Stalin, Father of Ukraine?

By Kotkin, Stephen | International New York Times, November 28, 2014 | Go to article overview

Stalin, Father of Ukraine?


Kotkin, Stephen, International New York Times


His rule saw the formation of a land with a strong national consciousness, a legacy that Putin prefers to ignore.

Eight years ago, on Nov. 28, 2006, the Ukrainian Parliament officially designated the famine of 1931-33, which killed 5 to 7 million Soviets during Stalin's rule, a genocide. On Saturday, Ukraine's president, Petro O. Poroshenko, accompanied by other officials and by his wife, laid a jar of seeds of grain near the Dnieper River in Kiev to mark the anniversary.

Stalin's rule is rightly associated with two of the most horrific episodes in Ukraine's history: the famine and the 1937-38 mass executions of Ukrainian intellectuals and political figures, both of which took place across the Soviet Union. Both tragedies have been invoked regularly in the months since Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, seized Crimea and sent forces into eastern Ukraine.

But there is an underappreciated aspect to this tangled history: Stalin's rule saw the formation of a land with strong Ukrainian national consciousness. Yes, he was a murderous tyrant, but he was also a father of today's Ukraine.

Ukraine emerged out of czarist Russia as a separate country as a result of World War I, the revolutions of 1917, German military occupation and the efforts of Ukrainian nationalists. Against the wishes of other early Soviet officials, who wanted to suppress nationalism, Stalin strongly advocated recognizing -- and using -- it. "Clearly, the Ukrainian nation exists and the development of its culture is a duty of Communists," Stalin told the 10th Party Congress in March 1921. "One cannot go against history."

Stalin knew from his Georgian homeland that national sentiment was too strong to suppress. He also knew that the Communists could use it to win loyalty and achieve economic modernization.

Ukraine had remained effectively independent even after being reconquered by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 and rechristened the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Through late 1921, Soviet Ukraine signed a plethora of state-to-state treaties -- with newly independent Poland, Austria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia -- and maintained diplomatic missions abroad. Ukraine had a diplomatic office in Moscow, too. At the 10th Party Congress, Stalin argued for an integrated Soviet state. But the form of that integrated state would carry fateful consequences.

In 1922, Stalin proposed folding Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Caucasus into Soviet Russia (formally known as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) while allowing them to retain substantial autonomy, a proposal that initially elicited Lenin's support. But Lenin soon changed his mind, and demanded a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in which Ukraine and Russia would hold ostensibly equal status.

Lenin's counterproposal was based not on a commitment to self- rule but, like Stalin, on tactics. He argued that as other countries underwent socialist revolutions -- a Soviet Germany, a Soviet Hungary, a Soviet Finland -- they, too, could join the new Soviet Union. Stalin was not so naive. "These peoples would scarcely agree to enter straight into a federative bond with Soviet Russia" on the Ukrainian model, he told Lenin. Lenin scorned Stalin's realism, insisting that "we need a centralized world economy, run from a single organ."

Stalin bowed to Lenin's authority, and loyally and skillfully implemented the Bolshevik leader's vision to form the Soviet Union in late 1922. …

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