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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

Unfinished Ukrainization: the roots of an historical drama

3 June, 2008 - 00:00

The Ukrainian public is generally unaware of an important date that was marked in April 2008: the 85th anniversary of the launch of the policy known as Ukrainization. Its genesis is connected to the resolution passed by the XII Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) on April 17-23, 1923, on so-called indigenization. This act was preceded by resolutions that were passed at the VII Conference of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine on April 4-10, 1923, which stressed the need for the state authorities to use Ukrainian, the language that was native to the people of Ukraine, facilitate the development of national culture, and assign party and government posts to people representing the titular nation.

It may be assumed that this significant date was forgotten partly through sheer ignorance. However, it would be unjustifiably simplistic to ignore the fact that, for a number of political forces and figures all the positive things connected with the Soviet system, including its policy of Ukrainization, helped advance Ukraine’s national and social progress, albeit on a limited scope given the conditions of the 1920s.

On the other hand, even those who proclaim their friendly — or at least unbiased — attitude to the Soviet past did not consider it necessary to recall this historical phenomenon. Who cares about Ukrainization, even if it was under the Soviets? According to these people, it is not sensible to discuss and write about this subject because they are too busy with their political calculations aimed at granting official state status to the Russian language (although its unimpeded development and use are guaranteed by Article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine), and counteracting the Ukrainian state’s measures to strengthen its national security, borders, territorial integrity, etc.

Meanwhile, there are those who seek a redistribution of property, who want a slice of the national cake. With all these problems on their minds, such people have no time to study and learn the lesson of history.

All these individuals have one thing in common. To paraphrase a well-known Western political figure, they are not concerned about the people and their country but about the next election campaign and their own selfish interests. These forces seek to view history from positions linked to the long- bankrupt thesis that history is past politics, through the prism of today’s advantages or losses for some or other parties, associations, groups, clans, or individuals. Such an approach is aimed at turning the field of history into a tool that serves ambitious schemes, oligarchical interests, and cynical politicking. Thus, certain phenomena and events are presented in a distorted fashion, while others are passed over in silence or falsified.

Past events were such as they were because of specific circumstances. Some people like them, others hate them. Some do not want them mentioned, while others are simply unfamiliar with them. But we should have a precise and unbiased view. Like the ancients said, only falsehood harms us, whereas history is the teacher of life. A substantiated, positive approach and an assessment of certain phenomena and facts do not rule out a critical attitude to their negative aspects, and vice versa. In fact, they must be examined in context, with an eye to specific historical conditions. It is precisely this approach that makes it possible to make use of historical experience and its gains and lessons that have at all times been among the most important pillars of the unity of Ukrainian society and its cultural, spiritual, state-building, and socioeconomic progress.

This also refers to the important historical phenomenon of Ukrainization, many aspects of which remain topical, especially today, when the emergence of younger generations requires their familiarization with past experience, constant reproduction of the achieved level of social relations, and their further development on this foundation so as to be able to use the best from the past while avoiding earlier mistakes and miscalculations.

From historical documents it is evident that the Ukrainization process was initiated by the Ukrainian Central Rada in 1917, which introduced this concept into broad circulation and launched its component processes. In its resolution of April 22, 1917, the Central Rada declared that it was carrying out its activities “proceeding from the Ukrainization of all life in Ukraine.” Analyzing the events of this period, Volodymyr Vynnychenko declared that the demand for decisions and resolutions by all societies and organizations was unanimous: “Ukrainization of all spheres of life.”

In other words, Ukrainization was an all-encompassing process of bringing all the national, state- building, political, socioeconomic, and spiritual aspects of life in Ukraine into conformity with the interests and requirements of the Ukrainian nation. Ukrainization was proclaimed as the Central Rada’s “principle” and “program.” This term was used by the Ukrainian government both to designate the content and format of the broad progress of Ukrainianness and to denote the directions and dynamic content of individual spheres of the people’s life, concrete structures, and centers.

The policy of Ukrainization was the core, the main direction, which conferred a systematic character on the Central Rada’s activities and the course of the entire Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-21. It was aimed at helping the Ukrainian people gain a worthy place among other nations, while securing free and comprehensive development, restoring and advancing national statehood, achieving the unification of all Ukrainian lands, democratizing all public life, raising culture, and resolving acute socioeconomic problems in the interests of the titular nation and the entire population of Ukraine, not just certain social strata. At the same time, the Central Rada viewed the Ukrainization of all life in Ukraine as being closely connected with the question of securing extensive rights for national minorities, which were embedded in appropriate laws.

In view of the above, the process known as Ukrainization and its emergence and content should, in my opinion, be associated primarily with the events of the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution, specifically with the activities of the Ukrainian Central Rada, and not only with the policy of the Soviet government in the 1920s. In slightly more than a year of its existence, in extremely difficult historical conditions, despite failures and miscalculations, the Central Rada succeeded in accomplishing a great deal for the benefit of the Ukrainian people, something no one had ever done for this nation within such a brief period. The Central Rada’s theoretical and practical experience of Ukrainizing every sphere of life in Ukraine could not have been ignored by subsequent state forms, including the Soviet one.

In proclaiming the right of nations to self-determination, including secession, initially the Soviet government did not apply the concept of Ukrainization in its practical activity and did not implement any such policy. Many Soviet functionaries, following zigzagging and contradictory paths, eventually understood the necessity to reckon with the Ukrainian people’s national aspirations. These paths reflected their misunderstanding of the nationalities question, a retreat from a principled stand under the influence of opportunistic, faulty assumptions, or their simplistic one- dimensional concept of an immediate world revolution, and the eradication of distinctions among nations and their complete absorption. Many Bolsheviks were also under the influence of age-old Russian chauvinism, which often took precedence in theoretical conclusions and political slogans.

Lenin’s support of Ukrainian national aspirations in the summer of 1917, as manifested specifically in his articles “It is Undemocratic, Citizen Kerensky!”, “Ukraine,” and “Ukraine and the Defeat of the Ruling Parties of Russia” in December 1917 was transformed into unwilling recognition of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) which was established in November, and combined with ultimatums issued to Ukraine. By their form and content these ultimatums were unacceptable to the leaders of a sovereign state. At first, the Central Rada’s farsighted nonrecognition of Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) as an all-Russian body and its view that this was the government only of Great Russia — which, nevertheless, had already recognized the right of other nations to self-determination, all the way to secession — made it possible to declare the absence of a central power in the lands of the former Russian empire. This provided additional legal grounds for the rebirth of Ukrainian statehood and proclamation of the sovereign UNR.

Such an approach and the actions of the UNR did not afford any legal grounds for any kind of interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Nevertheless, this is exactly what took place. It was not the armies of the UNR that marched on Russia’s territory but the armed formations of the Sovnarkom that invaded Ukraine, despite the existence of an understanding proclaimed by the Sovnarkom on Dec. 21, 1917, about the regulation of relations with the UNR by means of negotiations “on the principles of recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Republic by the Council of People’s Commissars.”

This understanding, however, included the following proviso: “Only the Soviets of poor Ukrainian peasants, workers, and soldiers can establish power in Ukraine, where clashes among the fraternal peoples will be impossible.” The insinuation is more than transparent: without this kind of power there may be wars.

On Dec. 12 (25), 1917, the Congress of Soviets in Kharkiv, contrary to a resolution passed by the I All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets in Kyiv (Dec. 4-6/17-19) of that same year, concerning the “complete trust” and “resolute support” of the Ukrainian Central Rada (UCR) as the legitimate legislative organ of the “revolutionary democracy in Ukraine,” adopted a resolution that reads: “All power on the territory of the Ukrainian National Republic belongs to the All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers and Peasants’ Deputies.” Instantly, in order to prevent the established name of the Ukrainian National Republic from being treated as that of an independent country — which it was — the Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Ukraine, elected at the Kharkiv congress, issued a declaration that reads: “We have never regarded the Ukrainian Soviet Republic as a national republic but exclusively as a Soviet republic on the territory of Ukraine.”

Missing from the final text were the draft’s references to Ukraine’s geographical borders as determined by the third and fourth Universals of the Central Rada. The text goes on to say that “we have never held the position of the complete independence of the Ukrainian National Republic.” Thus, from the very outset the Soviet organs in Ukraine, exploiting certain terms that had been developed by the Central Rada, in particular, the name of the state it had proclaimed, rejected one of its main components and, therefore, the achievements of the previous Ukrainization process — independent Ukrainian statehood. This dearly cost the Ukrainian people, and the Bolsheviks themselves.

A number of active supporters of the Soviet form of statehood in Ukraine nevertheless realized the illegitimacy and perniciousness of disregarding the principles of national development. An article published on the eve of the I Congress of the CP(B)U by the prominent Ukrainian communist Volodymyr Zatonsky, entitled “From the Recent Past,” is a characteristic example. With bitterness and sarcasm he writes: “In Ukraine the Bolshevik Party, like the majority of the industrial proletariat, is mostly composed of Russians, if not by nationality then by culture. Opposing the self-determination of nations is inconvenient, and “sincere” Ukrainians call them Russifiers. There is no desire to recognize Ukraine as Ukraine (all the more so as many comrades to this day are profoundly convinced that Ukraine was deliberately invented by Hrushevsky). And now the quests begin. Go ahead, self- determine yourselves all the way to and including secession, but why in my party patrimony? Let there be even an independent Ukraine...somewhere in Australia or, in the worst-case scenario, in that half-wild Volyn or Podillia, but why in the Katerynoslav or Kherson regions? Meanwhile, the peasants even in these virgin oblasts (who are, incidentally, all Ukrainians by nationality)...have almost to a man self-determined themselves, no matter whether they are poor peasants or kulaks, the way the Rada wanted.”

Here it should be noted that Zatonsky and a number of other Bolshevik leaders had been members of the Central Rada in 1917 and taken part, albeit inconsistently, in the process of Ukrainization or were at least familiar with this experience. Under their sway, in April 1918 a party conference in Taganrog (Tahanrih) adopted a resolution proposed by Mykola Skrypnyk on the creation of Ukraine’s own Communist Party, which would not be part of the RCP(B). On May 9, 1918, the Moscow newspaper Pravda reported that the Central Committee of the RCP(B) does not object to the detachment of a separate Ukrainian Communist Party since Ukraine is an independent state.

But after long and heated debates at the I Congress of the CP(B)U, Skrypnyk’s proposal was voted down. It was resolved to establish the Communist Party of Ukraine, which would be “part of the single Russian Communist Party.” The congress also supported the idea of the “unification of Ukraine and Russia...within the borders of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic.” The policy of Ukrainization, and even the very term, was never mentioned.

All this sparked alarm among a number of Ukrainian communists. In late 1918 and the early part of 1919, two Ukrainian communists named Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai, published a book entitled On the Current Situation in the Ukraine in which they accused the RCP leadership of deviating from the nationalities policy and the right to self-determination as proclaimed by this party. Addressing Lenin, they stated point blank: “As regards Ukraine... there can be only two answers: (1) either an independent Ukraine, in which case it must have its ‘own’ government and party; (2) or Ukraine is ‘Southern Russia.’”

A response was not long in coming. Mazlakh and Shakhrai were expelled from the Communist Party, their book was confiscated, and all copies of it destroyed. In 1919-20 a fraction of federalists in the CP(B)U, led by Yurii Lapchynsky, sought to champion the sovereign status of Ukraine and its Communist Party. Interestingly, Dmytro Manuilsky, later the first secretary of the CC CP(B)U from 1921 to 1923, supported their position.

To be continued
in the next Ukraine Incognita column