Ukraine’s Bolshevik Shadow

KIEV, Ukraine -- A hundred years after the revolution, Ukraine’s leaders are reshaping its historical legacy to their own political ends. A more honest historical reckoning is needed to move the country forward.

When George Kennan was asked in 1967 by Foreign Affairs to reflect on the accomplishments and failures of Soviet rule at the 50-year mark, he stated that without a doubt, the October Revolution that had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia had altered world history and was the single most consequential event of the 20th century.

Indeed, at any point before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, it was difficult to exaggerate the enormity of the events of 1917.

Much has been written in hindsight about how this seemingly indomitable Soviet colossus actually stood on feet of clay, fooling both the West and its own leadership.

After 74 years of Soviet rule, not a single post-communist state has reverted back to an embrace of Marxism.

Lenin and his ideology have been relegated to the museum, never to return.

There are still communist parties in the former Soviet space, but they appeal to the youthful nostalgia of pensioners and a kind of Red conservatism, which has little in common with the Marxist-Leninist tenets that once inspired revolution and policy from Havana to Hanoi.

A hundred years after the revolution, the ideological hold of communism is long gone.

But the state built by the Bolsheviks—communism’s concrete manifestation—has quietly survived to this day.

And as much as its current leaders are loath to admit it, Ukraine is no exception.

In Russia, the centenary of the revolution was met with a mix of indifference, attempts at reconciliation, and a certain grotesque carnival flair typical of Putin’s Russia.

Putin opened Moscow’s first monument to victims of Stalin’s Terror while Russia’s aging communist-in-chief, Gennady Zyuganov, announced that he was seeking the presidency for the fifth time.

He did this shortly after making a speech urging his followers to heed the wisdom of Stalin, while attending an Orthodox-themed event at a cathedral that Stalin had once demolished.

The Kremlin’s terse statement that there would be no official commemorations of the anniversary, meanwhile, pointed to the unwillingness of Russia’s ruling establishment to publicly wade into a period of tumult and collapse of state authority.

The Kremlin’s idealized version of Russia’s history would no doubt skip the entire period between Alexander III and Stalin.

In Ukraine, the centenary was approached in a different manner, albeit a no less problematic one.

For Ukrainians who have recently lived through the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in the Donbass, the events of a hundred years ago do not seem like ancient history.

Ukrainians are all too familiar with the power of protests, and know from recent experience that popular unrest can lead to revolutionary change from below, forcing political elites and foreign powers to reckon with events outside their control.

Speaking broadly about the anniversary of the Ukrainian Revolution and the Civil War period, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said that the erstwhile Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) failed because it could not unite the Ukrainian people in the face of Russian aggression.

Moscow was thus able to exploit internal divisions to take control of Ukraine.

He went on to say that the lessons from 1917-21 still have bearing for today’s Ukraine and that if past Ukrainian leaders like Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Pavlo Skoropadskyi, or Symon Petliura could travel to the future, they would deliver a stern warning to Ukraine’s current crop of officials about curbing their own political infighting.

The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, first set up in the 2000s to research contentious and heavily politicized issues in modern Ukrainian history but lately engaging in crude revisionist history of its own, offered a similar analysis.

According to the Institute’s chairman Volodymyr Viatrovych, the Ukrainian Revolution was an effort to defend Ukraine from Bolshevik invasion, which was tantamount to the Russian aggression that persists to the present day.

Ukraine is a pluralistic society where neither Poroshenko’s nor Viatrovych’s views necessarily reflect the majority opinion on the events of 1917.

But their voices are influential ones, and their interpretation disguises the fact that the current Ukrainian state is at best only loosely related to the Ukrainian National Republic.

Far more palpable was the influence of the Bolsheviks, who remolded Ukraine both according to their long-term ideological aims and immediate political considerations.

Decades of Soviet propaganda and mythmaking, combined with the post-Soviet turn towards nationalism and romanticization of the anti-Bolshevik groups, have distorted the facts surrounding the Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent civil war.

The short-lived iterations of the Ukrainian government from 1917-21 were in no position to engage in any sort of serious nation-building.

Only the conservative government of Pavlo Skoropadskyi attempted to build institutions and promote the Ukrainian language, but even he was forced to rely on former Tsarist officials.

Literacy was still low at the time, and for the predominantly agrarian society, all sides to the conflict were a source of great misery as they carried out grain requisitions and implemented forced conscription.

The Ukrainian government, despite its initial democratic-socialist leanings, began to heavily favor the old landed elites and greatly alienated the peasants.

The Whites, with their rigid pro-Russian nationalism, fared no better in their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian peasantry.

The peasants were also skeptical of the Bolsheviks, with many viewing the Civil War as an unnecessary fratricide, but they wished to preserve the gains of land reform that occurred in 1917.

In the hungry years of 1918 and 1919, lawlessness and violence became widespread.

Troops loyal to the Ukrainian government, the Whites, Makhno’s anarchists, and the Reds all committed reprisals against the local population, including anti-Semitic pogroms.

The success of the Bolsheviks in Ukraine cannot be attributed only to the infighting among the opposition.

Operating initially from a position of weakness and forced to rely primarily on guerilla tactics in Ukraine, the pro-Soviet groups were able to forge a temporary alliance with the anarchist leader Nestor Makhno, whose troops had occupied most of southeastern Ukraine and managed to check both the Kiev-backed forces and the Whites.

When the Red Army advanced, they created a new military administration whose reach far surpassed even the old Tsarist bureaucracy.

The Red Army, faced with a constant need for new conscripts, adopted a comprehensive system of registering individuals at the village level to combat desertion and evasion from a war-weary population.

Coercion went hand in hand with a propaganda effort that no other party to the conflict could match.

Unlike the Whites, the Reds published propaganda materials extensively in Ukrainian and wasted little time in removing old Tsarist symbols of Russification.

In their place, new monuments were erected to Ukrainian revolutionaries and national icons such as the poet Taras Shevchenko.

The impact of these policies on the Ukrainian countryside was probably modest, since many peasants lacked a cogent ethnic consciousness, but they did help court Ukrainian intellectuals in the cities.

The Bolsheviks were also greatly aided in the rise of anti-foreign sentiment after both the German occupation in 1918 and the Polish intervention in 1919.

Just as Soviet Russia broke with the ancien régime, so did Ukraine.

Much of the local Tsarist elite either fled, were impoverished, or were killed during the Civil War.

Ukraine’s intellectuals also emigrated, although some would later return to the Soviet Union and pay dearly during Stalin’s Terror.

War communism and conscription necessitated a deeply hierarchical system that would later be reinforced with more layers of control in the 1930s.

At the same time, until Stalin solidified his control, there was a significant degree of independent thinking among Ukrainian communists.

A separate Ukrainian Communist Party independent of the Bolsheviks survived until 1925.

The Bolsheviks viewed the question of nationalities as crucial to the long-term success of the revolution.

As a result, they launched an impressive campaign of korenizatsiya (nativization) to promote literacy, native cadres, and the use of local languages.

As a result of Soviet policies promoting urbanization, cities in Ukraine became predominantly Ukrainian.

After being banned with various degrees of severity under the Tsarist period, there was an explosion in Ukrainian-language magazines and newspapers.

Korenizatsiya eventually caused Stalin and his acolytes to suspect growing Ukrainian nationalism among Ukrainian party members and was reversed in the 1930s, but it undeniably had a substantial role in strengthening a sense of Ukrainian identity.

It likely contributed to the fierce resistance that Stalin’s forced collectivization policies set off throughout Ukraine in 1930.

These are not esoteric arguments over the historical record.

Since 2014, Ukraine has embarked on a thorough campaign of “decommunization” where Soviet symbols and monuments have been taken down.

Cities and streets bearing names of Soviet figures have been renamed, with only a handful of exceptions.

Indeed, one of the most symbolic events of the protests in Kyiv in 2014 was the toppling of the Lenin statue in the city center.

Monuments are an easy target: they cannot adapt to the vicissitudes of prevailing public opinion, and they often serve as glaring holdovers of the previous order that would-be revolutionaries want to do away with.

The problem is that the monuments are only the most visible part of the much deeper and ubiquitous influence of the Soviet period on the modern Ukrainian state.

When the Bolsheviks set out to create a Soviet Ukraine, they remolded and shaped everything from the arts and education to labor unions, military institutions, and the penitentiary.

Some of the Bolsheviks’ lasting legacies are easy to discern today—Ukraine’s modern delineated borders—while others are subliminal, such as the continued influence of the Soviet legal system on Ukraine’s judiciary.

Millions of ethnic Ukrainians earnestly took part in the Soviet experiment.

As they were building a new state, policies such as korenizatsiya increased the prestige of the Ukrainian language and facilitated the creation of a stronger Ukrainian ethnic identity.

Ukrainian Soviet leaders like Mykola Skrypnyk, the Head of the Ukrainian People’s Commissariat and largely forgotten today, had a clear vision for a distinctly Ukrainian national communism.

The man in the Kremlin had different plans.

Stalin would drive Skrypnyk to suicide and unleash a thorough purge of the party ranks in Ukraine.

His collectivization policy led to the Holodomor, a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

Although Stalin undoubtedly bears the greatest share of responsibility for the Holodomor, local party and village activists who carried out the policies also share culpability that should not be overlooked. 

Discussing these dark chapters in Ukrainian history is painful, but it is more constructive than propagating false or simplified narratives.

By moving away from simple monikers of “Ukrainian heroes” and “Russian or Soviet villains,” Ukraine can finally come to terms with its past, embrace its contradictory origins, and blunt the effect of modern Russian propaganda directed against Ukraine.

Moreover, Ukraine’s society, with its heightened sense of civic consciousness after the 2014 revolution and the war in Donbass, would be quite receptive to a more nuanced national narrative.

If Ukraine is to succeed in its reform efforts, it must have an honest conversation about its origins. 

Source: The American Interest