Communist Dictatorship in Ukraine. The Soviet Occupation (1920-1991)
Ukraine first proclaimed its independence in 1917 and attempted to fight a war against Soviet Russia. By 1920, it had lost the war and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.
The Ukrainian civil war was especially brutal and with heavy civilian casualties. In 1921-22, over 10,000 members of the Ukrainian army were shot by Soviet authorities. To level Ukraine and eliminate resistance, the communist regime artificially induced the mass famines of 1921-23, 1932-33 and 1946-47 in which up to 13 million people perished. The notorious 1932-33 famine was used to carry out forced collectivization.
The Ukrainian culture and language fell under heavy pressure and a russification campaign was launched. Another wave of terror struck Ukraine after WWII, this time targeting alleged collaborators. The communist regime resorted to ruthless measures, including civilian mass deportations, to put down an armed anti-Soviet rebellion in Western Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Catholic Church was declared lawless.
At the beginning of the 20th century, territories inhabited by Ukrainians covered nearly 700,000 square kilometers with a population of over 30 million. With this, it would have been the 2nd largest country in Europe. However, it remained politically divided between the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires until their disintegration in 1917-1918.
In March 1917, eight months before the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in the so called the October revolution, the representatives of Ukrainian political and cultural organisations gathered in in Kyiv to create the Ukrainian Central Rada which played the role of a transitional government. Soon after, in January 1918 the Central Rada proclaimed the democratic Ukrainian People’s Republic in direct response to the Bolshevik coup.
From that time up until 1921 there were several Ukrainian state formations: the democratic ones – the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Directory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (a provisional collegiate revolutionary state committee of the Ukrainian People's Republic), the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the conservative, authoritarian Ukrainian State of Hetman Skoropadsky. They all struggled for existence in endless wars against the White Forces (the pro-monarchy side of the Russian’s Civil War) as well as Polish troops, but mainly the Red Army which finally militarily defeated the Ukrainian pro-independence troops in 1921. Ukrainian historians have called this long struggle for independence the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-1921.
The Ukrainian national movement included two main political parties, namely the Social-Democrats and the Social-Revolutionaries. The latter were leftist but neither organisationally nor ideologically linked to Russian Communists. During the slow fall of the Russian Empire in early 1917, the Bolsheviks as well as other political parties were free to act although they had only enjoyed rather little support in Ukraine.
Although the Bolshevik party counted about 22,000 Ukrainian members in its ranks, most of them considered themselves to be Russians and lived in the large cities and industrial centres of Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih. Usually they avoided the national question altogether and portrayed themselves as a part of Russian Communist party. But even within this group, a tiny number of Ukrainian Bolsheviks e.g., Vasyl Shakhrai, leader of the Poltava Bolshevik organisation, did believe in the possibility of an autonomous, Ukrainian Bolshevik party that would affirm Ukraine's language, culture, and rights as a state.
At the same time, it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Ukrainian population was immune against the Communists’ ideology. Quite to the contrary, many peasants and even parts of the Ukrainian national movement, who would later become known as national-communists, made a radical move towards the left and accepted parts of Communist ideology; in particular they favored radical land reform.
The largest among the national-communist parties were the Borotbysty, named after its newspaper Borotba (‘Struggle’), who were known as the radical left wing of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Borotbysty reached a deal with the Bolsheviks in March 1920 which effectively saw them join the CP(B)U (Communist Party of Ukraine). Later on, the Borotbyst leaders Oleksander Shumsky and Vasyl Blakytny were elected to the Central Committee of the CP(B)U. They then petitioned the Comintern to admit them as the legitimate representatives of Ukrainian communism, though their petition was rejected. They saw the revolution as a vehicle for both the social and national liberation of the Russian-ruled minority and argued that the Communist party had to adopt the language and culture of the majority of the Ukrainian population. Ultimately, however, the Borotbysty and other national-communist groups had little authority within the CP(B)U and almost no influence on decision making.
Although, the Bolsheviks mostly relied on the power of terror in day-to-day politics, they always operated through proxies that acted “on behalf of the Ukrainian people” in the area, particularly in its conflict with the Ukrainian People’s Republic. These proxies created virtual “Soviet governments” and other institutions which were to represent the Ukrainian movement but effectively served as puppet governments managed from Moscow. That way, the Bolsheviks made it look like internal Ukrainian conflict between two Ukrainian governments.
In December 1917 the Bolsheviks attempted to stage a coup in Kyiv; after that failed, they created an ‘alternative’ Soviet government in Kharkiv which was a more reliable Russian-speaking city and base of operations. The Kharkiv government, however, did not last for long and soon the Bolsheviks came to anagreement with the Germans which resulted in the revocation of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Over the next couple of years a strikingly similar situation occurred and the Bolsheviks applied the same hybrid strategy. Formally, a Ukrainian Communist was heading the Ukrainian government, directed by the CP(B)U which was a nominally separate entity from the Soviet Communist Party that had its own Politburo and Central Commitee. In practice, policy was made in Moscow and imported into Ukraine.
This hybrid strategy and violence perpetrated by the Red Army and VChK (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission) helped the Bolsheviks overcome the per se strong resistance. In the last year of the Ukrainian Revolution when the scales had already started tipping in favour ofthe Bolsheviks, Ukrainian farmer revolutionary and partisan brigades against the Soviets had well over 100,000 fighters.
The Ukrainian historiography clearly connects the anti-Communist resistance by soldiers of the Ukrainian People’s Republic with the peasant uprisings during the Holodomor, Ukrainian Insurgent Army guerrilla, and the Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960-1970s.
From 1917-1921 the various formations of the Ukrainian state waged three wars against the Bolsheviks. Lenin authorised the first Soviet assault on Ukraine in January 1918, and while the leaders of the Central Rada were negotiating in Brest-Litovsk in February, Kyiv fell to Bolshevik forces for the first time. At that point the Bolsheviks could only keep hold of the capital for a few weeks.
By early 1919, Ukraine was under Bolshevik attack for the second time, on this occasion led by another puppet Ukrainian-Soviet government called “The Provisional Revolutionary government of Ukraine”. The second Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine began in January 1919 and would last for six months. During that period Moscow never controlled the whole territory of Ukraine. In August 1919, the Bolsheviks were expelled from Kyiv for the second time, retreating from the Whites and the Army of the Directory UNR.
The Bolsheviks’ third and final occupation of Ukraine took place in late 1919 and early 1920. But this time they partially changed theirtactics. They not only returned under the banner of the formally independent Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic (Ukrainian SSR), which was established in March 1919, but tried to address the Ukrainians in their native language and appeal to national sentiments. After signing the Polish-Soviet peace treaty in Riga on 18 March 1921, they took control of the whole territory of Ukraine except Galicia, Volhynia and parts of Podolia which became part of the new Polish state. According to the census of 1920, the population of Soviet Ukraine was 25.5 million people (rural residents - 20.9 million, urban - 4.6 million).
The Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic established a nominally independent state, but in reality the Bolshevikі (All-Union Communist Party, VKP(b) and government of Soviet Russia (Council of People's Commissars) controlled the Ukrainian SSR through the CP(b)U. The government institutions of the Ukrainian SSR were copies of their Russian counterparts, and Ukrainian legislation merely echoed Russian laws. In fact, Russia’s legislative acts were enforced automatically in Ukraine.
In 1917–27 the highest governing body of the Ukrainian SSR was the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets. That body elected the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee, which governed the country between sessions of the congress and appointed the Council of People's Commissars as its executive organ. Similar bodies were established locally on the city, village, volost, county, and gubernia level. Their members were selected through indirect elections, in which a worker’s vote was worth more than a peasant’s, and some citizens had no vote at all.
The Ukrainian SSR was absorbed into the RSFSR by the merging of their commissariats on the basis of so-called defensive or economic alliance treaties between two or more Soviet republics (1 June 1919 and 28 December 1920). The situation did not change when the Ukrainian SSR joined the USSR on 30 December 1922 as an equal partner of the RSFSR, the Belorussian SSR and the Transcaucasian SFSR.
In the revised (May 1925) Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and its new version (1929) the governing bodies remained similar to the previous ones: the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets, the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee, and the Council of People's Commissars. The organs of the state administration, the people's commissariats, were of three types: (1) merged, which existed at the USSR level and had representatives in the republican governments; (2) joint, which existed in parallel at both the USSR and the republican levels; and (3) independent, which existed only at the republican level. In the Union agreement, five merged commissariats were created: foreign affairs, defence, foreign trade, transportation, and postal and telegraph service. Later, other commissariats were also merged.
The new constitutions of the USSR (1936) and the Ukrainian SSR (1937) centralised the government system even further. The Ukrainian SSR did not establish its own embassies or armed forces, however. The system of government of the Ukrainian SSR became increasingly centralised. Thus, in 1978 there were 28 Union-republican ministries and 16 state committees, and only 6 republican ministries. As of June 1986 there were 23 Union-republican ministries and 14 state committees, but merely 6 republican ministries and 1 republican state committee.
This model of governing was preserved until the decline and decay of the Soviet system in 1991. The election in 1991 finally put an end to the almost 70-year period of Communist dominance in Ukraine. But the Communist party was officially prohibited only in 2015 as part of the “decommunisation laws”.
Beginning with Vladimir Lenin's Red Terror, terror was a permanent instrument of the Soviet state, but its intensity and scale varied. The main task of the Soviet terror remained the same throughout that period, however: to crack down on the resistance against the regime. For this purpose the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee (VchK) was established. It was the organ that would come to embody the dictatorship of the communists leaders under various names: Cheka, OGPU, UGB-NKVD, MGB and MVD, and KGB.
The first crimes committed by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine took place in January 1918 when the Red Army occupied some areas of Central Ukraine for the first time. Mainly, they threatened Ukrainian intelligentsia. During the war, the Red squads were sent across the countryside to fulfill grain deliveries and terrorised peasants as well. As Joseph Stalin consolidated his power in the late 1920s and the regime became totalitarian, the Communists’ repressive organs focused on fabricating criminal cases against the cultural, artistic, scientific, and technological elite.
In 1928 the OGPU staged the so-called “Shakhty case” against engineering and technical specialists in the Donbass who were allegedly aiming to destroy the coal industry. In 1929-1930 criminal cases were brought against Ukrainian intellectual elites within the fictional “Union for the Liberation of Ukraine” (SVU), and in 1931 The Ukrainian National Center Case was fabricated to entrap the prominent historian and former head of the Central Rada Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Over the course of the SVU case and after, more than 30,000 people – intellectuals, artists, technical experts, writers and scientists –were subjected to severe repressions.
In the decade between 1929–39 Ukraine was subjected to three particularly horrendous waves of terror: the collectivisation and dekulakisation campaign (1929–32), the famine-genocide of 1932–33, and the Great Terror of 1936–38. During the dekulakisation campaign (shorthand for the ‘elimination of the kulaks or ‘kulaks’ as a class’) the authorities expelled from Ukraine and forcibly resettled over a million of the most productive ‘kulak’ (a term applied originally to well-off peasants but expanded to include anyone who did not belong to the poorest stratum of the village population) peasants to Siberia, northern Russia, Central Asia and other underpopulated regions of the Soviet Union, where they lived as ‘special exiles’, forbidden to leave their designated villages.
Those Ukrainian peasants that avoided dekulakisation soon became subjected to the even more horrendous fate of starving to death. According to Ukrainian demographers approximately 3.9 million people died from a man-made famine organised by the Communist regime. The famine is now known as the Holodomor. Dekulakisation and the Holodomor destroyed the Ukrainian peasantry as the base of aspirations toward national independence and resistance to the central government.
People of all ethnic backgrounds perished in the Great Terror which consisted of multiple waves of arrests, executions, and exiling that engulfed the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1940, taking their greatest toll in 1937. As many as 270,000 people were arrested in Ukraine in 1937 and 1938, and close to half of them were executed. The terror hit hardest the party cadres, former members of non-Bolshevik parties and national minorities. In order to simplify the criminal proceedings the regime invented a special revolutionary tribunal consisting of a troika of officials – a head of local NKVD department, a regional prosecutor and a high party official. The Troika as an extrajudicial body simultaneously performed several functions; investigative, indictable and repressive. The defendant was actually deprived of the right to defence (to have a lawyer) and to appeal.
During and after WW2 the Communist regime decided to repress so many people that were deemed dangerous that the only way to deal with this vast number was to deport them. In 1940 and the first half of 1941 more than 10% of the local population from the newly-occupied territories of Western Ukraine were deported, including 140,000 Poles who at that time headed the list of “enemies of the people”. Altogether, between the fall of 1939 and June 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR, the Soviet secret police deported close to 1.25 million people from Ukraine.
In 1944, about 200,000 Crimean Tatars were exiled from Crimea to Middle Asia. About 780,000 Poles moved west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line from Ukraine between 1944 and 1946 and close to half a million Ukrainians were deported from lands west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, from territory of East Poland, to the Ukrainian SSR. Around the same time, more than 180,000 Ukrainians from western Ukraine were arrested and deported to Siberia and the Soviet backlands for real or alleged collaboration with the nationalist underground.
An additional 76,000 Ukrainians were deported in October 1947. These deportations were intended mainly to curb Ukrainian nationalist resistance, which continued in western Ukraine long after the end of the war. Finally, in 1947, in an operation code-named Vistula, the regime deported from its eastern borderlands the entirety of the Ukrainian population still remaining in Poland—altogether 140,000 men, women, and children—and replaced them with ethnic Poles.
Arrests and other forms of repressive measures continued. For more than half a century after that, Soviet leaders continued to push back harshly against Ukrainian nationalism in whatever form it took, whether as post-war insurgency or as dissent in the 1980s. For example, the 49 members of the Ukrainian dissident organisation known as the Ukrainian Helsinki Group spent a total of 550 years in camps, prisons, exile, and psychiatric hospitals.
Immediately after the occupation of Ukraine, the Bolsheviks began to implement their own economic policy known as “War Communism” which sought to nationalise industry, consolidate trade and monetary relationships, and mobilise the workforce and agricultural food practices by regulating them through a centralised dictatorship. In the countryside, it meant the system of forced agricultural procurement in order to redistribute the foodstuff to soldiers, factory workers, and party members. These goals were achievable only through terror. For this reasoneconomy and terror were so tightly linked in the USSR.
War Communism provoked chaos and economic crisis. As a result the Bolsheviks decided to modify their aggressive platform of building communism and adopted a five-year commercial and financial initiative called “NEP”- “New Economic Policy”- as a temporary tactical retreat from the pace of their original revolutionary programme. Free trade was temporarily legalised and at a very elementary level, the market economy was restored.
But, at the end of the 1920s, the Communist Party returned to the methods of “War Communism.” NEP was renounced. With this began the accelerated industrialisation–type industrial revolution, with government-funded and state-run programmes intended to bring about a revolutionary increase in industrial production. Priority was given to the development of heavy industry, production of energy, and building of machinery.
On the one hand, this upheaval of the economy led to the creation of heavy industry and the rapid build-up of military forces. The command economy was introduced. According to the five-year plan (1928-1933) Ukraine received approximately 20 percent of all investments which matched its share of the total population of the USSR. Most of the capital allocated to Ukraine went to the traditional southeastern industrial areas. The right bank of the Dnieper remained agricultural. By the end of the 1930s, the industrial output of Ukraine exceeded that of 1913 eightfold. The largest construction project during the first five-year plan was Dniprohes, the Dnieper dam and electric power station built immediately behind the Dnieper rapids. Ukraine became a model of Soviet industrialisation.
Heavy industry required high investments and agriculture became one of the most important sources for this approach. The idea was to build a system that would exploit the peasants because of the disproportionate prices between agricultural and industrial products (so-called “scissor prices”). Also, peasants fleeing from collectivisation, de-kulakisation and the Holodomor provided cheap workforce.
Collectivisation, meaning the creation of state-run collective farms, began in 1929. The new policy was so harsh that it brought famine and mass starvation to Ukraine. By the end of the 1930s, the agricultural sector was fully collectivised, with 98 percent of all households and 99.9 percent of all arable land listed as collective property. The collectivisation dramatically changed the economy, social structure, and politics of the average Ukrainian village. At the same time, it didn’t add too much to the overall productivity of agriculture. Thus, in 1940, Ukraine produced 26.4 million tonnes of grain, only 3.3 million more than in 1913, amounting to an increase in agricultural production of less than 13 percent.
WW2 badly damaged the Ukrainian economy. First, the retreating Soviet troops followed a scorched-earth policy, removing industrial equipment, livestock, suppliers, and people from areas they were about to leave. Altogether, they evacuated approximately 550 large factories and 3.5 million skilled workers to the east. Altogether, Ukraine lost up to 7 million of its citizens in the war, constituting more than 15 percent of its population. Out of 36 million remaining Ukrainians, some 10 million had no roof over their heads, as approximately 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages laid in ruins.
Ukraine lost 40 percent of its wealth and more than 80 percent of its industrial and agricultural equipment. In 1945, the republic produced only one-quarter of its pre-war output of industrial goods and 40 percent of its previous agricultural produce.
The first postwar period was the re-implementation of the political, social, and economic models developed in the 1930s. After Joseph Stalin’s death, Ukraine became one of the main beneficiaries of the new industrial post-war growth. For example, Ukraine was deeply involved in the Soviet atomic and space projects. In the town of Zhovti Vody uranium was discovered and mined. The largest missile-producing facility in all of Europe was built in the nearby city of Dnipropetrovsk. For a short time spending on consumption goods was increased but generally it remained very low.
In the Khrushchev era the rights of the Soviet republics were expanded; the Ukrainian SSR received in its revised constitution some new powers in economic matters. In 1957, regional economic councils were introduced in addition to the republican economic councils to strengthen republican autonomy. But when Khrushchev was ousted, his successors returned to the centralised Soviet economic model created in the1930s.Regional economic councils were abolished and the all-union ministries in Moscow were reinstated as the main governing bodies of the Soviet economy.
Society and culture
Having seized power in Ukraine the Bolsheviks began a new programme of Ukrainisation aimed to enhance the national profile of state and party institutions alongside the new economic policy, all in order to legitimise Soviet rule in the eyes of the Ukrainian population. Ukrainisation was the Ukrainian version of the all-Union policy of indigenisation.
During the next years high culture, theater, architecture, literature, poetry rapidly grew more popular, supported by ethnic nationals who partially replaced Russian cadres from Moscow. For the first time, the Ukrainian intelligentsia and intellectuals had full-fledged national institutions, the resources and also the legal status to undertake promising projects like the standardization of the Ukrainian language.
Ukrainisation embraced ordinary life as well; in the media, in public debate, and above all in schools where, according to the republican government, all Ukrainian schoolchildren should be taught in their own language, using a new educational program designed to ‘cultivate a new generation of loyal citizens.’
The policy of Ukrainisation was tactical and temporary. But the cracks in the scheme were visible very early. When the class ethos of Soviet ideology was weakened, the emerging void was gradually filled by generic national imagery. A good example is the case of Mykola Khvyliovy, a Ukrainian author of Russian ethnic origin who called for the distancing of Ukrainian culture from Russian culture.
The Communists’ regime could not tolerate the surge of national consciousness even in the context of building a Soviet Ukraine. The pressure started from the attacks on leading figures of Ukrainisation - Shumskyi and Khvylovyi – who were accused of dangerous nationalist deviations. This was continued by the OGPU which launched Shakhty and SVU cases. Soon thousands of party functionaries were arrested. This attack on Ukrainian culture and national-communists went hand in hand with the attack on the Ukrainian peasantry. After the Holodomor and Great Terror the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR turned into a strict police totalitarian state. The greatest enemies of Soviet rule in Ukraine were proclaimed “kulaks” and Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists. Generally, terror and propaganda shaped the atmosphere of silence and hysteria against enemies of the people.
At the end of 1920s Ukrainisation was abolished and the Communist party decided to support the largest ethnic group – the Russians. Hence started the long process of Russification. On the other side, Stalinism did not reverse the policy of nation-building in non-Russian regions completely. Officially recognised Soviet nationalities were allowed to cultivate a limited sense of ethnic identity, possess their own folkloric traditions, literary classics, and generally articulate their people's heritage. Accordingly, the local ideologues and intelligentsia occupied the ambiguous position of mediator between the Kremlin and promoting the national cause.
In Ukraine, many people like Mykola Bazhan, Oleksandr Kornuchuk, and Pavlo Tychyna alternated between elevating the national patrimony and denouncing it as nationalistic deviation. At the end, a system was elaborated which would reconcile the often opposing entities Ukrainian historical mythology with the Russian grand narrative. The republic's intelligentsia soon came to understand that they could glorify Ukraine's identity as long as it complemented, but did not undermine, the story of Russia’s imperial past – a framework of a Russian-dominated 'friendship of peoples”.
During the immediate post-war years the Communist party launched several attacks in search for ideological deviants. In Ukraine, the hunt for “nationalists” was divided into several periodical campaigns. In particular, Zhdanov’s campaign associated with Stalin’s ideological watchdog Andrei Zhdanov reached its peak in 1951 with an attack in the newspaper Pravda on the prominent poet Volodymyr Sosiura’s poem named “Love Ukraine,” a patriotic text written in 1944. In 1965 more than thirty young Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested. The crackdown on Ukrainian dissidents during 1971-1973 was not limited to leading figures of the movement but extended to members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who were minimally involved with the movement and, later, even to members of the Party cadres.
After 1973 Soviet ideologues closely supervised the activities of intellectuals to ensure that the national narrative remained safely subordinated to the doctrine of Russian guidance.
The party's ideological control over society began disintegrating only in the late 1980s to which Ukrainian dissidents contributed, most of all the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.
During the Ukrainian Revolution between 1917-1921 the Bolsheviks captured Kyiv four times . While their army counted between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers during the first occupation,, the five Bolshevik armies that occupied Ukraine in late 1920 and early 1921 totalled 1.2 million. 85% of the soldiers were Russian, 9% Ukrainian, 6% Polish, Byelorussians, Jews, Germans and others.
The Bolsheviks most likely used their general strategy of operating through proxies in the case of the Ukrainian movement when it came to their military operations as well. They created the Ukrainian Soviet army in 1918 which basically took its orders directly from Moscow, was run by Russian officers and consisted mainly of Russians. It was disbanded on June 1, 1919 under the influence of peasants rebellions and its formations came under direct command of Moscow rather thanthe Bolshevik government of Ukraine in Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian SSR never had its own army. In the 1920s, territorial divisions consisting of Ukrainians and using the Ukrainian language as the language of command constituted a militia and were stationed in the larger cities. Except for some units of the Red Cossacks, regular army units in Ukraine were of mixed national composition, and used Russian as their main language. Most Ukrainians in the regular forces were stationed outside Ukraine. With the abolition of the territorial units (1934) and the division of Ukraine into three military districts (1938), Ukraine was integrated even more closely into the all-Union military system. By 1937 Russian had become the language of command in all military units. Also, the military traditions of the imperial Russian army (eg, officer ranks, uniforms, insignia) were gradually reintroduced.
During the Second World War, more than 7 million Ukrainians of various nationalities – every fifth or sixth Soviet soldier – served in the Red Army. Except for the First Ukrainian Partisan Division (est 1943) under Col Petr Vershigora, there were no separate Ukrainian units in the Soviet armed forces. Approximately 1.7 million Ukrainians were decorated for bravery in the war. In 1943 the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Medal was introduced, and in 1944 a People's Commissariat of Defence was established for Ukraine (with Gen Sydir Kovpak as the first commissar), but this was only a symbolic gesture.
After the war the Soviet Army remained an integrated multinational force. The territory of Ukraine was reorganised into three military districts (Kyiv, Odesa, and Subcarpathia), and Donetsk oblast and Luhansk oblast were assigned to the Northern Caucasia Military District. Because of its geographic location along the western border of the USSR and on the Black Sea, Ukraine was strategically important. It was the home of the Black Sea Fleet, major airfields near Zhytomyr, and missile bases in the Carpathian Mountains.
The Soviet Army was an instrument of Russification. Its medium of communication was exclusively Russian; all of its recreational, cultural, and press activities were in Russian as well. Conscripts spent their term of military service outside their own republics, and demobilised servicemen were encouraged to live and work in new settlements, mostly in the east. Political education in the army promoted Russian chauvinism and glorified Russian military heroes. Besides national discrimination, the army suffered from a rigid caste system similar to that of the Tsarist army. The officers were separated rigidly from the common soldiers through material privileges, uniforms, honours, and statutes.
At the same time, the share of Ukrainians within the Soviet army increased. For example, there were 26.25 % of Ukrainians in comparison to 61.37 % of Russians in 1976-1977 in the Soviet army. Ukrainians comprised 24% among general officer-level, 28% among senior officers and 27% among junior officers in the ground forces.
Native Ukrainians often made staggering military careers, reaching the highest levels of the Soviet military and the Kremlin as the USSR’s political centre of power. Marshals Tymoshenko, Malinowski, and Grechko were not just talented strategicists but also served as ministers of defence of the Soviet Union.
In its Declaration on State Sovereignty (16 July 1990) the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR stated its intention to nationalise the army in Ukraine. As the first step toward implementing this proclamation it demanded that all Ukrainians serving in the Soviet armed forces be stationed in Ukraine by 1 December 1990.
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