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Reuniting former empire

Why did Lenin hide his speech on the “Ukrainian question?”
01 June, 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day
(Continued from The Day No. 28)

Christian Rakovsky was the first to speak during the debate. Owing to the diplomatic talent he demonstrated as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Radnarkom) of the Ukrainian SSR, his old friendship with Leon Trotsky, and the confidence Lenin placed in him since the time of Iskra, he reached the status of a regional leader. Rakovsky started by commenting on Lenin’s speech: “Vladimir Ilyich has pronounced a winged phrase today, calling for becoming Borotbists. I understand this as his response to our imprudent policy in Ukraine.” In other words, Lenin tasked the wolves with donning the sheep’s clothing. By that time he had worked out a treacherous plan for the destruction of the UCP(B). This plan was carried out by Rakovsky and Dzerzhinsky with military precision in 1920, when the UCP(B) leaders were conferred prestigious awards while those who complained about the individual RKP(B) admission procedures were purged.

Rakovsky cited examples of that “imprudent policy” in 1918-19 that are worth quoting: “In our newspapers we must write carefully about Ukraine. When last year Izvestia of the All-Union Central Executive Committee [VTsIK] wrote that Comrade Petrovsky, appointed Secretary of the Ukrainian Central Executive Committee [TsIK], was visiting Kyiv, this, Comrades, is not the correct approach to Ukraine. The Chairman of the TsIK of Ukraine is not appointed but elected by Ukrainians. Likewise, when our frontline and other newspapers write ‘our Ukraine,’ ‘our Kyiv,’ this, Comrades, this is not the correct approach to Ukraine. Kyiv is Soviet, indeed, but we must avoid all that which is reminiscent of imperialistic aspirations.”

Andrei Bubnov, member of the Military Revolutionary Council of the 14th Army, who not so long ago chaired the Kyiv Gubernia Executive Committee, agreed with Lenin’s formula of the national political tactic. In Bubnov’s interpretation this tactic was as follows: “Comrade Lenin said that we have to play a giveaway game, that we must make maximum concessions to the nationalistic trends. This is right.” However, when Lenin demanded that he become a Borotbist, Bubnov replied, with a military straightforwardness that betrayed the hatred with which the Ukrainian tsekists [i.e., members of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Party] treated the rival Communist Party: “One ought to ask Lenin precisely what he has in mind when talking about Borotbists. Who do they represent? Are they representatives of the Ukrainian nation? They aren’t. They are a group of petty bourgeois intellectuals who don’t cut much ice with the Ukrainian masses.”

Volodymyr Zatonsky, one of the organizers of the CP(B)U, also agreed that the establishment of firm power in the republic depended on whether the Bolsheviks could act diplomatically: “I’m very glad that Vladimir Ilyich spoke today, partially for pedagogical reasons, to hammer into the heads of the Russian comrades what seems a simple and obvious fact concerning the correct attitude to the Ukrainian national movement.”

Zatonsky agreed with Lenin that this “correct attitude” was a system of concessions made in order to establish and assert Soviet power. However, unlike Lenin, he didn’t regard a normal attitude to the Ukrainian language as another such concession: “Ifyou travel to France or Poland and speak with French workers in French and with Polish workers in Polish, does this mean you are making a concession to them? Yet one appears to be making a concession to a Ukrainian muzhik by addressing him in Ukrainian. You can determine yourself, damn you, but I’m making a concession to you! This old habit of our comrades of regarding Ukraine as Little Russia, as part of the Russian empire, has been inculcated in you during hundreds of years of Russian imperialism.”

Yakov Drobnis, member of the CC of the CP(B)U, declared in a resolution of the CC of the RKP(B) that the “national issue is incredibly overplayed.” Like Bubnov, he saw Lenin’s policy of concessions on the national issue as a giveaway game, but didn’t consider it necessary: “Our confrontations with the Borotbists haven’t stopped to this day. Lenin believes that if he shows them a resolution with the national issue in the forefront — and in this resolution Ukrainian independence is mentioned not once but 21 times — then he will cheat these petty bourgeois Borotbists.”

Rakovsky and Zatonsky’s stand was determined by their high positions on the Soviet Ukrainian party hierarchical ladder. They wanted real concessions from the Soviet center [in Moscow]. In fact, Zatonsky was shocked by the very notion of concession. The stand taken by Bubnov and Drobnis as second echelon leaders was purely chauvinistic. It was not different from the tactic of illusory concessions openly proposed by Lenin, although Bubnov considered this position to be expedient whereas Drobnis believed the national issue to be a minor one.

To sum up the debate, let us consider what Dmytro Manuilsky had to say. Drobnis was the last to take the floor and he supported Manuilsky, who resented the accusation of local party functionaries of underestimating the national issue. He also pointed out that Lenin shouldn’t blame them because they were acting as rationally as the Center: “Let us hope that the conference will cleanse the Ukrainian [party] workers of the shame of independence that has haunted them. Comrade Manuilsky expressed this with sufficient eloquence.”

Manuilsky, professional revolutionary, Sorbonne graduate, was born in Ukraine and returned there after 1918, carrying out important missions assigned him by the CC of the RKP(B). He always acted in accord with the top level apparatchiks who tried to destroy Ukrainian statehood even in the straitjacket of a Soviet republic. In his speech during the debate, Manuilsky placed the emphasis on defending local party functionaries against undeserved accusations: “Our comrades, Ukrainian Communists, have been exposed to undeserved persecution for too long here in Moscow… A lot has been said about the damaging independentista trends of these Ukrainian comrades… We are being accused of these independentista trends…” Hard as one tries, however, one will not find that eloquence in these repeated statements for which Drobnis praised Manuilsky. There isn’t enough argumentation. Why undeserved persecution?

Lenin in his closing address showed a stormy response precisely to Manuilsky’s argument. It was left out by the compilers of the conference account and so Lenin’s speech became confusing, although there is a reference to a top secret document that Manuilsky dared divulge to point out that Lenin, rather than the abstract Center, was blaming them for independentista. If and when this document is found, then Manuilsky’s uncensored speech will prove to be eloquent. Meanwhile, Lenin had this to say: “All those who spoke about the national question — Comrades Drobnis and Bubnov and many others spoke about it — show by their criticism of the CC resolution that they are pursuing the very same policy of ‘independence’ we reproved the Kiev people for. Comrade Manuilsky is making a peculiar mistake in thinking that we accused them of independence in the national sense, in the sense of Ukrainian self-determination. We reproved them for their ‘independence’ in the sense of their not wanting to consider Moscow’s views, the views of the Central Committee in Moscow. The word was used jokingly and had a completely different meaning.”

There are two facts: Manuilsky argued that the Center undeservedly blamed the Ukrainian tsekists for independentista; Lenin countered that he didn’t blame the Kyivan (Ukrainian) tsekists for independence in the context of the national question. Therefore, one must find a document in the correspondence between the Center and Kyiv, in the first half of the 1919, with the keyword “independence” in the Russian text. This document does exist and the word “independence” cannot be interpreted as having been used jokingly. This is an official document, a telegram signed by three (out of five) members of the CC RKP(B) Politburo at the time: Lenin, Stalin, and Krestinsky, dated April 8, 1919. It reads: “If, as a concession to the independent trends, it is politically inevitable to leave for the time being independent commissariats [ministries] of military and naval affairs, communications, as well as logistics authorities in [some] brotherly Soviet republics, then a strict directive must be forwarded to the pertinent authorities, to the effect that these independent commissariats must operate exclusively in keeping with directives issued by the pertinent commissariats of the RSFSR, since this is the only way to achieve the required uniformity, quickness, and precision in carrying out all instructions and actions.” This telegram was followed by a meeting of the CC RKP(B) Politburo (April 28) that tasked the Ukrainian tsekists with working out terms and conditions of Ukraine’s amalgamation with Soviet Russia. By amalgamation they must have meant a merger of the key commissariats, later to be known as a military and political union of the republics.

Manuilsky shouldn’t have bothered about the directives of the first half of 1919. During the 8th Party Conference, Lenin, unlike others in his entourage, became convinced of the political expedience of reviving the Ukrainian SSR. The dangers of declaratory independence were now absorbed by both the centralized vertical party chain of command and the VTsVK decree on the military and political union of the republics. Conversely, this absorption by Russia gave second wind to those forces within Ukrainian society that were born of the revolution and sought to assert their true independence.

In his closing address Lenin had no choice but to lend the Russian notion of independence a somewhat different meaning. After the death of the Ukrainian SSR in the summer 1919 — a lesson he had learned well — he was seriously prepared to associate this notion with Ukrainian statehood and independence — but only insofar as the statehood and independence of the national republic remained Soviet, in other words compatible with the construction of a centralized commune-state. He had to maneuver between the overly straightforward stand of the Bolshevik party leadership on various hierarchical levels and the desire of the citizens of these national republics to retain their statehood, won in the course of the revolution. Perhaps he got carried away when convincing the conference delegates — for “pedagogical” purposes, as Zatonsky stressed — of the harmlessness of Bolsheviks transferring to the Borotbist platform. He may have had to be very frank to talk his confederates into making the state-building process look like an expression of the will of the masses of workers and peasants laid down in the Declaration of Rights of Peoples of Russia written by him (Nov.15, 1917).


The Bolsheviks had their means of organizing a “free expression of the will of the masses.” All those who took part in elections under the Soviets know this only too well. These means allowed not to interfere with the implementation of the right of the peoples to self-determination. And so, at a meeting of the CC Politburo, Nov. 21, 1919, Lenin withdrew his formula of a solution to the national problem (e.g., “…independent Ukrainian SSR in close federation with the RSFSR, as per 06.01.19”). He replaced it with a formula that tallied with the Declaration of Rights of Peoples of Russia, namely that the Ukrainian workers and peasants would decide their destiny. In an article for the Communist International Magazine (Dec. 16, 1919), this concept was expanded: “We must not be in the least surprised, or frightened, even by the prospect of the Ukrainian workers and peasants trying out different systems, and in the course of, say, several years, testing by practice union with the RSFSR, or seceding from the latter and forming an independent Ukrainian SSR, or various forms of their close alliance, and so on, and so forth.”

Finally, there is Lenin’s Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine Apropos of the Victories over Denikin (Dec. 29, 1919), with a great many copies spread among the population. Preparing Ukrainians for the 4th All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets, he repeated this key thesis: “It is therefore self-evident and generally recognized that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.”

The amalgamation-or-independence thesis, sired and reiterated by Lenin, wasn’t actually a dilemma. The leader of the proletariat simultaneously addressed the Ukrainian public and the central party apparat. For the Ukrainians, there was no dilemma; they wholeheartedly greeted the independence offered by the Bolsheviks. Nor did Lenin’s Parteigenossen see a dilemma in supporting the amalgamation idea without bothering to consider the prospects of building a commune-state with the national problem remaining unsolved. By portraying his thesis as a dilemma, Lenin paralyzed both the resistance of his inexperienced party comrades-in-arms and the national liberation movement. He had no intention of guaranteeing the real independence of the national republics, but he realized that formal independence had to be secured.

As Denikin’s troops retreated, a military force entered Ukraine. This time it was not met by the populace as an occupier. These officers and men brought on the tips of their bayonets the RKP(B) Resolution “On Soviet Power in Ukraine” and Lenin’s “Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine Apropos of the Victories over Denikin.” The Bolshevik leadership had the sense to discard their policy towards Ukraine in the first half of 1919, and publicly demonstrate their respect for the national sentiments of the Ukrainian people and its desire to have national statehood. At the same time, they demonstrated liberalism in the agrarian/peasantry matter, something absolutely at variance with the RKP(B) requirements in the construction of a commune-state. These party program requirements would be met by Yakovlev in a different historical period (1929-34).

Even such a veteran politician as Volodymyr Vynnychenko bought the RKP(B) resolution on Soviet power in Ukraine: “In this resolution the Russian communists adopt the stand of recognizing the importance of the national issue not only in principle, but also in reality, as a fact,” he wrote from immigration.

The declaration’s provisos on an independent Ukrainian SSR impressed the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary leadership. In February 1920, the CC of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) announced that they were putting an end to their struggle against Soviet Russia, that the authority of the Directory headed by Symon Petliura had exhausted itself, and that the parallel existence of the UNR and the “independent Ukrainian SSR” was damaging [to the cause of revolution]. Their statement pointed out the reasons behind this change of stand: “The Communists, after taking over political power, have declared a new national and social political course for Ukraine.”

Ukrainians started seeing the short-term Bolshevik rule in Ukraine, in the first half of 1919, in a new light after what they had experienced under Denikin’s regime. Grigory Zinoviev, representative of the CC RKP(B), spoke frankly to a group of like-minded delegates during the 5th All-Ukraine Party Conference (November 1920): “Denikin was restoring serfdom in Ukraine so blatantly, he took away so much, even from well-off peasants, that when he was chased away the public mood was better than at the beginning of the revolution. We would be fools not to take an advantage of the situation.”

Lenin took advantage of the anti-White-Guard syndrome to overcome the communist party apparat’s resistance. Red Army men became the heralds of Ukrainian statehood and distribution of the land on equal terms. At the same time, he regarded Russian military presence as an important guarantee of asserting Bolshevist dictatorship in Ukraine.

Russia’s military presence increased, notably because Ukraine was the main battlefield. In the spring of 1920, six Russian armies — the 4th, 6th, 12th, 14th, and the First Cavalry — were deployed in the republic. Together with engineers and special units, they numbered 1.2 million servicemen. This giant military force ensured the Kremlin’s control over the rebellious Ukraine. It allowed the Moscow and Ukrainian tsekists — who represented the same political force, with maximum centralization — to emerge as two different forces and make a treaty on a military and economic union, on Dec. 28, 1920. The Preamble solemnly proclaimed: “The Government of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, on the one hand, and the Government of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic on the other hand, proceeding from the right of peoples to self-determination, proclaimed by the Great Proletarian Revolution, in determining the independence and sovereignty of each of the Contracting Parties, being aware of the need to combine efforts to secure defense, acting in the interests of their economic construction, have decided to conclude the following workers and peasants’ Treaty…”

The authors thought the independence and sovereignty formula in the preamble wasn’t enough, so they supplemented it with another declaration in Article II: “The very fact of the territory of the Ukrainian SSR belonging to the former Russian empire does not imply any commitments with regard to anyone.”

This treaty made it possible for Rakovsky’s government to step up foreign political activities. In mid-January 1921, Emanuel Kwiring, representative of the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet-Polish peace talks in Riga, forwarded a memorandum to the CC CP(B)U, entitled “On Diplomatic Representations of the Ukrainian SSR.” He proposed to open full-fledged diplomatic missions in Poland, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Austria. The first treaty on diplomatic relations was signed with Lithuania on Feb. 14, 1921.

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