Ukraine: Notes on a Nation



Because Ukraine, the country of my birth, was a wonderful place, because the country and people have suffered greatly, and because the nation remains unfamiliar to many, the following sketch was drawn. The notes are not offered as definitive history. Anyone who has studied history of the Slavic world will find flaws, blurred compressions, omissions. For others, it is hoped that the sketch is clear enough to provide a better picture of Ukraine and to add some dimension to my narrative.

The Name

The word Ukraine was derived from the Slavic word, okraina, meaning “borderland,” and the territory that became modern Ukraine has for centuries been a border between Russia and Europe. Russia lay to the east and north, and what became the nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary lay to the west.

Until recently, the word was preceded by the definite article. It was “the Ukraine” as in “the borderland.” Today, the name of the independent nation is Ukraine.

The Land

Much of Ukraine is part of the great Eurasian Steppe—flat grasslands covered with rich, black soil—Ukraine’s great resource. That soil has produced grains such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, millet, and buckwheat, which earned Ukraine the title “Breadbasket of the Soviet Union” or “Breadbasket of Europe.” The soil also produced sugar beets, flax, cotton, hemp, soybeans, potatoes, and all sorts of vegetables and fruits.

The territory was rich in other natural resources such as timber, animals, and fish. Among mined products were coal, iron, manganese, bauxite, titanium, mercury, potassium, rock salt, phosphorites, and sulfur. There were two mountainous areas, six major rivers, and hundreds of lesser rivers.

The Land and The People

That land between Russia and Europe was in the path of many invaders across the centuries, among them ancient Scythians, Goths, Huns, Turks, Tatar-Mongols, and, later, Polish-Lithuanians, Russians, Germans. By the first century A.D., the Slavic ancestors of the Ukrainian people had settled in the area of modern Ukraine. In the ninth century, a state called Kievan Rus (or Kyyivan Rus) was established and remained strong for two centuries. At the end of the tenth century, a strong ruler, Prince Vladimir I, converted to Christianity, and Kiev, called the “Mother of Russian Cities,” was to become the cradle of an Eastern Orthodox Christian civilization.

In the eleventh century, the strong center gave way to weaker local princes. Invasions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries destroyed Ukraine as a nation, with Poland-Lithuania and Russia dividing most of the territory. When Poland became dominant in part of Western Ukraine, Roman Catholicism became a counter religion to the established Eastern Orthodoxy, creating divisions and enmities that still exist. Poland eventually controlled the area around Kiev except for Ukrainian Cossacks, who could not be subjugated. The Ukrainian Cossack state, which began in Eastern Ukraine in the 1600s, became a state within a state in the 1700s and fought wars of liberation over several decades.

Alliances shifted in the seventeenth century, leading to war between Poland and the Cossacks. The Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, to get help from Russia, entered a treaty with the czar in 1654 that achieved independence from Poland but led to greater and greater Russian control. By the end of the eighteenth century, the control was complete, and Ukrainian history and Russian history had become inextricably linked. In one sense, all the subsequent agonies suffered by Ukraine could be blamed on that treaty; in another sense, Khmelnytsky had no other choice.

Poland and other nations of Eastern Europe continued to influence, if not control, Western Ukraine. An already complex history became more and more so; beneath each statement in these notes are volumes of explanation and commentary.

Under imperialist rule, wealthy landholders owned not only the land but also the people who worked the farms and did so until 1861 when serfdom (slavery to the western world) was abolished. Ownership of land by former serfs became possible in Ukraine, and the new farmers became productive, self-sufficient, and strongly independent. Imperialist rule in Russia survived external wars and internal conflicts between and within classes until the Revolution of 1905 produced a division of power and establishment of a parliament. World War I and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 ended Imperialist Russia. Dissent in the early 1900s was widespread and factionalized; Russia (and Ukraine) could have taken any one of several governmental paths. The way in which the Bolsheviks, as they came to be known, dictated the path taken is intriguing, complicated, and controversial. They started with few members, were part of the Workers’ Party, followed Lenin in a 1903 split from the Mensheviks, found their themes if not their methods in Karl Marx, and achieved ascendancy when they gained support of the military.

In January 1918, Ukraine declared its independence but was soon squeezed from the east and the west. In Eastern Ukraine, already dominated by Russia (and affected by civil war that lasted until 1920), Bolsheviks gained power in 1922 and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Western Ukraine in that period was held by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, each controlling part of the territory. In 1939, the Nazis and Soviets partitioned Poland, and Western Ukraine became part of the USSR.

From 1939 to 1991, all of Ukraine was submerged. Nadia Diuk and Adrian Karatnycky, in their moving book, The Hidden Nations: The People Challenge the Soviet Union (William Morrow, 1990), call Ukraine “Europe’s secret nation,” one that “dimly exists on the fringes of Western consciousness.” They write of the millions of Ukrainians who disappeared in this century with little notice from the rest of the world.

As Ukraine gained and lost territory across the centuries, it stood sometimes as an independent nation, often as a part of Russia. Although Ukrainians and Russians are both Slavic, speak similar languages, and share the same religion and some parts of their history, Ukrainians are a distinct people. They have been told for centuries, however, that they are simply one line, one branch, of Russians and have been a truly independent nation for only brief periods in the last three hundred years. A significant portion of the Ukrainian population has long been Russian, and Ukrainians have settled in other nations in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. When all those conditions are considered, it is only to be expected that conflicting attitudes toward nationhood would develop among Ukrainians—not only conflicts between regions but also within regions and ambivalence in individuals.

In spite of those realities, people and events have somehow kept alive the sense of a nation. The life and work of poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature, inspired generation after generation. Mykailo Hrushevsky was established as a foremost historian early in the 1900s and eventually produced a ten-volume history of Ukraine which developed the thesis that Ukrainian history and culture were the descendants of Kievan Rus—the state established in the ninth century—and not Russian history and culture as Russians claimed. Hrushevsky’s work reawakened or intensified a sense of national identity. During the period of rapid and frequent change after the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and World War I, Hrushevsky was perhaps the most popular figure in Ukraine. In a struggle for power with the Bolsheviks, the nationalists were, however, overmatched.

That sense of nationality given voice by Hrushevsky and by ownership of land by former serfs created—or recreated—a pride and spirit among farmers, the major portion of the population. They were referred to as “peasants” in Western writing, but—no matter how small the parcels—they owned the land they farmed, unlike Russian peasants, who generally shared communal land. The more prosperous, ones who owned at least twenty-four acres or hired workers, were called kulaks (the Russian word). Although not wealthy landowners by Western standards, they had status.

Families lived in villages: a cluster of houses, a church, a school, and, in larger villages, stores and one or more government buildings. The fields were outside the villages. Houses were simple constructions, usually of clay with thatched roofs, often containing only one room. Wooden floors and tin roofs were rare. Around the houses were gardens, fruit trees, and livestock.

Life on the farms was hard but joyful. Cooperative work and never-failing hospitality were common characteristics of the Ukrainian people. Laughing, dancing, and singing were constant expressions of enjoyment of life. As much as the people of a village shared work and play, even more, their attachment to the soil that individual families owned was the dominant force of life.

Advocates of communism had been active from the early 1900s, and various systems of voluntary collectivized farming were tried and discarded between 1918 and 1921. During the 1920s, there were differing pressures from the Communist Party to join collectives and to produce more wheat. Generally, however, the 1920s were stable, few restrictions or programs were imposed, and, until about 1928, the USSR held a comparatively liberal attitude toward the various nationalities in the Union. In 1929, fervent forced collectivization began, and idyllic life ended. Anyone the Bolsheviks chose to call a kulak became to the Bolsheviks what the decadent aristocratic owner of a thousand acres was to the revolutionaries of the previous generation: an enemy of the people. And enemies of the people suffered.

Genocide in Ukraine

From that big push for collectivization of farms in 1929 to the Great Purge of 1936–38, ten to fifteen million Ukrainians met death because Stalin wanted to eliminate peasant ownership of land and to eliminate Ukrainians. (Considering that those millions did not continue reproduction, the population loss is far greater.)

Of the fifteen republics in the USSR (which contained some one hundred ethnic groups speaking two hundred languages and dialects and all wanting to retain cultural identity), Ukraine was second to Russia in size and population, and Ukrainians, especially, were considered dangerously nationalistic. In the 1920s, Lenin, to achieve greater cooperation, tolerated nationalism, cancelled grain requisitions, and allowed an open market for farmers. Stalin, opposed to such lenience, gained full control of the Party by 1928 and for the next decade (and again after World War II) made a cruel and systematic attempt to make Ukrainians and the world forget that Ukraine was ever a nation. The target was all the Ukrainians, not only farmers.

In 1930, nationalist deviation became a crime. Individuals were accused with little if any investigation, arrested on vague charges, tried for treason, and convicted with little evidence. Ukrainian intellectuals were almost entirely wiped out. Teachers, scholars, writers, poets, artists, scientists, thinkers of all kinds disappeared. Ukrainian governmental figures were subjected to arrests and purges until, by 1938, there was in effect no Ukrainian government. The church and the clergy were similarly attacked, as were the buildings. In Kiev, centuries-old churches were torn down; faces of wonderful buildings were made ugly with Party alterations because the original designs made Kiev look too Ukrainian.

Because extinction of the language would mean extinction of the people, use of Ukrainian was stigmatized and restricted. Although in 1923, the Ukrainian government established priority of the Ukrainian language over Russian, Stalin in 1928 made Russian the second language, the first step toward reducing Ukrainian to the language of the peasants. In time, government, business, industry, science, and schools used Russian for everything official. (An essay concerning the Ukrainian language had to be written in Russian.)

Stalin’s move to eliminate private ownership of land was set in motion by the 1929 order for total collectivization. To each village, the Central Committee of the Communist Party sent a delegation of city-dwelling Party members with unlimited authority and power. There were propagandists to sell the message of communism, agitators to move people to action, special sections of Soviet secret police to spy and make arrests, a militia to provide military force, Young Communists League and Pioneers to engage and exploit youth, and other groups—all of whom exercised some power and control over farmers as did various commissions and committees such as the Bread Procurement Commission or Committee of Poor Peasants.

Methods used by Party officials were confusing and incomprehensible, brutal and unrelenting. Farmers were assembled for long meetings day and night. One agency went to a farmer, put pressure on him to produce more food. Another agency repeated the process. Lives and possessions were watched, controlled, or taken—if not by one agency, then surely by another.

Persons who made any resistance or disobeyed any order might be put in jail or shot on the spot. Quotas of production were assigned that could not be met, and farmers were required to pay the market value of what they had not produced. Because most had no money to pay, they lost their farms. Those who did not sign over their farms to the collectives were sent to Siberia.

Village leaders—kulaks, teachers, officials, priests—who could not be co-opted were removed. The arrests of Vasily and Nionila Sakevich and the loss of the Sakevich farm as described in Chapter One were but one example. Neighbors, encouraged to spy on each other by promises of favors for right information, stopped talking to each other out of fear of being reported. Villagers, who had never locked any doors, began locking them.

In 1932–33, Stalin took Ukraine’s grain and other foodstuff to sell for money needed to make the USSR a modern, industrial nation. Farm families had nothing to eat. Party officials went many times to every house, searching for hidden food. They took everything edible and punished those who had hidden away so much as a small can of flour. Even the seeds needed for planting new crops were taken. That action became known as the “man-made famine,” for it was neither drought nor flood that caused mass starvation. It was one part of the larger genocide.

People begged, scavenged, sold possessions for pittances. With no food and restrictions against travel, thousands of people died daily. Corpses were everywhere. Horse-drawn wagons went through towns and villages each day, workers picking up corpses and asking at each house, “Any dead?”

Estimates of the number of Ukrainians who died in that brief period range from four to seven million. Another three million people were sent to Siberia, of whom few returned. With as many as ten million removed and others weak from hunger, Eastern Ukrainians were broken in body and spirit.

The rest of the world remained almost entirely unaware of the assaults on Ukrainians. A few reports appeared in the West, but they gained little attention. Some journalists did not write reports because they supported collectivization; some journalists were coerced by threatened loss of visas; others had other reasons. Newspapers and magazines may have deferred to the Soviet Union or been more interested in other matters. In Stalin’s Apologist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), S. J. Taylor asserted that “Walter Duranty, The New York Times’s Man in Moscow,” had such prestige that had he written fully about events, his reports could have informed the world.

When authoritative reports on that genocide by starvation did finally appear, world outrage did not follow. Today, much material is available in libraries and on the Internet, including special materials at Ukrainian centers in the United States and Canada, but the subject still does not draw focused attention. A short list is given here as a starting point for interested readers.

Two books by Robert Conquest may be best known:

The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Revised Edition. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973.

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.
London: Hutchinson, 1986.

In the first book, Conquest wrote (p. 45) that the famine of 1932–33 “can be blamed quite flatly on Stalin,” was “perhaps the only case in history of a purely man-made famine,” but was “ignored,” “denied,” “concealed” so that the rest of the world was largely unaware.

In the second book, Conquest spoke again of that lack of awareness and examined Stalinist objectives to do away with private ownership of land and to end all resistance from stubbornly nationalistic Ukrainians. Conquest then examined the actions taken to achieve those objectives.

Conquest estimated—conservatively—that in those two years five million people in Ukraine died, one million non-Ukrainians died, and one million in North Caucasus died. Of that seven million total, three million were children. From 1930 to 1937, no fewer than fourteen million peasants died.

Miron Dolot as a youth witnessed the destruction of his Ukrainian village. His writings include:

Who Killed Them and Why? Harvard University Ukrainian Studies Fund. 1984.

Execution by Hunger. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.

In the first book, a summary of facts about the assault on Ukraine, Dolot surveyed the sequence of events, the forces at work, assessments by observers, methods for estimating the number who died, and related matters.

In the second book, Dolot described in graphic detail the systematic killing of people and crushing of his village.

The United States Congress commissioned an “Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine, 1932–1933.” The “Report to Congress” from “The Commission on the Ukraine Famine” appeared in 1988. The report (pp. vi–vii) listed nineteen findings, including:

It was a “man-made famine” and millions died.
“Increasingly severe measures” were used “to extract the maximum quantity of grain from the peasants.”

Stalin knew about the situation and made it worse.
“Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against Ukrainians in 1932–1933.”

For visual impact of that period, a short film, Harvest of Despair, is available. The film was produced by the Ukrainian Canadian Research & Documentation Committee, using archival footage that shows the dead and dying, the struggle and misery of the living.

Ukraine in World War II: Borderland Battlefield


During the 1930s, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. In 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact. In June 1941, the German army invaded the USSR with the granaries of Ukraine a prime objective. The destruction begun by Stalinist forces would be continued by Nazi troops. Suffering Ukrainians would continue to suffer and to die.

World War II in Ukraine was brutal and complex. The loss of life and property was incalculable; the history of the forces at work was, and is, difficult to establish.

The war put the world’s two largest military forces into highly destructive combat. The invaders spared nothing in their path. The defenders destroyed everything usable as they retreated. With the complexity of attitudes indicated below, Ukrainians, organized and unorganized, resisted both powers. The extent and effects of resistance were so complex that one must consult a wide range of reference works to gain an understanding.

Ukraine, the borderland, was the battleground for back-and-forth fighting and a prize each army wanted. In summer 1939, Eastern Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Western Ukraine was held by Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania. Germany began the war 1 September 1939 with its invasion of Poland. On 17 September, the Soviet Union occupied east Poland, and on 28 September, Germany and the USSR partitioned Poland. Western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, which Western Ukrainians generally did not like.

Germany’s invasion of Soviet territory began 22 June 1941. Three million soldiers in 162 divisions took three major routes of attack, one of them straight through Ukraine’s breadbasket on the way to Kiev. (The other two were to the north, one going toward Moscow and the other toward Leningrad.) Stalin’s purges of top military officers—as many as half those on duty—had weakened effectiveness of Soviet forces. German troops went across Ukraine quickly. For more than two years, the Nazis occupied most of Ukraine, but fighting never ceased in the eastern areas.

A selection of events can show the pattern of fighting.

On 19 September, Germans entered Kiev, on 16 October, took Odessa, and on 24 October, took Khar’kov, all in Eastern Ukraine. On 22 November, the Germans took Rostov, Russia; then, on 29 November, the Soviet army took Rostov back and went on the offensive in Ukraine. With Nazi forces outside Moscow, the severe Russian winter stopped the German advance.

In May 1942, Germans went on the offensive in Crimea, and Soviets counterattacked in the Khar’kov area. In July 1942, the Germans again took Rostov and in August were at Stalingrad but were once more slowed by the Russian winter and by Stalin’s tactic of replacing thousands of annihilated Soviet soldiers with more thousands from another area. In February 1943, Soviets defeated German forces at Stalingrad. Two weeks later, Soviet forces recaptured Rostov and Khar’kov, but in March, Germans took Khar’kov again. The Red Army, strengthened by Allied aid, began achieving more victories, recapturing Ukrainian cities: Kiev in November 1943, Kryvvy Rih (Krivoy Rog) in February 1944, Odessa in April, and Sevastopol (in Crimea) in May.

With the internal threat from Germany gone, Soviet forces on a wide front drove through Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, went into Germany in March 1945, and entered Berlin 21 April 1945. On 29 April, Germans in southern Austria surrendered, but the announcement was withheld until 2 May. After surrender of other territories on successive days, Germany surrendered unconditionally 7 May.
Ukrainians saw the 1941 German invasion in conflicting and ambivalent ways. Some Western Ukrainians thought the Nazis were liberating them from the Soviet Union. Some Ukrainians, Eastern and Western, thought Germany offered better chances for Ukrainian survival and independence but did nothing, while some number worked or fought with the Germans. Many Ukrainian civilians and members of the Red Army were dedicated Communists and fought the Nazis with full dedication. Some felt powerless between Germans and Soviets and were resigned to the worst. Some wanted to fight Germans or Russians or both. Some wanted to wait until Germans and Soviets wore each other down.

Western Ukrainians had already built an organized resistance movement against Poles, Czechs, and Romanians, beginning at the end of World War I. In 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) evolved from an earlier organization and endured across the years. The organization, which included idealists and pragmatists, theorists and activists, had as its primary goal independence and unity for Ukraine. OUN’s military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), gained significant strength and ran effective campaigns against Soviet forces and later against German forces. There was a split in the OUN, but resistance lasted through World War II and continued thereafter.

Although some Eastern Ukrainians were strong defenders of the USSR, others were active in or supported the OUN, believing passionately that nothing and no one could be worse than the Communist Party and Joseph Stalin. The terrors of the 1930s had, however, left Eastern Ukraine too weak to do much against the USSR. During the war, Eastern Ukrainians were recruited (forced) by the Soviets to commit terrorist acts against the occupying Nazi army, but for each of those acts, the Ukrainian population paid a heavy price in retribution from Nazi forces.

Estimates of Ukrainians killed during World War II are two to two and one-half million military and four to four and one-half million civilians, a total of six to seven million—in addition to those lost to genocide.

As many as 28,000 villages and more than 700 towns were destroyed. Comparable numbers of industries, schools, medical facilities, and libraries were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Over three million young Ukrainians—along with other millions from other countries—were sent to Germany as farm and factory laborers. Technically, the forced laborers, because they were not in military service, were not prisoners of war, but they were prisoners in war. They have also been called slaves. Certainly, they worked the worst of jobs under the worst of conditions and were treated badly in the process.

They were interned in what is generally referred to as “forced-labor camps,” sometimes as “concentration camps,” sometimes as “slave camps.”

A Los Angeles Times article written by Mary Williams Walsh was titled “Judge Awards Back Pay to W.W.II Slave Laborer” (6 November 1997, p. A12). In the course of explaining the lawsuit and the award, the author referred to the estimated number of people “the Nazis enslaved.”

Forced by armed guards to work long hours, allowed inadequate food and rest, and punished brutally, a majority of the laborers died of malnutrition, disease, or physical abuse. Those from USSR who survived the war faced imprisonment or execution when they were sent back to USSR after the war, for Soviet authorities considered anyone who did not resist (which would have meant death) a traitor.

Ukraine 1945–1951: Closed to the West


At the end of World War II, all of Ukraine was war torn, ravaged, depleted, but the spirit of nationalism showed some life. Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine, reunited in 1939, were together after centuries of separation, and Ukrainian territory increased with the drawing of boundaries in the west. As soon as the Germans were out of Western Ukraine, the Soviets subjected that region to the same harsh measures as in Eastern Ukraine. In Western Ukraine, OUN and UPA resisted Soviet rule for at least another decade, with certainly some measure of support from Eastern Ukraine. Resistance to collectivization, Russification, and suppression of the church sent hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to labor camps in the 1940s. Ukrainians had a reputation for being the most difficult prisoners.

At Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, Stalin, obsessed by the need to preclude another invasion from the West, established a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. After the war, he solidified control of territories liberated by Soviet forces and extracted heavy penalties from Germany and Italy.

Russification, ignored during the war, was resumed with intensity. Use of the Russian language was required except in the most ordinary discourse. Integration of Ukrainian SSR into the USSR was a continuing process. The Ukrainian Communist Party disappeared into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Nikita Kruschev and native Ukrainian Leonid Brezhnev held high Party posts in Ukraine, then moved easily from Kiev to Moscow.

In 1946, another attack on artists, writers, and scientists for being bourgeois nationalists began. Advocates of Ukrainian culture and nationalism had to adhere to the Party line. After about two years, the attack abated, then resumed after two more years. That seemed to have been a pattern in the past and would continue to be.

As already noted, attitudes about nationality and culture, about the nature of Russians and Ukrainians and their relationship were extremely complex. Who needed the other? Who wanted the other? Who identified with the other? Ukrainians who most resented outside control and wanted nothing less than a free and independent Ukraine were probably sustained by a belief that the western world would have to move against Soviet totalitarianism.

On 5 March 1946, Sir Winston Churchill used the expression “iron curtain” to describe Stalin’s closing of life in the East from the eyes of the West. The Cold War had begun. Ukraine, which had not been free or open, was more tightly closed.

Ukraine 1951–1971: From Stalin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev


The Russian word “soviet,” which means “council” in English was used for each of the many workers’ committees formed to press the 1905 revolution. Such units became the bases for political structure—a soviet for each set of workers in each place with representatives to a higher level, finally reaching the Supreme Soviet. Eventually, everything official was done by committees; individuals didn’t speak on their own. The committee structure and the attitudes and methods that developed led to the bureaucracy that as much as anything else led to the downfall of the USSR.

The system never worked. In The Harvest of Sorrow Robert Conquest documented farm and industrial production from the 1920s to the 1980s. Under Soviet collectivization, never did farms produce the grain or meat expected. The food available per person remained low. The only high figure was the number of official Party directives sent to farmers.

Stalin began five-year plans with stated objectives. Soviet propaganda announced the plans at the beginning and proclaimed success no matter the extent of the failure. Bureaucrats who knew nothing of crops or livestock but were responsible for increases gave senseless, counterproductive orders. (To increase meat production, one functionary ordered all dairy cows slaughtered.)

Farm machinery was to have been the key to increased production, but the factories didn’t produce enough machines, and the ones that made it to the farms often didn’t run. Scientists were selected on basis of ideology, not science, and crop yields did not increase as projected.

Added to the inefficiencies were the intrigues.

Soviet officials were moved from job to job, promoted and demoted, occasionally purged and then redeemed. Such movement resulted from secret committee action, individual power plays, or both. Lenin had wanted to remove Stalin; somehow Stalin was not removed. To follow or understand the passing of power would require detailed study.

When Stalin died 5 March 1953 amid speculation that he was planning another purge, Nikita Khrushchev became first secretary of the Central Committee. After the war, Khrushchev was charged with restoring agricultural production in Ukraine, then returned to Moscow in 1949 and in 1953 was in position to replace Stalin. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and later demoted Stalin’s associates.

In the period immediately after Stalin’s death, Ukrainians gave more expression to feelings of nationalism and ethnic culture. Ukrainian Communist leaders became more nationalistic against Khrushchev. Concessions of one sort or another were made in response to Ukrainian activism. There was a continuing tug of war within and between Ukraine and the Central Soviet. For Ukrainians, the question was how much to push and how much to accommodate. For the Central Soviet, the question was whether to suppress or to use Ukrainian culture and nationalism to the advantage of USSR. (When repression of nationalism didn’t work, nationalism became a tool for manipulation.)

Khrushchev increased power of officials at national levels in all republics and gave Ukraine some international visibility—even if more show than substance. In 1954, to mark 300 years of Ukraine’s being part of Russia, Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine.

Communist hard-liners protested Khrushchev’s softer line in the USSR and internationally. Khrushchev tried to protect himself by increasing pressures in Eastern Europe, attempting to influence Third World nations, and, in August 1961, erecting the Berlin Wall. None of that was enough. Khrushchev was deposed as premier and Party head in October 1964 and succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, who had been instrumental in removing Khrushchev. As head of the Party, Brezhnev moved back toward centralization and away from giving authority to the republics.

In the 1960s, at the same time that Khrushchev was giving ground to the hard-liners, Ukrainian writers and artists were pushing against Russification. Underground publications called for reading of history the way historian Mykailo Hrushevsky read it. Activity was widespread. Even Communist leaders protested loss of local control to the Kremlin. Then, thousands of writers, publishers, artists, filmmakers, scholars, teachers, students, and others were arrested, tried, and sent to labor camps or psychiatric prisons.

In the 1970s, Brezhnev relaxed tensions between the USSR and the United States with agreements on scientific cooperation and the first strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT I). Restrictions on emigration were also somewhat relaxed.

In Ukraine, however, the repressions continued. By the end of the 1970s, open challenges to centralization were replaced by underground activity. By then, the composition of the dissenters had changed because a much greater portion of the population was urban and better educated. Discontented workers were more likely to strike or engage in work stoppages.

Brezhnev, reelected Party chief in 1981, died 10 November 1982 and was quickly replaced by Yuri V. Andropov.

Ukraine: A Nation at Last


After the death of Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982, changes in the USSR were fast and frequent. Simply to record them would be daunting, to explain them next to impossible.
Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev as the Communist Party’s general secretary, became president in 1983, and died 9 February 1984. Konstantin Chernenko succeeded Andropov as general secretary, became president in April, and died 10 March 1985. Andropov was in office thirteen months, Chernenko eleven.

Mikhail Gorbachev then became general secretary of the Communist Party and in 1988 became president. Gorbachev set other kinds of change into motion. He saw that secrecy, corruption, control from above, and entrenched bureaucracies were leading to a collapse of the Soviet system. To him, the idea of communism was good and valid, but the system was not operating in terms of the principles of communism, nor was it functioning well enough for the USSR to compete in the world market, so he began a program of reform. He called for glasnost—openness—in social and political matters: a free press and open discussion of issues. He called for perestroika—restructuring of government from top to bottom: more involvement of elected officials in all the republics and less involvement by the Party.

Ukraine supported Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika but went its own way on policies. Under perestroika, various dissenting groups formed for particular purposes—implementation of Helsinki Accords, cultural advancement, religious freedom, youth involvement—with names such as Ukrainian Helsinki Union, Ukrainian Popular Movement, Ukrainian Association of Independent Creative Intelligentsia, Ukrainian Democratic Party, Ukrainian Language Society.

In 1989, a popular front for such groups was organized to stand in opposition to the Communist Party. The Ukrainian Popular Movement for Restructuring was referred to as Rukh, the Ukrainian word for “movement.” Rukh called for independence for the nation but also for protection of individuals, tolerance for all groups, and creation of a free market. The Communist Party responded strongly, but in the March 1990 elections to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, Rukh candidates were quite successful in Kiev and L’vov (principal cities in Eastern and Western Ukraine) and became a forceful voice in the Supreme Soviet in Moscow.

Rukh was instrumental in gaining passage of a law guaranteeing Ukrainian as the state language and the primary language in work and education, except in Crimea where Russians were a majority. Rukh also helped to force the retirement of a repressive party First Secretary who held power for fifteen years.

Rukh leaders recognized the necessity for accommodating different ethnic and political groups in different parts of the country. The independence movement was strongest in Western Ukraine, where demonstrations of 200,000 people occurred and where there was an independent workers’ movement. That movement was moderately strong in central Ukraine and weakest in the eastern area closest to Russia. More Russians lived there; more Ukrainians in that area spoke Russian, identified with Russia, and favored contact with Russia. In Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk, however, miners went on strike July 1989 and later worked with Rukh.

Soviet censorship relaxed after 1985. People began remembering events of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. History was reexamined from a Ukrainian pre-Revolutionary perspective and not as the Stalinists rewrote it. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag reappeared in the late 1980s, as did the Ukrainian trident.

Nationalist activity accelerated in country after country of the USSR in 1989. It was a volatile year in Ukraine, much more so than this sketch indicates, and is probably what prompted Gorbachev to spend five days in Kiev in the winter of 1989, trying to convince workers that they needed the USSR.

One earlier event put a literal and figurative cloud over Ukraine. On 26 April 1986, the world’s worst nuclear reactor disaster occurred at the Chernobyl power plant. An uncontrolled reaction caused a steam explosion that released a massive amount of radiation into the atmosphere. Fallout was greatest in Ukraine and Belarus but spread across eastern and northern Europe and into Great Britain. Nearby towns were evacuated. As many as 8,000 died and countless others were made ill. The popular television program 60 Minutes has been to the site twice, showing the harm to people and animals and the continuing threat of leaking radiation.

The USSR kept the accident secret until radioactivity was measured in Sweden and then did not disclose the extent of the fallout. Five days after the disaster, Soviet television, making things seem normal, broadcast a May Day program from Kiev (eighty miles, 130 kilometers, south of Chernobyl and under heavy fallout). The program featured Ukrainian folk dancers in Ukrainian costumes with smiling children watching.

Because Ukraine sorely needs sources of electrical power, other reactors at the plant remained in operation.

The power plant disaster heightened awareness of other sources of pollution. The same inefficiency and incompetence that affected the management of industry and agriculture ignored pollution from those sources. For decades, there was no control over what went into the air, water, and soil—or for soil lost to erosion—and the damage was extreme. In the late 1980s, some groups started to work for measures to revive the environment.

The activities of 1989 continued, and in July 1990, the Supreme Soviet granted Ukraine sovereignty but not independence.

In June 1991, Boris Yeltsin, who was aided in his political rise by Gorbachev and then opposed him, became the first popularly elected president of the Russian Republic.

Gorbachev faced pressures from many groups: hard-line Communists, free-market reformers, nationalists, and others. Hard-liners attempted a coup in August 1991. Yeltsin dramatically led the fight that ended the coup. Change occurred more rapidly after that.

On 24 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament passed a provisional declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and formed a new government. The next day, all political prisoners were freed and property of the Communist Party seized. In September, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was banned. On 1 December, in a national referendum, Ukrainian voters upheld the declaration of independence.

In that election, Leonid Kravchuk, formerly chairman of Ukraine’s Supreme Soviet, became the nation’s first popularly elected president. The banned Communist Party converted itself to the Socialist Party, and many members, along with Kravchuk, stayed in power by co-opting Rukh positions. Rukh provided opposition, but leaders split in terms of the best path for Ukraine to take and formed new political parties.

Yeltsin was leading the fight to dismantle the Party apparatus and to replace the USSR with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Ukraine and Belarus joined Russia as founding members of CIS. In December 1991, the USSR voted itself out of existence, and Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president.

In that series of unlikely and incredible events, Ukraine became an independent nation—an independent nation with major problems. Collectivization, man-made famine, war, Russification, purges, draining of resources, Chernobyl, pollution, loss of people, loss of villages and towns: those and other harms had left a nation with an extremely shaky base on which to build. Relations with the Russian Federation would also remain a major matter.

Nadia Diuk and Adrian Karatnycky, in The Hidden Nations, mentioned earlier, wrote of a poet named Evhen Sverstyuk who saw a more damaging effect: the failure of people in totalitarian states to think through the results of actions and programs because any deviation is too dangerous. Otherwise, books and articles offering analyses and remedies would have appeared.

There was independence, but old ways of thinking would impede progress. From the outset, the president and parliament were in conflict, and failure to achieve economic reform led to early elections in 1994.

Short-term and long-term objectives for the economy conflicted. Immediate solutions would work against building the base for economic growth.

Efforts continued to reform the economy, increase industrial and agricultural production, counter pollution, privatize property, and otherwise build on the Ukrainian base of rich natural resources and industrious people. Indications of openness and effort could be seen in deregulation of prices on food, transportation, and other services, in the functioning of a free press, in development of opposition parties, and in joining international programs.

Foreign aid helped. At a critical point for the economy and for the disarmament process in early 1994, the United States significantly increased the amount of aid being supplied.

The first years of independence did not make conditions significantly better, but Ukraine did become a nation, and some observers contend that the potential is there for a strong nation.

© Eugenia Dallas 2004