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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]


[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.


  • 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)