By Sabby Sagall
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 390

Battleground of empires

This article is over 10 years, 1 months old
For several centuries the history of Ukraine has been one of invasion, occupation and domination by successive local foreign powers, and resistance to them.
Issue 390

Habsburgs and Tsars
After the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795 by the Austrian and Russian empires, the extreme west of Ukraine came under Austrian Habsburg control while the rest became part of the Tsarist Russian Empire. In the 19th century Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were inspired by the spirit of nationalism and resolved to rekindle Ukrainian linguistic and cultural traditions which they hoped would lead to the recreation of an independent Ukrainian nation-state. The Russian ruling class feared such a separatist movement and imposed strict limits on attempts to revive the Ukrainian language and culture, even banning their use.

Russian Revolution
In June 1917 the All-Ukraine Army Congress demanded autonomy without denying the need for the supreme authority of the “All-Russia Parliament”. Bolshevik leader Lenin went further, reaffirming the right of the Ukrainian people, as an oppressed national minority within the old Tsarist Empire, to secede from Russia.

In November 1917 the Rada (parliament) proclaimed a Ukrainian People’s Republic, but qualified this by declaring that it would not separate from the Russian republic.

Soviets (workers’ councils) had appeared in various parts of Ukraine in the summer of 1917, notably in Kiev.

Civil War
The onset of the Civil War saw conflict erupt between the Rada and the Bolsheviks. The Rada refused free passage to Soviet forces while allowing White (counter-revolutionary) Cossack formations to pass. Looming behind these conflicts was the growing threat of hunger in the Russian cities and the desperate need for Ukrainian grain.

Ukrainian nationalist leader Petlyura turned to the new Poland state for support. But the peasantry’s national feelings had been aroused by antagonism towards the Polish landowners in western Ukraine. The Red Army defeated the Polish armies that had invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism was discredited.

At Lenin’s instigation, the Bolsheviks demanded all officials should be able to speak Ukrainian and that the large estates should be distributed to the peasants, with minimal creation of Soviet state farms. Grain was to be requisitioned “in strictly limited amounts”.

Stalinist counter-revolution
With the decline of the workers’ democracy and its eventual defeat at the hands of the new state capitalist regime under Stalin, the policy of “socialism in one country” was introduced, based on rapid industrialisation and forced collectivisation of peasant farms. Ukraine, the traditional bread-basket of Europe, was devastated by Stalin’s “terror-famine” of 1932-33 that killed up to 7.5 million Ukrainians.

Second World War
The Soviet Union annexed western Ukraine in 1939 as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact to carve up Eastern Europe between them. Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 signaled the end of the pact. Sections of the Ukrainian nationalist movement allied with the Nazis against the Soviet Union.

Deportation of Crimean Tatars
After the Germany army was expelled from the Crimean peninsula in May 1944, Stalin signed a decree for the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan and the Urals. By 1949 at least one in five of the nearly 200,000 who were deported had died.

For most of its existence Ukraine was economically and politically the second most powerful republic of the Soviet Union, behind only the Russian Soviet republic. Upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was transformed into the modern nation-state of Ukraine.

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