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