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Putin, Lenin, and Ukrainian Self-Determination

Vladimir Putin says Ukraine was created by Lenin — “it can rightfully be called Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” A look at Lenin’s policy on self-determination shows how the current conflict could be resolved.

Nathaniel Flakin

February 23, 2022
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On Monday evening, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a rambling speech to justify the latest escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. His argument was basically that a Ukrainian nation does not exist. Ukraine is “not just a neighboring country for us,” Putin said. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”

As the bourgeoisie is wont to do, Putin presents nations — which came into being in the capitalist era, so a few centuries ago at most — as having existed since “time immemorial.” His claim to Ukraine is not based on the democratic will of people living on the territory — instead, he talks about ancient myths. A Western response to Putin’s speech, as formulated by the New York Times, is equally ahistorical, projecting a Ukrainian nation-state back into the ninth century.

So how does Putin explain the fact that tens of millions of people see themselves as a nation that, in his opinion, is nothing more than a component of Russia? According to Putin,

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.

With the October Revolution of 1917, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Russia created a new government. This government, led by V. I. Lenin, was committed to the principle of self-determination for oppressed peoples. This right was later enshrined in the constitution of the Soviet Union, granting every socialist republic the unconditional right to secede.

For Putin, this democratic principle was “worse than a mistake,” opposing the “fundamental principles of statehood.” That is precisely the difference here: Putin is trying to build up a powerful Russian state apparatus to guarantee the rule of a tiny, parasitic minority of capitalists. Lenin, in contrast, was aiming for communism, which means that the state should wither away.

Self-Determination and Socialism

For Lenin, the right to self-determination was not about creating a plethora of nation-states. Quite the opposite: he argued that the proletariat needed to oppose all forms of national oppression — so that proletarians of all countries could join together in a voluntary union, on the basis of equality. This was the same position that Marx had held: he said English workers needed to fight for Irish independence, so that English and Irish workers could form an alliance against the bourgeoisie.

The czarist empire had been a prison of peoples, in which so-called Great Russians (roughly half the population) were in charge and all other peoples were brutally repressed. The new Soviet government declared that all oppressed people could decide their own fate. The Bolsheviks granted independence, for example, to Finland, just as they championed the right to self-determination for Ukraine.

But this did not mean they wanted Finland or Ukraine to be ruled by capitalist governments. At the same time, the Bolsheviks gave support to workers in both Finland and Ukraine fighting for socialism. In Finland, the red government was ultimately defeated — in Ukraine, in contrast, the workers’ councils took power and formed a union with socialist Russia.

Lenin’s policy was based on the understanding that the working class needed to take up the struggle against every kind of oppression. Ukrainian peasants, who had long been oppressed by the czar’s Russian-speaking bureaucrats, naturally yearned for independence. Bourgeois nationalists tried to present themselves as the natural representatives of this yearning. But Bolsheviks in Ukraine also took up the demand for self-determination — they called for “self-determination of the Ukraine in the interests of the workers and peasants.” This revealed that the “self-determination” offered by bourgeois forces meant nothing more than the rule of big landowners, capitalists, and imperialist powers.

Obviously, Putin is a much bigger fan of Stalin, who revived Great Russian chauvinism in the Soviet Union. Putin only laments that Stalin “did not formally revise Lenin’s principles underlying the Soviet Union.” (emphasis added). This right remained enshrined in the constitution — although it was suppressed in practice with the bloodiest terror. According to Putin’s view of history, the problem was that at the end of the Soviet Union, “radical nationalists” could claim a right to independence that was still on the books. Putin, a “radical nationalist” himself, denies such a basic democratic right.

Since independence, in Putin’s telling, the people of Ukraine have been suffering under a series of corrupt governments. Oligarchs plunder the country in the interest of Western imperialist powers. The regime denies basic freedoms and bases itself on Nazis. This is an accurate description of the Ukrainian regime — but Putin’s extreme cynicism prevents him from blushing, since this criticism applies to his own regime as well.

Socialists Today

What does this mean for socialists today? We should always support oppressed peoples’ right to self-determination. But following Lenin’s policy, this only makes sense as part of a working-class program to end capitalism — since only revolution, at the end of the day, will end all forms of oppression and exploitation.

In the hands of the exploiters, the demand for “self-determination” can be abused in all kinds of cynical ways. For example, during the First World War, as the imperialist powers fought to divide the world among themselves, each side claimed that its only goal was to achieve “freedom.” British imperialism was supposedly defending Belgium’s independence. German imperialism, for its part, only wanted to “liberate” peoples subject to czarist rule.

In early 1918, the German Empire imposed a brutal peace treaty on the young Soviet government. This included a German occupation of Ukraine, which would be ruled by a puppet government. Naturally, this was justified as an expression of “self-determination” — and the Germans found bourgeois nationalists willing to rule the country as vassals. The Bolsheviks rejected this logic and instead called for real self-determination on the basis of expelling all foreign troops.

That shows us how we can orient ourselves in the complex geopolitical scenario of today. The U.S. has long pushed to expand NATO right up to Russia’s borders, claiming that this is only about respecting the wishes of the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, some socialists make the same argument and end up aligning themselves with NATO. As a declaration by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International argues,

It is up to the Ukrainian people — and not to blackmail and negotiations between great powers — to decide on their membership or not of NATO.

Yet NATO is nothing but an instrument of blackmail by great powers!

A Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly violates basic democratic principles. But so does trapping the people of Ukraine within imperialist military alliances. Self-determination must apply not only to Ukrainians who desire independence from Russia, but also to those who do not want to submit to the equally corrupt regime in Kyiv.

For the last 30 years, working and poor people in Ukraine have been exploited by corrupt local elites who plunder the country in the interests of their foreign allies — their alliances have shifted back and forth from Russia to the West. Joining NATO will do nothing to end the country’s poverty and its undemocratic regime.

The only way to win real self-determination is to reject all foreign intervention. That does not just apply to military measures — it means nationalizing all imperialist property in Ukraine and putting it under the control of working people, in order to break the chains of dependence. Only the working class, by constituting itself as an independent political force, can implement such a program.

In his speech, Putin attempted some humor. He said Lenin had granted Ukraine independence, “And today the ‘grateful progeny’ has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization.” He continued, “But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.” It means a return to prerevolutionary Russia: Great Russian chauvinism based on pure military might.

But for people in both Ukraine and Russia, Lenin’s policy offers a way out. It does not mean “self-determination” in the service of oligarchs and imperialists. Lenin’s actual program, which was rejected by Stalin, is for the working class to take power in every country, and for all proletarians to form a voluntary union. An independent, socialist, workers’ Ukraine would be a first step to ending chauvinism and war forever.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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