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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

Was Ukraine under Soviet occupation?

10 July, 2007 - 00:00

The Museum of the Soviet Occupation, which opened in Kyiv in the first half of June, sparked a furor in society. In its 19 June 2007 issue The Day carried an article by the historian Yurii Shapoval, entitled “Museum of occupation — but who were the occupiers?” along with a selection of commentaries from various experts. Afterwards we invited everyone to take part in a discussion. Below is an article contributed by Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky. In our opinion, the debates around this museum will not end soon.

The Kyiv branch of the Memorial Society has a museum exposition entitled Not to Be Forgotten, which traces the history of political repressions during the Soviet era. The bulk of the collection consists of excellent color panels prepared by Dr. Shapoval, which trace the Soviet policy of repressions in various periods. In literally five minutes you can hang these panels on walls, gather an interested audience, and give a lecture about political repressions in Ukraine for several hours.

I was in New York when Roman Krutsyk, the head of Kyiv’s Memorial Society was on a visit to the United States to show the English version of these panels, and I must confess that they attracted considerable public interest. I know that these teaching aids are used by history teachers. At one time I recommended that our ministries purchase them from the society. They did, and this is as much as I can say about the Memorial Museum in Demyivka, which has been open since 2001.

Suddenly in June political passions started whirling around this museum. Unknown intruders smashed its windows. Our media reported on the Russian Ambassador’s negative reaction. The reason behind all these events was the renaming of the exposition as the Museum of the Soviet Occupation.


The renaming of this museum was the litmus paper that revealed certain social trends that I personally regard as proof that the regime had the character of an occupation. Unlike other regions, here the communist-party-Soviet nomenklatura suffered a shattering defeat.

Perhaps not everyone will agree with the statement that the Soviet regime in the western regions of the Ukrainian SSR had an occupational nature. People commenting on the issue often focus their attention on the fateful fact of the reunification of the Ukrainian lands, but they forget to take into account the population’s resistance to Sovietization in the course of which half a million residents of that small region fell victim to repressions. It should be admitted that the reunification opportunity that arose in 1919 and 1939 might not have occurred a third time.

However, we must not forget that Stalin did not immediately use the motive of the reunification of the Ukrainian and Belarusian lands. The pact that was signed on Aug. 23, 1939, when Europe was still at peace, stated that the Polish territories were to be divided along the Vistula River, as a result of which Warsaw found itself on the border between Germany and the Soviet Union. There are divergent views of our recent past. Some of us believe that the Soviet power was occupational by nature in Ukraine. Others, within the wide range of views on this regime, from nostalgically positive to compellingly negative ones, categorically disagree with this statement.

The task of the scholar who studies this problem should be a dual one. First, he must work out his own concept of Soviet power, relying not so much on life experience (which is always biased) as on an unbiased analysis of objective facts. Second, it is crucial to establish why the experience of a given individual or a group of people (e.g., a generation) formed this or that configuration of historical consciousness.

This is a difficult task, especially given the parameters of a newspaper article. Therefore, I would like to make it easier for myself. It is worth dwelling on the historical consciousness of the people who inhabited the territories that were annexed to the Soviet Union after 1938. At issue are the citizens of the western oblasts of Ukraine and the Baltic countries. The Kremlin’s policy was aimed at destroying or deporting those who offered active resistance to Sovietization in these regions, as well as speeding up the migration to those regions of people from other regions of the country.

The forcible seizure of these territories, along with the above-mentioned aspects of the nationality policy, indicates that the Kremlin rule bore the character of an occupation there. True, this was a rather specific occupation in that it was not at all similar to the occupation during the Great Patriotic War. While recognizing the illegitimate nature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, whereby the Baltic republics were annexed to the USSR, the Kremlin sought to provide them with better living conditions than in Central Russia. This gave an additional benefit to the government because it was a stimulus for the influx of citizens to these republics from other regions. The living standard in the western oblasts of the Ukrainian SSR was practically the same as in the eastern ones, and within a historically short period of time the central government achieved great changes in overcoming their backwardness through the development of industry, culture, and health care.

The Western Ukrainian lands were annexed to the USSR, without any rhetoric, as parts of the territory of prewar Poland. It was only when Germany’s invasion of Poland caused the outbreak of a new world war that the Kremlin relinquished its claims to ethnic Polish lands and limited itself to providing “fraternal aid” to the population of the Ukrainian and Belarusian territories. True, Stalin compensated for this relinquishment, set forth in the Soviet-German treaty of Sept. 28, 1939, by transferring Lithuania from the German to the Soviet sphere of interest.

In concluding the subject that will now be dropped from the stated problem, I would like to emphasize the main point: the Sovietization of the territories annexed to the Soviet Union after 1938 should not be likened to that of the Ukrainian lands of the former Russian Empire in 1919-38. A mechanistic comparison of different chronological periods and historical processes does not allow opponents to find a common language even with regard to the question of assessing the power (let alone the whole array of issues relating to the OUN and UPA problem). Objective historical facts prove that the thesis about the occupational Soviet power in the western regions should not be extended to all of Ukraine. This contradiction, however, is not an attempt to justify that power. On the contrary, that “workers and peasants’” rule proved to be a heavier burden on the people.


In order to give a convincing answer to the question posed in the headline of this article, it is necessary to know how Soviet power was actually perceived by the populace, and what it was actually all about.

This power was the foundation of the “communist civilization.” The Soviet way of life was so different from that behind the Iron Curtain that I will not be wrong when I describe it as another civilization. At any rate, many people of my generation feel that history presented them with two absolutely different ways of life.

The noted American political scientist Martin Malia described the communist state as a logocracy, in other words, a rule established by means of words, whose propaganda image did not correspond with reality. To me, a former 30-year member of the CPSU, this seems to be the most accurate formula of Soviet power, and communism as a whole. Indeed, when it comes to communism, we find ourselves under the spell of words with a distorted meaning. Even the very term “communism” has entered quotidian consciousness not as a definition of a real political regime with an adequate socioeconomic order but as a synonym of a future society of everlasting well-being.

Six scholars from various countries, who devoted themselves to the study of communism, united their efforts to create a joint study. Thus, the book Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, repression (The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression) was published in France in 1995 [1997 — Ed.]. Translated into many languages, it made its way throughout the world. This book is about the crimes perpetrated by communist regimes on three continents: Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The front cover lists the total number victims of communism — 95 million people.

The final chapter of the Black Book of Communism, written by Stephane Courtois, has a very short title: “Why?” However, this book does not offer a convincing answer to this question. Why is communism inseparably linked to terror, including terror against the very bearers of the communist idea? Why did society prove helpless before the organizers of mass terror? Why did the Soviet government become ineffective precisely at the moment when it stopped encountering resistance within its own society? Without answering these questions, the Black Book of Communism is a compendium of horrors rather than an analytical study.

The point is that the communist regime, which struggled to attain total control over society, always applied two administrative levers in addition to terror: propaganda and upbringing. The communist idea does not cause revulsion because outwardly it resembles the Christian one. It fascinated many people, not least of all because Christian shepherds promised happiness and harmony only in the afterlife, whereas communist propagandists promised this during one’s lifetime. The Soviet leaders had enough time to make the best use of such an effective means of manipulating consciousness as upbringing, starting at the age of the Young Octobrists. They also had the means to absolutely distort information about mass terror and its consequences, or conceal it from the Young Octobrists who were growing up. After they returned to their homes, hundreds of thousands of prisoners of the GULAG never shared their life experiences with their children and grandchildren because they did not want to create problems either for themselves or them. There was, however, a more important reason behind the communist system’s viability, one that has seldom been considered. While making every individual completely dependent on it, the regime had to undertake to keep him fed, educated, given health care, and entertained. Many people nostalgically recall the paternalism of the totalitarian regime. This is explained by the fact that these people were young during that era and not always by the fact that they cannot endure the social tensions of young capitalism. After all, the older generation of Germans is clearly divided into two categories: the Wessis and Ossis (FRG and GDR nationals, respectively). Sociologists have come up with a definition of the latter’s moods and emotions: nostalgia.

Foreign researchers fail to comprehend the sources of this nostalgia. Those who were born and raised under the Soviet regime also found it difficult to get to the bottom of events that were insulated by thick layers of propagandistic claptrap. In studying our recent past, we will constantly have to refer back to ourselves and, drop by drop, squeeze out the stereotypes that were inculcated in us since childhood.

For a long time my understanding of the political system in the USSR did not extend beyond the limits of Lenin’s speech “What is Soviet power?” which was recorded on a gramophone record for the purpose of agitation. At the time the term “Soviet power” was always written in the upper case, just like the word “Soviets” in the plural, contrary to the rules of spelling. But several years of work on the problems of the Holodomor produced an about-face in my consciousness, and I quickly wrote the article “Do we need Soviet power?” It was carried by the newspaper Silski Visti with the largest print run of 2.5 million copies. The editor, Ivan Spodarenko, considered that title to be incorrect and replaced it with the neutral heading “What kind of power do we need?” The text remained unchanged because by that time Gorbachev’s bureaucratic perestroika had turned into a revolution. My article was published on June 7, 1991.

Since then 16 years have elapsed. During this time the problem of power in the USSR became one of the central topics of the research program pursued by the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences. We spent nine years studying various periods of the political regime that was established in 1917, how that regime formed a socioeconomic order after its own image. Since 1992 this institute has become the leading institution researching the topic “Rehabilitated by History,” which is being carried out in most oblasts under the guidance of Academician Petro Tronko.

Fundamental results have been obtained in the course of studies of the 1921-23 famine, 1932-33 Holodomor, and 1946-47 famine. This year the institute’s researchers, jointly with colleagues from other institutions within the social and humanities division of the National Academy of Sciences, has launched a study of the evolution of political systems in Ukraine, from the emergence of the first forms of statehood until the 2004 Orange Revolution. This topic is being studied under the guidance of Academician Volodymyr Lytvyn, and we hope that it will be put into practice. Our recent past is a heavy burden on the reformers’ consciousness, and they cannot do without conducting a historical analysis. Unfortunately, Viktor Chernomyrdin’s catch phrase, “We meant to do better, but it came out as always,” once again proved correct.


I consider Aleksandr Yakovlev one of the most outstanding political figures and thinkers of our times. He was behind the scenes during Gorbachev’s perestroika campaign and came up with an effective way of shortening the agony of the party and the state, and its socioeconomic order by at least 10-20 years. His method was remarkably simple: all that was needed was to sever contacts between the party committees and the executive committees of the soviets on all levels, all the way up to the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR. This political reform was camouflaged as the organizational building of soviets that existed before the adoption of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR (in a way, it was a return to Lenin’s heritage). That was why it was adopted without any particular objections by the All-Union Party Conference and session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

It turned out, however, that the third generation of the communist elite was under the spell of the propagandistic image of Soviet power as much as the rest of us. The full powers vested in the soviets almost instantly destroyed the communist civilization that had been artificially created by Lenin. They could not exist without force fields, like phantoms in Stanislaw Lem’s famous science fiction novel Solaris — in our case, without the dictatorship of the Communist Party that stood above the soviets. Later, Gorbachev would bitterly point out that he would have remained General Secretary of the CC CPSU if he had not launched his reforms. Indeed, at the time the state had enough resources to last him the rest of his life.

I began to study the Soviet epoch in the mid-1960s, when I was completely under the influence of the communist doctrine. Now I must admit that my 20 years of research — until the mid-1980s — are of little value. However, the quality of a scholar’s research legacy is not determined by his positive or negative attitude to any given doctrine but by his ability to place himself above doctrines. It seems to me that all those anticommunists should feel even greater humiliation, as they are still under the influence of certain stereotypes culled from Stalin’s Short Course of the History of the AUCP(B). In particular, anticommunists in the nationalist camp make no secret of their readiness to fight their enemies in the field, even though they are facing the proverbial windmill. The discussion about the occupational character of Soviet power is a typical example of tilting at windmills.

Rereading my 16-year-old article in Silski Visti, I find nothing there that I would refute today. However, my understanding of the Soviet power phenomenon has become much deeper, among other things owing to the publication of a series of books containing fundamental collections of Kremlin documents, entitled Russia: the XX Century, which was launched by Yakovlev in 1997.

However, I would like to begin the exposition of my views on Soviet power by refuting the late Yakovlev’s key thesis set out in the foreword to one of the books in the above-mentioned series (published in 2002). He wrote: “As vividly proved by the February Revolution, history shows that in the final analysis both revolution and counterrevolution are carried out by a politicized minority (e.g., the Bolsheviks in October 1917), given the passive stand of the masses.”

It is true that, as a rule, revolutions are carried out by a politicized minority of the population. Relying on sociological studies, we have been able to establish, more or less accurately, that some five percent of the Ukrainian population took part in the Orange Revolution. Should anyone question the word “revolution,” I would in turn ask why those in power began trembling before the electorate. A postcard signed by a group of unemployed pensioners reads that, on the initiative of Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, they received small amounts of money in conjunction with 11 holidays in 2007.

However, a politicized minority did not emerge in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Its main political product was councils (soviets) of workers and peasants’ deputies, which reflected the requirements of the lowest strata that numbered in the millions. A particular feature of this revolution was the fact that the soviets instantly came out with extremist slogans demanding the expropriation of large landowners. Unlike the 1905-07 revolution, when workers’ councils, i.e., strike committees, first appeared, soldiers’ councils were in the forefront of the 1917 revolution. These were headed by peasants in army uniforms because most of the workers were engaged in the defense sector. The vox populi of the numerically strongest and most downtrodden class suddenly appeared to carry weight: for the first time the world war organized the traditionally scattered peasant masses into military units and gave them weapons. Within the first week of revolutionary events armed people organized soviets, liquidated the autocracy, and turned Russia into a republic.

According to habit, Yakovlev calls the Russian Revolution the February Revolution. In Soviet historiography, the Leninist coup of November 1917 was distinguished as a separate revolution, as a result of which both revolutions became known as the February and October revolutions, respectively, according to the old calendar. However, he rejected the concept of both revolutions having taken place during the same year in a rather original manner. He says the October coup was a counterrevolution that paved the way for a totalitarian system which would exist by relying on mass terror.

There are two inaccuracies in this thesis. First, a counterrevolutionary camp did exist in 1917, and it was made up of political forces, including monarchists, who were on the extreme right flank. Of course, the Bolsheviks were on the extreme left. Second, the state that was established as a result of the Leninist coup relied on mass terror only until Stalin’s death. Terror would not stop in subsequent decades, but it would no longer have a mass character.

Yakovlev’s approach to the events of 1917 is described here in order to demonstrate to the reader that, by rejecting myths of the Soviet period, even individuals with such a mighty intellect tend to create their own myths. Therefore, hundreds and even thousands of researchers must study the history of the Russian Revolution day by day in order to reveal the true dimensions of events, causes, and consequences. I believe that world historiography has accomplished this task. At any rate, we can name the main players in today’s political arena, determine their interrelationships, and understand how Soviet power arose from the flames of revolution.

From the outset revolutionary democratic parties dominated the contemporary political arena because they had an influence on the soviets. These parties did not regard the soviets as bodies of state power. The only organ that built power in their view was the Constituent Assembly, and here the liberal democracy agreed with them. The kind of control that the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies had over the workers and soldiers looked like power, but everyone realized that the power of the mob was not democracy but ochlocracy.

Therefore, in the first couple of months after the overthrow of autocracy in Russia one could see an unprecedented degree of unity of the political forces. Liberal and socialist democratic parties, which until recently were ferocious opponents, found themselves united by the fear of anarchy. This fear made the counterrevolutionary forces support a liberal democracy and curb their political activities. Later, in a different situation, these activities manifested themselves in full, in the form of a civil war between the Reds and the Whites.

The alignment of political forces changed after Lenin returned from emigration. In his “April Theses” he defined his party’s tactical and strategic objective: the establishment of Bolshevik dictatorship. The strategic task was to lay the foundations of a socioeconomic order formulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Communist Manifesto. Lenin believed it was possible to take political power by using the soviets and came up with the slogan, “All power to the soviets!” He led his party out of the revolutionary democratic camp in order to avoid subsequently sharing power with the other socialists. He was not bothered by the fact that the soviets were being influenced by the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks stood for the abolition of private ownership of the means of production; this means that they were on the same path with the soviets in the first phase of revolutionary transformations because the soviets demanded the expropriation of large landowners and the bourgeoisie. Sooner or later the Bolsheviks would have to fill the soviets with their own people and lead them in an assault on the government formed by the coalition of liberal socialist parties.

Meanwhile, anarchy and chaos were spreading with each passing year. For the participants of the revolution the age of serfdom was still a painful family memory; their grandfathers had been sold or lost during card games. Therefore, the potential of class hatred was exceptionally high. Also, the three-year war that was waged on an unprecedented scale took a heavy toll on every family, each day producing enmity and mercilessness. When it transpired that the Provisional Government was postponing the resolution of agrarian issues until the Constituent Assembly was convened, peasants dressed in army greatcoats began deserting rear garrisons and the front in order to divide plots among themselves “fairly.” A pogrom movement began in the countryside, subsequently described by Soviet historians as an organized campaign to confiscate landlords’ estates.

Like all the other parties that had left the underground, the Bolsheviks quickly achieved numerical strength, yet their influence within the soviets was growing too slowly. That was why, by the late summer of 1917, Lenin temporarily discarded the slogans based on the party’s strategic objective and assumed those of the soviets. On the eve of the armed uprising this party acted like a chameleon merging with the soviets.

The British historian Edward H. Carr launched his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia with two volumes dedicated to The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923. He describes the Russian Revolution as a Bolshevik one because in the final analysis the Bolsheviks had colored it red. However, like all other researchers, Carr let himself fall into the propaganda trap of the Bolshevik leaders, who combined their truly revolutionary, albeit specific, action plan with the 1917 revolution. Nor was it coincidental that Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution, described the Bolshevik coup of November 1917 as a workers and peasants’ revolution. Thanks to the Bolsheviks, who had appropriated the slogans of the soviets, the Soviet revolution triumphed on Nov. 7.

In December 1917 the Bolsheviks outlawed the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) as the main party of liberal democracy. Shortly afterwards, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage [Cheka] began hunting down the other parties, including the left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries, their allies during the October coup. Soviets of workers and soldiers’ deputies, which personified the antistate foundation, were proclaimed by the Bolsheviks and actually became bodies of state power.

However, under hair-raising pressure by the Cheka, there was nothing but the outer shell left of the soviets. The workers and soldiers’ collectives were no longer able to replace their deputies within these councils. Now these collectives had to vote in keeping with the discipline for candidates recommended by Bolshevik party committees. Beginning in 1917, “Soviet construction” — i.e., the creation of a network of soviets with a controlled membership — became one of the party committees’ key fields of endeavor. They were vested with limited state functions. The lion’s share remained in the hands of the executive party committees of the soviets.

Owing to this delimitation of authority, the party retained full political power without assuming responsibility for current affairs. The soviets had no political meaning whatsoever, yet they were vested with a full range of executive functions. Any conflicts between the party and Soviet apparatchiks were warded off by personnel replacements within Soviet institutions, with leading posts assigned exclusively to members of the Bolshevik Party.

Nor was there anything coincidental about the Communist Party/ Soviet pairing being identified as the Soviet power. The leaders of the ruling party deepened their dictatorship within the masses through the system of soviets. This was accomplished by vesting millions of citizens with minor administrative or controlling functions. No one could doubt the popular nature of that political regime because it also drew its cadres from the lowest social strata. One’s worker or peasant family background had now become a sign of the highest social quality, similar to the way aristocratic parentage had been considered earlier.

Thanks to the transformation of the soviets into organs of power and the Communist Party/Soviet power-wielding pairing, the Bolshevik Party divided into two parts with essentially different functions. The inner, i.e., the apparat party, was the nerve center of Soviet, trade union, power [defense, internal affairs, and intelligence agencies], and other agencies. The outer party was comprised of millions of rank and file members, who carried out the function of a “transmission belt” from the masses to the peaks of power.

With its Soviet visage the Communist Party/Soviet pairing addressed the people. The population elected members of Soviet organs from among themselves, using lists of party committee- approved candidates as representatives from the “bloc of party members and nonparty individuals.” Any unanticipated conduct during the elections was regarded as anti- Soviet, subject to investigation by the Cheka.

With its party visage the Communist Party/Soviet pairing addressed the members of the sole ruling party. As a result of that party’s construction on the principles of “democratic centralism,” its functionaries and leaders did not depend on the election of rank and file party members, although the latter constantly elected ruling bodies in accordance with the norms of the statute.

In 1994 Richard Pipes formulated the essence of the Communist Party/Soviet regime: in the Soviet Union state power was formally in the hands of the hierarchically organized and democratically elected soviets. In reality, the latter were a facade concealing the true sovereign, the Communist Party. This brief formula is absolutely correct but devoid of details, and the devil is in the details. To begin with, the soviets were not only the facade but also a very real power. Second, it is true that they concealed the Communist Party dictatorship, but the true sovereign was the party leadership, not the party as a whole. Third, elections to the soviets were organized using “soviet construction” methods that can hardly be described as democratic. In sum, these details reveal Soviet power in a somewhat different light. The crux of the matter is that we will find no soviets in that system of workers and peasants’ power.

The slide and tilt mechanism was a brilliant technological invention. It allows two spheres firmly connected to the same axis to perform reciprocal rotation, thus transforming one type of movement into a different one. Lenin’s brilliant invention was an articulated political regime, a symbiosis of the ruling party’s dictatorship whose carriers were at the top of the power pyramid, and the absolutely real power of soviet bodies spread throughout the masses. This power was real in both of its components, the soviets’ executive party committees and party committees, because it had actual authority and was free to exercise it. However, the dictatorship authority was vested in only the highest link in the chain, the Politburo of the CC of the RCP(B)-AUCP(B)-CPSU.

We are discussing this Communist Party/Soviet pairing because it existed on the institutional level. In reality, the soviets were a component of the party. This statement is by no means contradicted by the fact that some members of the soviets were not members of the party. Together with party members, they represented social groups, ethnic minorities, women, and youth in proportions determined by the party committees in advance.

Therefore, a political regime that was named the Soviet power was rooted in the masses, but in its actions it was absolutely independent of the electorate. Dictatorial by nature, it applied the means of propaganda and terror equally effectively. Determined by terror, the absence of counterpropaganda served to substantially increase the effectiveness of that power’s propagandistic effect on society. Using these means, Communist Party leaders could place on the agenda communist slogans that they had temporarily discarded in August 1917.

(To be continued)