The Forgotten History of Ukrainian Independence – Mario Kessler

Mario Kessler is a Senior Fellow at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany and a member of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s academic advisory board.
This essay originally appeared in the German-language edition of Jacobin.

Ukraine’s security and independence must be restored — Vladimir Putin’s Great Russian imperial dreams cannot be allowed to succeed. As was made unmistakably clear in his speech on 21 February, Putin justifies the aggression against Ukraine with a supposedly necessary “decommunization” of the country.

His claim that Ukraine was created “by Bolshevik, Communist Russia” against the will of the population is simply false. (Putin’s reference to the Great Russian traditions of the Moscow Orthodox Church aims in the same direction, but can be mentioned here only in brief.) A look at history shows that the Russian socialists recognized the desire of many Ukrainians for independence and embedded it in their political strategy. Moreover, the tradition of Ukrainian statehood has a much longer tradition than Putin gives it credit for.

Forged by Revolution

Indeed, aspirations for an independent Ukraine received an immense boost from the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Ukraine declared itself an independent republic within a federative Russia as early as March 1917, rather than in the wake of the October Revolution. Immediately after the October Revolution, Lenin’s government proclaimed as one of its basic principles the right to self-determination for all oppressed nations of the empire, up to and including the right to secession.

The idea was not to detach the Russians from the oppressed peoples of the Tsarist Empire, but rather to create a community of free peoples in revolutionary struggle against big landowners and capitalists. As a result, the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, declared Ukraine a people’s republic, and the non-Bolshevik parties received a majority in elections. The Bolsheviks in Ukraine recognized the country’s statehood by constituting themselves as an independent party as late as 1917.

However, the Ukrainian People’s Republic sided with the Central Powers in the upcoming negotiations between Soviet Russia and the former. The Bolshevik delegation, led by Leon Trotsky, was then forced to admit a delegation from the Rada as a negotiating partner in Brest-Litovsk. Countering the Rada, Ukrainian Bolsheviks under Christian Rakovsky proclaimed the Ukrainian Soviet Republic with Kharkiv as its capital in early January 1918.

In July 1918, the Communist Party of Ukraine was formed. A part of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party joined it. The latter was founded in 1900 as the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party. Among its early politicians was Symon Petlyura, who would briefly become president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919–1920. His party advocated national autonomy for Ukraine — but how far this autonomy should go remained a matter of dispute within the party. That said, the vast majority, including Petlyura, opposed the Bolsheviks.

The Soviet Perspective

Ukraine was the main theatre of the Russian Civil War under changing governments in 1918–1919, before Trotsky’s Red Army defeated the Whites under Anton Denikin in late 1919 and captured the entire territory in 1920. Up to 150,000 people fell victim to the bloody massacres of Jews, most of them committed by the White Army and marauding gangs — the largest wave of extermination before Auschwitz.

Western Ukraine, hitherto part of the Habsburg Empire, had also declared itself a People’s Republic in 1918. However, Polish troops prevented its planned unification with eastern Ukraine, so that western Ukraine became part of the new Polish state. The breakup of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 by the Nazi regime led to the formation of a government in Carpatho-Ukraine, that westernmost part of Ukraine that had been part of Czechoslovakia since 1918. After a few days, however, the Nazis handed over the conquered Carpatho-Ukraine to the allied Hungary. Polish western Ukraine was divided up between Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939.

All this was still in the future on 28 December 1919, when Lenin addressed a “Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine Apropos the Occasion of the Victories over Denikin”. He wrote: “The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.”

The interests of working people and their success in the struggle for the complete liberation of labour from the yoke of capital were to be central in resolving this question. “We want a voluntary union of nations — a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another — a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent.”

Lenin advised the utmost caution on these questions to prevent national discord from splitting the ranks of the Bolsheviks. He assumed that the Bolshevik leadership of Ukraine was fully aligned with Soviet Russia. Separatist tendencies that could drive Ukraine into opposition to Moscow had to be blunted from the outset.

For this very reason, in January 1919, Christian Rakovsky was appointed chairman of the Central Executive Committee, that is, prime minister of Soviet Ukraine — a position he held until 1923. Since the socialist revolution abolished private property, Rakovsky argued, it also eliminated the basis of the bourgeoisie’s state order.

All national privileges would be abolished. Political and economic centralization in the form of a temporary international federation, on the other hand, would suppress all national particularism. The Central Executive Committee of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic decided in June 1919 to unite a number of commissariats of the two republics, namely the Commissariats of the Army, Transport, Finance, Labour, Post and Telegraph, and the Supreme National Economic Council. The Central Executive Committee of the Russian Soviet Republic confirmed this decision.

Rakovsky criticized the Ukrainian nationalists for sacrificing the social liberation of the working class to the national question. In doing so, he may have underestimated the dangers of Russian nationalism and chauvinism — the chauvinism that Putin stands for today. [..]


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