Ukraine: Who is perverting history?

By Dave Holmes

February 26, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Arguing for Socialism — Russia has finally invaded Ukraine. Socialists around the world have condemned the invasion and called for a Russian withdrawal and negotiations. They have also condemned the relentless eastwards expansion of NATO which Russian leaders rightly regard as an existential crisis for their country.

The solution would seem to be a neutral Ukraine in the manner of Austria or Finland, the withdrawal of US offensive missiles from Eastern Europe, and the federalisation of the Ukraine giving democratic autonomy to the Russian-speaking Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east.

The Russian invasion is a boon for the Western governments and their corporate media enablers. In their usual manner there will be all sorts of posturing and little light will be shed on what are the real issues in the conflict.

Putin & Lenin

The February 23, 2022 edition of the Melbourne Age carried an article from the New York Timesby Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova and Rick Gladstone. It was headed “Putin’s perverted history lesson”.

In his speech to the Russian nation, President Vladimir Putin buoyed his case for codifying the cleavage of two rebel territories from Ukraine by arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

With a conviction of an authoritarian unburdened by historical nuance, Putin declared Ukraine an invention of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, who he said had mistakenly endowed Ukraine with a sense of statehood by allowing it autonomy within the newly created Soviet state.

“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said. “This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.”

This is probably a fair representation of Putin’s criticism of Lenin. However, the authors of the article peddle their own perversion of history. The article continues:

The newly created Soviet government under Lenin that drew so much of Putin’s scorn on Monday would eventually crush the nascent independent Ukrainian state. During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was banished from schools and its culture was permitted to exist only as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in puffy pants.

Under Stalin’s bureaucratic regime Ukrainian national rights were indeed trampled on. However, this was in complete contravention of the nationalities policy advocated and fought for by Lenin in the early years of the Russian Revolution. In particular, Lenin championed the policy of “Ukrainisation” designed to undo several centuries of Russian colonial domination and restore the primacy of the Ukrainian language and culture.

Between the early revolutionary years and the Stalin years lies a sharp break — a real political counter-revolution. Conflating these two periods is the stock-in-trade of Western anti-communist writers. In their eyes, Lenin equals Stalin and the whole Soviet project was damned from the start.

Formation of the Soviet Union

In 1922 there was a struggle within the Russian Communist Party over the formal constitution of the Soviet Union which showed clearly, even at this early stage, the different approaches of Lenin and Stalin to the national question.

Prior to the formation of the Soviet Union the different republics were united in a loose union based on bilateral treaties. Stalin wanted the various non-Russian republics to enter the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) as autonomous regions with central authority based in Moscow, i.e., the Russian republic would clearly have more rights than the others.

Lenin was vehemently opposed to Stalin’s “autonomisation” plan. He regarded it as an expression of Great Russian chauvinism. After a sharp fight Lenin carried the day and the Soviet Union — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — was formally established in December 1922. It brought together Byelorussia, the RSFSR, the Transcaucasian Federation (comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia), and Ukraine in a union of equals, each with the right to secede.

Ivan Dzyuba

By a strange historical quirk, in the midst of the current crisis the noted Ukrainian intellectual Ivan Dzyuba passed away on February 22. Dzyuba was the most prominent figure in the 1960s generation of left-wing dissidents in the Ukraine. (In the post-Soviet era he was Ukraine’s Minister of Culture 1992-94.)

In 1965 he wrote Internationalism or Russification? In the Soviet Union it was denied publication and circulated clandestinely; later it was published in the West in various editions. In 1972 Dzyuba was arrested; in poor health he was eventually forced to recant his views. However, his book remains and shows clearly the approach of Lenin to the Ukrainian question.

In the introduction to the 1974 edition by Monad Press of New York (a publishing imprint associated with the Socialist Workers Party), M.I. Holubenko wrote that:

Internationalism or Russification? is an impressive marshalling of evidence from a Marxist-Leninist point of view to demonstrate the devastating political, social, economic, and cultural effects of Stalin’s nationalities policy, and the continuation of these policies by succeeding post-Stalin regimes. The central political thrust of the book is a call for a return to Leninism. (p. viii)


In his book Dzyuba outlines the policy of Ukrainisation which was the official policy of the Communist Party and the Soviet state in the early years of the revolution.

As is well known, during the 1920s in the Ukraine the CP(B)U [ Communist Party of Ukraine] conducted … an enormous national-educational work which went down in the history of the party and of the Ukraine under the name of “Ukrainisation” (or “de-Russification”).

The Ukrainian language was introduced into all spheres of social, civic and industrial life, knowledge of Ukrainian history and culture was fostered, there developed a sense of national belonging and of the national duties of a Ukrainian communist; in literature and journalism extensive discussion of nationality problems was permitted, and particularly the satirising of such shameful phenomena as hatred of one’s native language and culture, national nihilism and betrayal.

Preparatory work was being done for the Ukrainisation of the proletariat, of the large cities, and industrial centres. At the same time the need was stressed for the “distinguishing of Russified workers, who use a mixed Ukrainian language, from Russian workers”. Regarding the latter, as a national minority in the Ukraine, “careful treatment … and protection of their interests” was recommended; for the former, explanation of their national membership and their national duties. (p. 52)

Treatment of Russian population

Dzyuba expands on this last question in his 12-point summary of what Ukrainisation meant.

 … The education of the Russian population of Ukraine in a spirit of respect and considerate friendliness towards Ukrainian national life — national construction, culture, language, traditions, etc. The encouragement of the Russian population to acquaint themselves with Ukrainian culture, history and language, and to take part in the creation of new national cultural values. The safeguarding of the national-cultural needs of Russians as a national minority in the Ukraine. (p. 128)

Rights of national minorities

In so many countries around the world ruling elites exploit or foster national and ethnic differences to maintain their power. One expression of this policy is discrimination against the language of a minority.

Thus, for instance, in 1956 in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) the Sinhala-dominated government declared Sinhalese the sole official language of the country. This immediately made the Tamil minority second-class citizens in their own country and affected their education and employment opportunities. The extreme chauvinist policy of the ruling elite later led to a terrible civil war.

One of the drivers of the current crisis in the Ukraine was the 2014 attempt by the right-wing nationalist post-Maidan government in Kiev to downgrade Russian language rights. This helped spur the formation of the Luhansk and Donetsk "people’s republics" in the Russian-speaking east of the country.

The new Ukrainian elites regard the Soviet past as an unrelieved nightmare. They are busy enriching themselves; rewriting history; rehabilitating pro-Nazi, antisemitic figures from the past like Stepan Bandera; and banning communist organisations. They do not want to acknowledge the early revolutionary years of the Ukraine. Ivan Dzyuba’s outstanding work is indeed a closed book for them.