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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


The birth and demise of the Ukrainian Kuban
27 March, 2007 - 00:00


On Unification Day we always remind ourselves that we live in a country spanning 604,000 square kilometers, a much bigger area than any other European country. Of course, Ukraine is smaller than Russia and Turkey, but these countries are, strictly speaking, Eurasian rather than European.

Nevertheless, outside Ukraine’s borders there is a whole range of once adjacent territories, where Ukrainians comprised the majority of the population in the living memory of the older generation. Today these territories are part of Romania, the Slovak Republic, Poland, Belarus, and Russia, and very few Ukrainians live there. Most of them were assimilated; some were even deported. We should not forget this when we talk about the entire population of the Ukrainian lands being united in one state with Kyiv as its capital.

In terms of both population and area the Kuban is the largest territory in the array of forfeited ethnographic Ukrainian lands. Today it is known as the Krasnodarsky Krai (Territory) of the Russian Federation. I believe that the story of Ukrainian Kuban’s demise will not be perceived by anyone as an attempt to revive the territorial claims voiced in the 1920s by the Kharkiv Communist Party center against the Russian Federation. What claims are possible three-quarters of a century after the demise of the Ukrainian Kuban? However, we should always remember how it perished.

Unfortunately, the law recognizing the Holodomor as an act of genocide, passed by the Verkhovna Rada, has divided Ukrainian citizens. It has also become an additional problem in the already complicated Ukrainian-Russian relations. The underlying cause is ignorance of the Holodomor’s essence and inability to separate it from the 1932-33 famine in other regions of the USSR.

Of course, Stalin used the weapon of famine to exterminate Ukrainians. But we should not emphasize the ethnic component of the Holodomor because by doing so we will be shifting the blame for this evil from a handful of Kremlin villains to Russia and the Russian people. In fact, the terror by famine targeted the citizens of Ukraine rather than ethnic Ukrainians. Ukraine was the largest national republic of the USSR bordering Europe, and in 1932-33 it was on the verge of freeing itself from the unbearable burden of the Kremlin’s dictatorship. The organizer of this unprecedented terrorist act was not the state party (of which I myself was a member for 40 years). The food confiscation campaign in the villages of the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban, which took away all the food stored by peasants and Cossacks to maintain themselves until the new harvest, was planned and carried out by a handful of people, who were afraid that a surge of the people’s anger would sweep them from their warm places at the top of the power hierarchy. They were the ones who defined the procurement policy in all regions of the USSR, where for three consecutive years, starting from the first collective-farm autumn of 1930, grain was confiscated by means of bloodshed and peasants were driven to starvation, resulting in a high death toll.

Why were the country and the party mere toys in the hands of these villains? This question is not for me: the founder of the party, doctrine, and the country itself was the first one to warn about the danger.

Our fixed ideas about the Soviet Union are an obstacle to our understanding of the Holodomor. People all over the post-Soviet territory remember this country as it was after the Great Famine of 1932-33 and the Great Terror of 1937-38. But in examining the events of the 1920s and early 1930s, we need to apply criteria that correspond to the realities of those years. At that time the Soviet Union was still a union of countries rather than a centralized state. Stalin was not a dictator then. Rather, he was one of the leaders whose position in the Kremlin was becoming precarious owing to an extremely acute socioeconomic crisis that was caused by his own policy of “urging on” the pace of industrialization. The 1932-33 famine in virtually all regions of the country was an illustration of the gravity of this crisis.

The introductory remarks above are necessary in order to understand what happened to the Ukrainian Kuban in the early 1930s. An understanding of the Kuban tragedy will help us grasp something else: the terror by famine targeted the citizens of the Ukrainian state, which was born in 1917, defeated later by the Bolsheviks, and then revived in the form of a Soviet republic. The secretary general was smart enough to understand a simple truth: the Soviet shell was capable of covering anti- Soviet content. Eventually, the Kremlin lost Ukraine in 1991, when its communist leadership used the anti-Soviet symbols of the Ukrainian National Republic to gain freedom for itself.

The famines in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban are inseparable because it was one and the same Holodomor. But while there is a huge volume of literature on the famine in the Ukrainian SSR, the Kuban famine remains largely unexplored, and it is precisely this famine that the current article addresses. But the account of the Ukrainian Kuban’s demise must be preceded by the story of its birth.


In the second half of the 18th century the steppes adjoining the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov became part of the Russian empire. The best black soil in the world, known as chornozem, which had never known the plow, was next to overpopulated Ukraine. So, Ukrainian farmers actively expanded into the uninhabited expanses of the so-called Wild Field. A decisive part in colonizing the steppes of the Northern Caucasus was played by the Cossacks, primarily the Zaporozhians.

In 1775 Catherine II ordered the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the center of the state created by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which had been absorbed by the empire. Some Cossacks managed to escape persecution and established the Transdanubian Sich on Ottoman territory. In 1788, during the latest Russo-Turkish war, others were organized into the Black Sea Cossack Host and settled the area between the Southern Buh and Dnister rivers. After the war Catherine II annexed part of the Northern Caucasus to the empire and moved the Black Sea Cossacks to the Kuban. On the territories that they received as a gift, the Cossacks founded 40 large kurin - type villages and the administrative center of Katerynodar (now Krasnodar).

From 1792 until the peasant reform of 1861 only Cossacks moved to the Kuban: 25,000 from the Black Sea Cossack Host, up to 6,000 from the Azov Cossack host, 109,000 registered Cossacks from Slobidska Ukraine, etc. A total of up to 150,000 people were resettled in an organized fashion. More than other colonization regions, the Kuban acquired the character of an ethnic Ukrainian territory.

In an attempt to stifle the national coloration of this Cossack territory, the tsarist government carried out an administrative reform in 1861: the territory populated by the Black Sea Cossacks was adjoined to the land of the Frontier Army, the descendants of the Don Cossacks. The united host was called the Kuban Cossack Host.

In May 1862 the tsarist government passed the law “On Populating the Foothills of the Western Caucasus Range by Kuban Cossacks and Other Settlers from Russia.” The law permitted private ownership of land and settlements of non-Cossacks on military territories. This prompted mass resettlements of peasants freed from serfdom to the Kuban. This is how a new social group appeared in Kuban oblast- inohorodni, i.e., people from other towns.

The tsarist resettlement policy proved effective, as the 1897 All-Russian census showed. The Kuban territory was most actively populated by settlers from Ukraine-377,000 men and women, i.e., 45 percent of all settlers. Of these, 249,000 people came from Left-Bank Ukraine, 107,000 from three southern gubernias, and only 21,000 from Right-Bank Ukraine.

The 1897 census showed that after 35 years the total number of settlers equaled the region’s Cossack population. The total population of the Kuban in this period was 1,923,000, including 1,489,000 on military territory, as compared with 393,000 in 1861.


Kuban society had two types of oppositions-social status (between Cossacks, who owned a lot of land, and the inohorodni, who had little land) and national (between the Black Sea Cossacks and the Frontier Army). Tsarism followed the venerable right of rulers who wanted to control the situation without much effort: divide and conquer. The development of market relations brought about the third opposition in Kuban society-class.

These oppositions were clearly manifested in 1917-20. The borders of the Ukrainian state were being determined on the basis of the predominance of Ukrainians on a particular territory. However, the Central Rada, Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky, and the Directory all failed to annex the Kuban to Ukraine. But the White Guard generals managed to use tens of thousands of Black Sea Cossacks as cannon fodder in the Civil War. Many of them died and quite a few were forced to emigrate.

After the formation of the USSR the Kremlin launched an indigenization campaign in order to enroot Soviet power in the non-Russian republics and raions. Raions predominated by a certain ethnic group obtained the status of national territories. Administrative activities, teaching in schools, and the mass media were switched to the language of the nationality. Polish, German, Bulgarian, and other raions sprang up in the Ukrainian SSR and an all- Ukrainian Ukrainization campaign began to unfold.

Indigenization, coupled with administrative-territorial reform, placed on the agenda the issue of redemarcating the borders between the Union republics. In 1923 the government of the Ukrainian SSR submitted a petition requesting that the adjoining Ukrainian-dominated districts and volosts of Kursk and Voronezh gubernias be joined to Ukraine. There were unofficial talks about joining the Kuban as well, but the Ukrainian authorities did not dare make an official claim. Meanwhile, the authorities in the Northern Caucasus filed a counter- petition requesting the transfer of Shakhtyn and Tahanrih districts from the Ukrainian SSR.

A decision on redefining the borders of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia was adopted in October 1925. Ukraine had claimed territories with a population of 2,051,000 but received only the lands populated by 278,000 people (Putyvel district and some volosts along the border). At the same time, it lost territories inhabited by 479,000 people (mainly Tahanrih and Shakhtyn districts).

The December 1926 all-Union census showed that Russia had territories along the border with Ukraine, with a predominantly Ukrainian population: 2,733,000 Ukrainians, including 103,000 in Krasnodar raion (84 percent of the total population), 192,000 in Tahanrih district (72 percent), and 915,000 in the Kuban district (62 percent). The total number of Ukrainians in the Northern Caucasus Krai was 3,107,000 (37 percent of the population).

Without waiting for the publication of the final census data, Ukrainian leaders, on the initiative of Mykola Skrypnyk, again addressed the issue of the Ukrainian-Russian borderland. Minutes of the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine (CC CP(B)U) are preserved in an archival file bearing the signature of Lazar Kaganovich: “In connection with the recent all- Union census that will yield exhaustive data, it is necessary to file a request to the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (CC AUCP(B)) about joining Ukrainian-dominated borderlands to Ukraine. The CC AUCP(B) must be asked to organize a special commission.”

The CC AUCP(B) did not rush to set up a commission, as it considered that the border issue was exhausted. But Skrypnyk continued to raise the alarm. Far from expanding the republic’s territory at the cost of its neighbors, his main preoccupation was to help the Ukrainian population avoid being assimilated in a foreign environment. As he studied the census data, he saw that Ukrainians in the Northern Caucasus were gradually losing their language and culture. In the Kuban district 915,000 people had declared themselves Ukrainians, but only 729,000 claimed Ukrainian as their native language.

In May 1928 Skrypnyk filed another official submission to the Politburo of the CC CP(B)U. It claimed that the Russification of millions of Ukrainians outside the Ukrainian SSR was not in line with the “correct Leninist nationality policy that we are pursuing and is weakening its revolutionary influence on the oppressed masses of Western Ukraine, Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.” Let me draw your attention to the fact that the People’s Commissar for Education of the Ukrainian SSR was making a veiled comparison between the Russification of Ukrainians in Russia and the Polonization policy pursued by the Polish state with respect to the population of Western Ukraine, and the Romanization policy in Bukovyna and Bessarabia. The list did not include Transcarpathian Ukraine, as the Czech government did not promote assimilation of the population.

Skrypnyk’s note was considered in the Politburo of the CCCP(B)U. Kaganovich, Chubar, and Skrypnyk were instructed to edit the appeal and send it to the CC AUCP(B). The editing boiled down to the removal of claims to Ukrainian-dominated parts of the Northern Caucasus. Kaganovich knew that Stalin reacted to the line in the anthem of the Ukrainian National Republic, which refers to Ukraine’s borders extending from “the Sian to the Don,” like a bull to the color red. Together with the note Kaganovich sent a personal letter to Stalin, requesting that a closed meeting of the secretariat of the CCAUCP(B) consider the question of “transferring to the Ukrainian SSR the Ukrainian-dominated districts in Kursk and Voronezh gubernias in connection with the division of Central Chornozem oblast into raions.”

Official Kharkiv’s claims to the territories of the Russian Federation were rejected. In his book on the Soviet Union the American historian Terry Martin quotes a remark by Stalin that he found in the archives, which explains the Kremlin’s position: “We considered the issue twice in the Central Committee and left it without consequences. We have to be especially careful because changes like this provoke colossal resistance on the part of some Russians.”

The competition for territory had a positive impact on resolving an entirely different question: the Ukrainization of the Kuban. After all, Skrypnyk’s objective was to help Ukrainians in the Northern Caucasus preserve their language and culture. He was following the official policy of indigenization adopted by the party leadership in 1923.

Stalin understood that the policy of Ukrainization offered the Kremlin both advantages (enrooting of Soviet power) and disadvantages (national renaissance). However, because he had a vested interest, he supported this policy in every way, acting through Kaganovich and Skrypnyk. In the fierce struggle for power waged in the Kremlin in 1923-28, the support of the huge Ukrainian party organization was vital for him. The Ukrainian natives Leon Trotsky and Grigorii Zinovev (in 1924-34 the city of Kirovohrad was called Zinovevsk) did not receive such support. Stalin did.

Despite stubborn resistance from the authorities of the Northern Caucasus, which was triggered by the fear of having a second Ukraine on their territory, the Ukrainization campaign got off the ground. In December 1928 the Krai Party Committee adopted a three-year Ukrainization plan for 37 Ukrainian-dominated raions.

Nineteen raions slated for Ukrainization in the Kuban made up the core of the district. This is where Ukrainization exceeded the approved schedule, which was an unpleasant surprise for Stalin. After he gained full control of the composition of the Politburo of the CC AUCP(B), he no longer needed the support of the Ukrainian communists. If the Kuban was becoming a second Ukraine, it had to share the lot of the Ukrainian SSR.


In October 1925 Stalin dispatched an extraordinary grain procurement commission to the Northern Caucasus, headed by Kaganovich, who had served as secretary of the CC AUCP(B) for four years. The immense Northern Caucasus Krai consisted of 11 districts, which differed in terms of natural conditions, national composition, and economic structure. Thus, we must pay special attention to the task that was assigned to the commission by the secretary general. In the proceedings of the Politburo it was formulated in the following way: “The main task of the group of comrades mentioned above is to develop and carry out measures aimed at preempting sabotage of the sowing and grain procurement campaigns, organized by counterrevolutionary kulak elements in the Kuban.” This meant the Kuban district.

If this document does not sufficiently characterize the selectiveness of Stalin’s terror, it may be supplemented with a citation from Kaganovich’s Nov. 23 letter to the office of the Krai Party Committee in Rostov-on-Don: “The sowing should not be taken. Or the Caucasus in general. The northern part fulfilled the sowing plan. And it delivered grain better. All the emphasis should be on the Kuban...The raions in the Kuban must command your exclusive attention, especially the question of purges [within the party].”

Kaganovich was right in saying that the 10 districts of the territory had fulfilled the sowing plan and had less non-fulfillment of the grain procurement plan. But those who had set up the plans were guided by considerations known to them alone. For example, we cannot provide documentary evidence explaining why in 1931 Ukraine was the only crop-growing region to receive such an intensive grain procurement plan that in the first half of 1932 it led to 150,000 peasant deaths from starvation. We also do not have documents that would explain why the intensity of the 1931-32 plans for the Kuban was significantly higher than for other districts in the Northern Caucasus Krai. But there had to be a reason.

Even now we sometimes speak about the sabotage by collective farmers and individual farmers-still rare in 1932-33 — who refused to sow grain and were haphazardly tending to the crops. Acts of sabotage did take place, but we know the reason: the state had confiscated crops without any compensation. Acknowledging the economic disparity between the cities and villages, some historians justify the authorities’ actions this way: grain was sold abroad in exchange for the hard currency needed to pay for machinery and equipment, because without a high pace of industrialization the Soviet Union would have turned out to be helpless against external aggression. Grain was also needed, these historians say, to save the army and workers from starvation. After the state established a bread ration card system for the urban population, in 1932 it curtailed bread rations for large cities and completely removed small cities in many regions of the country from the delivery list. That is why the famine affected both the crop-growing regions, where all the grain was confiscated from collective farms, and similar regions, where centralized bread delivery was severely curtailed.

This reasoning is based on arguments produced by Stalin’s propagandists and which appeared convincing even to many of those who were starving at this time.

But today we can analyze the situation in the early 1930s more deeply and exhaustively. First of all, we know that the pace of industrial development was drastically reduced in the Second Five-Year Plan, which had helped overcome the economic crisis and positively influenced industrialization itself. Second, we can now see that grain procurement in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban was used as a cover to disguise actions of an entirely different nature. If the authorities needed grain, why would they confiscate French beans, millet, onions, beetroots, and all other nonperishable foods from peasants and Cossacks? The procurement plans, which were extremely unrealistic and thus unfeasible, were only a pretext to justify repressions that were manifested in the terror by famine (i.e., exhaustive requisitioning of all comestibles), mass arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals on charges of “bourgeois nationalism,” and harsh purges in the party organizations (the CP(B)U lost half its members).

The national (but not in the least ethnic) element in the Kremlin’s policy of terror is manifested particularly distinctly in the actions of Stalin’s accomplice Kaganovich in the Northern Caucasus. Immediately after arriving there, he assembled local leaders and suggested the following measures: to place three to five Kuban Cossack villages on a blacklist, conduct purges among administrative officials, leak information on their criminal cases to the press, and spread rumors about peasants who were coming from the North to settle on Kuban lands and who would do a better job of cultivating the fertile chornozem. On Nov. 4 Kaganovich sent Stalin the text of the resolution “On the Fulfillment of the Grain Procurement and Sowing Plans in Kuban Raions,” which was adopted by the office of the Krai Party Committee. Stalin amended the text and ordered it to be published in the local newspaper Molot [The Hammer].

Three Cossack villages (stanytsias )- Novorozhdestvenska, Medvedivska, and Temyrhoievska - were placed on the blacklist. On Nov. 5 Kaganovich spoke in Medvedivska (population: 24,000) openly declaring: “We will resettle in the North all those who are refusing to sow!” These words corresponded to events. In November, 51,600 people were exiled to the Far North from four Cossack villages (Poltavska, Medvedivska, Urupska, and Umanska) and 10,000 people from other villages.

Before Kaganovich’s arrival the Cheka arrested 5,000 communists in the Kuban. Among those arrested was M. Kotov, secretary of the party cell in Vidradna, Tykhoretsky raion. His crime was that he had ordered part of the grain owned by the collective farm to be distributed among households in order to prevent famine. The raion court reacted immediately by sentencing Kotov to 10 years’ imprisonment in concentration camps. Anastas Mikoian, a member of the Extraordinary Commission, did not like the verdict: “After the trial Kotov departed with the halo of a hero and martyr, who had suffered on behalf of the interests of the people.” The next day, on Kaganovich’s demand, Kotov and 15 members of his party cell were sentenced to be shot.

During November and December of 1932 and in 1933, 40,000 communists were affected by the purges in the Krai party organization. Thirty thousand party members fled the territory without canceling their party registration.

The actions of the Extraordinary Commission in the Northern Caucasus caused hundreds of thousands of deaths among Cossacks and peasants. But Stalin did not stop there.


On Dec. 10, 1932, the Politburo of the CC AUCP(B) discussed the issue of grain procurement in the Ukrainian SSR, Northern Caucasus, and Western oblast. The leaders of all these regions were present. Suddenly Stalin digressed from the topic and began to upbraid Skrypnyk, the main inspirer of Ukrainization in Russian regions, accusing him of links with nationalist elements. Based on the results of the meeting, the Dec. 14 decision of the Central Committee “On Grain Procurement in Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, and Western oblast” was adopted. It dwelled more on the Kremlin’s nationality policy than on grain procurement. This decision may be said to have marked the abandonment (but only in the case of Ukraine) of the nationality policy line proclaimed after the creation of the USSR at the 12th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (RKP(B)). A party line that had been legitimized by a party congress was cancelled by a secret decision of the CCAUCP(B).

This decision expressly linked the failure of the grain procurement plan with counterrevolutionary activity of kulaks, Petliurites, and supporters of the Kuban Rada (the Kuban’s analogue of the Central Rada). The decision called for the “drastic uprooting of counterrevolutionary elements by means of arrests and long-term deportation to concentration camps, without stopping short of capital punishment for the most malicious of these elements.”

The attention of the Northern Caucasus Krai party and executive committees was drawn to the fact that “irresponsible, non-Bolshevik “Ukrainization,” which was at variance with the cultural interests of the population and which affected nearly half of the raions in the Northern Caucasus, as well as the complete lack of supervision on the part of territorial agencies over the Ukrainization of schools and the press, had provided the enemies of the Soviet power with a legal form for organizing resistance to the Soviet authorities’ measures and tasks on the part of kulaks, officers, Cossack resettlers, members of the Kuban Rada, etc.”

This decision gave rise to the campaign against Skrypnykivshchyna [the policies endorsed by Skrypnyk] which in 1933 dragged into its vortex tens of thousands of representatives of the national intelligentsia. The task was to “immediately switch Soviet bodies, cooperative societies, newspapers, and magazines in the Ukrainized raions of the Northern Caucasus from Ukrainian to Russian, as being more understandable to Kuban residents, and to prepare and change the language of instruction in schools to Russian by the autumn.”

The population of the Kuban had enthusiastically welcomed Ukrainization. That was the secret of its success. But the terror by famine choked the voices of protest. During the 1939 all-Union census no one dared argue with statisticians, who had received perfectly clear instructions: to register all natives as Russians. Only those who had come from Ukraine declared themselves Ukrainians. In 1939 they constituted 4.3 percent and in 1959 and 1989-3.9 percent of the Kuban’s population. This is how the Ukrainian Kuban perished.


Like Ukrainian society itself, the contemporary press is fairly polarized. I tried to publish this article in a newspaper with a different readership from The Day’s. I failed.

I keep encountering a phenomenon that can be called “conscious incomprehension.” Our perception of numerous problems in Soviet history needs to be corrected in the light of already published documents. But many people flatly refuse to change their ingrained notions of the past. They feel more comfortable this way, and this is truly frightening because even though Stalin’s persecutions did not affect them personally, they are still victims. The persecutions probably affected their families and, to be sure, their country. There is no escaping the past. You need to remember it if only to prevent its return.

By Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, Professor of History