Serhii Plokhii: Casus Belli: Did Lenin Create Modern Ukraine?

February 27, 2022
Serhii Plokhii: Casus Belli: Did Lenin Create Modern Ukraine?

Image of the founders of Kyiv statue with Lenin addedVladimir Putin has justified his ongoing invasion of Ukraine on the basis of a bizarre reading of history and accusations that Ukraine is at the same time Lenin’s creation and the homeland of the Nazis.

Much has been said in the last few years to show the fraudulent nature of the “Nazi” claim. But the Lenin theme fully emerged only recently, in Putin’s February 21 speech in which he recognized the “independence” of the two puppet states created by Russia in eastern Ukraine at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014. The bizarre nature of that claim is underlined by the fact that at least one of those “republics,” the Donetsk one, claimed at its creation the legacy of an earlier puppet state, the Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih republic, which was formed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 to prevent that territory from being included in the Ukrainian state.

In his de facto declaration of war, Putin stated 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.” He developed that idea by stating: “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can rightfully be called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.”

In Ukrainian social media, reaction to Putin’s statement was almost immediate. Within a few hours, Facebook was flooded with images of Vladimir Lenin surprised to learn that he had created Ukraine. Another montage inserted Lenin into the monument to the legendary founders of Kyiv, the brothers Kyi, Shchek, and Khoryv and their sister, Lybid. Lenin replaced Lybid at the prow of the boat carrying the founders of the Ukrainian capital. The monument expresses Ukrainians’ belief that their country’s roots go back to the Middle Ages.

But what about modern Ukraine, a state that, according to Mr. Putin, came into existence at the expense of historical Russian lands? Even a cursory acquaintance with the history of the Russian Revolution and fall of the Russian Empire that accompanied it indicates that the modern Ukrainian state came into existence not thanks to Lenin but against his wishes and in direct reaction to the Bolshevik putsch in Petrograd in October (according to the Gregorian calendar, November) of 1917. The Bolsheviks tried to take control of Kyiv as well but were defeated, jumpstarting the process of the modern Ukrainian state-building. 

In January 1918 the Central Rada (Council), the revolutionary Ukrainian parliament, dominated by socialist and leftist parties and led by Ukraine’s most prominent historian, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, declared the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. It encompassed most of today’s Ukrainian territories within the borders of the Russian Empire, including the mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin). The new state wanted to maintain federal ties with Russia, but after the Bolshevik invasion of January 1918, the Central Rada declared the independence of Ukraine. 

The Bolsheviks waged war on the Ukrainian government under the banner of their own Ukrainian People’s Republic—a fiction created to provide a degree of legitimacy for the Bolshevik takeover of Ukraine. Bolshevik troops massacred the population of Kyiv, killing hundreds if not thousands of its citizens, including Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoiavlensky) of the Orthodox Church. The Bolshevik commander in Kyiv, Mikhail Muraviev, sent Lenin a telegram: “Order has been restored in Kyiv.” 

 The Central Rada had to leave Kyiv but soon returned, having signed an agreement with Germany and Austria-Hungary, whose troops moved into Ukraine in the spring of 1918 and drove the Bolsheviks out of its territory, including the Donbas. The Germans soon replaced the democratic Central Rada with the authoritarian regime of Herman Pavlo Skoropadsky, but the democratic Ukrainian People’s Republic was restored when the Germans withdrew from Ukraine late in 1918. The Bolsheviks moved in once again, this time under the banner of their adversary Ukrainian People’s Republic, formally independent of Russia. 

After the original defeats in Ukraine, Lenin came to the conclusion that the formal independence of the Ukrainian state, coupled with concessions in the realm of language and culture, was absolutely necessary if the Bolsheviks were to maintain their control over Ukraine. He felt that Ukrainian aspirations to independence were so strong, not only among Ukrainians in general but even among the Bolsheviks themselves, as to require the granting of a degree of autonomy and a status equal to Russia within the Soviet Union, the new state whose creation was declared in 1922.

Lenin was indeed central to the formation of the USSR, as Mr. Putin has claimed. But Lenin’s main contribution to the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations was not the formation of a modern Ukraine state but the endowment of the Russian Federation—the name under which it entered the Soviet Union—with a territory and institutions of its own, distinct for the first time in centuries from the territory and institutions of the empire that it was seeking to preserve. If anything, Lenin laid the foundations for the formation of modern Russia, not Ukraine. Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin’s patron, took that state, the Russian Federation, out of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is over that state, not pre-revolutionary Russia, that Mr. Putin presides.