Trotsky on Ukraine

The Editors

Trotsky on 'The Ukrainian Question' in Socialist Appeal, 22 April 1939 (via Counterpunch):

The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force...

In the conception of the old Bolshevik party Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland. But during the years of Thermidorian reaction, the position of Soviet Ukraine and together with it the posing of the Ukrainian question as a whole changed sharply. The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the 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 the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence...

Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin. Since the latest murderous 'purge' in the Ukraine no one in the West wants to become part of the Kremlin satrapy which continues to bear the name of Soviet Ukraine. The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine, in Bukovina, in the Carpatho-Ukraine are in a state of confusion: Where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their 'nationalism' by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence...

Sections of the Ukrainian people have become so much small change for the Kremlin in its international calculations. The Fourth International must clearly understand the enormous importance of the Ukrainian question in the fate not only of Southeastern and Eastern Europe but also of Europe as a whole. We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory which, moreover, is of the highest strategical importance. The question of the fate of the Ukraine has been posed in its full scope. A clear and definite slogan is necessary that corresponds to the new situation. In my opinion there can be at the present time only one such slogan: A united, free and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.


  • 3 March 2014 at 11:34pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Yeah and look what happened to him.

  • 17 March 2014 at 4:57pm
    Dr Paul says:
    A major problem with Trotsky's articles on Ukraine is that they does not take into account something which, if it did not exist 75 years back, certainly does now: a sizeable mixed Russian and Ukrainian population in Eastern and Central Ukraine, that is, in a fairly large chunk of the country. He actually refers in one article to the creation of 'a powerful and purely Ukrainian proletariat' (my emphasis) having been formed by Soviet industrialisation, although there were fair numbers of Russians in factories and mines in Ukraine prior to the October Revolution, let alone prior to the First Five-Year Plan.

    For decades in Eastern and Central Ukraine, Russians and Ukrainians have lived together with many mixed marriages and friendships, there's a vernacular language, Surzhik, a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. The nationalist discourse on either side ignores all this: it does not fit in with their preconceptions.

    What concerns me is that the parallel Russian and Ukrainian nationalist agitation will, if it gets worse, force Russians and Ukrainians in the mixed areas of Ukraine to have to choose their allegiance and identity -- towards Moscow or towards Kiev. In a way, this was posed in the abstract when the Soviet Union broke up, but is now threatening to become a practical reality with the official nationalist agendas being run from Kiev and Moscow. We saw what this led to in Yugoslavia. If the governments in Kiev and Moscow keep raising the heat, then the consequences will be appalling.

    Trotsky's articles, 75 years old and not able to deal with a vitally important social development in a fairly large chunk of Ukraine, are unfortunately of little use today, as is the dogma of national self-determination when that dogma, when exercised by nationalist zealots, merely serves to divide people from one another.

  • 17 March 2014 at 4:59pm
    Dr Paul says:
    Error -- first para, first line, for 'they does not' please read 'they do not'.

  • 23 March 2014 at 10:40am
    Doug1943 says:
    A phrase which encapsulates the problem Dr Paul addresses is: "inter-penetrated peoples", for which the Spartacist League should receive credit.

    Almost all of the 'easy' colonial questions have been solved (although some remain). What we have left are the hard ones, where there is not a neat match between self-identified 'nations' and their occupation of territory. Here, the demand for the 'colonial' power to simply leave is misguided.

    No matter how borders are redrawn, some people are going to be on the wrong side. Depending on the nature of those who then come to rule them, this can be merely a slight inconvenience, or lethal.

    Where both sides are civilized democrats, this separation can be accomplished with minimal pain, as witness Norway and Sweden at the beginning of the 20th Century, or the Czech Republic and Slovakia,at the end. Sadly, this condition does not always apply. And inflamed national feelings are often in tension with civilized and democratic behavior.

    What can democrats do in these situations? I think we have to uphold the right of self-determination, all other things being equal (which they seldom are), while agitating for maximum minority rights for those left behind on the 'wrong' side of the new borders.

    There aren't going to be any good solutions, only less bad ones.