At the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks were a small minority party in Russia, the radical faction of what had been the Marxist Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. But they spent the year agitating in the Russian streets, using simple slogans such as “Land, Bread and Peace” designed to appeal to the widest numbers of soldiers, workers and peasants. Their coup d’état in October (7 November according to the “new calendar” they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks believed themselves to be the “vanguard of the proletariat”; they would call their regime the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” They sought absolute power, and eventually abolished all other political parties and opponents through terror, violence and vicious propaganda campaigns.
In early 1917 the Bolsheviks had even fewer followers in Ukraine. The party had 22,000 Ukrainian members, most of whom were in the large cities and industrial centres of Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih. Few spoke Ukrainian. More than half considered themselves to be Russians. About one in six was Jewish. A tiny number, including a few who would later play major roles in the Soviet Ukrainian government, did believe in the possibility of an autonomous, Bolshevik Ukraine. But Heorhii Piatakov—who was born in Ukraine but did not consider himself to be Ukrainian—spoke for the majority when he told a meeting of Kyiv Bolsheviks in June 1917, just a few weeks after Hrushevsky’s speech, that “we should not support the Ukrainians.” Ukraine, he explained, was not a “distinct economic region.” More to the point, Russia relied on Ukraine’s sugar, grain and coal, and Russia was Piatakov’s priority.
The sentiment was not new: disdain for the very idea of a Ukrainian state had been an integral part of Bolshevik thinking even before the revolution. In large part this was simply because all of the leading Bolsheviks, among them Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Piatakov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, were men raised and educated in the Russian empire, and the Russian empire did not recognize such a thing as “Ukraine” in the province that they knew as “Southwest Russia.” The city of Kyiv was, to them, the ancient capital of Kyivan Rus’, the kingdom that they remembered as the ancestor of Russia. In school, in the press and in daily life they would have absorbed Russia’s prejudices against a language that was widely described as a dialect of Russian, and a people widely perceived as primitive former serfs.
All Russian political parties at the time, from the Bolsheviks to the centrists to the far right, shared this contempt. Many refused to use the name “Ukraine” at all. Even Russian liberals refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian national movement. This blind spot—and the consequent refusal of any Russian groups to create an anti-Bolshevik coalition with the Ukrainians—was ultimately one of the reasons why the White Armies failed to win the civil war.
13 November 2017
Bolshevik Attitudes Toward Ukraine
From Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 652-76: