“The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force… The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe.”
Thus wrote Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian revolution of 1917, from his exile in Mexico in 1939.
Trotsky was very well-acquainted with the Ukrainian question. Born in the southern Ukraine village of Yanovka, the son of Jewish farmers who spoke ‘a broken mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, but mostly Ukrainian’, he grew up at a time when Ukraine was under the rule of the Russian Czarist empire. He attended high school at a German school in the Black Sea port of Odessa (Odesa), during which time the German and other teachers were gradually being replaced with Russians under the Czarist policy of Russification.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Russian empire had expanded the territory under its control, bringing under its rule many non-Russian nationalities and peoples. Russification was its means of maintaining political control of this vast empire, beginning with the Polish partition of the late 18th century. Lithuanian and Polish-language schools were closed in Lithuania. Polish shops were denied licences. Discriminatory tax regimes were imposed on Catholics, in favour of the Russian Orthodox religion. Polish language was forbidden in schools in the 1880s. Lithuanians and Poles were banned from professional occupations such as doctors and teachers. In response to nationalist uprisings in those countries, large estates of land were confiscated and handed over to Russian nobles. Russian migration to the newly-acquired territories was encouraged. Similar policies were rolled out in as the Russian empire extended its domination over Finland, Bessarabia (Moldova), and the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The defining institution of the Czarist empire was the katorga – the system of penal labour camps in the remote Siberian hinterlands established in the 17th century, and used with especial ferocity to punish nationalist uprisings against Czarist authority. 80,000 Poles were exiled to the Siberian katorgas in 1864, following the January uprising of 1863-64.
Russification was implemented in Ukraine with increasing intensity as a Ukraininan national identity developed in the course of the nineteenth century. Ukrainian language was banned from schools as early as 1804; Ukrainian Sunday Schools were abolished altogether in 1862. The following year, the Russian minister of internal affairs declared that “the Ukrainian language never existed, doesn’t exist, and cannot exist,” (a statement that echoes down to the present day, in Putin’s 2008 ‘joke’ to the effect that ‘Ukraine is not a real country’). A secret decree forbade the use of the Ukrainian language in print. The Ukrainian poet, painter, folklorist and political figure Taras Shevchenko was exiled to the katorga camps for ten years, after writing a poem satirising the czar in 1847.
When Trotsky wrote about Ukraine in 1939, he had seen the Ukrainian nation come full circle.
With the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Ukrainian desires for an independent nation had been re-kindled. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Czarist empire, established as one of its founding principles the right of self-determination for all the oppressed nationalities of the Czarist empire, up to and including the right of separation. In January 1918 Ukraine declared independence, and the independent state was recognised by the Bolshevik government in Moscow. It turned out to be the first of four short-lived Ukrainian governments, as competing class forces within the Ukrainian nation jostled for supremacy.
Large swathes of western territories of the Russian empire had been forcibly ceded to Germany under the oppressive terms of the treaties which ended Russia’s participation in the World War. Ukraine became one of the principal battlegrounds of both the revolution and the civil war launched by the European imperialist powers to overthrow the revolution, falling under the control of invading Polish, German and French troops, and those of the counter-revolutionary general Denikin, for a period of years.
Ukraine was simultaneously in the throes of a revolutionary class struggle as deep-going as the revolution in Russia: Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Romanian and German workers and peasants battled their Ukrainian and Russian bosses and landlords. (Each class leaves behind its own version of this history!) The fight for an independent Ukraine entwined with the fight to defend the Russian revolution against its attackers, especially the forces headquartered in Poland. Kiev was not finally liberated until June 1920, and even then the Ukrainian nation was left divided. The treaty ending the Russian-Polish war in 1921 left four million Ukrainians oppressed under Polish rule.
The fate of the independent Ukrainian republic was thus closely bound with that of the Russian revolution, and collaboration and eventually fusion between Bolshevik forces and the left wing of the Ukrainian nationalists resulted. A Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic allied to Soviet Russia was established in 1919, which joined the Federation of Soviet Republics and later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. These were not easy times. A disastrous famine, largely the result of the economic dislocation of agriculture during the long years of imperialist war and civil war, hit both Ukraine and Russia hard in 1921-22.
However, throughout much of the 1920s Ukrainian culture experienced a major revival, under the Bolshevik policy of indigenisation – the reverse of the czarist Russification policy. A Ukrainian-language education system succeeded in reducing illiteracy in Ukraine from 46% in 1926 to 8% in 1934. Ukrainian-language newspapers, almost non-existent in 1922, grew to 373 out of 426. Representation of Ukrainians at all levels of the state apparatus greatly increased. (A more detailed account of this period can be found here.)
But by the end of the 1920s a conservative bureaucratic layer headed by Joseph Stalin had usurped power in the Soviet Union. The first political battle against the rise of this reactionary force was launched by Lenin, his final battle before his death in 1923. That fight centred on the national question. Lenin was convinced that Stalin was violating the rights of the oppressed nations of the former czarist empire, especially in independent Georgia; he proposed to Trotsky that they form a bloc to defend this principle of Bolshevik rule against Stalin, but died before the struggle could be joined.
The victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution threw the national liberation struggles in the non-Russian republics into reverse. The counter-revolution revived all the Russification policies of czarism, on a monstrous scale. Expressions of national sentiment were denounced as bourgeois nationalism; leaders in the ‘independent republics’ who insisted on their right to independence – supposedly guaranteed in the Soviet constitution – were persecuted savagely. A further famine hit Ukraine in 1932, this time the direct result of Stalin’s policy of the forced collectivisation of agriculture. The katorgas were revived, on an unprecedented scale. Entire national populations, including the Tatars of the independent Crimea, were deemed by the Stalin leadership to be counter-revolutionary, and were forcibly deported en masse. Ukraine, among many other oppressed nations, found its national aspirations trampled in the mud of the new Russian ’empire.’
In an article published in the US newspaper Socialist Appeal, Trotsky reviews this history as it stood in 1939:
“The Second International, expressing the interests of the labor bureaucracy and aristocracy of the imperialist states, completely ignored the Ukrainian question. Even its left wing did not pay the necessary attention to it. Suffice it to recall that Rosa Luxemburg, for all her brilliant intellect and genuinely revolutionary spirit, found it possible to declare that the Ukrainian question was the invention of a handful of intellectuals. This position left a deep imprint even upon the Polish Communist Party. The Ukrainian question was looked upon by the official leaders of the Polish section of the Comintern as an obstacle rather than a revolutionary problem. Hence the constant opportunist attempts to shy away from this question, to suppress it, to pass over it in silence, or to postpone it to an indefinite future…
“The Bolshevik party, not without difficulty and only gradually under the constant pressure of Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians. He did not recognize aristocratic nations. Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism.
“After the conquest of power, a serious struggle took place in the party over the solving of the numerous national problems inherited from old Czarist Russia. In his capacity as People’s Commissar of Nationalities, Stalin invariably represented the most centralist and bureaucratic tendency.This evinced itself especially on the question of Georgia and on the question of the Ukraine. In order to guarantee “administrative needs,” i.e., the interests of the bureaucracy, the most legitimate claims of the oppressed nationalities were declared a manifestation of petty-bourgeois nationalism. All these symptoms could be observed as early as 1922-23. Since that time they have developed monstrously and have led to outright strangulation of any kind of independent national development of the peoples of the USSR.
“In the conception of the old Bolshevik party Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland. But during the years of Thermidorian reaction, the position of Soviet Ukraine and together with it the posing of the Ukrainian question as a whole changed sharply. The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. 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.
“To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight. Toward the sections of the Ukraine now outside its frontiers, the Kremlin’s attitude today is the same as it is toward all oppressed nationalities, all colonies, and semi-colonies, i.e., small change in its international combinations with imperialist governments.
“Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin. Since the latest murderous “purge” in the Ukraine no one in the West wants to become part of the Kremlin satrapy which continues to bear the name of Soviet Ukraine… This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence. Upon this tragic confusion Hitler bases his policy in the Ukrainian question. At one time we said: but for Stalin (i.e., but for the fatal policy of the Comintern in Germany) there would have been no Hitler. To this can now be added: but for the rape of Soviet Ukraine by the Stalinist bureaucracy there would be no Hitlerite Ukrainian policy.”
Trotsky puts forward the slogan: for a united, free, and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.
“Only hopeless pacifist blockheads are capable of thinking that the emancipation and unification of the Ukraine can be achieved by peaceful diplomatic means, by referendums, by decisions of the League of Nations, etc. In no way superior to them of course are those “nationalists” who propose to solve the Ukrainian question by entering the service of one imperialism against another… Insofar as the issue depends upon the military strength of the imperialist states, the victory of one grouping or another can signify only a new dismemberment and a still more brutal subjugation of the Ukrainian people. The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution.”
Trotsky returned to the subject of Ukraine a few months later, to answer a sectarian socialist critic who opposed Trotsky’s demand for a free and independent Ukraine.
“The critic repeats several times my statement to the effect that the fate of an independent Ukraine is indissolubly bound up with the world proletarian revolution. From this general perspective, ABC for a Marxist, he contrives however to make a recipe of temporizing passivity and national nihilism. The triumph of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is the end-product of multiple movements, campaigns and battles, and not at all a ready-made precondition for solving all questions automatically…
“The right of national self-determination is, of course, a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realized in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat; it is for this very reason that they interlace with socialist tasks. The resolute struggle of the Bolshevik party for the right of self determination of oppressed nationalities in Russia facilitated in the extreme the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was as if the proletarian revolution had sucked in the democratic problems, above all, the agrarian and national problems, giving to the Russian Revolution a combined character. The proletariat was already undertaking socialist tasks but it could not immediately raise to this level the peasantry and the oppressed nations (themselves predominantly peasant) who were absorbed with solving their democratic tasks.
“…Having constructed a workers’ state on the compromise principle of a federation, the Bolshevik party wrote into the constitution the right of nations to complete separation, indicating thereby that the party did not at all consider the national question as solved once and for all…
“Do the broad masses of the Ukrainian people wish to separate from the USSR? It might at first sight appear difficult to answer this question, inasmuch as the Ukrainian people, like all other peoples of the USSR, are deprived of any opportunity to express their will. But the very genesis of the totalitarian regime and its ever more brutal intensification, especially in the Ukraine, are proof that the real will of the Ukrainian masses is irreconcilably hostile to the Soviet bureaucracy. There is no lack of evidence that one of the primary sources of this hostility is the suppression of Ukrainian independence.
“The nationalist tendencies in the Ukraine erupted violently in 1917-19. The Borotba party expressed these tendencies in the left wing. 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. In the course of the next decade, however, an actual break occurred with the Borotba group, whose leaders were subjected to persecution… Nowhere did the purges and repressions assume such a savage and mass character as they did in the Ukraine.
“Of enormous political importance is the sharp turn away from the Soviet Union of Ukrainian democratic elements outside the Soviet Union. When the Ukrainian problem became aggravated early this year, communist voices were not heard at all; but the voices of the Ukrainian clericals and National-Socialists were loud enough. This means that the proletarian vanguard has let the Ukrainian national movement slip out of its hands and that this movement has progressed far on the road of separatism…
“In their totality, these symptoms and facts incontestably testify to the growing strength of separatist tendencies among the Ukrainian masses. This is the basic fact underlying the whole problem. It shows that despite the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very essence, international in character. The Thermidorian reaction, crowned by the Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and wish to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.”
Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin a year after he wrote this. Another year later, German imperialism launched the largest single military operation in world history, in both manpower and casualties: Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, the German offensive initially won easy victories. Hitler had prepared the way politically, distributing posters of himself and the slogan, in Ukrainian language: “Hitler the Liberator.”