January 16, 1983

The man-made famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine: what happened and why



Ukrainianization and its dilemmas

The path by which the Bolshevik Party came to adopt Ukrainianization was a long one which began in January 1919 when Sergei Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai, two Bolsheviks from Poltava, then the center of the Ukrainian movement, published a long critique of the Bolshevik policy, the thesis of which was: “Ukraine is just as much a country as Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, England, and so forth. Like them, it not only has a ‘right’ but will in fact be just as sovereign, just as independent as those other states.” And once the Bolsheviks recognized this simple fact, they predicted, Ukrainians would be with them. 1

They were ignored, but in the summer of 1919 a discussion group was formed in Kiev, and out of it was to grow a credible opposition which tried to take over the CP(b)U, the so-called Federalist Opposition led by Georg Lapchynsky. It demanded an independent party and state which would reach its own modus vivendi with Ukrainian revolutionary forces, but without Moscow’s support there was little hope such an opposition could succeed within the predominantly Russian CP(b)U. Lapchynsky left the Bolsheviks in disgust, joined the Ukrainian Ukapisty, and was readmitted to the party only in 1925 with the rest of the Ukapisty. 2

While voices calling for rapprochement with the Ukrainians were weak inside the Bolshevik Party, there were powerful voices in the Ukrainian revolutionary movement ready to join hands in exchange for a shift in Bolshevik nationality policy.

In 1920 Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had headed the Central Rada’s General Secretariat and the Ukrainian Directory before breaking with Symon Petliura, went to Moscow and Kharkiv, ready to accept the positions of vice-president of Ukrainian Sovnarkom and Soviet Ukraine’s foreign minister until it became apparent that the Bolsheviks were more interested in scoring a propaganda coup than in creating a government acceptable to Ukrainians. 3

The Borotbisty, originally the left wing of the Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionaries, hoped to gain concessions by showing the Bolsheviks a loyalty bordering on obsequiousness, and about 4,000 of them were actually admitted into the CP(b)U in 1920, with three of their leaders – Vasyl Ellan-Blakytnyi, Oleksander Shumsky and Hryhoriy Hrynko – receiving high posts. 4

Why did the left wing of the Ukrainian revolution wish so desperately to make an arrangement with the Bolsheviks, to join hands with them in jointly building a Soviet Ukrainian state?

Those familiar with official Soviet historiography will surely have encountered polemics against what Communist spokesmen refer to as “the anti-Leninist idea of the bezburzhuaznist (literally, ‘bourgeoislessness’) of the Ukrainian people.” Sometimes the idea is credited to Vynnychenko and sometimes to Hrushevsky. In truth, nobody “invented” the idea of bezburzhuaznist; the fact that there was no Ukrainian national bourgeoisie was simply a matter of observation. And that is why the regime has always tried to discredit it. How can one fight “bourgeois nationalism” if the nation in question never had its own bourgeoisie?

In 1917 no Ukrainian political figure questioned the idea of Ukrainian bezburzhuaznist either explicitly or implicitly by trying to form a party of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie. At that time it was impossible to even imagine a Ukrainian politician who did not also call himself a socialist.

It could hardly have been otherwise since, with a few individual exceptions, those who belonged to the propertied classes in Ukraine were not Ukrainians. The Ukrainian people meant the Ukrainian peasants, and with what class could the peasants form an alliance if not with the workers? Besides, the arrangement Lenin described in his “State and Revolution” (completely autonomous communities of toilers free from outside interference) seemed ideal to villagers whose natural interest was to keep outsiders out. Unfortunately, any similarity between Lenin’s regime and the one described in “State and Revolution” was purely coincidental.

In 1921 the 10th RCP Congress adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP), which meant the end of compulsory requisitions of agricultural produce and basically leaving the peasants alone. At the same time, the formal equality of all languages spoken in any Soviet republic was proclaimed. The NEP did much to assuage the purely social grievances of the peasantry, but formal equality of the local language with Russian did not satisfy Ukrainians. So-called “banditism” was still widespread in the Ukrainian countryside, and the Bolsheviks came to realize that the only way to ever create a really stable Soviet regime was to somehow convince Ukrainians that the Soviet government was somehow theirs.

It was for this reason that the 12th RCP Congress officially adopted the policy of indigenization (korenizatsiya) which directed Soviet regimes outside ethnic Russia to “take root” in local soil by fostering the development of the local language and culture, encourage local Communists and state servants to learn the local language and way of life, recruit non-Russians into the party and state, and, in short, to reverse the old policy of Russification and replace it with an active policy of de-Russification. Byelorussianization, Tatarization, Yiddishization, and so forth, were proclaimed and carried out, but none of them went so far or created so many problems for Moscow as did Ukrainianization.

The reason Ukrainianization gave Moscow cause for concern was due to its very success. Ukrainians, including Ukrainian Communists, took it seriously and actually began to act as if Ukraine was in fact an independent country. Ravich-Cherkassky was speaking for the regime when he criticized Russian Communists who refused to take the policy seriously:

“Up to the present, not only among the Russian bourgeois intelligentsia but also among some Communists, views have been bandied about which are not much different from those who thought Ukraine was thought up by Germans. Many RCP members, bound too much by bourgeois assimilationist prejudices, think the UkSSR and CPU are a masquerade, a fiction, or playing at independence. At best they conceded that, during the struggle for power in Ukraine against the nationalistic Central Rada and Directory, the Communist Party and Soviet power in Ukraine had to adopt the colors of defenders of national independence. Now power in Ukraine has been consolidated and the need for a CPU and UkSSR has fallen away.

“We think that only those who live solely in the present could think that way. They do not see the 20 million Ukrainian peasants who will fill the ranks of the urban proletariat in proportion with the development of industry. Today Ukraine’s cities have a Russified majority, but the countryside is the reserve from which Ukraine’s cities will be filled. The masses of the Ukrainian people, who are being raised to cultural life, to mass creativity in the sphere of economic construction will Ukrainianize Ukraine at a more urgent tempo.” 5

For a time the center encouraged such views. Even Stalin declared in 1923 that: “The Ukrainian nationality exists and the Communists are obliged to develop its culture. One cannot go against history. It is clear that if Russian elements have hitherto been predominant in the cities, with the passage of time these cities will inevitably be Ukrainianized.” 6

No one could as yet foresee that within a decade the author of these very words would prove that, given sufficient force, one could indeed go against history.

Implicit in Ukrainianization was a high-stakes gamble. Would the eventual loss of the Russified proletariat, hitherto the regime’s main supporter, be outweighed by Ukrainian support gained by the policy? Initially, the gamble seemed to pay off handsomely. With ample opportunities for national cultural work in Soviet Ukraine, many Ukrainian socialists who had emigrated to escape the Bolsheviks now returned, led by the former Petliurist military commander, Yurko Tiutiunnyk, and the former president of the Central Rada, Mykhailo Hrushevsky. The Soviet press dubbed the movement Ukrainian “smenovekhovstvo” and represented it as a Ukrainian counterpart to Ustrialov’s movement.

The high point of this honeymoon between the regime and the national intelligentsia came in May 1924 when 66 prominent intellectuals, including several former ministers in Ukrainian governments, presented a declaration of loyalty to the Seventh CP(b)U Congress.

This Declaration of the 66 stated that since Ukrainians were a nation of toilers, the proletariat was their natural ally, and that only the Russifying proclivities of early Soviet regimes had prevented such an alliance from taking shape. Now that the Bolsheviks had overcome their past errors by adopting Ukrainianization, Ukrainians were ready and willing to join them in building a Ukrainian worker-peasant state. 7 Those who signed the declaration clearly understood it as a national covenant between the Ukrainian nation as represented by its natural leaders and those who ruled Soviet Ukraine.

Although conditions were less than ideal – there were authors who could not get their writing through the censorship, and attacks upon Ukrainian scholars by self-proclaimed guardians of revolutionary orthodoxy boded ill for the future – they seem almost a golden age when compared to conditions under the autocracy and to the Stalinist deluge which was yet to come. The 1920s produced a flowering of Ukrainian cultural and intellectual life later called the “rozstriliane vidrodzhennia” (the executed rebirth) because of its abrupt and violent suppression by Stalin. 8

To an extent, Ukrainianization even legitimized Ukrainian national aspirations within the party itself, with Communists like Oleksander Shumsky, Mykola Khvyliovyi, and Mykhailo Volobuev demanding far more independence than Moscow would allow, thereby provoking a deep political crisis for the regime. In 1925 the former Borotbist Shumsky, then Soviet Ukraine’s commissar of education, led a delegation of West Ukrainian Communist leaders to see Stalin and demand that Lazar Kaganovich, who had only recently been appointed CP(b)U first secretary and was pursuing Ukrainianization vigorously, be replaced by a Ukrainian. At the time Stalin said only that such a move was not yet expedient. 9

At the same time, the writer Khvyliovyi had electrified Ukrainian literary life with his messianic call to free Ukrainian culture from Russian domination, turn to Europe for models, and for Ukrainians to lead an Asiatic renaissance of rising colonial peoples by transmitting to them Europe’s cultural attainments which Ukraine, due to its colonial past and status as a European nation, was uniquely qualified to do. 10

Stalin intervened in the Shumsky and Khvyliovyi controversies in April 1926 with a letter addressed to Kagnovich and the other members of the CP(b)U Central Committee. It was at this precise moment that Zinoviev and Trotsky were joining hands to form a United Opposition to Stalin, and the latter was probably motivated by what he saw as a need to strengthen his support in the predominantly Russian CP(b)U. In any case, Stalin accused Shumsky of failing to see the dark side of Ukrainianization which Khvyliovyi represented and stated that if such anti-Russian chauvinistic sentiments were not opposed, they threatened to tear Ukraine away from Russia, Russian culture and its highest attainment, Leninism. Stalin added that Shumsky wanted to force Ukrainianization so rapidly that it threatened to violate the rights of Russian workers in Ukraine and alienate them from the regime. 11

The weight of Stalin’s condemnation assured that Shumsky would be completely isolated in the CP(b)U leadership. But a majority of the West Ukrainian Communist Central Committee (the Communist Party of Western Ukraine was at that time an autonomous section of the Polish Communist Party) supported him, and the split became public when they attempted to take their case to the Comintern. They were expelled for their pains, and Shumsky was transferred to Russia.

Khvyliovyi, on the other hand, showed himself to be a master of the art of ostensible surrender by confessing his sins, promising never to do it again, then doing the same thing in a more subtle fashion. By 1930, however, the increasing rigidity of permissible intellectual life succeeded in clipping his wings, and in 1933 he committed suicide as an act of protest against the great famine created by the regime in the countryside. 12

The third “national deviationist” to be condemned in the 1920s was not nearly so prominent as Shumsky and Khvyliovyi. In fact, Volobuev was a complete unknown, probably an obscure teacher in a party school with only a brief article in a newspaper literary supplement to his credit when he published the work which was to provoke such controversy.

In 1928 he published a two-part article in Bilshovyk Ukrainy, “On the Problem of the Ukrainian Economy,” in which he drew upon a wide array of sources to show that Ukraine’s economic needs were being neglected by union organs and that the country still was being exploited by Russia no less than it had been under the autocracy. According to Volobuev, the USSR would best be served by policies that strengthened its component parts as relatively aurarchic entities. These views were condemned as an economic platform of nationalism. 13


  1. Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai, “Do khvyli: Shcho diyetsia na Ukraini i z Ukrainoyu” (Munich,1974), p. 222.
  2. G. Lapchinsky, “Gomelskoye soveshchanie (vospominaniya),” Letopis revoliutsiyi, 1926, No. 6, pp. 39-44; Ravich-Cherkassky, Istoriya KP(b)U, pp. 137-65.
  3. Hryhory Kostiuk, “Volodymyr Vynnychenko ta yoho doba” (New York, 1980), pp. 210-25.
  4. Iwan Majstrenko, “Borotbism: A Chapter in the History of Ukrainian Communismn (New York, 1954), p. 206.
  5. Ravich-Cherkassky, “Istoriya KP(b)U,” pp. 5-6.
  6. Ibid., p. 181.
  7. Visti VUTsVK, May 18, 1924, p. 3.
  8. See Jurij Lawrynenko, “Rozstriliane vidrodzhennia: Antolohiya, 1917-1933” (Paris: 1959).
  9. Janusz Radziejowski, “Kwestiya narodowa w partiyi komunistycznej na Ukrainie radzieckiej,” Przeglad historyczny, LXII: 2 (1971), p. 492.
  10. See George Luckyj, “Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine, 1917-1934” (New York, 1956).
  11. I. Stalin, “Sochineniya” (Moscow, 1946-1952), VIII, pp. 149-54.
  12. Arkadii Liubchenko, “Yoho tayemnytsia,” Nashi dni, II: 5 (May 1943), pp. 4-5, 10-12.
  13. M. Volobuiev, “Do problemy ukrainskoyi ekonomiky,” in “Dokumenty ukrainskoho komunizmy” (New York, 1962), pp. 132-230. Vsevolod Holubnychy, “M. Volobuiev, V. Dobrohaiev ta ikh oponenty,” Ukrainskyi zbirnyk, No. 5 (1956), pp. 7-18.
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