The ‘April Thesis’

Lenin and Ukraine

Sumanta Banerjee

Russia’s President Putin, in a speech on February 21, 2022, said: “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by….Communist Russia. The process began immediately after the revolution of 1917.” He then described the state as “Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s Ukraine.” Putin was harking back to the Romanov empire of the past, when Ukraine was under the Tsarist regime. Putin is today keen on bringing back Ukraine under the geo-political umbrella of the present Russian Federation that he heads—claiming that Ukraine had always been a part of Tsarist Russia, which Putin inherits now as its president.

It would be worthwhile therefore to examine the historical role of Lenin in what Putin calls the ‘creation’ of Ukraine. Here are extracts from two writings of Lenin’s, which are germane not only to the present conflict in Ukraine, but to the more fundamental issue of self-determination of nationalities, whether in strife-torn Africa and the Arab world, or in Baluchistan in Pakistan and Kashmir in India.

Months before the November Revolution, Lenin introduced a resolution on the ‘national question’ at the Bolshevik Party’s April conference in 1917, which was adopted by the party on April 29 that year. Lenin spelt out his party’s policy in clear terms: “The right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states must be recognised. To deny them this right, or to fail to take measures guaranteeing its practical realisation, is equivalent to supporting a policy of seizure and annexation. It is only the recognition by the proletariat of the right of nations to secede that ensure complete solidarity among the workers of the various nations….” (V.I. Lenin–Selected Works. P. 53. Foreign Languages Publishing House. Moscow. 1947).

In the same year 1917, Lenin came out with an article entitled “The Ukraine,” where he specifically dealt with Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. He said: “…Ukrainian people do not wish to secede from Russia at present. They demand autonomy without denying the need for the supreme authority of ‘All Russia Parliament.’ ….no democrat can deny Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia. Only unqualified recognition of this right makes it possible to advocate a free union of the Ukrainians and the Great Russians, a voluntary of two peoples in one state….” Recalling the past bitter relationship between these ‘two peoples,’ Lenin said: “Accursed tzarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue…” Lenin then advised those whom he described as “Russia’s revolutionary democrats,” to “break with that past … regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants…” (Quoted in Gary Leupp’s article: Putin, Lenin, Imperialism and the (Real) History of Ukraine, in the news portal Counterpunch, March 3, 2022)

Lenin’s statements came in the backdrop of an internal strife that the Ukrainian people were suffering from at that time. They were torn by a binary split between their traditional loyalty to Ukrainian nationalism on the one hand, and aspirations for a modern socialist state on the other. For some among them, their concept of nationalism was primarily shaped by their anti-Russian feelings, (with which Lenin empathised, when he charged the ‘accursed Tzarism’ for ‘fomenting in them a hatred’ against the ‘Great Russians’). At the same time, some others were also getting attracted by the ideal of a new egalitarian socialist system that was emanating from the same Russia. A popular uprising in Russia in February 1917 led to Tzar Nicholas II’s abdication, and the formation of a provisional government with representatives from various Russian political parties, including the socialists.

Ukraine was thus left free from the Russian Tsarist fiefdom. Inspired by the developments in mainland Russia, the Ukrainian socialist forces got together to form the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) in March 1917. This Ukrainian venture for an independent state, however, went through a tortuous process. Soon after the capture of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia following the 1917 November Revolution, the UPR proclaimed its independence from the newly formed Russian republic in January 1918. It was acting according to the pledge given by Lenin to the Ukrainians that they had the “right to freely secede from Russia.” But after having exercising that right, the socialists in the UPR soon found themselves threatened by the old ultra-nationalist Ukrainian parties that had sprung up during 1917-18. Bereft of any support from Russia (which it had rejected according to its decision to secede), the UPR regime collapsed in December 1918 under attacks from the ultra-nationalist and anti-Russian Ukrainian forces, which were supported by Germany which wanted to exploit the anti-Russian sentiments of the Ukrainians.

It was these forces that formed the next government in Ukraine in the 1919-20 period–called the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR). But this Right-wing government enjoyed a brief spell. In 1921, the then Soviet Union signed a treaty with the Western capitalist states at Riga, which allowed it to regain Ukraine as a part of its territory. In 1922, the country came to be known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic , incorporated within the USSR.

After the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine having gained independence in 1991, went through a number of political changes, ranging from pro-Russian to anti-Russian regimes. To come to the recent events that have led to the present crisis, in 2013 there were mass demonstrations against the then pro-Russian President Victor Yanokovich, leading to his fall and replacement by a regime more inclined towards the US-led NATO. Soon after, under the auspices of the new government, the Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014, consisting of armed volunteers from far-Right, neo-Nazi groups. While sympathising with the Ukrainian people and their struggle of resistance against Russian invasion, one should also keep in mind that a part of their resistance is led by these xenophobic neo-Nazi forces.

Watching the war in Ukraine, one feels like cursing the two powers involved there: ‘Plague on both Russia and US.’ They are using Ukraine as a battleground for competing with each other to establish control over eastern Europe. Both are digging up atavistic xenophobic ideas from the past in their respective countries, in order to justify their present intervention in Ukraine.

Putin is trying to revive the past Tzarist order, intending to re-incorporate the old territories there that once belonged to the Romanov empire—claiming Ukraine as its part. Biden is trying to re-interpret the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, under which he claims the right to intervene in the Ukraine dispute on the plea that the Russian presence there constitutes a ‘potentially hostile act’ to the USA. He wants to bring Ukraine within the US orbit under the control of the military NATO.

But, although fighting as enemies today, both Russia and America share a common history of identical methods of warfare, either overt or covert. For the last several decades and more, both the US (whether under Republican or Democratic Party Presidents), and Russia (whether under the Tzar, and later under the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes) had been indulging in a continuous game of invading other states and replacing their prevalent rulers by installing local politicians who would be their puppets, and follow their respective dictates. They have become mirror images of each other.

The record of the USA in this regard is well-documented—from its notorious history of eliminating the indigenous rulers and people of what is known as Latin America in the past , and then its later colonial expansion to the Philippines and other south-east Asian countries, down to its crass intervention in the internal conflict in Vietnam by arming its protégés there. It continued to follow the same pattern of military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other places.

The US introduced the concept of ‘regime change’ in global politics, asserting its right to send its troops to other countries to overthrow the prevailing regimes if they did not follow its dictates (like Sadam Hussain in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya), or to arm insurgents to fight Communist regimes, as in Afghanistan. This was sanctified by successive US Presidents by invoking the Monroe Doctrine of December 1823.

Putin has inherited the Tzarist doctrine of expansionism into bordering areas—a tendency which was denounced by Lenin as ‘Great Russian’ aggressiveness (as quoted above). Putin makes no bones about his ambition, when he blames Lenin for granting the right of self-determination to these territories. He regrets the dissolution of the USSR, which he feels has deprived the ‘Great Russia’ of its control and influence over these neighbouring territories in Eastern Europe.

Putin today has stepped into the role of the ‘Great Russian executioner of the Ukrainian people’ (to remember Lenin’s words), re-igniting the old Tzarist supremacist impulses. The story of his rise to power is a typical illustration of low cunning. From being a KGB weasel of the Soviet regime he has crawled up to the position of a rogue elephant of a neo-Tzarist Russia today. But the hubris of such characters is inevitably followed by nemesis. Putin is facing today the threat of a nemesis. His ham-handed military operation in Ukraine has not only led to the massacre of innocent people there, loss of lives of hundreds of his own invading Russian soldiers, but has also jeopardised the economy of his own country. Banished as an outcast from world politics, Putin’s Russia is facing sanctions which adversely affect both its exports and imports. Although still trying to put up a brave face and bragging about his petty military triumphs, Putin will finally pay the price for his misadventure—as his predecessor Tzar Nicholas did in 1917.

Russia has a tradition of palace intrigues—whether under the Tzars, or under the Communist regime. Towards the end of the latter era, internal rivalries among cliques in the Kremlin brought down leaders like Khrushchev and Yeltsin. Today, with increasing body bags of soldiers arriving from Ukraine at their doorsteps, and rising popular discontent with the constraints resulting from the sanctions, how long can Putin’s colleagues in his government suffer him? To save their skins from popular wrath, for all that one must know, they may be hatching a plot to oust Putin.

Ukrainians today are caught in a tussle between sub-nationalism and acquiescence to Russian domination.

In the background of this history of Ukraine’s tenuous relationship with mainland Russia, it is important to recall today not only Lenin’s views on self-determination of nationalities in 1917-18 (which have been quoted earlier in this article), but also the objection to them raised at that time by Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish Communist revolutionary who was operating from Germany. She questioned Lenin’s policy of granting ‘self- determination’ to all nationalities, irrespective of the political character of their leaders. Incidentally, both Rosa and Lenin were born in the same year, 1870. Rosa was murdered by German fascists in 1919, and Lenin died a few years later in Russia.

In a short treatise written between 1917 (from jail) and 1918 (after her temporary release), Rosa devoted a chapter on the question of nationalities. She warned Lenin against indiscriminately granting the ‘right of self-determination’ to all nationalities, as some among them under their ultra-nationalist leaders, could take advantage of this ‘right’, to secede from Russia and set up counter-revolutionary governments in their respective territories, and threaten the new found Bolshevik Republic. She pointed out: “While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom even to the extent of ‘separation’, they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc. into so many faithful allies of the Russian Revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used the freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian Revolution as its mortal enemy…” She described the leaders of these nationalities as “bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes”, who “perverted the ‘national right of self-determination’ into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies.” (Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The Russian Revolution.’ Chapter III. Pp. 49-50. Ann Arbor Paperback. 1961)

 After more than hundred years, Rosa Luxemburg’s words today sound a warning bell for socialists and liberal humanists as well, who are required to take a stand on the current movements by various communities which claim to be nationalities in different parts of the world and are asserting their right to self-determination and creation of separate states for themselves.

Large parts of the Arab-Afro-Asian world today are torn by conflicts among communities (divided by tribal identities or religious faith), which are waging wars to carve out territories to establish their own states according to their respective beliefs and customs. News of such warfare catch headlines when savage killings take place—whether in villages in Africa, or in the on-going Israel-Palestine conflict, or in Kashmir in India and Baluchistan in Pakistan—most of the victims being non-combatant innocent people. These killings are mainly due to internecine warfare between rival ethnic or linguistic or religious groups, each asserting the right to self-determination for its own communities.

To turn to India, there are at present at least four major armed movements—described by the Indian state as ‘secessionist’—which are motivated by the right to self-determination and separate statehood. In the north-east, in Nagaland the Indian state faces challenges from two Naga factions of the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland)—one led by Khaplang who is based in Burma, and the other led Muiva who is operating from within India. In the other state in the north-east, the Assamese insurgent group ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) has been waging an insurgency demanding an independent state of Assam. In the north-west in Kashmir, the Indian state has been engaged in a long standing armed confrontation not only with insurgent groups, but also with common citizens who support these groups. In Punjab in the north, the Sikh militants although reduced in their ranks by decimation, still continue to propagate the idea of a separate Sikh state of Khalistan.

It is necessary to examine the beliefs and practices of these groups which are fighting for self-determination. Are they following the path of self-determination that was laid down by Nelson Mandela who brought together the various tribal communities and religious denominations of South Africa under one flag to liberate themselves from the apartheid regime ? Are they following the path of self-determination that was laid down by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who unified Hindus and Muslims as well as other religious and ethnic communities in the then East Pakistan on the basis of a common Bengali identity, to emancipate themselves from the oppressive rule of a Pakistani military regime ?

The current movements for self-determination being waged by ethnic and religious groups in different parts of the world are guided by ideas which are based on exclusivist and puritanic practices that aim at excluding and expelling minorities from the future states that they want to establish.

Coming back to the history of movements for self-determination in India, most of them have remained embedded in their respective narrow ethnic, linguistic or religious roots—which fractured the possibility of alliance with other communities living in their homeland, who could have also shared the dream of a common state.

For instance, in Kashmir the votaries of self-determination are divided between those who want ‘azadi,’ or independence on the one hand, and those who want to accede to Pakistan on the other. The latter, motivated by sectarian Islamic orthodox beliefs and practices, have formed themselves into various terrorist groups and direct their ire both against the agents of the Indian state as well as citizens (mainly Hindus, but also Muslims who do not subscribe to their views). Yet in Kashmir, both Muslims and Hindu Pandits had for ages, shared a common history and socio-cultural tradition of ‘Kashmiriyat’ that united them as a sub-nationality in that part of the Indian sub-continent. This identity is being fractured now on religious lines.

Similarly in Punjab, the Khalistanis during their agitation in the recent past had fragmented the linguistic unity of the Punjabi-speaking people there, by striving to establish a theocratic state based solely on their concept of Sikhism, which discriminates against other religious minorities and imposes strict orthodox diktats on their own people that often violate human rights. Assam presents a different scenario. Here the linguistic differences between the indigenous Assamese and the Bengali speaking inhabitants have been exploited by the secessionist ULFA to direct Assamese discontent against both Bengali Hindu minorities and Bengali- speaking Muslim settlers who came from the bordering state of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In the name of self-determination, the ULFA while demanding a separate state, wants to expel these linguistic and religious minorities from Assam.

How does one analyse the character of the leadership of these various movements of self-determination? Have they, in Rosa Luxemburg’s warning words, “perverted the ‘national right of self-determination’ into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies”?


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Vol 55, No. 3, Jul 17 - 23, 2022