Nationalisms and the war in Ukraine

As the stalemate in Ukraine grinds on, DAVE REID reviews a book that shines a spotlight on the origins of Putin’s attack and the significance of the national question, historically and today.

The Russo-Ukrainian War

By Serhii Plokhy

Published by Allen Lane, 2023, £25

The modern crisis of global capitalism is nowhere starker than the human catastrophe in the Ukraine, where the bloody war with Russia has, by some estimates, claimed 300,000 casualties on both sides, 15,000 of them civilians. According to Serhii Plokhy’s book, The Russo-Ukrainian War, by March 2022, eight million Ukrainians were displaced, seven million had migrated.

This book intends to offer a historical background and description of the outbreak of the Ukraine war, and provides a comprehensive but brief account of modern Ukrainian history that a reader new to the politics of the country before the war would find useful. But like all histories it depends very much on the outlook of the historian. The reader is alerted to the outlook of Plokhy on the front cover of the book, where the Financial Times describes him as “the foremost historian of the Ukraine”.

Published less than a year after the start of the war, Plokhy has written a book that outlines in a very readable narrative the development of the events that led to war between Russia and Ukraine, describing them simply, not weighed down by unnecessary detail. It delivers a very useful explanation of the ideas that propelled Putin to launch his brutal offensive, and the historical background to the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. It is as much a book about the recent history of Russia as it is of Ukraine. However, missing from his account is the role of the US and European powers in helping to create the tensions that led to war.

Plokhy begins by relating the varying national creation myths in the region. Putin has justified his attack on Ukraine by drawing on the long-held belief of Russian nationalists that the origins of the Russian nation were in Ukraine, and therefore Russia and Ukraine are essentially the same nation, divided by alien Western forces. This idea is part of the Great Russian ideology that the Ukrainian nation, language, and culture are, in fact, just a branch of the Russian ethnic family. Plokhy goes to great lengths to disprove this idea, and instead points to the formation of Ukraine by Cossacks in the 16th century.

National identity

For Marxists, the historical origins of national identity are not decisive. Lenin, whose writings on the national question form the bedrock of Marxist understanding on the question, explained that a nation could be defined by a people having a shared “language, territory and sentiment”. The rise of a national ‘sentiment’ or sense of national identity inevitably gives rise to a whole number of national myths and legends to validate its rise or increase its significance. But the rise in national sentiment itself flows from a whole series of material circumstances and developments, including economic processes, the success or failure of cross-national states to develop, and the depth of national oppression.

A sense of a separate Ukrainian national identity distinct from Russia rose in the 1930s, following Joseph Stalin’s brutal blunders in the forced land collectivisation. This created a huge famine in the Soviet Union, leading to the death of millions, especially affecting Ukraine – the ‘bread basket’ of the Tsarist empire. But that feeling of national identity receded in the late 1950s and 1960s as the economy of the Soviet Union progressed. The Stalinist bureaucracy around Nikita Khrushchev was sufficiently confident of Ukrainian adherence to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to cede Crimea and the naval base at Sevastopol to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954, even though the majority of the Crimean population were ethnic Russians. It arose again with the collapse of the Soviet Union as national bureaucrats jockeyed for position and used nationalism to pit the different republics against each other.

The close ties between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have also affected national consciousness, with large Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian populations. In western Ukraine, more closely tied to Poland and the West, there has been a more keenly felt consciousness of being Ukrainian, while in the rest of Ukraine it has risen and fallen. Traditionally, Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians regarded each other as ‘brother’ nationalities. Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers have also bought into the idea of an independent Ukraine, the majority voting for independence in 1991. And Putin’s murderous and botched invasion, involving the deaths of tens of thousands, has solidified a Ukrainian separateness, even among many Russian speakers.

Marxists defend the principle of the right of national self-determination as the best way to unite workers in different countries. However, the application of this principle will depend on the concrete circumstances of the class struggle and, above all, the level and content of national consciousness at any particular time. Lenin’s policy of an autonomous Ukrainian republic within the federation of the USSR – formally established in December 1922 – initially satisfied the national aspirations of the Ukrainian masses. But the crimes of Stalin in Ukraine led Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 October Russian revolution, to call in the 1930s for an independent socialist Soviet Ukraine.

Historical distortion

Plokhy writes from a liberal capitalist as well as a Ukrainian perspective, which leads him to gloss over inconvenient facts, not least the failure of capitalism to provide a way forward for the mass of Ukrainians, and sometimes to clearly untrue assertions.

The first chapter, entitled Imperial Collapse, deals with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its historical background. The Russian revolution is discussed in just a few pages, but Plokhy repeats the usual distortion of bourgeois historians that Lenin’s Bolshevik party had no interest in defending Ukrainian national rights and repressed Ukrainian nationalists. He writes: “Even a cursory acquaintance with the history of the Russian revolution and the concomitant fall of the Russian Empire indicates that the modern Ukrainian state came into existence not thanks to Lenin but against his wishes”.

This distorted view of Ukrainian history is particularly pertinent, because from the opposite point of view, prior to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin attacked Lenin’s policy of recognising Ukraine’s right to self-determination in the form of a Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Ironically, Plokhy concurs with Putin, who argues, without any evidence, that Lenin’s position was insincere and forced on the Bolsheviks as the only way they could hang on to power. In Putin’s televised address ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he attacked the Ukrainian government as agents of the West and blamed Lenin for having unnecessarily “created” Ukraine.

Putin argued that after the 1917 October revolution the Bolsheviks’ “main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs. They did everything for this purpose”, including conceding “any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country… Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine’. He was its creator and architect”. According to Putin, Lenin artificially created the Ukrainian Soviet Republic which, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, led to the “historical mistake” of Ukraine becoming an independent state.

However even a ‘cursory acquaintance’ with the writings and actions of Lenin on the Ukrainian national question before, during, and after the revolution demonstrates this to be false, which Plokhy must surely be aware of. Lenin was not a grudging convert to the right of national self-determination for Ukraine or any other nation. Prior to the first world war he had conducted a series of polemics against Rosa Luxemburg, fiercely arguing to defend paragraph nine of the party’s constitution in defence of the rights of national self-determination: “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations – such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers”.

Specifically on Ukraine, he wrote in 1914: “Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle ‘guesses’, we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state”.

Nor was this just a theoretical exercise. In practice the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, carried this policy forward after assuming power in the socialist revolution of October 1917. Lenin’s policy of guaranteeing national rights secured the support of workers and peasants of all the national minorities, who combined together formed a majority of the population in the old Tsarist empire. Finland was allowed to secede, with its independence recognised by the Soviet government on 31 December 1917.

Post-revolutionary Ukraine

The situation in Ukraine was more complicated. Cities like Kyiv and Kharhiv were ‘Russified’ with large ethnic Russian populations, including a majority of the working class. But the peasantry was overwhelmingly Ukrainian, and the February 1917 revolution, which overthrew Tsarism, had unleashed the pent up aspirations for national rights that had been suppressed by centuries of Tsarist oppression. As Trotsky described: “It gave the oppressed classes and nations of Russia at last an opportunity to speak out”. So the February revolution allowed right-wing bourgeois nationalists to deceive the newly awakened Ukrainian peasants and declare a Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, demanding Ukrainian independence. However, it also opposed the October revolution of the same year which brought the working class to power.

The Rada was dominated by pro-capitalist elements and members of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party which, contrary to its name, opposed the socialist revolution in the Russian Empire. Counter-revolutionary forces repressed and executed Ukrainian Bolsheviks and workers who wanted to carry through the socialist revolution in Ukraine, and worked with German and Polish imperialist armies to fight the Red Army.

In practice, this meant that the right-wing Ukrainian nationalists were actually working with the opponents of Ukrainian national self-determination. The provisional government established in Petrograd after the February revolution, which included the SRs, refused the right of self-determination to Ukraine and all the other nationalities. The invading German army, which the right-wing Ukrainian nationalists had welcomed as a bulwark against the Red Army in 1918, immediately suppressed the Rada. Russian capitalism could not concede independence to Ukraine, and the invading imperialist armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Poland would seize parts of Ukraine for themselves.

The only route for Ukrainian national rights was with the workers’ state led by the Bolsheviks. Had the counter-revolution won and the Bolsheviks been overthrown, Ukraine would have been carved up, with most of it forcibly re-integrated into Greater Russia. Plokhy himself admits elsewhere in the book that the vision of a tripartite Greater Russia – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus combined in one state – was sent into exile by the revolution.

It is true that Lenin had to fight for his policy even within the Bolshevik party, most notably against Stalin who wanted to ride roughshod over the rights of the nationalities. Plokhy falsely alleges that Lenin was forced by Ukrainian Bolsheviks to allow a Ukrainian socialist republic within what became the Soviet Union: in fact Lenin fought Stalin for its establishment.

After Lenin’s death, and the development of the bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalin, some of the worst purges were conducted against Ukrainian communists, and Ukrainian rights were curtailed. The forced agricultural collectivisation programme and subsequent famine were also exacerbated by Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism. All Lenin’s work in breaking down distrust between Russian and Ukrainian workers was undone by the persecution, forced collectivisation and starvation brought about by the Stalin regime, creating a conflict with Russia, and even undermining the support for a Soviet workers’ state.

In 1939, Trotsky, continuing the policy of Lenin, demonstrated the flexible Marxist approach to a programme of national self-determination, by advancing the slogan of an independent Soviet socialist Ukraine, which drew upon the alienation of the Ukrainian masses with the Stalin regime but pointed in the direction of a political revolution and a real workers’ democracy, based on a planned economy.

Nationalism and corruption

Plokhy carries some very interesting material on the Great Russian ideologies that informed Putin as he wrestled to extend the influence and control of Russian imperialism in Ukraine. Putin is a devotee of Russian nationalism based around Eurasianism and Novorussiya, drawing on the ideas of reactionary nationalists like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anton Deniken. In the view of Russian nationalists, the Russian nation consists of three Slavic territories: Great Russia (Russia), Little Russia (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus), which should all be one state.

Putin particularly drew on the memoirs of Deniken, the Tsarist army general who led a murderous military campaign in southern Russia and Ukraine against the revolutionary forces of the Red Army from 1917-1920. Putin arranged for the return of Deniken’s remains to Russia, and told reporters: “Deniken discusses Great Russia and Little Russia, Ukraine. He writes that no one may meddle in relations between us; that has always been the business of Russia itself”.

The development of a separate Ukrainian identity has been accelerated and enhanced by the crises that have swept over the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plokhy outlines the devastating economic crises that developed under the different regimes from 1991, and the growing dissatisfaction with the impasse of Ukrainian society. However, while providing a very useful and concise account of the events from 1991 to 2022, the background to war, and the early events of the war itself, he glosses over important features of these developments.

The struggle between different wings of the newly formed Ukrainian capitalist class following the collapse of the Soviet Union is explained: the oligarchs in the plundered industry of eastern Ukraine, who wanted to maintain links with Russia, versus the bourgeois politicians in western Ukraine who wanted to develop links with the EU and NATO. But Plokhy glosses over the endemic corruption that enshrouded them all. He shows how the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, had syphoned off billions. But he overlooks the corruption of pro-Western politicians like Viktor Yushenko, Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko.

The failure of any of the politicians to provide a way forward, and the hatred of corruption, are the reasons why virtually none of the governments have been re-elected. With the failure to develop a workers’ party to provide a genuine alternative, the Ukrainian masses have turned from one corrupt capitalist politician to another, only to be disappointed again and again. While the oligarchs and their politicians have enriched themselves, the Ukrainian working class is amongst the poorest in Europe.

Plokhy favours a liberal capitalist vision of Ukrainian independence from Russia, linked to the EU and NATO. But within the nationalist movement there also exists a fascistic far-right tradition. Plokhy overcomes this contradiction by studiously ignoring the far right and its role in Ukrainian nationalism. The alliance of right-wing nationalist Stepan Bandera with the Nazis is not mentioned. He averts his eyes without a single mention of the far-right racist Svobodba party and the fascist Right Sector. The white supremacist and Right Sector leader Andriy Biletsky, who founded the fascist Azov Battalion, is referred to as a “radical nationalist”. The arson attack by anti-Russian fighters, including Right Sector activists, that killed 42 pro-Russian protesters in a trade union building in Odessa is glossed over as a “tragedy”.

Plokhy also dismisses the legitimate fears of Russian speakers in Ukraine at the language laws passed in 2019, which prevented the use of Russian and Hungarian by government officials and public sector employees, calling them “necessary elements in nation-building”. However, discriminating against Russian speakers and the oppression of minorities is opposed by Marxists. While defending the right of national self-determination, Marxists also strive for the maximum unity of the working class, and defend the rights of national minorities within newly formed nations, opposing any form of national or ethnic repression that can divide workers. That can even include the right to autonomy for regions like the Donbas, where the majority are ethnic Russians.

So, if the reader wants to get a rough overview of the development of Ukraine and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book is quite useful. But be aware of omissions and distortions.