Was Ukraine 'invented' by Lenin's Bolsheviks?
Putin's 'historian, here' talk refers to the Soviet Union's policy of affirmative action
You know that nations are all just artificial creations, mostly Victorian inventions designed for political purposes? That your loyalty and patriotism is entirely false? The now-popular argument of post-war academics, that countries are modern constructs without any real ancient bonds, seems to have found an influential follower in Vladimir Putin.
In his somewhat-terrifying speech on Monday, Russia’s president justified military intervention in the eastern Ukraine by sounding like one of those ‘historian here’ threads about why those out-group idiots who call themselves ‘nationalists’ don’t understand history.
‘Let's start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia,’ Putin said: ‘This process began immediately after the revolution of 1917. As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's Ukraine”. He is its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archive documents ... And now grateful descendants have demolished monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. This is what they call decommunisation. Do you want decommunisation? Well, that suits us just fine. But it is unnecessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunisation means for Ukraine.’
The story of Ukraine’s origins are as fascinating as they are contested, deeply entwined with what it means to be Russian. They are also complicated by the legacy of the Soviet Union, which among its many hairbrained ideological schemes pioneered the idea of affirmative action. This had a particular impact in Ukraine, which initially under the Bolsheviks had something of a cultural flourishing (although it’s safe to say that the Communists had an otherwise not-entirely-perfect record in the country).
Ukrainian identity was discouraged under the tsars. Indeed it was even illegal to print the word ‘Ukraine’, the correct term being ‘Little Russia’ (Ukraine itself is believed to derive from ‘borderland’, which is why Ukrainians object to the definite article, although I find myself instinctively using it). The Russification policy from 1881 meant the repression of minority languages from schools, courts and street signs, and even lowly railway porters had to learn Russian. In 1907 the medical committee in Kiev province refused to allow cholera warnings to be published in Ukrainian and as a result many peasants died from drinking infected water. For people who ever complain about the spiteful and petty language disputes in Belgium, I’m pretty sure even the Flemish and Walloons would not give each other cholera over the issue (although I wouldn’t bet my savings on it).
Yet, as Orlando Figes writes in A People’s Tragedy, many of today’s national identities weren’t fully formed at the time, and many people in tsarist Russia didn’t know what they were. Estonian peasants called themselves maarabvas — country people — while the term saks (Saxon = German) meant landlord or master. One peasant from the 1920s recalled: ‘I did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers’. The people of the Vistula valley called themselves Mazurians, not Poles.
Nationalism is in part a product of urbanisation, and in particular the development of telegraph, railway and newspapers which enabled national identities to grow between connected towns united by language (and usually religion). But most Ukrainians were rural and the towns were then dominated by Russians, Jews and Poles.
Figes notes that the Ukrainian word for citizen — hromadjanyn — comes from village whereas in most European languages it derives from city. They were the country people. In the multiracial tsarist empire, different ethnic groups occupied different niches, and as the Bolsheviks saw, many class conflicts were also ethnic conflicts. These hatreds pitted Estonian and Latvian peasants against German landlords and merchants; Ukrainian peasants against Polish or Russian landlords; Azeri workers and Georgian peasants against the Armenian bourgeoisie; Kazakh and Kirghiz pastoralists against Russian farmers. And, encouraged by the authorities, everyone against the Jews.
As a result, almost all the successful nationalist movements were also socialist, including the main Polish, Finnish, Ukrainian and Baltic groups, as well as the Menshevik-led Georgian nationalists, and the Dashnak socialists in Armenia.
‘Parties which appealed exclusively to nationalism effectively deprived themselves of mass support; whereas those which successfully combined the national with the social struggle had an almost unstoppable democratic force’, Figes writes.
One reason the Whites lost the civil war was that, being quite bone-headed and bigoted Russian nationalists, they were unwilling to make allies with the minorities (or in the case of Jews, some of whom initially fought for them against the communists, committed horrific attacks on them). White leaders continued to suppress the Ukrainian language and even denied its existence when they could have really done with Ukrainian support. The Whites made a ‘Proclamation to the Little Russian People’ which drove Ukrainian peasants towards their nationalist army, which was also fighting the Whites in Russia’s impossibly complex civil wars. Likewise, they failed to secure the support of the Finns, who also disliked the Reds but were not given sufficient guarantees of independence. The Finns, literally miles from Petrograd, would have been extremely effective allies. Instead they remained neutral.
Lenin saw the connection between socialism and national struggle, concluding that the way to bring minorities along with the revolution was to grow their national identity. Under the Ukrainian Bolshevik Party and its state apparatus, the country’s cities became majority Ukrainian, so ‘between 1923 and 1926 the proportion of Kiev’s population which was Ukrainian increased from 27 per cent to 42 per cent’. There was also a flourishing of Ukrainian culture, and ‘the Ukrainian language, which the tsarist rulers had dismissed as a farmyard dialect, was now recognised as an essential tool for effective propaganda in the countryside and the recruitment of a native elite.’
The Bolsheviks also saw Russian linguistic domination as a product of capitalism, and that under a neutral state it would come to overwhelm others. Grigory Zinoviev, Stalin’s close ally who helped Stalin’s rise to power (murdered by Stalin, 1936) had said in 1923: ‘We should first of all reject the “theory” of neutralism. We cannot adopt the point of view of neutralism… we should help [the non-Russians] create their own schools, should help them create their own administration in their native language.’
Figes writes that ‘More Ukrainian children learned to read their native language in the 1920s than in the whole of the nineteenth century.’
So, it is true that the Bolsheviks did to some extent help the growth of Ukrainian identity, part of a wider programme of what we’d now call affirmative action. Indeed this is the subject of the book Affirmative Action Empire by Harvard’s Terry Martin.
‘The Soviet Union was the world’s first Affirmative Action Empire,’ Martin writes: ‘Russia’s new revolutionary government was the first of the old European multiethnic states to confront the rising tide of nationalism and respond by systematically promoting the national consciousness of its ethnic minorities and establishing for them many of the characteristic institutional forms of the nation-state.’
In creating republics within the union, they hoped to ‘preserve the territorial integrity of the old Russian empire’ in autonomous states where ‘new national elites were trained and promoted to leadership positions in the government, schools, and industrial enterprises of these newly formed territories. In each territory, the national language was declared the official language of government. In dozens of cases, this necessitated the creation of a written language where one did not yet exist.
‘The Soviet state financed the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, operas, museums, folk music ensembles, and other cultural output in the non-Russian languages.’
There was good Marxist logic to this. Lenin believed ‘nationalism was a uniquely dangerous mobilizing ideology because it had the potential to forge an above-class alliance in pursuit of national goals. Lenin called nationalism a “bourgeoise trick” but recognised that, like the hedgehogs, it was a good one.’
The Bolsheviks believed that people misinterpreted class conflict as national conflict, but Lenin also believed there were fundamental differences between the Bad Nationalism of Russians and the Good Nationalism of oppressed people. ‘The nationalism of the oppressed, Lenin maintained, had a “democratic content” that must be supported, whereas the nationalism of the oppressor had no redeeming value’.
Lenin argued that they should ‘Fight against all nationalism’ but ‘first of all, against Great Russian nationalism’. He coined the term rusotiapstvo — mindless Russian chauvinism — and in December 1922 declared that one must ‘distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations and the nationalism of oppressed nations, the nationalism of large nations and the nationalism of small nations… In relation to the second nationalism, in almost all historical practice, we nationals of the large nations are guilty, because of an infinite amount of violence’ committed. This led to the ‘greatest-danger principle’ that chauvinism was greater danger than small nationalism
The Bolshevik reasoning was that, as Martin explains: ‘Since national identity is a real phenomenon in the modern world, the nationalism of the oppressed non-Russian peoples expresses not only masked class protest, but also legitimate national grievances against the oppressive great-power chauvinism of the dominant Russian nationality.
‘Therefore, neither nationalism nor national identity can be unequivocally condemned as reactionary. Some national claims — those confined to the realm of national “form” — are in fact legitimate and must be granted to split the above-class national alliance. Such a policy will speed the emergence of class cleavages and so allow the party to recruit non-Russian proletariat and peasant support for its socialist agenda. Nationalism will be disarmed by granting the forms of nationhood.’
This led to the policy of Korenizatsiya, ‘indigenisation’, under which non-Russian identity was encouraged. Local party leaders who understood ‘the way of life, customs, and habits of the local population’ would help spread communism.
There was a cynical, practical aim to this; as with more recent systems of multiculturalism, it cemented the power of the party through local politicians. But there were also psychological factors at work. Lenin was that very modern phenomenon, an intellectual who detested his countrymen; he would often refer to ‘Russian idiots’ and it was this personal sense of hatred for the majority that drove an inconsistent and illogical distinction between different types of nationalisms, legitimate and illegitimate struggles.
At its best, great-power Russian nationalism has inspired immense works of art and stupendous acts of heroism: small-country nationalism, for all its romanticisation by intellectuals, can often be brutal, vicious and spiteful, no less motivated by ancient hatreds and a desire to dominate. Outside of Marxist theory, with its obsession with power structures and Manichean division, there is often no real difference.
Lenin was also wrong in practical terms. Nationalism, even in controlled form, would not help class struggle, because national identity is far stronger than class; on every single occasion when the two have clashed, nationalism has won.
Lenin himself conceded in 1920 that, when the Bolsheviks invaded Poland: ‘In the Red army the Poles saw enemies, not brothers and liberators. They felt, thought and acted not in a social, revolutionary way, but as nationalists, as imperialists. The revolution in Poland on which he had counted did not take place. The workers and peasants… defended their class enemy, they let our brave Red soldiers starve, ambushed them and beat them to death.’ Poles not welcoming Russian invaders — who would have guessed? Yet all those turgid theoretical studies I read said the opposite!
Lenin’s ideas on nationality did not die with the Soviet Union, of course; the same sort of thinking remains popular today, the belief that some forms of ethnic expression are the worst, most dangerous forces in the world, while others should be celebrated and promoted, when all clearly have the potential for violence and hatred. The same thinking that some groups are inevitably oppressors, and others are victims, a division that completely belies reality on the ground.
As with individual equality of outcome, the Soviets also believed in the economic equalisation of groups, and their 1923 nationalities policy called for measures to overcome ‘the real economic and cultural inequality of the Soviet Union’s nationalities’. This was obviously unachievable, but then the Russians were unfortunate to have a ruling class so ideologically insane they believed that equality of outcomes between groups was a desirable objective. Imagine such a thing.
The long-term effect of such a policy is always corrosive. One of the major flaws with socialism is that it tends to produce the exact opposite behaviour of that intended. Because the state allocation of resources turns out to be such a zero-sum game, populations with long experience of communism tend to become less communal-minded, more suspicious and acquisitive.
So it is with the socialism of nationalities, where the end result is resentment and hatred. Instead of trading with each other, groups in regimes committed to equality come to compete for the state’s limited resources, and each group’s triumph must be another’s humiliation.
As Martin writes: ‘Of course, positive action on behalf of one nationality implies negative action towards others. In the Soviet case, where all non-Russians were to be favoured, Russians alone bore the brunt of positive discrimination… Soviet policy did indeed call for Russian sacrifice in the realm of nationalities policy; majority Russian territory was assigned to non-Russian republics; Russians had to accept ambitious Affirmative Action programs for non-Russians; they were asked to learn non-Russian languages; and traditional Russian culture was stigmatized as a culture of oppression.’
One can see why Russians felt aggrieved by the system, and why it affected their relationship with Ukraine. Yet Putin’s speech is quite clearly selective history in the service of a political goal; in other words, of no more value as history than Lysenko’s research was to science.
All nations develop from fictions, often crudely-fabricated tales invented by bored urban intellectuals looking for a romantic past. They have in many cases been used for violent ends. But the idea that people’s contemporary aspirations for independence are illegitimate because their nation is not eternal, and that their culture has some recent elements, is no more convincing coming from a latter-day tsar than from a middling Twitter celeb flattering his internationalist fanbase. Ukraine is a real nation if Ukrainians believe it is, just as Russia is, or Germany, France or the United States — whatever the background story or the historical architects who once built it.