An extremely important aspect of Vladimir Putin’s speech on the night of 21 February 2022, relayed by cable television and simultaneously translated into many languages, thus reaching a very wide array of audiences worldwide, was his long-drawn out narrative on the historical aspect of the question of relations between Russia and Ukraine.
Our readers are aware that our approach, together with our sister parties, to the war that has just started is to lay the blame squarely on NATO and Western imperialism. Their three-decade drive to encircle Russia by four successive waves of expansion culminating in the threat of including Ukraine and Georgia in NATO is the real cause of this war. However, we are of the opinion that the reactionary despotic regime of Putin is a barrier in responding to the scourge now facing Russia and a bane for the future of relations between peoples in the former Soviet space. The historical parts of Putin’s speech is important precisely for this. There are two visions for the future of the countries of the former Soviet state: that of Vladimir Putin the Great Russian nationalist and that of Vladimir Lenin the great proletarian internationalist. This is what we wish to bring home for the reader in opposition to Putin’s speech.
For the benefit of the reader, we provide at the end of this article the historical sections of his speech in its official version as an appendix.
Putin’s entire discussion of history, from the establishment of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1922 to its falling apart in 1991, is a background argumentation for a thinly-veiled objective: the refoundation of the Russian Federation on the basis of the frontiers of Czarist Russia. Having finally overcome the trauma of the collapse, the Russian ruling classes are now turning their gaze to the former frontiers of the USSR, whose borders corresponded, give or take a few changes, roughly to those of the territory of the Czar’s empire. That is another way of saying that with the exception of Finland, Poland and the three Baltic countries, all the peoples of the Czarist empire decided to stay with the new state founded on the basis of the October revolution of 1917.
All confusion should be avoided just because the overall territory of Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union are roughly co-extensive. Putin yearns to reinstate the frontiers not of the Soviet Union but of Russia from time immemorial. Talk about Putin wishing to reestablish the Soviet Union is not only a digression. It is an outright lie since the self-same speech amply proves that Putin is hostile to the USSR and sees it, in line with almost all ruling-class leaders of Russia, as a transient deviation from the course of Russian history. Putin aspires to Czarist Russia without the Czar himself.
To this end he concocts a whole historical narrative. For the moment, this narrative confines itself to relations between Russia and Ukraine, but there is no doubt that, were it to prove to be successful in the case of Ukraine, the Putin establishment will extend it to other former Czarist territory.
Let us see the chain of argumentation that Putin uses to accuse Lenin and the Bolsheviks in order to revive the status quo ante.
(1) Ukraine was part and parcel of Russia from time memorial all the way down to the Bolsheviks.
(2) “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by… Bolshevik, Communist Russia… Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land [territory].”
(3) This was only one aspect of Lenin’s national policy. As the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Stalin wanted a different kind of setup that would help absorb Ukraine and other regions of the Soviet Union into the newly founded Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics under a scheme dubbed “autonomisation”. Lenin fought against this idea and infused the union with the right of nations to self-determination, up to and including secession.
(4) After having made the totally arbitrary statement that the concessions of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty were absolutely unnecessary, Putin reaches his conclusion: “Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake, as the saying goes.” Today’s Ukraine is “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine”.
(5) Lenin’s federalism was simply incongruent with the realities of a state that has inherited the territory of Czarist Russia. Thus “with the rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship” the USSR became an absolutely centralist unitary state and federalism became dead letter. “[A]ll this transformed the formally declared but ineffective principles of government into a mere declaration.”
(6) If such is the case, of course, the responsibility of the dissolution of the union in 1991 cannot be laid at Lenin’s door, since his principles were not implemented after his death. So Putin takes another stride: “In fact,” he goes on to say, “what Stalin fully implemented was not Lenin’s but his own principles of government. But he did not make the relevant amendments to the cornerstone documents, to the Constitution, and he did not formally revise Lenin’s principles underlying the Soviet Union. From the look of it, there seemed to be no need for that, because everything seemed to be working well in conditions of the totalitarian regime, and outwardly it looked wonderful, attractive and even super-democratic.
And yet, it is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.” (Emphasis added.) Just mark the word “odious”, a sign of how a full thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, this Great Russian nationalist still has such deep-rooted hatred of communism.
(7) The dissolution of the Soviet Union is, on this basis, attributed to the “principles of statehood” that Lenin established. Lenin is the evil spirit, it seems, that haunts modern Russian history.
Setting the record straight
Putin’s characterisation of the respective policies, though not the reasons he adduces for them as we shall see, is as loyal to truth as may possibly be expected from a reactionary bourgeois politician. We have already explained, many years ago, in Turkish, that Putin is a “bourgeois Stalinist”, so to speak, and very much an anti-Leninist, precisely on these questions. So there is not much that is new here. What is new is that this realistic distinction between the two leaders of the first decades of the USSR is now being put to use, in a very awkward manner, in order to explain the misfortune that befell the Soviet Union and the causes of the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The first matter we need to dwell upon is the reasoning Putin adduces for Lenin’s choice of policy. He is lost in self-contradiction here, which is simply the sign of his purposefully erroneous argument. On the one hand he says, in pseudo-realistic fashion, “[a]t first glance, this looks absolutely incomprehensible, even crazy. But only at first glance. There is an explanation. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks’ main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs.”
This is falsification. Of course, the defense of the first dictatorship of the proletariat with some chance of enduring the assault of imperialist capitalism was an explicit priority for the Bolsheviks. But they did not do this simply by holding on to the levers of power that they had already acquired. No, since their worldview and programme were marked through and through by internationalism, they struggled to spread the revolution elsewhere beyond Russia. Not only did they form the Communist International to extend the revolutionary élan east and west, but they also fought hard to win the other peoples of the former Czarist empire to the revolutionary cause. And here the principled approach to the national question adopted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks played the main part.
But let us not run ahead of our chain of argument. Let us first see how Putin contradicts himself almost instantly on this question. After having suggested that the Bolsheviks used national policy to lure the other nationalities, and first and foremost the Ukrainians, to hold on to power, he immediately moves on to negate his own argument: “why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire? What was the point of transferring to the newly, often arbitrarily formed administrative units – the union republics – vast territories that had nothing to do with them?” (Emphasis added.)
Either the Bolsheviks used national policy to hold on to power by giving concessions to other nations apart from Russians, in which case these concessions were necessary, or these were not necessary (“why was it necessary?”) and you cannot then talk about their “main goal” being “to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs.”
It is obvious that an intelligence officer is not a good candidate for a historian. There must surely be a team of historians behind the intelligence officer-turned-strongman to elaborate this kind of historical discourse, a most venerable array of turncoats educated in the traditions of the Soviet Academy of Sciences then turning around to serve the restorationists. We would suggest to them to be more coherent and consistent in their argumentation.
In answer to the question “was it necessary?”, we ask these muddle-headed historians how it was possible to extend the revolution not only to Ukraine, but even to the farthest recesses of Turkic and Farsi Central Asia, where the proleriat was tiny in comparison to not peasant but nomadic majorities. It was the principled national policy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that made this possible. It was necessary to spread the revolution—and not only to Central Asia and Caucasia, but also to the vast Asian countries dominated by peasant and nomadic populations.
The Muslim populations of Czarist Russia are only the extreme example. As a matter of fact, Lenin’s national policy was also necessary in the case of peoples such as the Ukrainians. That Ukriane “belonged” to Russia conforms to the prejudices of all spokespeople of oppressor nations. They conflate official frontiers with the existence of different peoples living side by side but some being oppressed by others. Such was the situation that obtained for Russians and Ukrainians. Lenin’s approach was therefore absolutely justified. Grant the Ukrainians equal rights, not in formal terms but in reality, and even the right to secede, and that is when these two nations can coexist in a project of buildng a society that is free of oppression and explotiation.
Dead letter comes alive: the 1991 dissolution
So much for Putin’s ideas on Lenin’s entire project that led to the formation of the most democratic state in terms of the relations it established between nations. Lenin did not even concede to the effort of Stalin and his associates to maintain the name “Russian” in the appellation of the new state. This was the first state established in the modern era without any reference to a nation or even a geograhical area. The publication of this piece will be followed by that of another piece of ours that dwells on the extraordinary nature of the Soviet state from this point of view (“The USSR, a nationless federation of nations: the most adequate form for the transition to socialism”).
What we will proceed to do now is to rebut Putin’s claim that it was these “concessions” that Lenin made to the oppressed nations of Russia that led to the demise of the Soviet Union, with all preivous republics coming apart and turning into nation-states.
This argument is also riddled with a profound contradiction. On the one hand, Putin advances the view that under Stalin Lenin’s principles on the national question and the Soviet Constitution of 1924 became dead letter. He insists on this proposition in the strongest terms possible. On the other hand, though, he contends that the whole blame for the dissolution of the USSR lies with the ferderalist structure that was Lenin’s legacy. How is a constitution that was not repealed but nonetheless thrown aside like an empty shell supposed to be the fundamental causal factor behind the most precipitated fragmentation, on would even say pulverisation, of a once formidably strong state seen in history? What paper legislation that has not been heeded by the rulers of a country for decades on end can be the decisive mover of the fateful decision to break up the country?
The formerly Soviet historians that now provide their services for the legitimisation of Putin’s Great Russian nationalism will excuse us for finding this explanation fanciful and this contradiction damning. No, it was not the rights of the Soviet nations and nationalities that remained wholly on paper since Stalin’s time (this really is not a good characterisation of the situation, but that would take us too far afield for the purposes of this article) that broke the Soviet Union up.
It was, first, the hurry of the bureacracy of the different republics to move out of the Union, whose structures were the embodiment of the workers’ state that still acted as a straightjacket against the restitution of capitalist private property, which was their main goal. Secondly,
the attraction of the European Union that seemed (it turned out, falsely) to be the rising economic and political star in the horizon of Europe acted as a centripetal force for the European republcs of the Union. But thirdly, it was the real, the very real national oppression gradually reestablished by the Great Russian bureaucracy under Stalin and his followers that fed the centrifugal forces that led to the demise of the Union!
Lenin was, as a matter of fact, once again proven right: unless a socialist state pursues a policy of real, and not only formal, equality between nations its future is under the threat of the breakaway of the oppressed nations.
This is the fundamental distinction between authentic Bolshevik communism and the Great Russian nationalist bureaucracy and their present-day inheritors the oligarchs and their political leadership. The unity between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples will, unfortunately, have to wait for the recrudescence of Bolshevism.
The relevant historical sections of Putin’s speech
(Source: The Kremlin web site, English treanscript of Putin’s speech, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67828)
“So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.
Then, both before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin incorporated in the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. In the process, he gave Poland part of what was traditionally German land as compensation, and in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed.
But now I would like to focus attention on the initial period of the USSR’s formation. I believe this is extremely important for us. I will have to approach it from a distance, so to speak.
I will remind you that after the 1917 October Revolution and the subsequent Civil War, the Bolsheviks set about creating a new statehood. They had rather serious disagreements among themselves on this point. In 1922, Stalin occupied the positions of both the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the People’s Commissar for Ethnic Affairs. He suggested building the country on the principles of autonomisation that is, giving the republics – the future administrative and territorial entities – broad powers upon joining a unified state.
Lenin criticised this plan and suggested making concessions to the nationalists, whom he called “independents” at that time. Lenin’s ideas of what amounted in essence to a confederative state arrangement and a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, up to secession, were laid in the foundation of Soviet statehood. Initially they were confirmed in the Declaration on the Formation of the USSR in 1922, and later on, after Lenin’s death, were enshrined in the 1924 Soviet Constitution.
This immediately raises many questions. The first is really the main one: why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire? What was the point of transferring to the newly, often arbitrarily formed administrative units – the union republics – vast territories that had nothing to do with them? Let me repeat that these territories were transferred along with the population of what was historically Russia.
Moreover, these administrative units were de facto given the status and form of national state entities. That raises another question: why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous nationalists and, on top of all that, give the republics the right to secede from the unified state without any conditions?
At first glance, this looks absolutely incomprehensible, even crazy. But only at first glance. There is an explanation. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks’ main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs. They did everything for this purpose: accepted the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, although the military and economic situation in Kaiser Germany and its allies was dramatic and the outcome of the First World War was a foregone conclusion, and satisfied any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country.
When it comes to the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake, as the saying goes. This became patently clear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Of course, we cannot change past events, but we must at least admit them openly and honestly, without any reservations or politicking. Personally, I can add that no political factors, however impressive or profitable they may seem at any given moment, can or may be used as the fundamental principles of statehood.
I am not trying to put the blame on anyone. The situation in the country at that time, both before and after the Civil War, was extremely complicated; it was critical. The only thing I would like to say today is that this is exactly how it was. It is a historical fact. Actually, as I have already said, Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine. And today the “grateful progeny” has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization.
You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.
Going back to history, I would like to repeat that the Soviet Union was established in the place of the former Russian Empire in 1922. But practice showed immediately that it was impossible to preserve or govern such a vast and complex territory on the amorphous principles that amounted to confederation. They were far removed from reality and the historical tradition.
It is logical that the Red Terror and a rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship, the domination of the communist ideology and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, nationalisation and the planned economy – all this transformed the formally declared but ineffective principles of government into a mere declaration. In reality, the union republics did not have any sovereign rights, none at all. The practical result was the creation of a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state.
In fact, what Stalin fully implemented was not Lenin’s but his own principles of government. But he did not make the relevant amendments to the cornerstone documents, to the Constitution, and he did not formally revise Lenin’s principles underlying the Soviet Union. From the look of it, there seemed to be no need for that, because everything seemed to be working well in conditions of the totalitarian regime, and outwardly it looked wonderful, attractive and even super-democratic.
And yet, it is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state. As it often happened in our country before, nobody gave any thought to the future.
It seems that the Communist Party leaders were convinced that they had created a solid system of government and that their policies had settled the ethnic issue for good. But falsification, misconception, and tampering with public opinion have a high cost. The virus of nationalist ambitions is still with us, and the mine laid at the initial stage to destroy state immunity to the disease of nationalism was ticking. As I have already said, the mine was the right of secession from the Soviet Union.
In the mid-1980s, the increasing socioeconomic problems and the apparent crisis of the planned economy aggravated the ethnic issue, which essentially was not based on any expectations or unfulfilled dreams of the Soviet peoples but primarily the growing appetites of the local elites.
However, instead of analysing the situation, taking appropriate measures, first of all in the economy, and gradually transforming the political system and government in a well-considered and balanced manner, the Communist Party leadership only engaged in open doubletalk about the revival of the Leninist principle of national self-determination.
Moreover, in the course of power struggle within the Communist Party itself, each of the opposing sides, in a bid to expand its support base, started to thoughtlessly incite and encourage nationalist sentiments, manipulating them and promising their potential supporters whatever they wished. Against the backdrop of the superficial and populist rhetoric about democracy and a bright future based either on a market or a planned economy, but amid a true impoverishment of people and widespread shortages, no one among the powers that be was thinking about the inevitable tragic consequences for the country.
Next, they entirely embarked on the track beaten at the inception of the USSR and pandering to the ambitions of the nationalist elites nurtured within their own party ranks. But in so doing, they forgot that the CPSU no longer had – thank God – the tools for retaining power and the country itself, tools such as state terror and a Stalinist-type dictatorship, and that the notorious guiding role of the party was disappearing without a trace, like a morning mist, right before their eyes.
And then, the September 1989 plenary session of the CPSU Central Committee approved a truly fatal document, the so-called ethnic policy of the party in modern conditions, the CPSU platform. It included the following provisions, I quote: “The republics of the USSR shall possess all the rights appropriate to their status as sovereign socialist states.”
The next point: “The supreme representative bodies of power of the USSR republics can challenge and suspend the operation of the USSR Government’s resolutions and directives in their territory.”
And finally: “Each republic of the USSR shall have citizenship of its own, which shall apply to all of its residents.”
Wasn’t it clear what these formulas and decisions would lead to?
Now is not the time or place to go into matters pertaining to state or constitutional law, or define the concept of citizenship. But one may wonder: why was it necessary to rock the country even more in that already complicated situation? The facts remain.
Even two years before the collapse of the USSR, its fate was actually predetermined. It is now that radicals and nationalists, including and primarily those in Ukraine, are taking credit for having gained independence. As we can see, this is absolutely wrong. The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the CPSU leadership, mistakes committed at different times in state-building and in economic and ethnic policies. The collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.”