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Communist Era

Soldiers of the Ukrainian People's ArmySoldiers of the Ukrainian People's Army


At the beginning of the 20th century Ukrainians were separated between two states with most of them living in the Russian Empire and the rest in the Austro-Hungarian one. Ukrainian national organisations and parties existed in both states but their national aspirations and activities were curbed by the imperial authorities. The outbreak of World War I brought significant changes to the lives of Ukrainians in both states. Apart from the fact that the territory of Galicia (Western Ukraine) became a battleground for some of the most violent battles on the Eastern front, Ukrainian soldiers were fighting on opposing sides. There were about 3.5 million Ukrainians in the Russian army and 250 thousand in the Austro-Hungarian one, who had to kill each other for the empires they represented.[1] However, it was World War I that brought these empires to their end: the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 and the Austro-Hungarian a year and a half later.

Struggles for Statehood: 1917-1920

In 1917, the fall of the Russian Empire gave Ukrainians a historical chance to forge their independence. The following three years saw the civil war on the one hand and active state-building on the other. Later, this period became known as the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1920.

The Central Rada

Soon after the February Revolution took place in Petrograd, Ukrainian political activists formed their own parliament, the Central Rada (Council), on 17 March 1917. A historian, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, was elected as its head.[2] During the short period of its existence, the Central Rada changed its vision of Ukrainian statehood from autonomy within Russia ruled by the Provisional Government to full-fledged independence. The evolution of the parliament’s views is recorded in four Universals – declarations issued by the Central Rada. Apart from shaping the political organisation of a new state and establishing relations with the neighbours, the Central Rada had to manage a number of internal issues. Being unprepared for such work and lacking the necessary experience, it neglected important problems such as supplying cities with provisions, maintaining the railway network, the issue of land distribution and the need for a regular army. As further events proved, it was impossible to govern without military support.[3]

The First Bolshevik Occupation

As soon as Bolsheviks had gained power in Petrograd, they set their sights on Ukraine. As such, it became obvious that conflict between the Bolsheviks and the Central Rada would be unavoidable.

As a direct result of successful agitation and propaganda among the military personnel and local peasant population, utilizing the slogans of social justice, economic equality and peace, the initally 15-thousand strong Bolshevik army quickly swelled into a 40-thousand men crowd.[4] Consequently, the Central Rada started losing its influence.[5]

In these circumstances, the Central Rada announced its last, fourth Universal. It proclaimed that the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) was a free independent state and called upon the people to repel the Bolshevik invasion.[6] At the same time, Russian Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin started negotiations in the city of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) which had been in war with the Russian Empire since 1914. They claimed to be representing all the nations of the former empire. To contradict this, the Central Rada sent its own delegation to Brest-Litovsk. Just a few hours before the Bolshevik troops entered Kiev, the Ukrainian authorities signed an agreement with the Central Powers. The document recognised Ukrainian independence and pledged to offer military support against the Bolsheviks. The Central Rada, on the other side, promised to deliver a large amount of provisions to the Central Powers (mostly Germany and Austro-Hungary). By July 1918 a million ton of grain, meat and cereals were to be delivered from Ukraine.[7]

Following the Brest-Litovsk agreement, the Austrian army entered Ukraine. Bolsheviks, who had successfully fought against the small army of UNR, could not resist the regular Austrian armed forces and had to retreat. On 1 March 1918 the Central Rada returned to Kiev.[8]

The Hetmanate[9]

The presence of the foreign army, unsuccessful economic policy and ineffective treatment of crucial issues (such as land distribution, formation of the army and clear vision of the future of the state) caused discontent in the Ukrainian society. Consequently, on 29 April 1918 a new coup d’état took place in Kiev. General Pavlo Skoropadsky, supported by the Austrians, was proclaimed the ‘hetman’ (ruler) of the Ukrainian State – the new official name of the country. Skoropadsky’s rule can be characterised as a bureaucratic military dictatorship.[10] It was based on a mixture of royal, republican and dictatorial features. Private property was declared untouchable and returned to the former landlords. At the same time, during his short 8-month rule, Skoropadsky managed to establish a number of cultural and educational institutions. More than 150 gymnasiums were opened; the State Archive, the National Library, the Opera and Drama Theatre, Ukrainian universities in Kiev and Kamenets-Podolsky as well as the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences were created.[11]

Skoropadsky’s dependency on the Austrians, his ties with the upper classes who tried to reverse the changes brought on by the revolution and his extreme loyalty to Russia led to the formation of a political opposition that represented class interests of the other side of the spectrum. The opposition created an alternative government with Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petlura as its leaders. They openly announced the preparation for a rebellion against the Hetman.

The Directory

A new change of power took place on 14 November 1918 when the Austrian army left Kiev and the opposition forces entered the city. They proclaimed the restoration of Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) ruled by the highest organ of the state called the Directory.[12]

As Orest Subtelny, a Ukrainian historian, indicates, “In 1919 chaos covered Ukraine. In the modern history of Europe, no country has suffered such pervasive anarchy, civil fight or complete destruction of power as Ukraine did. There were six different armies in Ukraine in those days; Ukrainian, Bolshevik, White, Entente’s, Polish and Anarchists’. Power changed five times in Kiev within less than a year”.[13]

The Second and the Third Bolshevik Occupation

In December 1918, the French army landed in Odessa to prevent the spread of Bolshevism. Their plan was to provide military help to the White Army which was preparing for a war for a “united and unbreakable Russia”. At the same time, there were rumours that Bolsheviks were preparing a new expansion to Ukraine. Ukrainian government, however, failed to reach a consensus on whether to prefer a union with Russia or to negotiate with the Entente, and while the Ukrainian politicians were deciding which option to choose, the Bolsheviks occupied Kharkov.[14] On 2 February 1918, the Directory left Kiev and moved to Vinnitsa.

The second Ukrainian Soviet government lasted for about seven months. They started with what Lenin called “a crusade for bread” when three thousand workers were sent from Moscow and Petrograd to take grain from Ukrainian peasants. Bolsheviks also started implementing the collective system in agriculture which caused anger among most groups of the peasantry.[15]

On 21 April 1920 Symon Petlura, one of the leaders of the Directory, signed an agreement with Poland about common fight against the Bolsheviks. The Polish side was motivated to create a buffer state between Poland and the Soviet Russia hoping that as soon as they entered Ukraine they would be supported by peasants. However, even though the joint Ukrainian-Polish forces managed to reach Kiev on 6 May, the local peasants, suspicious of the Polish motives, withheld their immediate support. The Bolshevik counter-attack ended with Soviet-Polish agreement and the latter's retreat. The Ukrainian Army continued its efforts until the end of 1920 when it was ousted by the Bolshevik forces. On 21 December 1919 the third Bolshevik government was formed in Ukraine.[16] This time their rule lasted for more than seven decades.

Western Ukraine

Shortly after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1918, the Ukrainians who lived on its territory in Galicia announced the creation of a new state – Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR). Galicia was historically a Ukrainian region with the population of 5.3 million people, of which (according to the 1910 census) 3.8 million (71.4 per cent) were Ukrainians, 770 thousand (14.4) were Poles, 660 thousand (12.3 per cent) were Jews and 65 thousand (1 per cent) were Germans.[17] ZUNR, with the capital in Lviv, covered mostly Eastern Galicia. On 22 January 1919 the Act of Union between ZUNR and UNR was signed in Kiev. However, as the Central Rada soon left Kiev, it remained a mere declaration.

ZUNR, on the other hand, faced its own problems. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Polish activists, who viewed Eastern Galicia as Polish territory, started building up their own national state. Hence, the proclamation of the ZUNR was swiftly followed by the military conflict with the Poles. In three weeks the new Ukrainian government was forced to leave Lviv and moved first to Ternopil and then to Stanislav. The Ukrainian-Polish war lasted for 9 months and ended with Polish occupation of Eastern Galicia, which was supported by the Entente “to protect civil population from the danger of the Bolshevik bands”.[18]

1920s: the Age of Economic and Political Experiments

‘Military Communism’

Bolshevik policy during the Civil War enfeebled the Ukrainian economy. To impose socialism and to supply the Red Army and the starving Russian cities, Bolsheviks introduced the economic policy of military communism. It included nationalisation of all privately owned land and industrial plants, rationing of products and goods by the government, and the expropriation of grain from peasants.[19] A peasant was allowed to keep only about 30 pounds (13 kilograms) of grain per month.[20] An increase in the deficit of products together with a draught in Southern Russia and Ukraine caused a famine, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.[21]

New Economic Policy (NEP)

The unpopularity of military communism provoked a number of strikes, which eventually led to the Kronstadt rebellion: a mass protest of military men against the Bolsheviks. This forced Lenin to rethink his methods of regulating agriculture and to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP), in March 1921.

As economist V. N. Bandera states, “NEP was a compromise”.[22] Its main aim was to pacify the peasants and to motivate them to increase production. Instead of expropriations, moderate taxes were imposed. As long as the peasants paid their taxes, they could sell their leftover grain at market price. Moreover, poor peasants were exempt from the taxes. While governmental restrictions on internal trade were abolished, industry, banks, transportation and export remained under its control.[23] NEP was not a complete return to the market economy: it was just ‘one step back to move two steps forward’, a temporary measure which had tactical, rather than real economic, ground. With Lenin’s death in 1924 and the position of new political elite becoming stronger, such compromise was no longer needed.

Political Organisation and Creation of the USSR

Even though in reality Ukraine was ruled from Moscow since the beginning of the 1920s, de-jure it had a separate Ukrainian Soviet government. Until 1923 Ukraine managed its own foreign affairs, foreign trade and started building up an autonomous Ukrainian Soviet army.[24]

In 1922, a discussion started in Moscow about legitimisation of relations between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasian states. Lenin offered to create a “union of equals” with each republic having the hypothetical right to quit the union if the Communist Party agreed. In reality this meant that it was almost impossible to leave the union peacefully. Under Lenin Ukrainian Soviet government stayed responsible for agriculture, home affairs, justice, education, healthcare and social services. Food production, workforce, finances, auditing and economics remained within the jurisdiction of both the Ukrainian and the central Soviet government. Foreign affairs, army, fleet, foreign trade and transport and were administered by Moscow.[25]

On 30 December 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created. Ukraine became the second largest republic of USSR with a territory of 450 thousand square kilometres, and a population of more than 26 million. At first it was not Kiev but Kharkov which became the capital of UkrSSR.[26]

Ukrainisation and National Communism

Soviet recruitment poster featuring the Ukrainisation theme. The text reads: Soviet recruitment poster featuring the Ukrainisation theme. The text reads: "Son! Enroll in the school of Red commanders, and the defence of Soviet Ukraine will be ensured."

In 1923 the policy of “Ukrainisation”, which covered all spheres of life in Soviet Ukraine, was launched. First of all, the use of Ukrainian language in the party and in government was promoted. Furthermore, the policy fostered the teaching of Ukrainian in schools, leading to the elimination of illiteracy. As a result, the 1920s became a time of incredible development and growth of Ukrainian culture for which it was called the ‘Ukrainian renaissance’.

With the successful implementation of the Ukrainisation policy, ideas of national communism emerged, revolving around three main ideologues. Writer Mykola Khvylyovyi’s famous slogan “Away from Moscow” called for taking a separate path in building up a new Ukrainian culture. Oleksandr Shymskyy, a commissar of education in Ukraine, protested against centralism and stood for appointing Ukrainians to the ruling positions in Ukraine. Mykhailo Volobuev, an economist, claimed that Ukraine remained an ‘economic colony’ within the USSR and insisted upon the necessity to disengage the Ukrainian economy from that of the USSR. However, soon after the manifestation of these ideas, all the authors were censured by the government and forced to renounce their views.[27] During the repressions of 1930s their views would be remembered and national-communists would be put to death.

1930s: Stalin’s Rule and Ukraine

In 1927, Stalin emerged as the new leader of the USSR from the power struggle, which took place within the Communist Party after Lenin’s death. In 1928 the first five-year plan for economic changes was accepted. It was based on the projects of industrialisation, urbanisation and collectivisation.


Out of 1500 new facilities built in the USSR, 400 were located in Ukraine. Among them were Dniproges (the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Europe built in 1932), the metallurgic plant in Zaporozhie and the tractor plant in Kharkov. The facilities built during the first five-year plan placed Ukraine among the leading industrial countries of Europe.[28] However, such progress called for the involvement of thousands of workers. To cultivate motivation and enthusiasm, different methods were used. On one hand, the best workers were publicly praised and honoured. On the other hand, being late to or absent from work was considered a criminal offence, which led to punishment.[29]


Another feature of the 1930s was rapid urbanisation. Thousands of workers moved from the rural areas to the cities to work for the developing industry. Andrei K. Sokolov indicates that “between 1926 and 1939 the country’s urban population increased from 18 to 33 per cent”.[30]


The changes in the rural areas were also drastic. Collectivisation (creating collective farms from private ones) was defined by historian Orest Subtelny as “one of the most terrible events in the history of Ukraine”.[31] Peasants’ support for collectivisation was absent and Stalin realised that to achieve his aims both economic and political control had to be enforced. First of all he initiated a campaign against the rich peasants (kurkuls) calling for their elimination as a social class. In practice this meant executions, deportations to the labour camps in Siberia or confiscation of all the kurkuls’ property.[32]

However, not only rich peasants opposed collectivisation. Peasants expressed their discontent by organising armed revolts or killing their own cattle just to prevent the authorities from having it. Consequently, in 1928-1929 the number of livestock in Ukraine halved.[33]


The famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) became one of the most tragic events in the history of Ukraine. While the exact number of lives claimed by the famine is unknown, it is thought to range from 5 to 10 million.[34] The harvest of 1932 was only 12 per cent less than the average of 1926-1930. However, the authorities continued with the systematic confiscation of grain from peasants while Stalin upped the grain quota by 44 per cent.[35] Death or ten years at labour camps was announced as a punishment for those who did not contribute to the state’s grain collection. Robert Conquest notes that even though there is no direct proof that the famine was planned by Stalin beforehand, his policies show that he considered it as an effective way to punish Ukrainian peasantry for their resistance to collectivisation and the existence of the ‘kurkul-nationalist element’.[36]

A special law was passed in Moscow prohibiting the distribution of grain to peasants before the state plan was fully executed. Special commissions were searching for grain and even those who were dying of hunger were not allowed to keep anything. According to Subtelny, peasants had to resort to eating cats, dogs, rats, leaves, and even cases of cannibalism were not uncommon. Nevertheless, while the villages were dying of hunger, the party activists kept collecting grain.[37]

Soviet authorities attempted to cover up the events of 1932-33, denying the occurrence of the famine till the last days of the Soviet Union. Only after Ukraine became an independent state was the Holodomor famine admitted. In 2006 the Ukrainian parliament accepted the “About Holodomor in Ukraine in 1932-1933” law, which defined the famine as genocide against the Ukrainian nation. Even though it is still disputable among historians whether or not one can define it as genocide, 26 countries have recognised Holodomor as such.

The Great Terror

The 1930s are known in the Soviet history as the time of Great Terror. Ukraine suffered heavily under Soviet mass repressions. In 1929-1930 45 leading scientists, scholars and writers were arrested for belonging to the fictitious “Union for Ukraine’s Liberation”. This fake organisation invented by the Soviet authorities was declared to be aiming for Stalin’s assassination and the separation of Ukraine from the USSR.[38]

In 1933, repressions against Ukrainian party members started. They were excluded from the party for “ideological mistakes” which in reality amounted to open or potential disagreement with Stalin’s policies.[39] Those who spearheaded the “Ukrainisation” policy in the 1920s were accused of supporting “cultural counterrevolution” and “isolating Ukrainian workers from the beneficial influence of Russian culture”. Thousands of members of the new Soviet intelligentsia were sent to labour camps or executed; out of 240 Ukrainian writers, 200 disappeared. Out of 85 linguists, 62 were killed.[40]

The terror was widespread. Suspicion and fear became the reality of the time. In 1937 Stalin decided to eliminate the Ukrainian Communist Party’s leadership as well as the Ukrainian Soviet government. Three Stalin’s representatives - Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikolay Yezhov and Nikita Khrushchev - were sent to Kiev to carry out the ‘purge’. By June 1938, 17 ministers of the Ukrainian government and almost all members of the Central Committee had been arrested and executed. Overall, the repressions affected 37 per cent of Ukrainian Communist Party members, i.e. about 170 000 people.[41] “It can seem a paradox that they were executing their ‘own men’ – the leading activists of the party and state, famous military commanders,” notes Zaitsev and explains that:

...there was nothing strange about it because “old activists” who had survived conspiracy and tsarist repressions, civil war and believed in the ideals of the revolution were not fit for the ruling class, whilst being “fathers of nation” at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. They had to be eliminated to assign the new bureaucracy that entered the party after the revolution and did not have old-fashioned revolutionary fantasies and would be faithful to the leader.[42]

World War II

Occupation of Western Ukraine in 1939

The occupation of Western Ukraine by the Soviet Army became possible due to the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: a German-Soviet treaty of non-aggression signed on 23 August 1939.[43] The treaty had a secret protocol dividing Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. As the territories of Western Ukraine fell into the Soviet sphere they were to be annexed by the Union. Accordingly, shortly after Hitler attacked Poland, the Soviet Army crossed the eastern border of Ukraine and occupied Western Ukraine on 17 September 1939.[44]

At first, the new Soviet administration put forth a number of reforms in education (opening new schools, proclaiming Ukrainian the main language in Lviv University) and medicine as well as the nationalisation of enterprises and expropriation of land from the Polish landlords with the promises to distribute it among Ukrainian peasants. However, this initially progressive attitude was short-lived. 1940 saw new widespread repressions in Western Ukraine. Thousands of people were declared “enemies of the nation”, arrested and deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. Anyone who could be associated with Ukrainian nationalism was at risk of being deported.[45] The Soviet regime did not tolerate any other political forces apart from the Communist Party. It was only the formerly illegal Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) that remained active without the Soviets’ permission.[46]

Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN)

Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) had illegally existed since 1929. It was originally created with the aim to fight for Ukrainian independence under the Polish rule.[47] As the Soviets occupied Ukraine they started their struggle against the new oppressor. To achieve the independence of Ukraine, OUN was planning to use Germany's help and so they started negotiations about the creation of Ukrainian military units within the German army. Their demand, however, was not to give an oath neither to Hitler nor to Germany but to Ukraine and OUN, and to fight in the East against the Soviet Union only.[48] As a result of such collaboration, two special Ukrainian battalions - “Nachtigal” and “Roland” - were formed in the German army prior to its attack on the USSR.

German-Soviet War 1941-1944

The second period of the war started when Germany attacked the USSR on 22 June 1944. Stalin was not prepared for the attack. This was one of the factors explaining the rapid withdrawal of the Soviet army in the first few months. In four months after the beginning of the German offense, most of Ukrainian territory had been occupied by Germans.

The rapid retreat of the Red Army had tragic consequences for those who were imprisoned in Western Ukraine for the disagreement with the new Soviet administration. As there was no time to organise their evacuation, NKVD started a mass execution of the prisoners disregarding their original charges. Thousands of people were killed, which provoked more hatred towards the Soviets among the population of Western Ukraine.[49]

Soviet soldiers preparing rafts to cross the Dnieper (the sign reads "To Kiev!") in the 1943 Battle of the Dnieper

Declaration of Ukrainian Independence in Lviv

Ukrainian nationalists from OUN welcomed the Nazis at first. From their point of view, OUN and Germany had a common enemy, the USSR. As such, they expected to use Germany in their struggle against the Soviets keeping Ukrainian independence as their final aim. On 30 June 1941, only a week after Germany’s attack on the USSR, OUN announced the creation of the independent Ukrainian State in Lviv. They expected that the Germans would accept this. However, the reaction of the Nazis was far from what was expected. One of the leaders of OUN, Stepan Bandera and his inner circle were arrested and imprisoned.[50] This was the end of the OUN-German collaboration. From there on, Ukrainian nationalists decided to fight against both the Nazis and the Soviets. After World War II and Germany’s defeat Soviet Union remained OUN's only enemy. The Organization remained active until the end of the 1950s.

Administrative Division of the Occupied Ukraine

As the Nazis occupied Ukraine they divided its territory into administrative areas: Reichskommissariat Ukraine with the capital in Rivne, the General-Government of Poland (former Western Ukraine, the territory of Galicia), Bukovyna and South-Eastern Ukraine including Odessa were given to Germany’s ally Romania and formed the administrative unit of Transnistria.[51]

The Issue of Collaboration

During World War II Ukrainian political activists had to decide whether the Nazis or the Soviets were the bigger threat.[52] The role of a special SS-Volunteer Division “Galician” remains one of the most controversial issues. In 1943 the Nazis announced a formation of a special army unit which would consist of non-German population. The Ukrainian nationalists insisted that the division would fight exclusively against the Soviets. As a result, when recruitment was announced, 82 thousand people applied and 13 thousand of them joined as soldiers. In most cases the volunteers were inspired by patriotism and believed they were helping to further Ukrainian independence.[53] The evaluation of this division caused discussions among historians. Thus, while some insist on defining it as a reflection of collaborationism, the others note the final aim of independence to justify this step.

The Resistance Movement

Taras Hunchak highlights four political forces that existed in Ukraine during the war: German occupiers, Soviet partisans, and Polish and Ukrainian independent partisan movements.[54]

Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), created by the nationalist organisations, fought against both Germany and the USSR for the independence of Ukraine. At the same time, it was involved in a conflict with the Polish Armia Krajowa over the lands of Western Ukraine, which the Polish saw as their ethnic territory. The violence between Ukrainians and Poles was exacerbated by both German and Soviet propaganda. In 1943-1944 the Ukrainians murdered 60-80 000 Poles who lived in that area.[55]

In 1942, the Ukrainian headquarters of the partisan movement was founded. Struggle against enemies attracted more and more supporters to fight for the cause. In 1942 partisans in Ukraine accounted for 26 000 people. By 1943 the number had grown to 58 500.[56]

Soviet Return in 1944

In 1944 with the counter-attack of the Soviet army, the territory of Ukraine was cleared of German troops. Returning to Ukraine, Soviet authorities tried to promote Stalin’s regime from a new angle. To show support for the partial sovereignty of the Ukrainian SSR two new ministries were formed: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence. However, the Soviet return to Western Ukraine had other consequences. The population there widely supported the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism. Consequently, more than 3,500 propagandists were sent to the region to promote Sovietisation. Widely supported Greek-Catholic Church was outlawed. A special operation to eliminate the UPA was planned. One of the aims of the propagandist campaign was to depict UPA as violent murderers associated with the Nazis.[57]

The widespread Soviet propaganda against UPA had consequences for the future generations of Ukrainians. Even nowadays the attitudes towards OUN, UPA and their leaders vary from very negative to extremely positive. Thus, as David R. Marples notices the leader of OUN, Stepan Bandera, “has been depicted as a hero and as a villain, as a liberator or potential liberator of an oppressed nation and as a terrorist and a Nazi collaborator. In the Soviet era, his name was tied to evil, terrorism and treachery by the Soviet authorities and propagandists. In various towns and villages of Western Ukraine, on the other hand, statues have been erected and streets named after him.”[58]

Former UPA and UNA members with Plast Scout Organization pose for photos shortly after the Anniversary of the UPA ceremony in Berezhany, UkraineFormer UPA and UNA members with Plast Scout Organization pose for photos shortly after the Anniversary of the UPA ceremony in Berezhany, Ukraine

The estimates of the exact number of war casualties in Ukraine differ between authors. After detailed research of various sources and their comparison Wolodymyr Kosyk has come to the conclusion that there were more than 5.5 civilian victims and 2.5 million people who died at the front, which in total accounts for 8 million or 19 per cent of the whole population. The Ukrainian casualties make up 40-44 per cent of the whole loss of lives in the USSR during the war”.[59]

Soviet Ukraine: ‘Second among Equals’[60]

Destalinisation and the Thaw

After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev came to power in Moscow. Khrushchev had close ties with Ukraine from 1938 as he had been the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CP(b)U.[61] His famous speech during the 20th Meeting of the CPSU[62] in 1956 “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences” started the processes of de-Stalinisation in the entire Soviet Union, including Ukraine. De-Stalinisation meant, first of all, overcoming the cult of the leader’s personality and partial liberalisation and democratisation of social life. This is why the period was later named “the thaw”. A number of political and cultural activists who had become the victims of the great terror of the 1930s were rehabilitated. In 1961 the Stalin region in Ukraine was renamed the Donetsk region and the city of Stalino became the city of Donetsk.[63]

Transfer of Crimea to UkrSSR

In 1954, a 300-year anniversary of Ukrainian and Russian Union was widely celebrated. The most important event related to the celebrations was the transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). This was presented as a gift from Russia to Ukraine on the occasion of the anniversary.

At the beginning of the 20th century Crimean population consisted of Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians. 1944 was a tragic year for the Crimean Tatar population. On fabricated charges of treason, thousands of Tatars were deported to Central Asia. More than 225 thousand people were expatriated within a few months.[64]

Percentage of Crimean Tatars by region in Crimea (according to 1939 Soviet census)Percentage of Crimean Tatars by region in Crimea (according to 1939 Soviet census)

According to the census of 1959 about 860 thousand Russians and 260 thousand Ukrainians lived in Crimea, with Russians being the overwhelming majority. Therefore, the transfer of Crimea increased the percentage of Russians in UkrSSR and Russian presence in the republic.[65]

Petro Shelest and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky

In the second part of the 20th century the position of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine was held by Petro Shelest (1963-1972) and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky (1972-1989).

In historiography, the ideology of Petro Shelest remains equivocal. In the West, he gained an image of a moderate supporter of national aspirations of his nation. The official criticism of Shelest’s book “Our Soviet Ukraine”[66] (1970) was one of the main reasons for this.[67] The book was published in Ukrainian and its title can be literary translated as “Ukraine our Soviet”. Shelest was criticised among other things for placing the word “Ukraine” before the word “Soviet” in the title of his book. However, officially, “he was accused not only of failing to maintain the norms of Leninist nationality policy but of actively fostering divisive Ukrainian nationalism”.[68]

After Shelest’s demotion and transfer to Moscow, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky became the First Secretary. He ruled Ukraine for more than 17 years. Professor Shapoval argues that the First Secretary of the CPU “underlined his loyalty to Brezhnev’s “stability course” and the desire to preserve the system. Shcherbytsky did not exceed the limits of the social-economic paradigm of those days”.[69] He was a loyal Brezhnev’s representative in Ukraine, responsible for implementing the economic and political policies of the Kremlin.

When a new leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow, Shcherbytsky treated him with respect.[70] At the same time it became obvious that Shcherbytsky (as a representative of the old Brezhnev’s system) would not be able to promote his new political course of ‘perestroika’. On 28 September 1989 the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine accepted Shcherbytsky’s resignation as per his petition for retirement.[71]


When the plan for the development of nuclear energy for 1981-1985 was discussed, the President of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, Boris Paton, wrote a letter to Shcherbytsky warning him about the potential negative consequences of too many nuclear plants concentrated in Ukraine. The letter was ignored.[72]

On 26 April 1986 a technological disaster struck Ukraine: a reactor in Chernobyl nuclear power station imploded. A wave of radiation swept through Ukraine extending to Belarus and Northern Europe. At first, the authorities tried to cover up the incident and confirmed the catastrophe only when Western countries started to complain about the extremely high levels of radiation. 130 kilometres away, Chernobyl is situated relatively close to Kiev. On 1 May, five days after the explosion, crowds took to the streets of the capital to celebrate the Labour Day. The celebrations were not cancelled, people were not warned of the disaster and the authorities pretended that nothing had happened. As a result, thousands of participants in the celebrations were exposed radiation.

Shcherbytsky and the authorities were blamed for underestimating the scale of the catastrophe and not warning the population about the consequences of radiation. However, some historians believe that Shcherbytsky personal responsibility in this case is limited as the Chernobyl nuclear plant was an extraterritorial object that was controlled directly from Moscow.


In the last few decades of the Soviet Union’s existence, Russification became a policy that was implemented by the authorities. Its prime element was the promotion of Russian language while limiting the use of Ukrainian, using direct and indirect means. Career opportunities depended on how well one could speak Russian. Anything new, important or interesting would be published in Russian while the Ukrainian media lagged behind and was thus unpopular. Ukrainian language was depicted as unfashionable, backward and spoken only by the peasants.[73]

On the Way to the Independence

‘Perestroika’ brought modernisation to different spheres of life. The policy of ‘Glasnost’ (which meant openness in political and social issues) raised questions that had been secret or muted for decades. Chernobyl disaster started the discussion about ecological situation and pollution causing criticism about the Soviet industrial model. Publishing new documents on Ukrainian history became more common. Thus, the masses learned the truth about Holodomor of 1932-1933 and the great terror of the 1930s, the repression against Ukrainian intelligentsia and political activists. Soviet ideology and its myths started to dissolve. This led the society to seek changes.

In 1989 a new organisation was founded in Kiev. It was called ‘Narodnyi Rukh Ukrainy za Perebudovu’ (People’s Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika), or simply Rukh. In a few months it gained 300 000 members and the number was rapidly increasing. Rukh stood for the sovereignty of Ukraine, for the support of Ukrainian language and culture, raised concern about ecological issues, and stressed the democratisation of economic, political and social life.[74] Rukh became the first strong movement opposed to the communist regime.

On 15 May 1990 the newly elected Supreme Council of Ukraine started its work. Due to the policy of ‘perestroika’ and the liberalisation of political life the parliament consisted not only of the communists but also included for the very first time the representatives of the new democratic parties. The Democratic Block (which included Rukh, Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a few other organizations) received 90 seats in the parliament. Even though the communists still had an overwhelming majority this was a victory, as for the first time the opposition was represented in the highest legislative body. As a result of the Demoratic Block’s work, on 16 July 1990, the Supreme Council signed a historical document – “The Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine”. During the next year, ideas of Ukrainian independence spread among the population and a number of public pro-independence rallies were held by the opposition parties and organisations. The Soviet Union was on the edge of collapse.

On 19 August 1991 the conservative group of the Central Committee of the CPSU attempted to organise a coup d’état. Having isolated Mikhail Gorbachev in Crimea, a state of emergency in the country was announced and the State Committee of the Emergency created. It was supported by a part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party by the military commanders as well as the KGB. Their aim was to preserve the old regime.[75]

On 24 August, an extraordinary session of the Supreme Council of Ukraine was held. The opposition insisted on protecting Ukraine from possible violations to its sovereignty. Thus, on 24 August 1991, the Supreme Council of Ukraine announced the historical “Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine”. 346 members of the parliament voted for it.[76] Soon the decree “About the prohibition of the activity of the Communist Party of Ukraine” was issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of Ukraine.[77]

On 1 December 1991, a referendum on Ukrainian independence was held. The overwhelming majority of the voters (90.3 per cent) voted for Ukraine’s independence. Even in Crimea, 54.1 per cent voted for the independence.[78] On the same day the presidential elections took place and Leonid Kravchuk was elected as the first president of the newly independent Ukraine.

The 1990s became the time of big expectations and big disappointments. Quick shift from socialism to market economy caused high levels of inflation, unemployment and poverty. Ukrainians had to learn to stop relying on the help of the state. Under these circumstances a new social group of people emerged: these were the first Ukrainian businessmen of the 1990s, most of whom earned their income by trading goods from neighbouring Poland and Turkey. The widespread process of privatisation created another social group: the former directors of Soviet state firms and enterprises who managed to achieve the rights of ownership over property.

The political life changed as well. In 1994 there were 30 officially registered parties represented the wide political spectrum. The presidential elections of 1994 brought a new leader Leonid Kuchma to power. For the first time in Ukrainian history, the change in power happened democratically and peacefully. On 28 June 1994 the first Constitution of Ukraine was adopted according to which “Ukraine shall be a sovereign and independent, democratic, social, law-based state”.

Independence also brought changes to the foreign policy of Ukraine. Controlling 15 per cent of the nuclear weapons arsenal of the former USSR, Ukraine was the third nuclear power in the world after the USA and Russia. However, under the pressure of these two states, Ukraine was announced a nuclear-free nation. In January 1994 an agreement was reached between the USA, Russia and Ukraine which regulated the process of disarmament. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was adopted by the Ukrainian parliament in exchange for the security assurances from the USA and Russia. Geographical location of Ukraine and its historical experience determined its international policy in 1990s as so-called ‘multi-vector’: an attempt to balance between Russia in the east and Europe in the west. In December 1991 Ukraine together with Russia and Belarus became one the founders of the Commonwealth of Independent States: an international organisation aimed at regulating relations between the former Soviet states. In November 1995, Ukraine was accepted as a member state to the Council of Europe.

Orange-clad demonstrators gather in the Independence Square in Kiev on November 22, 2004Orange-clad demonstrators gather in the Independence Square in Kiev on November 22, 2004


[1] О. Субтельний, Україна: Історія (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 419.

[2] Ibid. 426.

[3] Ibid. 428.

[4] Ibid. 434.

[5] Т. Гунчак, Україна. Перша половина ХХ століття. Нариси політичної історії (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 121.

[6] ‘IV Універсал Української Центральної Ради’ in Семків O.I. (Ed.) Політологія. Кінець ХІХ – перша половина ХХ століття: Хрестоматія (Львів: Світ, 1996), 761-762.

[7] Субтельний, Україна. Історія, 434.

[8] Гунчак, Україна, 132.

[9] Ukrainian State, a short-lived polity in Ukraine during 1918.

[10] Я. Пеленський, ‘Спогади гетьмана Павла Скоропадського (кінець 1917 – грудень 1918)’ in П. Скоропадскький Спогади. Кінець 1917 – грудень 1918 (Київ-Філадельфія, 1995), 29.

[11] А. Шевченко,‘Родина, которую мы любим’ in Одесский вестник 24 августа (2004), 5.

[12] Субтельний, Історія, 442.

[13] Ibid. 443.

[14] Ibid. 446.

[15] Ibid. 451.

[16] Ibid. 461-462.

[17] І. Гудзеляк, В. Роїк ‘Динаміка етнічного складу населення Галичини у ХХ ст.’ in Науковий Вісник Вглинскького Національного університету ім.. Лесі Українки 2008, No.1.

[18] Субтельний, Україна., 358.

[19] Ibid. 470.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] V.N. Bandera V.N, ‘The New Economic Policy (NEP) as an Economic System’ in Journal of Political Economy Vol. 71, No. 3 (1963), 265.

[23] Субтельний, Україна, 471.

[24] Ibid. 472.

[25] Ibid. 474.

[26] Ibid. 475.

[27] Ibid. 483.

[28] Ibid. 499.

[29] Ibid. 500.

[30] A. K. Sokolov ‘From the Countryside to the Cities. A Comparative Historical Analysis of Rural—Urban Migration in Russia and in the Soviet Union During the Industrialization Drive’ in Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, Vol. 16, No. 2 (58), Quantitative Methods in Soviet Historiography (1991), 110.

[31] Субтельний, Україна, 500.

[32] Ibid. 504.

[33] Ibid. 506.

[34] Р. Конквест, Жнива скорботи. Радянська колективізація і голодомор (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 334-335.

[35] Субтельний, Україна, 508; Conquest (Конквкест, Жнива скорботи, 359) has summarized the main causes of the famine: 1. Extra high requisition norms; 2. Moscow was informed from Kiev that these norms were too high; 3. These norms were implemented until the famine started; 4. Ukrainian activists informed Stalin and the authorities about the famine; 5. Requisitions were continued. Among the additional points were the facts that there was grain in the warehouses but it was not allowed to be given to the peasants, peasants were prohibited to move to the cities, and Russian-Ukrainian border was controlled to prevent grain supplies to the regions of the famine.

[36] Конквкест, Жнива скорботи, 356-357.

[37] Субтельний, Україна, 509.

[38] Ibid. 512.

[39] Ibid. 514.

[40] Ibid. 515.

[41] Ibid. 517.

[42] Ю. Зайцев (Ed.), Історія України (Львів: Світ, 1998), 269.

[43] Гунчак, Україна, 222.

[44] Субтельний, Україна, 556.

[45] Ibid.

[46] В. Косик, Україна і Німеччина у другій світовій війні (Париж-Нью-Йорк-Львів: НТШ, 1993), 75.

[47] Субтельний, Україна, 563.

[48] Косик, Україна і Німеччина, 147.

[49] Субтельний, Україна, 556-557.

[50] Ibid. 568-569.

[51] Ibid. 573.

[52] Ibid. 578.

[53] Ibid. 579.

[54] Гунчак, Україна, 227.

[55] Субтельний, Україна, 583.

[56] Гунчак, Україна, 231.

[57] Субтельний, Україна, 589.

[58] D.R. Marples, ‘S. Bandera: The Resurrection of a Ukrainian National Hero’ in Europe-Asia Studies Vol. 58, No. 4 ( 2006), 555.

[59] Косик, Україна і Німеччина, 455.

[60] A definition used by O. Subtelny in “Ukraine: A History”, who noted that it was Boris Levirsky who had first defined the Ukraine’s position in the second half on the 20th century as such.

[61] Communist Party of Ukraine.

[62] Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

[63] Зайцев Історія України, 341.

[64] Ibid. 343.

[65] Субтельний, Історія, 613.

[66] Another translation – “O Ukraine, Our Soviet Land”.

[67] Зайцев, Історія, 357.

[68] L. Tillett, ‘Ukrainian Nationalism and the Fall of Shelest’ in Slavic Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1975), 752.

[69] Ю.І. Шаповал, ‘В.В. Щербицький: особа політика серед обставин часу’ in Український історичний журнал, No.1 (2003), 124.

[70]П.Т. Тронько, ‘В.В. Щербицький (1918-1990)’ in Український історичний журнал, No.1 (2003), 116.

[71] Шаповал, ‘Щербицький’, 127.

[72] Тронько, ‘Щербицький’, 116.

[73] Субтельний, Історія, 640.

[74] Ibid. 699.

[75] Н.М. Кіндрачук ‘Змагання НРУ за прийняття «Акта за незалежність України»’ in Народний Рух України: місце в історії та політиці: матеріали VIII Всеукраїнської наукової конференції, присвяченої 20-річчю Незалежності України (Одеса: Астропринт, 2011), 157.

[76] Зайцев, Історія, 433.

[77] Ibid. 435.

[78] Н.М. Кіндрачук ‘Участь Народного Руху України в проведенні Всеукраїнського референдуму 1 грудня 1991 р. на підтвердження «Акту про незалежність України»’ in Народний Рух України: місце в історії та політиці: матеріали VІІ Всеукр. конф., присвяченої 20-річчю НРУ, 28–29 травня 2009 р., м. Одеса (Одеса: Астропринт, 2009),  91.



  • About 15 million persons suffered from Communist repressions in Ukraine
  • On 30 December 1922, along with the Russian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian republics, the Ukrainian SSR was one of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)