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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Fatal Brand

“Borotbist Case” cooked up 70 years ago, in 1935
1 March, 2005 - 00:00

To explain the meaning of “fatal brand” (reference to the Borotbists), I offer two quotations.

No. 1: “Borotbists — a Ukrainian petty bourgeois nationalist party that expressed the class interests of the rural bourgeoisie, primarily the kulaks. Emerged in May 1918, following a schism in the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR). The name derives from the title of the party’s official publication, Borotba (struggle — Ed.). In March 1919 the Borotbists changed their name to the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionary Communists and in August 1919, after merging with the left wing of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party (nezalezhnyky — “independents”) they became the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists). The party’s leaders: H.F. Hrynko, V.M. Blakytny, P.P. Lubchenko, H.V. Mykhailychenko, A.Ya. Shumsky. According to its ideological and political platform, the Borotbists were a petty bourgeois nationalist party that strove for political hegemony in Ukraine and struggled against the Communist Party and its integral part, the CP(b)U. For this reason, the Borotbists adhered to the doctrine of the so-called Ukrainian national revolution, which was allegedly radically different from the socialist revolution in Russia.”

No. 2: “If all the left-wing political entities that took part in the Ukrainian revolution on the Soviet side were ranked according to the political clout they had at the time, the picture would be as follows: 1) Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine — CP(b)U; 2) Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists); 3) Ukrainian Communist Party — ukapisty; 4) Anarchists (followers of Nestor Makhno); 5) Ukrainian Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Borbists); and 6) smaller groups (Maximalists, Revolutionary Communists, et al.). There were also Jewish left-wing groupings — the Communist Bund and the Jewish Communist Party — which, like all the above-mentioned parties, except for the Anarchists, later merged with the CP(b)U.”

The first cited passage is from a Soviet reference work. The second one was written by our compatriot Ivan Majstrenko, who came to the West after World War II and wrote a number of valuable, unbiased studies. This citation is from his book Borotbism. The History of a Branch of Ukrainian Communism, which was, of course, hidden away in limited-access library repositories during the Communist era.


Who were the Borotbists? This small group appeared in the summer of 1917 as part of the UPSR. By the end of that year they became a full-fledged internationalist-style entity. At the 4th UPSR congress on May 13-16, 1918, when Hetman Skoropadsky was in power, this group constituted the party’s leadership and was making an all-out effort to bring the UPSR around to a pro-Soviet position. At the same time, the UPSR was ideologically evolving towards Communism. In 1919 the party was renamed the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (Communists-Borotbists). In the summer it merged with the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party (Independent Left) and changed its name to the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists).

In February 1920 the Borotbists unsuccessfully requested the Executive Council of the Communist International (Comintern) for admission. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin personally wrote a draft resolution of the Comintern Executive Council to decline the Borotbists’ request.

He emphasized that the refusal should be based on accusing the Borotbists “not of nationalism but of their counterrevolutionary and petty bourgeois nature.”

On February 26, 1920, the Comintern Executive Committee noted in its resolution that the Borotbist party “deviates from the principles of Communism in a number of very important points” and that “the Communist International’s EC can only regard the wish to form another, parallel, party in Ukraine as nothing more than an attempt to split the working people’s ranks.” At the same time, the resolution stressed that “no one is preventing genuinely Communist elements in the Borotbists from joining the ranks of the CP(b)U.” And join they did. In the spring of 1920 the Borotbist party joined (“merged with,” in the terminology of the day) the CP(b)U, bringing with them a large number of top Ukrainian cadres.

Among those who entered the Bolshevik ranks were Vasyl Blakytny, Hryhory Hrynko, Panas Lubchenko, Oleksandr Shumsky, Andriy Khvylia, and other key individuals, who will be discussed later.

Lenin allegedly welcomed the Borotbists into the Bolshevik party. He told the 9th RKP(b) Congress in 1920, “We promised the Borotbists as many concessions as possible in case they pursue a Communist policy. We thus proved that we do not have the slightest intolerance. That we were right to make these concessions was proved by the fact that all the best Borotbist elements have now entered our party. We have re- registered this party and, instead of an inevitable Borotbist revolt, we obtained all the best elements among the Borotbists figures, [who] have entered our party under our control and in accordance with our wishes, while all the rest have vanished from the political arena. This victory is worth several good battles.”

Lenin’s key words are: “all the best Borotbist elements have now entered our party” and “this victory is worth several good battles.” Yet, real life demonstrated that this victory was worthless. Why? Because, apart from the above statement, Lenin had also issued a secret directive on February 6, 1920, which left the Borotbists with no chances of survival: “We must pursue a systematic and irreversible policy aimed at liquidating the Borotbists in the near future.” Whereas in 1920 the Borotbists were eliminated as a brand, the 1930s saw the destruction of “the best Borotbist elements,” i.e., those who embodied this brand or were proclaimed as its supporters.


It is impossible to arrive at a correct understanding of the history behind the fabrication of the “Borotbist Case” outside the context of the offensive that Stalin launched against the policy of “indigenization,” including “Ukrainization” in 1932-1933.

In early 1933 the Soviet secret police announced that it had uncovered the so-called Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) which allegedly “spearheaded insurgency, espionage and diversionary efforts, as well as organized sabotage in agriculture.” The UVO may be rightly called an “elastic” organization to which the so-called participants of this organization were constantly added throughout 1933-1934. A total of 148 people were prosecuted on trumped-up charges of membership in the UVO. Among them were many Ukrainian writers and artists. In December 1934 the murder of Leningrad Bolshevik boss Sergei Kirov immediately led to the “discovery” of plots that had been hatched not only by Leningrad-based groups of “terrorists” but also those from Belarus (Minsk) and Ukraine (Kyiv).

During this period, NKVD “playwrights” began to fabricate the case of the so-called “counterrevolutionary Borotbist organization.” As a result, on March 27-28, 1935, an external in camera session of the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, presided over by Vasyl Ulrich, heard this case in Kyiv and passed sentence. The court convicted 17 people: A.A. Polotsky, M.P. Lubchenko, S.M. Semko-Kozachuk, Yu.A. Mazurenko, D.E. Kudria, L.B. Kovaliov, M.H. Kulish, H.D. Epik, V.L. Polishchuk, V.Ya. Vrazhlyvy-Shtanko, V.P. Pidmohylny, Ye.P. Pluzhnyk, A.S. Panov, V.F. Shtanhei, P.Z. Vanchenko, H.Y. Maifet, and A.I. Kovinka.

There were no official reports. The ensuing silence allowed the authorities to hide the fact that there was no hard evidence of the Borotbists’ “counterrevolutionary” activities. Certain official statements are worth recalling here, for example, the speech by Pavlo Postyshev, Second Secretary of the KP(b)U CC, at the April 1935 plenary session of the Plenum of the Union of Soviet Writers of Ukraine. This case was also briefly mentioned in a speech by Soviet Ukraine’s People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs, Vsevolod Balytsky, at the plenary meeting of the CC CP(b)U on February 24-25, 1935: “I am not going to dwell on the underground Borotbist organization that we have exposed.”

On many occasions I have leafed through the files of this “case” in the archives of the Security Service of Ukraine. After studying these documents, I concluded that the heart of the matter was the Bolshevik leadership’s mistrust of the Borotbists. The crucial question is, “Why and for what purpose did they merge with the CP(b)U?” The indictment stated that “in the spring of 1920 the Borotbist leadership failed to engage in an open battle with the CP(b)U, was unable to launch an open, armed uprising, but was forced to risk the dissolution of the party and its incorporation into the CP(b)U.”

So the overarching task of this “case” was to prove once again that the Borotbists could not be considered politically reliable, even if they had “ideologically disarmed themselves.” This case, which was cooked up with accusations pointing to “the activity of terrorist groups, including terrorist gunmen smuggled in from abroad, was closely linked with an underground Borotbist counterrevolutionary organization whose leaders rendered all kinds of assistance to the terrorist underground and participated directly in the practical preparation of terrorist acts.”

This conclusion was based exclusively on the confessions of the arrested. No other evidence was provided. The overall picture was as follows: after joining the CP(b)U, the Borotbists refused to “disarm,” retained their governing bodies, controlled their local cells, and strove to place their people in central bodies of government and cultural institutions. The fact that many of the people who were accused of Borotbist “sins” had in fact never been Borotbists did not embarrass the fabricators of the case. These innocent people, like the real Borotbists, the true bearers of the fatal brand, had their confessions wrested from them.


The formation of a “counterrevolutionary Borotbist organization” in 1935 was connected to political events that had taken place ten years earlier — the defeat of so-called “Shumskism” in the mid-1920s. Here is Mykola Liubchenko’s testimony on January 1, 1935: “Having strengthened itself adequately in organizational terms, the Borotbist underground begins to take action in late 1925, striving to reinforce and expand the captured positions through an open struggle.

“After suffering defeat in Shumsky’s opposition, the Borotbists, having gone deeper underground, drew the proper lessons from the first unsuccessful stage of the struggle. “

Semen Semko-Kozachuk gave similar testimony on January 20, 1935: “The rout of Shumsky’s opposition dealt a heavy blow to the underground, but stopped short of destroying it. The organization went deeper underground and began energetically building up its cadre potential. In 1929 I was transferred to Kharkiv and assigned to the People’s Commissariat of Education. Here I joined the top leadership of the powerful Borotbist underground organization within the commissariat.”

It was announced that the “leading center” consisted of Polotsky, Mykola Liubchenko, Mazurenko, Epik, Kudria, Semko-Kozachuk, Kulish, and Kovaliov, as well as Oleksandr Shumsky, People’s Commissar for Education of Ukraine in 1924-1927, who was at one time a leading Borotbist.

At the instigation of Stalin, but mostly Lazar Kaganovich, Shumsky was blamed in the mid-1920s for engineering a “nationalist bias” within the CP(b)U. Shumsky left Ukraine for Leningrad and later Moscow, and was finally arrested in 1933. On September 5, 1933, the Collegium of the USSR Main Political Directorate sentenced him to a 10-year prison term, later commuted to internal exile in Krasnoyarsk.

Before that, in the 1920s, Shumsky had already had to explain his behavior in order to survive. Now he had to do so in internal exile. Failing to find any convincing arguments, he went on a hunger strike in January 1936. He also wrote a letter to Stalin with a copy to Genrikh Yagoda, People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs. Here is an excerpt from a previously unpublished letter: “Since my requests have had no effect, the only means I have left is my life. And I had to make use of it because these slanderous accusations have thrown me into the camp of the enemies of Communism. The Communists consider me an enemy, while enemies are using my name as an instrument against Communism. Clearly, I must withdraw my name from the list of enemies of Communism. I must strike off my name at the cost of my life and blood. Otherwise I have no right to consider myself a Communist.”

Shumsky goes on to say, “My protest is not against the party and Soviet power but against bureaucratic misdeeds...I am not a suicide, and I want to live on and be of use to the party. But I cannot hope for a happy ending unless you, Comrade Stalin, intervene... This is why I am begging you, Comrade Stalin, to look into and spare just one minute of your time for my case.”

Stalin did look into it. Shumsky received the following telegram: “We advise you to immediately stop the hunger strike and get down to collecting materials that will rehabilitate you.” This telegram again exposes those who fabricated “the Borotbist Case,” for it was sent to a “counterrevolutionary ringleader” and the “avowed enemy” of Soviet power.

Shumsky’s further destiny followed this route. He was re-arrested on the basis of an NKVD-cabled instruction dated September 9, 1937. He was accused of “counterrevolutionary activities,” in which connection incriminating evidence was being collected. In spite of this, he repeatedly wrote to Stalin until his death. On June 20, 1946, he wrote a memo “in the interests of the investigation:” “I made a decision to commit suicide, the ultimate and highest form of protest, after I had tried all other means of struggle aimed at my rehabilitation.” Yet, the former people’s commissar proved to be a poor suicide: the knife’s point failed to reach his heart. Nevertheless, the secret police “reckoned for” Shumsky that same year. As former NKVD General Pavel Sudoplatov admits in his memoirs, Shumsky was murdered on September 18, 1946, when he was returning to Ukraine from exile.


In 1935, those individuals who had been tortured into admitting a relationship with Shumsky, were suddenly accused of hatching a “fascist plot.” The indictment states that this plot was woven by “the nationalist writers Yalovy, Khvylovy, Dosvitny, Kulish, et al., who had penetrated literary organizations, making them a legal base for counterrevolutionary nationalist work on the literary front.” To prove this, the authorities gave a prejudicial assessment, typical of the 1930s, of the literary groupings Hart, Pluh, and Vaplite (Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) that had existed before the Union of Ukrainian Writers was established in 1934. For example, Vaplite was accused of “painting on its banner an overtly national fascist program of Khvylovism-Shumskism.” Naturally, there was no evidence other than the testimony of those who had been arrested and convicted in the UVO case.

What caught my eye when I was studying the documents on the “Borotbist Case” was that, in principle, any letter or quotation from a story or novel by a certain author could be attached to the investigation file as proof of guilt. One example is the notebooks of the writer Valery Polishchuk whose compromising notes were thoroughly studied. Here is a sampling:

“Shock-work enthusiasm is a function of poverty, a true beggar’s rag.”

“Bogdanov is undoubtedly a philosophical genius of our time, who has surpassed Bergson and Lenin.”

“There was a character assassination of Yermilov at the art institute. So much beastly stupidity and cruelty, unjustified malice and creeping toadyism on the part of today’s youth! The pure and truthful images of our youth literally shine against this backdrop.”

“It would be dull and dangerous if the world suddenly began to seek ways of developing in one system only — I hope this never happens.”

“If you want to lose the masses that are marching with you, restrain their desires with your constraints: they will rip off and tear apart the latter, as dynamite tears apart a stone.”

On January 13, 1935 Polishchuk had to provide special testimony on about the last aphorism. Asked about the political meaning behind it, he said, “This aphorism presents a common historical formula of the relationship between the masses and the government. This aphorism is erroneous because it is open to different interpretations.”

Oleksandr Kovinka had to admit that he had promulgated “terrorist ideas” in his confiscated novel A Flea, although I am sure he never dreamed of doing any such thing. Those who wanted to prove this simply used quotations taken out of context.

Accusations of terrorism were based on these kinds of devices. Nevertheless, all the accused, except for Lev Kovaliov, admitted their guilt during the pretrial investigation in 1934-1935. Kovaliov continued to plead not guilty at the trial, while Valerian Pidmohylny and Andriy Panov admitted to their partial guilt. The rest of the defendants, although they pleaded guilty at the trial, altered the testimony they had provided during the pretrial investigation. Kulish, Polishchuk, Kudria, and Kovinka appealed their convictions, claiming they were innocent, and later applied for a pardon.

There was no pardon: all 15 defendants, except for Kudria and Semko-Kozachuk, were sentenced to a 10-year prison term, while Mazurenko, Pidmohylny, Kulish, Shtanhei, Epik, Vrazhlyvy-Shtanko, and Lubchenko were shot in 1937, when a “troika” of the Leningrad Regional Directorate of Internal Affairs issued a decision to liquidate a large group of Solovki prison camp inmates. Pluzhnyk, who was also among those Ukrainians who perished in Solovki, died a natural death from tuberculosis.


A contemporary of those distant events once wrote about the Borotbists: “The republican NKVD gathered no more and no fewer than seventeen people for investigation and tied them together with the same chain of causes and consequences. They were convicted of terror and sabotage, which they had never even dreamed of committing. All seventeen got capital punishment commuted to ten years of prison camps. And their life drifted, like a clumsy raft, into obscurity.”

Stalinist policy toward the allegedly dangerous brand of Borotbism also drifted “like a raft into obscurity.” The Borotbists were doomed after the horrible manmade famine of the early 1930s, when “Ukrainization” gave way to a tough Russification line. It was no accident that the testimonies in this case also mention the names of those who were subsequently liquidated in 1937, as culprits in the case of the “anti-Soviet nationalist organization of former Borotbists.” This was the very time when the most prominent representatives of this once influential branch of Ukrainian communism (Panas Lubchenko, Hryhory Hrynko, Andriy Khvylia, et al.) were finally eliminated.

But that is an entirely different story.

By Yury SHAPOVAL, Doctor of HistoryPhotos furnished by the autor