A prologue to the restoration of the empire

8 July 2019, 14:28

Three treaties of December 28, 1920; November 19, 1990, and May 31, 1997 defined relations between Ukraine and Russia in the 20th century. Do they share a common feature that speaks in favor of the dealmaking capacity of the Russian diplomacy? Reflections on this bring to mind a well-known phrase by Otto von Bismark, the iron chancellor of the Second Reich: agreements with Russia are not worth the paper they are written on. 

The purpose of the December 28, 1920 treaty was to continue the restoration of the pre-Bolshevik Revolution empire misleadingly disguised as “the inviolableunion of free republics.” The November 19, 1990 treaty signed by Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin as a pact of joint action against Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Union center, was a prelude to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, however, immediately tried to turn the Soviet Union into a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the third version of the Russian Empire. When that attempt failed, Yeltsin had to accept the May 31, 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership. It was fine for Ukraine but the Russian ruling elite was not happy with it. After numerous attempts to stifle Ukraine in its embrace, Putin’s Russia finally switched to an armed aggression. 

Even this aggression, masked as a hybrid war with endless statements about Ukrainians and Russians as one nation, fails to convince many Ukrainians that the Kremlin’s policy is imperialistic in nature: they do not approve of the abolition of the Friendship Treaty by the Verkhovna Rada for many reasons – ideological, economic, national, religious and reasons of everyday convenience. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s information space is controlled by oligarchs whose economic interests are linked with Russia even three decades after Ukraine recovered its sovereignty. 

What can a country that respects democratic values, including freedom of speech, do in this situation? The only way is to look at the reality of Ukraine-Russia relations to counter the Kremlin’s mantras. The December 28, 1920 treaty offers a good illustration of this distorted reality. 


The attempt to merge Ukraine and Russia 

The soviet government established in the first half of 1919 crumbled under the peasants’ insurgency. The White Guard occupied the Ukrainian Republic. Inspired by this success, Anton Denikin embarked on his march to Moscow, but the three-week fighting around Kromy in October ended in his defeat. As they chased the White Guard, the armies of Leon Trotsky once again entered Ukraine. 

Trotsky declared in his address to the Red Army that “Ukraine is the land of Ukrainian workers and peasants, and only they have the right to work in Ukraine, rule it and build a new life in it. Remember firmly that your task is to liberate Ukraine, not to conquer it.” His statement ended with the slogan “Long live the Free Independent Soviet Ukraine!” 

On December 29, 1919, Vladimir Lenin wrote a somewhat different Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine on Victories Over Denikin. “It is obvious and commonly recognized that only Ukrainian workers and peasants can and will decide at their All-Ukrainian Assembly of Soviets, whether Ukraine will merge with Russia or remain an independent republic, and what federation connection should be established between this republic and Russia in the latter scenario,” the letter said. 

Christian Rakovsky, the head of the Ukrainian Soviet of People’s Committees in the first half of 1919, read the letter the next day. In his view, the prospect of Ukraine’s merger with Russia suggested by Lenin based on the will of Ukrainian workers and peasants could lead to another demise of the soviet government. He suggested formalizing relations between the Ukrainian SSR and the Russian SFSR in some kind of a treaty. The Kremlin seemed to accept that option. In fact, the letter had the following promising phrase: “We, the Great Russian communists, should be able to make concessions in disagreements with Ukrainian bolshevik communists when these disagreements are about Ukraine’s state independence and the form of its union with Russia.” 

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Where the Great Russians represented by Lenin really willing to make concessions? Or was this a trick? They approved the following quotas for representation at the IV All-Ukrainian Assembly of Soviets, the one that was to decide the status of Ukraine: one delegate each for 50,000 countryside residents, 10,000 urban population and 1,000 Red Army soldiers. How were Red Army members different from the other voters to be represented at the Assembly? Unlike workers and peasants, they were foreigners.Leon Trotskyflooded Ukraine with Russian soldiers while local residents drafted to the Red Army were sent to other military districts. By the end of 1920, there were 1.2 million Red Army soldiers in Ukraine.  

As a result, there were 50 times more delegates represented the Red Army than peasants, and 10 times more than workers at the Assembly. It produced the necessary result: “The IV All-Ukrainian Assembly of Soviets declares that the Ukrainian SSR, while preserving its state constitution, is a member of the All-Russian Socialist Federative Republic,” the resolution said. 30 representatives of the Ukrainian SSR were integrated into the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. By announcing the merger of Ukraine and Russia, the Assembly declared any attempt to weaken the links between them counterrevolutionary. 


Autonomy or independence? 

“Free Ukraine is possible under joint action of the Great Russian and Ukrainian proletarians. Without such unity, it is impossible,” said the scripture on the Lenin monument in Kyiv that was knocked down in December 2013. The leader thus only allowed the proletarian Ukraine to exist. In his view, his party was the only avantgarde of proletarianism. Therefore, he was talking of a bolshevik Ukraine. Because the bolsheviks were hiding from the Constitution in their state and pushed the bolshevized soviets to the forefront, it was only the soviet Ukraine that could exist. 

Soviet Ukraine could only be built as a Russian autonomy with a stateless status, or as an independent Ukraine. When he outlined this dilemma in the Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine on Victories Over Denikin, Lenin knew that the Kremlin was not losing control over the Red Army-occupied Ukraine, even as an independent republic. It was he who invented the unique state structure with two power hierarchies: extraconstitutional Communist Party hierarchy with dictatorial powers and the constitutional soviet hierarchy with managerial functions. 

Still, both Lenin and his Kremlin circle wanted to build a centralized country, not just a centralized party. By accepting the autonomous structure of the empire they were reviving (that structure did not exist before the Revolution), they could hardly imagine a centralized country existing as a group of independent soviet republics. 

Christian Rakovsky was also a man of the center because he was a member of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee that got together on a regular basis to solve all key issues of the state. Yet, he had two reasons to defend the status of Ukraine as an independent republic. Firstly, he was one of 19 Central Committee members in Moscow, but No1 in the system of power in Kharkiv. Secondly, he was better aware of the moods amongst Ukrainians whom Lenin addressed in the Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine on Victories Over Denikin. They valued national statehood and did not quite realize that independence was an illusion under the soviet authorities. In fact, it was not entirely illusory then as the Communist Party power hierarchy was yet to be built, drawing human resources from Russia. Moscow centralizers could barely rely on the local communists recruited mostly from the ranks of former Ukrainian social-democrats and socialist revolutionaries. 


In support of independence

The VIII Party Conference passed a resolution On Soviet Government in Ukraine in December 1919. It declared the desire of the Soviet Communist Party leaders to ensure free development of the Ukrainian language and culture, accomplish decisive influence of the poor peasantry representation in government bodies, requisition“excessive” grain in restricted amounts, abolish land ownership by landlordsrestored by Denikin, distribute farmland to peasants on equal basis, and prevent any forced integration of peasants into communes and artels. In other words, the Kremlin was rejecting the policy in Ukraine that led to the demise of the soviet government in the summer of 1919. 

The situation was fairly stable in Ukraine in the first half of 1920. Soviet occupation was far more bearable socio-economically and nationally compared to that by Denikin. Still, this was an occupation. When declarations about the “local government of workers and peasants” remained just that, peasants in Ukraine changed their opinion sharply. One example was the letter of Otaman Koval, the leader of an insurgency unit in Poltava region, to the Red Army commanders: “We, the insurgents of Ukraine, and I personally are fighting for the independent Ukrainian soviet government. When the Russian soviet army just came to Ukraine as it chased Denikin away from Ukraine, me and most of my community that was then and still is in my unit, joined the ranks of the Red Army and worked sincerely as instructed by the soviet government. We, Ukrainians, thought then that we would chase Denikin out of Ukraine in a joint effort with the Russian soviet army, disperse the black flocks of counterrevolution and build Soviet Ukraine as part of a federation with the Soviet Russia, gaining wide autonomy for the Ukrainian people… I long dreamed that we, Ukrainians, would find peaceful ways to agree with the communist Russian Government. But we then realized that it is only by sword and bullets that we, Ukrainians, can gain the right to free life.” 

Indeed, peasant rebellions were raging in Ukraine by the second half of 1920. Angered by the confiscation of grain, peasants launched an active fight against the Red Army units involved in the confiscation. “The kurkul banditry”, as the bolsheviks referred to the new wave of the civil war, spread across Ukraine on a massive scale. “We are taking grain from Siberia, from Kuban, but we can’t take it from Ukraine because a war is raging there and the Red Army is forced to fight against the bands that overflow it,” Lenin wrote in October. 

In April, the troops of Josef Pilsudsky and the Ukrainian People’s Republic Army led by Symon Petliura invaded the Ukrainian SSR and took over Kyiv. A day earlier, Felix Dzerzhinski arrived in Kharkiv as a newly-appointed commander of support forthe South-Western front. His task was to organize a fight against Nestor Makhno’s 20,000-strong insurgency army that started raiding the Left-Bank Ukraine. The other task of the No1 chekist was to fight against the national liberation movement in any form or shape, from national communism within the Communist Party to the borotbistswho never joined the ranks of the bosheviks. He wrote in a report to Lenin six months later: “Local communists are some sort of scum, they live by their small interests. I did not notice Russophilism,nor did I hear any complaints. In my sphere, I have good harvest here. All of the so-called mid-level Ukrainian intelligentsia are Petliurites.”  

Meanwhile, glavkism emerged as yet another threat to the building of the soviet government. Moscow People’s Commisariats and their glavks, or headquarters, wanted to control operations throughout the accessible periphery bypassing their Ukrainian counterparts. After Christian Rakovsky went on an inspection tour across Ukrainian gubernias, he made several public statements that fall. “Ukraine has preserved the whole industrial apparatus. It needs small repairs, but the main thing it needs is enough fuel, raw materials and money. The trip revealed once again how hard ultracentralist trends are hitting the industry,” he said in one such statement. On November 2, Leon Trotsky made the following statement at the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee political bureau: “Ukraine is going through internal processes that are likely to make the soviet authority incomparably more stable. At the same time, the new stage of development entails far greater autonomy of government bodies in Ukraine. The current regime cannot be considered normal. Ukraine is still an anarchy economically under the mask of Moscow’s bureaucratic centralism.”

There were some international aspects in the problem of Ukraine-Russia relations. On October 12, a peace treaty was concluded between the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR on one side, and Poland on the other. “Both parties, according to the principle of self-determination of the peoples, recognize independence of Ukraine and Belarus,” the preliminary peace terms specified. But weeks passed and the position of both soviet republics vis a vis the Russian SFSR remained undetermined. 

Georgiy Chicherin, the Russian Foreign Minister, raised the alarm. He wrote in a letter to the politburo of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee on November 30, that “We recognized the formula of independence for Ukraine in the Riga Treaty, while the IV All-Ukrainian Assembly of Soviets supported the integration of Ukraine into the Russian SFSR. This was before the Riga Treaty which obliges us to recognize Ukraine’s independence.” He was perfectly aware of the benefits the Kremlin had with the two separate power hierarchies. “Current relations can in fact remain unchanged, but we need to establish them in the form of a union of two states, not one union state,” he added.   


The Union Treaty 

Chicherin’s letter to the politburo was the last straw that triggered immediate revision of the IV All-Ukrainian Assembly decision to merge Ukraine with Russia. The Soviet Communist Party Central Committee plenum put the issue on its agenda on December 7 under the following phrasing: “On the regulation of international and legal relations between the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR.” After it approved a directive on the recognition of the Ukrainian SSR as an independent and sovereign state, the Central Committee plenum proposed the presidium of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Russian SFSR to regulate international and legal aspects framed by the directive. 

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On December 13, Christian Rakovsky reported about the decisions passed at the Central Committee politburo. The next regular Central Committee plenum on December 24 considered the issues listed at the VIII All-Russian Assembly of Soviets, including the approval of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Union Treaty between the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR. Lev Kamenev was instructed to explain the situation to the communist faction of the soviets assembly, while Rakovsky was to deliver a speech on this item on the agenda and propose the ratification of the Union Treaty. 

On December 28, the Union Treaty was officially concluded, signed by Lenin and Chicherin from the Russian SFSR and Rakovsky from the Ukrainian SSR, as head of government and the people’s commissar for foreign affairs. The VIII All-Russian Assembly of Soviets ratified the treaty on December 29, followed by the ratification by the All-Ukrainian Assembly of Soviets in March 1921. 

The preambule solemnly confirmed “independence and sovereignty of each of the parties to the treaty.” Article 1 declared the entry of both parties to the military and economic union. Article 2 said that “the mere fact of former dependence of the territory of the Ukrainian SSR does not result in any obligations to anyone.” 

All these pompous words were empty talk in the end. But the sovietized Ukraine preserved its quasistatehood. The center in Moscow was firmly in control of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, but not the people that was turning into a freedom-loving and united nation during its struggle for liberation. 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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