Ukraine’s Road to Unfreedom

Soviet Ukraine was the second most populous republic of the USSR, after Soviet Russia. In Soviet Ukraine’s western districts, which had been part of Poland before the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists resisted the imposition of Soviet rule. In a series of deportations in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they and their families were sent by the hundreds of thousands to the Soviet concentration camp system, the Gulag. In just a few days in October 1947, for example, 76,192 Ukrainians were transported to the Gulag in what was known as Operation West. Most of those who were still alive at the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 were released by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian communists joined their Russian comrades in governing the largest country in the world. During the cold war, southeastern Ukraine was a Soviet military heartland. Rockets were built in Dnipropetrovsk, not far from where the Cossacks once had their fortress. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (p. 120). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

Though Soviet policy had been lethal to Ukrainians, Soviet leaders never denied that Ukraine was a nation. The governing idea was that nations would achieve their full potential under Soviet rule, and then dissolve once communism was achieved. In the early decades of the Soviet Union, the existence of a Ukrainian nation was taken for granted, from the journalism of Joseph Roth to the statistics of the League of Nations. The famine of 1932–1933 was also a war against the Ukrainian nation, in that it wrecked the social cohesion of villages and coincided with a bloody purge of Ukrainian national activists. Yet the vague idea remained that a Ukrainian nation would have a socialist future. It was really only in the 1970s, under Brezhnev, that Soviet policy officially dropped this pretense. In his myth of the “Great Fatherland War,” Russians and Ukrainians were merged as soldiers against fascism. When Brezhnev abandoned utopia for “really existing socialism,” he implied that the development of non-Russian nations was complete. Brezhnev urged that Russian become the language of communication for all Soviet elites, and a client of his ran Ukrainian affairs. Schools were russified, and universities were to follow. In the 1970s, Ukrainian opponents of the Soviet regime risked prison and the psychiatric hospital to protest on behalf of Ukrainian culture. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (pp. 120-121). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

To be sure, Ukrainian communists joined wholeheartedly and in great numbers in the Soviet project, helping Russian communists to govern Asian regions of the USSR. After 1985, Gorbachev’s attempt to bypass the communist party alienated such people, while his policy of glasnost, or open discussion, encouraged Soviet citizens to air national grievances. In 1986, his silence after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl discredited him among many Ukrainians. Millions of inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were needlessly exposed to high doses of radiation. It was hard to forgive his specific order that a May Day parade go forward under a deadly cloud. The senseless poisoning of 1986 prompted Ukrainians to begin to speak of the senseless mass starvation of 1933. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (p. 121). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

In summer 1991, the failed coup against Gorbachev opened the way for Boris Yeltsin to lead Russia from the Soviet Union. Ukrainian communists and oppositionists alike agreed that Ukraine should follow suit. In a referendum, 92% of the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, including a majority in every Ukrainian region, voted for independence. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (pp. 121-122). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

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