News | History - Ukraine Crisis The Forgotten History of Ukrainian Independence

Looking back on the turbulent twentieth century



Mario Kessler,

[Translate to en:] Schwarz-Weiß Foto von Christian Rakowski (frontal) und Leo Trotzki (im Profil) im Gespräch.
Christian Rakovsky and Leon Trotsky, pictured here in 1924, advocated self-determination for Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

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.

Revolution and Counterrevolution

Ukraine was a devastated country at the end of the civil war. The years 1921 and 1922 were marked by a catastrophic famine. The situation began to improve following the constitution the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which Ukraine joined as a founding member in late 1922: the New Economic Policy (NEP) facilitated an economic recovery, the Ukrainian language and culture were promoted, and after the elimination of anti-Semitic legislation, Jewish intellectual culture experienced an unprecedented boom.

This changed with the victory of Stalin’s faction over his inner-party opponents at the end of the 1920s. Forced collectivization of agriculture, economically induced famine, and brutal political persecution, including starvation of entire territories, the Holodomor (the Ukrainian term for “killing by starvation”) cost the lives of at least 4 million people.

Until the perestroika era in the late 1980s, historians and journalists in the Soviet Union denied this mass starvation. In Ukraine, however, the unofficial memory of this trauma remained alive. President Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected in 2005, was particularly committed to coming to terms with the history. When Yushchenko invited then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to an official state commemoration in 2008, however, Medvedev declined, arguing that this would lead to alienation between the Russian and Ukrainian populations.

The memory of the Holodomor was always present in the West, especially in the Ukrainian diaspora but also within international social democracy, yet the political Right was increasingly successful in claiming it for its own purposes. Already since the late 1920s, fascist forces had gained strength in Polish western Ukraine at the expense of the hitherto strong Left: in 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), modelled on Italian fascism, was founded in Vienna. Its paramilitary arm committed numerous acts of terrorism, including against Soviet diplomats, and its political actors infiltrated legal parties, organizations, and universities, especially in western Ukraine.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the OUN formed SS units as well as militias and participated in anti-Semitic pogroms, including the largest massacre outside the camps, the shooting of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar near Kyiv on 29–30 September 1941. The OUN provided volunteers for concentration camp guards and hoped to obtain its own state from Hitler’s Germany. When this did not happen (after initial acquiescence to a government), it turned on the Nazi regime. Its leader Stepan Bandera was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, albeit in a special barracks with better prison conditions.

In the Soviet Union, the crime of Babi Yar was commemorated only hesitantly. This changed to some extent only in 1961, after the Russian writer and lyricist Yevgeny Yevtushenko recalled in an impressive poem that the victims had been almost exclusively Jews. Stepan Bandera, for his part, had already been shot two years earlier in Munich by a Soviet secret service agent.

The Spectre of Ukrainian Fascism

On 1 January 2009, the Ukrainian Post Office issued a special stamp on the occasion of Bandera’s one-hundredth birthday, and in January 2010, then-President Yushchenko posthumously awarded him the honorary title of “Hero of Ukraine.” The governments of Russia and Poland protested. The honour was revoked as early as March of the same year by Ukraine’s new, just-elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

In parts of the Maidan movement, Bandera was remembered as a hero and martyr of the Ukrainian independence movement. In 2015, a year after the change of power, the Ukrainian parliament honoured the OUN as an “independence movement”- The following year, as a result of the decommunization and derussification campaign, Kyiv’s Moscow Prospekt was renamed Stepan Bandera Prospekt. Especially in western Ukraine, Bandera is still highly respected today. Numerous streets, museums, and monuments are dedicated to him, and the nationalist and anti-Semitic party Svoboda (Freedom), the fascist organization Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), the paramilitary Azov Regiment, and other far-right groups also invoke him.

In eastern Ukraine, however, as in Russia, Poland, Israel, and Germany, Bandera is rightly regarded as a Nazi collaborator and war criminal. Russian warnings about neo-fascism in Ukraine are by no means the product of fantasy. To what extent Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, can counter this is an open question. In the past, Zelenskyy was controversial primarily because of his ties to oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomoyskyi — today, he is the head and symbol of democratic resistance. Recent election results show that neo-fascism has clearly lost its appeal in Ukraine. Despite all contradictions, a Ukrainian civil society is growing. But it is precisely this that Putin fears and therefore denounces as fascist.

Those Who Sit in a Glass House…

Vladimir Putin also uses anti-Semitic idols to support his Great Russian chauvinism. He refers in particular to Anton Denikin, the leader of the White Army in southern Russia and the main perpetrator of the 1919 massacre of the Jews. Denikin died in the United States in 1947 and was buried with military honours. On Putin’s orders, his remains were transferred to Moscow in 2005 and buried in the Donskoy Cemetery. In May 2009, Putin emphasized that Denikin’s diary was worth reading, especially the passages in which he described Ukraine as an indivisible part of Russia.

Putin used this doctrine of an indivisible Russia for his occupation of Crimea and for his support of the separatist movements in the “People’s Republics” of eastern Ukraine. As much as he invokes the idea of a restoration of the Soviet Union, his vision of Russia’s greatness is rooted in reverence for the Tsarist regime and anti-communist exile thinking.

Widely known in Russia as a journalist and amateur historian, Vladimir Bolshakov is one of Putin’s (and also Marine Le Pen’s) biographers. In the Soviet Union, he worked as a Pravda correspondent in several countries. His work was primarily devoted to “uncovering” an all-embracing anti-Communist-Zionist network woven by American high finance.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the “anti-Zionist” cover was dropped in favour of open anti-Semitism. Thus, Bolshakov’s book S talmudom I krasnym flagom (“With the Talmud and Red Flag”) dedicates the beginning to Leon Trotsky as the main mastermind of an anti-Russian “conspiracy”. Trotsky and other Jewish Bolsheviks were “financed by the American banker and active Zionist Jacob Schiff, the owner of the Kuhn & Loeb bank, the Warburg bankers, the Rothschilds and others”. Communism, Jewish finance capital, and Zionism complemented and supported each other, Bolshakov argues, in a global operation to achieve world domination.

Putin himself has not expressed anti-Semitism as far as we know, but with his Great Russian chauvinism he has prepared the ground for an anti-Semitism that is in the tradition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the early fascist mass movement in Tsarist Russia, the Black Hundreds. With the warmed over, not even new slander of Trotsky as a paid agent of Jewish finance capital, not only the Jewish revolutionary but also the internationalist and representative of the interests of the Ukrainian working people is to be targeted.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) takes a similarly pathetic attitude to the invasion of Ukraine as the German Social Democrats who remained loyal to the Kaiser did at the beginning of the Great War in 1914, saying that the operations of the Russian army were not only in the interests of Russia, but also of Ukraine. Some people “still do not understand this fact, but because of them demilitarization and denazification are necessary”, declared Deputy Party Chairman Dmitry Novikov, trying to justify the war of conquest with the official propaganda vocabulary. The KPRF’s website contains numerous similar statements.

For Socialism and Independence

For decades, actual leftists have also had a hard time with the idea of an independent Ukraine. They verbally supported the right of self-determination of peoples. However, when the real — but often only supposed — interests of the Soviet Union seemed to be threatened, this took a back seat. Besides Lenin, Trotsky was an exception.

“The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many ‘socialists’ and even ‘communists’ have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force ... Crucified by four states, the Ukraine now occupies in the fate of Europe the same position that was once occupied by Poland; with this difference — that world relations are now infinitely more tense and the tempos of development accelerated. The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe.” Trotsky wrote these words in April 1939 in exile in Mexico at the instigation of members of the Ukrainian Diaspora living in Canada for the journal Socialist Appeal.

There were many leftists among Canadians of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Jewish origin at the time. One-third of the founding members of the Communist Party of Canada were from Ukraine. The reference to Poland, “crucified by four states”, recalled the attitude of the First International in the nineteenth century: the latter had supported a united, independent Poland despite its likely Catholic-conservative orientation.

Trotsky returned to this question several times. A group split off from the Fourth International in the US accused him of betraying the interests of the Soviet Union. Trotsky replied on 30 July 1939: “The right of national self-determination is, of course, a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realized in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat; it is for this very reason that they interlace with socialist tasks. The resolute struggle of the Bolshevik party for the right of self-determination of oppressed nationalities in Russia facilitated in the extreme the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was as if the proletarian revolution had sucked in the democratic problems, above all, the agrarian and national problems, giving to the Russian Revolution a combined character. The proletariat was already undertaking socialist tasks but it could not immediately raise to this level the peasantry and the oppressed nations (themselves predominantly peasant) who were absorbed with solving their democratic tasks.” This explains, as Trotsky concluded, the historically unavoidable compromises on the agrarian and nationalities questions.

Only a little later, on 20 August 1940, Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin. Another ten months later, on 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Initially, the German Army scored quick victories in Ukraine. This was partly due to the fact that parts of the population fell for the illusion of liberation after Stalin’s rule, until they were forced to realize that Hitler’s regime was in fact far crueller. But the mind-set of Stalin and the tsars has returned to Russia under Putin — and with it the lie that the Ukrainian population is a second-class people who do not need their own statehood.

The struggle against chauvinism, militarism, anti-communism, and anti-Semitism is united without any ifs and buts with the struggle for an independent Ukraine, whose future fate must be determined by the Ukrainians — and by them alone.

Nothing can be more welcome to the Russian people than an independent Ukraine, for “a people which oppress another cannot emancipate itself. The power which it uses to suppress the other finally always turns against itself.” These words, directed by Friedrich Engels in 1874 against the Russian occupation of Poland, are as relevant today as they were then.