In a recent interview cited in The New York Times, Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the National Institute of Memory of Ukraine and an author of the “de-Communization” laws approved by President Petro Poroshenko in May, equated Lenin statues with “totalitarian propaganda” and a sign of the presence of “polite people,” by which he signified troops of the Russian Special Forces, in Ukraine.
The May laws remain controversial, particularly their implicit and now actual ban on all forms of Communist propaganda and ultimately on the former Communist Party of Ukraine as a legal entity. Lenin is an obvious focus given the plethora of Lenin statues throughout the former Soviet republics but as far as Ukraine is concerned he is among the least relevant.
The Law of Ukraine (2015, No. 25, 190) “On the legal status and honoring the memory of fighters for the independence of Ukraine in the XX century” is a long one, but notable by the absence from it of any former Communist parties. By definition, Communists could not have been struggling for the independence of the republic, but operating only on orders from Moscow. Today streets named after former Communist leaders such as Mykola Skrypnyk (1872-1933) are being renamed.
Yet denying Communists any positive role in the 20th century history of Ukraine is simply distortion, if not outright denial of historical events. Skrypnyk, no doubt, was a committed follower of Lenin, but even he recognized the threat of “Great Russian chauvinism” and became a pioneer of “Ukrainization” of culture and language in the 1920s. He was also determined to maintain the ethnic unity of Ukraine, resisting efforts by Russian Bolshevik leaders to form a Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih Soviet republic in 1918. Disillusioned by Stalin’s centralization, and by the arrival of Pavel Postyshev to take over the leadership (in practice, though he was in fact Second Secretary) in January 1933, Skrypnyk committed suicide.
Perhaps even more notable than Skrypnyk are two other Ukrainian Communists who merit the status of “heroes” just as much as the leaders of the parties mentioned in the May 2015 decree: Mykola Khvliovyi and Oleksandr Shumskyi. Khvyliovyi, who was born in Kharkiv region in 1893, was a prominent writer who joined the Communist Party in 1919, and he is best known for his romance stories and prose and his activity within the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature. By the mid-1920s he was speaking out against Russian oppression in what became a series of pamphlets culminating in his slogan “Away from Moscow!”
Stalin was quick to respond to such “bourgeois nationalism,” even though it was a natural outcome of the new focus on all things Ukrainian. Khvlyiovyi was forced to recant his views though he continued to publicize them in unofficial sources. Like Skrypnyk, he was dismayed by the arrival of Postyshev and even more so by the mass famine of 1933, and committed suicide in May of this year. Notably many of the political positions enunciated at the Maidan in 2013-14 echo the writings of Khvyliovyi. But like that of Skrypnyk, his part in the Ukrainian renaissance and the 1991 independence of Ukraine is to be erased.
Third, there is the remarkable national Communist Oleksander Shumskyi (1890-1946), a former Commissar of Internal Affairs and Commissar of Education of the Ukrainian SSR, who joined the Communists by an indirect route: an alliance of the Borotbisty and the CP(b)U, that resulted in a full merger in March 1920. Like his two contemporaries, Shumskyi wished to deepen Ukrainization and have Ukrainians appointed to leading positions in the party. By 1925, the phenomenon of “Shumskyism” was at its peak within the CP(b)U.
By 1927, however, the Soviet leadership had removed Shumskyi and moved him to Moscow. He was denounced as a “nationalist deviant,” and accused of causing problems not only in the Soviet Ukrainian party but also the Communist Party of Western Ukraine (KPZU) in Poland. Both parties underwent severe purges and in 1938 the Comintern dissolved the KPZU on Stalin’s orders. Shumskyi was arrested in the same month that Skrypnyk committed suicide (January 1933) and given a 10-year GULAG sentence. After the war, he tried to return to Ukraine from the Russian city of Saratov, but never arrived in Kyiv. His death, like so many of those during Stalin’s rule, remains unexplained.
These three biographies all pertain to individuals who were committed both to Communism and the future of Ukraine, and they are likely the best known of the Ukrainian leaders of the 1920s. But there were many others. They were characterized precisely by their concern for their native land and lack of subservience to the leadership in Moscow. Yet they served a party that does not feature in the long list of those “fighting for the independence of Ukraine” in the May Laws. That list includes incidentally even the Hetmanate under Pavlo Skoropadskyi, which requisitioned grain from Ukrainian peasants to feed the Imperial German army in the latter stages of the First World War.
Their omission from Law No. 25, 190, not only politicizes the Decommunization procedures; it represents an unfortunate and selective manipulation of the past by the authors of the decree, including the director of the Institute of National Memory. None of this is to suggest that the Communist leadership did not commit crimes in Ukraine; only that there were meritorious Communists in Ukraine who died for their beliefs and love of their country well before the Second World War broke out.
Mace, James E. Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation: National Communism in Soviet Ukraine, 1918-1933. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1983.
Palko, Olena, “Ukrainian National Communism: Challenging History,” Journal of Contemporary Central and East Europe, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2014): 27-28.
Shkandrij, Myroslav, Modernists, Marxists, and the Nation: the Ukrainian Literary Discussion of the 1920s. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1992.