Ukraine and the Bolshevik Revolution


The struggle to overthrow the cruel tyrant called the Russian Czar was long and difficult. The czarist empire was a prison house of nations.

Czarist Russia’s conquering of Siberia meant killing and exploiting Indigenous peoples like what was done in the United States and Canada.

Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria. Unlike Poland, which had been a powerful state for centuries before its partition, Ukraine was a nation in formation.

Revolutionaries fought against the oppression of dozens of nationalities in Czarist Russia. 

“The situation of the Ukrainian working people today is tragic in the extreme,” wrote the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky in 1916. “The czarist cutthroats give them no chance to develop their language, literature and art.”

It was even illegal to publish books and newspapers in Ukrainian.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, 76% of Ukrainians didn’t know how to read or write. In 1900, there were only 35 Ukrainian women who had attended college. 

The treatment of the Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was particularly outrageous. Born into serfdom, a form of feudal enslavement, he became the most famous figure of the Ukrainian national renaissance.

Czar Alexander II had Shevchenko imprisoned for writing a satirical poem, an action that helped shorten his life. Besides criticizing serfdom and the czarist dictatorship, Taras Shevchenko also opposed the grotesque discrimination suffered by Jewish people.

The great majority of Ukrainian people had been serfs. So had Russians and other nationalities in the empire. Thirty thousand serfs were worked to death in building St. Petersburg.

Serfs could be bought and sold like cattle. They were beaten by their owner with a leather whip called the knout.

But unlike enslaved Africans in the United States, their families couldn’t be broken up. Their names and languages weren’t stolen from them. Children of serfs weren’t thrown to the sharks in the Atlantic Ocean.

Serfdom was abolished in 1861 by the same czar that had persecuted Taras Shevchenko. Alexander II did so before serfdom was overthrown from below.

One factor might have been the anti-slavery struggle in the United States and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War there in 1861.The martyrs of Harpers Ferry were not able to immediately overthrow the slave masters but they may have helped frighten the Czar into getting rid of serfdom.

Poverty and pogroms

Ukraine was rich but Ukrainians were desperately poor. The country has some of the richest topsoil in the world.

The czarist empire was the greatest exporter of wheat during most of the 1800s with Ukraine producing the greatest share. It was only after 1870 that the United States, Argentina and Canada became major wheat exporters.

Yet the Ukrainian peasants who harvested wheat and other crops were often hungry themselves. Farm laborers would suffer night-blindness because of a lack of vitamins.

The Czarist regime was hated. It was almost overthrown in the 1905 revolution.

The Czar sought to turn this anger into racist violence directed at minorities. These spasms of terror in which hundreds of people were lynched were called pogroms. They were deliberately instigated by the regime.

The 1917 riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, where the police allowed over 100 Black people to be murdered by white mobs was a pogrom. So were the race riots in Chicago and other U.S. cities in 1919.

The burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma by white supremacists in 1921 and the mass graves of African Americans there was certainly a pogrom.

The biggest target of czarist pogroms were Jewish people. Thousands of Jews were murdered, tortured and raped.

The Bolsheviks fought pogroms with guns. The revolutionary movement had been centered in the cities and minefields where the working class was concentrated.

Workers in St. Petersburg prevented pogroms from being organized. The greatest center of pogroms was Ukraine and Moldova where the working class was smaller.

None of this prevented the centuries-old czarist police state from being overthrown in March 1917. Eight months later, workers organized into councils known as soviets took power. They were led by socialists who were called Bolsheviks.

Lenin led the Bolsheviks. Their slogan of “bread, peace and land” appealed to millions of people.

They wanted an end to hunger, poverty and war. Two million soldiers from the former Czarist Empire had died in World War I.

Peasants ― the vast majority of society ― wanted to take the land that they had plowed for generations. The Bolsheviks told them to kick out their landlords and seize the land.

In contrast, capitalists betrayed Black people after the U.S. Civil War. Instead of the former slave masters being forced to give up their plantations, most Black people became landless sharecroppers.

Lenin and Ukraine

When the peasants and workers took power on Nov. 7, 1917, the Russian landlords and capitalists were demoralized. The support given by capitalists in other countries sparked a civil war.

The counter revolutionaries were called White Guards, who were a Russian terrorist army much like the Ku Klux Klan. The United States and other countries sent troops to support the White Guards and attempted to drown the socialist revolution in blood.

The Red Army of workers and peasants defeated the White Guards and foreign troops. Dock workers in Seattle and Britain refused to load weapons for the White Guards.

This was what Italian and Greek workers are doing now. They’re stopping NATO weapons from going to the Kyiv regime that depends on fascist thugs to remain in power.

In the Russian Civil War of 1918-20, most of Ukraine had been overridden by White Guards. They murdered 100,000 Jewish people there.

A well-to-do minority of Ukrainians supported the White Guards and joined the pogroms. Their political descendents supported the Nazis in World War II and today they comprise the fascist Azov Battalion and Right Sector thugs.

After hundreds of years of Czarist oppression, Ukrainians and other nationalities wanted freedom. Lenin, who was Russian, said in effect, “right on!”

He drafted a resolution for the Communist Party about Ukraine in November 1919. Here are some excerpts:

“In view of the fact that Ukrainian culture (language, school, etc.) has been suppressed for centuries by Russian czarism and the exploiting classes, the [central committee of the Communist Party] makes it incumbent upon all party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture…

“[Communist Party] members on Ukrainian territory must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet institutions; they must in every way counteract attempts at Russification that push the Ukrainian language into the background and must convert that language into an instrument for the communist education of the working people. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that in all Soviet institutions there are sufficient Ukrainian-speaking employees and that in future all employees are able to speak Ukrainian.” 

Famines and industrialization

The Ukrainian Soviet Republic was established. In 1922 Ukraine joined with the other soviet republics to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Socialism brought great advances. By 1939, some 88% of Ukrainians could read and write. The literacy rate in 1959 was 99%.

Whereas printing in Ukrainian had been forbidden by the Czar, in 1980 there were around 1,500 newspapers and magazines printed in that language. 

Ukraine is a multinational country. Besides millions of Ukrainian and Russian speakers, there are Greek, Hungarian, Jewish, Roma and other peoples. Ukrainian fascists call these people “scum.”

Some have asked why the Bolsheviks included predominantly Russian speaking areas, like the Donbass, within Ukraine’s boundaries. (The boundaries drawn by communists are the same ones used today.)

The reason was that in 1917, the vast majority of Ukrainians were peasants who lived in the countryside. Most of the workers were Russian, like coal miners in the Donbass. Including these workers in Ukraine helped promote socialism.

After the civil war came the famine in 1921-1922 in which millions died. This was the era before the “green revolution.”

Farmers in Ukraine and Russia often used wooden ploughs. Even with good weather crop yields could be low. The loss of millions of agricultural workers because of World War I, the civil war and the 1918 influenza pandemic further reduced the harvest.

More controversial is the 1932-1933 famine. At least 3.3 million people died in this tragedy.

Many Ukrainians, who are not communists, claim this famine was deliberate genocide against the Ukrainian people. Yet the famine affected millions of Kazakhs and Russians outside Ukraine.

This famine took place during the first five-year plan which was rapidly industrializing the Soviet Union. Part of this offensive was bringing socialist production to the countryside.

Millions of peasants got land because of the Bolshevik Revolution. But these plots were too small to employ modern agricultural machinery.

Peasants were encouraged to join cooperatives and form collective farms. The richer farmers, called kulaks, resisted.

This was an intense class struggle which amounted to a second revolution. Sometimes the worst exploiters are the small property owners like small slumlords or other small-time cockroach capitalists.

Kulaks helped sabotage the harvest by concealing grain stocks and slaughtering livestock. Detachments of workers and poor peasants defeated the kulaks.

The forming of collective farms went hand-in-hand with constructing factories making tractors and harvesters. The countryside was electrified. Ukrainians left wooden ploughs behind and built a modern society.

Defeating Hitler and NATO

Looking back, some argue that collectivization should have started sooner and/or more slowly. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in his article “Dizzy with Success,” urged activists to be more careful.

Often overlooked in this famine, as historian Mark B. Tauger points out, is the devastating role of the wheat rust fungus. This plant disease would have been disastrous whether there had been a collective farm movement or not.

And where was U.S. President Herbert Hoover? In 1921, before he became president, Hoover led a relief campaign that aided starving people in the Soviet Union.

But in the early 1930s Hoover did nothing, even while many U.S. farmers couldn’t sell their crops during the Great Depression.

Also questioned is that the Soviet Union exported crops while people were starving. Professor Tauger estimates that as many as two million people might have lived if these exports ceased.

This is heartbreaking. But as Tauger mentions, both Germany and Britain threatened to stop lending credit to the Soviet Union unless it paid more of its debts.

What the Soviet Union had to sell at the time was largely oil, lumber and wheat ― all at the low Depression prices. As it was, the Soviets did cut farm exports. (“The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933,” by Mark B. Tauger, Slavic Review, Spring, 1991.)

Imports of machinery were absolutely necessary to industrialize the Soviet Union. And the industrialization carried out by the five-year plans enabled the Soviet peoples to defeat the Nazi invasion, which killed over 5 million Ukrainians.

So many of the new industries were built in Ukraine. One of the best known projects was the Dnieprostroi hydroelectric dam. By 1940, over a half-million Ukrainian workers had high school or college educations. 

Today the greatest racist hellhole is the United States. Wall Street was finally able to overthrow Soviet power in 1991. This was despite an overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens ― including 78% of Ukrainians ― voting to retain the Soviet Union in a March 17, 1991 referendum.

This tragedy was a greater defeat than the victory of Hitler over the bones of the German working class. World capital and its media have been able to poison the minds of too many Ukrainians, Russians and other peoples living in the former Soviet Union.

We look forward to NATO’s defeat and a revival of a revolutionary movement in Ukraine. Long live the unity of all the workers and progressive peoples in Ukraine! Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!

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