Workers Vanguard No. 1042
21 March 2014
From the Archives of Marxism
Soviet Power and the Liberation of Ukraine
Following the October 1917 proletarian seizure of power, the fledgling Soviet workers state in Russia sought to advance the revolutionary struggles of the exploited and oppressed across the former tsarist empire and beyond. One such example is given by Mikhail Pavlovich’s report on the national and colonial questions at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in September 1920 in Baku, capital of Soviet Azerbaijan. It is published in To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920—First Congress of the Peoples of the East (Pathfinder, 1993).
The excerpt of the report printed below focuses on Ukraine, a major arena at the time in the bloody civil war pitting the Red Army against counterrevolutionary forces backed by the imperialist powers. In that country, the class conflict was heavily overlaid with national antagonisms, especially between east and west, posing special tasks for the Bolsheviks. The vast bulk of ethnic Ukrainians were peasants or rural villagers. The peasantry in the west of the country largely toiled under a Polish landed aristocracy, with Jewish merchants serving as middlemen and moneylenders, while in the east the tsars had subjected the population to forced Russification. As a result, rural toilers were saturated with strong anti-Polish and anti-Semitic as well as anti-Russian prejudices. Meanwhile, the core of Bolshevik support in Ukraine was the heavily Russian industrial proletariat and large urban Jewish communities in the east.
Pavlovich contrasts the suffering of the Ukrainian peasantry under the likes of imperialist-backed nationalist leader Simon Petlyura, notorious for his massacre of Jews in the west, to the liberating beacon of Soviet Russia, which championed full and equal rights for all nations within the former tsarist “prison house of peoples.” After the October Revolution, many governments were formed in Ukraine, with Petlyura heading up a series of capitalist “Ukrainian People’s Republics.” The first of these regimes was overthrown with the assistance of the Red Army, bringing to power a Ukrainian Soviet government in January 1918. It lasted until March when German occupying forces swept across the country and installed a puppet government under the reactionary hetman [Cossack military commander] Skoropadsky. Subsequently, in the lead-up to the 1920 Soviet-Polish war, Petlyura made an anti-Soviet bloc with Polish nationalist Jozef Pilsudski, ceding Ukraine’s western territories to Poland.
The future envisioned by Pavlovich, one freed of backwardness and national oppression, was perverted by the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers state. Having wrested political control from the proletariat in 1923-24, Stalin and his successors dumped the Bolsheviks’ internationalist traditions and whipped up Great Russian chauvinism as an ideological glue for their brittle rule. Stalin’s many crimes included dissolving the Crimean Autonomous Republic and the Chechen and Ingush autonomous regions. The entire Chechen and Ingush populations, along with Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans, were deported to Central Asia during World War II.
Nonetheless, the Soviet Union remained a workers state embodying the historic gains of the October Revolution, namely the planned economy and collectivized property, which made possible an allocation of resources that brought about a relative equality between the various republics making up the USSR, easing historic national tensions. One need only look at the economic and cultural development and the great strides in education and the advancement of women that occurred in Soviet Central Asia, which prior to 1917 was a precapitalist backwater. The final undoing of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 and the creation of distinct capitalist states unleashed nationalist hatreds and rivalries and sparked bloody communal slaughter, such as between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Putin’s murderous colonial occupation of Chechnya was an expression of the revival of the Great Russian oppressor.
Before his death in 1927, Pavlovich himself played a role in the Bolshevik effort to modernize Soviet Central Asia. A former Menshevik who had joined the Bolshevik Party at the time of the October Revolution, he coined the slogan “To Moscow, not Mecca!” as part of his focus on winning the Muslim world to embrace Soviet power in the struggle against colonial rule. In his Baku report, Pavlovich wrongly refers to tsarist Russia as a “colony.” In fact, Russia fell somewhere halfway between the great imperialist powers and the colonies. Thus, as Trotsky put it in The History of the Russian Revolution, Russia paid “for her right to be an ally of advanced countries, to import capital and pay interest on it—that is, essentially, for her right to be a privileged colony of her allies—but at the same time for her right to oppress and rob Turkey, Persia, Galicia, and in general the countries weaker and more backward than herself” (1932).
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This colonial question, the question of the partition of Asia, is the mainspring of the bitter war that the capitalist world has been waging against Soviet Russia since the first day of the October revolution. Russia alarms the countries of the capitalist world as a beacon, a guiding star, summoning all people of courage to the struggle for a new order. It alarms them because of its many millions of inhabitants and its extraordinary wealth in natural endowments and sources of raw material and because it is no longer content to remain, as under the tsars, a semicolony of Anglo-Franco-Belgian capital. Even beyond this, Soviet Russia also inspires fear and dread in world imperialism as a colony that has freed itself from foreign oppression. By its very example it summons the enslaved East to fight for freedom. Its whole internal policy toward the backward nations contributes to the awakening and development in the East of a striving for national self-determination. And not only this, for it also renders real aid to the backward and oppressed peoples living outside the borders of Russia in their struggle against rapacious international capital (Applause)....
Who cannot see the difference between our workers’ and peasants’ socialist federation and the brigand capitalist empires? The “free constitution” of Britain holds the 300 million people of India, who have for so long groaned under the British yoke, in harsh slavery, strangling them. Republican France cruelly suppresses the slightest manifestation of desire for freedom and national self-determination in Morocco, in Algeria, in Indochina, in all its colonies. The great transatlantic republic, the United States, still refuses to recognize the independence of Cuba and the Philippines, for whose supposed liberation the war against Spain was launched in 1898.
At the same time the government and the worker and peasant masses of the Russian Socialist Federated Republic joyfully greet the formation of the autonomous Bashkir Soviet Republic, the autonomous Tatar Socialist Soviet Republic, and so forth, on the borders of the former tsarist empire—where, as in all capitalist countries, every striving for national self-determination was stifled and suppressed.
In all capitalist states without exception, both large and small—in France, Britain, Japan, America, Holland, Belgium, Poland and the rest—we see the use of crude violence against national minorities. Sometimes we see the transformation into nations of slaves and serfs of huge communities of hundreds of millions of people who have fallen under the rule of a more organized, more “civilized” minority, as in the case of the enslaved 300 millions of India, ruled by capitalist Britain, armed to the teeth.
At one pole, in the capitalist countries, there is savage suppression of national minorities—and sometimes of national majorities too, where a national minority holds the reins of government. At the other pole, in the republic of soviets, the most attentive, most fraternal feeling and attitude is shown toward not only more or less substantial national entities but even the very smallest of them.
Under the first Ukrainian People’s Republic it was the Austro-German imperialists and General Skoropadsky who ruled in Ukraine. That was the time when, by agreement with the Germans and Austrians, Petlyura’s Ukraine was obliged to supply Austria and Germany with 75 million poods [1.3 million tons] of grain, 11 million poods [200,000 tons] of cattle on the hoof, and so on.
Under the second Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukraine was a colony of French capital, in line with the agreement that the mercenary Petlyura signed in Odessa with the French general D’Anselme. By this agreement nearly all Ukraine’s railways and financial and military enterprises were handed over to the French stockbrokers.
The third Ukrainian People’s Republic, promised by the same Petlyura, was merely a screen for the establishment in Ukraine of the hated evil rule of the Polish gentry.
The entire history of Ukraine cries out against this fresh act of betrayal by Petlyura. That history is one of heroic exploits and great defeats of the Ukrainian peasantry, the Ukrainian “cattle” in a struggle many centuries long against the Polish gentry. The whole history of the Poland of the gentry, on the other hand, is but a long series of wars against Ukraine aimed at enslaving it. Ukrainian literature—the immortal works of Shevchenko, Ukrainian folk-poetry—reflect this page of the long-suffering history of the Ukrainian people, whose entire development proceeded through bloody struggle against the Polish lords. All the cossack revolts, the whole struggle of the Zaporozhian Camp, of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, were fundamentally a fight of the Ukrainian peasants against the yoke of the Polish landowners, against the Polonizers, the enemies of the Ukrainian national language and Ukrainian culture.
And Petlyura, condottiere and hired bandit, offered his bloody services to anyone who would agree to pay him well. He wanted to surrender the Ukrainian land, the Ukrainian language, all Ukrainian culture, to the Polish gendarme, to the insolent Polonizers. They closed Belorussian schools, for example, and proclaimed Polish the state language even in the regions where Poles made up only an insignificant percentage of the population. The Polish gentry, the Polish Kulturträger, are already trying to Polonize Belorussia [Belarus], Volhynia, and Podolia, and intend to do the same in all the regions of Ukraine that they manage to conquer.
Tens of hundreds of honest Ukrainians who sincerely desire the national and cultural rebirth of Ukraine, including such pillars of Ukrainian national public opinion as Hrushevsky and Vinnichenko, have become convinced that only Soviet power can now fulfil to the end the role of liberator of Ukraine from all forms of oppression.
On May 27 the Presiding Committee of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee confirmed the decision to establish an autonomous Tatar Socialist Soviet Republic with the city of Kazan as its center. This news evoked a mighty echo throughout the many-millioned Muslim world, in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, and India. In the eyes of our Muslim brothers, the workers and peasants of the East, it was a fresh example of the great principles that underlie the national policy of the Russian federated republic. But this is not to the liking of the capitalist governments.
Let two or three decades pass. Let popular education spread in the republic of soviets, including the opening of thousands and thousands of schools, evening courses, academies, etc., including the complete ending of illiteracy in Russia and Ukraine. Alongside the wonderful old monuments of Russian and Ukrainian literature, such as the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Shevchenko, we will see great new works appear, composed by brilliant new poets, men of letters, etc., arising from the ranks of the workers and peasants. Tatar, Bashkir, Kirghiz, and other poetry and literature, only now awakening to life, will flourish luxuriantly. All the separate streams, tributaries, rivulets, and great rivers will intermingle in a fantastic and harmonious way, merging and feeding with their living waters one common international ocean of the poetry and learning of toiling humanity, freed for the first time from national and class oppression. This will shine with such unprecedented, incomparable beauty as neither classical Greece, with all its amazing works of art, nor the civilization of the medieval and capitalist epochs, with all their blazing galaxy of immortal poets, artists, thinkers, and scholars, could give the world.
Yes, all this will be! But before we reach this wished-for future, much blood will flow. Many thousands of fighters for the new order will fall beneath the enemy’s blows upon the battlefields. Many tens and hundreds of thousands of women and children will die from hunger and cold in their homes or beside ruined auls [villages]. All this is inevitable, alas, and it is not of our making. It results from the criminal will of the capitalists, who do not want to give up their profits. But all fighters for a better future have to suffer in this way, and not merely the representatives of the small nations, not only the population of the borderlands. Come and see what is happening in Petrograd, Moscow, Tula, in a great number of our cities. Because of the criminal blockade and the bloody war that was forced upon us, hundreds of thousands of workers in these cities are faint from hunger and cold. Yet they have not lost heart, but march off in their thousands to the front, to lay down their lives for Soviet power (Applause). They know, these heroes, that they will not die in vain, for they give their blood for their comrades’ happiness, for a better future for their children and the generations to come.
The war against Soviet Russia is a war against the East.
In the giant struggle we have begun, the peoples of the East will henceforth be our loyal allies. For a war against Soviet Russia is a war against the revolutionary East, and, vice versa, a war against the East is a war against Soviet Russia (Applause).