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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Ukraine under the Soviets
by Clarence Manning

published by
Bookman Associates
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4

 p35  Chapter Three

The Period of Militant Communism

Any interpretation of the so‑called period of Militant Communism which extended from the Soviet seizure of power to the spring of 1921 must rest upon the individual estimation of the sincerity and idealism of Lenin and his associates. If we assume that they had a real belief in the principles of Marxism as it developed into Communism, the period must seem one of disillusionment on the world, national and regional scale. If, on the other hand, the stress is to be laid upon their seizure and maintenance of power, the period becomes a further step in the total disintegration of society in the former Russian Empire and in the destruction of all those institutions and conceptions handed down from the past or developed by the democratic Ukrainian National Republic.

On the world scale it became almost immediately obvious that the world revolution as projected and preached by Lenin and Trotsky in 1918 was not going to occur in the immediate future. The failure of the Communists to secure control of Germany and the defeat of Bela Kun in Hungary reduced the Communist International from an association of revolutionary representatives of Communist nations and governments to a gathering of exiled and embittered conspirators totally dependent upon the will of the Russian Communists in the Kremlin. This, even had Lenin been sincere, would have inevitably inspired him with the idea of collecting the territory of the Russian Empire for his own advantage.

In the first heat of enthusiasm the Petrograd Soviet had confiscated all property, nationalized land and industry and embarked on a series of far‑reaching changes. They thought of the land question in terms of the use of land by the village community and of  p36 industry and factories by the workers and they did their best to inflame the workers and peasants against the great landlords and the factory owners and administrators. In this they succeeded admirably and the already low standard of living in the Russian Empire began to drop lower and lower.

Under such conditions it became more and more necessary for the Soviet leaders in Moscow to make renewed efforts to master Ukraine and to inject some apparent vitality into their puppet, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In this they were finally success­ful, but even though the Communists came back into Ukraine, they did not venture to destroy the fiction of Ukrainian independence, although they had no intention of allowing it to develop.

From the moment of its formation and adoption of a Communist Constitution on March 14, 1919, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic declared itself an independent and sovereign state. It was recognized with all due pomp and formality by Lenin, who again stressed it in his Letters and Workmen and Peasants of Ukraine in his efforts to strengthen the opposition to Denikin. The Ukrainian Soviet Government was represented at the Conference in Riga that ended the Soviet-Polish War in the fall of 1920. The travesty was continued when, in December of the same year, Lenin concluded with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic a formal treaty of alliance in which Ukraine, for purposes of defense, graciously handed over to Moscow the commissariats of war, navy, foreign trade, railroads, finances, labor, posts and telegraphs and the Supreme Council of National Economy. It still retained the right to have its own diplomatic representatives in Poland, Germany and Austria, countries which had recognized the Ukrainian National Republic, and there were still preserved Ukrainian military schools to train officers for the Ukrainian army in both Kharkiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and Kiev.

Still all this was merely a sham arrangement, for the bulk of the forces that fought against the Ukrainian National Republic were Russian and they operated with no regard for the feelings even of the Ukrainian Communists. They moved at will over Ukrainian territory, collected supplies at will and shipped them  p37 to Russia and they behaved in every way as if they were in their own territory.

The key to this enigma is to be found in the fact that the Ukrainian Communist Party was not regarded as an independent Communist Party with a seat in the Comintern, but was merely a branch of the Russian Communist Party. Its officers were therefore appointed at will and changed at the pleasure of the Russian Party. Its discipline and actions were controlled by Moscow and any independent Ukrainian development could be countermanded by a mere word from the centre. By this extremely simple device Lenin could maintain his hold over the Ukrainian Communists, even in the unlikely case that the Comintern was revitalized by the Communist seizure of power in another of the large states.

The policy did not fail to arouse criticism, even during the wars, by some of the Ukrainian members of the Party. In 1920, a "fraction of the federalists" was formed under Yu. Lapchynsky with the aid of S. Kirychenko, P. Slynko and E. Kasyanenko. It was naturally dissolved as soon as its importance was recognized, and its leaders were expelled from the Party. They accordingly joined the Ukapisty and only returned when that voluntarily liquidated itself some years later.

There were thus at the moment of the ending of the Civil Wars three Communist Parties in Ukraine, the official KP/b/U, the branch of the Russian Party, the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty) and the Ukapisty, i.e. the Ukrainian Communist Party.

The Borotbisty were the first to go. They had been formed out of the Left Social Revolutionists and were less sure of their Marxian knowledge but they contained many of the leftist Ukrainian intellectuals who valued the development of Ukrainian culture. The group had been praised by Lenin for its great part in the defeat of Denikin. In the spring of 1920, the proposal was made that they fully join the Ukrainian Branch of the Russian Communist Party. Shumsky and Blakytny led the affirmative. The spokesmen for the opposition were Poloz and Panas Lyubchenko, who was later to be the head of the UkSSR and to commit suicide in 1937. The  p38 affirmative triumphed, and the Borotbisty were dissolved as a separate group. They were given the nominal right of choosing two members for the Executive Committee of the KP/b/U but this was, of course, an empty phrase, since that Executive Committee was itself but an agent and tool of the Executive Committee in Moscow.

The Ukapisty offered a more serious threat, for they were trained in Marxian dialectics and they knew the weak points in the program of the Moscow centre. They accepted the Marxian analysis of capitalist society and the Leninist theory of imperialism, the dictator­ship of the proletariat and the Soviet regime. As regards the question of nationality, they shared the Marxist-Leninist conception but in contrast to the Russian Communist Party they adapted this to suit a non‑ruling and enslaved nation. The Ukapisty theoretically based the difference between its attitude and that of the Russian Communist Party on the fact that the latter represented the proletariat of a dominant nation, while they stood for the proletariat of an enslaved nation. Thus the one considered the question of nationality as a question of tactics connected with the spreading of the proletarian revolution; for the other it was a question of program connected with the liberation of the people and itself not only from capitalistic but also from national enslavement. They condemned the Russian Bolshevik practices in Ukraine and, in contrast to the Bolshevik idea of spreading the revolution by armed force (an idea which collapsed with the defeat of the Red Army at Warsaw in 1920 and which was then condemned by Lenin himself), they believed in the "internal forces," i.e. that the revolution would only be organic and lasting if it was carried out by the internal forces of each nation and not if it was introduced by bayonets from abroad. They stood therefore for an independent Ukrainian Soviet state, with its own red army, its own independent economy, and its entrance into the Comintern on an equal footing with all other Communist parties.

The Ukapisty were allowed to exist until 1925 and it was not until the Comintern was willing to declare that it was Muscovite to the core and that all foreign Communist parties were of right  p39 subordinate, that the Ukapist appeal for inclusion was definitely rejected and that the group was offered the choice of suppression or of self-liquidation. They accordingly accepted the voluntary decision and signed their own death warrants as had the Borotbisty by their early submission.

All three parties had the same general attitude toward all non‑Communists and bourgeois groups. They were in general agreement that these had to be destroyed and driven from political and social importance. Thus, all adopted a hostile attitude toward the nationalists who had supported Petlyura and the Ukrainian National Republic. They attacked the remains of the Social Revolutionists, the Social Democrats, and all the non‑Marxian or Marxian groups that did not accept a strict Communism. They dissolved the organizations and seized their property, while they imprisoned many of the older leaders and tried to humiliate them in the eyes of the Ukrainian public.

Thus in 1921, they staged in Kharkiv a public trial of the members of the Executive Committee of the Social Revolutionists. The list included V. Holubovych, the Prime Minister at the time of Brest-Litovsk, N. Petrenko, P. Hubenko (Ostap Vyshnya), Lyzanivsky and many others. They were charged with hostility to the "government of workers and peasants" but apparently the regime was not too sure of its ground and merely sentenced them to relatively short terms in prison.

It was not only the politicians who suffered, for the new regime attacked every institution which it did not control. In 1920 it abolished all Ukrainian professional organizations and trades unions, including such as the Poltava Society of Workers in Cooperatives and similar groups in Kiev, Kharkiv, and other cities. Then, by arrests of the leaders of the cooperative societies, it forced new elections and put into power only those persons who had the direct approval of the Russian Bolsheviks.

It was next the turn of the purely cultural organizations. All the societies of the Prosvita (Enlightenment) which operated a chain of reading rooms, schools, libraries, theatres, etc. were disbanded on the ground that they were connected with the Rada  p40 of the old Ukrainian National Republic. The regime arrested and shot as chauvinist counter-revolutionaries many of the active workers. Those who were spared at the moment were treated as members of the proscribed classes and were punished by the exclusion of their children from schools, the denial of food cards, etc., all the traditional devices to eliminate the counter-revolutionary and suspected classes.

At the same time the government confiscated all the funds of educational institutions and the private organizations which had, during the Ukrainian National Republic and earlier, been interested in educational and scientific work. It closed the Ukrainian scientific societies in Kharkiv and Kiev and it put an end to all of the pre‑Soviet journals, newspapers, and magazines. The Ukrainian Academy of Sciences which had been planned during the regime of Hetman Skoropadsky but had not commenced its work, was treated somewhat more leniently and it was allowed to open largely to support the pretext that the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was an independent state, although it was made clear that Communist influence would be exerted on its statutes and organization.

Such a period of intellectual disintegration could not fail to leave its mark on all aspects of Ukrainian culture and art. The older writers who had achieved some prominence before 1914 either retired again into the emigration or they became silent. The younger generation, which was just rising into prominence, was either driven into temporary seclusion or, for the most part, swept into the surging current of events. They felt the leftward urge of many of the intellectuals and tried in one way or another to catch the spirit of the times in their works.

Yet it must be realized that, as in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, there still did not exist a predominant party line in the field of literature and the arts. Writers, painters and dramatists of widely differing tendencies accepted the revolution and loudly protested that they and they alone were the true mouthpieces of the times and greedily sought for support from the commissars.

They were the more fortunate in this because the bulk of the  p41 leaders, like Rakovsky, had little appreciation of Ukrainian life. Few of them understood the language and they preferred to work through the Russians in the cities and the Donets basin. They were, however, still unable to deal advantageously with the villages where the Ukrainian population was chiefly congregated and they allowed the former Borotbisty to secure key positions in the People's Commissariat for Education. Thus it came about that the one commissariat which could exert the most direct influence on the cultural life of the country was the one in which the Ukrainian influence was the strongest.

The time was not propitious for the publication of works of large size and of high artistic value. The years 1919, 1920 and 1921 were years of turmoil when nothing seemed to be real and permanent except death and violence of every kind. The mere struggle for existence was so intense that it absorbed the energy of almost the entire population and the economic decay spread like a creeping paralysis over the land. To the destruction of the civil wars and of the fighting with Denikin were now added the ravages of the Communist detachments, which swarmed over the country seeking for food to take to the north to save the Russians.

In the early months it would be hardly fair to talk of a Communist government, for while the theorists were debating as to how they should build socialism and Communism, armed Communist bands organized under the Red Army or under the Cheka (the Extraordinary Committee for Suppression of the Counter-Revolution) indulged in mass terror, murder and robbery.

The measures adopted in Petrograd and Moscow for the distribution of the land were ill adapted for the Ukrainian situation. It was only natural that these were applied with a certain amount of peasant approval at the expense of the larger Russian and Polish landlords, many of whom had cooperated with the Germans. This was the more natural because in pre‑war days the bulk of the grain that had been exported from Ukraine had come from these estates and, as everywhere in peasant Europe, the confiscation and division of the land among the peasants reduced the amount of food stuffs available for the urban population.

 p42  The natural result was the growing depopulation of the cities. Peasants who had gone into industry now flowed back to their native villages and demanded their share of the land in the hope that they might be able to raise food for themselves and their families. This increased the already overcrowded rural population and intensified the bitterness that was felt among all classes.

The hatred thus aroused was increased by the formation of committees of poor and landless peasants to take over the estates. Yet in Ukraine there was an important sector of the population who had been the owners and proprietors of from two to nearly one hundred acres of land. In some districts these included nearly a quarter of the peasant families and in an attempt to propitiate them the Soviets were frequently inclined to favor them and allow them to retain their holdings instead of dividing them amongst the more idle and shiftless of the population.

Yet this did not serve to maintain agricultural production, for the crying demand of Moscow was for food. The Communists had abolished all markets and taxes but they substituted for them a rule that the peasants were to turn over their entire crop to the government and should retain for themselves only 31 pounds of grain per month for each member of the family. This naturally dissatisfied the peasants who had been won to the support of the new regime by the promises of the government that they could secure for their own use the land of the state and of the landlords. Each year, as the Soviets tried to enforce the collection, they planted less and less acreage and resorted to more skilful methods of hiding what they did produce in the hope that they might somehow exchange it for those manufactured products of which they were in urgent need.

The counterbalance this, the Russian detachments made more and more extensive raids and they were not satisfied to take merely the legal surplus. They seized everything in the way of food and supplies on which they could lay their hands and, in case of opposition, they ruthlessly shot the peasants without any trial or investigation as counter-revolutionaries. In a sense they succeeded in their mission, for the food collectors in 1920 secured in Ukraine 2,560,000  p43 tons of grain or about 75% of the total amount that they secured in the whole of the former Russian Empire.

This led to new clashes and with the suppression of the larger armed partisan bands, there grew up a new feeling of ugliness that boded ill for the security of the whole regime. The success of the Communists in the industrial centres was thus balanced by their failure to win over any substantial part of the rural population.

In the cities the new regime met with problems of another kind. The workers in the great coal and iron industry where Communism was strongest had at a very early date expelled the managers and foremen and had taken over themselves the operation of the plants, many of which had been ruined in the civil war. Now they found that they were not able to restore production. Industry practically came to a halt and by the end of 1921 there was only one blast furnace operating in Ukraine. The production of pig‑iron dropped to 11,300 tons, or barely 3% of the pre‑war production. The railroads suffered the same fate. There was no way of repairing them and without a trained administrative staff, they almost stopped functioning. This, in turn, increased unemployment and a lack of food in the cities and once more the city dwellers began to stream out into the country districts.

As a final blow there came in 1920 one of those periods of drought which have recurred sporadically in Ukraine throughout the centuries. In view of the general decay in transportation and the ravages of the war, this became serious and the situation grew even worse when the same phenomenon was repeated in 1921. Between the drought and the raiding detachments, the peasants had no reserves of grain and a famine broke out which cost the lives of several million Ukrainians.

This famine was very definitely the result of Communist mismanagement, plus the drought, but the Soviet regime was unable to take any effective counter-measures. When its extent was realized, the regime allowed through the League of Nations the organization of the American Relief Administration under Herbert Hoover. This collected and sent to the stricken areas large quantities of grain but it carried on its work with such impartiality that  p44 it ignored for humanitarian motives the discontent of the peasants and its operations enabled the Soviet regime to master a storm which would otherwise have endangered its very existence. It is interesting in this connection that the Soviet regime only with the greatest reluctance allowed relief work to be carried on in Ukraine, where the famine conditions were the worst. Their only interest was in the Volga area inhabited by Great Russians and they tried to use the assumed independence of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic as an excuse for refusing to allow help to be extended.

Thus by the spring of 1922 the policy of Militant Communism had broken down at every point. The system had shown its political, economic and cultural bankruptcy and its sole success had been among certain groups of idealists abroad who were infatuated with the resolution with which the Soviets had broken with the old order. Yet this was a poor foundation and it was obvious that something drastic had to be done, if the Soviet system was to be saved.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 22