Ukraine’s current regime has criminalised praise of the Soviet Union and characterises the events of 1917 and the seven subsequent decades of socialist government as a crime against their country. But Communist Party of Ukraine general secretary Petro Symonenko remains proud of the revolution and its achievements.
“There is no doubt that the Great October Socialist Revolution — its ideas, its achievements in reorganising the world on the principles of justice and equality, are as relevant now as ever.
“The October Revolution radically changed the course of world history. The march of Soviet power, the victory of the workers’ and peasants’ Red Army over foreign interventionists and counterrevolutionary forces who unleashed the bloody civil war, the construction of the first socialist state in the world and its achievements have proved that the ideas of communism — ideas of a just society with roots centuries in the past — are not merely a utopia.
“For the first time scientifically formulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the principles and fundamentals of future society — a society of liberty, equality and fraternity, after the creative development of the Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution, were brought to life in our country.
“For the first time in the history of the world the system of oppression of man by man had been challenged, and the power and the property passed into the hands of the workers.”
Symonenko backs up the stirring rhetoric with practical points: the Soviet Union established inalienable social and economic rights for citizens, including free education and healthcare, the right to work (everyone had a job), and the right to rest (with maximum working hours).
“Unemployment and illiteracy were eliminated, thousands of new plants and factories were built, hundreds of higher education and research institutes, hospitals and health centres ...”
Women and men gained equal rights and the Soviet Union eliminated discrimination based on national or ethnic background: citizens had “equal rights and freedoms regardless of their place of work and residence, income or colour,” he argues.
For Ukrainians, the revolution “united the scattered and occupied lands inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.”
Ukraine was a major battleground in the civil war that followed the revolution. Territory was seized by the German empire, which set up a puppet government known as the Hetmanate; along with the short-lived administration of the anti-semitic nationalist Symon Petliura (who was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by the Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard, whose family had been massacred in Petliura’s pogroms) and the so-called Ukrainian People’s Republic, a succession of far-right regimes fought the Bolsheviks for supremacy.
“The Bolsheviks won because their policy was creative, not destructive; to unite working people around peace and prosperity instead of war propaganda and incitement of ethnic hatred,” says Symonenko.
In 1922, the war over, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became a founding member of the Soviet Union.
“In the fraternal family of Soviet peoples, we defeated the nazi hordes, raised from the ruins our towns and villages, restored the economy destroyed by the fascist invaders. During the years of socialist construction Soviet Ukraine turned into a powerful industrial-agrarian state with highly developed science and technology. Not by chance, by 1991, the USSR was among the 10 most developed countries of Europe.”
In contrast to tsarist Russia, which sought to Russify subject peoples, the Soviet Union saw “protection of national languages and cultures” as part of its drive to eliminate illiteracy and “promote culture to the masses.”
By 1927, education was conducted in Ukrainian at “almost all schools” in the republic, whose population was 80 per cent ethnically Ukrainian, Symonenko says.
“Ukrainianisation as part of the development of national cultures was also extended to those regions of the USSR where many Ukrainians lived — Kuban, some parts of Kazakhstan, the Green Wedge in the Far East, where Ukrainian-language schools and newspapers were set up.”
The republic’s territory remained ethnically mixed, and in the 1920s hundreds of German, Polish, Jewish, Bulgarian and Tatar schools were set up to cater for these minorities.
By contrast, in modern Ukraine “parliament passed and [President Petro] Poroshenko signed a new law on languages — which violates the constitution” — depriving ethnic minorities of the opportunity to study in their native language, and introducing “administrative liability” for not using Ukrainian reminiscent of the historical suppression of Gaelic and Welsh in Britain’s history.
Symonenko regards this as “ethnocide — in full accordance with the doctrine of national socialism and Ukrainian integral nationalism, ‘one language, one people’.”
Since the restoration of capitalism in 1991 Ukraine has seen “hundreds of businesses and industries cease to exist. Millions of people lose their jobs and their families are deprived of reliable means of existence.
“In 2016 the country’s real gross domestic product was barely half that of 1990. The process of deindustrialisation has acquired a menacing character.
“Our energy consumption in production is 2.6 times higher than in developed countries, our producers have lost the domestic market.
Of light industrial products 98.4 per cent are now imported; in pharmaceuticals 78.2 per cent; in agricultural machinery 80 per cent; in computer hardware 93 per cent; for household appliances 88 per cent.
“Many of our businesses that could manufacture comparable quality products have ceased to exist. We even imported 44 per cent of our food last year.
“The Ukrainian agricultural sector has ceased to be a source and supplier of raw materials, but at the same time the US ambassador says Ukraine should be turned into a ‘strong agricultural state’ — the agricultural appendage of the West and the transnational corporations. It’s a kind of Morgenthau plan” (a proposal to deindustrialise Germany so it would never again pose a threat after the second world war) “for the final deindustrialisation of Ukraine and its political and economic marginalisation.”
Ukraine now has the second-highest mortality rate in the world, and the government established by the 2014 “Maidan” coup has now introduced “health reforms” which deprive millions of access to basic healthcare. More than 60 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line, with the social security of the Soviet period a thing of the past.
“During the years of bourgeois restoration and nationalist terror, the population of Ukraine has decreased from 52 million in 1991 to 42 million today. It continues to fall. That is the real genocide,” he remarks bitterly.
I’d asked about the Ukrainian government’s contention that the Soviet Union under Stalin was guilty of genocide in Ukraine in the so-called ‘holodomor,’ as it refers to the terrible famine of the early 1930s.
“No-one has ever denied that in 1932-33 famine in Ukraine was raging,” says Symonenko. “But the same ‘hungry’ years were repeatedly regularly — once a decade or thereabouts — under the Russian empire.
“The tragedy of 1932-33 has ‘objective’ causes such as drought and inadequate technology resulting in low yields, and ‘subjective’ ones, from the resistance of the kulaks [wealthy landowning peasants who burned crops and animals rather than see them handed to collective ownership], the ‘excesses’ of collectivisation, the errors of the party and Soviet leadership of the USSR.
“But the famine killed regardless of ethnicity. The famine was raging in and outside of Ukraine: in the Don, Kuban, Volga regions, central Chernozem, the south Urals, western Siberia.
“When they talk of the ‘holodomor’ as a genocide of the Ukrainian people it is a cynical lie and ‘dancing on bones’,” he declares grimly, pointing out that Soviet authorities took emergency measures including a sevenfold increase in grain deliveries to Ukraine in 1933 to try to limit the disaster, much of it grain diverted from Russia.
Accusing the Soviet government of genocide goes alongside a nationalist narrative that whitewashes nazi collaborators such as Stepan Bandera and his Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, whose role in the very real genocide of the Holocaust is well documented.
The rewriting of history in Ukraine has seen a concerted effort to ban the country’s Communist Party, which received 13 per cent of the vote (nearly three million votes were cast for it) in the last pre-coup election.
“Today, the experience of underground illegal work by the Bolsheviks in tsarist Russia and during the nazi occupation is of practical interest to us,” Symonenko points out.
“Communists in post-Maidan Ukraine are subjected to constant persecution, including by physical intimidation and arrests.
“The Communist Party is under threat of a ban, and according to the so-called decommunisation law it is forbidden to use common communist symbols: the hammer and sickle, the red star, flags and coats of arms of the Soviet Union and its republics or of other socialist countries.
“One can go to prison for several years for quoting Marx, Engels or Lenin.
“On October 20, when we were holding a plenum of our central committee which we broadcast on the internet, in the Kherson region the SBU (secret police), prosecutors and police entered our premises without a court order and under the pretext of implementing the decommunisation law seized party symbols, visual materials and books, despite this being people’s personal property.
“On October 26 the SBU entered the premises of the Darnytsa district committee of the Communist Party and seized personal property using as an excuse an ongoing criminal case against people who have no connection to the Communist Party.
“But as you pointed out there is a crisis in confidence of capitalism and protest is growing.
“The deliberate destruction of Ukraine has been going on for more than a quarter of a century. The coup of 1991 started the process of destroying the economic model of socialism as the basis of people’s democracy.
“Next was barbaric, predatory privatisation and wild capitalism — the ‘oligarchisation’ of power, the destruction of the social gains of the Soviet period.
“Now we have a drive towards fascism, the glorification of nazi criminals, the attack on freedom of speech and conscience, war and ethnocide.
“The Communist Party is the only political force able to unite working people in the struggle for their rights. It is obvious that persecution of the Communist Party and communists is directly related to our tough stance on the actions and intentions of the ruling regime. But we are not going to surrender.”