peasants, whom they preferred to local poor but unskilled Ukrainian peasants. Many of the latter, in turn, preferred to take government subsidies and migrate to Siberia rather than risk going to a nearby factory. Of all workers, 17 per cent came from non-Ukrainian provinces, and of these, 70 per cent were Russian in 1897. Ukrainian speakers were on average 73 per cent of all workers and between 30 and 50 per cent of all urban industrial workers. Twenty per cent of all Ukrainian-speaking workers were urban industrial workers, and Ukrainians were 70 per cent of all workers in settlements not classified as “cities” in the census. In terms of linguistic and socio-economic structure, “the Ukrainian proletariat was totally unlike the Russian proletariat.”2

Although at the turn of the century, Russians who had no sense of themselves as immigrants in the Ukrainian provinces did not have to learn or use the local language, and few assimilated into the host com-munity, the question of whether Ukraine’s urban population would Ukrainianize or Russify was still open. Bilingualism, diglossia, and intermarriage kept boundaries porous and identities ambiguous, and almost half of all incoming workers were from Ukrainian provinces.3 Nor was there yet direct correspondence between language use and political allegiance. Much would depend on future governmental policies. The Polish landowning nobles and urban Russians were a dominant settler-colonist minority on Ukrainian territory. Although Polish nobles initially supported Ukrainian autonomy, it should be noted that that support had faded by the end of 1917 as rural social radicalism brought latent mutual hatreds to the boil.4 Rural Polish and Russian peasants tended to assimilate into the Ukrainian majority; urban Russian dwellers did not. Living in cities with no Ukrainian-language schools, churches, businesses, mass-circulation newspapers, or government offices, they had no need to learn Ukrainian or to culturally assimilate in order to obtain services, an education, a good job, and status. Most Russians, Poles, and assimilated Ukrainians, like settler-colonists and assimilated natives in any colony, looked down on unassimilated Ukrainians. Few among the Russian intelligentsia applied their humanist standards and sensitivities to Ukrainian national issues or supported Ukrainian political demands. It was the dominated indigenous majority-Ukrainian nationality for whom social mobility was contingent on learning a foreign language and adopting foreign cultural norms. All had to learn some Russian, many changed their surnames, many internalized “the colonizer’s image of the colonized” by perceiving themselves as “Little Russians.” Many eventually assimilated and considered themselves Russian. Many of the socially mobile ethnic Ukrainians who admired European modernity and equated it with Russian national identity, linked their own identity with the rural backwardness and poverty they were seeking to escape. Divisions ran within families: one brother might become a Ukrainian nationalist, another a Russian imperialist. Jewish political elites, for their part, by 1917 supported Ukrainian autonomy but, that support did not extend far among their compatriots, who were mostly sceptical or indifferent. “That attitude was reflected not only in comic dismissal of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-language signs; they also passively opposed Ukrainization.” Jewish workers in 191718 volunteered for the Red Guard. None volunteered for Ukrainian units.5

Some bilingual Ukrainians became administrators, traders, manufacturers, patrons of the national movement, and millionaires, but they did not constitute a national capitalist class. Most of Ukraine’s overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian industrialists and bankers identified with the empire. In 1920, the émigré left-SR Mykyta Shapoval noted that Russian, Polish, Jewish, Hungarian, Czech, Rumanian, Belgian, French, and English capital ruled: “In its organization form [sic] this is not Ukrainian but colonial [sic] capital. It is also colonialist [sic] in terms of its economic aim [sic]. It reflects the interests of the metropole and treats Ukraine only as the object of terrible exploitation.” “Colonialist capital has never, in any place, built an independent state from a colony.” He observed that in Ireland, “a colony of intelligent and humane English capital,” the Irish had no option after more than one hundred years of struggle but to engage in “terrorist partisan war.”6

In general, people most of the time do not think about their nationality, and before the war, linguistic-cultural borders were fluid. Educated urban elites had only begun to politicize national identities and draw boundaries between loyal “Russians” or “Little Russians” and disloyal “Ukrainians.” Not every non-Ukrainian shared the anti-Ukrainian Russian-slavophile-based attitudes of the extremist imperial loyalist parties known as the “Black Hundreds.” Ethnic Ukrainians and Russians who supported a loyalist “Little Russian” cultural autonomy could simultaneously condemn Ukrainian political autonomy. Difference did not disrupt everyday life. In 1917 in the town council of Vinnytsia, a typical provincial capital of around 60,000 people, of whom almost 40 per cent were Jewish, “[deputies] spoke in all languages: Polish, Ukrai-nian, Hebrew, various jargons, sometimes Russian, and the spokesman [of the Jewish faction] Spivak spoke in a mix of all of them.”7

Rival elites successfully politicized identities during the revolution as attitudes hardened. Weak Ukrainian governments were too short-lived to appreciably change the views of urban dwellers with Russo-centric preconceptions of eastern Slavic and imperial political unity, who viewed Ukrainians as second-rate, inherently rural, backward, and seditious. As far as is known, most such persons after 1918 still considered Russian a higher culture, which they identified with loyalty to the Bolshevik regime, or the White one. When Anna Dobrovolska in July 1919 faced having to attend church services in Ukrainian in the reestablished Ukrainian Orthodox church subject to Constantinople rather than Moscow, for example, she refused. Her imperial identity trumped her religious convictions, and she denounced the new Ukrainian church to the atheist Bolshevik government as a treasonous organization because it was linked to the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR).8 The Ukrainian-born Russian monarchist Vasili Shulgin was extremely pleased when on his visit to Kyiv in 1925 he heard no Ukrainian in the streets. On visiting Odessa in 1921, a Ukrainian communist reported that “the Ukrainian population is small and totally terrorized … The fear is so great that they are afraid to speak Ukrainian and ask about what is happening in Ukraine in corners.” When he began giving public lectures in Ukrainian, he was considered heroic “because everything Ukrainian is slandered as “Petliurism.” In Mylokaiiv, another Ukrainian communist observed that for local Bolsheviks, “there is no such thing as a Ukrainian revolution [and] the Ukrainian Communist Party is a petite-bourgeois chauvinist national organization.”9

The leaders of the national movement were bilingual political moderates, and after 1905 they could legally form political parties. At the turn of the century, they began to disseminate the idea that the ethnically Ukrainian provinces of the tsarist empire (Rossiia) constituted a political, cultural, and economic entity called “Ukraine,” which was distinct from Russia (Velikorossiia). The leaders began to build a middle-class infrastructure of literate peasants, retailers, and white-collar workers. These people began to wonder why business, education, government, and high culture in “Ukraine” had to be in Russian and not in Ukrainian.10

While the moderate majority of Ukrainian national activists regarded linguistic and cultural assimilation as more significant indices of Russian imperialism than economic exploitation, radicals drew attention to the latter and to the impact of industrialization and commercialization. The Jewish-Ukrainian activist Maksym Hekhter labelled Ukrainian agricultural workers “white niggers.”11 While most national leaders, like their Irish counterparts, considered capitalist urban industrial modernity a threat to Ukrainian nationality, a Marxist minority argued that Ukrainian nationality could only develop alongside capitalist modernity.12 Before the war, self-awareness and self-assertion on the whole remained muted, although antagonisms occasionally surfaced. Ukrainian nationalists focused on cultural-linguistic rather than economic issues and were not extremists; most literate educated Russian speakers, urban white-collar professionals, and industrial workers tolerated “Little Russians” and their folk songs. Some regarded them with condescending contempt, but only the extremist imperial loyalist minority was openly hostile towards the national movement. Russian urban settlers and Polish landowners in the Ukrainian provinces, for their part, did not develop a “creole/mestizo” separatist nationalism as did European colonists in Latin and North America. Urban Russians overwhelmingly identified with the imperial metropole politically and culturally, much as Anglo-Scot loyalists in Ireland, Germans in Bohemia, and French settlers in Algeria did, rather than with their place of residence. Polish nobles, profoundly alienated by peasant land seizures in 1917, opposed Ukrainian independence (unlike their Swedish counterparts in Finland, who backed Finnish independence).

National leaders in Kyiv formed the Central Rada in March 1917 13 That November, its moderate socialist majority proclaimed the UNR an autonomous part of Russia. Instead of declaring independence after the Bolsheviks took power, the Rada sought a federation with the Provisional government then represented by General Kaledin in southern Russia.14 This prompted the Russian Bolsheviks to invade UNR territory in January 1918 in support of their comrades in Kharkiv, who had already on their own initiative occupied UNR cities. The Rada initially enjoyed the support of the 85 to 90 percent of peasants who were poor or struggling and who hoped it would enact land reform. The Rada’s hesitation on this issue led to civil war by early 1918, which Russian Bolsheviks turned into a national war when they invaded on the side of Ukraine’s Bolsheviks. The invasion prompted the Rada to proclaim independence and sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers (see figure 4, illustration section). In April 1918, with German support, landowners and industrialists overthrew the UNR and installed Pavlo Skoropadsky as Hetman of the Ukrainian State. His regime fell in November with the collapse of Germany and was succeeded by a renewed UNR under the temporary rule of a Directory led by the centrist Simon Petliura and the leftist Volodymyr Vynnychenko. The UNR and its army collapsed in December 1919 after a second Bolshevik invasion that established the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, but, a vicious partisan war that had begun in 1919 raged on until 1922. The major Ukrainian partisan groups were affiliated with either the SRs, the SDs, the UNR, or Makhno, although they did change sides. The UNR attempted to coordinate and control as many partisan groups as possible, without much success.15

Russians and Russified non-Russians dominated the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party (RSDLP) in the Ukrainian provinces as a “centralist” majority. The many culturally Russified ethnic Jews in that party were secular apostates who were not representative of the religious Jewish majority. As a culturally and politically Russian party in Ukraine, the RSDLP was not a party of an oppressed nation. The provincial party organizations had no ties with one another. The most important branch was in Kyiv province, but almost 65 per cent of party members were in Kharkiv and Kateryno-slav provinces. By December 1917, the Bolsheviks did not yet dominate Ukraine’s approximately three hundred soviets. In 1917 they controlled the soviets only in the large cities – they were 88 per cent of members in Luhansk, 60 per cent in Kyiv, 48 per cent in Kharkiv, 47 per cent in Katerynoslav, 40 per cent in Odessa. Only forty of Ukraine’s soviets present at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd. Only ninety of Ukraine’s soviets ratified their seizure of power in Kharkiv.16

Among the Kyivan bolsheviks were some later termed “federalists” who differed with the “centralist” majority regarding the degree to which Ukraine was to be subordinated to Russia. Both groups cooperated conditionally with the Rada, much like communists were later to cooperate with “revolutionary anti-imperialist nationalists,” until 26 October, when they declared the Rada a “counterrevolutionary bourgeois” organ. This was in reaction to the Rada’s refusal to recognize the authority of Lenin’s Soviet government because it represented only a minority among the country’s left-wing revolutionary democrats.17 Thereafter, Ukraine’s Bolsheviks called for single-party rule in Ukraine, which they claimed was necessary to fight “Ukrainian nationalism.”

Ukraine’s Bolsheviks took power in Kharkiv in December 1917 with approximately 4,500 troops and Red Guards, of whom roughly 2,100 had arrived from Moscow the previous week.18 This group, which garnered only 10 per cent of the vote in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and which represented less than 30 per cent of Ukraine’s soviets, claimed to be the government of the five Ukrainian provinces that the Provisional Government had formally subordinated to the Central Rada. Bolsheviks in Katerynoslav, Kherson, and Taurida provinces remained formally under Petrograd, not Kharkiv. The Kharkiv government arrived in Kyiv on 30 January (12 February) 1918 in the wake of the Russian Red Army (see figures 7 and 8, illustration section).The allied Ukrainian and German armies expelled it from the city in March. Ukraine’s first Bolshevik government included Ukrainian-born Russians, Germans, secular Jews, some Ukrainians, a few Russians from Russia and was subordinated to Lenin’s plenipotentiary in Ukraine, Sergo Ordzhonikidze.19 This government sought more power than its central leaders were prepared to allow it, and some of Ukraine’s pro-Bolshevik workers supported it as a Ukrainian and not as a Russian soviet government (see figure 5, illustration section). On 1 January 1918, the Kharkiv Bolsheviks declared: “The centre of Soviet power in Ukraine is the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Ukraine and its People’s Secretariat … All military units arrived in Ukraine from the north must put themselves under the authority of CEC [Central Executive Committee] of Ukraine and the activities of their commander in Ukraine can be carried out only in the name of Ukraine’s CEC and the People’s Secretariat. “20 Pro-Bolshevik ethnic Ukrainians in partisan units, meanwhile, may not all have been nationally conscious Ukrainians, but they did know their villages were not in Russia and, they refused to fight in Russia. They had been prepared to fight for soviet rule and land but, they mutinied or deserted when they learned that party committees had displaced the soviets, had collectivized land and, (after May 1919), had begun folding their regiments into the Red Army. “We will not fight for Russia,” they told Bolshevik commissars. “But we will fight for [soviet] Ukraine.”21

Most of Ukraine’s soviets had Russian SR, Ukrainian SR, or Ukrainian SD majorities. This diversity was reflected for the last time in Ukraine’s Second Congress of Soviets, held in March 1918. The Bolsheviks had not had time to stack the local assemblies that sent delegates; consequently, that Congress passed pro-Bolshevik resolutions primarily thanks to the presence of armed Russian Red sailors, who denied non-Bolsheviks the floor and threatened to shoot them. From the podium, Bolshevik delegates threatened to shoot the ninety quarrelsome Ukrainian SD representatives, which prompted fifty-five of them to leave. The Congress opened and closed with the singing of the Internationale, but delegates also sang the Ukrainian patriotic song “Zapovit” and the Ukrainian National Anthem.22 In 1919, on arriving in Kyiv, the new government imposed on Ukraine the Russian Soviet constitution, which heavily weighted representation in favour of urban workers and soldiers. Given that the overwhelming majority of these groups in Ukraine were Russian or Russified, Bolshevik rulers thereby effectively disenfranchised the Ukrainian majority. That year, the Bolsheviks also had enough time to ensure that the people voted for them in elections. They could subsequently dominate the Ukrainian-majority villages and small towns and minimize the non-Bolshevik presence in soviets. Moreover, even though the Russian constitution stipulated proportional elections, which in November 1917 Bolshevik leaders had declared “more democratic” than majoritarian ones, in Ukraine they imposed majority voting to eliminate large non-Bolshevik minorities from the soviets.

Local agents did not refrain from force. For instance, in the village of Merefa in Kharkiv province in February 1919, the local Cheka agent referred to “my use of repression” in ensuring that a fourth round of voting established a pro-Bolshevik soviet. In the central provincial town of Horodyshche that spring, a 150-strong Cheka detachment with six machine guns arrived in the wake of the Red Army. Its commander presented the locals with lists of candidates they had to vote for.

Only one list included town residents – local Bolsheviks, who were overwhelmingly Jewish. Instead of electing outsiders, the inhabitants elected the Jewish Bolsheviks.23 As a consequence of such measures, Ukraine’s Third Congress of Soviets in March 1919 was stacked with a 78 per cent Bolshevik majority, who dutifully booed one of the two Ukrainian left-SD delegates who tried to make a speech condemning centralization, Russification, and economic exploitation, forcing him to step down. Only after they had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 did Lenin’s Bolsheviks recognize that the eight provinces claimed by the UNR constituted “Ukraine.” They then ordered their Kharkiv, Katerynoslav, and Taurida (the Crimea) provincial branches to submit to Ukraine’s secretariat rather than to Russia’s. That same month, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Russian Communist Party (RCP) and permitted their branches in Ukraine to form a single territorial subunit dominated by its Russian centralist majority. The “Kyivan” minority, led by Mykola Skrypnyk, decided that April to establish instead a Ukrainian Communist Party independent of the Russian party. However, Skrypnyk backed down in May after a meeting with Lenin for which there are no minutes. Afterwards, Pravda (9 May 1918) proclaimed that “the Russian Communist Party Central Committee … has no objection to the formation of a Ukrainian Communist Party in as much as Ukraine is an independent state.” That statement was issued only to prevent a German invasion, however. In reality, Ukraine’s party remained subordinated to Moscow. This was confirmed in July, when representatives of the “provincial committees of the territories in South Russia occupied today by Germans,” at a meeting attended by Lenin’s deputy Iakov Sverdlov, passed a resolution specifying that Ukraine’s Communist Party was to be subordinated to the Russian party. A few days later, Ukraine’s Bolsheviks adopted the name Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine at a secret session of their First Congress. Senior leaders there explained that now that “the proletariat,” meaning the Bolsheviks, had taken power, “the right of self-determination” and national independence were counter-revolutionary and a threat to the working class. Skrypnyk claimed that with the Bolshevik seizure of power, the period of national states had passed and nationalism had become “reactionary.” He stated that the Russian party remained Ukraine’s mentor: “That is why in practice the situation [of dependency] remains as it was.” He added that his earlier proposal for a separate UCP belonging to the Communist International would now involve merely “formal” status. In practice, there was now an informal “unwritten constitution” that dictated that “we belong to a communist party that is one for all countries” — the Russian party. Of the CPU’s 4,314 members at the time, 7 per cent were Ukrainian speakers.24 In January 1919 the CPU proclaimed the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.

Bolshevik leaders, like Russian liberals and monarchists, sought to preserve the territorial integrity of the tsarist empire. Lenin, however, was flexible. Faced with the military power of the revolutionary Ukrainian national movement, Lenin, in his celebrated “On Soviet Power in Ukraine” and “Letter to Ukrainian workers” of December 1919, offered what he regarded as cultural-linguistic “concessions” along with governmental positions to leaders of the left-wing factions of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and SDs. This did much to end resistance, for opposition leaders no longer saw the need for it.25 The armed resistance that did continue, until 1922, was uncoordinated.

In early 1919 the left-wing faction of the Ukrainian SRs renamed themselves the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists) and allied themselves with the Russian Bolsheviks, claiming that the excesses of the latter were but “isolated incidents” that would not have serious consequences.26 The Borotbists had hoped to establish a Ukrainian Army, but the centralization of the Red Army limited their access to Ukrainian soldiers. On 4 May, Trotsky had ordered all Red military formations subordinated to Moscow; three days later, he ordered Red Ukrainian partisans to be either disbanded or reorganized as subunits of the Red Army. By September he had probably ordered the death of at least three Bolshevik Ukrainian commanders, who died under mysterious circumstances within weeks of one another.27 In March 1920 the Borotbists dissolved their organization and approximately 5,000 of their 15,000 I members joined the CPU. Some were given ministerial positions in May 1920.28 Lenin admitted them into his party, but only as individuals, and he secretly instructed his people to harass Borotbists and remove them from their positions on minor or spurious legal charges. To ensure that the few who did join the CPU would have little influence, the Kremlin ordered its local leaders to form a special “temporary Central Committee” to register and exclude undesirables. By 1922 only 188 former Borotbists remained in the CPU. Similar tactics were later applied to the UCP, which also dissolved itself. As of 1924, only 23 per cent of the CPU and 18 per cent of its central committee were Ukrainians.29

Ukrainian communists emerged from the left wing of the Ukrainian SDs and the “Kyivans” within the CPU. The first theoretical exposition of Ukrainian communism, Do Khvyli, was written in December 1918 by the Ukrainian Bolsheviks Shakhrai and Mazlakh. In January 1919, left-Ukrainian SDs separated from their parent party and renamed themselves “Independentists.” In January 1920 they adopted the name Ukrainian Communist Party. The head of the UNR’s counter-intelligence considered Mykhailo Tkachenko, a co-founder of the UCP who died in December 1919, “the Ukrainian Lenin.”30 The UCP stood for a sovereign Ukrainian communist state with its own party independent of the Russian communist state and party. It demanded independence on the basis of categorical right, not Bolshevik imperial pragmatism. This distinguished them from the Borotbists, who, like moderate Irish nationalists, hoped only for autonomy in return for loyalty.

In 1919, pro-Bolshevik Ukrainians wanted national independence and social justice — in other words, national and social liberation within a socialist Ukraine ruled by its own party and ministries, within a supra-national socialist confederation. Bolshevik leaders for their part regarded their “Ukrainian Republic” as little more than a Russian province; they did not dismantle their pre-1917 centralized party structure or the single imperial economic system inherited from the tsars. In 1923 they offered Ukraine only cultural autonomy within a nominal federation administered from Moscow as a single centralized economic and political unit through ministries controlled by a single Russian-speaking party. This was less than Ukrainians had anticipated but more than the Entente had offered the UNR — that no Entente member-state recognized. Under immense pressure, Bolshevik leaders agreed to linguistic and cultural concessions. In early 1921 they faced the Kronstadt and Tambov revolts, conflicts in Transcaucasia, and opposition from the left and urban workers. Beginning in 1921 they had to keep almost 20 per cent of the Red Army, a million soldiers, in Ukraine; only in 1922 did the army destroy the last bastion of partisan resistance in southern Kyiv province. According to Emma Goldman, who was in Kyiv that year: “Here the very atmosphere was charged with distrust and hatred of everything Muscovite … In Kiev there was no attempt to mask the opposition to Moscow. One was made to feel it everywhere.”

The incomplete statistics available at the time suggested that war and revolution had not markedly changed the national character of the cities, but that the pre-war mass migration of Russians into those cities would likely end while that of Ukrainians would continue.31

Perhaps such figures played a role in Stalin’s decision to extend the concessions first announced in 1919, when in the Tenth Party Congress Resolutions of March 1921, he stated that Ukrainian cities would “inevitably” become Ukrainian. The village as the “guardian of Ukrainian” would enter all Ukrainian towns “as the dominant element — just as Latvian and Hungarian in the end dominated Latvian and Hungarian cities.” There was nothing artificial in supporting this process, he stressed. Rakovskii and Skrypnyk, meanwhile, were complaining about centralization and seeking maximum autonomy for their republic. In the summer of 1922 they blocked an attempt to divide Ukraine into separate economic zones. In October of that year, a CPU plenum called for the broad use of Ukrainian in schools and government: “The Ukrainian proletarian state faces a difficult and complex task: the creation of Ukrainian soviet statehood, Ukrainian schools, the equalization of the rights of Ukrainian with Russian and of the language of the Ukrainian peasant with that of the Ukrainian proletariat, hindering the Ukrainian counter-revolution, and using the Ukrainian national school for its class purposes.”32

Against this background, the Twelfth Russian Party Congress in 1923 sanctioned extensive cultural concessions to all non-Russians under a policy labelled “indigenization.” During the 1920s many viewed this as a long-term strategy to transform the Ukrainian Republic into a national republic free at last of the cultural legacies of Russian domination. Russians would thereby be transformed from settler-colonists into an acculturated immigrant minority.

Stalin hoped to destabilize Poland and Romania, both allied with France, and to that end he supported the creation of a culturally thriving Ukraine to attract the disgruntled Ukrainian minorities in those countries. Stalin, however, in the Enlightenment tradition that separated culture from market, did not match cultural and linguistic concessions with economic decentralization. Moreover, the New Economic Policy (NEP) proclaimed in March 1923 was not implemented in Ukraine until the following year.33 CPU leader Volodymyr Zatonsky, who also saw Russification as a cultural matter unrelated to economics, avoided the colony analogy in his speeches and did not criticize economic centralism. Supposedly, Russification required only an ideological solution: make comrades stop associating the Soviet federation with Russia!34 Some of those who opposed indigenization considered it absurd precisely because it divorced language use and culture from economics and administration. In their view, Lenin’s notion of national self-determination was nonsense as well, because it contradicted his plan for a centralized economic and ministerial system. Among those who backed national rights but realized that indigenization as implemented would never work was the Georgian Marxist Mdivani, who dismissed the official discourse about cultural and linguistic rights as meaningless. Without a national economy there could be no national culture or language, nor any need within the non-Russian republics to learn languages other than the one used in economic relations – which in the USSR was Russian because all the ministries were centralized. Khristian Rakovskii, a Bulgarian who in 1919 ruthlessly imposed Soviet Russian rule in Ukraine as CPU chairman, had become by 1921 an advocate of Ukrainian rights. He noted that Russian imperial tendencies could be combated only if 90 per cent of Moscow’s commissariats were dissolved and their functions placed under the control of the republics. Rakovskii did not doubt the existence of Russian chauvinism, but he now considered it more than an expression of pre-revolutionary attitudes. For him, it was also the product of economic and administrative centralization, and its agents were ministry personnel: “Russian[s] and Russified Jews who [in your Ukrainian ministries] are the most consistent champions of Russian national oppression.” These people’s opposition to “the simple matter” of learning and using another language in addition to Russian was intense.35 UCP spokesmen complained that indigenization was superficial. They explained in 1924 that while linguistic and cultural concessions satisfied the intellectuals, for peasants and workers the real issues were economic, political, and party organizational. It was on these that cultural and linguistic matters were based, yet the indigenization policy ignored all three.36

What Ukrainian communists had called Bolshevik Russian colonialism during the revolution, official representatives discussed and categorized during the 1920s as “errors” or “Luxemburgism” that “the party” and “Leninist policy” had “corrected.” Even Trotsky admitted that extreme conditions had obliged him to commit excesses in Ukraine. After 1923 he opposed the imposition of Russian in Ukraine on the grounds that it would impede Ukrainians’ access to world culture and the ability to learn in their own language. He favoured locating manufacturing industries near resources. At the 1923 CPU conference he said that unless people who understood Ukrainian were placed everywhere, the soviet regime faced collapse.37 In 1924, party leaders explained that it was the pressure of war, not ideology or imperial preconceptions, that had prevented them from eliminating national oppression as soon as they came to power.38 In June 1926 a Ukrainian party plenum resolution included even the proletariat among the guilty and Russian nationalism as a culprit. Some comrades had incorrect views on national issues, and the party underestimated their significance, that resolution stated. It named the majority of the urban population and the considerable number of Russian proletariat and party members as the source of Russian chauvinism.39 Stalin’s deputy, Lazar Kaganovich, strongly condemned Russian nationalism in a CPU Central Committee Resolution of 1928, which listed seven manifestations of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. Russian party members and bourgeoisie were explicitly identified as the ones who wished to retain Russian domination in Ukraine, who refused to learn Ukrainian, who wanted to restrict Ukrainian identity to villages, and who exploited mistakes to condemn indigenization as a policy that “oppressed” Russians.

But neither set of “errors” was condemned as “counter-revolutionary.” The critique did not label Russian Bolshevism as a form of colonial rule, and sanctions or punishments were never meted out to Russians. Key Ukrainian critics who thought the concessions did not go far enough were not arrested, though they were transferred out of Ukraine.40 Significantly, except for some among the latter group, those involved had treated national-cultural issues as intellectual-political matters associated with “class enemies.” None linked them to economic structures or centralization, except UCP critics, who applied Lenin’s Imperialism to Soviet Russia and analysed the Russian-Ukrainian relationship in terms of empire-colony discourse. Many cultural /linguistic proposals made their way into indigenization policies, but few of the political and economic demands contained in the UCP critiques did so. Economic centralization was not among the officially admitted “errors.”41 Ministries remained centralized, planning regions ignored national borders, and central officials refused to function in any language other than Russian. The 1929 Ukrainian constitution did not give Ukrainian official status; that same year, the All-Union Central Committee directed that all government correspondence, even at the level of the republic, be in Russian. In 1923, Rakovskii noted that anyone waiting for the comrades in Ukraine’s party school to voluntarily learn Ukrainian would wait a long time. Those who worked for central ministries in Ukraine considered learning Ukrainian a waste of time. By the end of the 1920s, 43 per cent of the staff of eighteen ministry branches in Ukraine and 49 per cent of the staff of republic ministries were still totally ignorant of Ukrainian. In 1929, 85 per cent of government bureaucrats still could not function in Ukrainian.42 Much like other colonies, Ukraine was a place where officials were ignorant of their subordinates’ languages, because they expected the ruled to learn the ruler’s language.

Rakovskii and Skrypnyk in 1922 well knew that a hard core of Ukraine’s urban Russians were ignoring or resisting party measures intended to limit if not curtail Russian cultural domination. By that year, hundreds of requests had come in from party members ignorant of Ukrainian requesting to leave the country. Mikhail Frunze, at a 1922 CPU plenum, realized the threat this posed: “In the end everybody would leave.”43 Skrypnyk, like Galiev, asked why those “Russian chauvinists” did not argue their case publicly. In Ukraine, after voting in favour of Ukrainian-language resolutions at the 1923 Party Congress, delegates in the corridors would reply, when addressed in Ukrainian: “Talk to me in a language I can understand.” Senior leaders knew that Ukraine’s Russian and Russified Jewish bureaucrats were strongly opposed to learning and using Ukrainian on the job, that most delegates in Moscow for the Twelfth Congress had no conception of the national issues involved, and that Congress corridor talk was dismissing the debates as theatre. The overwhelmingly Russian or Russified delegates simply voted during the Congress as their patron Stalin had instructed them. Two years earlier, Mikhail Tomsky, at the Eighth Congress, had identified their true opinions: “I think that we will not find in this hall anyone who would claim that national self-determination and national movements are normal and desirable. We regard these as a necessary evil.” At the 1923 CPU conference, Zatonsky observed that “If all comrades spoke their minds there would be a Russian stink impossible to imagine [Russkim dukhom zapakhlo chto i govorit nichogo].”44 A few weeks later, the resolutions of the secret Fourth Conference of senior party activists in Moscow specified that Russian nationalists were to be dismissed from party and government posts, but made no mention of the danger of imperial Russian “great power chauvinism” that Grigorii Zinoviev had castigated during the sessions. In 1925 the purging of “great power chauvinists” from the Red Army, initiated by Trotsky two years earlier, was halted.45 One of Stalin’s assistants at the Nationalities Commissariat wrote in 1930 that in its earlier work, the commissariat “systematically violated the Leninist line [Twelfth Congress resolutions] on the national question.”46

Indigenization was only beginning to overcome Ukraine’s colonial legacy when it was halted. In 1927, Russian in Ukraine’s public communications sphere had only begun to recede from its pre-1914 dominance. Only 8.5 per cent of all published titles in the USSR were in Ukrainian – well below that language’s share of the USSR’s total population. In terms of titles per capita, Russians in Russia had 2.4 books in Russian, while Ukrainians had 1.6 in Russian and Ukrainian. Throughout the 1920s, declared Russians averaged 10 per cent of Ukraine’s population yet more than 40 per cent of published books in Ukraine were in Russian. In 1927, 4,687 titles were published in Ukraine, of which 2,135 were in Russian. Russia that same year published 21,772 titles, of which only 13 were in Ukrainian. Printed Russian books in Ukraine comprised more than 50 per cent of total copies. When broken down by subject and audience, the disproportions are stark and reflect the pre-1917 colonial reality in which Russian was the language of urban modernity. Of 1,174 titles published during the first half of 1927, 43 per cent were in Russian. However, while the number of academic titles in each language was almost equal, of the 508 Russian books, 58 per cent were for children, 37 per cent for workers, and 1 per cent for peasants. The numbers for the 603 Ukrainian books were 36 per cent, 7 per cent, and 44 per cent respectively.47

In 1922, 54 per cent of CPU members were Russian speakers and 11 per cent were Ukrainian speakers. At the 1923 Congress, 47 per cent of the delegates were declared Russians and 20 per cent were Ukrainians As of 1926, 44 per cent of the members were declared Ukrainians, 30 per cent were Ukrainian speakers, and 21 per cent used Ukrainian at work.48 An early 1926 report to Ukraine’s Central Committee reported that of all Ukraine’s industrial and white-collar workers, 59 per cent and 56 per cent respectively did not speak Ukrainian. In addition, 78 per cent of the former and 33 per cent of the latter were literate only in Russian. Also, 35 to 40 per cent of Ukraine’s 49,689 government bureaucrats and 25 per cent of its seventy-one top ministerial personnel were totally ignorant of Ukrainian.49 Urban Russian and Russified white-collar professionals, whose attitudes towards the majority Ukrainians were not unlike those of European settlers in Africa towards Africans and Arabs, voiced their opposition to learning and using Ukrainian throughout the 1920s in Enlightenment/imperialist Russian slavophile terms: “Ukrainian is only a language for songs”; “[the language] is vulgar and unsuited for a subject like physics … Ukraine now is nothing but a part of Russia”; “I won’t Ukrainianize – the Revolution was in Russian”; “Ukrainian is a dog’s language, I won’t study it.” Some employees who knew Ukrainian refused to use it, while a considerable number did not know it at all. While employees could be fired for ignorance of Ukrainian, apparently few were. In a letter from a Luhansk miner, we learn that in fifty-six mines in the region, where Ukrainians averaged 57 per cent of the workforce, Ukrainian was forgotten after speeches were made. Privately, officials said there was no one to Ukrainize because “all our workers are Russians.” Mine committees functioned in Russian, and when Ukrainian workers complained, they were told: “Go to your honkie land [khokhlandiia] and talk your dog-language there.” Cultural clubs functioned in Russian, and there were no Ukrainian-language manuals. Ukrainian posters and announcements were systematically torn down.50

In general, more Ukrainian-language materials were published after 1922 than before 1914, and the government did establish Ukrainian schools and universities. The lower the level within the government and the party, the higher the percentage of declared Ukrainians or Ukrainian speakers, and with each passing year an increasing percentage of these two groups rose through the hierarchy. Perhaps this trend would have dominated in the long term. But there would be no long term. Indigenization was never formally condemned, but it stopped being enforced after 1933. After that year, as before 1917, Russians in Ukraine would no longer face the fate of immigrants everywhere – learning foreign languages and acculturization. They remained settler-colonists. The change was reflected in two speeches by Zatonsky that gave different characterizations of Russian settler-colonists in Ukraine. In 1926 he had considered Ukraine to be undoubtedly a colony of the Russian tsars and bourgeoisie. Both tsarism and capitalism had Russified Ukraine, and the latter had also brought skilled Russian workers into Ukraine. “The Russian proletariat went to factories built in Ukraine.” In 1933 he stated that “the theory that the proletariat in Ukraine, or its majority, came from Russia is totally false.”51 Condemnation of Russian chauvinism ceased that year. Support from Russians and Russified non-Russians opposed to learning and using Ukrainian compensated Stalin for the loss of support from Ukrainian party leaders – although his elimination of the “left opposition” meant in any case that he no longer needed national republic leaders as allies. In 1923, Sultan-Galiev strongly condemned Stalin’s public rationalization of indigenization. It was absurd, he pointed out, to label opposition to Russian great-power chauvinism as “local nationalism” and then claim that the latter was the opposite of the former. Opposition to great-power chauvinism was not “nationalism” – it was simply opposition to great-power chauvinism. It was absurd, he continued, to expect the “young Russian party comrades” who staffed local administrations to fight “local nationalism” if they were “infected” with great-power chauvinism. They would only fan the flames of chauvinism while “beating” local non-Russian communists on the spurious grounds that they were “nationalists.” 52 These remarks infuriated Stalin, but he did not dispense with his false syllogism. In January 1934 he declared that the “greatest enemy” in the non-Russian republics was no longer Russian chauvinism but “local nationalism,” and in 1938 he ordered that Russian be made compulsory in all Ukrainian schools.53 Policy reversals were presented as “correcting errors” – but those reversals reflected Stalin’s thinking as expressed in a September 1922 letter to Lenin.

By 1939, Russian dominated in urban schools, the media, and administration. Massive inmigration of Russians had begun anew. Russians and Russian speakers did not have to learn Ukrainian to receive a job, a promotion, or government services, or to be educated, informed, or entertained. Russian language use still gave status and prestige. Ukrainian language use was relegated “things spiritual” – to ethnography, rural media, scholarship on Ukrainian subjects, and private use. Moscow ministries controlled an economy they administered in Russian. The Ukrainian communist criticism of Russian Bolshevism became relevant again.


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