A Gathering Cloud: Ukraine under the Soviets

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Author: Philip Wolny
Date: 2018
Holodomor: The Ukrainian Famine-Genocide
Publisher: The Rosen Publishing Group
Series: Bearing Witness: Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 3)

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A Gathering Cloud: Ukraine under the Soviets

The 1930s was a time of great change all over the world. Many nations, including the United States, were dealing with the effects of the great stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression it caused. However, few nations had changed as much in the previous ten years as the Soviet Union.


The Russian Empire had been a major power for centuries. Throughout the nineteenth century, movements arose to try to change the oppressive imperial government led by the Russian rulers, known as the tsars. At the turn of the twentieth century, new political movements like communism and various revolutionary groups fiercely opposed the last tsar, Nicholas II, as well as the tsarist system of government itself. Their support grew because shortages of food and supplies, government repression, and Russian involvement in World Page 8  |  Top of ArticleWar I angered many citizens, including the many poor and struggling peasants.

The Communist revolutionary Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), leader of Russia and then the Soviet Union through 1924, is shown here in Moscows Red Square during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Communist revolutionary Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), leader of Russia and then the Soviet Union through 1924, is shown here in Moscow's Red Square during the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Together the revolutionaries—including the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandr Kerensky—overthrew Nicholas and formed a provisional, or temporary, government. Months later, during what became known as the October Revolution, Lenin and his Bolsheviks won the power struggle Page 9  |  Top of Articleto decide the nation's future direction. The new state was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), sometimes called the Soviet Union for short. The Soviets instituted a communist system of rule. This included a very powerful central government, with themselves as the sole political party.

In 1924, one of Lenin's top lieutenants and allies, Joseph Stalin, came to power. After a struggle, he emerged as the absolute leader of the nation by the late 1920s, as general secretary of the Communist Party. The Soviet Union was a young country and Stalin wanted to modernize its agricultural and industrial sectors quickly.

The Communists also had drastic changes in mind as to how property, land, and factories would be distributed and controlled. Lenin, Stalin, and many of their followers believed that in the ideal society, property and the means of production should be owned and controlled by workers themselves.

Remaking society depended on a vanguard—disciplined revolutionary soldiers and leaders who would pave the way to a brighter future by providing common workers with the understanding and guidance they needed to mobilize. Their aims included transferring ownership of factories to the government itself. Huge agricultural estates and farms became cooperatives, theoretically owned by the peasants, who worked for themselves. These were ambitious plans, and they caused great tension and confusion, especially because they were rolled out so quickly and throughout so much of Soviet society. Not everyone was on board.

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The Bolsheviks had fought collectively to overthrow the oppressive power of the tsar and the imperial system with the stated intention of freeing the common man. But the nation that Stalin would head would become one of the least free in modern history. Much of his rule included purges, which featured mass murders, arrests, and the exile and imprisonment of his political opponents, or simply those he and his supporters suspected might turn against them in the future. The purges raged on and off for much of Stalin's reign.

Stalin was the dictator and unquestioned leader of this totalitarian state. Any criticism or disobedience could mean punishment or even death. Statues and images of Stalin and other Communists filled public spaces and often people's private homes. The state secret police, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), seemed to be everywhere, and it watched closely to make sure people stayed loyal.

The Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn related one legend demonstrating the fear that reigned during the Stalinist era in his book The Gulag Archipelago. He described a political rally in a paper factory. The speakers called for a tribute to Stalin. Everyone began applauding. But rather than ending after a short while, it went on and on. No one wanted to be the first one to stop applauding. They knew that NKVD agents were likely deployed and watching for those who displayed insufficient enthusiasm. Solzhenitsyn wrote,

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat … The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested.”

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One force threatening the wishes and plans of Stalin and his Central Committee was Ukrainian nationalism. Many individuals and groups within Soviet territories resisted the new changes, some of them even violently. They thought their freedoms were being taken away and resented the central command of authorities in faraway Moscow, the Soviet capital. Such feelings were especially prevalent among Ukrainians, who cherished their national identity. Many of them came to think of the Soviets as simply the newest version of the Russian Empire, which had ruled over them for many years.

The fertile plenty of the Ukrainian landscape is depicted here in this 1880 oil painting by Vladimir Orlovsky, entitled Harvest in the Ukraine. The fertile plenty of the Ukrainian landscape is depicted here in this 1880 oil painting by Vladimir Orlovsky, entitled Harvest in the Ukraine.

Page 12  |  Top of ArticleThe relationship between Russia and Ukraine had been complicated for a long time. After the Soviet Union replaced the Russian Empire, the Soviets hoped to win acceptance for their rule by giving the nations that comprised the USSR certain freedoms. At the same time, they actively pushed the rapid growth of Communist Party rule throughout all the villages, towns, and regions under their control.

Therefore, the Soviets did something that few other states with many ethnic groups and nationalities had done before. They promoted national consciousness in many territories, encouraged the use of national languages, and promoted regional cultures. They did all of this, of course, while also imposing Communist power structures on local citizens. It was an experiment that Stalin himself pushed during his first years in power. The Soviet approach felt like a big improvement over the oppression that many of the Soviet Union's ethnic groups had faced when Imperial Russia ruled.


To best execute their plans, the Soviets needed to single out a group that other people could easily blame for their troubles. In Russia and Ukraine alike, the Soviet authorities grouped rural farmers into three categories: the poor peasants, the middle-income peasants, and the kulaks. This last group was a class of middle-class or wealthier landowning peasants who had gotten some more property and livestock due to reforms that had been passed a couple of decades earlier.

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This Soviet propaganda poster from 1920 shows a Russian peasant hoisting up a book labeled cooperation to smash a rodent and caterpillar labeled, respectively, private trade and Kulak parasite. This Soviet propaganda poster from 1920 shows a Russian peasant hoisting up a book labeled “cooperation” to smash a rodent and caterpillar labeled, respectively, “private trade” and “Kulak parasite.”

Page 14  |  Top of ArticleAt first, the kulaks who faced the worst abuse from the Communists were the ones who had resisted the Bolsheviks during the revolutionary era. Throughout the 1920s, many others had their land, property, and livestock confiscated. Laws were passed making it harder for kulaks to earn money. Many were forced to leave their villages. Others were persecuted, put on trial for sabotage or for hiding food or livestock from those who were charged with confiscating it. Those who remained could not vote, participate in politics, obtain loans or other economic benefits, or enroll their children in colleges or trade schools.

Nearly all historical episodes of genocide or ethnic cleansing begin with one group being singled out, dehumanized, and scapegoated. For Germans angry about the economic collapse after their nation's loss in World War I, the Jews became the easiest group to blame for their troubles. The Soviets' own authoritarianism was partly based on their own particular political views. In their most extreme forms, these included hatred for capitalists, owners, and even the moderately well off, whom they blamed for the exploitation of workers and peasants. The kulaks were an unsurprising choice of scapegoat.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7526400006