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Ukraine — a history of war and repression

Ukraine’s history is scarred by repression, with imperialist powers using the country for their own gain. As the Russian invasion grabs more territory, Isabel Ringrose and Yuri Prasad look at the roots of this conflict
Issue 2794
Trotsky with comrades in Ukraine.

Leon Trotsky with European socialists, communists and Bolsheviks in Kharkov, Ukraine in 1920.

Ukraine, and the range of ethnic groups it contained, were severely oppressed for hundreds of years under the Tsarist Russian empire. From 1720 the state moved to wipe out small linguistic communities and enforce the Russian language. In contrast, the Bolsheviks were committed to breaking up the empire and supported the self‑determination of oppressed nations.

But the circumstances of civil war that followed the 1917 revolution made their policy extremely difficult to implement in practice. This was especially true as brutal reactionary forces in Ukraine united with invading imperialists in an attempt to overthrow the 1917 Revolution. There were sharp divisions inside Ukraine.

Eastern Ukraine was mostly industrialised and dominated by the working class. It consisted of pro‑Bolshevik, Russian speakers. The rural west was made up of peasants and classes that were suspicious of the revolution.

Following the 1917 February revolution, middle class Ukrainian nationalists created the Rada government. Come October it refused to recognise the Bolshevik, soviet government. Unable to rely on the Ukrainian people to build a workers’ government, the Bolsheviks intervened militarily against the pro-imperialist Rada. The Red Army led by Leon Trotsky—who was born in Ukraine—took control of the capital, Kiev in January 1918 and declared a Soviet Ukraine.

This brought about some important Ukrainian linguistic and education rights. Arguments continued over whether Ukraine would become its own republic, or part of the Soviet Union. The Rada looked to Germany for support. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918 between Russia and Germany ended Russia’s involvement in the First World War.

But it meant large swathes of Ukraine came under German control. Following Germany’s defeat in the war and mass resistance to its occupation, the Rada wrestled back some control. It was supported by Poland and anti-Bolshevik groups. Others sided with White army counter‑revolutionaries. Yet support for the Red Army in Ukraine also grew, especially among Jewish people after a wave of antisemitic pogroms.

By spring 1919, the Red Army again took over Kiev and White army leaders were pushed out. But soon war reemerged as Poland expanded its empire in 1921, grabbing large chunks of Ukraine.

Stalin reinvents chauvinism

As early as 1918 Joseph Stalin argued against Vladimir Lenin, saying, “the slogan of self-determination is outmoded and should be subordinated to the principles of socialism”. Under Stalin’s counter-revolution with the creation of the USSR, Ukraine’s role was as “the Second Soviet Republic” after Russia.

The USSR focussed on building a unified nation with military and economic strength as part of state capitalist competition against other imperialist powers. As part of the process it reimposed much of the repression that the Bolsheviks undid. The progressive measures granting rights to minorities were no more by the late 1920s. Commenting from exile in 1939 Trotsky wrote, “Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin.

“The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine, in Bukovina, in the Carpatho-Ukraine are in a state of confusion. Where to turn? What to demand?” Trotsky outlined how this led reactionary leaders to “sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence.” Ukraine’s large agricultural lands were taken over to feed the USSR. Large coal and iron reserves saw the development of industrial complexes in Donbas, south-eastern Ukraine.

Stalin’s regime prioritised rapid development in a short period to compete with Western powers at the cost of human life. Famine and the repression of peasants between 1932-3 killed an estimated 3.9 million people. Collectivisation replaced independently owned farms with state-run collectives as peasants were driven off their land.

Resistance led to arrests and deaths. Peasants were not allowed to receive grain until quotas were met, so starvation was used as a threat. By 1932 Ukraine’s agricultural productivity was estimated to miss targets by 60 percent. According to a secret Soviet ministry of interior report between 1940 and 1953 571,000 people from Ukraine were deported to other parts of the USSR. Post-war famine also killed hundreds of thousands between 1946-47.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and a new wave of crisis

After the Berlin Wall was brought down in 1989 it was clear the Soviet Union would soon face a crisis of its own. Millions of people in Ukraine hoped in the future they would enjoy freedoms they associated with the West, and that living standards would rise. With the coming end of the Cold War, they dared to believe that Ukraine would no longer be engulfed by a potential nuclear war.

In 1990 student protesters occupied city squares demanding democracy. When the state threatened them, thousands of workers rallied. The Ukrainian government was forced to accede to many of their demands and declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. It was a deadly blow.

Ukraine was the home of much of the USSR’s agricultural production, defence industries, and industry. Nevertheless, Russian President Boris Yeltsin defied Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and recognised Ukraine as an independent nation. His move was designed to speed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Gorbachev’s resignation. It did both.

In his haste, Yeltsin had brushed aside the question of Crimea and the future of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. But controlling the sea was vital to the military and economic needs of the ruling classes in both nations. The leaders of Ukraine tried to appropriate some of the fleet’s ships for its new navy. But the officers were overwhelmingly loyal to Russia.

At the same time pro-Russian separatist groups across Crimea and the vital port of Sevastopol became active and sought to enlist sailors into their number. A quickly assembled deal between Russia and Ukraine to “share” the fleet ultimately unravelled, with conflict and the threat of escalation ever present.

Meanwhile economic crisis gripped the country. Neoliberal shock therapy ripped through Ukraine from 1993 onwards. Living standards were slashed. Lifetime savings were reduced to nothing. The hopes of those that had taken to the streets in 1990 were being shattered by a new era of poverty and threats of civil war. Into this mix, opportunist politicians poured in ethnic chauvinism in the hope of diverting attention away from their failing system. The terrible price of this strategy would soon become apparent.

Neoliberalism and corruption

The economic destruction of Ukraine was accelerated by the global financial crash of 2008—and this was the context for the next wave of rebellions. By the end of 2013 the central bank had only two months of foreign currency reserves left and was on the brink of defaulting on its loans.

Ukraine’s rulers were now desperate for cash. At the very last minute, rather than sign an agreement with the European Union, president Yanukovych turned to a backdoor deal with Russia. The president was widely regarded as a Putin stooge, but one that toyed with the West. Having already been removed once by the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, he had been “re-elected” in 2010 in a process mired in fraud.

Yanukovych’s move triggered the Maidan protests, taking their name from the occupied central Square in Kiev. At first the movement was relatively small and based on students that wanted a close alignment with the European Union. They associated the corruption in Ukraine with the old Stalinism.

Protests became far larger and more politically varied after Yanukovych ordered a brutal crackdown using special troops, known as the Berkut.

Many of those that now joined the movement stated their opposition to corruption and state violence, but were less clear on whether Ukraine should be aligned with the West or Russia. Pro-Western politicians eager to direct the movement were quick to point out that support for a deal with the Nato military alliance and the European Union was greatest in the west of the country.

Russian speakers in the east and south of Ukraine were denounced as “colonisers” conspiring against Ukrainian culture. It was in this atmosphere that far right groups grew rapidly. And just like his enemies, Putin too used ethnicity and nationalism as a means of division and rule. He talked of Ukraine being intrinsically part of Russia.

The Maidan movement forced Yanukovych on the run, fleeing to Russia in February 2014. Less than a week later soldiers in uniform, without identification seized the Crimean parliament and cut Crimea from Ukraine. Then followed an independence referendum that allegedly garnered support from 97 percent of voters. Crimea was annexed by Putin. That same spring, Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began to demand independence, leading to a war that has so far killed 14,000 people.

No to yet another carve up

President Putin’s decision to recognise the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and to send in Russian troops is a deliberate attempt to break up and weaken the Ukrainian state. He says Russian troops are on the ground with separatist forces because the rights of “ethnic Russians” in the east and south of Ukraine are under threat.

But that’s not the real reason for Russian intervention. Putin wants to send a message that it will use its large military to keep control over what it describes as its “near abroad”. Russian speakers in Ukraine indeed face state discrimination. The Kiev government ruled in 2015 that Ukrainian is the only official language of the country. And it has scrapped laws that allowed schools in some regions to use Russian as an official second language.

Up to a quarter of the population of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, some 800,000 people, are said to have Russian citizenship. And two thirds of the inhabitants describe Russian as their “mother tongue”.

The restrictions on the Russian language are reactionary, but they are far from a humanitarian outrage. Many people across the whole of Ukraine, including president Volodymyr Zelensky, continue to speak both languages—while many other Ukrainians also speak Hungarian, Romanian and Polish. Putin’s approach implies that Ukraine should be broken up along linguistic and supposedly ethnic lines. That would seem utterly absurd to most people in Ukraine.

It’s why surveys conducted by the Berlin’s Centre for East European and International Studies in 2019 found that only about a third of inhabitants of Luhansk and Donetsk were keen to gain autonomy within Ukraine or Russia. While about 20 percent said they wanted to return to how things were before the split. Ukraine more than most countries has been created through the forced movement of people.

Since 2015 Ukraine has been among the ten countries with the largest internally displaced populations, with 1.8 million people forced to leave their homes. And, more than one million refugees have been forced to flee to Russia. To carry on the imperialist process of carving up Ukraine will only lead to more misery

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