Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918–1925 by Stephen Velychenko (review)
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Reviewed by
Stephen Velychenko. Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918–1925. University of Toronto Press. viii, 280. $60.00

On the eve of the centenary of the great national and social upheavals that shook Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the appearance of this book is very timely. While much has been written on the seizure of power and consolidation of Bolshevik rule in Russia, developments in Ukraine have not been as thoroughly studied in western scholarship. In particular, relatively little is known about the independent Marxist political parties that appeared in Ukraine in 1918, and especially of the anti-imperial and anti-colonial challenges they issued to the Bolshevik leadership in [End Page 117] Russia in response to their takeover of Ukraine and the implantation of Bolshevik governments there. The critiques came from federalists within the officially sanctioned Communist Party of Ukraine, but the most damning criticisms came from two small independent Ukrainian Marxist parties – the Ukrainian Communist Party and the Borotbists. The Ukrainian Communist Party formed from the left wing of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Worker's Party, while the Borotbists constituted the left wing of the Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

The author's text in this book consists of a short introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. In the first chapter, he sketches the historical background, surveys Ukrainian anti-colonial literature to 1917, and examines Marxist writings on imperialism and empires, and their applications to Ukraine and Russia. In the second chapter, the focus is on the imperial legacy in Russian political thought, including Russian Marxism, the justifications issued by the Bolsheviks for their invasion and occupation of Ukraine, and the condemnations by Ukrainian Marxists of the takeover as imperialism and the treatment of Ukraine as a colony. In the third chapter the author examines national features in Russian and Ukrainian communism, Ukrainian Marxist views on the Ukrainian revolution and of the resistance to the establishment of Bolshevik rule in Ukraine, and the Bolsheviks' denial of Comintern membership to the Ukrainian Marxist parties. Importantly, Stephen Velychenko's book also contains an appendix consisting of a selection of translations of documents of Ukrainian communism, including previously unknown ones.

One theme of this book is the dilemma faced by Lenin's Bolsheviks after seizing power in Petrograd: how to deal with Ukraine, which had its own socialist government and was breaking away from the former imperial centre. Should they accept the results of the national revolution and negotiate a new relationship with the former colony? Or should they try to reincorporate Ukraine into a Bolshevik-led state centred in Russia, in effect reassembling a new Russian empire? Or should Lenin and the Bolsheviks accept the Ukrainian Marxist arguments that Ukraine should be allied to but independent of Russia, and have its own independent Communist Party and government?

Bolsheviks in Ukraine were divided into federalists and centralists. Most were located in the largest cities and were largely ethnic Russians (labelled by the author as de facto settler-colonialists), Jews, and Russified Ukrainians. They were mostly alienated from the population's majority, which spoke Ukrainian and lived in the countryside or small towns. In the imperial tradition the Bolsheviks generally viewed the Ukrainian language with disdain and Russian culture as superior. Of critical importance was the fact that the Bolsheviks in Ukraine were numerically weak and unable to seize power without support from Russia. The takeover of [End Page 118] Ukraine involved military interventions from Russia, the suppression of federalist and autonomist tendencies among Bolsheviks and independent communists in Ukraine, enforcing loyalty to the centre and support for the new imperial project. As the takeover was justified in the name of a new international socialist order, the Ukrainian Marxist critique of the new project as a manifestation of "red imperialism" amounted to ripping off the project's cloak.

Stephen Velychenko has written an important book that could be used in the comparative study of the emergence of national communist parties and regimes, the relationship between Marxism, nationalism, and imperialism, the theory and practice of communism, and relationships among European socialist parties and movements. More narrowly, it adds to our understanding...


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