A Different Peasantry

6 May 2011, 16:54

Today, themost radical form of Ukrainian peasants struggle is a refusal to deliver milk at unacceptable prices. Usually, such protests are temporal. It appears that nothing can stir up the quiet bog of brutalized Ukrainian villages — neither drunken human hunting sprees by a post-Soviet latifundista with his retinue and annual price games played by grain traders, nor systemic humiliation on the part of procurement companies. In a contemporary post-kolkhoz state, the powerful show no intention of reckoning with peasants, unlike with journalists, coal miners or entrepreneurs. Ukrainian peasants do not block highways with tractors or spill milk all over the lawns in front of parliament like European farmers do. Nevertheless, history tells us about a totally different kind of Ukrainian peasantry, one that was the last remaining social stratum which continued to defend human and national dignity, inflicting painful blows on Soviet authorities.


After the nearly complete assimilation of our elites in the Russian Empire by the end of the 18th century, the story of Ukrainian resistance was for a long time the story of the peasantry. Peasant resistance against socioeconomic measures of the Soviet government in the early 1930s was the last outbreak of an armed struggle for personal and national rights in central and eastern Ukraine. The civil war of the 1920s was ended here not in the least owing to considerable concessions made to the peasantry in the form of the NEP. As late as March 1926, the State Political Directorate of the Ukrainian SSR informed the center that “political banditry” had ended. However, the peasantry’s discontent with the Soviet socioeconomic policy began to grow again in 1927 and reached a climax in the winter and spring of 1930 after the first wave of total collectivization and dekulakization. Mass riots swept across nearly the entire breadth of Soviet Ukraine. In some places, armed rebellions erupted. In the late winter of 1930, mass unrest engulfed 16 districts, including all of the 11 border districts. By March 10, insurgencies spread to 18 districts in the Ukrainian SSR. The GPU registered 81 armed insurgencies in the Tulchyn, Mohyliv-Podilsky and Vinnytsia districts alone.

On February 27, GPU Chief for Ukraine Vsevolod Balytsky came to Shepetivka            and ordered troops subordinated to him to be moved to Shepetivka and Koziatyn. The unfolding of the insurgency movement in Shepetivka district, a border districts, was of great concern to the leadership of Soviet Ukraine. On March 3, a guerrilla unit numbering about 200 people armed with rifles, sawn-off guns and knives formed in the village of Kuzmytsia in Teofipol district. It was active in this district and in Antoniny district. The scale of the uprising can be gauged by the fact that by March 6 it spread to more than 10 villages in Antoniny district alone. A detachment of Kyiv Police School students, a cavalry battalion and a machinegun platoon were sent to fight the insurgents.

Authorities were forced to send a cavalry regiment and artillery to crush the armed insurgency in the village of Mykhailivka in Dunaivtsia district, Kamianets-Podilsky district.

In early March, Balytsky aimed to crush peasant revolts in five border districts in Odesa district. Armed units were formed in Chervonopovstansky district that temporarily took control of the villages Yasky, Troitske and Hradenytsi located along the Dniester Liman shore on the border with Romania. In Yasky, the insurgents disarmed the police and heavily wounded 10 Bolsheviks and activists. The village meeting took place which demanded to bring the kulaks back, restore confiscated property to them, disband the kolkhozes, distribute seed grain, and hand over communist village leaders to be punished by the people. In Hradenytsi, insurgents tried to destroy an outpost and open the border. Yasky residents formed a unit under the command of the former Russian tsarist army officer Voitenchuk.

They dug ditches across the streets to stop the cavalry, set up a wire fence by the church, and damaged telephone communications on the border.

In mid-March, Balytsky led the campaign to crush peasant insurgencies in Podillia and had GPU units and regular army forces under his command. His reports from Trostianets, Tulchyn district, to Kharkiv dated March 16, 1930, testify to the large scale of the unrest: “I came to Tulchyn district yesterday. The entire district is swept up in insurgencies which have affected 15 out of 17 districts. As of today, riots are taking place in 153 villages. Soviet authorities have been completely driven out of 50 villages where village elders are usually elected in place of village councils. Kolkhozes have been disbanded in most villages in the district. … There is armed resistance in some villages. Trenches have been dug around villages and they are occupied by armed people. In some villages, they are singing ‘Shche ne vmerla Ukraina’ (Ukraine Has Not Yet Died) and shouting slogans ‘Away with Soviet power! Long live independent Ukraine!’”

This picture of total war against Soviet authorities is confirmed by the notes taken by Grigory Ordzonikidze, People’s Commissar of the Soviet Worker and Peasant Inspection, in March 1930: “In Tulchynsky, Shepetivka and Mohyliv districts a true peasant revolt has been under way. It has been crushed using troops, machine guns and, in some places, heavy artillery. … In other districts (Korosten, Vinnytsia, Kryvyi Rih, Kharkiv, and Melitopol) similar insurgencies are going on.”


One of the most powerful armed peasant uprisings in eastern Ukraine took place in April 1930 in the Dnipropetrovsk region and is known as the Pavlohrad Uprising (after the name of the district of most action). A collection of documents and materials some of which were previously kept secret in the SBU’s archives and the testimonies of eyewitness and their descendants was published in 2009.

Two villages, Bohdanivka and Ternivka, were the center of the resistance movement. Groups that formed spontaneously in other localities looked to these two villages for leadership. The goal was to overthrow Soviet authorities. Even though most of the organizers and activists were ethnic Russians, the goal was to proclaim freedom “when all of Ukraine would be regained.”

Peasant leaders commented on the existence of numerous insurgent groups across Ukraine that would be ready to support them at any moment. They also counted on the assistance of the police and military units. They first planned to capture the city of Pavlohrad where their fellow countrymen were undergoing military training in a local Red Army regiment. The next step was to go to Dnipropetrovsk. They believed in the possibility of an all-Ukrainian revolution. On April 4, some 30 people from Bohdanivka led by Arkhyp Voronkin, Ivan Aksionov and Ivan Shepelov came to the village of Osadchy. The villagers joined them on the next day. Armed with old rifles, sawn-off guns, shotguns, stakes and pitchforks, the insurgents started to remove Bolshevik authorities and Soviet and party activists. In the afternoon, they came to Bohdanivka and rang the bells calling on the local residents to go to Pavlohrad. The peasants took control of a bridge between Bohdanivka and Ternivka and broke the telephone line to disrupt communication between the local Soviet leaders and the district and oblast authorities. Another unit of insurgents settled accounts with the communist activists in the village of Bohdano-Verbky and set off for Ternivka where the local peasants joined its ranks. The third group, from the village of Sontseve, also set out on April 5 and tried to join the Bohdanivka insurgents. The anti-Soviet insurgency swept through the villages and villages primarily in Pavlohrad, Blyzniuky and Petropavlivsk districts.

These events came to the attention of the district authorities in the afternoon of April 5. The first reports contradicted each other – different numbers of insurgents, from 30 to 1,000 people, where reported from the districts. A GPU unit led by Zinovii Halytsky, deputy chief of the Dnipropetrovsk District Department, was sent to fight them. They also had assistance from a 200-strong police force, including 58 mounted policemen. The GPU and the police fought against the armed, unprepared and poorly coordinated peasants on April 5-6 and overcame them. According to the GPU, 30 people died at the hands of the insurgents. The peasants themselves lost 13 people and five more were wounded.

Balytsky reported to Stanislav Kosior, secretary general of the CC CP(B)U, that the insurgency had been crushed. In addition to information on casualties and captives among peasants, the report emphasized the fact that the leaders of the “band” were trying to stir up a general uprising under the slogan of fighting for an independent Ukraine. Charges of participation in the insurgency were brought against 210 people; 27 insurgents were executed. A mere 19 were released, while the rest were sentenced to 3–10 years in prison.


The desperate resistance of the Ukrainian peasants who fought for human dignity and their traditional system of farming forced the Soviet party and state leadership to temporarily adjust plans of socioeconomic transformations. But the forces were clearly unequal. In previous years, the security agencies disarmed the peasantry almost completely. Balytsky noted, not without some satisfaction, that the insurgents had shotguns in only a handful of cases. However, even despite a lack of ammunition and poor organization, over 4,000 mass peasant uprisings involving over 1 million people occured in 1930 alone as recorded by the GPU and counted by researchers.

The history of this active resistance was virtually over after the brutal pacification of the Ukrainian village by way of the genocidal Holodomor in 1932–33. Today, political battles are raging over the Holodomor, but it is evident that in addition to the social economic effect, its perpetrators achieved also an extremely important socio-psychological effect: the will of the Ukrainian peasantry to mount any kind of resistance in territories devastated by the famine was conclusively broken.

Despite all attempts to once again revise national history, the evil essence of the Holodomor has not been questioned in contemporary Ukraine. Paradoxically, however, those who were most active in counteracting this crime still remain to be rehabilitated.

According to GPU, the peasants in Shepetivka district killed 15, wounded 32 and beat 280 representatives of the Soviet authorities in mass riots as of March 24.

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