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Hello, this is Konstantin Skorkin.
I am a journalist and researcher of Ukrainian politics, by education – a historian. For about 10 years I was involved in political journalism in Ukraine, and in recent years I have been writing about this country for the Moscow Carnegie Center, “Meduza” and other independent publications.
In my previous text, I wrote about Ukrainian nationalism. The topic of my today’s letter is Vladimir Putin’s historical views. More specifically – his view on the history of Ukraine.
It was precisely this view that became the justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. And it also serves as a justification for aggressive war in the eyes of a large part of Russian society: apparently, many sincerely believe in its historical justice.
According to this view, modern Ukraine was created by Vladimir Lenin – and for this he deprived Russia of parts of the lands that supposedly belonged to it by right. What is Putin’s basis for this, really? Today I will tell you about it. And I will also explain why the Russian president’s ideas about history do not withstand any criticism.
In the text that you are about to read, there are more than 20,000 characters. We would say that it will take you about 15 minutes to read it, but that is not accurate. The material tells about a long period of Ukrainian history. If you read it carefully (as well as follow the links), it may take more time to fully understand the theme.
In the introduction, you will learn how Putin’s views on the “Ukrainian question” have evolved. And also, what does the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn have to do with this.
In the first part (perhaps the key one), we discuss whether Lenin really created modern Ukraine. As you may have guessed, the answer is no.
The second part explains the positive role that Bolsheviks played in strengthening the identity of Ukrainians.
The third part once again returns to Putin – to try to predict how the evolution of his historical views will affect not only Russia’s foreign policy but also its domestic policy.
At the end of the article you will find a small cheat sheet with the main dates.
Several days before the Russian military invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin made a statement in which he once again outlined his views on Ukrainian history.
He stated that modern Ukraine was created by Vladimir Lenin – the founder of the Soviet state: “He is its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archival documents, including harsh Leninist directives regarding the Donbass (we will tell you what this is later – Ed.), which were literally squeezed into Ukraine’s composition. And now the ‘grateful descendants’ have dismantled Lenin monuments in Ukraine. This is called de-communization by them.”
Putin has expressed his views on Ukrainian history before. For example, in July 2021, an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” appeared on the president’s website. Putin wrote that “modern Ukraine is entirely a child of the Soviet era.” And this “child” was supposedly created “at the expense of historical Russia”, which was “practically robbed” by Ukraine.
Putin became interested in the history of Ukraine in the late 2000s, according to Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasyanov – no later than 2008, when he spoke at the NATO Summit in Bucharest. At that time, the Russian president first hinted that, in his opinion, Ukraine was an unnatural state formation, and also accused the Bolsheviks of transferring historical Russian territories.
The president did not come up with such ideas on his own – Russian conservatives had been doubting the independence of Ukraine in its current borders long before Putin. For example, writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn shared this doubt. In his 1998 book “Russia in Collapse,” he practically wrote verbatim about what would become the basis of Putin’s views in ten years.
“In independent development – may Ukraine have every success. Its heavy mistake is precisely in this excessive expansion onto lands that had never belonged to Ukraine before Lenin: two Donetsk regions, the entire southern strip of Novorossiya (Melitopol – Kherson – Odessa) and Crimea.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn “Russia in Collapse”
In addition, the idea of holding referendums in the regions of Ukraine to decide whether they should be part of Russia or Ukraine belongs to Solzhenitsyn. In 1991, the writer called on Boris Yeltsin to intervene in Ukraine’s separation from the USSR. Solzhenitsyn believed that the result of the referendum should be considered “separately for each region,” not for Ukraine as a whole, because each Ukrainian region “should decide for themselves where they belong.” Many years later, in 2014, the Kremlin attempted to implement this idea, which resulted in the creation of self-proclaimed LNR and DNR.
It is characteristic that Putin met with Solzhenitsyn and awarded him the state prize in 2007 – this was a turning point in Putin’s foreign policy. It was then that the Russian president delivered his famous Munich speech, which marked the beginning of a new confrontation between Russia and the West.
Russian historian and political scientist Ilya Budraitskis traces Putin’s evolution on the “Ukrainian question” in his conversation. He says that at the beginning of his rule, Putin viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” And in the end, he came to the conclusion that it was necessary to correct the “mistakes” that the Bolsheviks made in creating the Soviet Union. “The war with Ukraine, from Putin’s point of view, should finally put an end to the erroneous decisions associated with the Soviet project in principle. First of all – with the idea of national self-determination. This, from his point of view, is true ‘decommunization,'” Budraitskis believes.
However, Solzhenitsyn himself never called for the use of force to reclaim the “gifted lands”, believing that nationalist sentiments simply need to be outlived “like a manifestation of a mental illness” without making “empty threatening statements” in the process.
Solzhenitsyn would not have liked the pro-Soviet nostalgia that the Kremlin has been actively exploiting for many years. That is to say, it cannot be said that Putin’s views completely coincide with Solzhenitsyn’s.
And yet the part of the writer’s legacy that concerned rejection of “Soviet gifts” to Ukraine was taken by Putin literally – as a guide to action.
Part One. How Lenin Fought against Independent Ukraine (Instead of Creating It)
Is it really true that independent Ukraine was Lenin’s brainchild, as Putin is trying to portray it? Let’s delve into it.
Lenin’s views on the “Ukrainian question” changed over time. Before the 1917 revolution, he was a staunch supporter of the right of nations to self-determination. Lenin viewed the Russian Empire as a “prison of nations” that oppressed the nationalities living within its territory.
In the brochure “Socialism and War,” Lenin wrote: “Nowhere in the world is there such oppression of the majority of the population of a country as in Russia: Russians make up only 43% of the population, that is, less than half, and everyone else is powerless, like aliens. Out of 170 million population in Russia, about 100 million are oppressed and powerless. Tsarism is waging war for the capture of Galicia and the final suppression of the freedom of the Ukrainians, for the capture of Armenia, Constantinople, and so on.”
But after coming to power, Lenin was ready to reconcile not with any form of Ukrainian statehood, but only with pro-Bolshevik. In order to somehow justify the imposition of Soviet power on other peoples, including Ukrainians, Lenin declared his opponents “bourgeois nationalists“. Moreover, even then, when it came to his recent comrades in the fight against tsarism.
The problem was that the revolution that swept the empire was perceived as an opportunity for Ukraine to gain independence. Ukrainian left-wing nationalists in the Central Rada, which was formed in Kiev after the revolution, were also considered “bourgeois” by Lenin, while he saw himself as a defender of “proletarian internationalism” and eagerly used the bayonets of the Red Army to defend it.
Therefore, Soviet Russia was practically at war with Ukrainian socialists from the very first days of its existence. Within a year of the February Revolution of 1917, the Sovnarkom issued an ultimatum to the Central Rada, demanding that they cease allowing parts of the former Tsarist army to pass through Ukrainian territory, which were headed to aid the emerging White movement in the Don region.
“Rada would make us declare war on her without hesitation, even if she were already a fully formal and indisputable body of the highest state power of the independent bourgeois republic of Ukraine,” Lenin acknowledged the inevitability of a “preventive war” in a very Putin-style way at that time.
In other words, Lenin and his party did play a significant role in Ukrainians’ desire to distance themselves from Russia. But not in the way Putin sees it. When left radicals came to power in the empire, national peripheries wanted to quickly separate – it was the revolution that prompted Ukraine to seek independence. Prior to this, Ukrainian nationalists advocated for an autonomous Ukraine within the Russian Republic, which was reflected in the first Universal of the Central Rada, which was issued in June 1917. But in January 1918, against the backdrop of Soviet Russia’s aggression, the fourth Universal was adopted – it proclaimed the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic.
Universals are state legal acts that were issued by the Central Rada in 1917 and 1918. Originally, “universals” referred to decrees issued by hetmans of Ukrainian Cossacks in the 16th-17th centuries. In total, there are four known Universals of the Central Rada, authored by Ukrainian politician and writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko.
The Bolsheviks were, of course, not pleased with this. To fight for power over Ukrainian lands, they declared a parallel Soviet Ukrainian People’s Republic in Kharkiv. Later, it was renamed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The war between Soviet Russia on behalf of the USSR and the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic de facto lasted until 1920. It ended with the military victory of the Bolsheviks. However, the resistance of Ukrainians made Soviet leadership more cautious about the national question in Ukrainian territories. It is for this reason that the USSR maintained quasi-statehood until the dissolution of the Union.
In short, Lenin cannot be called an architect or creator of modern Ukraine. On the contrary, he began a war against the independent Ukrainian state, and as the Ukrainian historian and Harvard professor Sergei Plokhii notes, “replaced it with a puppet state called the Ukrainian SSR.” Thus, Lenin tried to rebuild the collapsed empire, and the “Ukrainian question” was certainly not the main focus of this rebuilding process. Lenin was primarily interested in the global idea of a communist revolution.
In turn, Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasyanov believes that “calling Lenin the creator of the Ukrainian state is ridiculous.” “He acted in conditions when there were already precedents for the historical and legal existence of Ukrainian statehood outside the Bolshevik project. Ukrainians created Ukraine. And it is important to note – primarily Ukrainians of leftist views. The leaders of the UNR, including Mikhailo Hrushevsky, were socialists, influential Ukrainian left SR fighters, with whom the Bolsheviks had to reckon.”
All of these complex events are known as the civil war in Ukraine – although in Ukrainian historiography they prefer to call them “vysvol’nyh zmahan” or liberation struggles. And there was another important part of this struggle – the story of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic.
At the end of 1917, some Ukrainian Bolsheviks, who primarily focused on the Russian-speaking proletariat of eastern Ukraine, conceived the idea of creating their own Soviet republic. According to their plan, it was not supposed to be subordinate to the government of Soviet Ukraine (the very Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets that later became the Ukrainian SSR), but to be in a federative association with Central Russia.
The Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic existed during the winter and spring of 1918. In fact, it only controlled the territory of Donbass, and its capital was located in Luhansk for some time. Donbass communists were skeptical of the idea of an independent Ukraine, even in a socialist form. They believed that new forms of territorial units after the revolution should be based on economic and management prerequisites, rather than national ones.
However, this idea was not understood by Lenin either. He believed that in order to maintain power in the peasant Ukraine, the Bolsheviks needed a stronghold in the form of the proletarian Donbass as part of the USSR. There is a telegram from one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, Yakov Sverdlov, addressed to the Donbass Bolsheviks: “We consider the separation (that is, the separation from the USSR. – Ed.) to be harmful.” And in February 1919, at the suggestion of Lenin, a resolution was adopted on the liquidation of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic – the very “directives on the Donbass” that Putin spoke about shortly before the invasion.
The Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic served as a source of inspiration for a new wave of Donbass separatists already in the 21st century. And their idea that Lenin forcibly kept Donbass in a foreign Ukraine eventually gained recognition at the level of Russian state ideology – as a justification for territorial claims to modern Ukraine.
Part two. What Ukrainians themselves think of their Soviet past
The Soviet period had a truly significant impact on the formation of modern Ukraine. However, it should not be overestimated. Yes, the current Ukrainian borders recognized by the international community were finally formed under Soviet rule. But there were other important precedents.
For example, Western and Eastern Ukraine united for the first time without any involvement of the Bolsheviks. The Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (WUPR) became a single state on January 22, 1919, based on the “Act of Unity” (Act of Unity). Nowadays, this day is celebrated as a national holiday – the Day of Unity of Ukraine.
And even the continuity of Ukraine itself has a dual character. On the one hand, on September 12, 1991, the Supreme Council recognized an independent Ukraine as the successor to the Ukrainian SSR. On the other hand, on August 22, 1992, the last president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in exile, Mykola Plaviuk, transferred his powers to Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (thus ending the historical dispute between two paths of national development).
At the same time, the Bolsheviks did do something good for strengthening the identity of Ukrainians. In the 1920s, they implemented a policy in the Ukrainian SSR called “Ukrainization” (spreading the national language) and “Korenization” (promoting the advancement of indigenous nationalities in leadership positions). American historian Terry Martin even called the USSR an “empire of positive discrimination.” The communists sought to use the energy of previously oppressed nationalities, including Ukrainians, to strengthen their power. Therefore, they provided them not only with formal equality, but also with real additional opportunities.
“The Bolshevik strategy was to seize leadership over the seemingly inevitable process of decolonization and implement it in a way that would preserve the territorial integrity of the old Russian Empire and ensure the construction of a new centralized socialist state,” wrote Martin.
A significant role in this was played by representatives of the Ukrainian national-communist movement, including Nikolay Skrypnik, Alexander Shumsky, Vasily Shakhrai, and Sergey Mazlakh. They all advocated for the expansion of the powers of socialist Ukraine and its independence from the Soviet center. Until 1925, in the Ukrainian SSR, in parallel with the official Communist Party, there was even another – the UKP. It emerged based on the unification of non-Bolshevik leftists – the radical wing of the Ukrainian Social Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
The Bolsheviks’ idea worked – reforms, language and culture development led to the intelligentsia from Western Ukraine moving to the Ukrainian SSR to participate in building socialism. The Bolsheviks even reconciled with some of their political opponents – for example, the largest Ukrainian historian and head of the Central Rada in 1917-1918, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, returned from emigration.
But everything changed after the final rise to power of Joseph Stalin and the beginning of the construction of a totalitarian state in the USSR. Ukrainization was stopped, national cadres and intellectuals were subjected to the harshest purges. And Stalin’s policy of collectivization (that is, the consolidation of individual peasant farms into collective farms and state farms) led to the Holodomor – the monstrous famine of 1932-1933, which claimed millions of lives. Modern Ukraine and several other countries (including, for example, the USA, Canada, Italy, and Australia) have recognized the Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Nowadays, the attitude towards the Soviet period in modern Ukrainian society becomes more and more negative every year. This is confirmed by the results of the Ukrainian sociological agency “Rating”. From 2010 to 2022, the proportion of Ukrainians nostalgic for the USSR decreased from 46% to 11%. The positive attitude towards Soviet figures also decreases from year to year: in 2016, 25% of Ukrainians viewed Lenin favorably, while in 2022 it was only 13%; in 2012, 24% of respondents positively evaluated Stalin, while this year only 7% did so.
On the other hand, the attitude towards the activists of the Ukrainian national movement of the 20th century in the country is getting better every year. In April 2022, 83% of Ukrainians had a positive opinion of Mykhailo Hrushevsky (in 2016 it was 72%), 74% of Stepan Bandera (in 2012 – 22%), and 49% of Symon Petliura (in 2012 – 26%).
The changes in the mass consciousness of Ukrainians are facilitated, among other things, by the state policy of “decommunization” launched in 2015 under President Petro Poroshenko. It entails renaming streets and settlements whose names are associated with the Soviet period, demolition of Soviet monuments, prohibition of “totalitarian symbolism,” opening of archives of Soviet special services, and granting official status to organizations that fought for Ukraine’s independence.
Also as part of decommunization in Ukraine, the memory of national liberation figures is being perpetuated. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory plays an important role in this (although its activities have been criticized for excessive politicization of the subject and manipulation of historical facts).
Part three. Why does Putin criticize Lenin – but does not like it when his monuments are removed
The Kremlin explains its aggressive policy with the historical mistakes of the Bolsheviks, while continuing to appeal to the common Soviet past.
Putin’s ideology is full of such contradictions. On the one hand, Lenin is the creator of “anti-Russian” statehood in Ukraine; on the other hand, Moscow considers the dismantling of his monuments in Ukraine as “Russophobia”. It has even reached the point of absurdity: in cities captured by the Russian army, Lenin monuments are now being restored.
Historian and political scientist Ilya Budraitskis explains these contradictions by the fact that for Vladimir Putin, as a true conservative, the form is paramount – the symbol of the state. This symbol should not, in Putin’s eyes, be subjected to attacks or desecration under any circumstances.
Putin’s respect for Soviet symbolism, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and his monuments is associated with this continuity of state forms, which carry imperial content. “In his worldview, this is a manifestation of eternal, timeless Russia, taking on different historical faces,” continues Budraitkis.
Historical arguments in favor of aggressive war for Putin are also a symbol – a symbol of the revival of the Russian Empire. For example, experts note the amendments to the Russian Constitution in 2020, which emphasize the state-forming role of the Russian people (as we remember, this is exactly what Lenin opposed before the revolution).
Putin’s evolution towards Orthodox-imperial nationalism will undoubtedly affect not only the Kremlin’s foreign policy but also its domestic policy, argues Budraitkis. That is, the Russian government will continue to try to unify national republics within Russia – as relics of Soviet national policy.
“The top priority is unity of the peoples around the ‘older brother’. After all, if the goal of this war is the restoration of the ‘triunity of the Russian people’ (referring to the concept of one of the ideologists of creating the Russian Empire, advisor to Peter I Feofan Prokopovich about Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians as a single nation – Ed), then the role of the ‘great Russians’ among the multinational people of the Russian Federation should be strengthened,” he continues.
In general, Putin’s policy is not based on recognizing the sovereignty of other states, but on defending the sovereignty of the Russian people, including outside of Russia.
According to this logic, Russian culture and language have sovereignty everywhere where their carriers live – which means that Russia is also there, its borders can reach there too.
Putin condemns Lenin for his national policies that led to the creation of an independent Ukraine- and yet he himself follows in his footsteps.
So, the Russian aggression, which is based on the same imperial complexes, but is no longer covered by Soviet dreams of world revolution, leads to even greater cohesion of the Ukrainian nation.
Perhaps, after decades, some of Putin’s heirs will bitterly regret the mistakes of his national policy. After all, it is Putin who ultimately puts an end to the domination of the “elder brother” in the former imperial space.
Main dates and events
- On March 17, 1917, after the collapse of the Romanov monarchy as a result of the February Revolution, the Central Rada was created in Kiev – a representative body of Ukrainian parties and public organizations.
- June 10, 1917: The Central Rada proclaims the autonomy of Ukraine within the framework of Russia.
- November 20, 1917: The Ukrainian People’s Republic, or UPR (initially as an autonomy), is proclaimed.
- On December 25, 1917, in opposition to the UNR (Ukrainian People’s Republic), the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.
- January 22, 1918: The Ukrainian People’s Republic declares its independence; by that time the Bolsheviks had already disbanded the Constituent Assembly, which was supposed to decide on the state structure of the former empire.
- On February 12, 1918, the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic was created, which aimed to maintain its independence from Soviet Ukraine.
- February 17, 1919: The Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic is abolished by the central Bolshevik leadership.
- March 10, 1919: The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) is proclaimed, which will exist until 1991.
- November 12, 1920: As a result of defeat in the war against the Bolsheviks, the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic goes into exile; the last head of the emigration government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Mykola Plaviuk, will transfer his powers to the first President of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, only in 1992.
- March 18, 1921: Soviet Russia, Ukrainian SSR and Poland signed the Treaty of Riga, which divided the territory of Ukraine – Central and Eastern Ukraine remained part of the Ukrainian SSR, while Western Ukraine was annexed to the Polish Republic.
- On December 30th, 1922, the USSR was created, which included Ukraine as a separate Soviet republic.