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Tsar Nicholas II in Crimea, 1911-1915

Tsar Nicholas II in Crimea, 1911-1915. Photo: Public Domain

As crisis in Ukraine escalates, Chris Bambery examines the complex and bloody history of nationalism, revolution and imperial competition in the region

At the beginning of this month First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, wrote in The Guardian on the developing conflict between the Nato powers and Russia over Ukraine:

“As someone who has spent my life campaigning for the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine our own futures, sovereignty is a principle fundamental to my own worldview. To see such pressures being exerted on a state that has resolutely set itself on a path to integration with the liberal democratic order is unspeakable. Like any European country, Ukraine must be free to organise its governance and security alliances as it sees fit.”

Leaving aside the bogus claim that Ukraine is becoming part of the “liberal democratic order,” this argument joins the right of Scottish self-determination to that of Ukraine. This is a misleading equation between two very different national contexts.

The dramatically different context of Scottish national development mean that Scotland is fairly homogenous, its territory is not in significant dispute, and it has no claims on territories outside its borders, as in the case of Wales and Catalonia.

An overview of the tortured history of the Ukranian national question, and the relationship of socialist and nationalist forces to it will demonstrate the difference. As we shall see revolutionary Marxists supported the right of Ukraine to self-determination, including the right to secede, in the wake of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. But they were also aware that there were significant minorities within Ukraine, not least Jews and ethnic Russians. Ukrainian nationalists also had claims on territories which had been included in the new Polish state and within the Russian Socialist Republic.

Let’s be clear that socialists have supported the right to self-determination for nations which are not so homogenous, which did have claims on territories beyond their borders and where racism has reared its murderous head. The Russian and Ukranian revolutionaries of a hundred years ago championed Ukraine’s right to self-determination despite complexities. As a Jew born in Southern Ukraine Leon Trotsky was well aware that it had been the scene of dreadful pogroms against the Jews, incited by the Czarist authorities but finding popular support, and that these re-occurred during the Civil War which followed the October Revolution.

We need to address the national question in concrete terms, not as an abstract right. The issue of class is important – will independence benefit (or at least create avenues to benefit) the mass of working people?

We are all too aware that imperialist powers have manipulated this right for their own selfish ends. Among numberless examples we could list Hitler’s claims on German populated areas of Europe, Britain’s claim on the Falklands, or Russian defence of Serbian nationalism in various contexts.

There are further instances where the Marxist approach to the national question, while accepting self-determination, including the right to secede, was not to advocate national independence because of the likelihood of inter communal or ethnic cleansing. For instance, in the Balkans every attempt to create ethnically based states has led to ethnic cleansing – the Balkan Wars prior to 1914, the First World War, the Second World War and the wars following the collapse of Yugoslavia – because the ethnic mix is so great it is impossible to create an ethnic state without turning on the many “others.”

Revolutionaries in Serbia and Bulgaria argued that the only solution was the creation of a Balkan Socialist Federation. They also took an anti-imperialist stance, pointing to how the great powers’ constant intervention had encouraged ethnic conflict, opposing the First World War. That basic position could have been applied to much of Eastern Europe and to the pre-1917 Russian, Czarist Empire, because of a similar mix.

The various treaties imposed by the Allies, which followed their victory in 1918, led to an attempt to create ethnically based states. The new Polish state included a large Jewish population, brutally discriminated against, Lithuanians and Ukrainians. Hungary, on the losing side, lost territory to the new Romanian, Czech and Yugoslav states and would eventually ally with Hitler to regain them.

Britain and France had, as a key war aim, control of the Bosphurus linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and encouraged their ally, Greece, to invade what is now Turkey. After initial success a Turkish national movement emerged which drove the Greeks out. Both states then agreed to a transfer of the substantial Greek and Turkish populations of both states.

In short national questions vary widely in context, content and consequence. We need a concrete analysis in every distinctive case.

Revolution and the National Question

Prior to 1917 the Czarist Russian Empire truly was a “prison house of nations.”

The Ukrainian language was banned from schools as early as 1804; Ukrainian Sunday Schools were abolished altogether in 1862. The following year, the Russian minister of internal affairs declared that “the Ukrainian language never existed, doesn’t exist, and cannot exist.” A secret decree banned the use of the Ukrainian language in print. Ukrainian nationalism grew in response.

The Bolsheviks opposed the Czarist subjection of the colonised nations. In 1903, Lenin wrote:

“Since the state arena in which we are working today was created and is being maintained and extended by means of a series of outrageous acts of violence, then, to make the struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression successful, we must not disperse but unite the forces of the working class, which is the most oppressed and the most capable of fighting. The demand for recognition of every nationality’s right to self-determination simply implies that we, the party of the proletariat, must always and unconditionally oppose any attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or injustice.”

But prior to the WW1 the Bolsheviks assumed that national consciousness and national movements would get weaker as capitalist development and proletarian struggle advanced. Accordingly, the stress of Lenin was on the creation of a single revolutionary party across the Czarist Empire, and he polemicised with other left wing groups who rejected being subsumed in such a party, advocating instead a federal party, while sharing the belief that the national question was not a central concern.

For revolutionaries at the time, social and national liberation would follow socialist revolution. The defeat of the 1905 revolution, however, led to a shift among many of these groups towards reformism and nationalism.

The revival of working class struggle in 1913 was also accompanied by the rise of national movements. The Bolsheviks understood they had little presence among the non-Russian nations and Lenin began to push support for the right to self-determination. At their 1913 congress the Bolsheviks supported regional autonomy, accepted the right to secede and opposed the imposition of the Russian language on non-Russians.

Lenin would shift further after the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, and the capitulation of the main parties of the Second International (the international organisation of social democratic parties) to their ruling classes’ nationalist war aims. Lenin began a deeper study of imperialism and grasped that the partition of the world between the great powers, far from reducing national divisions, increased them by creating resistance among the subject peoples.

He now strongly supported these national liberation movements in their fight against imperialism, arguing they would weaken the imperial powers and benefit the fight of the Western European, North American and Japanese working class. Famously, in 1916 he fully supported the Irish Easter rebellion. His writings on this are far in advance of those of Leon Trotsky and Karl Radek, But many Bolsheviks did not accept Lenin’s new position and stuck to the old approach.

When the Soviets took power after the October Revolution, their Bolshevik leadership not only recognised the right to self-determination in the abstract but implemented it in practice. In less than a week they recognised Finland’s independence and soon supported the independence of Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Poland and the Transcaucasia. No government of a central state and powerful empire has ever behaved this way, before or since.

This was so despite the governments of these nations being opposed to the October Revolution and in the knowledge that the Finnish working class’s revolutionary ambitions would inevitably and brutally clash with the new order.

But Lenin’s positions on the national question were contested within the Bolshevik Party. So, in 1918 Josef Stalin argued that “the slogan of self-determination is outmoded and should be subordinated to the principles of socialism.”

In 1919 Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin argued that self-determination only applied to the working class of each nation. Lenin pointed out that in the Caucasus industrialisation had hardly entered into daily life. What working class did exist was made up of Russian migrants.

In fact, Bolshevik support for the oppressed nationalities was, along with giving peasants land, a key factor in their victory over the counter-revolutionary White armies. Despite the arms and money lavished on them by a variety of capitalist states, they failed to muster mass support in the countryside, and they could blame their conservative stances on land and national self-determination for this.

Lenin’s position on the national question within the former Czarist Empire took a further change after the defeat of the working class in Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. From 1921–23 onwards Lenin supported developing actively national cultures and languages, implemented state federalism, and promoted indigenous/ethnic Marxists to leadership positions.

Ukraine breaking out of the Prison House

Ukraine was of decisive strategic and economic importance. Its participation in the new Federation of Soviet Republics (not to be confused with Stalin’s USSR) was vital to its success. In the Ukraine at the time of the February Revolution there were just 200 poorly organised Bolsheviks in Kyiv. By October they had grown to some 800. They deemed the national question as secondary to the class struggle.

The industrial cities and regions of East Ukraine were largely populated by Russian speakers. Western Ukraine was rural and made up in the main of peasants. In February 1917 various bourgeois nationalist groups had created a central Soviet, the Tsentrainaya Rada, declaring it was “a government of all Ukrainians.” It began constructing a state apparatus, including its own armed forces.

But the Rada saw its support melt away as it refused to give land to the peasants and supported Russia continuing the war with Germany. Despite this, after October the Ukrainian Bolsheviks joined with Mensheviks (a more moderate socialist faction) and Jewish Bundists (Jewish socialist) in recognising the Rada as the legitimate government and promising to pursue peaceful means of opposition.

Meanwhile, as early as November 1917 a Cossack army assembled in south-eastern Ukraine intending to march on Moscow. The Rada agreed it could cross the territory it controlled. On route this Cossack force suppressed a miners’ Soviet in south-eastern Ukraine leading the Bolsheviks in Petrograd (St Petersburg) to break off relations with the Rada. The Bolsheviks in Kyiv in turn launched an insurrection but this was easily put down. Their leaders fled to Kharkiv in the Eastern Ukraine which was in the Red Army’s hands and created a Soviet government of Ukraine.

The Red Army took Kyiv in January 1918 but it was clear there was a tendency to depict all Ukrainian nationalists as “class enemies.” In Eastern Ukraine where there were many Russian speakers and support for the Bolsheviks was strongest, the demand rose for the creation of a separate Soviet Republic which would eventually join the Russian one. This was strongly opposed by the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik, Mykola Skrypnk, who argued such a separation would mean “abandoning the peasantry to the Rada.” He won support for a Ukrainian Soviet Republic within the wider Soviet Union.

But the national question in Ukraine was going to be subsumed into the conflict arising from the determination of Germany to destroy the new Soviet power. Ukraine would be occupied by the Germans, with the Bolsheviks accepting this under the terms of the Brest Litovsk Treaty, which finally brought Russia’s involvement in the First World War to an end. The Red Army evacuated Kyiv and all of the Ukraine but Bolshevik resistance continued in the east.

With the German surrender to the Allies in November 1918 the Bolsheviks declared the Brest Litovsk Treaty a dead letter. Parts of Western Ukraine were now granted by the victorious Allies to the new Polish state. The various anti-Bolshevik forces were now divided. Some were simply White counter-revolutionaries with no interest in Ukrainian national rights, some sided with French forces who briefly landed in the Crimea, and others wanted to reconstitute the authority of the Rada.

The civil war was accompanied by pogroms against the large Jewish population, who now shifted to supporting the Reds (Ukraine had also been the scene of the worst pogroms encouraged by Czarist authorities.) A confused and chaotic war saw the Bolsheviks emerge as the one coherent force and the Red Army took control of Ukraine. It was declared a constituent part of a wider Soviet Republic.

In December 1919, with the Red Army on the point of forcing General Denikin’s White army from Ukraine, Lenin addressed the issue of the country’s right to self-determination:

“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.”

Lenin added:

“For centuries the indignation and distrust of the non-sovereign and dependent nations towards the dominant and oppressor nations have been accumulating, of nations such as the Ukrainian towards nations such as the Great-Russian.

“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. Such a union cannot be effected at one stroke; we have to work towards it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust, and so that the distrust inherited from centuries of landowner and capitalist oppression, centuries of private property and the enmity caused by its divisions and redivisions may have a chance to wear off.”

A new culture

Historian Jeremy Smith points out that the Bolshevik policy regarding the nationalities within the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1923 was “largely the story of a struggle between the centre and the periphery in which it was, perhaps surprisingly, the centre which supported local autonomy.”

At Lenin’s urging, the Bolsheviks adopted a programme of “indigenisation” or “Ukrainisation”. For the first time large numbers of Ukrainians joined the Communist Party of Ukraine. These included many former members of Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (USDWP) and the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR), who had opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and had been on the loosing side in the Civil War.

The Ukrainian language was used in schools and it was officially encouraged in the arts. Mykola Skrypnky championed this policy of Ukrainisation.

The Ukrainian-language education system succeeded in reducing illiteracy in Ukraine from 46 percent in 1926 to 8 percent in 1934. Ukrainian-language newspapers, almost non-existent in 1922, grew to 373 out of 426. Representation of Ukrainians at all levels of the state apparatus greatly increased.

The new Soviet Republic had accepted Polish independence in 1918 but the Polish state which emerged would fight wars with both Lithuania and Ukraine to capture territory, and with right wing German bands resisting the Polish inclusion of Silesia. From the start it was characterised by anti-Semitism, and was seen as the most anti-Jewish state before the creation of the Third Reich. It was also allied closely to France, its protector, who saw it as a counter to any resurgent Germany.

In 1919, egged on by France and Britain, Poland attacked Ukraine, capturing Kyiv. The Polish government claimed it wanted to create a federation with Ukraine and Lithuania but it was clear they would be subordinates. The Red Army counter-attacked, driving the Poles back to Warsaw. But the Red Army divided its advance and allowed the Poles to defeat them.

In March 1921 the Soviet-Polish war came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Riga. The Soviets were forced to make a compromise peace granting Poland territories with a Ukrainian and Belarusian majority.

Within the new Polish state these minorities suffered forced Polonisation, at a time when in Soviet Ukrainian Republic newspapers, books, and schools were using the Ukrainian language.

The Russian Revolution had helped awaken national identity among the largely peasant population of the Ukraine. The policy of “Ukrainisation” in the 1920s saw a growth in people identifying as Ukrainians, including Russian speakers and Jews. In 1897, 44 percent of the working class identified themselves as Ukrainians, by 1926, 55 percent.

Russian speaking party and government apparatus officials were encouraged to learn Ukrainian. Simultaneously, the newly literate ethnic Ukrainians migrated to the cities, which became rapidly Ukrainianised in both population and education.

The policy of “Ukrainisation” was even applied in those regions of southern Russian Soviet Republic where the ethnic Ukrainian population was numerous, particularly the areas by the Don River and especially Kuban in the North Caucasus. Trained Ukrainian language, teachers were sent to newly opened Ukrainian schools or to teach Ukrainian as a second language in Russian schools. In the universities and departments of Ukrainian studies were opened and publication in Ukrainian flourished.

Thus, the Ukrainian national identity was itself largely the product of the revolutionary forces that destroyed the old Russian Empire. It is not, however, a simple story of national culture developing in opposition to a national enemy or oppressor. Rather, it was informed by the need to defeat class enemies and western aggressors, keen to restore some of the conditions of the old Russia.

In our next instalment, we will consider how Ukrainian national identity would pivot again and find a new hostility to first the Soviet, then post-Cold War Russian states. Each turn will confound simple narratives about national self-determination.

First published on Conter on 19 February

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.