Ukraine and the Bolsheviks

Issue: 143

John Rose

The Russian Revolution unleashed a vicious struggle between revolutionaries (above all the Bolsheviks based among the miners of the Donbass in the east), Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, and red and white armies.

This sentence in Alex Callinicos’s analysis of events in Ukraine, “Imperial Delusions”, in International Socialism 142, addressed the troubled relationship between the Bolsheviks and Ukraine. Understandably, given the article’s focus on contemporary events, it could not do justice to the profound challenge that Ukraine posed for the Bolsheviks after they had seized power in October 1917. It was a challenge which, arguably, undermined the revolution from its earliest days.

That challenge took two forms. Ukraine was key to the Brest-Litovsk “peace” negotiations between the Bolsheviks, led by Leon Trotsky, and the German military command in the early months of 1918. Ukraine also tested to the limit the Bolsheviks’ commitment to the national minorities of the former Tsarist Russian Empire when the Red Army entered Ukraine in October 1919.

Isaac Deutscher summed up the problem facing the Bolsheviks in his discussion of Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk: “The interest of the revolution clashed with the principle of self-determination”.1 This was a problem, though, forced on the Bolsheviks by circumstances beyond their control. The Rada, the petty bourgeois nationalists who represented Ukraine at Brest-Litovsk, preferred to ally with the “Great Powers”, first Germany, then later England and France, rather than with the Bolsheviks.

This was a catastrophe. Germany detached Ukraine from the revolution with cynical promises of “independence”, in practice occupying it. This was the centrepiece of a wider strategic land grab designed to damage the revolution to the point of destroying it. It very nearly succeeded. The Bolsheviks were split down the middle, with Lenin on one side and Trotsky on the other, over whether to break off negotiations and continue the war as a “revolutionary war”. Lenin won the argument but the price was hunger, even starvation, in the urban centres,2 a major split with the peasantry as the Bolsheviks sent armed food requisitioning squads to the villages in the countryside, destabilisation of the soviets as Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were forced to build the Red Army at lightning speed, draining the soviets of their best activists. The working class at the centre of the revolution was seriously weakened, with party and state loosened from their workers’ base. These developments gave a mighty boost to the “White” led counter-revolution.3

From her prison cell in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg observed these events with mounting horror. The very serious distortions now imposed on the revolution could well destroy it. But she also understood the reasons, “the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism”.4 This seemed to her a decisive reason for opposing the Bolsheviks signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty,5 a position similar to Trotsky’s until he was convinced by Lenin that it was untenable.

The Red Army won a tremendous victory over the “Whites”. But in Ukraine it was a pyrrhic victory because the Russian-based Bolshevik Party appeared as an elite force. It was occupation rather than liberation. It paralysed the genuine Bolsheviks among the Donbass miners and effectively broke the spirit of many other remarkable Ukrainian pro-Bolshevik fighters, not least the extraordinary woman leader Evgenia Bosch, who had directed Ukrainian workers’ resistance to the German occupation.6

The Ukrainian language and culture were treated with contempt. Workers’ councils largely existed in an advisory capacity. The trade union movement was purged, subordinated to the state and absorbed into all-Russian structures.7 Grain requisitioning was excessive: “in actuality the grain was plundered like a vast treasure chest for food and fuel”.8 The sense of betrayal was so great that it provoked an uprising, involving workers and peasants, sometimes labelled the Ukrainian “Kronstadt”.9

The immense damage to the revolution was finally acknowledged by both Trotsky and Lenin. In November 1920 Trotsky recognised that “the Soviet regime in the Ukraine has maintained itself…largely by virtue of the authority of Moscow, the Great Russian communists and the Russian Red Army… Economically Ukraine still is the embodiment of anarchy sheltering under the bureaucratic centralism of Moscow”.10

The rot was very widespread. By 1920 Lenin was also complaining that too many communists were also “Great Russian chauvinists”.11 By 1922 the issue led to a showdown between Lenin, now very sick, and Joseph Stalin, who accused Lenin of “national liberalism”. Lenin was furious and demanded every effort be made to reverse the damage that had been done.12

In truth, the revolution was already transforming itself into counter-revolution and Stalin was positioning himself as its leader. Lenin might have lost control but we should perhaps conclude by recalling his principled stand on the national question, even sanctioning a modification of the Communist Manifesto’s central exhortation to read:

“Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples unite!”13


1: Deutscher, 1970, pp377-378.

2: Ukraine was the “bread basket” of the former Russian Empire: “More than half of Russia’s grain reserves came from Ukraine”-Rabinowitch, 2007, p223.

3: I discussed this in detail in Rose, 2011.

4: Luxemburg, 1918. Luxemburg’s remarks were made just before the emergence of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Germany, but of course remain valid because the councils collapsed several months later. Cliff agreed with Luxemburg that this unwelcome turn in the revolution was concentrating too much power in party and state at the expense of the working class (Cliff, 1978, p174) but opposed her more general criticisms (Cliff, 1986).

5: Broué, 2006,p123.

6: Serge, 1992, p179. She committed suicide.

7: Ford, 2010, p590.

8: Remington, 1984, p167, cited in Ford, 2010, p590.

9: Yet “it was historically unique, Russian communists were challenged with a demand for a republic of workers and peasant councils by Marxists committed to communist revolution.” The uprising was even defended at the Communist International (Ford, 2010, p599).

10: Cited in Cliff, 1979, p198.

11: Cliff, 1979, p198. The opportunist invasion of Ukraine by Poland in 1920 was successfully repelled by the Red Army but it also intensified “Great Russian chauvinism” with deeply reactionary elements from the pre-revolutionary regime rallying to the Bolsheviks (Deutscher, 1970, p460).

12: For a full discussion of the bitter row between Lenin and Stalin, see Cliff’s “Great Russian chauvinism”-Cliff, 1979, pp197-205.

13: Cliff, 1976, p56.


Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 19171923 (Haymarket Books).

Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin, Volume 2, All Power to the Soviets (Pluto),

Cliff, Tony, 1978, Lenin, Volume 3, Revolution Besieged (Pluto),

Cliff, Tony, 1979, Lenin, Volume 4, The Bolsheviks and World Revolution (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, 1986, Rosa Luxemburg (Bookmarks).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1970, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 18791921 (Oxford University Press).

Ford, Chris, 2010, “The Crossroads of the European Revolution: Ukrainian Social-Democrats and Communists (Independentists), the Ukrainian Revolution and Soviet Hungary 1917-20”, Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, volume 38, issue 4.

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1918, The Russian Revolution,

Rabinowitch, Alexander, 2007, The Bolsheviks in Power (Indiana University Press).

Remington, Thomas, 1984, Building Socialism in Bolshevik Russia (Pittsburg University Press).

Rose, John, 2011, “Tony Cliff’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution”, International Socialism 129 (winter),

Serge, Victor, 1992, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks).