Ukraine: some observations on the national question and Russian intervention

This document was written in December 2014 in the aftermath of the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, the uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Russian annexation of Crimea. At that time, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) had been involved in launching the Solidarity with Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine (SARU) campaign. Meanwhile, several so-called Marxist organisations had capitulated to reactionary Ukrainian nationalism. As such, it was important to go back and provide some background to the historical development of the national question in Ukraine.

The article explains some of the aspects of this national question, including the policy of the Bolsheviks, that of Lenin at the time of the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, and the position adopted by Trotsky in the late 1930s. It should be read in conjunction with the ‘Theses on Ukraine’ passed at the World Congress of the International Marxist Tendency in August 2014.


The national question is a minefield. If you are not careful you can fall into all sorts of traps. A particularly acute example of this is Ukraine.

Since the launch of the Solidarity with Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine (SARU) campaign, in which we played an important role, it has come under attack from a number of organisations which claim to be Marxist.

The common thread of their position can be summarised as such: the key issue in Ukraine today is the struggle for self-determination against the imperialist bullying of Russia. To different degrees, this position is basically shared by organisations such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and the so-called ‘Fourth International’ (the Mandelites, known as Socialist Resistance in Britain). The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) formally stands by a position that considers the conflict above all as being inter-imperialist (between US and Russia), but then in reality they too argue that Russian imperialism is the main problem.

This position has been most clearly expressed by a leading Mandelite from Poland, Kowalewski, in an article published in November 2014 in the Polish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, and reproduced in International Viewpoint, under the title ‘Russian Imperialism’.

Its central thesis is summarised in the last paragraph:

“A year ago, the massive uprising of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kiev, crowned by the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime, was an attempt by Ukraine to finally break the colonial relationship historically binding it to Russia. We cannot understand the present crisis in Ukraine - the annexation of the Crimea, the separatist rebellion in the Donbass and the Russian aggression against Ukraine - if we do not understand that Russia is still and always an imperialist power.”

The article, while covering itself in pseudo-Marxist phraseology, in reality, adopts a Ukrainian nationalist point of view, not one of class struggle.

It is worth answering some of these points, as this will help raise the political level of the comrades.

Euromaidan

Kowalewski describes the Euromaidan movement as an “uprising of Ukrainians” and an “attempt by Ukraine to finally break the colonial relationship historically binding it to Russia”, without bothering to even attempt to describe what class forces were involved in the movement, what its objectives were, and what class forces led it.

Maidan Image Mstyslav ChernovSectarian groups have characterised the 2014 Euromaidan movement in Ukraine as simply a national movement directed against Russian domination, without bothering to enquire into the social forces involved in the movement / Image: Mstyslav Chernov

As a matter of fact, as we have explained, the movement was one of the liberal intelligentsia, the youth and the petty bourgeoisie, mainly based in the West of the country and the capital, Kiev. It was led by a coalition of right-wing bourgeois opposition nationalist and far-right parties. Its fighting forces were dominated by far-right and openly neo-nazi paramilitary groups. Its political objectives were at best naive and at worst reactionary illusions (against corruption, and for ‘democracy’, which was identified with Europe and the EU).

This was not an uprising of Ukraine against Russian colonial domination. Rather, it was an attempt by one section of the oligarchs to take power, and in that they had the support and encouragement of sections of the US ruling class.

In attempting to present the conflict as purely one of an oppressed nation against its colonial master, Kowalewski is led towards drawing a continuous line, linking Russian imperialism prior to 1917; Russian “bureaucratic imperialism” under Stalinism; down to the “reconstructed Russian imperialism” of the present day. From a Marxist point of view, this makes no sense.

Ukraine and the Soviet Union

Imperialism is a particular stage of capitalism. It is characterised by a series of features, including the extreme concentration and monopolisation of capital, and its fusion with the state; the export of capital; the struggle for markets, spheres of influence and sources of raw materials, etc. How can any of this have existed in the Soviet Union, when private ownership of the means of production had been abolished?

This is not to deny that Stalinism inherited and revived some of the worst features of Great Russian chauvinism, including antisemitism.

This is not the place to go into detail about the conflicts that arose in Ukraine regarding the relationship between the national question and the struggle for socialism. The policy of the Bolsheviks in Ukraine after the October Revolution was complicated by a whole series of factors, including the concessions they were forced to make at Brest-Litovsk.

One complication was the fact that the Ukrainian population was concentrated mainly in the rural areas, and was a minority in the urban areas and amongst the working class. The inhabitants of the cities and the workers were mainly Great Russian, Jewish and Polish. There was always the temptation to view the national movement as one of backward peasants, while many of the workers had Great Russian chauvinist prejudices. But of course, without the workers winning over the widest layers of peasant masses to their side, there could be no socialist revolution anywhere in the Russian Empire. In Ukraine in particular, this could only be done by combining a correct position on the question of the land with a correct position on the national question.

During the civil war, the petty-bourgeois parties attempted to use the national question against Soviet power, and allied themselves with the Great Powers rather than the Bolsheviks. Lenin always had an extremely careful attitude towards the national question and this can be seen in all his writings.

This position, however, was not shared by all the Bolsheviks. One of those who played a leading role in Ukraine, Piatakov, was a Left Communist and shared with Rosa Luxemburg an incorrect position on the national question. He basically denied that the national question had to be taken into account before the seizure of power by the workers, and argued that after the seizure of power, it would become irrelevant:

“The slogan of ‘self-determination of nations’ is first of all Utopian (it cannot be realised within the limits of capitalism) and harmful as a slogan which disseminates illusions.”

This was written in the ‘Theses and Program of the Bukharin-Piatakov Group’ during the discussion on this issue in 1915. Again, in 1919, Piatakov, who was himself Ukrainian, opposed Lenin’s position at the party congress.

Lenin on the national question

The great Balkan internationalist, Rakovski, who replaced Piatakov in Ukraine, also originally made a number of mistakes regarding the national question. For him, under a workers’ state, the national question was already superseded. He held the view that nationalism was imposed on the masses by the intelligentsia and could only play a counter-revolutionary role. Initially, he was not at all aware of the danger of Russian nationalist tendencies within the party and the Soviet bodies.

Lenin Image fair useLenin understodd the need, at all moments, for a sensitive attitude on the national question in order to preserve the class unity of Russian and Ukrainian workers and peasants / Image: fair use

In his defence, it has to be said that his views were coloured by his experience in the Balkans, where nationalism played a completely reactionary role, and where he advocated the only correct policy possible: that of the Balkan Socialist Federation. To his credit, he later changed his position, and in 1922 he sided with Lenin in the debate about the juridical form of the Soviet Union. This was also to become one of the main points of conflict with Stalin.

Nevertheless, this false policy was fatal, as it alienated whole layers of the peasantry from the Bolsheviks and allowed the petty-bourgeois opponents of Soviet power to gain a certain base of support.

This was at odds with Lenin’s attitude. In November 1919, a resolution of the CC of the Bolshevik Party drafted by Lenin, explained in detail the policy which had to be followed in Ukraine in order to win the broadest masses, including of the peasantry, to the revolution. This included the peasant question and the national question. Amongst other things, the resolution says:

“In view of the fact that Ukrainian culture (language, school, etc.) has been suppressed for centuries by Russian tsarism and the exploiting classes, the C.C., R.C.P. makes it incumbent upon all Party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture. Since the many centuries of oppression have given rise to nationalist tendencies among the backward sections of the population, R.C.P. members must exercise the greatest caution in respect of those tendencies and must oppose them with words of comradely explanation concerning the identity of interests of the working people of the Ukraine and Russia.” (On Soviet Rule in Ukraine)

In 1920, when the Red Army was advancing against the reactionary forces of Denikin, Lenin wrote a ‘Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine’. In it he says the following:

“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.” (our emphasis)

He then goes on to explain why workers stand for the principle of internationalism, but he is careful to add:

“[T]he 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. (…) 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.” (our emphasis)

And for this reason, he stresses that the question of the precise demarcation of national borders and the precise form that the relationship takes is not a principled question:

“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.”

At that time, Lenin recognised that there were different opinions between different Communist organisations in Ukraine about these questions. For instance, the Borotbists (the left-wing of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party, which had evolved towards communism) were in favour of an independent Ukrainian Republic and also an independent Ukrainian Communist Party directly affiliated to the Comintern. Even the Ukrainian Bolsheviks were split amongst themselves about this question. This is what Lenin said:

“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” (our emphasis)

Lenin was always extremely sensitive to the national question and fought both against Great Russian chauvinist prejudices and the petty-bourgeois nationalist prejudices of communists in oppressed nations. In the same letter he continued:

“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.”

And he concluded:

“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” (our emphasis)

This was the very careful and sensitive approach which Lenin took on the national question, which was the only way to achieve real unity between the workers and peasants of the different nations, which had made up the “jailhouse of nations”, as the Russian Empire was known.

Stalinism

Already in 1922, there was a debate about the juridical form which the USSR would take. Lenin, against Stalin, whom he described as “somewhat too hasty”, wanted to make it clear that it was a union of independent republics that was being formed, rather than these territories being incorporated into the Russian SFSR:

“Stalin has already consented to make one concession: in Clause 1, instead of ‘entry’ into the R.S.F.S.R., to put: ‘Formal unification with the R.S.F.S.R. in a Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.’

“I hope the purport of this concession is clear: we consider ourselves, the Ukrainian S.S.R. and others, equal, and enter with them, on an equal basis, into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.” (‘On the Establishment of the USSR,’ 26 September 1922).

In combating Stalin, Lenin described him as having “a quasi-imperialist attitude towards oppressed nationalities”.

Stalin Image Ephraim StillbergIn the struggle against Stalin, which Lenin began towards the end of his life, the national question loomed as a serious difference. Despite his Georgian roots, Stalin was the very embodiment of the high-handed methods of the bureaucracy, which was saturated with Great Russian chauvinism / Image: Ephraim Stillberg

In this battle, Lenin counted on the support of people like Ukrainian Bolshevik leader Mykola Sprypnyk, who played a key role in developing Ukrainian language itself, standardising its alphabet and orthography for the first time.

All of this was reversed after the death of Lenin and the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Stalin, who was a Georgian himself, represented the Great Russian chauvinist spirit of the bureaucracy in its crudest form.

In 1928, there was an ultra-left turn of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In the case of Ukraine (but not only in Ukraine), the madness of forced collectivisation provoked a mass famine, as peasants refused to hand over their grain and preferred to kill their livestock.

This policy was accompanied by a massive purge of the Ukrainian party, which preceded the purges of 1937-38. All the advances made by Ukrainian culture and language were also reversed.

In his Reply to David James’, Ted Grant wrote:

“The Old Man pointed out that in the Ukraine after the purge of the Trotskyists and Bukharinites, nine-tenths of all Stalinist officials in the heads of the departments of government in the national republic were imprisoned, exiled and executed. Did they represent a different class from Stalin? Of course not! They reflected the pressure and discontent of the Ukraine masses against the national oppression of the Great Russian bureaucracy. The Ukrainian masses were oppressed not only as workers and peasants by the bureaucracy, but as Ukrainians. Hence the struggle for national liberation in the Ukraine. This was not confined to the Ukraine. The same process took place in all the national republics of Russia, oppressed by the Russian bureaucracy.”

Because of this combination of national and bureaucratic oppression, Ukraine was also one of the places where the Left Opposition was stronger, particularly amongst the Communist Youth.

This was one of the main reasons that led Trotsky to raise the slogan of a United Independent Workers and Peasants’ Ukraine. One of the central purposes of this slogan was to cut across any attempt by Germany to use the Ukrainian national question against the Soviet Union (as had happened during the civil war).

“The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.” (Trotsky, ‘Problem of Ukraine’, April 1939).

However, this was not to be. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, which had existed since the 1920s in Western Ukraine and which had strong fascist features, went on to collaborate with the Nazis during the Second World War. Cynically promising to help them establish an independent Ukrainian state, the Nazis were able to count on the Ukrainian right-wing nationalists of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) led by Bandera, and even raised the Wafen SS Galicia Division of Ukrainian volunteers. Both these organisations carried out massacres of Poles and Jews.

Ukrainian nationalism

Thus, the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union allowed for nationalism in Ukraine to become a thoroughly reactionary force, which was used against the USSR. This is the tradition that present-day nationalists are re-claiming in Ukraine as their own. President Poroshenko has declared that the UPA fighters are heroes and has instituted the anniversary of the founding of the UPA, 14 October, as the national day to commemorate the ‘Defenders of Ukraine’.

Recognising the fact that the national aspirations of the Ukrainian people were repressed by the Stalinist bureaucracy does not mean that their relationship was an imperialist one. A state based on a planned economy cannot really be imperialist. The position of the Cliff group, which maintains that the USSR was a capitalist regime (albeit of a ‘state’ capitalist variant), at least has a certain logic. Kowalewski, however, is a member of an organisation which claims to be Trotskyist.

There is an irony in the current situation, in that the nationalist agitation of the far right, which has now been adopted by some of the mainstream bourgeois parties, is precisely what has led to the effective break up of Ukraine.

Those who argue that the conflict in Ukraine is that of an oppressed nation against Russian imperialism also view the anti-Maidan movement as simply a question of “Russian or pro-Russian separatism.” This ignores the deep roots of that movement, which was motivated by a variety of factors: the threat to the status of the Russian language; opposition to the glorification of Bandera and the UPA Nazi-collaborators; fear of the economic consequences of joining the EU for workers in the industrial East of the country; opposition to the imposition of oligarchs as governors; attacks by far-right groups, etc.

This had little to do with Russia. Of course, Russia has interests in Ukraine. Russia is a capitalist country, ruled by an authoritarian reactionary government. For a period of time, it has been able to achieve a certain rate of economic development on the basis of high oil prices (which have now collapsed). After years of following the diktats of US imperialism, it has of late recovered some of its confidence on the international scene. This was shown by the war in Georgia and more recently in Syria.

In Ukraine, the interests of the Kremlin are to prevent a pro-Washington regime from coming to power, the country joining or allying with NATO, and to avoid losing the strategic military base of Sevastopol. Seeing that it was unable to achieve the first, Putin quickly moved to ensure the second. He used the opposition of the majority of the Crimean population (mainly ethnic Russian and Russian speaking) to the new Kiev government to justify the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.

The reason why we opposed this is because it did not serve the cause of the anti-Maidan movement but rather furthered the division of Ukrainian workers along national lines and fostered the idea that the way forward was to call on Russia’s support.

But Russia had no interest in organising a mass uprising of the people in the East. From the very beginning, their whole strategy has been to contain the movement, to force it to an agreement with Kiev in exchange for some form of autonomy. This was the case at the Geneva talks in April, and it was also the case in the Minsk agreement in September.

Sectarianism

This is all dismissed by the aforementioned ‘Left’ groups. For them, the mainly Russian-speaking and working-class population in the East of the country are agents of a foreign imperialist power and therefore cannot have any legitimate demands. At best, they are agents, fooled by Russian propaganda, or small groups of mercenaries. At worst they are considered colonisers that must be rooted out.

As a matter of fact, our sectarian critics have adapted to the discourse of the reactionary Ukrainian nationalists, giving them a faint left cover. An incredible article by one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Left Opposition’, the organisation linked to the Mandelites in Ukraine, Zachar Popovych, writes from the point of view of advising the Kiev government on the best way to fight the separatists:

“A Ukrainian authority established by way of terror will not be strong and will never be accepted by the eastern Ukrainians as their own. But it is precisely down this path that extremists on both sides of the conflict are pushing us. In the end this particular path leads to the complete loss of faith in these regions in Ukrainian state institutions and the de facto disintegration of the contemporary Ukrainian state. This is precisely the scenario that anti-Ukrainian forces want to see; they want to prove above all the incapacity of the contemporary Ukrainian state and the inability of Ukrainians to exist as a political nation.” (our emphasis).

You see, it is not that shelling the civilian population of your own country is wrong, but rather, it is not the correct tactic because it would contradict the national aims of Ukraine! For him, the civilian population in the Donbas are just “hostages to the terrorists”:

“The first task to be agreed, if necessary with the devil, is to prevent casualties among the civilian population, people who have now become hostages of the terrorists. In this situation it is simply necessary to conduct negotiations even with those we consider to be the worst terrorists.”

Instead of this, we need to point out clearly that it was the provocative actions of the new government in Kiev that provoked the anti-Maidan movement and then the uprising in the Donbas.

Bandera Image spoilt dot exilePortrait of Nazi collaborator and anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, above the door of the Kiev city council building during the Maidan movement / Image: spoilt.exile

The so-called anti-terrorist operation (including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, flats, hospitals, schools) hardened attitudes even more. Many people in the Donbas who considered themselves citizens of Ukraine now no longer do. They say, if Ukraine is for the Odessa massacre, the shelling of Sloviansk, Donetsk, Lugansk, etc., we do not want to be part of it.

At the same time, we have pointed out, from the very founding meeting of the campaign, that the struggle cannot be conducted on the basis of Russian nationalism. This can never attract workers in Central and Western Ukraine. The struggle must be conducted on the basis of a fight against the oligarchs, against privatisation, against the looting of the country, against IMF-imposed austerity measures.

Even in the Donbas, there is a growing realisation that Russia is not really interested in the fate of the ‘People's Republics’, other than using them as small change in negotiations with Kiev. The ground is open for advocating a class based program.

The same oligarchs who cover themselves with the flag of reactionary nationalism have three foreign citizens in the government who can’t even speak fluent Ukrainian! Under the rule of the ‘patriots’, it is Joe Biden who decides who is going to be in the government, it is the IMF that decides on the economic policies.

Here too, in the Western and Central regions of the country, the people are starting to ask “Slava Ukraine” (Long live Ukraine), “and for what?”, “Prices are higher, wages are not paid, subsidies are lifted.” “Nothing has changed.”

If you view the whole situation from the point of view of Ukrainian nationalism versus Russian imperialism, you cannot understand anything. Worse than that, you are unable to raise a class-based programme, which right now is the only hope for the maintenance of the unity of Ukraine in one form or another.