Staunton, April 26 – Putin’s war in Ukraine, “which began under the pretext of ‘de-Nazification and de-militarization’ has turned into an effort to ‘de-Ukrainianize’ the country,” Russian historian Boris Sokolov says, a move that recalls the moves of Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders to do the same thing after a brief fling at promoting “Ukrainization there.
In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, he says, Moscow promoted what it called korenizatsiya, “the rooting” of the political system in the population. In non-Russian areas like Ukraine, it promoted the language and culture of the people in order to win support and make the Soviet Union an attractive model for groups abroad (theins.ru/history/250554).
But once Stalin defeated his opponents and began to build his totalitarian state, he turned away from that policy and promoted one that anticipates in many regards what Putin appears planning to do now, undermining the Ukrainian language by closing schools and newspapers and promoting Russian as a language and as the culture of the political elite.
With a brief exception at the time of Stalin’s death, when Lavrenty Beria sought to revive korenizatsiya and hence Ukrainianization, that policy continued up to the times of perestroika, with Russian promoted and non-Russian languages and non-Russian participation at the top of the political system in the republics generally discouraged and often directly attacked.
Stalin began to criticize Ukrainization in the mid-1920s and stepped up his attacks on it in the early 1930s during collectivization and the terror famine, Sokolov recounts. “The process of de-Ukrainization began gradually first in the RSFSR.” In December 1932, Moscow transformed all Ukrainian-language schools there into Russian-language ones.
Earlier, the Soviet authorities stopped the use of Ukrainian in the Red Army, declaring in July 1927 that everyone in the military must use Russian rather than any other language. These policies drove some advocates of Ukrainization to suicide and led to the execution of many others.
“In August 1932,” Sokolov says, “Stalin declared that hidden nationalists and foreign agents had overwhelmed party organizations in Ukraine,” a remark that led to the purge of nationalists there and a year later to the revision of Ukrainian language norms to make that tongue more like Russian and less distinctive.
In short, what Sokolov makes clear is that Putin’s plan to “de-Ukrainianize” Ukraine is not some new innovation in Moscow’s thinking but rather a return to what the Soviets and most radically Stalin did in the past. That Soviet leaders achieved as much as they did must give Putin confidence he can do as much.
That they ultimately failed to eliminate what Dmitry Medvedev has call “Ukrainianism” strongly suggests that the current Kremlin leader will fail in the end as well.