Trapped in the crossfire: a Marxist history of 20th century Ukraine

Issue: 176

Klaus Henning

The continuing military assault on Ukraine by Russia, and the transformation of the war into a proxy conflict with NATO, has offered insights into contemporary imperialism. We have seen how the relative decline of US and Western European power in the international system can create opportunities for rival imperial or sub-imperial powers to use armed force to further their own agendas, and how this can lead to a general destabilisation of the global system.1

However, Russia’s brutal invasion has unleashed struggles not just over how to understand the present, but also over how to interpret the past. Vladimir Putin has continuously sought to justify his war with reference to the supposed “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, echoing the Great Russian Chauvinism of the Tsarist Empire that described Ukrainians as “Little Russians”. He has also claimed that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia”, ignoring the long history of Ukrainian national liberation movements since the late 19th century and obscuring the complex relationship between Ukrainian national aspirations, the Russian Revolution and socialism.

For its part, the West has also mobilised a distorted picture of Ukrainian history to manufacture public support for massive rearmament, build up of NATO troops in “front line” countries, and huge arms deliveries to Ukraine. Much commentary has asserted that Putin’s aim is to restore the Soviet Union and, in the process, it has often conflated the national oppression suffered by Ukrainians under Stalinism with their experiences immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. It is frequently overlooked that the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the states that founded the Soviet Union and that the revolution brought wide-ranging national, linguistic and social rights for the Ukrainian people.

The text below was originally published as the first four chapters of Krieg im Osten: Die Ukraine zwischen Nationalismus, Imperialismus und Revolution (“War in the East: Ukraine between Nationalism, Imperialism and Revolution”) by Klaus Henning, a German political scientist and socialist. The goal of this translation is to illuminate the real history of Ukraine in the 20th century from a Marxist point of view.2

Between two empires

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Ukrainians lived scattered as a national minority in a number of different states. Until the end of the First World War, these states were the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Russia, referred to by Lenin as “the prison house of nations”, the Ukrainians were one among the national minorities that had suffered cultural and linguistic oppression since the Polish January Uprising in 1863. Ukrainians were even more exposed to this oppression than the Poles themselves, even though the Ukrainian peasantry had not taken part in this rebellion of the Polish nobility.3 The existence of the Ukrainian language was completely denied; Ukrainians were regarded as “Little Russians”, who spoke a “dirty dialect” of Russian that was tainted by Polish influences. They were to be stopped from going a similar way to the Poles through a rigorous policy of Russification. With the Valuev-Ukaz Decree of 1863, the use of the Ukrainian language in religious and pedagogical works was criminalised. From the 1876 Ems Ukaz Decree onwards, there was also a general ban on the publication of Ukrainian newspapers and books, Ukrainian schools were closed, and even the use of the terms “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian” was made punishable. Nationalistically minded Ukrainian organisations and associations, even including apolitical folklore clubs, were treated as political opposition groups and persecuted.4 Furthermore, within the Russian Empire’s Ukrainian governate, special laws restricted the rights of Jews in the so-called Pale of Settlement. Nationalistic organisation supported by the Russian government—above all the so-called Black Hundreds—were the main instigators of regular antisemitic pogroms, which were supported by the Russian nobility in order to control the Ukrainian peasantry and offer it a convenient scapegoat.

Amid this national oppression, a small Ukrainian-speaking middle class of students, lawyers, secondary school teachers and journalists developed in the cities, coming to resist the policy of Russification and becoming the bearer of the Ukrainian national movement. Its first political baby-steps culminated around the turn of the century with the foundation of Ukrainian national parties; the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party (RUP) was the first.5

The character of the Ukrainian national movement was not initially right-wing, but rather distinctly influenced by left-liberal and social-democratic politics. When the RUP split into left- and right-wing sections in 1904, the left wing, which called itself Spilka (community), allied with the Bolshevik faction of Russian Social Democracy. The right wing formed the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party and attempted to approximate the Mensheviks.6

The situation of the Ukrainians in Austria-Hungary, concentrated in the province of Galicia, was only marginally better than that of those in the Russian Empire. The “Germans” were the favoured group in the “Reichsverband” (imperial federation); the other nationalities were oppressed to varying degrees, with the Poles favoured over the Ukrainians in Galicia. The German nobility, which dominated the centralised bureaucracy of the Austrian half of the empire (known as Cisleithania), based its rule on an alliance with the local aristocracies—in Galicia, this meant the Polish nobles. Decision-making powers in this “crown territory” were conferred on the Polish nobles by the Statute of Autonomy in 1868. Thus, despite Ukrainians forming the majority population in East Galicia, the Polish aristocrats were both economically dominant and also occupied the political offices. The Ukrainians were worse off both socially and politically. Not only were they disadvantaged in terms of voting rights, but the administrative language was Polish, and lessons took place in Polish in the primary and higher education systems. Admittedly, the linguistic and cultural oppression did not reach the level of that in the Russian Empire, but the “Ruthenians”—as the Ukrainians were called within the Austro-Hungarian Empire—were third-class citizens.

Under the pressure of these conditions, a Ukrainian national movement developed in Austria-Hungary too, carried forth by the urban middle classes. At the end of the 19th century, this Ukrainian national movement was also influenced by socialist ideas. The writers Mykhailo Pavlyk and Ivan Franko founded the first Ukrainian party, the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party (RURP), in 1890. The RURP sought to fuse demands against national discrimination with demands for social reform. In 1899, it split into left- and right-wing parts, from which emerged the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Social Democratic Party (RUSPD) and the Ukrainian National Democratic Party.7

h2>Social democracy’s stance towards the “Ukrainian question”

By far the most influential organisations in the European workers’ movement at this time were the social-democratic parties. In contrast to their present-day successors, they invoked Karl Marx, and their starting point was that class society was the source of problems and that it was necessary to overthrow it. The Austrian Social Democrats (SDAP; Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei) had initially ignored the question of which position to take towards the aspirations for independence of the Ukrainians and other national minorities (above all the Czechs). The Hainfeld Declaration of 1888 made reference to “internationalism”, using this as a justification to confine the party to criticism of unequal treatment of the nationalities in the empire. The party’s obliviousness towards demands for national self-determination led to the splitting away of the party branches of the national minorities. They formed independent parties that sought to connect social demands with political ones. After the Czech Social Democrats had split off, the Polish-speaking Galician Social Democrats followed suit in 1896. Added to this was the RUSPD, aiming to represent Ukrainian-speaking workers in Galicia. The different sections worked with one another to greater or lesser degrees, but they organised workers from a national viewpoint.

The attitude of the Austrian Social Democrats was sealed with the Brünn Programme of 1898, and internationalism took a back seat to an Austrian nationalism that was supportive of the imperial state. The centrepiece of this programme was the demand for cultural, linguistic and political autonomy. The national minorities were to have farther-reaching self-government and to get their own administrative languages and schools, but nevertheless would remain part of the multi-ethnic Habsburg state. The right to self-determination was explicitly denied. The Austrian Social Democrats thereby accepted the division of the working class into its ethnic affiliations and failed to conduct a political argument about the significance of nationalism for oppressed peoples and for the international working class.

The state-supporting German nationalism of the SDAP demonstrated a lack of understanding of the importance of a recognition of national self-determination of oppressed people among the left in the oppressor nation. This had already found expression in the writings of the “Austro-Marxist” masterminds Otto Bauer and Karl Renner.8 The core of this incomprehension was that the Austro-Marxists did not recognise the connection between national and social oppression in the Hapsburg empire. From the Brünn Programme, it was not much further for the SDAP to its open support for the Hapsburg monarchy in the First World War.

Rosa Luxemburg, who belonged to the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) along with Karl Radek and Leo Jogisches, was a sharp critic of the ideas of Bauer and Renner. She advocated for a unified social-democratic party in the entire Russian Empire, which would organise across ethnic boundaries. Social democracy was, according to Luxemburg, “by nature a pronounced opponent of every particularism and national federalism”.9 Simultaneously, though, she went so far as to reject the national self-determination of oppressed nations. She even actively espoused the idea that no mention of the right to self-determination should be found in the Russian party programme. Her failure to prevail with this view was one of the grounds upon which the SDKPiL once more left the Russian Social Democrats in 1911.

Luxemburg’s position was strongly shaped by her experience in Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) and arguments with the nationalist Polish Socialist Party (PPS).10 From these, it is possible to explain why she urged a sharp struggle against nationalist tendencies within the workers’ movements of the oppressed minorities. According to Luxemburg, instead of bowing to the slogans of “their” petit bourgeoisies, workers from national minorities ought to overthrow Tsarism in alliance with the workers of all nations. This approach, which she also advocated in relation to the Ukrainian question, led her to not support the right to self-determination.

Luxemburg maintained her position until the end of her short life. She viewed the question of Ukrainian self-determination as insignificant from the standpoint of revolutionary strategy. A few months before the beginning of the November Revolution in Germany in 1918, she wrote a pamphlet in a prison in the Polish city of Wrocław in which she claimed that the Ukrainian national movement had only been “a ridiculous farce of a few university professors and students” before the Bolsheviks had grown it into a nationalist movement through their demands for the right to self-determination.11 The real development of events, as explored below, showed how wrong she was.

In her stance towards self-determination, Luxemburg’s position came very close to Bauer and Renner, though their starting points were very different. The Austro-Marxists wanted to save the Austrian multinational state and belonged to the dominant ethnic group, German-Austrians. In contrast, Luxemburg lived in Russian-occupied Poland, which was culturally and linguistically oppressed by Russian nationalism. She wanted to fight Polish nationalism in her own ranks. In Galicia and West Ukraine, however, the situation was more complex; the high nobility was Polish, and Polish nationalism oppressed the Ukrainians. After her death, Luxemburg’s false position won influence in the Communist Party of Poland (KPP). The KPP denied the right to self-determination to the West Ukrainians, who were now suffering under Józef Piłsudski’s independent Polish state.12

The position of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, or more precisely the majority Bolshevik faction, differed in two respects from the stance of the Austro-Marxists. Firstly, it argued that, so long as a unified Russian state existed, Ukrainian workers should organise together with Russian, Polish and Jewish workers in a single social-democratic party. In this they concurred with Luxemburg. Secondly, however, it simultaneously advocated for the unconditional right of the Ukrainians to self-determination right up to succession. On this question, it differentiated itself from the positions of both Bauer and Renner and from that of Luxemburg. It did not support the demand for the territorial integrity of the “inseparable whole” of the Russian Empire. This stance was the result of factional arguments inside the party in the first years after its foundation. It was consistently defended by Lenin in the following years.13

Lenin’s vehement defence of the self-determination of the Ukrainians had two grounds. First, he held the view that rejecting it would play into the hands of Russian nationalism. He was convinced that class unity between Ukrainian and Russian workers could only come into being voluntarily and not via compulsion. Progressively minded Russians needed to rid themselves of their own chauvinistic positions through a recognition of the right to self-determination; a Russian Marxist could “slide into the quagmire of not just bourgeois nationalism, but the nationalism of the Black Hundreds, if he forgot for one minute the demand for full equality for the Ukrainians and their right to construct an independent state”.14 This attitude in no way excused Ukrainian socialists from the task of ideological criticism of Ukrainian nationalism and fighting for a socialist position among workers.15

Second, Lenin did not share Luxemburg’s position that independence struggles constitute a distraction from class struggles. When the Irish revolted against the British occupiers in the 1916 Easter Rising, he wrote:

To believe that the social revolution is thinkable without revolts of small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary eruptions of a part of the petit bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without the movement of the unenlightened proletarian and half-proletarian masses against the yoke of the landowners and the church, against monarchical, national and other forms of oppression—to believe this is to forsake the social revolution.16

Indeed, Lenin recognised revolutionary potential and an ally in the practical struggle against Tsarism in the Ukrainian independence movement. He thus once labelled the Ukrainian question “the question of the Russian Ireland”.17

The First World War

Ukraine aroused the attention of the great powers in the First World War and was turned into a battlefield. Sadly, social democracy in the main combatant states had done nothing to counter the incipient carnage. On the Ukrainian side, too, petit-bourgeois nationalists tried to propagate the illusion that the war offered the Ukrainians, like the Poles, a chance to carve out an independent national state.18

Yet, very quickly this strategy proved itself to be a fantasy. The war brought nothing but new oppression. The Central Powers sought collaboration with the Polish elites, declaring Russian Poland an independent kingdom, and the Hapsburgs extended Polish autonomy in Galicia. The Austrian aristocracy doubled down on its alliance with the Polish nobility, viewing the Ukrainian peasants as unreliable.19 The latter, who had been viewed as loyal to the emperor for a long time, began to turn against the monarchy. Now, the authorities in Galicia accused the Ukrainian peasants of being Russophiles and imprisoned or murdered many of them under the pretext of treason. Russian nationalists, on the other hand, accused them of being commissioned by the Austrians to support the breakup of Russia. When Russia conquered Galicia, the Russian authorities immediately banned the Ukrainian press, closed schools and began a radical Russification policy. In Russia itself, there was also a new wave of repression against the Ukrainians living there.20

Above all, however, the fate of the Ukrainian peasants was to fight against one another and be massacred in the interests of the European monarchies: the Galicians in Hapsburg uniforms in the interests of the Austrian aristocracy, the others in Russian uniforms in the interests of the Tsarist monarchy. They placed, therefore, their hopes in the revolution that had begun in Russia and would soon spread to Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1918.


The February Revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, overthrowing the Tsarist monarchy. It was received with enthusiasm in Ukraine. For the majority, the revolution opened up a chance for a life without oppression and exploitation. Millions of Ukrainians who had fought as soldiers hoped for an end to the war. Because almost all of them belonged to the peasantry, they also hoped for a solution to the “agrarian question”, meaning the expropriation of the (predominantly Russian-speaking) big landowners and the redistribution of the lands among the poorer layers of the peasantry. The numerically small working class in the Russian-speaking industrial cities hoped for social rights and democratic freedoms. Only the small stratum of Russian-speaking nobles rejected the revolution, but they could not do anything to counter it for the time being.

The nationally minded Ukrainian middle classes supported the revolution because they believed that the time had come to realise their dreams of an independent Ukraine. They hoped to become masters of this new, independent Ukraine. This aspiration found its political expression in the Central Rada, a type of pre-parliament, which was founded in Kiev a few days after the overthrow of the monarchy. It was party political, professional and ethnically segmented; represented were, besides the political parties, representatives of local autonomous councils, peasants’ councils and workers’ councils as well as national minorities. The Central Rada declared its loyalty to the Russian provisional government and pursued the goal of the territorial autonomy of Ukraine within the framework of Russia. However, the population of the Russian-speaking industrial cities in South and East Ukraine had little use for the Central Rada in Kiev. The Russian-speaking middle classes had formed administrative committees that supported the provisional government in St Petersburg, but the working class had made its own revolution. It organised itself into workers’ councils, just as in Russia, and occupied firms. Consequently, a situation of dual power emerged that was similar to Russia.

In the months after the overthrow of the monarchy, in addition to the factory occupation movement, there was a peasants’ revolution. Ukrainian peasants occupied the large-scale landholdings of the Polish and Russian nobles and divided it among the poorer layers. The peasants organised themselves in farmers’ unions and peasants’ soviets. Against this background, the Ukrainian peasants radicalised ever more towards the left, as demonstrated by the parties that held a majority in parliament; from the “Progressionists”, the leadership went over to the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party (the Menshevik-inspired right-wing breakaway from the RUP).21 In summer 1917, a congress of the Peasants’ Association took place, at which thousands of delegates demanded the complete abolition of land ownership and the political autonomy of Ukraine.22 The Central Rada, under the leadership of the Social Democrats, rejected these demands and kept faith with the provisional government in St Petersburg, thereby discrediting itself among the Ukrainian peasantry. The St Petersburg government, under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky and the Mensheviks, was unable to solve the agrarian question and held onto a “unified and inseparable Russia”, rejecting Ukrainian self-determination. Over the question of the ending of the war, it advocated the slogan “peace without annexations” and was thus not prepared to relinquish Russian domination over Ukraine, which the Central Powers stipulated as a condition for a peace treaty. In late summer 1917, the leadership of the Central Rada finally went over to the Ukrainian Party of Social Revolutionaries, a petit-bourgeois radical party which, representing the interests of the Ukrainian peasantry, demanded the autonomy of Ukraine and the immediate expropriation of the great landowners.

For years, Lenin had fought for the right to self-determination and a correct approach to the agrarian question among the Bolsheviks and within the Russian workers’ movement. It now became apparent how right he had been to do this. In October 1917, the working class in St Petersburg followed the appeal of the Bolsheviks for an insurrection and overthrew the provisional government, placing power in the hands of the Soviet government. This government’s first provisions included the “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” and the “Decree on Land and Peace”. Because of this, the Central Rada initially supported the Bolsheviks and mobilised the army units loyal to them in order to drive the troops of the provisional government out of Ukraine. However, the Rada did not join in the creation of the Soviet state; instead, it wanted to exploit the overthrow of the provisional government in St Petersburg to open the way for an independent capitalist Ukraine.

The Ukrainian national republic

A few days after the October Revolution, the Central Rada founded the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR), which declared itself independent in January 1918. Despite huge pressure and many promises, the Central Rada was not prepared to fulfil the demands of the peasants for land reform. Because of this, the UNR lacked one thing above all from the very beginning: the support of the people. It was only supported by a narrow urban middle class in the central and western provinces.

Political developments in the country were, however, determined by other classes. On one hand, the cities saw uprisings of radical workers, who rallied to the programme of the Bolsheviks and wanted to establish a Soviet system along the lines of the Russian model. The Central Rada was expelled from Kiev by an insurrection for a short time. In the south and east, in Kharkiv and Odessa, autonomous Soviet republics, which did not recognise the bourgeois UNR, emerged out of these uprisings. On the other hand, the counter-revolution began to coalesce around the so-called Volunteer Army under Lieutenant General Anton Denikin. To fend off the reactionary White Army, the working class formed an armed force—the Red Army. When the Central Rada prohibited the Red Army moving through the UNR, military altercations followed. These events demonstrated that the UNR had barely any backing. The peasants and the soldiers streaming back from the front were not enthusiastic about defence of the UNR since it had not until then been able to expropriate the big landowners. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, advocated a radical agrarian programme, and they were seen as trustworthy because they confronted the landowners. Some parts of the Ukrainian peasantry thus affiliated themselves to the Bolsheviks in order to fight against the Whites.

When the Central Rada recognised that it enjoyed practically no support among the people, it decided to accept the Central Powers’ offer of military support. In a secret protocol, it committed itself to deliver grain in exchange for this help. Subsequently, German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupied nearly the whole of Ukraine and began to fight against the Red Army. For the German military leadership, Ukraine was of great economic significance; the country’s lasting designation as a “breadbasket” by Germany’s elite emerged during this first period of German occupation. However, the Central Rada could not stick to its part of the deal because the Ukrainian peasants refused to deliver their grain to the UNR and the German occupiers. The occupiers consequently dissolved the Central Rada and replaced it with a military puppet dictatorship under Lieutenant General Pavlo Skoropadskyi.23

Skoropadskyi, himself a big landowner, wanted to reverse the land occupations of the peasants and give back the land to the landlords. Simultaneously, his government wanted to organise the delivery of grain to Germany. Both the nationally minded petit bourgeoisie and the peasants thus rejected the Skoropadskyi regime. The peasants rose up and fought hard battles against the German troops, and UNR troops also fought against Skoropadskyi’s units.

In November 1918, workers and soldiers in Germany rose up in the November Revolution, ending the First World War. As a result, the German army was withdrawn from Ukraine and the hated Skoropadskyi, who still vainly sought an alliance of convenience with Denikin’s White Army, was overthrown. A provisional government, the so-called Directorate, took over the business of government and re-instituted the Central Rada. The overthrow of Skoropadskyi initially sparked hopes of national recovery. The left wing of the Directorate, led by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, had taken over the slogans of the Bolsheviks, speaking of introducing a modified Soviet system and wanting to create a “dictatorship of the working people”. A comprehensive land reform was to solve the agrarian question. Yet, these promises were once again not realised.24 The left wing abandoned the government, and the leadership of the Directorate passed to Symon Petliura, a petit-bourgeois nationalist who had, similarly to Piłsudski in Poland, begun his career as a Social Democrat but moved towards the right under the slogans of Ukrainian nationalism.

Because he lacked support in the country, Petliura sought an alliance with Denikin’s White Army, which organised targeted plundering, rape and massacres against civilians on its way through Ukraine. Worst affected were the Jews. Between summer 1919 and the beginning of 1920 alone, roughly 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Whites. Moreover, Denikin proved an unreliable partner for the Ukrainian nationalists. As a representative of the counter-revolution he wanted to restore the Russian Empire of the big landowners within the borders of 1914. Therefore, Petliura eventually sought the help of Piłsudski’s Polish army instead and, to this end, he accepted the Polish occupation of Galicia, antagonising the West Ukrainians living there.

Even though the White Army perpetrated the worst crimes of all sides, Petliura’s nationalist troops, as well as the atamans—traditional Cossack leaders—who cooperated with him, committed pogroms against the Jewish population in his sphere of influence. Some figures suggest 40 percent of the pogroms were perpetrated by supporters of Petliura. Only the eventual victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War in 1922 ended the massacres of Jews. After fleeing, Petliura was murdered by a Jewish anarchist in Paris in 1926. The culprit was acquitted by a French court, because he had acted in revenge for the deaths of 15 family members, among them his parents.

Makhno and agrarian anarchism

Ukraine was a key battleground of the Russian Civil War, in which, first and foremost, the Red Army fought the counter-revolutionary White Army. Between these two forces fought troops of the UNR and Ukrainian nationalists of all kinds for their goal of national independence. They were, as with the Whites, financially and militarily supported by foreign forces. Under Petliura, foreign troops intervened in Ukraine once more—this time the Entente powers and, eventually, Poland. Ukrainian peasants fought with their own armies, often under the leadership of Cossack atamans. Some of them occasionally allied themselves with Petliura, even though the peasants above all fought for their own goals. The Green Army, a movement of peasants, also belonged to the peasant armies, living in the woods and fighting as partisans together with the Black Army under the leadership of Nestor Makhno.

Makhno was a military leader who wanted to realise the anarchist ideas of Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. He succeeded in organising an army of 100,000 militant peasants by December 1919, using it to control an area in southern Ukraine with seven million inhabitants. In this territory big landowners were expropriated and the land was distributed among the peasants. Communities were organised in a network of self-governed communes, with all decisions arrived at democratically in local councils. Policy for the entire territory was meant to be determined through a Regional Congress which, however, only convened three times during the entire so-called Makhnovshchina. During the main period of the Civil War, the Black Army under Makhno fought together with the Red Army under Leon Trotsky against the White Armies led by Denikin and Lieutenant General Pyotr Wrangel. In the late stage of the Civil War, however, as the Whites were repelled, the Reds and the Blacks also fought against one another.

In order to understand the influence of Makhno and his relationship to communism and other political forces in the Civil War, it is important to bear in mind the distinct social interests at play. The goal of aligning the economy with the needs of the consumers through planned production was foreign to the peasants. The peasant’s goal was to cultivate their own piece of land as freely as possible from external constraints. Makhno’s anarchism was ideologically compatible with the interests of the Ukrainian peasantry. Indeed, Makhno was no exceptional phenomenon in the peasantry, but rather was part of a set of leaders who formed local peasant armies during the Civil War and adhered to a quasi-anarchistic conception of society that took its bearings from the Cossack democracy of the late medieval nomadic states.25 Yet, at no point in time did Makhno’s movement succeed in winning influence in the Ukrainian working class, even when the Makhnovshchina, at the highpoint of its expansion, had brought industrial centres in the east of Ukraine under its control. The working class supported “its own” party, the Bolsheviks.26

The Ukrainian peasantry’s fight for the distribution of the land initially caused it to sympathise with the working class and the Bolsheviks, and parts of the peasantry also fought in the Red Army. Yet, the alliance was fragile because, to save the cities from starvation and to feed the Red Army, the Soviet government was forced to requisition grain from the peasants. Earlier, the peasants had received an equivalent value of money or industrial products from the city in exchange. The Civil War, however, had destroyed urban industry; the workers had nothing that they could offer to the peasants as compensation. Therefore, there was no choice but to employ violence to force the peasants to give up a part of the grain—a policy that was labelled “War Communism”.

The fragile worker-peasant alliance disintegrated as the Civil War neared its end. When the Whites no longer presented a danger, and the threat of the big landowners returning was averted, the peasants had attained their goal. Their appropriation of the land had been defended. The resumption of War Communism made no sense to them, even though the sustenance of the cities (never mind their industrial reconstruction) was still not guaranteed and the Red Army had to fight on more remote fronts.27 So, sections of the peasantry turned away from the Bolsheviks and the Red Army and supported local peasant leaders. The Green Army, for instance, recruited primarily from dissidents of the Red Army. Others attached themselves to Makhno.

Parts of the anarchist left glorify Makhno’s movement as a popular anarchist revolution, a model of a direct democracy and a libertarian society without hierarchies. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Makhno himself was an autocratic peasant leader and self-aggrandising military commander who tended towards arbitrary executions and wild binge drinking. Volin, the pen name of Russian anarchist Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eikhenbaum, who was one of Makhno’s role models, once complained that his students often lost their self-control under the influence of alcohol. Sudden personal whims, coupled with violence, took the place of performance of one’s revolutionary duties: “This despotism, the absurd shenanigans, the dictatorial antics of a warlord led to the formation of a military coterie or cabal around Makhno”.28

Trotsky already said before 1905 that the peasantry as a class, in distinction to the capitalist class and working class, was not capable of developing a viable social model, because its consciousness ended at the border of its strip of land. Thus, the peasantry linked itself to one or the other class or let itself be represented by one party or the other. The Civil War confirmed this analysis. By itself, the Ukrainian peasantry was incapable of forming a nationwide, centralised army that could effectively fight the Whites and advocate for its own class interests. It had to choose between three options: the big landowners, who wanted to have their land back; Ukrainian nationalists, who were too weak and thus entered into alliances with the big landowners and foreign imperialists; and the revolutionary workers, who defended the distribution of the land and conceded the right to national self-determination to the Ukrainian peasants. From this perspective it is understandable why the peasantry perceived the Bolsheviks as the least bad among all alternatives and supported the creation of a Soviet Ukraine.

Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union

After the October Revolution, the founding of autonomous “workers’ and peasants’ republics”, which remained unrecognised by the UNR, came out of workers’ uprisings in the cities of Odessa, Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih. Following the invasion by German troops in February 1918, these were shattered; however, after the withdrawal of the Germans, a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR), also known as “Soviet Ukraine”, was founded in January 1919, existing parallel to the UNR for some time. The UkrSSR also developed a strong appeal among the peasantry. Already, in May 1918, the peasant Socialist Revolutionary Party had split, and its left wing, the “Borotbists”, henceforth supported the Red Army and the formation of Soviet Ukraine.29 The inability of the petit-bourgeois parties—at first the Progressionists and then the Mensheviks and right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries—to resolve the poverty in the countryside through land reform led large sections of the peasants to feel more strongly linked to the Communist Parties (the Borotbists and Bolsheviks), with their radical agrarian programmes and their idea of a Soviet Ukraine, than with the bourgeois parties and their idea of a completely separate nation-state.

The formation of Soviet Ukraine in 1919 was no ploy of the Russian Communists aimed at dominating Ukraine in the interests of Moscow. This fact is even conceded by historians who nobody would accuse of harbouring sympathies for the Communists. For example, Polish historian Władysław Serczyk has explained:

Eventually, however, the social and economic programme of the Communists seems to have become more attractive than the sheer terror of the Whites and the waning military and political possibilities for action of the Ukrainian nationalists.30

In the first years of its existence, Soviet Ukraine was an independent workers’ and peasants’ state. In 1922, negotiations took place with the Russian and Transcaucasian Soviet Republics over the formation of a Soviet Union, which Soviet Ukraine joined in 1924 through the adoption of the Soviet Union’s constitution. The unification of all of the different national communist parties into a Soviet Union-wide one, the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevists), took place in 1925.31 In Ukraine, three communist parties affiliated: the Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolsheviks), the Ukrainian Communist Party (Ukapists) and the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists).32 Even though the Ukapists and Borotbists were united under the umbrella of the Bolshevists, their representatives continued to set the tone in the Ukrainian Communist Party until the end of the 1920s.33

In its first years, the Soviet Union was more a confederation of relatively autonomous, equal workers’ and peasants’ states than a centralised federal state. This situation complied with the conception of a loose commonwealth that was advocated by Ukrainian Communists such as the Bolshevist Christian Rakovsky and the former Borotbist Alexander Shumsky, which was also shared by Lenin. Accordingly, a very far-reaching economic and political autonomy existed and, of course, there was a right to withdraw from the federation.34 The formation of the Soviet Union was no Great Russian project; on the contrary, the essential impulse for the founding of the Soviet Union came from Soviet Ukraine, and the formal proposal for its establishment even came from the Ukrainian Communist Party. One reason for this was the economic and social devastation as a result of the Civil War and the hope of accelerating reconstruction through economic cooperation.

Agrarian policy and reconstruction

In 1921, Ukrainian heavy industry still generated just 12 percent of pre-war production, coal extraction had fallen to a sixth of pre-war production, the transport system was ruined and agricultural production had collapsed.35 Under these conditions, famine emerged in Soviet Ukraine in 1921 and 1922. In contrast to the “Holodomor” a decade later, this famine was reported upon everywhere. The Soviet governments of Ukraine and Russia organised collective relief efforts for the hungry, allowed foreign aid supplies into the country, and thus significantly alleviated its consequences.36 This event has thus garnered less attention in Ukrainian history in comparison to the Stalinist Holodomor, which is addressed below.

After the Civil War, the reconstruction of the agricultural sector and industrial infrastructure began with great enthusiasm. Within the framework of central economic planning, Soviet Ukraine was advantaged, in that the reconstruction of industry took place at an even greater speed than in Russia. Large industrial projects contributed to this, such as the Dnipro power plant near the city of Zaporizhzhia and the tractor construction settlement in Kharkiv. Industrial production soon reached 80 percent of the pre-war level. A key feature of the industrial reconstruction of the 1920s was that, in contrast to Stalin’s forced industrialisation in the 1930s, it was accompanied by a rise in general consumption and considerable relief for the peasants. The requisition of grain had been scrapped as soon as the Civil War neared its end. In order to stimulate agricultural production, the peasants were given even greater concessions within the framework of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Peasants could now retain their grain and were only obliged to pay a tax from their profits. Lenin and Trotsky faced internal party opposition for the ending of War Communism and the turn to NEP.

The original conception of Soviet society, which was also advocated by Lenin, provided for a system of workers’ self-management by means of soviets. Within these soviets different socialist parties were supposed to freely champion their positions and compete against one another. At first, the operation of other parties was not prohibited. Thus, Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were also able to take part in elections to the soviets, as long as they renounced armed struggle against the system of workers’ councils. With the entrance of the Borotbists and the Ukapists into the Bolsheviks, the system in Soviet Ukraine presented itself as a one-party system; yet, different socialist currents, sometimes representing contrary positions, existed within the Communist Party.

Within this framework, a contentious debate arose over the course of industrialisation and its relationship to agricultural development. There was agreement that ultimately the building of socialism in an isolated, largely agricultural land was not possible; the survival of socialism would therefore require the extension of the revolution to the already industrialised countries. However, the revolutionary wave of 1918-23 in Western Europe had ebbed, and the Soviet republic remained isolated for now. The debate revolved around how the young Soviet state could hang on until a new revolutionary uprising emerged in the capitalist countries. The Left Opposition, a platform that sought to represent the interests of the working class, took the view that the development of agriculture should be subordinated to industry and that industry should be promoted. Another section of the party, representing the interests of middle-class peasants, was labelled the “Right” and argued that the speed of industrialisation depended upon advances in agriculture and thus that agricultural production should be promoted first. Importantly, these debates took place in a party in which contrary positions could be advocated freely and open discussions could be conducted. Both positions, even if they set their priorities differently, had the goal of bettering the living standards of the population.


The Ukrainian Soviet Republic became an object of yearning for the West Ukrainians in the 1920s.37 The West Ukrainians were divided among four national states that had emerged after the First World War: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary. With the exception of Czechoslovakia, all these states were governed by authoritarian regimes that sought to oppress the Ukrainians by all available means. The most radical policy was pursued by the Romanian government, which designated the Ukrainians as Russified Romanians and attempted to subordinate them to the new state through a radical policy of Romanianisation. Ukrainian schools and press were banned, and the Ukrainian church was subordinated to the Romanian church. The Polish government also curtailed the Ukrainian school system; Ukrainian-speaking professorships in Lviv were abolished and, now as before, the large-scale landholdings remained in the hands of the Polish aristocrats. These degradations were all the more significant because the Ukrainians in the Hapsburg empire before the First World War had to endure less severe repression than those in the Russian Empire.

What a difference, on the contrary, was offered to the Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine! Under the slogan of “Ukrainianisation”, the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture was actively promoted. Thus, the Ukrainian language was codified for the first time through the publication of a general grammar. A comprehensive literacy campaign was initiated in the Ukrainian language in order to raise the educational level of the peasants. The primary school system was “Ukrainianised”, and a Ukrainian press and publishing system were created. Extensive regulations for the promotion of the Ukrainian language were enacted, and Ukrainian-language professional school and university systems were established. Ukrainian was introduced as the official language in the entire state administration of Soviet Ukraine and, to this end, Russian-speaking functionaries in the Communist Party were obliged to master Ukrainian. Moreover, under the slogan of “nativisation” (korenisazija), the entire administrative apparatus and the higher leadership positions were deliberately filled with Ukrainian native speakers.

It is thus little wonder that the West Ukrainians looked enviously at Soviet Ukraine. The Communist Party of West Ukraine in East Galicia, part of the new Polish state, grew vastly, promising the same rights to the Ukrainians living there. However, the approaches that characterised the early years of Soviet Ukraine were to come to a sudden end when the faction around Stalin took control at the end of the 1920s.

The emergence of the “red executive class”

Stalinism ended all the positive tendencies that had emerged, despite all the difficult conditions, after the end of the Civil War. In place of the emancipation of labour came forced labour; in the place of the New Economic Policy, forcible requisition; in the place of social equality, the privileges of the bureaucracies; in the place of consumption, hunger; in the place of socialist democracy, the dictatorship of the party leadership; in the place of Ukrainianisation, Great Russian chauvinism; and in the place of Lenin’s “semi-state”, police terror.38 The only continuity was the maintenance of Marxism on paper and the concept of “communism” in name. The Communist Party is the best example of this; although its name was retained, almost all its leading members were excluded, murdered and replaced by technocrats.

The monstrous crimes of the 1930s were neither inherent in Bolshevism nor the product of Stalin’s character. On the contrary, they were the consequence of the shift from world revolution to “socialism in one country”—a concept that Stalin had advocated since 1924. The bearer of this idea was a new social stratum that obtained enormous privileges through its societal position and understandably sought to defend these. The emergence of this layer was the result of a process of bureaucratisation that had its origin in the Civil War’s decimation of the working class, which was the pillar of workers’ democracy. Once a lively workers’ democracy no longer existed, the Bolshevik Party, feeling itself obligated to the working class, began to substitute itself for this class. The bureaucracy, a privileged layer growing out of full-time officials, gradually supplanted the role of the workers’ councils in the economy and wider society.39 The faction around Stalin represented the interests of this stratum, which had incrementally transformed into a new class. Sociologist David Granick once called the members of this new class the “red executives”: leaders of the great Soviet state-owned enterprises.40 Granick emphasised the common features and shared logics of the Western and Soviet managers. However, the peculiar characteristic of the “red executive class” was that its members did not individually control the means of production. Instead, they “owned” the “state property” collectively as a class.

With the bureaucracy’s support and its control over the key positions in the party and state apparatus, Stalin’s faction could prevail in the 1920s. The distinctiveness of the Stalinist counter-revolution is that it cannot be reduced to a single event. A crucial step was the crushing of the Left Opposition with the expulsion of Trotsky in 1927. The completion of the counter-revolution is regarded as being marked by the proclamation of the first Five Year Plan in 1928, which had the aim of accelerating the development of heavy industry through a radical subordination of agricultural production. The means to this end was the transformation of the peasantry into poor agricultural workers through forced collectivisation.

Class war against the peasants

In 1930, Stalin forced through general collectivisation of agriculture in Ukraine. Stalinist propaganda claimed that collectivisation was a “war against the kulaks”. The term “kulak” originally described better-off peasants, but now the label was applied to all peasants who did not want to join forced collectivisation. In truth, this was part of a war by the Russian bureaucracy against the entire Ukrainian peasantry. In some parts of Ukraine, forced collectivisation took the form of a “class war”, with armed peasant uprisings threatening to broaden into a general insurgency.41 This is unsurprising, since a memory of the peasant resistance against the big landowners during the Civil War was still present.

In 1931, the compulsory sales demanded from the kolkhozes (collective farms) radically increased; peasants were only allowed to keep 112kg of grain per person, and only 83kg in the following year. This led to a catastrophic famine, which has gone down in history as “Holodomor”. In 1932-3, about 20 to 30 percent of villagers in eastern and southern Ukraine suffered starvation. It is estimated that at least three million people died in the Holodomor. Above all it killed sick people, old people and children; thus, one effect of famine was a “reduction of unutilisable people” in the countryside. In contrast to the 1920s, the leadership denied this famine, which Stalin described as a “fairy tale”. He organised no aid and rejected all attempts to bring help to the starving from foreign countries. Nonetheless, the Soviet government satisfied all grain deliveries to foreign countries to which it had committed itself in exchange for industrial goods.42

Some authors claim that the catastrophe in Ukraine was consciously deployed as a weapon by the Stalinist bureaucracy in order to break peasant resistance to forced collectivisation. As well as the withheld aid, the closing of the Russian border and sealing of cities to keep the starving peasants from migrating to less affected areas is brought forth as an argument for this. The brutal approach of the Stalinist bureaucracy has led to the claim by Ukrainian nationalists that the Holodomor was a genocide, used by the Moscow government as a conscious means to exterminate the Ukrainian people. Analogies to the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust have even been drawn.

However, this account switches cause and effect. The Holocaust had the aim of physically exterminating groups of people, above all Jews, on the basis of their ethnicity or other characteristics. In contrast, the famine was a result of the Stalinist collectivisation policy, which pursued the goal of subordinating the countryside to the primacy of industrialisation. The compulsory contributions of the kolkhozes were ultimately an appropriation of the surplus product of the peasants by the bureaucracy, which threw this into industrialisation. The forced collectivisation transformed the greater part of the peasants into agricultural workers; another part was made redundant and employed in the newly emerging industry. Thus, the Holodomor was not limited to Ukraine, but rather also impacted the peasantry in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union.43

Forced collectivisation has been compared to similar violent expropriation measures in early capitalist societies. Marx once described this process as the original (or “primitive”) accumulation of capital. Indeed, the Ukraine transformed itself from an agrarian peasant nation into an industrialised country in fewer than ten years. This metamorphosis, which had lasted several decades or even centuries in countries such as England and Germany, was realised by Stalin in Ukraine within a few years. Yet, what price did the population have to pay for this?

The return of Russian great power chauvinism

The resistance to forced collectivisation came not just from the peasants. An opposition to the Stalinist form of industrialisation was also growing within the working class and the Ukrainian Communist Party. This explains why the first Stalinist “purge” was conducted under the slogan of the “struggle against Ukrainian nationalism”.

The Ukrainian Communist Party was accused of having driven Ukrainianisation too far. The Ukrainian agricultural minister was hit first and then the people’s commissar for education, Mykola Skrypnyk. A large-scale purge of the Ukrainian elite, directed by Moscow, followed in 1933. Authors, teachers, cadres in the agricultural, education and cultural sectors, trade unionists and technicians were dismissed. Some 20 percent of the party members were expelled; half of the regional executives and three quarters of the party leadership were replaced. Many intellectuals, authors, artists and even folk singers were shot or sent to Siberian labour camps.44 The Ukrainian elite was replaced by Russian cadres.

Parallel to the acts of political violence, “Russification” came in the place of Ukrainianisation. The All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences was closed. Education and culture were forced into line with the Russian system. In 1938, Russian was declared a compulsory subject in the schools and universities. In place of “internationalism”, the guiding ideology became “Soviet patriotism”, which was synonymous with Russian supremacy over the Soviet Union. A further incident was the liquidation of the Ukrainian church and its subsumption under the Russian Orthodox Church.

At this point, it must be pointed out that Stalin’s great power chauvinism stood in stark contradiction to Lenin’s ideas. Lenin always advocated for the right to self-determination of oppressed peoples, whereas oppression was already a dominant feature of Stalin’s nationalities policy in his capacity as people’s commissar for nationalities. Lenin had broken with Stalin after the so-called Georgian Affair in 1922.45 He compared Stalin’s behaviour in dealing with oppressed nations with “Great Russian chauvinists—for all intents and purposes, scoundrels and violent criminals, as is the typical Russian bureaucrat”.46 Lenin prepared to challenge Stalin’s role in the party, but his early death prevented him from implementing this plan.

Liquidation of the Ukrainian communists

The purges of the early 1930s were only an overture for the “Great Terror”, which reached its climax in 1937. Moscow issued quotas for the minimum number of executions. The Ukrainian section of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the Soviet secret police, repeatedly pleaded for an increase in the quotas. In total, around 400,000 people in Ukraine were shot within a period of a few months. The Great Terror, named the “Yezhov period” (Yezhovshchina) in common parlance after NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, had various goals, but one of these was the complete destruction of every potential resistance for a long time to come. Thus, it focused on peasants and workers who had attracted negative attention in some way or come into contact with the police. Once again, a side effect was the “reduction of unutilisable people”. For example, the terror was supposed to be used to get rid of inmates in the prisons. The order by the chief of the NKVD in Ukraine, Izrail Leplevsky, to shoot older people should be understood as in accordance with this purpose.

Even though the terror also affected non-Communists (above all the Ukrainian clergy), it was first and foremost targeted at the Ukrainian Communists. Overall, 170,000 members of the Ukrainian Communist Party were expelled, and most of them were murdered. This comprised 37 percent of all organised Communists in the Ukraine.47 The Ukrainian party and state leaderships were repeatedly replaced. Of 102 Ukrainian central committee members and nominees, just three were living in freedom and a further three were alive in the labour camps by 1939.48 The rationales switched between accusations of “national deviations”, “Trotskyist and counter-revolutionary activity”, “espionage commissioned by foreign secret services”, “collaboration with foreign fascists”, and so on. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev, who had been complicit in mass murder and yet later criticised the dimensions of the Great Terror, remembered:

It seemed as though not one single area secretary, a single secretary to the people’s commissars or a single delegate remained. We had to begin utterly from scratch.49

The posts vacated by the purges were occupied by young officials, who predominantly belonged to the technical intelligentsia of engineers. Many of them were ethnic Russians, although some were Ukrainians who lacked any political consciousness. They had not experienced the October Revolution. In this way, the Great Terror initiated an overhaul of the ruling elite, enabling Stalin to install a completely loyal party leadership in Ukraine and thus secure his counter-revolution. This “Great Purge” was supposed to extinguish the collective memory of the October Revolution, the first successful socialist revolution, and to ordain the Stalinist political system as its heir.

The mass murder of the Ukrainian Communists was not only realised in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. A particular tragedy played out in Polish West Ukraine. The Communist Party of West Ukraine (CPWU), which has arisen out of the Communist Party of East Galicia, had developed into an influential political party in the 1920s in inter-war Poland. It was exposed to harsh repression by the Polish state, which accused it of separatist tendencies, and had to work illegally. However, it had tremendous influence in legal mass organisations such as the Ukrainian Workers and Peasants Union.

Until 1927, the majority of the central committee of the CPWU supported the faction around Alexander Shumsky in the Communist Party of Ukraine, which was associated with the Ukrainianisation policy in Soviet Ukraine. The representative of the Stalin faction in Ukraine, Lazar Kaganovich, accused the CPWU of treachery, whereupon the party initially split. The majority went with Shumsky, the minority with Kaganovich. In 1928, the majority faction was expelled from the Communist International by Stalin. Consequently, it gave in and dissolved itself. Its leaders practised “self-criticism”, apologising to Stalin for their “mistakes”. This did not save them from being imprisoned and unceremoniously shot while on a journey to the Soviet Union. Consequently, the CPWU had to elect a new central committee, but the members deserted under the impact of news about forced collectivisation, famine and state terror in Soviet Ukraine. In 1933, the leaders of the CPWU were summoned to the Soviet Union, imprisoned and shot. The same fate was suffered by all those West Ukrainian Communists who had fled from the Piłsudski regime and emigrated to the Soviet Union.

The minority faction, which had placed itself on Stalin’s side, remained under the name of the CPWU. In 1938, the Communist International decided on the dissolution of the rump-CPWU. Stalin now accused the party leadership of being infiltrated by Nazis. After the invasion of East Galicia by Soviet troops in 1939 as part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the rest of the West Ukrainian Communists were “liquidated”. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev recalls:

We met decent people there—I’ve forgotten their names. These were people who have been through Polish prisons—communists who were tested by life itself. Yet, their party was dissolved by us… When they received liberation from the Red Army, they landed in our Soviet prisons. Unfortunately, that is how it went.50

The crimes of Stalin “in the name of Communism” led to a rightward development of the Ukrainian national movement. As noted earlier, this movement originally had a social-democratic orientation, but now right-wing intellectuals gained more influence. They craved dictatorial forms of rule and put forth an ethnic nationalism. In 1929, West Ukrainian nationalists who had supported the Austrian monarchy in the First World War founded the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This new group took its bearing from fascist movements, which were gaining in importance in the whole of Europe. In the 1930s, it fought for the independence of West Ukraine from Poland via terrorist means. It expected support from National Socialist Germany because they shared common enemies—Poland and the Soviet Union.

The Second World War

Stalin’s crimes explain why the occupation of Ukraine by the fascist Wehrmacht, at least during its first days, aroused hopes among some sections of the Ukrainian population for improvements in their situation. Yet, it was very quickly proven how unjustified these hopes were. It is not only that the German occupation perpetrated the greatest crime in human history, the Holocaust, on Ukrainian soil. For Hitler, the Ukrainians as a whole were an “inferior, Asiatic-nihilistic” people, which were to be exterminated through genocide, forced labour and forced migration.51 Generalplan Ost, the Nazi’s blueprint for Eastern Europe, provided for the murder of 25 percent of the 23 million Ukrainians. Another 40 percent were to be deported “to the East” and the remaining 35 percent were to be turned into slaves for the German Reich. Southern Ukraine (called “Gotengau” by the Nazis) was to be depopulated and turned into a German colony.

Between three and four million people from Ukraine fell victim to mass murder. The genocide against Ukrainian Jews began immediately after the invasion. In September 1941, over 33,000 Jews were murdered at the ravine of Babi Yar in Kiev. This event initiated the Holocaust in the whole of Europe, in which around a million Jews from Ukrainian territory alone were murdered. The first forced migrations of Ukrainians and their replacement by “Volksdeutsche” (ethnic Germans) took place in Zhytomyr. In the rest of Ukraine, a ruthless policy of exploitation was implemented. Against the expectations of the population, forced collectivisation was maintained since Stalin’s collective farms made the organisation of exploitation easier. Over two million Ukrainians were deported to Germany as forced labourers.52

During the Second World War, Stalin claimed that the Ukrainians would sympathise with the Germans, but blanket judgments of collaboration between “the Ukrainians” and the Nazis were simply wrong. Lethargy reigned among the general population. In order to survive one was forced to cooperate with the Germans in everyday situations. However, there was never any enthusiasm for the Nazis. When the occupation revealed its true face, the partisan movement grew. Indeed, millions of Ukrainians fought on the side of the Soviet army and as partisans. Yet, after the experiences of violence in the 1930s, there was also no enthusiasm for the Soviet state among the Ukrainians—an attitude reflected by other national minorities in the Soviet Union.

Deliberate collaboration with Nazism only came from a small group of Ukrainian nationalists. The role of the OUN was central. It participated in the assault on the Soviet Union with two units, Nightingale Battalion and Roland Battalion. At the beginning, the OUN nationalists indeed nurtured the illusion of realising their dream of a Ukrainian state alongside the Nazis. The basis of this was the game of lies that Hitler had conducted in European diplomacy prior to the war. He justified his expansionist policies, when it suited him, with the “right to self-determination of nations”. After the destruction of Czechoslovakia, he created a new Slovak state that was dependent on the German Reich. For a while, he even tolerated an autonomous “Carpathian Ukraine” emerging out of eastern Czechoslovakia. Moreover, in the months before the Nazi’s assault on Poland, the creation of a “Greater Ukraine” had been repeatedly discussed in the German newspapers.

The collaboration ended quickly, however, when the real policy of the Nazis revealed itself. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, the OUN had occupied the city of Lviv and proclaimed an independent state. After a few days, its leadership was brought to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in northern Germany and their statelet was dissolved.53 After that, mutinies took place in Ukrainian units, so that the Nightingale and Roland Battalions were also disbanded. Subsequently, the OUN formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and henceforth fought independently against the German occupiers as well as against Soviet and Polish partisans. Towards the end of the war, collaboration re-emerged. The OUN leadership was released from the concentration camps. An SS unit, named the Galician Division, was formed out of the Ukrainian nationalists. The supporters of the OUN assumed that, due to their imminent defeat, the Nazis would accept an independent Ukraine. However, the division served merely as cannon fodder for the Wehrmacht and, a short time later, was almost completely annihilated during the Battle of Brody in July 1944.

Like its precursor in 1914-18, the Second World War was an imperialist war. The motives of the Stalinist bureaucracy in this war were not essentially anti-fascist. For all the atrocities committed by the Nazis during their war of extermination, the Soviet Union was also an imperialist actor with its own geopolitical interests. The Stalinist bureaucracy also availed itself of policies of mass murder and forced migration in order to secure its control over Ukraine. In his “Secret Speech” at the 20th Communist Party conference in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev said that Stalin had planned to deport the Ukrainians as a whole during the Second World War, as he had done with the Germans, Poles, Greeks and Armenians in Ukraine. Only the size of the Ukrainian people had prevented him from implementing his plan.

The Poles were among the largest groups of victims. Directly after Stalin’s invasion of West Ukraine, which was then part of the Second Polish Republic, Soviet authorities—in keeping with the Hitler-Stalin Pact—began “Sovietisation” of the region. In the process, members of the NKVD, under orders from Stalin and his henchman Lavrentiy Beria, murdered tens of thousands of Polish citizens—primarily intellectuals and Soviet officials—and deported hundreds of thousands to Asia. When, in the course of the Second World War, the Soviet army had reconquered Ukraine, it was again integrated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the 1939 borders. These corresponded to the borders agreed by Stalin and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov with the Nazis in 1939. These were confirmed by the Western allies at the Yalta conference in 1945 without either of the Polish governments-in-exile—the one based in London or the pro-Soviet Lublin government—having been invited or consulted. On the imperialist drawing board, Poland was “shifted West” and the Ukraine was ethnically cleansed by the Soviet army, with over two million Poles expelled. With this, Ukraine finally lost the multi-ethnic character that it had possessed for centuries. The hopes of Ukrainians for liberation were also once more disappointed. There would be no return to the liberal “golden twenties” and Ukrainianisation. Instead, Stalinist terror was soon brought back into operation.

After Stalin’s death

Even under Stalin there had been a series of uprisings in the labour camps in eastern Russia and Kazakhstan, and many Ukrainians had participated in these.54 This movement must have influenced Khrushchev’s decision to dissolve the gulags, but this system designed by Stalin had also become a hindrance to further economic development. The “primitive accumulation” achieved through forced labour was now to be replaced by “expanded accumulation” through wage labour. As a consequence, with the death of Stalin in 1953, the political system in the Soviet Union changed. The level of oppression was reduced, the pressure on the peasants was relaxed, millions of camp inmates were released, the network of gulags was disbanded and hundreds of thousands of victims of repression were rehabilitated. The ideological break with Stalin, which was initiated by Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, was also an important event.

The new rulers wanted to reform Stalinism rather than abolish it. However, the abatement of repression quickly led to the emergence of an opposition movement that fundamentally called Stalinism into question. Ukrainian intellectuals broke the first ground. In the late 1950s, the “rebellion of the poets” emerged. Writers revolted against the curtailment of the Ukrainian language and demanded the rehabilitation of those Ukrainian authors suppressed under Stalin. After this, Ukrainian historians began to deal with taboo themes, above all the fate of the Ukrainian Communists in the 1920s and 1930s. Ukrainian academics called for the expansion of Ukrainian linguistics and the publication of Ukrainian-language textbooks and dictionaries.

The political thaw also emboldened workers to become active in their own interests. Protests took place over the poor supply of goods, accompanied by rising prices and declining wages. However, some of the spontaneous workers’ protests were directed against the brutality of the police. Already in 1953, there were street battles in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih as a result of the arrest of a boy who had illegally sold sunflower seeds in the marketplace, with residents and young workers fraternising with one another. The same reason led to a further street battle in Kryvyi Rih in 1961. The struggles of the Ukrainian working class were also shaped by the protests and riots that occurred in other parts of the Soviet Union.55 These reached a high point only 80km from the Ukrainian border with the Novocherkassk uprising in 1962.56

A few months after the uprising in Novocherkassk, a spontaneous strike wave emerged in southern and eastern Ukraine. In spring 1963, strikes took place in Donetsk, Artemivsk and Kramatorsk. The port workers in Odessa went on strike in the summer, refusing to send food to Cuba on the basis that they were themselves insufficiently supplied.57 Then, in June 1963, there was a riot, triggered by a drunken policeman, after workers were shot at in the steelworking city of Kryvyi Rih. Hundreds of workers conducted running battles with the police. The rebellion would only be overwhelmed by the military police through armed force.58

The actions of the workers were not directly connected to the political opposition movement. The workers also failed to develop a more generalised movement that went beyond the district level. Nevertheless, the importance of the spontaneous workers’ protests should not be underestimated. First, they showed that late-Stalinist society contained the potential for both political and significant social conflict and that Ukrainian workers were still capable of fighting despite their oppression by Stalin. Second, they demonstrated that workers in the “workers’ and peasants’ state” had no real control over the means of production and thus had to reach for the classic methods of workers’ struggle—strikes and demonstrations—in order to stand up for their interests. Third, they showed that the state apparatus did not stand on the side of the workers, but rather was deployed by the ruling class of bureaucrats in order to suppress their revolts.

A section of the opposition movement radicalised in parallel with the workers’ protests. This radicalisation seethed among the students because the “Ukrainian question” was connected to their own social situation. Russian had reclaimed its position as a language of the urban middle classes, which it had already commanded in the time of the Tsarist regime. Ethnic Russians dominated in Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian students, who had mostly moved from the countryside to the cities, faced competition for university places and jobs with Russian residents who were favoured at every level. In April 1965, the students of Kiev finally took to the streets, demanding the introduction of the Ukrainian language into the higher education system and the right to perform military service in their own republic.59 The student movement was characterised not just by taking its protests to the street; above all its importance was that it connected political demands with social ones. In this way, it contained the potential to forge a link between the political opposition and the general social dissatisfaction.

Among the intellectuals, too, a radicalisation became apparent. For instance, left-wing literary figure Ivan Dziuba published his Internationalism or Russification?, analysing Soviet policies towards nationalities and culture in Ukraine from a Marxist perspective. He argued that the Communist Party had descended into Russian chauvinism under Stalin’s rule. He constructed his argument to a great extent on quotations from the works of Lenin and party documents from the 1920s. He severely criticised the policy of Russification in Ukraine and called for a return to Leninist nationalities policy.

The “60s movement” became a real demonstration of disobedience, overstepping the limits of what the bureaucracy found acceptable. The first purges took place under Ukrainian party head Petro Shelest, who had up until then espoused a return to the Ukrainianisation of the 1920s and greater administrative autonomy within the Soviet Union. He now developed into a hardliner, but this did not save him from being overthrown in 1972 by those around Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The period of the Khrushchev Thaw was over. There were repeated large-scale purges in Ukraine, costing hundreds of intellectuals, literati, historians and academics their positions, freedom and lives.60 Simultaneously, censorship of the press tightened and the tendencies towards Russification intensified. Russian classes in schools were promoted. The number of Russians increased, rising to ten million in 1989, which comprised a quarter of the population of Ukraine. The Ukrainian language was supplanted more and more by Russian.

Even though political and social resistance was suppressed by all available means, the repression did not reach the level of the Stalin period. In the second half of the 1970s, the intellectual opposition formed so-called Helsinki groups and called for compliance with the human rights to which the Soviet government had committed itself with the signing of the Helsinki Accords of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975. At the beginning of the 1980s, displays of sympathy with the uprising of the Polish workers broke out among the working class in western Ukraine. Representatives of the Polish Solidarność trade union movement visited western Ukrainian factories in 1983-4, distributing leaflets there. The movement in Poland instilled new courage among Ukrainian workers and political oppositionists.61 Still, the political ice age persisted until the mid-1980s. However, with the Perestroika (reconstruction) reforms proclaimed by new Soviet Communist Party leader Michael Gorbachev in 1985 and the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, a powerful revival of the opposition movement would come to pass. These developments would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence.

Klaus Henning is a social scientist and teaches sociology of work at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences. His latest publication is In Vielfalt geeint: Organisationsgeschichte der Europäischen Verbände der Metallgewerkschaften (Klartext, 2022).


1 For more on the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, see our previous coverage: Choonara, 2022, and Ferguson, 2022.

2 Translated into English by Richard Donnelly. Thanks to Klaus Henning for his support and permission to publish this translation.

3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were enthusiastic supporters of the Polish revolt of 1863 because they saw it as a chance to drive back the influence of reaction after the failed revolutions of 1848. They hoped it would kindle a new fire of revolutionary movements in the whole of Europe. However, the January Revolt failed because it did not link itself to the Ukrainians. Its leadership lay in the hands of the Polish landowning aristocracy, the same social class that exploited the peasantry in the Ukrainian governate of the Russian Empire.

4 Jobst, 1993, p161.

5 Kappeler, 2003, p95.

6 Jobst, 1993, p167.

7 Kappeler, 2003, p95.

8 See Bauer, 1907.

9 Luxemburg, 1904.

10 Both parties, the SDKPiL and the PPS, fought for influence in the radicalising Polish workers’ movement. The PPS avowed socialism in their name, but above all adopted the position of its right wing around Józef Piłsudski, which subordinated class struggle to national independence. Thus, during a strike movement, Piłsudski argued against Polish workers solidarising with their Russian brothers, because fraternisation would damage the struggle for independence. With this nationalism he represented the interests of the Polish petit bourgeoisie, which was fighting for the creation of an independent and capitalist Poland.

11 Luxemburg, 1918.

12 Dyjbas, 2015.

13 The question of self-determination was initially linked to debates about party organisation in the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party. The “Iskrists” faction around the newspaper Iskra (Spark), to which Lenin also belonged, advocated for a single, centralised party structure, which would unite workers of different nations. This faction was able to win out against the position of the Jewish Labour Bund (the “Bundists”), which amounted to the advocation of an ethnic fractionalisation of social democracy that emulated the “Hapsburg model”.

14 Lenin, 1913.

15 Lenin and the Iskrists were able to prevail in the initial internal party debates against the Bundists because they encouraged the national self-determination of all national minorities. They argued that, should the Ukrainian population decide democratically to secede, the workers should establish their own organisations in order to fight their own oppressors. Nevertheless, in the following years, the right to self-determination was brought up for discussion again and again, for instance, by Nikolai Bukharin and Georgy Pyatakov in 1917.

16 Lenin, 1916.

17 Lenin, 1959.

18 Krupnyckyi, 1963, p363.

19 Kappeler, 2014, p167.

20 Jobst, 1993, p170.

21 The Society of Ukrainian Progressionists was a petit-bourgeois nationalist party, which had its roots in the National Democratic Party and itself emerged as a right-wing split from the RUP. After the February Revolution, it morphed into a legal party and initially called itself the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Federalists.

22 Dahlmann, 1986, p92.

23 Allen, 2014, p288.

24 Jobst, 2010, p160.

25 Danyluk, 2010, p103.

26 Danyluk, 2010, p108.

27 However, the peasants did later ally once more with the Bolsheviks when Wrangel’s Volunteer Army undertook a desperate attempt to win back the initiative in the final phase of the Civil War.

28 Quoted in Molyneux, 2013, p32.

29 The Borotbists later renamed themselves the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists) and would subsequently unite with the other communist parties.

30 Serczyk, 1991, p204.

31 This was renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1952.

32 As their name suggests, the Bolshevists were the sister party of the Communist Party in Russia, which had emerged out of the Russian Social Democrats. Ukapists and Borotbists were left-wing splits—respectively, from the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party and the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party—that supported the formation of Soviet Ukraine.

33 They formed a strong current inside the All-Union Communist Party that advocated Ukrainianisation and resisted the Stalinist bureaucracy and forced collectivisation. Because of this, they were also among the first murder victims of the Stalinist mass terror.

34 After the transformation of Ukraine into a colony of Moscow under Stalin, these rights remained on paper but no longer had any practical import.

35 Serczyk, 1991, p206.

36 Jobst, 2010, p178.

37 Jobst, 2010, p178.

38 Lenin believed that revolution would smash the machinery of the old state, with the commune taking its place. This entity, following the experience of the Paris Commune, would no longer be an authentic state since rule would no longer be practised by a minority, but rather by the majority.

39 Behruzi, 2001, p131.

40 See Granick, 1960.

41 Rogowin, 1996, p16.

42 Serczyk, 1991, p211.

43 Merl, 1993.

44 Kappeler, 2014.

45 During the Civil War, Stalin and the Georgian Communist Sergo Ordzhonikidze allowed parts of the Red Army under their control to march into Georgia and overthrow the Menshevik government there. Following this, they pursued forcible Sovietisation and used the Red Army to purge the Georgian Communist Party, which had repudiated the way Stalin had acted. Among their Red Army units, they spread the lie that they had the support of the Russian central committee; in front of the central committee, on the other hand, they brazenly claimed that there had been a workers’ uprising. Lenin and Trotsky only learnt of the full extent of the “Georgian Affair” later. See Braunthal, 1963, p260.

46 Lenin, 1962.

47 These numbers are taken from Jobst, 2010.

48 Numbers taken from Kappeler, 2014.

49 Khrushchev, 1971.

51 Kappeler, 2014, p218.

52 Marples, 1992, p51.

53 Ukraine was partitioned between different Nazi authorities. Western Ukraine came under the control of the so-called General Government in Poland, central Ukraine under the Reich Commissariat of Ukraine (Reichskommissariat Ukraine) and eastern Ukraine under military authority as the rear operating space of the army.

54 Camp rebellions took place in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan in 1951 and in Peschanaya, OserLag, Gorlag and Norilsk in Russia in 1952. Further uprisings took place in Vorkuta, Russia in 1953 and Kengir, Kazakhstan in 1954.

55 These included events in Voronezh, Russia in 1959, Karaganda, Kazakhstan in 1960, and Krasnodar, Murom, Alexandrov and Biysk in Russia in 1961.

56 The uprising in Novocherkassk was the biggest workers’ uprising in the Soviet Union in general. It began initially with a strike in the engineering works and spilt over into the whole city. Only the deployment of the army and massacres of workers with machine guns could suppress the revolt.

58 Kozlov, 2002, p292.

59 Wendland, 1993, p283.

60 Lüdemann, 1993.

61 Wendland, 1993, p291.


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