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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

Reclaiming the Motherland

Unfinished Ukrainization: the roots of an historical drama
10 June, 2008 - 00:00

Continued from The Day, no. 18

It was only in 1919, after bitter losses, that the formally sovereign Ukrainian SSR was proclaimed. In December 1919 the 8th conference of the Russian Communist Party (RKP) passed a resolution acknowledging its independence and adopted a special resolution "On the Soviet Government in Ukraine," which stated: "RKP members in Ukraine should realize in practice the right of the working masses to study their native language and speak it in all Soviet institutions, counteracting in every way attempts by artificial means to force Ukrainian into the background, while striving, on the contrary, to turn the Ukrainian language into a tool of communist education of the working masses. Immediate measures must be adopted to ensure that all Soviet institutions have enough Ukrainian- speaking employees and that in the future employees will be able to speak Ukrainian." Thus, according to this document the party's task regarding Ukraine's national problems boiled down to the use of the native language, which artificially reduced their substance.

At this time, the ranks of the CP(B)U were expanding thanks to members of Ukrainian political parties who had switched to the Soviet government platform and were active champions of Ukraine's national development. High-ranking positions in the CP(B)U and Soviet government bodies were filled by such former members of the Central Rada as Oleksandr Shumsky, Mykhailo Poloz, Moisei Rafes, a representative of the Bund Party in the Central Rada, and the Borotbists (members of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party) Hryhorii Hrynko, Vasyl Ellan-Blakytny, and others. Together with some former communist members of the Central Rada, they pressed for the need to satisfy the social and national aspirations of the Ukrainian nation and initiated the revival of Ukrainization.

On Feb. 21, 1920, the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee (VUTsVK) adopted the resolution "On the Use of Ukrainian on a Par with Russian in All Institutions," specifying that Russian was not accorded any advantages. At the same time, the free development of Ukrainian, the native language of the majority of the population, was not concretely guaranteed either. All state institutions had to accept applications and other documents in either language, and those who did not could be held legally responsible. In practice, however, a mere 12 out of 90 newspapers published in the Ukrainian SSR in 1920 came out in Ukrainian. Record keeping and even correspondence between the Commissariat of Education and the Ukrainian government were conducted in Russian.

On Sept. 9, 1920, a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CP(B)U considered the draft law "On Ukrainization" (it is noteworthy that this term first appeared in a joint document of the Communist Party and the Soviet government). Owing to its excessively declarative character, the draft law was sent back for further elaboration with a number of comments, one of which pointed out that those institutions which dealt directly with the population had to have Ukrainian-speaking staff.

On Sept. 15, 1920, the former Borotbist Ellan-Blakytny, the well- known spokesman of Ukraine's national revival under the Soviets, who joined the CP(B)U in 1920 and was the head of the Ukrainian State Publishing Company and later the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Visti VUTsVK , wrote a memo entitled "How Should the 'Ukrainization' of Ukraine Begin." Stressing the importance of the actual parity of languages in Ukraine, he argued for the wide use of Ukrainian in all state bodies. In particular, he suggested that "in order to overcome the disdainful attitude to Ukrainian on the part of many average Soviet employees...an order needs to be issued with at least a preliminary deadline by which they will have to learn Ukrainian."

Ellan-Blakytny also proposed the publication of textbooks and Ukrainian dictionaries, insisting on the need to improve the work of the press, which remained "a great tool of Russification," and the need to Ukrainize literature, where "the tendencies of obstinate, universal Russification are still alive." In Blakytny's view, it was crucial that government and party positions be occupied by Ukrainians. From September 1920 the term "Ukrainization," which had been introduced by the Central Rada, began to be used in the party and government structures of Soviet Ukraine.

It is noteworthy that a number of Soviet officials sought to interpret the content of Soviet Ukrainization more widely than was outlined in official documents. For example, Mykola Skrypnyk defined it as "the activities of the party and the government, guided by the party to organize the Ukrainian people, which was oppressed before the October Revolution, and the working masses into a workers' and peasants' state, thereby ridding them of their former oppressed status, and to develop culture, elevating it to new heights on the path to socialist construction." This means that Skrypnyk included in the process of Ukrainization state building in its Soviet form, and he sought to take advantage of this policy in order to expand the scope of the rights and functions of the Ukrainian SSR. In resolutions passed by party and government forums Ukrainization boiled down to cultural and civic events that were supposed to facilitate the harnessing of the people's powerful longing for a national revival in order to strengthen the Soviet system. Meanwhile, the central authorities did not allow this process to get out hand and imposed restrictions that were desirable to the regime.

But even in this truncated form, as compared to the Central Rada's policy, Ukrainization in the 1920s stimulated national cultural development and had a positive impact on various aspects of social life. It helped bridge the gulf between the party-government apparatus and the Ukrainian people and involve Ukrainians, at least to some extent, in Soviet forms of state administration. Favorable circumstances were created for the spread and development of the Ukrainian language, science, education, and the Ukrainian culture. Ukrainization during this period helped, albeit in a limited way, ethnic Ukrainian employees to prepare and apply for various positions. It was supported by large sociopolitical forces, which placed high hopes on Ukrainization.

It should be noted that the term "indigenization" ( korenizatsiia ) to describe the policy that was being implemented in the Ukrainian SSR in the 1920s does not reveal the specific content, special features, and main thrust of this process in Ukraine. The reason for this is that we are talking about attention to the development and spread of the Ukrainian language , not some other language, and the advancement of specifically Ukrainian culture in the interests of the Soviet government, etc. Furthermore, the term "Ukrainization" was in official use by the Central Rada since 1917, and after 1920 it gained currency in the Ukrainian SSR. Thus, it significantly predated the term "indigenization."

Another component of Ukrainization, particularly in the 1920s, was the facilitation of the development of national minorities among which the Soviet government also tried to carry out "indigenization." In the course of implementing this policy, support for these minority cultures had to be coupled with efforts to raise their awareness of and respect for the culture of Ukraine's majority population with which they co-existed.

Meanwhile, there was no question of de-Russification or de-Polonization neither at the time of the Ukrainian Revolution nor in the Soviet era. All minorities were to be guaranteed opportunities for national-cultural development in terms of language and culture, concurrently with the mastery of the Ukrainian people's spiritual wealth. In the 1920s this trend was manifested in the creation of cultural-educational institutions and territorial units in places densely populated by national minorities. For example, in 1927 the territorial units of the Ukrainian SSR included the Moldavian ASSR, 12 national districts, and 899 national village councils (8.2 percent of the total number), including 312 Russian councils, 228 German, 138 Polish, 117 Jewish, 44 Bulgarian, 30 Greek, 14 Moldavian (outside the autonomous republic), 13 Czech, 2 Belorusian, and 1 Swedish.

In the 1920s it was also essential for the Soviet government to limit extreme manifestations of militant Russian chauvinism in the Ukrainian SSR and other republics. This was linked, above all, with the desire to neutralize Russians, primarily from wealthy circles, who, just like the Russian Orthodox Church, were hostile to the Soviet government and tried to hinder its activities. Top-ranking officials in Moscow tried to implement this policy in a balanced way, careful not to harm the interests of the centralized union state and keep Ukrainization within the largely cultural domain.

Therefore, while the terms "de- Russification" and "indigenization" do not reflect all the aspects of these policies in the 1920s, the "Ukrainization" does. This term, which was first introduced by the Ukrainian Central Rada, was later employed by the Soviet government, although in a narrower sense. The processes that occurred in the 1920s are thus best described by the term "Soviet Ukrainization."

Eager to prevent excessive Ukrainization in the Ukrainian SSR, Stalin thought it necessary to keep it within certain bounds. Therefore, in the early 1920s he appointed to the Ukrainian party's Central Committee "two to three people who spoke Ukrainian, while the rest were Russians." On various occasions he sent his representatives to Ukraine, who were armed with the task of counteracting vigorous Ukrainization. This approach stimulated the activities of those forces that were aptly satirized in 1929 by Mykola Kulish in his comedy Myna Mazailo . One of the characters in this play, Aunt Motia, declares that "it is preferable to be raped than Ukrainized."

Soviet Ukrainization began as a necessary measure to enhance the legitimacy of the ruling party and strengthen the ties between the government and the indigenous population. Supported and spurred by the mass Ukrainian movement and progressive circles of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, it acquired greater proportions than the powers that be desired.

From its official introduction in the 1920s, the policy of Ukrainization was implemented unevenly. Some of its stages were vague in terms of content, methods of implementation, and results. It was constantly necessary to break down resistance from Union structures and their henchmen, who sought at all costs to keep it within centrally determined limits. There were also counteractions on the part of those who failed to understand the essence of national culture and Ukrainian aspirations. Among them was the so-called theory of the struggle of two cultures, according to which the Ukrainian culture was considered "backward" and "dying off." In the same vein Ukrainization was called "Petliurization" and counterrevolution, etc. By and large, Soviet Ukrainization was much more limited than the process that had been initiated by the Central Rada in 1917, although it had a progressive character until the early 1930s.

Ukrainization helped the national language and the entire culture gain certain support and development from the state. By the end of the 1920s nearly 80 percent of schools had switched to Ukrainian as their language of instruction, which, incidentally, did not hinder high-school graduates from enrolling in institutions of higher education or working in various areas of the economy and culture, in or outside the borders of Soviet Ukraine. On the contrary, their education was well-rounded and broader as a result of the inclusion of the scientific and cultural heritage of their own and other nations, eventually making them better equipped from the educational point of view.

Millions of illiterate people, who comprised the majority of the adult population at the time, learned to read and write in their mother tongue, Ukrainian. The government introduced general compulsory education and, later, general primary education. The number of students increased by 3.4 times, and the Academy of Sciences was revived and began to develop rapidly. Nearly 90 percent of newspapers and over 50 percent of books were published in Ukrainian.

A renaissance also took place in other areas of Ukrainian culture. Artists' creative explorations were embodied in numerous high-quality productions in literature, theater, music, cinematography, applied art, and folklore, as well as in the activities of a variety of literary associations.

During the period of Ukrainization, government and party institutions largely switched to Ukrainian as their working language. The proportion of Ukrainians in the ranks of the CP(B)U rose from 23 percent in 1923 to 52 percent in 1927 and among government officials, from 35 to 54 percent.

Soviet Ukrainization was a factor in Ukraine's national and cultural advancement and, contrary to the will of Moscow, it was a bona fide continuation, albeit a limited one, of the Central Rada's policy.

It also played an important role in raising the national consciousness and dignity of the Ukrainian people. This alarmed a number of Soviet leaders, who eventually decided to put an end to it, convinced that Ukrainization had reached its goals.

The further strengthening of the centralized government and Stalinist command-bureaucratic methods was incompatible with the overly dynamic development of the national culture and the desire of progressive circles in the Ukrainian republic to expand Ukraine's sovereign rights, if only within the USSR.

Accelerated industrialization and its de facto failure in the first Five- Year Plan, forced collectivization, the 1932-1933 Holodomor, widespread resistance to such an unrealistic policy, and a fear of responsibility for these shameful failures spurred the Stalinist government to put a brutal end to Soviet Ukrainization and institute a reign of terror against citizens who had committed themselves to building the political, economic, and spiritual-humanistic potential of the nation. This stalled the national, cultural, and social advancement of our people in the 1930s and largely transformed the Ukrainian renaissance launched by the Central Rada in 1917 and partially continued in the 1920s into the so-called "Executed Renaissance." The term "Ukrainization" was taken out of circulation in the many years that followed, and the process that it denoted could not even be mentioned.