Thursday, November 27, 2014

Stalin, Father of Ukraine?

Stalin, Father of Ukraine?
By STEPHEN KOTKIN NOV. 27, 2014, New York Times

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 naïve. “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. Lenin’s vision amounted to an overconfident bet on world revolution. Stalin also believed in world revolution, but his proposal — annexation into Russia — would have been a hedge on that bet.

In 1991, of course, the Soviet Union dissolved. Ukraine, having avoided absorption into Russia thanks to Lenin, became independent. But the new nation encompassed as much land as it did thanks to Stalin.

When it was first formed, Soviet Ukraine had no natural border in the east with Soviet Russia. The demarcation disappointed all sides — and it is the site of today’s separatist rebellion. In the west, as a result of his 1939 pact with Hitler, Stalin seized eastern Poland and joined it to Ukraine. The city today known as Lviv was then a largely Polish­ and Yiddish­-speaking community, surrounded by a Ukrainian­-speaking countryside; under Stalin and his successors the city would become predominantly Ukrainian-speaking — and the center of western Ukrainian nationalism.

With the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Stalin annexed Transcarpathia, formerly part of Czechoslovakia, and now the southwest corner of Ukraine. Finally, Crimea, at the time a predominantly ethnic Russian territory, was transferred to Ukraine from Russia in a decision taken under Stalin but implemented only after he had died, in 1954, on the 300th anniversary of the Cossack request for imperial Russia’s protection against the Polish-­Lithuanian commonwealth.

Except for Crimea, today’s nationalist Ukraine is a bequeathal of Stalin. It’s true that he executed countless officials of Ukrainian (and every other) ethnicity. But as the Soviet state expanded, he promoted still more Ukrainians to take their places. Even when he belatedly made study of Russian language a requirement in all Soviet schools, he did not discontinue instruction in national vernacular languages.

Of course, in helping to enlarge and consolidate Soviet Ukraine, Stalin never imagined that the Soviet Union would someday disappear. And so Mr. Putin faces a formidable obstacle.

He is said by diplomats to have told President George W. Bush, at a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008 that “Ukraine is not even a state.” And in claiming territory from Ukraine, Mr. Putin has cited Catherine the Great’s Black Sea conquests and creation of “New Russia” in the late 18th century. But Mr. Putin cannot escape more recent history.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has rendered Ukraine even more ethnically Ukrainian, and helped elect Ukraine’s first ever pro­-European parliamentary majority. One does not have to take sides over the human tragedy unfolding in eastern Ukraine to grasp that, whether Mr. Putin does or does not have clear strategic goals, he cannot wipe out the fruits of the Soviet period.

Mr. Putin cannot simply swallow Ukraine — it is no longer “New Russia.” And unlike Stalin — indeed, because of Stalin, and because of his regime’s own behavior — Mr. Putin cannot entice Ukraine back into a new “Eurasian” union with Russia either. Ukrainians have little affection for Stalin’s dictatorship, but their struggle for statehood owes much to his legacy — a legacy that, for different reasons, neither they nor Mr. Putin like to think about.

Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton, is the author of “Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928.”

See also John Brown, The Irony of Current Russian-Ukrainian Relations (Huffington Post, 8/11/2014)

In all the wise commentary on the tragic Russia-Ukraine situation, I have seen few observations (admissions?) that 20th-century Ukraine is essentially a Soviet geopolitical construction, although by now it is common knowledge that Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine in 1954.

I need not repeat summaries of the history of Soviet-created Ukraine; they are available (granted, through various interpretations, on the Internet). As for the immensely talented and cultivated people living in the former Ukraine SSR, they more than ever deserve global admiration for their unique achievements, given the political oppression they have endured for centuries under various empires (vampires?)/regimes. Gogol and Shevchenko didn't come out of nowhere.

History is full of ironies. But it does seem particularly ironic that the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, reportedly nostalgic about the USSR, is -- by questioning the territorial integrity of communist-imagined Ukraine -- further dismantling the now-defunct Soviet Union.
In VVP's pre-Bolshevik, tsarist imperial dreams, Mother Russia should not limit herself to being only one member of that passé geographical expression, the USSR. Granted, Russia SSR was numero uno among the so-called Soviet republics. But that hegemonic position among "equals" is not enough for Tsar Vlad. He aims for nothing less -- I surmise from "news" reports -- than the absorption, by Russia, of "Made in the USSR" Ukraine/sections of what was the Ukraine SSR. In his words, "We need a great Russia." His reasons? Quien sabe.

Allow me to stretch historical irony to an intellectual breaking point. Is Putin, supposedly an admirer of the good old CCCP, who is described by one of his star TV propagandists as "comparable among his predecessors in the twentieth century only with Stalin," not in fact a traitor by Soviet standards? How would Stalin have reacted to a minor ex-KGB agent's efforts to place more nails in the Soviet coffin?

Such ideological misbehavior could of course be done with by "liquidating" VVP by means of an anti-Putin 1930s Moscow-style trial. Or maybe hard-nosed communist admirers of non-ethnically Russian, Georgia native Uncle Joe could offload russkii Volodya on exile to yet another former SSR republic (Georgia), Stalin's birthplace, known among culinary experts for its exceptional food and wine?

But that of course would be too generous by Stalin's standards. Under the mustached Man of Steel, Vladimir Vladimirovich would more likely end up in a Siberian Gulag, where he would keep himself mentally warm (and here I am, of course, adding a scene to the theater of the absurd defining Russian-Ukrainian relations today) by VV praying en cachette for an American visa, all the while keeping his half-frozen fingers

crossed that his daughter would keep on living comfortably in Holland in case papa couldn't make it to Brighton Beach under the excuse of being an anti-Soviet "dissident"...

Top image (flag of Ukraine SSR) from; Shevchenko image from; Putin/daughter image from article under the headline "Dutch furious after Putin's daughter is found living in Holland"

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