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Reuniting the former empire

Why did Lenin hide his speech on the “Ukrainian question?”
20 May, 00:00
(Continued from The Day, #26, April 29, 2010)

Lev Kamenev, while presiding over the commission tasked with looking into recommendations concerning “permanent and temporary forms of union between the RSFSR and other Soviet republics,” believed that the very existence of an independent Ukrainian SSR was inexpedient. Instead, he proposed an autonomic status within the Russian federation. Commission member Christian Rakovsky held a polarized view on the matter. He insisted that Ukraine, as a member of the Soviet Union, should be allowed to keep its previous status as an independent and sovereign republic. Obviously, the man was loath to see his own status as head of the Council of People’s Commissars (Radnarkom) of the Ukrainian SSR lowered by a single rung on the hierarchical ladder. But then Ukraine found itself occupied by Denikin forces and this disputable matter was no longer on the agenda.


Ukrainian statehood issue was once again on the agenda in the fall of 1919. The offensive of Leon Trotsky’s armies made them ponder over the possibility of restoring a state center in the republic. This initiative came from some members of the CP(B)U who had found themselves in Moscow after the death of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and united into the Ukrainian Communist Organization under the aegis of the Moscow RKP(b) Committee. On November 12 they composed a statement addressing the CC RKP(b), signed by Popov, Laryk, and Zorin. This statement was seconded by the presidium of that extra-statute organization, an ethnic CP(b)U community of sorts. They warned the RKP(b) leadership against treating events in Ukraine with models borrowed from Great Russia.

In the first half of 1919, these people constituted a minority in the Soviet Ukrainian party apparat. Vain were their protests against the Kremlin-imposed policy and party functionaries sent from Russia. Now they could appeal to RKP(b) big shots, pointing to the consequences of a glaringly stupid political course: “We owe the fiasco of the revolution in Ukraine largely to this insufficiently serious attitude to the specifics of Ukraine.” Using this failure as an argument, they wrote: “Now the matter at hand is who is actually constitutes the majority and minority in the Communist milieu in Ukraine. Failing to address this matter beforehand, having allowed it to be resolved by the next Congress of the Party, we now consider it necessary to address this Statement to the CC of the RKP, so as to draw all possible attention to this issue, so as to caution the RKP against taking erroneous steps in regard to Ukraine.”

A closer look at the statements above shows that those who drew them up were resolved, but that they also failed to clarify them. How is one to understand the Ukrainian communist milieu? Who constituted the majority and minority? What are the models borrowed from Great Russia? Could the RKP(b) leadership have figured out what these statements were all about?

Of course, they could have figured out everything, even without getting into specifics. The crux of all problems facing CP(B)U boiled down to the Ukrainian issue.

The Russian Social Democrats that eventually split up as Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Constitutional Democrats were all from Russia; these parties had grown on Russian political soil. Their members who operated in Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities gave little thought to the rest of Ukraine. That was why people from rural areas and Ukrainian intellectuals who basically shared their political views, would set up national parties rather than join theirs.

Social Democrats like Symon Petliura and Volodymyr Vynnychenko refused to join the Mensheviks and formed their own Ukrainian Social Democratic Party (USDP). The Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries refused to join the Russian party and formed their own UPSR. The Socialist Federalists, whose party platform was close to that of Russian Constitutional Democrats (popularly known as Kadety) also formed an independent party. These three influential Ukrainian political parties were the founding fathers of the Central Rada and formed the Ukrainian National Republic. Bolsheviks were the first to form the Ukrainian Communist Party, comprising foreigners and locals, from among the Russified Ukrainian cities. The Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine — CP(B)U — was part of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) — RKP(b) not only because of its organization, but also because of ethnic composition. There were few followers of Mykola Skrypnyk — people who would later be tagged as National Communists. However, in the first half of 1919, there were acute tensions within the CP(B)U, owing to the lack of attention to the national issue. Meanwhile, a considerable part of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries adopted the Communist stand, forming the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists) — UCP(B) — that started collaborating with the Bolsheviks. The Communists found another ally, the Borbisty, part of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia that operated in Ukraine and sided with the Communists.

The decisive tone set by the Ukrainian ethnic community in Moscow in dealing with the RKP(b) leadership was in accord with the sharp bend in the national policy, something they had pursued. The reason they had sought a merger of the CP(B)U and the UKP(B) was that the Borotbists, being ideologically identical to the Bolsheviks, had a strong foothold in the rural areas and were playing a major role in the insurgent movement. They regarded a united party as a Ukrainian center, saying, “The leading role in the restoration of Soviet power in Ukraine must belong not to the Moscow but to a Ukrainian center that would be closely connected with the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the Ukrainian lower strata.” They didn’t dispute the necessity of the Red Army’s offensive on Ukraine, but insisted that it had to look like military-technological aid to the Ukrainian revolution.

Popov et al., made one thing clear; what kind of a state the Bolsheviks wanted to build. Their statement read: “While taking a principled stand for very close relations among all the Soviet Republics — above all, Ukraine and Russia — we also believe that upholding coercive relations dating back to the autocratic Russian empire is not the road we should take if we wish to have truly strong unity. Without a doubt, we must put an end to that old inertia, sever old contacts — shattered as they have been by the events of the past two years. These have to be replaced by something new, something born of the Revolution. We are practically talking about forms of alliance that boil down to federation, on the principles of equality of all Soviet republics. There are practically only two such republics, so we’re talking about an agreement between two revolutionary centers.”

A reference source entitled “Politburo CC RKP(b)-VKP(b). Session Minutes” was published in 2000. Now we know what was the top leadership’s agenda. However, we don’t know the atmosphere. Thus, the session dated Nov. 14, 1919, had the item “Attitude toward Ukraine” on the agenda. There is little doubt that the Moscow Politburo failed to pay attention to processes in Ukraine, as demonstrated by its party functionaries — all of them in the Russian capital at the time! It was also evident from the self-condemning phrases in conclusion of that statement: “We consider it necessary to bring to the attention of the CC RKP the difficult situation that has developed within the Communist Party of Ukraine, is due to the glaring division of the Party on the abovementioned issues. In view of the comparatively small number of Ukrainian Communists in Moscow to date, a large percentage believe they can no longer work in accordance with directives issued by the Org. Bureau of the CC of the CPU. We have information that we deem absolutely genuine, to the effect that similar moods are present in Kyiv, Poltava, and other Ukrainian cities. We have on record cases of separate members and whole organizations siding with the Borotbists.”


It is anyone’s guess whether Christian Rakovsky attended the CC RKP(b) Politburo meeting on November 14. It is logical to assume that he did, considering his status as Ukraine’s number one Bolshevik functionary since the party’s domination of the country. Anyway, several days after that meeting, on November 19, he sent to Lenin his “Theses on the Ukrainian Issue,” about the need to restore the Ukrainian SSR as an independent state, albeit with its defenses and economy controlled by the Moscow center, as laid down in the All-Union Central Executive Committee’s decree of June 1, 1919.

Popov and Rakovsky’s proposals were similar in their key clauses. First, they recognized the presence of the Ukrainian issue and the need to resolve it. Second, the resolution of this issue was to be the restoration of the Ukrainian SSR. Then, however, there were essential distinctions. Popov et al. saw themselves in the ranks of a political force created by a merger, on equal terms, of the CP(B)U and UCP(B). This force was supposed to take over Ukraine, relying on [armed] peasant detachments that were conducting guerilla operations in the rear of Denikin’s troops. They expected Trotsky’s armies to provide only military and technological aid. Rakovsky, conversely, stressed the AUCEC decree on military and political alliance that would actually transform the restored Ukrainian SSR into a sequel to the RSFSR. Unlike the first half of 1919, when the Ukrainian Red Army was organized, the armed forces of both republics would merge into a single Red Army meant to clear Ukraine of the White Guard. Trotsky had to see to it that the Red Army men mobilized in Ukraine were deployed in various regions of the RSFSR, so that the Ukrainian garrisons would be manned by soldiers sent from outside Ukraine. The Kremlin could not allow the army to establish contact with the populace.

Records of the CC RKP(b) Politburo agendas read that a joint sitting of the Politburo and Organizing Bureau (Orgburo) of the CC took place on Nov. 20, with only one point on the agenda: organization of political power in Ukraine. Yefimenko published Popov’s statement at the CC RKP(b) Politburo (Nov. 21). This document makes it clear that the said sitting had the status of a conference of the party leadership and Ukrainian workers [functionaries]. Popov was present, but he wasn’t given enough time to substantiate the platform of the Ukrainian ethnic community in Moscow, hence the repeated statement. Some of those present at the conference (Popov, Rakovsky) insisted on the restoration of the Ukrainian SSR; others (Kamenev, Krestinsky, Dzerzhinsky) were for the republic’s autonomy — in other words, for denying it the rights of a state. This conference was to prepare the ground for a CC Politburo meeting planned for the next day, with just the Ukrainian issue on the agenda.

Unlike CC congresses and plenary meetings that were taken down in shorthand, all issues discussed by the Politburo meetings were on record only as final resolutions. However, there is enough evidence to form a reasonably accurate idea about the course of the debate during the historic CC Politburo meeting of Oct. 21, 1919. Among other things, there is Lenin’s draft document with corrections made in the course of debate. Its title reads “Draft Theses of the CC of the RKP(b) on Policy in Ukraine.” [Translated “Draft Resolution…” in some English sources. — Ed.]

The brief resolution of the Politburo of the CC of the RKP(b) “On Soviet Rule in Ukraine,” adopted after deliberating Lenin’s theses, turned out the underpinning principle of transforming the Russian empire into the Soviet Union. Assessing this resolution from the standpoint of the 21st century, it should be noted that Lenin succeeded in keeping the Soviet empire ticking for many decades at a time when traditional empires where falling apart. At first, it was a conglomerate of formally independent states and then a federative union of republics vested with statehood rights.

As previously mentioned, after the Bolsheviks came to power they followed Lenin’s advice and proceeded to organize “workers and peasants’ republics” distinct from “bourgeois” ones. Few rejected the possibility of such workers and peasants’ — i.e., Soviet — republics surviving the civil war. At the same time, the key RKP(b) functionaries were convinced that, after liquidating all those “bourgeois” republics, their Soviet clones had to be integrated into the RSFSR body politic with the status of national non-state entities. None of these functionaries could have pictured a different scenario – one of different peoples coexisting within a single state. Popov correctly accused them of wishing to “forcefully maintain the old relations established by the Russian empire.” The trend of turning the national republics into autonomies vividly manifested itself three years later, when in the absence of Lenin there arose the matter of creating a single state organism in the land of Soviets. The fact remains that in November 1919 Lenin left no chance for those who supported the idea of turning the Ukrainian SSR into an autonomic entity, in other words for its merger with the RSFSR.

In his “Draft Theses of the CC RKP(b) on Policy in Ukraine” Lenin took into account the central party apparat’s trend of making Ukraine an autonomic entity, so he allowed reflections on its merger with Russia. Nevertheless, he was sure that it was possible to build a state structure that would meet the controversial requirements of the national liberation movement, as represented by the Party of Borotbists and national communists within the Bolshevik midst, and the leadership of the centralized RKP(b). Understandably, a structure capable of meeting such controversial demands had to be fundamentally distinct from its form — just as it is understandable that this structure had to essentially conform to that of the centralized RKP(b), considering that this party, rooted in “democratic centralism,” was the brainchild of its founding father.

Lenin started his Theses by resolutely confirming the need to respect the language and traditions of the populace — in this case the Ukrainian people: “Since the many centuries of oppression have given rise to nationalist tendencies among the backward sections of the population, RKP members must exercise the greatest caution in respect of those tendencies and must oppose them with words of comradely explanation concerning the commonality of interests of the working people of Ukraine and Russia. RKP members on Ukrainian territory must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet institutions…” and so on. In his opinion, this requirement was an absolute must in creating Soviet statehood in its national form. Later, after the establishment of the Soviet Union, it would become the official political course, adopted by a party congress, and acquire formulas reflecting the essence and shape of the Soviet state-building process. The term Ukrainization, as all others, depending on ethnic territory, related to the shape, whereas the term korenizatsia (translating as “nativization” or “indigenization”) was common for all ethnic territories and boiled down to the assertion of Soviet rule.

Clause two in Lenin’s Theses determined his attitude to the issue of restoring the Ukrainian SSR through the combined efforts of the Borotbists and Bolsheviks: “Temporary alliance with the Borotbists to form a Center, prior to the Congress of Soviets, while launching full-scale propaganda for a complete merger with the R[ussian] S[ocialist] F[ederated] S[oviet] R[epublic]. For the time being, ind[ependent] Ukr[ainian] S[oviet] R[epublics], in close federation with RSFSR, b[ased] 1/VI.1919.”

Had Popov been present at that council of leaders, he would have been hard put to laugh or to cry. On the one hand, Lenin agreed to an alliance with the Borotbists — in other words, to the setting up of a Ukrainian political center meant to restore the Ukrainian SSR. On the other hand, he referred to this alliance as temporary, obviously planning to use armed Borotbist units in clearing Ukraine of Denikin forces.

There was also the proposal of sweet-talking the Ukrainian SSR into completely merging with the RSFSR. This, combined with clause one, actually meant making the Ukrainian SSR part of the RSFSR, with the status of an autonomous republic. Lenin wrote “flair” in the margin of the merger clause. A merger of this magnitude called for subtle brainwashing rather than [cumbersome official] propaganda.

Lenin crossed out the second paragraph of this clause in the course of debate, adding the following sentence in the margin: “Ukr. workers and peasants will determine their fate.”

The CC Politburo adopted Lenin’s draft as a basic document. Clause 2 was decided upon using this formula: “C.2 adopted provided that Ukraine and Russia federate, before the congress of Ukrainian Soviets, as per Politburo Resolution as of 1.VI.19, and that cautious party-controlled measures are taken to prepare plans for the merger of Ukraine and Russia.”

In the margin of the clause about a temporary alliance with the Borotbists, Lenin penciled his question: “Borotbists to be included in the Third International?” The Borotbists had actually applied for membership, expecting their Comintern membership to place their party on a par with the RKP(b). Lenin was prepared to grant their application, so as not to impede the talks on their participation in Soviet government, and [above all] on placing their guerilla units under Red Army Command. He had devised a plan aimed at liquidating this party and Comintern membership could not be a hindrance. Stalin and Kamenev supported Lenin’s idea of allowing the Borotbists to join the Comintern, yet the Politburo minority (Trotsky and Krestinsky) was opposed. In the end, they decided to hold back the final resolution to hear Grigory Zinoviev, then chairman of the Comintern’s executive. But the man wasn’t in attendance.

Lenin’s draft, with all amendments made in the course of debate, was then sent for finishing touches to a commission made up of Kamenev, Trotsky, and Rakovsky. This commission prepared the Politburo’s Resolution “On Soviet Rule in Ukraine.” This document consisted of seven clauses that described the Kremlin’s subsequent policy in Ukraine, including political union options to be adopted by Ukraine and Russia, [Moscow] policy in terms of Ukrainian culture, education, language, the tasks of Soviet [state-building] construction, and agrarian policy. The Bolshevik leadership announced their desire to ensure a free development of the Ukrainian language and national culture, to help poor peasants have the final say on all official executive levels, to assist in confiscating what was known as “surplusses,” but only on a strictly defined scope. Last but not least, no coercive measures were permitted in forming peasant cartels or communes. In other words, the Kremlin had discarded its policy in Ukraine that had helped overthrow Soviet rule there in the summer of 1919.

The organization principles were laid down in the first three clauses of the resolution “On the Attitude to the Working People of Ukraine Now Being Liberated from the Temporary Conquest of Denikin’s Bands”:

“In regard to the issue of our attitude to the working people of Ukraine being liberated from the temporary conquest of Denikin’s bands, the CC of the RKP(b) hereby firmly resolves:

“(1) The CC deems it necessary to reaffirm the RKP’s stand in recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian SSR, this being its policy of unswervingly implementing the national self-recognition principle.

“(2) Considering that every Communist, every conscientious worker is aware of the need to have the most solid Union of all Soviet republics in their struggle against the formidable forces of world imperialism, the RCP reaffirms its stand, that the form of this Union will be finally determined by the Ukrainian workers and working peasants.

“(3) At the moment, the relations between the Ukrainian SSR and the RSFSR are on a federative basis, in keeping with the resolutions of the All Union Central Executive Committee, of April 1, 1919, and those of the Central Executive Committee of Ukraine of May 18, 1919.”

The Central Committee, elected by the 8th Party Congress, consisted of 19 members, including Rakovsky and eight candidates, among them two Ukrainians: Artyom (Feodor Sergeyev’s party alias) and Andrei Bubnov. The CC plenary meeting that took place on Nov. 29 adopted the resolution “On Soviet Rule in Ukraine.” On Nov. 30, Moscow hosted a meeting of CP(B)U functionaries. They deliberated the resolution. It would erroneous to state that the CP(B)U leadership unanimously opposed the abovementioned resolution. In fact, its resolution-cum-declaration, voted for by eight vs. five members, pointed to an overly strong emphasis on the national issue. Obviously, many party functionaries who had retained their posts in Ukraine until the summer of 1919 were scared by the [Moscow] Center’s new national political course. Although the resolution didn’t mention the UCP(B), they understood the Kremlin’s concern about the Ukrainian issue as the rival party’s attempt to reinforce its positions.


On Nov.2-4, 1919, Moscow hosted the Eighth All-Russia RKP(B) Conference. Lenin had been meaning to address it, to explain the issue of Soviet rule in Ukraine. Other items on the agenda had been determined beforehand, while the CC resolution on the Ukrainian issue was adopted 48 hrs before the conference was called to order — and so this issue was placed on the agenda as miscellaneous, with Yakov Yakovlev (a.k.a. Jacob Epstein) as the presenter.

Yakovlev later made himself known as one of the key architects of Stalin’s collectivization campaign (1929-34), as Soviet Russia’s People’s Commissar [i.e., Minister] of Land Affairs. He found himself posted to Ukraine in the spring of 1917, then aged 21, as secretary of Katerynoslav’s city Bolshevik party committee. Later he worked in the Bolshevik underground in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Toward the end of 1919, he was placed at the head of the CP(B)U gubernia committee in Katerynoslav.

Yakovlev never beat around the bush when he declared: “There are two considerations in favor of the issue on the agenda. First, there is the Russki imperialism and nationalism — or Petliurite nationalism and chauvinism, in the reverse order, which we can often find after searching some of our worker’s desks and lockers. Second, there is an absence, during the time of our operations in Ukraine, of an established, balanced political course that would make it possible for every RKP member to receive certain directives.” Understandably, the party functionaries in Ukraine were supposed to receive recommendations [from Moscow] as to how best to follow this party line and overcome that “Petliurite nationalism” and “Russki imperialism.”

Yakovlev, with his three years of work in Ukraine [as a Bolshevik party dignitary], believed the biggest threat would be the Center ignoring the Ukrainian issue. He explained the Bolshevik debacle in the summer of 1919 not by the White Guard’s effective combat operations, but by Denikin having suffered an instant defeat after directing the bulk of his forces to Moscow, after exiting Ukraine. He believed the main reason was that Ukrainians had turned away from Soviet rule. He explained the reason in his own simple way: “A huge mass of workers from Russia, which is uncontrollable, which can’t be screened in any way in the provinces and in the center, has poured out, like locusts, filling every pore of the Soviet organism, in the pursuit of [Russia’s] chauvinistic policy in Ukraine.”

Yakovlev’s presentation brought the delegates up to speed. RKP(B) CC admitted that their previous stand on Ukraine’s socioeconomic and national policy was wrong. Their resolution on Soviet rule in Ukraine determined the new political guidelines. The resolution was adopted, subject to no further deliberation. Implementing it was the problem. It was necessary to explain to the local party functionaries — the local centrists in the first place — that the very structure of Soviet rule implied the possibility of the best effective democratic national policy, while at the same time establishing total control over a given territory and populace.

Yakovlev said what he wanted to say. So did Lenin as head of the ruling party. There is the good old truth: Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi — what is permitted Jupiter is not permitted to a cow. In this case, however, it had to be reversed. Yakovlev could afford statements about “Russki imperialism” to remain in the minutes of the conference, while Lenin had to make sure his presentation would be off record.

What he had to say was determined by the topic, just as the resolution on Soviet rule in Ukraine could be regarded as its synopsis. Relying on some of the delegates’ eyewitness accounts, it is possible to reconstruct Lenin’s speech — at least its general tone and vocabulary — to picture the position held by the RKP(B)U functionaries on home turf.


(To be continued in one of the next issues)
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