The Soviet Past in Putin’s War on Ukraine
The battlefield that is Ukraine is in the midst of another war. Yet, against expectations and with the current war in Ukraine starting its fifth month, no outcome is apparent. What is clear is how little things have changed.
The potential fate of Ukraine, if Vladimir Putin prevails, can be seen in its past, especially the modern history of the region and how it fared under generations of repressive Soviet rule. As Putin is the dregs of the USSR, so the war in Ukraine is the bitter legacy of Soviet communism.
Putin is a creature of the old Soviet regime and its Communist Party. That regime and party were not only communist in outlook, but also corrupt through and through. Everything and everyone had to serve, or be made to serve, the state and the party. Is it any different today?
The KGB has also shaped Putin. The KGB was the secretive (domestic and international) intelligence-gathering and state-security-enforcement arm of the Communist Party. It relied on — even embodied — terror, violence, fear, and subversion as both totalitarian tools and tactics necessary for the regime’s survival. Lies, disinformation, and deceit were the pillars that supported the regime until they couldn’t. That was Lieutenant Colonel Putin’s world, a world enabled and propped up by not only deception but also vast military might, topped by strategic nuclear weapons. Together, regime, party, KGB, and military made up the Soviet way of politics, which was the equivalent of perpetual warfare. And then, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Putin called that collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
There is a long, sad history of outsider control, even colonization, of Ukraine, despite its having a rich heritage of its own. After Russia, Ukraine is the largest country on the European continent. Except for the Carpathian Mountains in the southwest, Ukraine lacks natural borders. In fact, Ukraine means “borderland” in both Russian and Polish. Over the centuries, parts of Ukraine have been ruled by Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary. Yet during that same time, Ukrainians understood themselves as a people, with their own cultural identity, just not their own state. There were hopeful moments for Ukrainian independence, especially in the 1840s, periodically in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and briefly in 1917. During the First World War, Ukraine was the battleground between Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Before and after then, Ukraine was dominated by Russia and other powers and then in large part by the Soviet Union, with a brief but blunt interval of atrocity and destruction under Nazi occupation.
In the land under their control, the Soviets enforced full-scale occupation and totalitarian oppression. It was always war. There was no peacetime. Communist actions against Ukrainians amounted to crimes — including what we now call war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, by some accounts, genocide.
Soviet Ukraine suffered greatly. Under War Communism, Vladimir Lenin’s policies nationalized all enterprises, requisitioned grain, took and exported food, and caused famine. At least a million Ukrainians died in the Soviet state-made famine of the early 1920s. Rural and urban populations alike were affected. Ukrainian national revival and the struggle for Ukrainian independence were also killed.
Just as Ukraine was recovering, the Soviets — now under Joseph Stalin — doubled down on forced industrialization and collectivization, the evil practice of dispossessing and confiscating all the individually owned farms and re-purposing them into large, collective, state-owned farms. A special target in the late 1920s and early 1930s were the “kulaks,” who were deemed a threatening class of “wealthy peasants” but who were in reality just farmers doing well enough to provide for their families and to trade or sell excess crops. De-kulakization, as the communists called this murderous policy, included exorbitant taxes, strict grain-production quotas, and the forced deportation of more than 100,000 families to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The communists imposed this process on Ukraine and other parts of the USSR. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, they aimed to destroy the mainstays of the culture: the individual, the peasant, the family, the church, and the village.
Many Ukrainians resisted collectivization. The Soviet Union deliberately targeted Ukraine’s people, its rich land, and its grain. The communists turned the breadbasket of Europe into something much worse than a basket case. Soviet policies caused another famine, one more horrible than the last. Stalin did not care. In fact, he ordered it. This came to be known as the Holodomor, which translates from Ukrainian as “death by hunger” or “extermination by hunger.” The technical dates are 1932–1933 — this year marks the grim 90th anniversary — but the negative, systemic effects wrought by this famine lasted for years.
On top of forced collectivization, Soviet policies set high grain quotas that were impossible for Ukrainian farmers to meet. As punishment, Soviet authorities levied fines, confiscated the grain, and even took the seed. Farmers were not allowed to leave their villages, and Ukrainians were not allowed to leave their country; they were essentially entombed. By the end of 1933, between 2 million and 5 million Ukrainians had died due to Stalin’s communist-made famine. (In recent years, scholars have settled on a number of 4 million, give or take.) This same state-imposed famine killed outside Ukraine, too. As many as 2 million more died elsewhere in the USSR, especially in Kazakhstan.
After the famine, Ukrainians were silenced in other ways. The communists denied the existence of the Holodomor. Ukrainians were punished — including being sent to Soviet labor camps (the Gulag) — if they spoke, wrote, sang, or painted about it. They were not allowed to remember their dead, to grieve, to mourn, or to even name and count them.
The Soviet-controlled parts of Ukraine were then victimized again as part of the Great Terror later in the 1930s. Stalin’s purges are typically attributed to his personality cult and drive for power, but they also constituted ideological warfare on his own peoples. Ukrainians, among many others, were falsely accused and arrested, tortured, subjected to show trials, executed, deported, and sent to the Gulag. Once again, as in the 1920s, Sovietization attacked Ukrainian culture, tradition, and language.
World War II inflicted more crimes on Ukraine. Western Ukraine came under Soviet rule only after the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and the USSR in 1939. In the part of Ukraine that the Red Army occupied, Sovietization was imposed, along with arrests of anyone who resisted. More than 1 million people were deported to Siberia and other points east by mid 1941.
The truth became a casualty in this war, as in so many others. Many know about the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) murdered over 20,000 Poles, many of them prisoners of war, in multiple locations in the western USSR in 1940. For decades, the Soviets denied their actions and blamed the deaths on the Nazis. They only admitted their complicity, with great reluctance, in the 1980s.
Such treatment was not restricted to Poles. Prison massacres in western Ukraine came in 1941, after the Germans broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the USSR. The NKVD brutally murdered between 10,000 and 40,000 political prisoners over the course of eight days. About 70 percent of the victims were Ukrainian, 20 percent were Polish, and the rest were Jews and members of other disfavored minority groups. Some had been “found guilty” of major crimes, while others were being held for lesser crimes or merely for questioning. Depending on the prison, some victims were shot in the back of the neck, while others were burned alive in locked cells. But it was all systematic, and many endured brutal torture before they were killed. As with the Katyn Forest Massacre, the Soviets committed mass murder and blamed the Nazis.
By 1943, the Germans were losing ground in Ukraine. The Soviet Red Army recaptured Kyiv and spread repression throughout Ukraine. Stalin and his secret police went after anyone they suspected of being disloyal or of collaborating with the Nazis. Plus, the Soviets forcibly deported the Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan and to other Central Asian republics in 1944.
Under complete Soviet control, matters did not improve for Ukrainians after World War II. There was no peacetime for Ukrainian citizens, and forced industrialization meant they continued to suffer. Pre-war levels of production in agriculture were not reached again until the 1960s. A third famine — resulting from communist policies, post-war dislocations, and drought — claimed about 1 million more lives in 1946–1947. At the same time, the communists continued to persecute various religious faiths and forcibly liquidated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which went underground for decades.
The crimes — and the denial of them — continued apace. This included decades of repression of Ukrainian dissidents, educators, intellectuals, priests, writers, artists, and nationalists — all “enemies of the state” who did not want to be communist, and who did not want to be Sovietized. In Moscow’s view, these amounted to the same thing.
The denial part is not all ancient history. The disaster in northern Ukraine at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant — the worst nuclear accident in history — was denied for weeks in 1986, and that was under Mikhail Gorbachev, not Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, or Leonid Brezhnev. Approximately 5 million people were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, with hundreds of thousands receiving doses high enough to increase their risk of various cancers. In addition to the deaths that resulted immediately and in subsequent years, contaminated agricultural lands near Chernobyl are still unsafe today, and will remain so for many years to come. And now, of course, the region is part of the hot war, the battlefield that is Ukraine.
In 1990 and 1991, Ukraine led the way to independence for the former republics of the Soviet Union. Ukraine established itself as a fully independent state, and Soviet warfare against that state officially ended. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to return the thousands of nuclear warheads on its territory to Russia. A major stipulation of this deal — agreed to by Russia as well as the United States and Great Britain — was the guarantee of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on borders that recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over the Crimea and leased the naval base at Sevastopol to Russia. Yet under Putin, Russia has violated these agreements and guarantees more than once: in its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and now in its invasion of, and direct attack on, all of Ukraine.
While there is no single document in international law that codifies war crimes, Russia has ratified various conventions as a member state of the United Nations. There is also more than 100 years of accumulated international law governing the proper conduct of armed conflict. Crimes against humanity have not been codified in a dedicated treaty of international law, but there is a common list. Genocide was first recognized as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly.
The atrocities that Russia has committed in its current war on Ukraine appear to include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and — in the sense that the word was originally understood, before the Soviets narrowed its accepted meaning in the 1940s — genocide. Russia is committing grave crimes against Ukrainians in Ukraine. It is not engaged in a just war, but an invasion — an unprovoked attack built upon the Soviet legacy of warfare and Putin’s ingrained habits of disinformation and deceit.
For today, as in the past, it matters not only what goes on in Ukraine, but also what goes on outside Ukraine. Experts across the political spectrum have been saying that the war in Ukraine has changed the world, that it has changed global politics. No, it has revealed them. Everything is not sweetness and light in international relations. Regime distinctions matter. Peace through strength is a timeless principle and is needed now more than ever. Ukraine has re-awakened the West.
By the 20-teens, few, if any, young people knew what the West meant. Now everyone does, which is a good and important thing. Once again, the West has become synonymous with the concepts of civilization, the rule of law, and freedom. Perpetuating these principles will require a Ukrainian victory and a sharp rebuke to the last heir and embodiment of Soviet-style power.
Dr. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding is Vice Chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), Founding Director of the Victims of Communism Museum, and Senior Fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.