Mythbuster: No, Lenin did not ‘create’ Ukraine
On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. The significance of history to this conflict was made clear when, on the eve of the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a pseudo-historical justification for his decision. Among other dubious claims regarding Ukrainian history, he asserted that the concept of Ukrainian nationhood was a Bolshevik Russian invention anyhow. This claim is, simply put, a complete fabrication intended to grant historical legitimacy to this indefensible war of aggression.
Modern Ukraine, if Putin is to be believed, was “entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began immediately after the revolution of 1917...”. Its “author and architect”, he claimed, was none other than Bolshevik dictator Vladimir Lenin. This process, he claimed, was “sloppy”, as it "divid[ed] and [tore] from [Russia] pieces of her own historical territory". This ‘artificial split' between Ukraine and Russia, Putin claimed, means that Ukraine can even today “with good reason be called 'Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's Ukraine'” and, as a result, "Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood".
The historical context for Ukrainian independence is far more complex than Putin’s amateurish attempts at playing historian would have us believe. Ukraine’s centuries-old aspirations for independent statehood were realised in 1917, not by Lenin, but with the creation of the democratic Ukrainian People’s Republic. But, this state was ultimately crushed by Lenin’s Bolshevik armies, not long after his government had legally recognised Ukrainian independence. Ukraine would remain within the Soviet state until 1991.
If Putin is to be believed, it was Lenin’s concessions to Ukrainian nationalists, offered in the context of years of bloody civil conflict to ensure the territorial integrity of the newly formed Soviet Union, that are to blame for the ‘mistake’ of Ukraine’s independence. He is especially critical of Lenin’s policies of affirmative action, as well as his formation of a nominally autonomous Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the federative Soviet state, rather than relegating Ukraine to the status of a ‘Russian’ territory. This conspiratorial outlook can be dismissed as historical disinformation through an examination of this tumultuous period of Ukrainian history.
From an idea to an independent nation
The roots of Ukrainian nationalism run far deeper than the twentieth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, something of a national awakening was already occurring among the Ukrainian nobility across Ukrainian territories. These territories were ruled predominantly by Tsarist Russia, with other regions being divided among Austria-Hungary, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ottoman Empire. This interest in Ukrainian language, culture, and history continued to grow over the coming century, despite attempts by the Tsars to suppress it.
Though nationalist sentiment gained more prominence in the 1905 Russian Revolution, it was not until the 1917 February Revolution in Petrograd that Ukrainian nationalism came into its own. It was then that Ukraine, along with several other nations once ruled by the Tsar, laid its claim to independent statehood.
The struggle for statehood
Several tumultuous years of conflict on Ukrainian soil ensued, embroiled in the geopolitics of World War 1 (1914-1918), the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), and the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921). This struggle is known in Ukraine as the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1921).
Following the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917, a Central Council or Rada was proclaimed in the former Tsarist territories of Ukraine. The Rada was led by the Ukrainian historian and democrat Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who sought greater autonomy and, eventually, independence for Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers too organised themselves into national units that could form the basis for a national army. Even among the more politically indifferent peasantry, demands for autonomy were widespread as a means of achieving land reform.
However, Ukraine’s embryonic statehood came under threat when the Bolsheviks, with Lenin at the helm, seized power in Petrograd in an illegitimate coup d’état in November 1917. Weeks later, and shortly after the defeat of an attempted Bolshevik coup in Kyiv coinciding with that in Petrograd, the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) was declared. De jure recognition by many countries in the region, including Bolshevik Russia, followed soon after.
After the defeat of the Kyiv coup, the Bolshevik agitators in Ukraine left for Kharkiv, where the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets was declared on December 24, 1917. Despite the Bolshevik Government having legally recognised Ukraine’s independence, Bolshevik troops, led by a Russian officer, marched on Kyiv in early 1918 under the banner of this rival state. This led to a declaration by the UPR of complete, unconditional independence from Russia, though this did not deter the Bolshevik onslaught.
Things were further complicated with the collapse of Russia’s front with Germany, with whom it had been at war since 1914. As a result, German troops soon occupied the territories contested between the Bolsheviks and the UPR. Bolshevik Russia arrived at a peace settlement with Germany in the form of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918, under which Russia lost its Ukrainian territories. Germany dissolved the Rada in April 1918, instituting a dictatorship under the former Tsarist General Pavlo Petroyvch Skorapadskyi.
Though this German mandated dictatorship was brutal, it allowed for a degree of economic growth and nation and institution building. For instance, two Ukrainian universities and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences were established in this period, and all this as the former Tsarist empire was crumbling into a bacchanalia of violence and instability.
After Germany’s defeat in the west brought an end to World War 1 in November 1918, German troops retreated from Ukraine, and Ukraine was engulfed in the Russian Civil War. A “Directorate” of five representative delegates took charge, seeking to preserve national independence.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian nationalist politicians declared a Western Ukrainian state in former Austro-Hungarian Eastern Galicia. This state effectively merged with the Directory Government in Kyiv. Contrary to Putin’s claims, the Ukrainian nation stood, however briefly, independently of Leninism.
Vladimir Ilyich’s Ukraine?
In the end, this fledgling statehood was quashed, rather than created, by Lenin. Red Army incursions into Ukrainian territory soon followed, and Kyiv fell to the Bolsheviks in February 1919. Poland, which too had only recently declared its independence, also annexed Eastern Galicia. A White Russian counterattack temporarily preserved non-Bolshevik Ukraine, but by 1920 almost all of Ukraine was in the hands of the Red Army. For all his talk of respecting the right to self-determination of independent nations, Lenin had made it abundantly clear that he sought to reconstitute as much of the former empire as he possibly could. In pursuit of this goal, Ukraine, now forcibly incorporated as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, was to be no exception.
Clearly, Lenin was no “architect” of the Ukrainian nation. It is true, as Putin alluded to, that the early Bolshevik years saw a remarkably liberal approach to national policy in non-Russian territories, especially in comparison to the ruthless suppression that followed in the Stalin years. But this was under the caveat that Ukraine’s future would be dictated by the imperial centre in Moscow and by no one else.
Lenin did indeed create Soviet Ukraine, but this entity replaced the pre-existing Ukrainian state institutions that had met their end at the tips of Red Army bayonets. In this sense, Putin ignores the history of Ukrainian statehood prior to the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1922.
Ukraine suffered terribly in the coming decades. Almost four million Ukrainians are estimated to have died in the Great Famine of 1932-1933 (known in Ukraine as the Holodomor) alone. As with the rest of the Soviet Union, Ukraine endured the horrors of Stalinism, Nazi occupation, and Stalinism once again. It would suffer further inhumanities in the coming decades, such as the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl in 1986, which helped sow the widespread discontent with Soviet rule that would pave the way for national independence.
1991 and beyond
On the matter of the restoration of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has said that “"From the very first steps they began to build their statehood on the denial of everything that unites us”. But the truth is that by August 1991, when the Ukrainian independence referendum was held, a resounding 90% of voters said ‘yes’ to independence out of the 84% of eligible voters who participated. Even the contentious Donetsk region, which plays a significant role in the Kremlin’s propaganda today in the form of baseless accusations of genocide against Russians, voted 83% in favour.
Putin ignores this truth of overwhelming support for independence within Ukraine in favour of his own historical fantasies, lies, and half-truths. The truth does not matter to Putin’s regime because it is interested only in perpetuating its own existence regardless of the consequences.
As the Russo-Ukrainian war progresses, and as increasingly horrific details of alleged war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces emerge, the basis of historical lies on which this war was built must continue to be scrutinised. These lies aim to undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence from Russia. Putin views Ukraine as little more than a ‘breakaway’ Russian territory that has strayed too far into the Western sphere and must be brought to heel, whatever the human cost. Combating this propaganda is an integral part of fighting the information war for Ukraine and of holding Putin and his allies to account.
List of sources.
Edele, Mark. The Soviet Union: A Short History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019.
Hosking, Geoffrey. A History of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991: Final Edition. London: Fontana Press, 1992.
Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Translated by Alfred Clayton. Halow, England: Pearson Education, 2001.
Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
President of Russia. “Address by the President of the Russian Federation”. Published February 21, 2022. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828