Today the peoples of the world are shocked by a new genocide. In this case the destruction of a country and the martyrdom of its people by the aggression of the gigantic military machine under the orders of Putin, a bourgeois Stalinist, who will go down in history as the Hitler of the 21st century. But the peoples of the world also note the heroic armed and unarmed resistance of this ex-Soviet people, who today emulate their past generations, who gave their lives resisting the Nazi machine of the German Wehrmacht. And most importantly, whatever the outcome of this war between tremendously unequal forces, the workers of the world will be able to become aware of the ability of an armed working people fighting for a just cause. Ukraine is a nation with its own history, culture and language. We defend its territorial integrity and national sovereignty. However, Ukraine – like many other nations, unfortunately – has not had long eras of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The key question is who can lay claim to Ukraine in the current global context, and how. For this purpose, a brief review of a centuries-long history will be useful: What was and what is Ukraine?
By Pavel Polska
How was Ukraine created and what are its historical ties to Russia? It would be more accurate to ask what are the original ties that Russia has to Ukraine. Even more so than other neighboring states, the two countries have a shared heritage. A heritage that unites them, as much as it separates them. Historically Ukraine was overrun by the Tatar-Mongol invasions and torn between the Polish monarchies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Tsarist Empire. And within that history, episodes of class struggle and the invasions Ukraine suffered modified its state borders and the national composition of its population. Even today in Kyiv, its capital, Russian-speakers are a significant portion of the population. The existence of Russian-Ukrainian families as a heritage of the USSR, and even the Tsarist empire is very significant. Russian or Ukrainian surnames today are not a predictor of the orientation (pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian) of politicians, not even in the slightest.
Since the 9th century, Kyiv was the center of the first Slavic state: the Old Rus. That great medieval state, which historians call Kievan Rus, was the origin of both Ukraine and later Russia. They adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988 by Vladimir I of Kiev or St. Vladimir Sviatoslavich “The Great”, who consolidated the Rus kingdom from today’s Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. In the XII century (year 1147), constituting an extensive border to the Northeast, Moscow was established. Its founder was Prince Yuri Dolgoruky.
This intertwined history would seem to provide the basis for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, as he recently declared that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people, a single whole“. But, as often happens, such phrases are based on partial truths to reach false conclusions with ulterior motives. In this case it is to explicitly justify the perverse goal of denying Ukraine’s legitimate right to independence.
And this is so because, despite this common origin, during the last nine centuries the historical experience of the Ukrainians has been very different from that of the Russians. Ukrainian destinies were dictated by the various powers that divided the country. In the middle of the 13th century, the Russian federation of principalities fell under the domination of the Tatar-Mongol empire. At the end of the 14th century, taking advantage of the decline of Mongol power, the Grand Principality of Moscow and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which later joined Poland) divided the former lands of Rus. Kyiv and the lands around it came under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And Carpathian Galicia, in western Ukraine, was ruled for a long period as part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, whose cultural footprint is still present. That western part of Ukraine has had a completely different history from that of the east.
Many of its inhabitants are not Russian Orthodox, but belong to the Uniate Church or Greek Catholic Churches, which conduct their rite in Ukrainian and recognize the Catholic pope as their spiritual leadership. Another part of Ukraine, with yet a different past, is Crimea. Its links were to the Greeks and the Tatars. It also had periods under the rule of the Ottoman and Russian empires.
The name Ukraine means “the borderlands”.
In the 17th century, after the war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Tsar, the lands east of the Dnieper River came under Russian imperial control. This region was called Ukraine (Ukraina), “the borderlands“.
In the same century, a Ukrainian Cossack state existed in the central and northwestern regions of today’s Ukraine. That era was portrayed in Russian and Ukrainian literature. Nikolai Gogol’s famous novel, Taras Bulba, is based on real events of the struggle of the Cossacks of Zaparozhie, in defense of those rich lands against the Polish royalty and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. But these wars and peasant rebellions also confronted the oppression and exploitation of Russian landowners. That is why in 1764, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great put an end to the Ukrainian state. And she continued to seize large tracts of Ukrainian land under Polish rule.
During the following years, the empire imposed Russification, prohibiting the use and study of the Ukrainian language. With the rise and development of the bourgeoisie, the concept of nation was subordinated to that of people. Thus, patriotism took root in the westernmost lands, which moved from Poland to the Austrian Empire, where many began to call themselves ‘Ukrainians’ to differentiate themselves from Russians. Ukrainian literature and culture had in those years a prime exponent in the poet and painter, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who left a legacy that is considered a symbol of the Ukrainian aspiration for freedom. In the years that followed, tsarism was a true “prison of the peoples”, taking the servile exploitation of the peasants, the capitalist exploitation of the workers and the national oppression of hundreds of nationalities and peoples, including the Ukrainians, to unbearable extremes.
The October Revolution of 1917
With the 20th century came the imperialist epoch, the parasitic epoch of monopolistic financial capitalism. An epoch of capitalist agony and, as Lenin announced, an “epoch of wars and revolutions”. And with it came the First World War, a devastating war between imperialist powers. Because of this combination of factors, the Russian tsarist empire collapsed, the Tsar was overthrown and the process gave way to a permanent dynamic in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ orientation provided a progressive revolutionary outlet for the sovereign aspirations of the Ukrainian nation, along with other oppressed peoples and nationalities.
And so Ukraine achieved its independence through the establishment of soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. In 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, was constituted. Soviet Ukraine was voluntarily integrated. Its capital was in Kharkov (1917-1918 and 1919-1934) and in Kyiv since 1934. The process of formation of Soviet Ukraine saw a progression of different borders. The first one from 1917-21: when it declared its independence from the tsarist empire, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded with its capital in Kharkov. And in 1918 the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded and became independent from Austria and Poland. There were attempts of unification and signed acts between both, but the class character of the new state marked a new division. In 1922 a portion of each state was integrated as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Until 1929, complete respect for the Ukrainian language and culture was maintained, as a policy promoted by the Bolshevik leadership.
But that policy was achieved with a program, which Lenin expressed in June 1917, before the seizure of power, as follows: ” Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue.
Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession.
We do not favour the existence of small states. We stand for the closest union of the workers of the world against “their own” capitalists and those of all other countries. But for this union to be voluntary, the Russian worker, who does not for a moment trust The Russian or the Ukrainian bourgeoisie in anything, now stands for the right of the Ukrainians to secede, without imposing his friendship upon them, but striving to win their friendship by treating them as an equal, as an ally and brother in the struggle for socialism.”
The Stalinist counterrevolution
The calamities of the Stalinist turn or “great rupture” affected Ukraine greatly. When the forced collectivization of the extensive and rich Ukrainian lands began, forced Russification was resumed, as it had under tsarism. The Ukrainian language was banned and there were massive massacres of peasants, both by repression and famine. For Stalin’s government tied Ukraine more closely than ever to the dictates of the Moscow bureaucracy at a terrible cost. Millions of Ukrainians who were already part of the USSR in the 1930s died in the “Golodomor,” a famine orchestrated by Stalin to force peasants to join state farms.
Subsequently, Stalin imported a large number of Soviet citizens, who did not speak Ukrainian and with little or no ties to the region, to repopulate those regions of Ukraine faster. Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin displaced millions of Russian workers to the coal mines in the Donbas basin (Donetsk, Lugansk). And during the Stalinist and post-Stalinist decades, internal migrations of Russians to Zaparozhie and Kriviy Rih, and of Ukrainians to Siberia, Vorkutá or Kuzbas were very frequent.
The Lviv region, in the far west, is a large region of territories taken from Poland as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939. This does not mean that the population of these territories was Polish, as many Ukrainians had remained on the other side of the border. The same happened with the region of Bessarabia in relation to Romania, and with the Rusyns (also known as Ruthenians) a nationality in the area of Transcarpathia, bordering Hungary. That western end of Ukraine was finally annexed from Poland at the end of World War II. Crimea was transferred by Moscow to Soviet Ukraine within the USSR in 1954, but retained strong ties with Russia, symbolized by the Russian Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol.
Collapse of the USSR and new declaration of independence
The capitalist restoration promoted and imposed by the leadership of the CPSU and the USSR since 1986, under the attractive but confusing names of Perestroika and Glasnost or “Market Socialism”, produced an accelerated and profound deterioration of the standard of living of the working masses and a collapse of the economy and domestic and foreign trade. Furthermore, the market laws produced a leap of centrifugal tendencies in the 15 Soviet Republics, due to the effect of two combined pressures; that of the masses against the Great Russian oppression of the numerous national minorities and that of the bureaucracies of the republics and regions, which struggled with the central “Nomenklatura” -mostly Great Russian- to make their primitive capitalist accumulation and constitute themselves as bourgeois, aspiring oligarchs.
Ukraine, a highly industrialized country and the second most important republic in economic and social weight, second only to Russia, experienced this process acutely. The pro-independence tendencies generated bourgeois political currents with diverse slogans ranging from nationalist to pro-imperialist, socialdemocratic or philo-Stalinist.
On December 1, 1991 – a few weeks before the dissolution of the USSR – Ukraine again proclaimed its independence. The referendum for independence was overwhelming: more than 90% of the votes were in favor and the turnout was 82%. A few days later, the newly elected President Leonid Kravchuk and his Russian and Belarusian counterparts declared the 1922 founding treaty terminated. The government of Kravchuk, the first president of this Ukrainian stage, had months earlier signed the Belavezha Agreement, a nuclear disarmament treaty with his Russian and Belarusian counterparts. By this treaty, the entire Soviet arsenal passed to Russian control. Russia’s recognition was not only expressed tacitly by accepting the border status quo in 1991, but later by signing several treaties and agreements with Ukraine: the Budapest Memorandum (1994), which guaranteed its territorial integrity; the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty (1997), which confirmed the borders and proclaimed their inviolability, and the agreements concerning the permanence of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol (1997, 2010).
The masses and specially the working class faced the consequences of the capitalist restoration
Starting in 1988, the profound degradation of the living conditions of the masses generated a great upsurge of strikes, with the development of committees in each enterprise, mine and city, which were centralized and coordinated at the level of various regions of Ukraine. An emblematic example of this development of mass workers self-organization was the foundation of the Independent Trade Union of Miners, Nezavisimiy Profsoyuz Gorniakov, or NPG, its acronym in Russian and Ukrainian. This organization spread from the Donbas to the whole of Ukraine and also to Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It came to have thousands and thousands of members and became a de facto power in regions such as Donbass, Kuzbass in Siberia, Vorkuta in the Arctic Circle, Soligorsk in Belarus, and Karaganda in the Kazakh steppe. The NPG strike committees were a force that at certain times constituted situations of dual power.
However, the crisis of revolutionary leadership left an enormous space for the intervention in this process of the imperialist apparatuses and governments that acted to push back even further the consciousness of the masses, already degraded by decades of Stalinism. Thus, most of the new organizations were slowly co-opted and diverted by the politics of “democratic reaction”.
It is important to note that the dynamics of the class struggle and the correlation of forces between the bourgeoisie and the masses had very different levels and rhythms in the various former Soviet republics and regions. And so it happened with Ukraine and Russia.
Russia: From the collapse of the USSR to the capitalist imperial yearning in that space
In Russia, since 1991, there was practically a whole decade of economic collapse, plundering of resources, massive privatization and instability of the regime, expressed during the Yeltsin period, with some sharp spikes in the class struggle, aggravated by Russia’s defeat in the First Chechen War (1994-1996). That war culminated with the recognition of the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and generated a pro-independence shock wave throughout the Caucasus and other regions. It should be noted that Ukrainian volunteer fighters took part in this war. In 1998 the upswing of class struggle hit its peak in Russia with the wave of mining strikes all over Russia, demanding Yeltsin’s resignation. The miners blocked railway lines in Siberia and other regions and staged a sit-in in front of government headquarters. This struggle was called the “Rail War”. In response to this critical situation a class-collaborationist government was formed. The CPRF entered the government, taking the Ministry of Economy. The government was headed by Evgeny Primakov, the head of the KGB foreign service. As Prime Minister, his government signed a series of agreements with the IMF and there was a brutal devaluation of the ruble. There were several transitional governments, all under the control of the KGB (now renamed FSB). Then, in August 1999, Vladimir Putin made a decisive leap in his political career, moving up from a modest post as deputy administrator of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential apparatus to being appointed by Yeltsin as Prime Minister of Russia.
That was the prelude to his rise to power. Cornered by the brutal economic crisis, political instability, corruption allegations against him and his family, and serious health problems, Yeltsin announced his immediate resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 to great surprise across the country. Yeltsin’s resignation cleared the way for Putin to become Russia’s interim president, as provided for in the Constitution. The millennium began and abruptly changed the situation in Russia with the crushing of the Chechen people and the extermination of their military and political leadership. In other words, Putin came to power that was more and more absolute, massacring a people and murdering rebels and opponents. And now he intends to hold on to power until 2036 by initiating the genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Ukraine: class struggle took other paths, although not less turbulent.
It continued since 1991 with ebbs and flows contained within the regime by the policy of democratic reaction. The relatively more stable government was that of Leonid Kuchma, who replaced Kravchuk in 1994, after an upsurge of strikes in the Donbas in 1993. Kuchma, originally from the Dnipropetrovsk industrial bureaucracy, was a “nachalnik” with extensive experience in Soviet management and served two presidential terms. He combined the “task” of favoring the colonization of the country by imperialist capital and caving to Russia’s more reasonable demands. But when Russia’s economy went into crisis in 1998-99, the repercussions in Ukraine hit his government. His sector of the bourgeoisie sought a successor in Yanukovich. The bourgeois fight sharpened and was channeled into the 2004 presidential elections. Yanukovich’s challenger was the young Yuschenko, the most direct representative of the comprador bourgeoisie. Yuschenko was poisoned with dioxin -a very common method of the KGB and its secret service heirs in other republics- and was on the verge of death. His face was disfigured, but that did not prevent him from running for the presidency. In the elections, Yanukovich was declared the winner and a wave of indignation and massive mobilizations denouncing the fraud rose up, known as the “Orange Revolution”. In 2005, in a framework of a great crisis, the elections were re-run and Yuschenko won. In 2010, Yanukovich ran again and in the second round, he beat Yulia Tymoshenko by a very small margin of 48.95% to 45.47%. But the most significant aspect of this political polarization was the East-West geographic polarization of this vote. These data heralded future and greater contradictions and confrontations.
Maidan, a revolution that overthrew a government that attempted a bonapartist turn
Putin and many Stalinists qualify as a “coup d’état” the mass mobilizations and the sit-in at the Maidan (Independence Square) that ousted Yanukovich. His government tried from the beginning to take steps in both directions, just as Kuchma had done. It continued the imperialist colonization and neo-liberal measures that hit the working class and the middle sectors. But, on the other hand, he extended the treaty for the Sevastopol base, which expired in 2017, until 2042. Being a businessman originally from Donetsk, he favored the investments of Russian oligarchs in those regions, all while making winks and some concessions to the EU and the United States. But the crisis of the capitalist economies, the imperialist one and that of Russia, caused the pressures to make this “multi-vector” policy collapse.
Yanukovich suspended the signing of an economic treaty with the EU in November 2013, a concrete deadline. Mass mobilizations for social demands were growing and becoming increasingly political from that time until March 2014. Ukraine experienced a revolutionary process without revolutionary leadership. The aspirations of national liberation from decades of Russian oppression were combined with the rejection of the grievances that capitalism discharges on the working and youth masses.
Yanukovich tried to curb the movement with a Bonapartist turn and by approving a package of repressive laws. But he only succeeded in polarizing and radicalizing the mobilizations, which were centralized in the Maidan and faced violent repression. Although there were numerous deaths and more wounded, the mobilizations forced his resignation and flight from the country: a clear democratic triumph. The Maidan overthrew Yanukovich and his Bonapartist attempt, dissolved the Berkut, shock troops that repressed the demonstrations and conquered democratic freedoms. Maidan was not defeated in 2014. However, it was interrupted, diverted and frozen, due to the crisis of revolutionary leadership. The Ukrainian governments that succeeded Maidan implemented an IMF adjustment package, maintaining and deepening Ukraine’s economic dependence on the EU and the United States. Putin took advantage of this ebb to annex Crimea and occupy the Donbas, accelerating a separatist process of self-proclamation of “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk, DPR and LPR, which had started many years before, with political work by Stalinists and paramilitary mercenaries. A central question remained unresolved: the independence of the country.
The war brings about the armament of the working class
Putin’s genocidal aggression has been unleashed on the working people of Ukraine. In his message on Russian TV after convening his “Security Council” and resolving to recognize the “independence” of DPR and LPR, to justify the invasion, dubbed a “special military operation”, which ignores the independence of Ukraine. He sentenced the neighboring country with a phrase that also exposes his sick misogyny “Whether you like it or not, my dear, you will have to accept it“. Well, the men and women of the Ukrainian working people do not accept it! They resist, fighting heroically. Offering ther lifes to confront the invader. And in the occupied cities, hundreds demonstrate unarmed, repudiating and humiliating the invading troops, while official Russian TV tries to “put on the show” of “humanitarian aid”. But thousands of Ukrainians also crave and demand weapons to drive out the occupiers!
I reproduce here the words of a veteran NPG mining and metallurgical workers’ leader: “Before the invasion began, all the rich oligarchs of Ukraine ‘flew away’ together with thousands of foreign officials and diplomats. Later at the beginning of the invasion thousands of people left who had money to get to Poland or Transcarpathia in Hungary or Romania. We remain, those who have nowhere else to go, to defend our home, our land! The front line is 30 km from my home. I accompanied my children to the front! I bring them food and clothes, they know what to do!”
This comrade shows me where the key to defeating the invaders lies. He is enthusiastic when he explains to me how they destroyed a column of tanks and armored vehicles passing by on the nearby road. He explains to me that the shortage of weapons is dramatic and that every time they announce in the town hall that they will deliver weapons or ammunition, thousands of miners and workers crowd around and are indignant because they only receive a few hundred or even dozens!
This is what is pushing Zelensky to decree that in times of war the monopoly of weapons by the army is abolished. It is this situation that compels him to cry out indignantly at the evidence of NATO’s hypocrisy: “From now on all the dead will also be NATO’s responsibility!”
In this war against the occupation, all the facts show that to win a free, independent and sovereign Ukraine it is necessary to have the leadership of the working class and to have a government willing to break with imperialism and with the local oligarchy, associated in the world capitalist system. Something that neither Zelensky nor the current regime are prepared to do, nor will they do. Only a working class government can truly conquer the definitive Ukrainian independence.
Therefore, defending the resistance of the Ukrainian people against Putin’s genocidal invasion is an urgent need for all the workers and oppressed peoples of the world who are fighting for their national and social liberation.