Stephen Velychenko
February 2017

Russian Bolsheviks, Ukrainian Communists, and the Comintern: How Russian Bolsheviks Shaped Foreign Radical Leftist Views on Ukraine


Those who follow Ukrainian issues today know that many foreigners who consider themselves radical leftists oppose that country’s attempt to break away from its former imperial master. Surprisingly, they support the attempt of a capitalist Russian government that legitimates itself in terms of religion, has an imperialist foreign agenda based on settler-colonist minorities beyond its borders, and subscribes to “spheres of influence” thinking to re-impose its control over Ukraine.  It is a re-imposition that, as of 2014, involved the use of military force in Ukraine.1 Such a position is at odds with such fundamental statements of left-wing positions as the Zimmerwald Manifesto of 1915 and Trotsky’s 1939 comments on Ukraine’s experience of Stalinism:2

The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.

Their stance places such leftists alongside those they normally regard as their enemies: big bankers, corporate directors, and lawyers who profit from their contacts with Vladimir Putin and his associates, as well as pro-Kremlin fascist and neo-Nazi parties in their respective countries.3 Normally, North American and EU pro-Kremlin radical leftists have little influence on the foreign policies of their countries. Academic analysts who do not research radicalism normally ignore them. However, they deserve attention today because, together with the other above-mentioned pro-Kremlin groupings and parties, they influence public opinion, and sometimes a government foreign policy decision, in matters related to Russia and Ukraine. Internet commentary on Maidan-related articles reveals that many such leftists share the Russian government’s anti-Ukrainian position.4 EU voters recently gave approximately the same percentage of votes to radical left as to radical right parties (8-10%).5 Certainly, specific political circumstances account for this phenomenon. 6 However, there is also a historical factor that explains why many in today’s foreign Left, who without hesitation oppose Anglo-American neo-colonialism and neo-liberal capitalism within their own countries, suspend their avowed anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate democratic ideals when looking at what is Russian neo-colonialism in eastern Europe and Ukraine.7

While foreign pro-Russian leftists differ among themselves in details, they share, along with Putin and the Kremlin ruling elite, two basic ideas. First, that Russia has a “sphere of influence” like the US, but that unlike those living within the US “sphere,” those living within the Russian “sphere” should make no effort to rid themselves of Russian domination and/or hegemony. And, second, that “nationalism” in Ukraine never had and does not have today the “progressive” role such leftists assign, or assigned to, countries subject to American or western European imperialism or to neo-imperialist and neo-colonialist rule. In their view, Russian migrants to Ukraine were not settler-colonists, as claimed by Ukrainian Marxists, and Russian rule in, or control over, Ukraine neither was nor is imperialist or colonialist. Implicit in these assumptions is the Russian Bolshevik idea that “the proletariat” could not be chauvinist or nationalist, and that “socialism” could not be imperialist.

Although the USSR, the CPSU, and the Comintern no longer exist and Putin’s ruling circle no longer shares the latter two opinions, networks of comrades still subscribe to such notions. Pro-Kremlin leftists, in short, are blind to Russian imperialism past and present.8 A major step in channeling foreign radical leftists to think about Russia and its old empire according to such Russo-centric criteria and blinding them to the existence of a Ukrainian anti-colonial Marxist tradition occurred in 1920 when Russian Bolshevik leaders excluded the Ukrainian Communist Party, from the Second Comintern Congress.

Liberation or Imperialism?

The Ukrainian Communist Party (UCP), formed in January 1920, was a fundamentally different organization from the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), which formed as a branch of the Russian Communist party (RCP) in Ukraine in 1918.9 The UCP was not at the July 1920 Second Comintern Congress (CI) and no one there knew about its “Memorandum,” that had accompanied its request for membership and detailed its positions. Its leaders, Andriy Richytsky and Vasyl Mazurenko, had only guest status and could not address the delegates or present resolutions. No one has yet examined why Bolshevik leaders did not allow the party to attend. The only known explanation to date is in a letter by Richytsky and Mazurenko to their associates in Kharkiv from Moscow, where they had gone to submit the Ukrainian case to the Second Congress: “It is quite obvious that Moscow decides policies in Ukraine and that everything that happens there is not the product of the local Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) types.” In Moscow, they continued, the head of Ukraine’s Soviet government, Khristian Rakovskii, had informed Russian leaders that the UCP had “no real influence” – which was why their application to attend sessions as delegates had been rejected and they received only guest status.10

Rakovskii’s claim was spurious since in 1920 few CI member parties other than the RCP had “real influence” in their respective countries because most of them were fringe groups.11 Over 200 delegates from 37 countries attended. While the Russian hosts excluded Ukrainian communists, they did send invitations to foreign non-Bolshevik socialists and leftist radicals who disagreed with them, hoping to thereby generate foreign support that, at the time, was conspicuously absent. Among the representatives were Dutch, Irish and Koreans, who could not claim to represent more than a few hundred like-minded countrymen – let alone an influential party. The Indonesian party at the time had about as many members as the UCP – 3000.  A Czech delegate’s description of himself was applicable to almost all the invited foreigners: “I did not know a word of Russian, had read hardly any of the Bolshevik literature, but the October Revolution had greatly impressed me.”12

The more likely reason for the rejection lay in the Ukrainian communist critique of Russian Bolshevism as renewed Russian imperialism. The Comintern Congress was held in the summer of 1920 when the Red Army was marching towards Warsaw and American radical journalist Lincoln Steffens in Paris was telling whoever would listen that he had seen the future and it worked.13 Bolshevik leaders could not let Ukrainian communists tell foreign delegates that it did not work and that, in Ukraine, their CPU agents were reproducing the pathologies and predations of tsarist Russian imperialism. Russian leaders preferred delegates not realize that their words in Moscow bore little if any relationship to their actions in Ukraine. They preferred foreign delegates to not realize that, contrary to their official claims, few Ukrainians in 1920 associated communism in its Russian Bolshevik variant with national or even social liberation.

Russocentric Bolshevik understanding of “international solidarity” as depicted in Pervoe maia published by Soviet Ukraine’s War Commissariat. Both Ukraine and a Ukrainian are absent. Caption: “This is how the fraternal unity of the workers is realized.” Pervoe maia (Spring 1919).

Bolsheviks’ Centralization and Control

Although the UCP had accepted Bolshevik rule, funding and, thus, dependency, Bolshevik leaders feared it even though it had no more than 3000 members. In early 1920 the Bolsheviks controlled Ukrainian cities tenuously and had to keep a one million strong army in the country. The local branch of the RCP in Ukraine, the CPU, had only eleven thousand members, of whom no more than 10 percent that year identified as Ukrainians. The majority were urban Russified Jews or Russians, first- or second-generation settler-colonists, most of whom were ignorant of and indifferent, if not openly hostile to, Ukrainian national issues. The fifteen thousand strong Ukrainian left Socialist-Revolutionaries (borotbists), meanwhile, although pro-Bolshevik, were critical of Bolshevik policies, as were a group of critical “federalists” in the CPU, who were condemning the Bolsheviks in almost the same terms as the Ukrainian Communists.14

The Ukrainian condemnation of the RCP seemed to peak on the eve of the Congress when Russian-born, long-time CPU member Iurii Lapchynskii left the party to join the UCP. In a public letter in the UCP newspaper he condemned the Bolsheviks as “an organization of Russian and Russified workers” that, from the start, had disassociated itself from the Ukrainian revolution and one in which the majority, even after 1917, “regarded the attempt to create a [Soviet] Ukrainian territorial national state as a farce to fool Ukrainian chauvinists and foreigners and, at best, as a tactical maneuver.” It was only a minority like himself who saw “the need to fundamentally restructure the old Russian empire and, moved by a sense of obligation to the country they had to organize, and to the revolutionary proletariat, realized that Ukraine is a distinct and separate territorial national and economic organization.”

Georgii Lapchynskii

He condemned Bolshevik Russian centralization and the practice of sending Russian rejects (otbrosy) to posts in Ukraine, viewing these as the reasons why counter-revolution had triumphed there in 1919. He added that Lenin’s concessions of December 1919 had changed nothing and that reform from within the CPU was impossible. Having seen how some newly arrived Russians had been able to suppress within themselves “remnants of Muscovite centralism and chauvinism,” he concluded optimistically that the UCP was the only alternative for Ukraine. The Bolsheviks used his letter as an excuse to shut down the UCP newspaper.15 The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party members reported that spring that the UCP was attracting workers who backed Soviet power but disliked Lenin’s communists.16 Local CPU officials complained that UCP attempts to control local soviets [councils], establish their own army, and prevent “people from Russia” from controlling them amounted to “anti-communist agitation” more dangerous than that of the recently defeated Ukrainian National Republic.Bolshevik leaders decided to police the UCP soon after recognizing it. They harassed party members, discredited it, and denied it publicity by not publicly debating it. The CPU sponsored a pro-Bolshevik “left” faction within the UCP, intimidated members with spurious criminal charges, and denied funding and premises. The secret police (CHEKA) planted agents inside the party to foment ideological disagreements and thereby polarize membership.17 It established a special subsection to follow UCP activity which then compiled a detailed “Daily Information Report on the Ukrainian Communist Party.”18 

In June, on the eve of the CI Congress and before their defeat at the Battle of Warsaw, the Bolsheviks decided to destroy the party.19 As described by a UCP member in August 1920: “Our affairs here in Poltava [province] are the same as yours [in Kharkiv]: In Poltava [city] they [the Bolsheviks] appear to reckon and talk with us but out in the counties ‘they are cutting off our fingers, ears and noses’ [and] all according to the law.”20 In a letter to CPU leaders, Mazurenko, Richytsky, and Kulynychenko complained about harassment and arrests despite their professed loyalty: “You have stopped playing with the notion of an independent Ukraine and, putting all your declarations into the archives, are rebuilding a single united little Mother Russia.”21 Local CPU officials received orders: “In so far as it recognized Soviet power and has its representatives in the All Ukrainian CC … then we can include them in the work of Soviet organs. But that does not mean we recognize the UCP as genuinely communist and should relate to it loyally. Absolutely not. The obligation of every communist, party organ, and primary party organization is to wage a vicious struggle against it, revealing at every possible instance its nationalist and petite-bourgeois nature.” In his Ukrainska kommunistychna partia (UKP) i Kommunistychna partiia Ukrainy (KPbU) (1921), written shortly after his return from a trip to Ukraine, the former left-wing Ukrainian minister Volodymyr Vynnychenko claimed that if it was not repressed and harassed, the UCP would double its membership within a year. Lenin, before and after taking power, demanded strict party centralization. He condemned all non-Russian Social-Democratic and, later, communist parties in the Russian imperial space and considered his to be the only legitimate SD party in the empire. He allotted only a regional status to non-Russian groups within his party that placed them on a par with Russian provincial organizations.  Lenin’s 21 Conditions and Thesis to the Comintern ordered communists in colonized countries to support anti-imperialist bourgeois-led "national-revolutionary" movements or governments. What  these latter two douments did not demand, however, was  an organizational subordination of Europe’s colonial leftist radicals, or communist parties where they existed, to their various metro­politan communist parties.

Ukrainska kommunistychna partia (UKP) i Kommunistychna partiia Ukrainy  (KPbU) by V. Vynnychenko

Within the Russian empire, the Russian SDs, the Bolshevik, and then the Communist Party, did not differ from any other Russian party in as much as they all presumed to represent the entire imperial space and all its peoples irrespective of nationality. In 1903, Lenin made it clear that his party would not be a federation of independent communist parties of the empire’s various nationalities. This was reiterated in 1919 at the Eighth RCP Conference.22 That same year Iakov Sverdlov told party delegates at the Third CPU Conference in Kharkiv: “We are one Russian Communist party with various branches, regardless of how our old united Russia [Rossiia] will be divided, regardless of how, according to this or that political [or] international circumstance, we end up dividing the old Russia into separate Republics.” Nor was anyone to doubt who would be doing the dividing: “It was we,” said Sverdlov, “who created Soviet republics.” Russian Feodor Artem amplified Sverdlov’s point, leaving those who might have thought otherwise no doubt where power lay: “There will be one Russian [Rossiiskaia] communist party and only it will make decisions.” Elsewhere he drummed: “Our Ukrainian [CPU] party is now a Russian party [applause], and those who don’t want to understand that understand nothing.”23

This kind of thinking permitted no separate representation in the Comintern for non-Russian communist parties within the former tsarist imperial space then under Bolshevik control. This reflected not only Lenin’s centralist penchant, but his belief about the temporary nature of secession from empires and that imperial borders would eventually be re-established. Lenin nowhere specified that all empires were to be reunited after socialist revolutions had temporarily separated colony from metropole, except in his writings on the Russian empire, and on Ukraine in particular. Here, he did explicitly refer to the temporary nature of political secession and condemn all talk of “separating the workers of one nation from another.” Because he thought secession from the Russian empire, like non-Russian national identity within that empire, would be a temporary phenomenon, Lenin expected that all of Russia’s dominated nationalities would re-enter the imperial space once it was under Bolshevik control. Bolshevik leaders, like their mentor, regarded large economic units and ethnic assimilation as “progressive” and “national self-determination” from empire as only a necessary precondition for subsequent territorial “voluntary reunion” with its new “proletarian” rulers.24

Nonetheless, Bolshevik leaders recognized the Irish, Indian (until 1929), and British communist parties as separate entities, as they did the Indonesian, Dutch, Korean, and Japanese parties, and allotted each of them separate representation in the CI.25 Only in the French empire did communists replicate the centralized imperial Russian party structure during the early twenties. In Algeria, a communist party formed in 1924 remained subordinated to the French party, and like its parent body, opposed Algerian independence from France, much as the CPU opposed Ukrainian independence from Russia.26 In this context, the question inevitably arises, why the double standards? If an Irish and Indian communist party could exist independently of an English or British communist party, and if Korean radical leftists could be organizationally apart from the Japanese, then why could not a Ukrainian Communist Party exist independent of the RCP? Why one organizational standard for the Russian empire and another for the British French and Japanese empires?27 The Ukrainian communists attributed the reason to the imperialist and colonialist attitudes that permeated the members of the CPU in Ukraine as well as its parent body, the RCP, in contradiction to theoretical pronouncements in its propaganda.

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