This week has seen Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine on the dubious pretext of defending ‘freedom fighters’ in Russian majority provinces of the country. Interestingly, in an address before the military action, Putin laid into Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik government that took power in 1917 creating the Soviet Union for having also established an independent Ukraine.
The point to make here is that when Putin looks back fondly at the USSR, he’s gazing at Lenin’s successor Stalin – who had little regard for the rights of smaller nations to self-determination. Lenin in contrast wrote a pamphlet entitled…..The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.
Not that Lenin romanticised nationalism but he realised that the way tsarist Russia had expanded to create a continental empire had meant forcibly incorporating national and ethnic groups. Bolsheviks had to be sensitive to this. Not a view shared by the current Russian leader.
In his February 2022 address, Putin savaged Lenin for allowing Ukraine to become an independent state:
“Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”
And Putin added:
“Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.”
In his pamphlet on national self-determination, Lenin laid into the crushing of minority nationalities by tsarist Russia and the vicious, racist gangs in pre-revolutionary Russia known as the Black Hundreds. He had no no doubt about the reactionary impact of Russian nationalism:
“It is this Great-Russian nationalist poison that is polluting the entire all-Russia political atmosphere. This is the misfortune of one nation, which, by subjugating other nations, is strengthening reaction throughout Russia.”
Lenin was scathing about Great Russian nationalism and saw it as a political disease that the proletariat would need to tackle, especially among the Russian peasantry. And that meant supporting the right of nations within tsarist Russia who had been subjugated by military invasion to secede:
“In this situation, the proletariat, of Russia is faced with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task: to combat nationalism of every kind, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognise, not only fully equal rights, for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards polity, i.e., the right of nations to self-determination, to secession.”
At the same time – and Lenin saw no contradiction in this – the proletariat would strive to link arms across any borders but that shouldn’t be done by one nation overpowering another. Rather through an identity of class interest that respected cultural and ethnic aspirations – or rather didn’t allow them to become a festering sore and barrier to unity.
“Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.”
Putin claims that Ukraine has never existed as a state but in 1917, it proclaimed its independence with Ukrainian Bolsheviks playing a leading role. The situation did eventually slide into a war with Bolshevik Russia and Poland resulting in the 1922 incorporation of Ukraine into the USSR.
Combining the political attributes of a tsar and Stalin – Putin has no regard for the rights of any nations on Russia’s borders to self-determination. His beef with the existence of Ukraine isn’t based on a desire to expand a socialist agenda (which he doesn’t have) but merely to re-create the USSR as an imperial project to boost Russian pride.
And he believes that Ukraine is historically and ethnically a part of Russia. That somewhat ignores the fact that most Ukrainians don’t agree – and they are entitled to define their own identity. Well, one would have thought. But to Putin, they are deluded and victims of an early Bolshevik experiment as he wrote in a recent article:
“The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. It is no longer important what exactly the idea of the Bolshevik leaders who were chopping the country into pieces was. We can disagree about minor details, background, and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”
Note that Putin frames his entire argument around Russian national identity – and not class unity. Just in case anybody harbours the daft delusion that the current Russian leader is a Marxist himself. He is nostalgic for the USSR but views it as an expression of ancient Russia and that both the Bolsheviks and the West after 1990 dismembered Mother Russia. This is much closer to Tsarist thinking than it is to Lenin.
Putin adds in that article that if any former Soviet Republic wants to leave the grip of Russia, then it must return to the boundaries it had before the 1922 treaty that created the USSR. Decode that and he means Ukraine in particular should be significantly smaller. This is the mindset of a Russian imperialist – not a Bolshevik.