Lenin, Putin and people’s right to self-determination

152 years ago, on April 22, 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who became known by the pseudonym Vladimir Lenin, was born. By the age of 30 he had earned a place among the leading Marxists internationally and just seventeen years later, together with Leon Trotsky, they led Russia into the world’s first successful socialist revolution – the October Revolution of 1917. 

One and a half century later, the ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks still haunt the capitalist class, which frequently attacks them in an attempt to tarnish their image in the eyes of the workers and the youth who can be inspired by them. 

The most recent example was Putin’s reference to Lenin and the Bolsheviks and their position on the Ukrainian issue.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in his address to the Russian people two days before the invasion of Ukraine, on February 24th of this year, devoted half of his speech to a head on attack on the ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and especially on the central position of the Bolshevik programme regarding the national question and the right of self-determination.

This is no accident. Especially when we are talking about a 1-hour speech that addressed the whole planet and set the “ideological” tone for an imperialist intervention to come.

The “spectre of communism” may not be hovering over Europe today, but it is certainly hovering in the minds of Putin-type leaders who express the interests of the Russian capitalist oligarchy, who defend the preservation of their gains, and aim at the expansion into new markets and a better positioning on the shifting international geopolitical chessboard. 

In his speech we find plenty of nationalism, falsification of history, conspiracy theories and above all an attack on the true revolutionary ideas, that found their first historical vindication in the Paris Commune in 1871, but above all, in Russia 105 years ago.

Putin did not say a word about the Tsar who had created a “prison of the nations” empire for centuries. He then referred to Stalin in just one paragraph, only to give him the benefit of the doubt in his dispute with Lenin on the national question. 

He spoke of the party dictatorship and the collapse of the USSR, “failing” however to mention that he himself was a genuine child of its state apparatus at its most nerve-wracking point: the infamous KGB (secret services).

Putin’s central problem is Lenin and genuine revolutionary ideas as a whole, especially on the national question.

Putin’s speech

Let’s start by quoting the main points of Putin’s speech:

“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after…

“So, I will start with the fact that 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….

“I will remind you that after the 1917 October Revolution and the subsequent Civil War, the Bolsheviks set about creating a new statehood. They had rather serious disagreements among themselves on this point. In 1922, Stalin occupied the positions of both the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the People’s Commissar for Ethnic Affairs. He suggested building the country on the principles of autonomisation that is, giving the republics – the future administrative and territorial entities – broad powers upon joining a unified state….

“Lenin criticised this plan and suggested making concessions to the nationalists, whom he called “independents” at that time. Lenin’s ideas of what amounted in essence to a confederative state arrangement and a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, up to secession, were laid in the foundation of Soviet statehood. Initially they were confirmed in the Declaration on the Formation of the USSR in 1922, and later on, after Lenin’s death, were enshrined in the 1924 Soviet Constitution.

“This immediately raises many questions. The first is really the main one: why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire?… 

“That raises another question: why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous nationalists and, on top of all that, give the republics the right to secede from the unified state without any conditions?…

“There is an explanation. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks’ main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs. They did everything for this purpose: accepted the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, although the military and economic situation in Kaiser Germany and its allies was dramatic and the outcome of the First World War was a foregone conclusion, and satisfied any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country….

“Actually, as I have already said, Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine. And today the “grateful progeny” has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization….

“The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the CPSU leadership, mistakes committed at different times in state-building and in economic and ethnic policies. The collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.”

(Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022 22:35 The Kremlin, Moscow)

Lenin’s writings

Now let us see what Lenin was saying in two illustrative quotations from texts of the time:

“Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue.

“Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession.

“We do not favour the existence of small states. We stand for the closest union of the workers of the world against “their own” capitalists and those of all other countries.

(V. I.   Lenin, The Ukraine, First published in Pravda No. 82, June 28 [15], 1917, Marxists.org) 

In another text (Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine) he writes:

“In Great Russia the system of landed estates has been completely abolished. The same must be done in the Ukraine, and the Soviet power of the Ukrainian workers and peasants must effect the complete abolition of the landed estates and the complete liberation of the Ukrainian workers and peasants from all oppression by the landowners, and from the landowners themselves.

“But apart from this task, and a number of others which confronted and still confront both the Great-Russian and the Ukrainian working masses, Soviet power in the Ukraine has its own special tasks. One of these special tasks deserves the greatest attention at the present moment. It is the national question, or, in other words, the question of whether the Ukraine is to be a separate and independent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic bound in alliance (federation) with the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, or whether the Ukraine is to amalgamate with Russia to form a single Soviet republic. All Bolsheviks and all politically-conscious workers and peasants must give careful thought to this question.

“The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

“How should this question be decided insofar as it concerns the interests of the working people and the promotion of their fight for the complete emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital?

“In the first place, the interests of labour demand the fullest confidence and the closest alliance among the working people of different countries and nations. The supporters of the landowners and capitalists, of the bourgeoisie, strive to disunite the workers, to intensify national discord and enmity, in order to weaken the workers and strengthen the power of capital.

“Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed.

“We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists. We stand for the close union and the complete amalgamation of the workers and peasants of all nations in a single world Soviet republic.

“Secondly, the working people must not forget that capitalism has divided nations into a small number of oppressor, Great-Power (imperialist), sovereign and privileged nations and an overwhelming majority of oppressed, dependent and semi-dependent, non-sovereign nations. The arch-criminal and arch-reactionary war of 1914-18 still further accentuated this division and as a result aggravated rancour and hatred. For centuries the indignation and distrust of the non-sovereign and dependent nations towards the dominant and oppressor nations have been accumulating, of nations such as the Ukrainian towards nations such as the Great-Russian.

We want a voluntary union of nations –a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another– a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent. Such a union cannot be effected at one stroke; we have to work towards it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust, and so that the distrust inherited from centuries of landowner and capitalist oppression, centuries of private property and the enmity caused by its divisions and redivisions may have a chance to wear off.

“The question of the demarcation of frontiers now, for the time being—for we are striving towards the complete abolition of frontiers—is a minor one, it is not fundamental or important. In this matter we can afford to wait, and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardise the cause of complete and ultimate unity.

As long as the Ukraine is not completely liberated from Denikin, her government, until the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets meets, is the All-Ukraine Revolutionary Committee. Besides the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists, there are Ukrainian Borotba Communists working on this Revolutionary Committee as members of the government. One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not make this a subject of difference and disunity, they do not regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort. There must be unity in the struggle against the yoke of capital and for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and there should be no parting of the ways among Communists on the question of national frontiers, or whether there should be a federal or some other tie between the states. Among the Bolsheviks there are advocates of complete independence for the Ukraine, advocates of a more or less close federal tie, and advocates of the complete amalgamation of the Ukraine with Russia.

The best way to achieve this is by working together to uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat and Soviet power in the fight against the landowners and capitalists of all countries and against their attempts to restore their domination. This common fight will clearly show in practice that whatever the decision in regard to state independence or frontiers may be, there must be a close military and economic alliance between the Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers, for otherwise the capitalists of the “Entente”, in other words, the alliance of the richest capitalist countries—Britain, France, America, Japan and Italy—will crush and strangle us separately. Our fight against Kolchak and Denikin, whom these capitalists supplied with money and arms, is a clear illustration of this danger.

In this long and hard fight we Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers must maintain the closest alliance, for separately we shall most definitely be unable to cope with the task. Whatever the boundaries of the Ukraine and Russia may be, whatever may be the forms of their mutual state relationships, that is not so important; that is a matter in which concessions can and should be made, in which one thing, or another, or a third may be tried—the cause of the workers and peasants, of the victory over capitalism, will not perish because of that.

And what the bourgeoisie of all countries, and all manner of petty-bourgeois parties, i.e., “compromising” parties which permit alliance with the bourgeoisie against the workers—try most of all to accomplish is to disunite the workers of different nationalities, to evoke distrust, and to disrupt a close international alliance and international brotherhood of the workers. Whenever the bourgeoisie succeeds in this the cause of the workers is lost. The Communists of Russia and the Ukraine must therefore by patient, persistent, stubborn and concerted effort foil the nationalist machinations of the bourgeoisie and vanquish nationalist prejudices of every kind, and set the working people of the world an example of a really solid alliance of the workers and peasants of different nations in the fight for Soviet power, for the overthrow of the yoke of the landowners and capitalists, and for a world federal Soviet republic.

(V. I. Lenin, Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine, Apropos of the Victories Over Denikin, Written: 28 December, 1919, First Published: Pravda No. 3,; January 4, 1920; marxists.org) 

The essence of Lenin’s positions

Lenin’s letter to the Ukrainian workers is one of the best examples of revolutionary politics on the national question.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks do not just generally and vaguely support the right to self-determination of nationalities, nor do they propose independence. Their avowed aim is a world socialist society and the abolition of national borders so that mankind can once and for all eliminate wars and poverty and engage in the constant improvement of material conditions in order to bring out the beauty of life.

But they defend the right to self-determination, i.e. the state secession of those nationalities which demand it. Otherwise, they would have to be at gunpoint to impose the “unity” claimed by the dominant or greatest power; this would be disastrous for the effort to free the working class from the capitalist chains, to build socialist society and to overcome nationalist antagonisms. 

What matters is class unity against capital, not the precise demarcation of border lines and nationalist divisions and conflicts.

In this way, centuries-old ethnic prejudices and suspicions are broken, the rivers of blood of the past are bridged and the debate opens up for a common struggle and a common future, for a better life regardless of ethnic origin, religion, etc.

The policies of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks voluntarily unified the vast and economically backward Russian Empire of 130 different ethnicities and hundreds of different languages and laid the basis for its transformation into a global economic and military superpower; the USSR.

What happened after 1917 in Ukraine

Putin says that under Lenin “Donbass was actually shoved into Ukraine“. 

What actually happened was that, within the framework of planned economy and solidarity between the nationalities, the Soviet Republic of Donetsk-Krivoy Rog, which existed from 1918 to 1919, dissolved itself and these industrial regions were incorporated into Soviet Ukraine in order to strengthen the path towards socialist construction.

Such examples abound before the full prevalence of the Stalinist model. As well as the broad granting of autonomy to many regions according to their ethnic composition. 

Thus, within the Soviet Union, the Soviet Socialist Republics were created, which contained the Autonomous Socialist Republics, which in turn contained Autonomous Regions. 

Even the Greeks of the USSR had four Autonomous Regions by 1937. Three in Ukraine (Donetsk-Mariupol region), one in Southern Russia (Kuban-Krimskaya) and they were preparing to establish a fifth in the Shohumi region of Abkhazia (Caucasus-Georgia), where there were more than 40 Greek villages. The prevalence of Stalinism did not allow this to happen.

With this policy, which was sensitive to national issues, the Russian revolution withstood the civil war of the White Terror and the invasion of the imperialist armies in Odessa in 1919. It laid the foundations for the creation of the Red Army, which, even with the problems created by the Stalinist bureaucracy, achieved a historic victory against fascism in World War II.

What is unthinkable for Putin was very natural and self-evident for Lenin and the Russian workers. And we mean the right of Ukrainians to claim their independence from the Great Russian chauvinism that always considered Ukraine a “little Russia”.

It was not Lenin who gave independence to the Ukrainians. It was the Ukrainian workers and peasants who freely decided how they wanted to live. And while Finns, , Lithuanians, etc. chose the way out of the USSR (without this meaning a war or a national conflict), Ukrainians chose to be part of the USSR, keeping their language, their education, their culture and building together with Russian workers and peasants for a socialist future.

Putin calls Lenin the creator of Ukraine. He does not bother to explain why then the Ukrainians are tearing down his statues and moving towards ”decommunization” as he says.

In fact, although the Ukrainian ruling class and fascists hate Lenin as much as Putin, they draw their own ideological arsenal from the same shelf as Putin’s: Capitalism, corruption, suppression of all dissent, oppression of minorities, etc. They suddenly discovered the fascist fellow traveler of the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, Bandera, to create new national heroes to inspire the Azov battalion and the neo-fascists who are officially part of the Ukrainian army and state apparatus (the Ministry of Interior, the Kiev police, etc.).

And close by, of course, NATO and the West, who in the name of democracy and freedom have not left a single spot on the planet where they have not intervened militarily to impose their own imperialist interests. They have no hesitation in supporting any dictator, no matter how insane and bloodthirsty he is, as long as he is subservient to the interests of capital and the imperialists.

Putin’s “antifascism” 

Another point worth mentioning is Putin’s attempt to present himself as an “anti-fascist”. However, if one looks at his “mentors”, in the likes of Alexander Dugin or Ivan Ilyin, one will understand that he clearly is not. Not to mention Putin’s relations with dozens of neo-fascist groups inside Russia and with the massive neo-fascist party of Zhirinovsky, who is vice-chairman of the Russian lower house of parliament and an outspoken supporter of Putin’s positions on Ukraine.

But let’s stick to the basics. History has already shown what is the correct policy on the national question. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, by their policies, peacefully, without the use of any force or coercion, brought together the peoples that made up USSR on a voluntary basis. 

Putin with his policy is constantly causing wars today in Ukraine, yesterday in Georgia, Chechnya and so on.

The Bolsheviks united the peoples, Putin divides them. This is the historical reality.

Defending the right to self-determination of nationalities is a valuable tool to avoid national tensions and war conflicts, and at the same time a crucial transitional demand to bring the goal of a socialist world closer.

Let us take, as a conclusion, the words of L. Trotsky in 1939 which sum up the essence of the position on the right to self-determination:

“Luxemburg, Bukharin, Piatakov and many others used this very same argument against the program of national self-determination: Under capitalism it is utopian; under socialism, reactionary. The argument is false to the core because it ignores the epoch of the social revolution and its tasks. To be sure, under the domination of imperialism a genuine stable and reliable independence of the small and intermediate nations is impossible. It is equally true that under fully developed socialism, that is to say, with the progressive withering away of the state, the question of national boundaries will fall away. But between these two moments – the present day and complete socialism – intervene those decades in the course of which we are preparing to realize our program. The slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine is of paramount importance for mobilizing the masses and for educating them in the transitional period….

“The right of national self-determination is, of course, a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realized in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat; it is for this very reason that they interlace with socialist tasks. The resolute struggle of the Bolshevik party for the right of self-determination of oppressed nationalities in Russia facilitated in the extreme the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was as if the proletarian revolution had sucked in the democratic problems, above all, the agrarian and national problems, giving to the Russian Revolution a combined character. The proletariat was already undertaking socialist tasks but it could not immediately raise to this level the peasantry and the oppressed nations (themselves predominantly peasant) who were absorbed with solving their democratic tasks.”

(Leon Trotsky, Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads, Written: 30 July 1939. marxists.org)

Michael Löwy: on Lenin’s battle against Stalin on the national question

“[…] In a belated, desperate battle against the great-Russian chauvinism of the bureaucratic apparatus, Lenin devoted his last moments of lucidity to confronting his primary leading representative: Joseph Stalin. In the notes he dictated to his secretary in December 1922, he never ceased to denounce the Great-Russian and chauvinistic spirit of this “rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is” and a mentality that “contemptuously awards accusations of social-patriotism (while he himself is not merely a true, authentic social-patriot, but a crude Great Russian janitor)”. He does not hesitate, moreover, to name the People’s Commissar of Nationalities: “I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious “nationalist-socialism” [Stalin criticised the minority nations for not being “internationalist” because they did want to unite with Russia], played a fatal role here.”

Returning to the question of Georgia, he insists: “The political responsibility for all this truly Great-Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.”

The conclusion of Lenin’s “will” was, as we know, his proposal to replace Stalin in the position of the party’s general secretariat. Alas, it was too late…”

(The text is included in Red Notebook’s, “The Enduring 1917”, published by Kapsimi editions in Greece.)

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