Will Putin succeed where Stalin and Khrushchev failed in Ukraine?

1 July 2022

4:38 PM

1 July 2022

4:38 PM

A few weeks after Putin’s war against Ukraine began on 24 February, an infamous article was published in RIA Novosti, a leading Russian state mouthpiece. Written by Timofey Sergeytsev, it was entitled ‘What Russia should do with Ukraine’ and was full of ideas. These included ‘ideological repression’ and ‘strict censorship’ for their neighbour country, not only in the political sphere but in culture and education as well. The information space (the media) should become Russian, and all school materials containing ‘Nazi’ (i.e. pro-Ukraine) ‘ideologies’ be confiscated. The ‘Nazi’ government should be ‘liquidated’ while those not ‘subject to the death penalty or imprisonment’ for their ‘Nazi’ activities could, to rebuild an infrastructure damaged by the war, be involved in ‘forced labour’. The word ‘Nazi’ appeared in the piece with such numbing frequency, it was like a self-justifying mantra against the whispers of national guilt.

For those who think the columnist had gone rogue or was anything but ‘His Master’s Voice’, one might look at what has happened in occupied areas of the Donbas since. Quite apart from the forced deportations taking place and the conscription of residents into the Russian army, there have been mobile TV units broadcasting Russian propaganda on giant screens, and retraining camps for teachers who will be compelled, as of this autumn, to teach a Russian rather than Ukrainian curriculum. There are rouble salaries for government employees, fast-tracking of Russian-passport applications, and sim cards for mobile phones with a Russian +7 prefix, calls to Russia being seven times cheaper than within Ukraine. These are moves of which Timofey Sergeytsev, dwelling in his Nazi-infested dreamworld, would surely approve.

So, for that matter, might Joseph Stalin, the dictator who ruled the Soviet Empire from Lenin’s death to 1953. Stalin, like Putin, was determined that Ukraine would give up its dreams of independent nationhood and come to heel.

The man he tasked with the job was Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, who died just over 50 years ago and was Stalin’s unlikely successor. It’s impossible to think of Khrushchev without thinking of Ukraine. Born in a Russian village a few miles from the border, he spent his teens and early manhood in the mining parts of the Donbas. He took his first steps in the communist party there too, serving as party secretary for his technical college, and later on the party committee for the town of Yuzovka (now Donetsk). Ukraine was where, in Mafia terms, little Nikita Khrushchev made his Soviet bones.

Yet offered the chance to lead the party there in 1938, Khrushchev was initially reluctant. It was a toxic posting, often the anteroom to doom. His predecessors had met grisly ends and so had members of their families. But Khrushchev’s resistance didn’t last long.

‘Sovietise Ukraine?’ Khrushchev would deliver – he always did. He would do it with a cocked pistol in his hand, bullying, deporting, persecuting, imprisoning, dispatching ‘enemies of the people’ to the next world until the country, something broken in its psyche, fell into line. It would be the most pitiless attitude to man-management, to the shaping of national borders and the ideologies those within them lived under. But Khrushchev’s words on the brutality of the local NKVD police also applied to him. ‘If I don’t do this to others, then others will do it to me. Better I do it than have it done to me,’ he said.

With the new man came a new policy. For the last 20 years in East Ukraine a pendulum had swung between Ukrainianisation and Russification. The first meant promoting Ukraine’s culture and language to keep the region happy under Communist rule. But with Khrushchev’s arrival, the pendulum swung sharply in the other direction. Ukrainian history was rewritten to emphasise the ‘historical and fraternal ties between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.’ The Russian language was hammered home in schools, with Khrushchev thundering against the ‘bourgeois nationalists’, the ‘bastards’ who ‘did everything they could to exterminate the Russian language in Ukraine.’

He had also been sent to purge the Ukrainian communist party of those who Stalin deemed insufficiently pro-Soviet. Here Khrushchev got off to a flying start. All members but one of the Ukrainian politburo were arrested. The entire Ukrainian government was replaced, along with nearly all the Ukrainian Red Army corps. In 1938 alone, over 100,000 people are said to have been sent to jail, with thousands dispatched by shooting. Nationalists were rounded up and the intelligentsia made to fall quickly into line, its leading writers and poets bullied into penning panegyrics to the Great Leader in the Kremlin.

This was in the East of the country – West Ukraine had, until the late thirties, been under Polish rule. But with the Nazi Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939, as Hitler and Stalin divvied up Eastern Europe into their respective ‘zones of influence’, it passed to Soviet control, and Khrushchev had another task to complete. It was, in the words of his biographer William Taubman, ‘to conquer and Sovietise, to expropriate and collectivise, to organise new party and state institutions and make sure they opted ‘voluntarily’ to join the USSR.’

In practice, this meant several things: dodgy elections, sped on by bribery and coercion, to create national assemblies voting ‘unanimously’ for Stalin’s rule. A country swarming with leather-jacketed NKVD officers, to spread terror and compliance. It involved battles with nationalists, landowners, industrialists and priests, the disbanding of Ukrainian educational institutions and the effacement of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Lyes rubiat, shchepki letiat went the Russian proverb: ‘When you chop wood, the splinters fly’, and Khrushchev proved himself a master tree-feller. Visiting a village near Lviv where the NKVD were slacking, Khrushchev carpeted them: ‘You call this work? You haven’t carried out a single execution!’

The words seem to echo down the years over places like Bucha and Irpin, over towns and villages in the Donbas whose names we don’t yet know.

In time, Nikita Khrushchev – fundamentally a warm-hearted man, no matter the times he lived in or the deeds they drove him to – disappointed the Great Leader. Khrushchev in Ukraine showed worrying signs of going native. Returning to a Kyiv liberated from the Nazis in 1944, he bowed his head to the statue of Shevchenko, their national poet. Writers and film-makers were taken under Khrushchev’s wing, defended ferociously by him. In its worst post-war years, he sweated and fretted over feeding Ukraine and, deemed a ‘suspicious element’ by Stalin, risked his own hide to do so. Khrushchev, his granddaughter Nina L. Khrushcheva claimed, would never have supported Putin’s invasion of the country: ‘You can’t bomb a nation into loving you.’ K. had done that but attempted to redeem himself as well.

In 1954, as Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine, setting another cycle in process. Exactly 60 years later in 2014, Putin wrenched it back again, his first step, one might argue, in the war of annexation which has broken out this year. The dreams of RIA journalists aside, it’s just another way Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev left his lasting stamp on the country he tortured and fell in love with, to which he was bound so tightly, and to whom he brought as much bitter suffering as success.

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