- Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925 by Stephen Velychenko
"Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations Unity is always effected by means of brutality…"—Ernst Renan, "What is a Nation?" lecture at the Sorbonne, 1882
Some scholars have recently argued that the mature Soviet Union was successful in developing a viable supranationality, indoctrinating much of the population with an identity that surpassed and subsumed the national. [End Page 357] Although Renan (the great theorist of civic nationalism) did not predict such a development, it would have come as no surprise to him that the creators of the USSR effected supranational unity by means of brutality and historical error. Among the victims of Soviet brutality were the members of the small Ukrainian Communist Party (ukp); among the victims of Soviet historical erasures was the anti-colonial, national Marxism that they theorized between 1918 and 1925.
In the book under review, Stephen Velychenko seeks to undo that erasure. However, he does not write the history of the ukp or its few members. Instead, he focuses on the ukp's critiques of Russian Bolshevik communism — publishing and translating them here, for the first time, in this slim book's appendices.
Velychenko's Ukrainian Marxist thinkers — unlike the Russian Bolsheviks and the members of the "Russified" Communist Party of Ukraine — "realized that class consciousness could not transcend the national or imperial contexts within which it which it evolved" (9). For them, "there would be no social liberation without national liberation" (11). One of Velychenko's goals is to stake a claim for these Ukrainians: "It was they, not the Chinese or Yugoslavs, who created the world's second 'national communist' movement" (12).
Through Velychenko's careful distillation, we discover that some Ukrainian communists knew, even in 1918, that Bolshevism was inherently Russian and imperialist, even though its leadership supported anti-colonial movements elsewhere. At the crux of this issue was that Vladimir Lenin never viewed Ukraine as a colony. Instead, Lenin presented "'Russia' as a multinational state with oppressed minorities rather than as an empire with settler-colonist Russian minorities scattered throughout." To Lenin, "Ukrainians were not among the world's colonized peoples" (44). Thus, the Bolsheviks saw themselves as representative of all workers in the Russian empire — including Ukraine. According to Velychenko's writers, this Bolshevik stance was Russo-centric and imperialistic. Despite Lenin's anticolonial pronouncements, he judged Russia (and the USSR) by a different standard than the one he used for other empires. Since "very few saw through Lenin's double standards" (13), the writings of the few Ukrainian communists who did so are historically significant.
In order to explore that significance, Velychenko ably moves his readers through 173 pages of pithy analysis. Chapter one provides historical background. Chapter two traces the rationalization of the Bolsheviks for their invasion of Ukraine, then explores the Ukrainian critique of that rationalization. Chapter three describes the emergence of national communism in Ukraine, in direct counterpoint to imperialist communism from Russia. The last fifty-odd pages recount the ideological battle of "Red Nationalists [End Page 358] vs Red Imperialists." The ukp Marxists who advocated for national liberation were squashed after they fought "the first intra-communist war" (12). Those who did not perish during that war made peace with the Bolsheviks after 1925 and were later executed during the 1930s.
Despite their failure in implementation, "[t]heir ideas," Velychenko argues, "deserve the same attention today from historians, and from leftists in general, as do those of the 'council communists,' of Victor Serge, and of Asian Marxists. The fundamental Ukrainian position was that a Soviet Ukraine with its own party...