AN UPDATE (2015) TO “UKRAINE: REVOLUTIONARY NATIONALISM AND THE ANTI-BUREAUCRATIC REVOLUTION”

Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski
Vasyl Kuk

Vasyl Kuk

When the article, Ukraine: Revolutionary Nationalism and the Anti-Bureaucratic Revolution, was written thirty years ago, the Soviet archives were closed for researchers. Many things were still unknown, some of them elementary. For example, the true name of Petro Poltava was not known, at least publicly. We know today that his real name was Petro Fedun and that, when killed, he was 32 years old [1]. This was disclosed only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, post-Soviet archives are largely open and we have access to massive evidence that confirms completely the appreciation of the ideological and programmatic evolution of the Ukrainian nationalist insurgency and underground presented in my article.

But the article inevitably suffered from serious lacunae. I knew neither the first major protagonists of the “revisionist” drive at the end of the war nor a very important “revisionist” event that they had organized in June 1944.

Mykhailo Stepanyak (“Serhiy”) was an anti-Stalinist Marxist and former militant of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine. He joined the OUN during the first annexation of western Ukraine by the Soviet Union (1939-41) and later became a prominent member of its national leadership. In December 1943, he was eliminated from the leadership for his opposition to the political line enforced by the new chairman of the OUN, Roman Shukhevych, and the founder of the UPA and its commander in Volhynia, Dmytro Klyachkivsky (“Klym Savur”). Among other points of disagreement, he opposed the extremely bloody “anti-Polish action” of the Volhynian UPA. Shukhevych ordered that he be deported from Lviv to Volhynia. There he met two members of the national leadership of the OUN, Busel and Kuk.

Yakiv Busel (“Kyivsky”, “Halyna” or “Dniprovy”) was the deputy leader of the OUN in Volhynia and, on the wave of the mass upsurge in the region, he promoted and theorized a radical revision of the program and strategy of the nationalist movement. He elaborated on the idea of building a classless society. He authored a fundamental work entitled Problems of Our Liberation [2]. Vasyl Kuk (“Lemish”) occupied a very similar stance. Earlier, under the Nazi occupation, he led the nationalist underground in southeastern Ukraine and learned there social realities that had been molded both by the October Revolution and by Stalinist bureaucratic rule. Being under strong influence exerted upon him by these realities and the aspirations of the masses, especially the young and strong working class formed during the Stalinist industrialization, he took the initiative for revision of the program at the extraordinary congress of the OUN held in August 1943. But in fact the new program existed only on paper.

In June 1944, the front line of the war divided the forces of the nationalist insurgency. One section, including Shukhevych, remained on the German side of the front, while another section, including Stepanyak, Busel and Kuk, stayed on the Soviet side. It was at this moment that the latter decided to replace the OUN with a new political organization. They held a conference with several other nationalist leaders and declared the foundation of the People’s Liberation Revolutionary Organization (NVRO) [3]. Their project, elaborated by Stepanyak in the document, In the New Reality [4], was extraordinary ambitious. The NVRO should be built and operate not only in Ukraine, but on the scale of the whole Soviet Union, with the goal of preparing and lead an anti-imperialist and social revolution. Such a revolution should be launched together by the oppressed nationalities and the popular masses of all nationalities, including the Russian ones, under the leadership of the Soviet multinational working class.

Stepanyak, the main political brain of the project, was captured by the Soviet security forces immediately after the conference. The NVRO – in fact, the OUN under the new name and under the leadership of Kuk and Busel– functioned in some parts of Volhynia during several months. There was a serious danger of a split of the nationalist movement and even of an armed conflict between factions. The political crisis provoked a bloody spy-mania purge by the Security Service of the OUN that was under the control of the far right. But finally, at a meeting of the leadership of the OUN, Kuk and Busel agreed with Shukhevych to arrive at a compromise: maintain unity, dissolve the NVRO and open the OUN to an ideological and programmatic revision. [5]

Busel was killed by the Soviet security forces in September 1945. Kuk and Shukhevych mistrusted each other and, in fact, led inside the nationalist underground two different networks. Yet Kuk became in the post-war years the deputy of Shukhevych, while Shukhevych accepted progressively the “revisionist” course promoted by Kuk and theorized now by the young generation of nationalist thinkers, led by Poltava and Hornovy. In some sectors of the underground, leaders formed in the old school of far-right “integral nationalism” tried to resist that course. This was, especially, the case of Vasyl Sydor (“Shelest”), leader of the OUN in the Carpathian country [6]. But since the second half of 1947, a strong ideological offensive waged by Poltava and Hornovy with the support of both Kuk and Shukhevych marginalized this resistance.

After the death of Shukhevych, killed by the Soviet security forces in March 1950, Kuk took the central leadership of the underground in his own hands. Supported by Poltava and Hornovy, he engaged in a sharp ideological struggle with the “integral nationalist” positions of the Foreign Sections of the OUN (ZCh OUN), led by Stepan Bandera. Another sector of the OUN abroad, concentrated around the Foreign Representation of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council (ZP UHVR), declared its support for the “revisionist” course. Kuk was captured in May 1954. The date of his capture is conventionally considered to be the end of the armed nationalist underground in Ukraine. Stalin was dead and something changed in Soviet Ukraine. Kuk was not shot. After six years of imprisonment, he was released in 1960. Stepanyak was released in 1961, after spending seventeen years in prisons and Gulag camps. He died in 1967 at the age of 62. Kuk died in independent Ukraine in 2007, at the age of 96.

The correspondence that was commented on in my article between the group of Ukrainian diasporan Marxists, represented by Ivan Majstrenko and Vsevolod Holubnychy, and Poltava and other leaders of the nationalist underground in Ukraine, was at that time only partially known. The full correspondence between them was finally revealed in 2013, in the second volume of Poltava’s works, which included newly-found letters and other materials whose authorship was verified. They were edited by the Ukrainian historian, Mykhailo Romanyuk, and published by the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine under the title, The Conception of Independent Ukraine [7].

A year before the fall of Poltava in battle, Holubnychy explained in the American socialist journal, Labor Action (January 29, 1951): both sides of this correspondence “have the same political program but there are ideological and theoretical differences. Poltava, as a nationalist, strictly rejects Marxist socialism, although he accepts the political program of the classless society based on the socialization of the means of production and political democracy, rejects all the imperialisms, and considers that the classless society must be built all over the world through the abolition of capitalism and private property.”

On the other side, Holubnychy continued, Majstrenko “asks how his acceptance of this program squares with his rejection of Marxism, the program itself being precisely the Marxist program. Poltava replies that this program came out of the practical reality of conditions in the USSR and not from any political theory or doctrine. He adds that he rejects Marxism because, he claims, it underestimated and failed to solve the problem of nationalities.” In any case, Holubnychy concluded, “the nationalists are compelled by the real conditions in [the Soviet Union] to accept the program of the revolutionary socialism”. [8]

More than 60 years later, it remains still to be explained why they were compelled by the real conditions there to adopt a program like the one they adopted. It is not an easy task, because the real conditions were in some way very disfavourable. In the first place, we must take into consideration the fact that they waged their struggle in western Ukraine, only recently annexed by the Soviet Union and deeply underdeveloped, with a very small and weak working class. Moreover, they were an essentially petit bourgeois movement based on a peasantry that desperately defended their private property against the forced collectivization. The armed underground assisted them very actively in this resistance. Also requiring explanation is when and why the real conditions in the Soviet Union ceased to compel those who fought the Soviet regime to adopt such a program. Those who study the evolution of the USSR but do not know the experience of the Ukrainian nationalist underground, never imagine that this experience poses such an essential question that should be responded to in their studies, but is not.

Edited by Andrew Pollack

[1] At the moment of his death one year earlier, Osyp Diakiv (“Hornovy”) was 29 years old.

[2] “Problemy nashoho vyzvolennya”, Propahandyst, No. 2, 1945.

[3] The NVRO documents discovered in former Soviet archives are published in Litopys UPA. Nova seriya, Vol. 8, Kiev – Toronto, Litopys UPA, 2006, pp. 187-224. There is also an anonymous and unpublished report on the history of the NVRO, NVRO (Narodno-Vyzvolna Revolyutsiyna Orhanizatsiya), in the Sectoral State Archive of Security Service of Ukraine, HDA SBU – F. 13. Spr. 372. – T. 3.

[4] It is still unpublished and should not be confounded with its very shortened and sterilized or censored version that was published after Stepanyak’s capture, under the pseudonym Serhiy Dmytriv, in the central organ of the OUN, Ideia i Chyn, No. 8, 1945. See the full version V noviy diysnosti, in the Sectoral State Archive of Security Service of Ukraine, HDA SBU – F. 13. – Spr. 376. – T. 6., and in the Archive of the Centre for Research on the Liberation Movement, ATsDVR – F. 9. – T. 47.

[5] Minutes of this meeting are published by V. Dzyobak, Konflikty v OUN (B) i yikh vplyv na ukrayinskiy Rukh Oporu (1941-1944 rr.), Kiev, Infotsentr, 2005, pp. 167-266.

[6] See the exchange of letters between Shelest and Poltava, in P. Fedun – “Poltava”, Kontseptsiya samostiynoy Ukrayiny, Vol. 2, Lviv, NAN Ukrayiny. Instytut Ukrayinoznavstva im. I. Krypyakevycha – Tsentr Nezalezhnykh Istorychnykh Studiy, 2013, pp. 63-65, 81-85.

[7] Ibid., pp. 105-120, 157-162, 188-200.

[8] Labor Action. Independent Socialist Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 5, 1951. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/laboraction-ny/1951/v15n05-jan-29-1951-LA.pdf

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