Sullivant on politics of collectivization and famine

by Marco Carynnyk


Thanks to the recent spate of conferences, television programs and publications, the facts of the Great Famine of 1933 in Ukraine are slowly becoming known, at least in broad outline. Yet only a few scholars are informed about the political and economic developments that led to the famine.

The two most important antecedents of the unprecedented catastrophe that visited Ukraine that year are Soviet nationalities and agricultural policies. How did the Bolsheviks attempt to deal with Ukraine, a large, fertile land possessing a language, history and culture that it has fought for centuries to preserve in the face of often overwhelming opposition by covetous neighbors? And how did the famine result from the policies that they adopted toward the Ukrainian peasantry?

Robert Sullivant, whose book "Soviet Politics and the Ukraine, 1917-1957" was published in 1962 and who now teaches political science at the University of Toledo in Ohio, has spent many years studying Communist policies in Ukraine.

I put my questions to Prof. Sullivant last July in New York for a documentary film on the famine of 1933 that is scheduled to be released late this year.

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Q: What were the Bolsheviks' attitudes toward the peasantry and the various nationalities of the Russian empire before the revolution?

A: For both Marx and Lenin the nationality question was not an essential one. The most critical question was the question of the class struggle, the revolution, modes of production in society. Nationalities were viewed as secondary in importance, as growing out of failures in the capitalist system.

The only positive element was that neither Marx nor Lenin saw any particular virtue in any nationality. The Russians were no better than the Ukrainians, the English than the Irish. And Lenin, particularly as time went on, came to view the major imperial nationalities as more oppressive than the minority nationalities and consequently began to explore possibilities for building an alliance with them in order to attack the tsarist system.

So, on the eve of the revolution, although the Bolsheviks gave no particular support to the Ukrainian, Finnish or Polish nationalist movements, Lenin did see them as somewhat progressive because they were rebelling against the tsar in the same sense that he was.

There was perhaps one other factor which was that he felt that if the minority nationalities were given some freedom, self-determination, they might establish a proletarian alliance with the Russian workers and then rejoin with Russia in the kind of international community of workers' states that he talked about before the revolution.

Q: What was the political composition, the relative strength of the various forces in Ukraine before the revolution?

A: One of the intriguing elements in Ukraine was that it brought together the peasant question and the nationality question in a way that was somewhat different than in other areas, because the traditional Ukrainian national feelings had been historic and literary and based largely on the Ukrainian peasant. Ukrainians tended to concentrate in rural areas, and in the cities, particularly in Eastern Ukraine, Russian and Jewish populations dominated.

Consequently, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ukrainians saw the cities as alien, and the cities saw Ukrainian peasants as alien. So there was a combination of Russian and Jewish city culture on the one hand and Ukrainian peasant culture on the other. Thus, any policies that the Bolsheviks adopted toward the peasants had a very direct impact on Ukrainians, and that tended to serve as the focus for the difficulties that emerged during and after the revolution.

There were, of course, some Ukrainian groups, chiefly intellectuals and students, who were trying to develop a Ukrainian culture which was not as strongly oriented toward the countryside as it had been traditionally, but that was very slow-going, because the environment of the cities was not Ukrainian. When they moved to the cities, Ukrainians frequently discovered that the culture there was Russian or Jewish. The language was Russian. These people tended to become Russified over time, to lose their Ukrainian roots, and that was to become one of the major issues in Soviet policy toward Ukraine.

Q: I'm tempted to see the history of this whole period, in fact, of the entire 20th century in Ukraine, as a history conflict between the city and the countryside. I see the urban-rural dichotomy as being an essential one.

A: I think it is. You can't understand the battle in Ukraine except as a battle of a traditionally peasant society confronted with the very rapid press for urbanization and proletarization after the revolution, phenomena which were new for Ukrainians and with which they could not grapple.

Q: You've written about 1920 as a turning point, the point at which the Bolsheviks began to make concessions to Ukrainian aspirations by encouraging the Ukrainian language and at the same time discouraging Russian chauvinism.

A: One of Lenin's unique characteristics was that, however much he may have been a Marxist, he was very much concerned with achieving and holding power. This meant power for himself and his small band of followers. It wasn't necessarily power for the proletariat.

Consequently, when he found after the revolution that the regime was failing to win support in Ukraine, Lenin cast about for resolutions. How do you get Ukrainians to support this new regime in Moscow?

His reaction was to say that the revolution had to be moved into the Ukrainian population. It had to be drawn into supporting positions. The fact that the chief revolutionary forces in Ukraine were Russian and Jewish, not Ukrainian, had to be turned around. Ways had to be found to draw Ukrainian nationalists into the Communist Party.

Lenin found one group that he was able to do that with, the Borotbists, a Ukrainian Communist group which over a period of negotiations was encouraged to join the Communist Party in Ukraine. The Borotbists brought into the party the first significant element of Ukrainian revolutionaries. They won some concessions, which marked the beginning of the policy of Ukrainianization.

In exchange for supporting the regime they would be allowed to press the use of the Ukrainian language, to encourage schools to teach children in Ukrainian rather than Russian, to develop a Ukrainian literature and the like.

Q: You see the next turning point as being 1923, the formation of the USSR as a federal state. Why was it established as a federal rather than a unitary state when the party was thoroughly centralistic and unitary?

A: I suspect that suggests part of the answer. Because the party was very carefully maintained as a centralized unitary party and because Lenin and Stalin saw it as the principal power center in the Soviet Union, the question of federalism versus centralized government did not mean all that much. The party was going to assure that whatever government there was at Kharkiv or Kiev would not step out of line, would do what the party in Moscow wanted it to do. Consequently some concessions could be made.

On the other hand, the federal system as it was established did not make sufficient concessions to the Ukrainians who were part of the political structure in Ukraine, and there was a good deal of grumbling and discontent on their part. Once again the answer that Stalin came up with was that additional guarantees would be made in the direction of Ukrainianization to accommodate the Ukrainian nationalists who felt that the federal structure was drawing them under Russian authority.

Q: What did this policy mean in effect? What impact did it have on the cities and the countryside?

A: Stalin began with two points. One was an extension of Lenin's notion that if wide support was to be established among the nationalities in the Russian empire, steps needed to be taken against the Russian chauvinists, who had been perceived by the nationalities as oppressive.

Beyond that, he was concerned to build strength in Ukraine for the sake of his own political career. He could build that strength by attacking some of his enemies in Moscow who were identified as Russian chauvinists ­ Bukharin, Zinoviev, Trotsky ­ all of whom were perceived by Ukrainians as being far more centralizing and Russifying than Stalin. Perhaps the Ukrainians even felt that as a Georgian Stalin would naturally be sympathetic to the ethnic minorities.

And in that critical period between 1922 or 1923 and 1925 or 1927 Stalin used the Ukrainians as a basis of support. He struck into the Communist Party in Ukraine to remove from positions of power some of those who had been more closely associated with Trotsky or Zinoviev than with himself and replaced them with others who were sympathetic to him. By 1925, he had pretty well accomplished that, and once again the accommodation that he was willing to make was to provide greater guarantees for the Ukrainians to develop their own national culture.

Q: What was the impact of Ukrainianization? To what extent did Ukrainian-language schools become a reality, to what extent was the traditional linguistic situation affected by this policy?

A: It was a very exciting period for Ukrainians in positions of power, because for the first time the regime had said: "We will support the use of the Ukrainian language, the establishment of Ukrainian schools in areas where they didn't exist previously. We will support the development of Ukrainian literature."

So there began to develop rather rapidly a small but significant group of Ukrainians who were excited by the possibilities for developing Ukrainian literature under the Soviet aegis. And in the time period 1923 to 1927 they pressed ahead as rapidly as they could, transforming some schools, developing new journals and newspapers, encouraging Ukrainians to continue in higher education. It was a renaissance of Ukrainian culture.

Q: What effect did the policy of "indigenization," of encouragement for native cultures, have on the minorities in Ukraine?

A: It became right away a major issue that was fastened on particularly by the Russian minority in Ukraine. They very quickly began to say that Ukrainians were taking advantage of the policy of Ukrainianization to be oppressive of Jews, Russians, Poles, any minority group in Ukraine.

At the same time Stalin saw Ukrainianization as a policy that could be played up abroad, particularly in western Ukraine. Perhaps he could demonstrate to these Ukrainians that conditions were much freer, more liberal in the Soviet Union than in Poland and could demonstrate to peoples throughout the world that the Communists were supportive of local national groups in their battle against England, the United States and other capitalist countries which Stalin hoped to embarrass and perhaps weaken with their colonial holdings. So the two together gave him an added incentive to pursue Ukrainianization.

Q: What was the relative strength of the Ukrainian Communists, first within the Ukrainian party and then within the all-union party? What forces did they face within the party and what forces outside the party could they rely on?

A: There's a natural inclination to exaggerate their effectiveness both in the Ukrainian party and in the all-union party, because they were a vocal and aggressive group which was quite outspoken on Ukrainian questions. However, they never moved into positions where important political decisions were being made.

They themselves were somewhat deceived because of the freedom that they had in such areas as education, literature and publishing. Stalin very carefully assured that control in the Ukrainian party was in the hands of his lieutenants rather than in the hands of Ukrainian nationalists.

Q: Who were Stalin's lieutenants? What kind of people did he place his trust in?

A: These were friends who had supported him in his struggles against the opposition in the 1920s. Kaganovich was a classic example. He was sent to Ukraine in 1925, I think, because Stalin was concerned that some elements of Ukrainianization and party organizational work were getting out of hand.

Kaganovich resolved these problems in a relatively sensitive way where Ukrainians were concerned because he insisted on support for the Ukrainianization policy. Nevertheless, he was very careful to assure that key positions in Ukraine were in the hands of people who were not suspect as Ukrainian nationalists.

Q: You say that the Ukrainian Communists were deceived. Would it be correct to say that they supported Stalin because they thought that as a Georgian he would be sympathetic to non-Russian cultural aspirations and that this was what led to their tragedy? They had gone along with Stalin on all questions and then found themselves stripped of power and their people being starved to death.

A: They clearly wanted to be deceived in the sense that they did not have alternatives. They hoped for a genuine revival of Ukrainian culture and society, and Stalin gave them enough concessions that they could hold that hope. Some of them felt that in time all Ukraine would become Ukrainianized, particularly the cities, which had traditionally been Russian and Jewish, and they anticipated the time when all the political forces in Ukraine would be Ukrainian. That was something that Stalin had never agreed to, and it became the real focus for disagreement in the mid- and later 1920s, leading gradually to the ending of Ukrainianization.

Q: How do you date the end of that policy, and what were the reasons for ending it?

A: The first and most critical issue was how far Ukrainianization would be carried in the cities. There was no concern on the part of the Soviets that the Ukrainian countryside would have Ukrainian schools and would use the Ukrainian language. The real issue came when the Ukrainians said, "We must move that same Ukrainian culture into the cities," because there the culture was Russian, and it meant a tremendous wrench to say to Russians and Jews, "You must learn the Ukrainian language and use it in state and cultural activities."

From time to time the Ukrainians were sufficiently strong to win small battles in moving into the cities, and more Ukrainian schools were established there. But the more successful they were the more they aroused the opposition of the Russians and Jews who saw this as oppressive of their rights.

The Russians and Jews became more and more distressed with what the Ukrainians were accomplishing. They told stories of Russian films brought to Kharkiv which could not be shown until they were dubbed into Ukrainian.

Some of the Ukrainians involved in Ukrainianization began to question the links between Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The economist Mykhailo Volobuyev argued that the Russians were exploiting the Ukrainian economy and that if it was ever to be free, it would have to move away from its links with the Soviet Union toward links with Western economies.

The Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvyliovy argued that if Ukrainian literature was to develop, it needed to take its models from the West rather than from the Soviet Union.

So that as Ukrainianization went along it became increasingly threatening not only to the Russians and Jews in Ukraine, but also to Moscow, which saw disturbing elements of separation and independence.

Q: Was this then the reason for ending Ukrainianization and resuming Russification?

A: There was clearly a feeling that Ukrainianization had gone too far, was beginning to pose new problems in keeping Ukraine a loyal part of the Soviet Union, but more important than that was the basic decision made on agriculture and collectivization, a decision which the Russians adopted in 1927 for a variety of reasons, one of them being simply the persuasion that agriculture in Ukraine was not as efficient as it should be.

The Russian leaders were shaken up in 1927 when the percentage of the crop available for marketing fell from 17 to 14 percent, and although they were always concerned with the total harvest, they were more concerned with the part of the harvest that was available for the cities or for export. They were also concerned that the number of small private farms in Ukraine was growing too rapidly. Consequently more of the produce was being kept on the farms rather than being sent to the cities. Something had to be done both to increase productivity and, more importantly, to make more of the crop available for the cities.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 30, 1983, No. 44, Vol. LI

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