The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925

Review of Stephen Velychenko, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine 1918-1925. University of Toronto Press, Buffalo and London, 2015. 277 pp.

Stephen Velychenko adapts for the title of his book the Indian ex-communist Manadbendra Roy’s observation in 1951 that “Communism in Asia is essentially nationalism painted red”. Like Roy, Velychenko applies this characterisation to the communist movements to both oppressed and oppressor nations. He offers us a comparative analysis of two communist movements in Ukraine during the 1917 Revolution, Civil War and the early years of the Soviet Union: the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the movement that came to be known as Ukrainian national communism. For the first time, the Bolsheviks formed their own Communist Party of Ukraine in 1918. It nevertheless remained subordinated to the leadership of the Russian Communist Party. The Ukrainian national communist movement had three distinct components that tried unsuccessfully to fuse into a single party: the nezalezhnyky who had emerged as a minority faction of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1918; the borot’bisty, who became the main faction of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries in the same year; and a faction of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine that emerged over the course of the Civil War and was known as the federalists. Velychenko tries to make sense of the struggle that took place between these protagonists to take leadership of the workers and peasants in the revolutionary process and establish a viable state. However, this is very much a book about the struggle of ideologies rather than social forces. It requires some knowledge of the course of events of those years to understand how such ideologies resonated in the wider society. 

The Russian Socialist Federation as comrade of Ukraine resisting imperialist intervention – 1919

Velychenko’s basic first argument is that the Bolsheviks refused to accord Ukraine its national independence under a government of socialist parties allied with the local bourgeoisie, something which they were demanding for all the colonies of their day that were under the rule of other European imperialist powers. Moreover, the author contends, the Bolsheviks seized and subordinated Ukraine in order to restore the imperial unity of Russia. Ideologically, the choice posed by the 1917 Revolution to the intelligentsia, workers and peasants was between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian imperialism dressed up as competing communist movements.

Velychenko argues that Russian Bolsheviks in their great majority did not regard Russia as an empire whose colonies had the right to national independence. They approved of communists in the colonies of overseas European empires uniting with their own national bourgeoisies and petit bourgeoisies in their struggle for separation and outright national independence, but they did the opposite with regard to Ukraine, Russia’s own colonial possession. In fact, hey regarded its separation as economically retrograde and politically reactionary, and insisted on maximum unity between the old metropolis and its colony in the face of Entente, Central Powers and the Russian White challenges to Bolshevik rule.

Velychenko documents the rise of Ukrainian national communism in response to the Bolsheviks’ attempts to rule Ukraine on their own. He focuses primarily on the USDWP nezalezhnyky who established the Ukrainian Communist Party in 1919. The UCP fought for a communist revolution in an independent Ukraine and its participation as a sovereign party in the just-formed Third International.  He gives less attention to the UPSR borot’bisty, though they were five times larger in membership than the UCP in 1919, they led huge peasant brigades and posed a greater challenge than the nezalezhnyky to the Bolsheviks’ drive to dominate the state building process. He explores their roles in the Civil War, their respective bases in the Ukrainian agricultural proletariat and peasantry, and contrasts them with the social and national bases of the Bolsheviks in the Russian and Jewish urban working classes. He documents the criticisms of Bolshevik policy by the nezalezhnyky and borot’bisty, the succession of alliances, splits and war-fighting between all three of them, and the absorption of the  nezalezhnyky and borot’bisty at the end of the Civil War into the CP(B)U.   There they were heavily monitored, frequently purged but not silenced until the Stalinist purges. They found an ally in the federalist wing of the Party, led by such figures as Mykola Skrypnyk and Heorhiy Lapchynsky. 

Velychenko cites Josef Stalin and Dmytro Manuilsky to make the case that many Bolshevik leaders regarded Lenin’s public promises of genuine national autonomy for Ukraine as opportunistic gestures designed to hide the Bolsheviks’ real, long term intentions to fuse the republics of Russia and Ukraine. Lenin persisted in this vein into the early 1920s, proposing the USSR be formed as a confederation, but with only one Party for all the participating states. Stalin and his placemen in the Party, however, managed to resist this proposal and the December 1922 Treaty of Union constitutionally fashioned the USSR as a federation. In practice it became a centralised unitary state with Moscow retaining control of the critical ministries of finance and planning, defense and foreign affairs, conceding autonomy to the union republics in matters of language and culture.  All that the Ukrainian communists managed to secure with regard to their economy was for the Ukrainian republic to be treated as one economic unit for planning purposes rather than two. Bolshevik opponents of the unity of Ukraine had demanded two regions, an agricultural Right Bank and an industrial Left Bank. There followed a long battle over republican control of the national economy, the armed forces, trade unions and the educational system in which the Ukrainian national communists, most of them now inside the Bolshevik-led CP(B)U, played a prominent role, but ultimately lost to the Stalinist faction in the Party.

 The leading Ukrainian Communist Marxists were Shakhrai, Tkachenko, Richytsky and Mazurenko. The first two died in 1919. The latter made their peace with the Bolsheviks after 1925 and were ultimately executed by Stalin. Perhaps their most tragic flaw, which they shared with Ukrainian left SRs and Bolshevik federalist Marxists, was that they failed to lay aside their differences, come to terms with one another, and face the Bolsheviks as a group. Instead each party dealt with them separately. This allowed Lenin, Trotsky, Rakovskii and Stalin to exploit their divisions and destroy each in turn. First the left SRs, then the UCP, and finally the federalists. (pp. 169-70). 

Velychenko’s concludes that the Bolsheviks used the language of universal emancipation to justify the invasion, annexation and conquest of Ukraine. The same happened when they attempted to invade Poland in 1920. They were repeating the behaviour of the Girondists of the French Revolution who the language of republican liberty to conquer Belgium, Savoy and the Rhineland, and so to provoke their resistance.

Velychenko provides a valuable appendix of twenty translated documents, including leaflets from the spring and summer of 1919 issued by the nezalezhnyky, borot’bisty and the Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee of otaman Zeleniy;  a memorandum of the Moscow based Bolshevik “Ukrainian Communist Organisation”  to Lenin in November 1919 on the need to change his policy on Ukraine; programmatic documents of the UCP on 1920; and Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s pamphlet, published in 1921 in Vienna, entitled Ukrain’ska Komunistychna partiia (UKP) i Komunistychna partiia (bol’shevyky) Ukrainy (KP(b)U.

This book is based largely on the texts of activists and leaders, analysing their competing ideologies, programmes and criticisms of their rivals and enemies. There is very little in it about the social forces supporting the alternatives represented by these leaders and their parties. As such it fulfils the author’s objective to compare the ideologies of two communist movements. Ideologies, however, depend upon more than the eloquence and acuity of mind of leaders to resonate with the masses of people they seek to lead.  The reader who does not have a fair grasp of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War in Ukraine, its causes and the social forces they provoked into action, will be hard pressed to evaluate the material Velychenko puts before us. His presentation would have benefited from a narrative of the course of events and the involvement in them of social forces beyond the political parties as such so as to understand why the Russian communist movement triumphed and the Ukrainian failed. This lacunae is particularly revealing when Velychenko skips between 1917 and 1919 and back again without acknowledging or apparently appreciating the huge changes that took place in between these years in the domestic and international dispositions of state powers, the ongoing conduct of war and the consciousness of classes and nations. 

Еврейские погромы 1918- 1921 (Jewish Pogroms 1918-1921) by Островский З.С. (Ostrovsky, Z. S.)

For example, the pogroms of 1919 in which more than 50,000 Jews died, had an enormous impact on the outcome of the Civil War. Velychenko devotes two pages of his own text to polemic disputes about the pogroms between activists of that time, a page of his footnotes to disagreements between historians and five original polemical leaflets in translation. Yet nowhere does he offer the reader his own description, let alone analysis, of the pogroms, their causes, how they unfolded from the autumn of 1917, and the major involvement of UNR and White forces in them, He does, however, describe pogroms in 1918 carried out by Bolsheviks and Red Guards. Velychenko is not narrating or analysing here. He is disputing interpretations of the 1919 pogroms by other historians and observers of the time on the basis of a narrow, I would say one-sided and inadequate, basis of evidence. The reader may well conclude that in such places Velychenko is engaging in a polemic rather than scholarship.      

Marko Bojcun

First published in Harvard Ukrainian Studies Volume 36, No. 3-4, 2019

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