Vladimir Putin’s speech on February 21 will go down in history for the most ominous of reasons. In announcing recognition of the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, his address moreover provided a prelude to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that followed on Thursday. In the speech, Putin served up all manner of nationalistic, Great Russian resentment. Here we will focus on just one important aspect: his historical digression on the emergence of Ukraine — and the possible consequences this digression could have.
According to Putin, Ukraine was “for us” (he claimed to speak for the Russian people), “not just a neighboring country” but “an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. These are our friends, our relatives; not only colleagues, friends, and former work colleagues, but also our relatives and close family members.” Modern Ukraine, however, was created entirely by Bolshevik, Communist Russia “after the October putsch,” as Putin called the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. At the time of its greatest weakness, Putin said, Vladimir Lenin “met all the demands, all the wishes of the nationalists inside the country.”
But, he insisted, “in terms of the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, the Leninist principles of state-building were not only a mistake, but far worse than a mistake.” Putin was here referring to the right to self-determination the Bolsheviks proclaimed for the nations of the Russian Empire, up to and including the right to secede. With the collapse of the USSR, Putin said, Ukrainian governments began “to build their statehood on the denial of everything that unites us, they tried to distort the consciousness and historical memory of millions of people, entire generations living in Ukraine.” But he further alleged that Ukraine has essentially no stable tradition of genuine statehood. Moreover, since 2014, he said, Ukraine has been under the political and economic protectorate of the West and has been “reduced to the level of a colony with a puppet regime.” He consistently maintained that Ukraine was a traditionless entity that had been arbitrarily separated from Russia. But the reality was and is different.
It is true that for centuries Ukraine belonged to various states: to the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, to the Russian Empire, partly to the Habsburg monarchy, to the Soviet Union, and, until 1939, in its western half, also to the Republic of Poland. In 1945, with the addition of the previously Czechoslovak Carpatho-Ukraine, the country belonged for the first time entirely to the Soviet Union.
However, already in March 1917, a Ukrainian republic was established with the historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky as president. The Rada (parliament) demanded its autonomy within a federal Russia. In the wake of the October Revolution, the Rada then declared Ukraine a people’s republic, and in the elections the non-Bolshevik parties received a majority. Two Bolshevik uprisings before the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 ended with the capture of Kiev, but troops of the People’s Republic, supported by the German and Austrian armies, recaptured the city in March 1918. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic had concluded the so-called “Bread Peace” of Brest with the Central Powers on February 9, which assured Ukrainian grain supplies to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bolshevik Russia had to accept the results of this separate peace — the loss of Ukraine — in the subsequent Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty.
In April 1918, the Central Powers dissolved the Rada and installed General Pavlo Skoropadsky as head of state. The latter was ousted in December and the non-Bolshevik People’s Republic was restored. The Bolsheviks did not come to terms with this: after the collapse of the Central Powers, they launched a military offensive and captured Kiev in January 1919 and all of eastern Ukraine by early 1920. The war was marked by anti-Jewish massacres — the largest wave of exterminations before Auschwitz — in which anti-Bolshevik forces were by far the main culprits (Bolshevik pogromists were shot at the orders of People’s Commissar Leon Trotsky). Western Ukraine also declared itself a people’s republic, in 1918, in order to join the eastern republic. However, it was occupied by Poland until the partition of the Polish state between Germany and the USSR in September 1939.
The short period of statehood should not obscure the fact that a modern Ukrainian national consciousness striving for independence already existed in the nineteenth century — a fact Putin omitted entirely. Ukrainian, devalued by some Russians as a peasant dialect, became a literary language through writers such as Ivan Kotlyarevsky and later Taras Shevchenko. This process was advanced by historians such as Mykola Kostomarov and Volodymyr Antonovich, but especially by the latter’s student Hrushevsky. In many works, the latter examined the independent culture of the Ukrainian people, whose achievements, despite strong points of contact, were not automatically part of Russian culture. Although Hrushevsky was considered a “bourgeois” historian in the Soviet Union (he died in Kiev in 1934), he was still able to continue his research. Their results appeared in publications by historians in Soviet Ukraine as well as by Ukrainian emigrants in the West.
Historians Omeljan Pritsak and Ivan Rudnytsky created world-renowned research institutions on Ukrainian history and culture at Harvard and the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. Since 1991, these institutions have been working in cooperation with Ukrainian colleagues to dismantle the remnants of the Stalinist historical image. Restoring this same image (but without its pseudo-communist whitewashing) is one of the goals of Vladimir Putin and his supporters.
“Do you want de-communization?” asked Putin, citing the demolition of Lenin monuments in Ukraine. “Well, we are very happy with it. But we must not, as they say, stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real de-communization means for Ukraine.” Lenin’s internationalism and Putin’s Great Russian chauvinism are, indeed, incompatible.
All this should show socialists in particular that the man ruling the Kremlin is their bitter enemy. This is true regardless of all the cardinal errors of the West. The Putin government bears full responsibility for the current war, taking up the imperial desires of tsarist Russia, which Joseph Stalin resumed after the break with the Bolshevik internationalism of 1917.
Putin presents himself as the patron saint of all Russian minorities who he alleges are threatened by “genocide.” This historical lie may have further consequences, for Russian minorities also live in the Baltic States. Will their NATO membership deter Russia from invading — even in the case that a (reelected) Donald Trump sends signals that give Putin a free hand? As improbable as this sounds, what is currently unfolding sounded just as unlikely only weeks ago.
All the more important is a broad international peace movement to hobble Russia’s current war and oppose future military buildup. Anyone in Russia who dares to protest against the war deserves the greatest possible support — however small the possibilities may be at present.