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Reuniting former empire

Why did Lenin hide his speech on the “Ukrainian question?”
29 April, 00:00

On April 22, 2010, Ukraine ought to recall that it is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who played a role in the Ukrainian people’s history, which we cannot pass by in silence.

The November and December of 1919 is a fateful moment in our history, associated with the name of Lenin. It was the time of a third, now successful, attempt to establish Soviet power in Ukraine. Lenin had worked out a number of measures aimed at turning the Red Army, which was entering Ukraine after defeating Gen. Denikin’s troops, from an occupying into a liberating force. A document titled “On Soviet Power in Ukraine” and drawn up under the Leader’s direct guidance became pivotal in transforming the tsarist empire into one of Soviets.

The transformation of Soviet power, which had been born in Russia, into its national variety, was incomprehensible for the Bolsheviks who were winning the Civil War against the White Army. Lenin had to speak at the 8th All-Russian Party Conference to explain the CK RKP(b) resolution “On Soviet Power in Ukraine.” The text of the Leader’s speech has never been made public. However, we have so many related documents at our disposal that we can reconstruct this speech and take an inside look at how a new-type multiethnic empire, universally known as the Soviet Union, was being conceived.


The proceedings of the 8th All-Russian Party Conference were immediately printed in issues No. 10 and 11, 1919, of the journal Izvestiya TsK RKP(b) and in the first 1920 issue (No. 12). This means Lenin himself decided that his speech should not be printed. This raises the question what was behind this decision of the party leader. To assess the unusualness of his decision, one should know his attitude to his own texts.

Various people recalled that Lenin was confident that his activities were of a global scale. This confidence is convincingly proved by Lenin’s own behavior. The complete set of his works and Lenin’s Collections comprise an infinite number of draft speeches, memos, brief instructions to his subordinates, questions to people’s commissars during governmental meetings, etc. The Leader’s close attention to these rough copies, which he would carefully gather and keep, unmistakably shows the great importance that he attached to each of his words.

Towards commemorating Lenin’s centenary, the Kyiv branch of the CPSU Central Committee’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism published a two-volume collection of works, V.I. Lenin on Ukraine. This book comprises absolutely everything that can be associated with Ukraine. Leafing through the two ­vo­lumes, we will find no big-size items devoted exclusively to Ukraine. Given the importance of what the Bolsheviks called “Ukrainian question” by a pre-revolutionary tradition (it was in fact about their attitude to the Ukrai­nian Revolution), one can maintain that the Leader delivered a high-profile – by content as well as by size – speech to the top Party functionaries. Guided by some still unknown considerations, Lenin did not allow publishing this document of exceptional political importance.

In 1934 the Party Publishing House published the proceedings of the 8th All-Russian RKP(b) Conference as a separate book. The editors say in the preface: “The verbatim report of one of Lenin’s main speeches – his report ‘On Soviet Power in Ukraine’ – could not be found among the conference proceedings. The absence of this exceptionally important document leaves behind quite a wide gap.” This book also recalls Lenin’s “lost letter” on page 263: “Comrade Yakovlev’s report on Soviet power in Ukraine was followed by a speech of Comrade Lenin, which aroused immense interest. His speech was mainly devoted to the struggle for a socialist revolution in Ukraine, which can only be achieved by way of a correct policy towards the basic masses of the Ukrainian peasantry and a correct nationalities policy.” Trite phrases meant that the editors had never seen the text of this speech, and the note ends with the words: “The shorthand report of the speech has not been found.”

The editors of the collection V.I. Lenin. Unknown Documents. 1891—1922, published in 1999 by Rossiyskaya Politicheskaya Entsyklopedia (ROSSPEN), say in the abstract that “the book consists of Lenin’s all important documents that were not published in the Soviet period of history.” They note in the preface that 600 of Lenin’s documents, which were closely guarded as an official secret at the Central Communist Party Archive or were not published for ideological consi­derations, were declassified in 1990–91. The absence of Lenin’s speech in the 1999 book means that its publication would be at variance with the official interests of modern-day Russia.


The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an unopposed disintegration of the party which Lenin had turned into an instrument of power as well as of the outer (countries of Central and Eastern Europe) and inner (USSR republics) Soviet empire built by this party and of the socioeconomic system known as socia­lism. Historians got an opportunity to give a more unbiased assessment of the governmental system invented by Lenin. Whenever the subject of study has the beginning and the end, it is easier to study it. Besides, this makes it possible to study the historical ­me­mory it has left behind.

The older generation of Ukrainian citizens, who know best about Soviet power, is divided into two parts. One of them feels nostalgic about the Soviet era and is taking a re­verent attitude to the system that dominated at the time. Even now, the word-combination “Soviet power” and the word “Soviets” are sometimes spelt with a capital letter in Ukrainian and Russian, which runs counter to the spelling rules of these languages.

Older-generation people had no reason why they should have conflicted with the authorities. The latter was bringing them up, inspiring pride in a country which they turned into a superpower, and provided everybody with education, employment, and housing. The system lavishly spent its gold and hard currency reserves on purchasing foreign foodstuffs when it turned out that collective farms were unable to deliver the goods. The system even took pains to remedy upset ­fa­mily relations and forcibly cure people of alcohol abuse.

There is no irony in these words, for it is a true picture. None of us, except for a small number of dissidents, could tell paternalism from democracy, all the more so that all our constitutions were democratic all the way through. We did not know what mass-scale repressions are. If someone was too free-thinking, the competent authorities offered a polite edifying conversation, which was, as a rule, sufficient. If it was not sufficient, a person could be isolated, without any political charges leveled, in, for example, a madhouse. Could a “normal” individual have opposed Soviet power?

Something could disturb the peace of mind, such as the 1933 manmade famine or the Great Terror of 1937. But it was something imperceptible which had occurred before we were born and of which our parents and grandparents could tell us within the family circle.

Naturally, we had parents and grandpa­rents. Or could have had… My grandmother told me that her husband, who worked at a small Odesa print shop, had died of lead poisoning in 1933. Yes, there was precisely this record in the death certificate. But when I researched into the Holodomor, I learned that print shops had been stripped of centralized bread supplies. Grandmother did not say about this because she could not do so – officially, there was no famine. Father was arrested in 1937, when I was a few months old. He turned out to be an enemy of the people, but this, too, was a taboo subject. So I had no complaints against the governmental system. I can understand my peers who still do not have this kind of complaints – not all of them are professional historians.

On the contrary, anti-Soviet sentiments were and still are rife among the residents of western Ukraine. Over there, mass-scale repressions, as part of the Sovietization effort, lasted for about fifteen postwar years and left an imprint on the memory of many. What is more, there was no barrier there between the generation of the repressed and that of Soviet school products. It was a different era in the making, when parents did not fear for their children and themselves when they engaged their children into “anti-Soviet propaganda.” What perhaps also mattered was the scale of repressions in the western regions: half a million of the repressed against eight million of the population.

We can see that Soviet power had two faces. When it pursued the goal of Sovietizing the society, its face was repressive. When society was becoming Soviet, the face was paternalistic. To understand this flexibility, one should take a closer look at Soviet power as created by Lenin.


In the mid-19th century Western Europe was swept over by a wave of revolutions in the course of which a traditional society began to transform into a civil one. The Russian Empire, still dominated by a medieval autocratic system, assumed the functions of Europe’s policeman. After a resounding defeat in the Crimean War, the new Tsar Alexander II launched some socioeconomic reforms, still leaving the autocratic rule intact. The revolution caught up with tsarism as late as 1905. The October political strike gave rise to germs of the Soviet and parliamentary forms of power as an alternative to autocracy. Under the pressure of the Russian cabinet head Sergei Witte, Nicholas II signed on October 17, 1905, the manifesto “On Improving the System of Government,” in which he “granted” the people political freedoms and limited his own power by instituting a parliament – the lawmaking State Duma. On his part, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin called for turning the all-Russian political strike into an armed uprising, in the course of which he intended to establish a network of workers’ councils at all, including the national, levels. In his view, his own party, which he considered the working-class vanguard, was supposed to nominate the desirable candidatures and to withdraw the undesirable ones. This meant that the governing bodies were to be formed by will of a poli­tical party that dictated, as a monopolist, its own candidatures rather than by will of the voters who delegated their representatives to the councils (“soviets”).

Lenin stressed more than once that power is to be taken instead of being received in a competitive struggle with other parties in parliament. In both Petrograd and Kharkiv, Soviet power was proclaimed in 1917 by the council deputies who represented a small minority of the population that sided with the Bolsheviks. And when the Bolshevik party seized power, one of its important functions was the so-called “Soviet construction,” i.e., establishment of a network of Bolshevik-controlled councils.

The Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, adopted in July 1918, confirmed the following structure of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets: city council representatives on the basis of one member per 25,000 voters and gubernia council congress representatives on the basis of one member per 125,000 residents. Lenin emphasized that there could be no equality between the workers’ and the peasants’ deputies as long as the peasant is a laborer and an owner at the same time. The Bolsheviks were trying to create communism, a society without private property.

While in Russia workers enjoyed a fivefold advantage over peasants in the councils, in Ukraine both workers and peasants had ten times fewer representatives than Red Army men did during the election campaign in the first half of 1919. The explanation is in what distinguished the Ukrainian peasants and workers from the Red Army men: the former were locals and the latter mainly outsiders. The outsiders a priori could not be associated with the national liberation movement.

Richard Pipes, a US expert on Russian history, characterized the essence of Soviet power as follows: political power in the country formally belonged to hierarchically-organized and democratically-elected soviets, but the soviets were in fact only a facade to conceal the true sovereign, the Communist Party. However, in reality, Lenin created a system of public administration – RKP(b)-Soviets – which was more perfect than a structure with a deceptive facade. Its elements (Party committees and councils’ executive committees) in every hierarchal link were integrative but they performed different functions: Party committees exercised dictatorship, while council executive committees were vested with administrative functions. Owing to this division of functions, the Party wielded a political clout but was relieved of any responsibility for day-to-day governance. Although deprived of political clout, the Soviets enjoyed the full measure of administrative power. The soviets thus wielded all-pervasive and all-embracing power that was inseparably merged with the Party’s organizational structure. The Party itself (its nomenklatura, to be more exact) became a governmental structure, though it left its previous appearance intact. The Bolsheviks’ political vocabulary did not include such thing as “governmental party.” The word “governmental” only applied to the Soviet-based vertical power.

The governing tandem faced Communist Party members with its Party-related component. As the Party rested on the principles of “democratic centralism,” which meant strict subordination of the lower levels of governance to the higher ones, the leaders did not depend on the choice of rank-and-file Party members, although the latter regularly elected the governing bodies in line with statute requirements. The Communist Party — Soviets tandem faced the common people with its soviet-related component. The populace not only elected members of the Soviet bodies of power but was also vested with real administrative or controlling functions. Nobody questioned the common people’s nature of this power also because this power selected its ruling cadres from among the “lower strata.”

The dictatorship of the RKP(b)-Soviets system was based not only on violence but also on propaganda. Influencing and persuading the masses was the main task of Party committees’ agitprop sections. Close links with the populace made it possible to muster millions of people for meeting the set targets. The soviets, which incorporated hundreds of thousands of representatives of the urban and rural proletariat, became an effective “conveyor belt” between the ruling Party bodies and the populace. The Bolsheviks would not have managed to radically restructure the deepest foundations of everyday life unless they had maintained organizational, ideological, and emotional contacts with the masses.

What was the relationship between the Lenin-invented system of power and other political systems? The transition to a civil society, initiated by the Great French Revolution and the US War of Independence, got a second wind at the turn of the 20th century, when traditional-type empires began to collapse under the influence of World War I. Yet, as political power was being transformed, some countries saw establishment of the totalitarian mutations of the democratic forms of ruling. While democracy meant domination of society over the state, totalitarianism was characterized by domination of the state over society.

In traditional societies, people were subjects of the monarch rather than citizens. But societies of this kind were cemented by estate-related divisions to a greater extent than by the bureaucratic machine that implemented the monarch’s will. The qualitative leap forward in industrial development, which occurred in the second half of the 19th century, and the First World War drastically increased the role of the state apparatus in the life of every individual and the entire society.

In most cases, however, this role was increasing simultaneously with that of civil society institutions. Under these conditions, a powerful state presented no danger to its citizens. But the country, in which the Bolsheviks seized power, saw the establishment of the absolute omnipotence of state institutions. The Bolshevik-style communist socialism was characterized by not only the absolute domination of the state over society but also the deep penetration of state institutions into the thick of society. The former Russian Empire received a political system which cemented – with an iron fist of terror, propaganda, and education – the state and society into an integrated body, a state-society of sorts. Soviet power gave its name to a country, a people, a way of life, and a culture.

The two existing and mutually-penetrating verticals of power separated the form of Soviet power from its essence. By its constitution, it was the power of workers and peasants, but by its inner essence, it was a totalitarian regime independent of the free expression of people’s will. Foreign observers viewed Soviet administrative bodies as only a facade that hid the dictatorship of Party committees. But, in reality, Soviet power was a twofold political body whose components could not exist in isolation from each other. Separated functionally, the two verticals of power were in fact dissolved in each other on a personal level. Lenin emphasized in 1921: “As a ruling party, we could not but merge the Soviet ‘tops’ with the Party ‘tops’ – they are merged and will remain as such.”

Vested with dictatorial powers, the RKP(b) first allowed remnants of democratism, typical of political parties, to exist in everyday party life. In particular, delegates to a party congress were chosen in a tough competition. These elections were usually held in a democratic spirit. The congress was considered the party’s supreme body because it elected the Communist leadership. There could be political debates in the party. The leaders could influence the outcomes of debates by force of their moral authority rather than by means of apparat-designed schemes. Thus, under dictatorship, everyday party life was gradually losing the signs of the so-called “workers’ democracy.” The RKP(b) Central Committee, which had concentrated real power in its hands, tried to oversee party life by means of the same dictatorial methods that it applied to rule the country with. Candidacies for key local posts were first “recommended” by the Central Committee and only then formally approved by the local party organization. This phenomenon, known as “appointism,” began to be crucial in the party’s staff-placement policy.


When Lenin’s party misappropriated Soviet slogans to seize political power, the soviets began to be filled with Bolsheviks. The Soviet slogan “All Power to Soviets!” was put into practice after the latter had been mostly manned with Bolsheviks. Non-party delegates of the soviets had to “sympathize” with the Bolsheviks and representatives of other parties had no option but to join the Bolshevik ranks. A fluctuating multiparty composition of the soviets quickly sank into oblivion – thanks to the “care” of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (“Cheka”) set up in December 1917.

The Bolshevik party began to exist in two hypostases: firstly, as an isolated and extremely centralized organization which featured strict subordination to superiors, and, secondly, as an aggregate of discrete soviets whose delegates were elected by workers’ and soldiers’ collectives and could be called off at any moment. Party leaders took pains to create a vertical of soviets on the same principles of “democratic centralism”: with blind submission of the lower link, formed in the open elections, to all the other links formed in accordance with administrative and territorial division. Although the system of soviets had fully merged with that of the Party, there were no visible links between Bolshevik party committees and soviet executive committees. The populace could only see that soviets dealt with all the spheres of everyday life. For this reason, what the Bolsheviks established was named Soviet power.

Lenin saw the organizational disunity of Bolshevik party committees and soviet exe­cutive committees as a chance to reunite the former empire which the national liberation movement of the oppressed peoples had split into a number of independent states. In the speech delivered on December 5 (November 22 by the Julian calendar), 1917, the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars advised people not to worry over the emergence of bourgeois republics and to establish workers’ and peasants,’ i.e. Soviet, ones to counterbalance the former: “We are told that Russia will break to pieces and disintegrate into separate republics, but we should not be afraid of this. No matter how many independent republics may come up, we will not fear this. What really matters for us is not where the state border is but the fact that the working people of all nations should forge a union to fight the bourgeoisie of any nations.” The Soviet republics were a response to challenge of the national liberation movement. In twenty days after this speech, the Bolsheviks proclaimed in Kharkiv the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, the first Soviet national entity. This is how national Soviet statehood emerged.                      

However, there were more Bolsheviks who considered it necessary not to invent some kind of independent Soviet republics in ethnic regions but to establish direct links between the center and the provinces. They found it hard to believe that a country with a rigidly centralized Party vertical could exist in the shape of several independent Soviet republics. Lenin had to patiently explain a radical difference of Soviet power from all the other forms of power that humankind had known.

In the spring of 1919 the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) formed a commission with Lev Kamenev at the head and instructed it to look into the recommendations about “permanent and temporary forms of union between the RSFSR and other Soviet republics.” The initiators were inclined to examine not so much the forms of reunification as whether the existence of “independent” republics is worthwhile at all. On June 1 the VTsIK issued the decree on a military-political alliance, and it was necessary to decide if this alliance is a long-term affair or it will only last for a period of war.

Kamenev favored, incidentally, the abolition of independent republics. In an interview with the newspaper Pravda on May 24, 1919, he supposed that the now debated question of forging a military-political alliance of Soviet republics would only be topical during the war. “As a matter of fact, Ukraine should merge with Russia,” he said the newspaper correspondent.

(To be continued in one of the next issues) 

Stanislav Kulchytsky is a professor and Doctor of Sciences (History)

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