Isaac Deutscher 1954

Changes in the Ukraine:
Three-Hundredth Anniversary of Union with Russia

Source: The Times, 15 January 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The USSR is now officially commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of the ‘union’ or ‘reunion’ between Russia and the Ukraine. The event celebrated is the taking of an oath of fealty to the Russian Tsar by the Dnieper Cossacks and their Heiman Bogdan Khmelnitsky at Pereyaslavl, in January 1654. To say, as it is now said, that this was the birthday of Ukrainian nationhood is an exaggeration, but the event did in fact foreshadow much of Ukrainian history and many of its motifs.

The Dnieper Cossacks were mostly ex-serfs, fugitives from the domains of the Polish gentry. They lived by hunting and fishing in the steppes and by carrying out raids on Crimean Tartars, Turks and Polish nobles, and by making pogroms of the Jews. The Polish gentry tried to reimpose serfdom and the Roman Catholic faith upon them – the Cossacks were Greek Orthodox. After many years of savage fighting the Cossacks were nearly defeated by the Poles when they decided to beg for the Tsar’s protection. They hoped that under that protection they would be able to preserve their freedom and self-government.

In Russian Bondage: Having escaped Polish serfdom, they soon found themselves in Russian bondage, and they made several vain attempts to break out of it. ‘This is not what I wished; this is not how this thing should have turned out’, Khmelnitsky himself wept shortly before his death.

The image of the weeping Hetman has haunted Russo-Ukrainian relations ever since. Almost until recent times the Ukrainians remained a primitive peasant people – the urban bourgeoisie and the working classes of the Ukraine were Russian and Jewish. Throughout their history the Ukrainians were incapable of forming a truly independent national movement of their own. Revolting against Russia they hired themselves to the Polish gentry, to the Turkish Sultan, and, in more recent times, to Austro-Hungary and Germany; and each time they were disillusioned with their new masters, vanquished by Russia, and forced back into dependence.

The three-hundredth anniversary of the Pereyaslavl Rada comes at a moment when relations between Russia and the Ukraine are by no means smooth. The celebration itself is calculated to reduce and conceal tension. But in many respects the present trouble is different in character from the earlier ones; the wider background, the outlook of the Ukraine, the prospects, are all different.

Curiously enough, it was Beria who gave a clue to the present state of the problem in a speech at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952. Read in the light of later events that speech seems much more significant than it might have appeared at the time. Beria’s main theme was the economic and cultural development and growth of the non-Russian Republics of the USSR. He drew, inter alia, a striking balance of the industrialisation of the Ukraine, and he compared its results with the economic condition of two old, and great, Western European nations, France and Italy, which between them have a population more than twice as large as that of the Ukraine.

Industrial Recovery: He pointed out that the Ukraine, although devastated by two invasions within the lifetime of a single generation, was already producing more pig iron than France and Italy taken together; more steel, both crude and rolled, than was produced in France, and over three times as much as was produced in Italy. Her coal output was about 50 per cent higher than the combined French and Italian output; and her engineering plants turned out tractors the total capacity of which was three times as large as that produced jointly by the French and Italian plants. In addition, the Ukraine produced much more grain, potatoes, sugar beet and sugar than was grown on the fields of both France and Italy.

This was not just one of the usual statistical boasts of Soviet propaganda. Beria indicated the important place the Ukraine had come to occupy on the economic map of Europe. Present-day Ukraine is not just the old proverbial ‘granary’, coveted by Germany, or merely the supplier of raw materials to Russian industry. The Ukraine is also one of Europe’s greatest manufacturing industrial centres, comparable to Western Germany rather than to France.

This is all the more remarkable because the Ukraine’s recovery was painful and slow in the first postwar quinquennium, as the following index of Ukrainian industrial activity shows: 1940 – 100; 1948 – 70; 1949 – 87; 1950 – 108; 1951 – 135. The change in the outlook of Ukrainian agriculture is best seen from the fact that the Ukraine has now only about 16,000 large-scale highly-mechanised collective farms of an average size of 6000 to 7000 acres each. The educational progress is characterised by the fact that over 40,000 students graduate from Ukrainian academic institutions every year, a number which, Soviet propaganda is quick to point out, exceeds the total of undergraduates in France, Belgium and Norway. From such crucial facts Beria drew the following conclusion: ‘There are no more backward nations among us. The new socialist nations of our country are... changed in outlook, they have developed into advanced modern nations.’

Beria’s speech amounted to a plea for a new policy towards the smaller nations and quite especially towards the Ukraine. The plea was, of course, addressed to the initiated party man and civil servant, not to the man in the street – hence its somewhat Aesopian style. The man in the street knew all about the Lenin – Stalin policy of equality for all nationalities. But the initiated state and party bureaucracy took it for granted that the smaller nations were industrially and culturally well behind the Great Russian people, who were therefore destined to guide and lead them towards Socialism and then towards Communism. This was the Russian man’s burden, the ideological justification for Moscow’s over-centralism. In this context Beria’s phrase, ‘there are no more backward nations among us’, sounded like a challenge and a new programme: it implied a demand for less centralisation, less government from and by Moscow, and more self-government for the smaller nationalities. And indeed Beria went on to speak about ‘men chosen by the people, knowing the life, the custom and the mentality of the people on the spot, and conducting government business in the native tongue understood by the whole population’. A less thinly-veiled argument against Russification could hardly have been conducted in public in the Moscow of 1952.

Stalin and After: The adherents of Russification had the upper hand towards the end of Stalin’s life. At the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Ukraine, assembled in Kiev in September 1952, they drew the balance of the preceding intense drive against ‘bourgeois nationalism’. That ‘nationalism’ was not wholly invented. In part it had been encouraged by Moscow between 1939 and 1945 in connexion with the absorption of the Polish Ukraine – at the Kiev congress Stalin was still hailed as the ‘unifier of Ukrainian lands’. The Polish Ukraine was the homeland of an intense, truly fascist brand of Ukrainian nationalism which began to fester within the united Ukraine; and long after the war the terrorist, fascist gangs of Bandera raided, terrorised and pillaged the lands between Lvov and Kiev. But in part the ‘bourgeois nationalism’ now denounced represented a more respectable mood, namely, the legitimate reaction of a culturally grown-up Ukraine against Moscow’s Stalinist tutelage.

Immediately after Stalin’s death something began to change. The Russifiers in the Ukraine were either called to order or dismissed from high office in party and state. Beria’s words pronounced at the recent congress seemed to serve as the text for a new policy; and Beria himself, as Minister of the Interior, ‘purged’ the administration from Russifiers. But with Beria’s downfall the fire was once again opened against the Ukrainian nationalists. Those who have adopted the Beria line have been deprived of office; and their virtual chief, Pavel Meshik, the former Minister of the Interior in the Ukraine, was tried and executed together with Beria.

The Russifiers appear to have come back. Yet they seem to have lost much of their old confidence. They do not preach about the Great Russian’s burden as crudely and loudly as they used to. For one thing, they no longer have the backing for this and the prodding which Stalin gave them; for another, Beria’s saying that ‘there are no more backward nations among us’ sums up a new mood in the Ukraine and elsewhere, a mood stronger than the transitory alignments in the Kremlin, a mood which will continue to defy the old Tsarist and the recent Stalinist traditions of government and will demand Socialist equality. ‘This is not what I wished; this is not how this thing should have turned out’, the Ukraine still seems to repeat after her Hetman Khmelnitsky. But it is a new and a very different Ukraine that repeats these words, and the words seem to lose their old helplessly plaintive tone and to acquire a new self-assured ring.