Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a speech to the Russian nation yesterday, claimed that "Ukraine was created by Lenin." The truth is that the October Revolution had the great merit of liberating the nationalities that had been oppressed by Tsarist Russia, which Lenin called a "prison of the nations", and denied all rights to ethnic minorities. We present this letter from Lenin, written in 1919, which develops in a few pages the position of Marxism on the question of nationalities. Let Lenin speak!
It was the programme of the Bolsheviks, which included the right of nations to self-determination, that allowed the victory of the October Revolution, and later the birth of the Soviet Union, which in Lenin's time was a free association of nationalities, liberated from the yoke of the Tsars.
In his speech, Putin reiterated that his touchstones are the Tsarist empire, great Russian nationalism and the oppression of peoples. Ours, that of the International Marxist Tendency, are Lenin and Bolshevism, with their relentless struggle for proletarian internationalism and the unity of the working class. In addition to Lenin’s letter, we also recommend these notes on the Ukrainian national question, which place the attitude of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in contrast both with that of the Stalinists and of Putin, while also explaining why the reactionary nationalism of the imperialist-backed Kiev regime offers no solution to workers in the region.
Letter to the workers and peasants of the Ukraine: apropos of the victories Over Denikin
Comrades, four months ago, towards the end of August 1919, I had occasion to address a letter to the workers and peasants in connection with the victory over Kolchak.
I am now having this letter reprinted in full for the workers and peasants of the Ukraine in connection with the victories over Denikin.
Red troops have taken Kiev, Poltava and Kharkov and are advancing victoriously on Rostov. The Ukraine is seething with revolt against Denikin. All forces must he rallied for the final rout of Denikin’s army, which has been trying to restore the power of the landowners and capitalists. We must destroy Denikin to safeguard ourselves against even the slightest possibility of a new incursion.
The workers and peasants of the Ukraine should familiarise themselves with the lessons which all Russian workers and peasants have drawn from the conquest of Siberia by Kolchak and her liberation by Red troops after many months of landowner and capitalist tyranny.
Denikin’s rule in the Ukraine has been as severe an ordeal as Kolchak’s rule was in Siberia. There can be no doubt that the lessons of this severe ordeal will give the Ukrainian workers and peasants—as they did the workers and peasants of the Urals and Siberia—a clearer understanding of the tasks of Soviet power and induce them to defend it more staunchly.
In Great Russia the system of landed estates has been completely abolished. The same must be done in the Ukraine, and the Soviet power of the Ukrainian workers and peasants must effect the complete abolition of the landed estates and the complete liberation of the Ukrainian workers and peasants from all oppression by the landowners, and from the landowners themselves.
But apart from this task, and a number of others which confronted and still confront both the Great-Russian and the Ukrainian working masses, Soviet power in the Ukraine has its own special tasks. One of these special tasks deserves the greatest attention at the present moment. It is the national question, or, in other words, the question of whether the Ukraine is to be a separate and independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic bound in alliance (federation) with the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, or whether the Ukraine is to amalgamate with Russia to form a single Soviet republic. All Bolsheviks and all politically-conscious workers and peasants must give careful thought to this question.
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.
How should this question be decided insofar as concerns the interests of the working people and the promotion of their fight for the complete emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital?
In the first place, the interests of labour demand the fullest confidence and the closest alliance among the working people of different countries and nations. The supporters of the landowners and capitalists, of the bourgeoisie, strive to disunite the workers, to intensify national discord and enmity, in order to weaken the workers and strengthen the power of capital.
Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed.
We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists. We stand for the close union and the complete amalgamation of the workers and peasants of all nations in a single world Soviet republic.
Secondly, the working people must not forget that capitalism has divided nations into a small number of oppressor, Great-Power (imperialist), sovereign and privileged nations and an overwhelming majority of oppressed, dependent and semi-dependent, non-sovereign nations. The arch-criminal and arch-reactionary war of 1914-18 still further accentuated this division and as a result aggravated rancour and hatred. 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.
We must, therefore, strive persistently for the unity of nations and ruthlessly suppress everything that tends to divide them, and in doing so we must be very cautious and patient, and make concessions to the survivals of national distrust. We must be adamant and uncompromising towards everything that affects the fundamental interests of labour in its fight for emancipation from the yoke of capital. The question of the demarcation of frontiers now, for the time being—for we are striving towards the complete abolition of frontiers—is a minor one, it is not fundamental or important. In this matter we can afford to wait, and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardise the cause of complete and ultimate unity.
The experience of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Russia, the revolution of October-November 1917, and of the two years of victorious struggle against the onslaught of international and Russian capitalists, has made it crystal clear that the capitalists have succeeded for a time in playing upon the national distrust of the Great Russians felt by Polish, Latvian, Estonian and Finnish peasants and small owners, that they have succeeded for a time in sowing dissension between them and us on the basis of this distrust. Experience has shown that this distrust wears off and disappears only very slowly, and that the more caution and patience displayed by the Great Russians, who have for so long been an oppressor nation, the more certainly this distrust will pass. It is by recognising the independence of the Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Finnish states that we are slowly but steadily winning the confidence of the labouring masses of the neighbouring small states, who were more backward and more deceived and downtrodden by the capitalists. It is the surest way of wresting them from the influence of "their" national capitalists, and leading them to full confidence, to the future united international Soviet republic.
As long as the Ukraine is not completely liberated from Denikin, her government, until the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets meets, is the All-Ukraine Revolutionary Committee. Besides the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists, there are Ukrainian Borotba Communists working on this Revolutionary Committee as members of the government. One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not make this a subject of difference and disunity, they do not regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort. There must be unity in the struggle against the yoke of capital and for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and there should be no parting of the ways among Communists on the question of national frontiers, or whether there should be a federal or some other tie between the states. Among the Bolsheviks there are advocates of complete independence for the Ukraine, advocates of a more or less close federal tie, and advocates of the complete amalgamation of the Ukraine with Russia.
There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.
If a Great-Russian Communist insists upon the amalgamation of the Ukraine with Russia, Ukrainians might easily suspect him of advocating this policy not from the motive of uniting the proletarians in the fight against capital, but because of the prejudices of the old Great-Russian nationalism, of imperialism. Such mistrust is natural, and to a certain degree inevitable and legitimate, because the Great Russians, under the yoke of the landowners and capitalists, had for centuries imbibed the shameful and disgusting prejudices of Great-Russian chauvinism.
If a Ukrainian Communist insists upon the unconditional state independence of the Ukraine, he lays himself open to the suspicion that he is supporting this policy not because of the temporary interests of the Ukrainian workers and peasants in their struggle against the yoke of capital, but on account of the petty-bourgeois national prejudices of the small owner. Experience has provided hundreds of instances of the petty-bourgeois "socialists" of various countries—all the various Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian pseudo-socialists, Georgian Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries and the like—assuming the guise of supporters of the proletariat for the sole purpose of deceitfully promoting a policy of compromise with “their” national bourgeoisie against the revolutionary workers. We saw this in the case of Kerensky’s rule in Russia in the February-October period of 1917, and we have seen it and are seeing it in all other countries.
Mutual distrust between the Great-Russian and Ukrainian Communists can, therefore, arise very easily. How is this distrust to be combated? How is it to be overcome and mutual confidence established?
The best way to achieve this is by working together to uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat and Soviet power in the fight against the landowners and capitalists of all countries and against their attempts to restore their domination. This common fight will clearly show in practice that whatever the decision in regard to state independence or frontiers may be, there must be a close military and economic alliance between the Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers, for otherwise the capitalists of the “Entente”, in other words, the alliance of the richest capitalist countries—Britain, France, America, Japan and Italy—will crush and strangle us separately. Our fight against Kolchak and Denikin, whom these capitalists supplied with money and arms, is a clear illustration of this danger.
He who undermines the unity and closest alliance between the Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers and peasants is helping the Kolchaks, the Denikins, the capitalist bandits of all countries.
Consequently, we Great-Russian Communists must repress with the utmost severity the slightest manifestation in our midst of Great-Russian nationalism, for such manifestations, which are a betrayal of communism in general, cause the gravest harm by dividing us from our Ukrainian comrades and thus playing into the hands of Denikin and his regime.
Consequently, we Great-Russian Communists must make concessions when there are differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia, and the national question in general. But all of us, Great-Russian Communists, Ukrainian Communists, and Communists of any other nation, must be unyielding and irreconcilable in the underlying and fundamental questions which are the same for all nations, in questions of the proletarian struggle, of the proletarian dictatorship; we must not tolerate compromise with the bourgeoisie or any division of the forces which are protecting us against Denikin.
Denikin must be vanquished and destroyed, and such incursions as his not allowed to recur. That is to the fundamental interest of both the Great-Russian and the Ukrainian workers and peasants. The fight will be a long and hard one, for the capitalists of the whole world are helping Denikin and will help all other Denikius.
In this long and hard fight we Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers must maintain the closest alliance, for separately we shall most definitely be unable to cope with the task. Whatever the boundaries of the Ukraine and Russia may be, whatever may be the forms of their mutual state relationships, that is not so important; that is a matter in which concessions can and should be made, in which one thing, or another, or a third may be tried—the cause of the workers and peasants, of the victory over capitalism, will not perish because of that.
But if we fail to maintain the closest alliance, an alliance against Denikin, an alliance against the capitalists and kulaks of our countries and of all countries, the cause of labour will most certainly perish for many years to come in the sense that the capitalists will be able to crush and strangle both the Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia.
And what the bourgeoisie of all countries, and all manner of petty-bourgeois parties, i.e., “compromising” parties which permit alliance with the bourgeoisie against the workers—try most of all to accomplish is to disunite the workers of different nationalities, to evoke distrust, and to disrupt a close international alliance and international brotherhood of the workers. Whenever the bourgeoisie succeeds in this the cause of the workers is lost. The Communists of Russia and the Ukraine must therefore by patient, persistent, stubborn and concerted effort foil the nationalist machinations of the bourgeoisie and vanquish nationalist prejudices of every kind, and set the working people of the world an example of a really solid alliance of the workers and peasants of different nations in the fight for Soviet power, for the overthrow of the yoke of the landowners and capitalists, and for a world federal Soviet republic.
V. I. Lenin, December 1919.