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Russia-Ukraine War: How Ukrainians Ruled USSR After Stalin for 31 Years

From Stalin’s death in 1953 till 1991, the USSR was led by Ukrainians for 31 of those 38 years.

Akhil Bakshi
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A bronze statue shows a Russian and a Ukrainian worker joining hands to hold up the Soviet Order of Friendship of People.</p></div>

A bronze statue shows a Russian and a Ukrainian worker joining hands to hold up the Soviet Order of Friendship of People.

(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)


At the top of a hill overlooking the silent Dnieper River as it flows through Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Khreschatyi Park hosts an ensemble of monuments.

A bronze statue shows a Russian and a Ukrainian worker joining hands to hold up the Soviet Order of Friendship of People, an award given to organisations and persons for strengthening “inter-ethnic and international friendship and cooperation for economic, political, scientific, military and cultural development of the Soviet Union”.

A granite stele commemorates the Pereyaslav Council of 1654, at which the Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and other leaders of the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate pledged allegiance to Russia in exchange for protection against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – leading to the eventual Russification of the region that is now Ukraine.

Getting Rid of Monuments

The People’s Friendship Arch, known during the Soviet times as Monument to the Reunification of Ukraine and Russia, was installed in 1982 to celebrate 60 years of the USSR and 1,500 years of Kyiv.

“As now we do not want to have anything to do with Russia, there is a proposal to get rid of these monuments altogether. Bulldoze them into the river! Three years ago, in 2015, we passed laws that ban communist symbols. These monuments will go sooner or later,” said Yulia, guiding me on my walks through Kyiv.

From Stalin’s death in 1953 to the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Union was led by Ukrainians for 31 of those 38 years.

“There is so much bitterness against the Russians – but there were several Ukrainians at the helm of affairs, who sat in Moscow’s Kremlin issuing commands that affected the entire Soviet Union, including the Russian Federation. Like Gorbachev. Why blame just the Russians for all your ills and wrong decisions?” I asked Yulia squeamishly, scratching the back of my head. Yulia lapsed into a bewildered silence before gathering her wits.

“Gorbachev was half Ukrainian – from his mother’s side. His papa was an ethnic Russian. But it is correct that three people who led the Soviet Union after Stalin were Ukrainians: Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko – and they all betrayed us.”

Khrushchev, before he replaced Stalin in 1953, governed Ukraine and was instrumental in implementing Stalin’s purges. After Stalin’s death, he headed the Soviet government for twelve years. People appreciated his fearless de-Stalinisation drives. Ukraine became a powerful republic of the Soviet Union during Khrushchev’s rule.

He brought many of his Ukrainian supporters to Moscow and placed them in powerful positions. Most of the Politburo members were ethnic Ukrainians. In communist party membership, Ukrainians outnumbered all other nationalities and formed the biggest voting bloc. Crimea was transferred from the Russian Federation to the Ukraine Republic. Thousands of Ukrainian nationalists were released from prisons and labour camps in the Gulag.


How Growth Stagnated Under Brezhnev

There was more literary and cultural freedom – and minimal interference from Moscow in Ukraine’s affairs. Many new industries were set up. New hydroelectric projects provided electricity and irrigation. All the people were assured of an apartment with water, gas and toilets. The first non-Russian to go to space was a Ukrainian, Pavlo Popovych.

“But what people did not like about that pig-faced Khrushchev was the revival of the anti-religion campaigns of the Lenin period,” said Yulia, spitting on the grass. Almost 4,000 Orthodox churches were forced to close in Ukraine between 1960 and 1965.

St Michael's Gold-Domed cathedral. Almost 4,000 Orthodox churches were forced to close in Ukraine between 1960 and 1965.

(Photo credit: Akhil Bakshi)

Leonid Brezhnev, another Ukrainian, “a lifeless fellow” according to Yulia, replaced Khrushchev as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and ruled the USSR for 18 years. Though he also filled up the central committees and politburo with Ukrainians – they were only from his part of Ukraine – the Kamianske region. His repressive policies adversely affected Ukrainians and freedom-loving intellectuals. Economic growth stagnated. He did nothing special for Ukraine. In fact, he took away all its gas and sold it to Europe for hard currency. Today, Ukraine is a gas-importing nation.

In 1981, Leonid Brezhnev inaugurated the towering 335-foot-tall statue of Rodina Mat, the nation’s mother, that dominates the skyline of Kyiv. Sculpted with 650 tonnes of steel, Kyivians mockingly refer to her as “Brezhnev’s daughter”. There have been public demands to pull her down and use the metal for more productive purposes.

The statue of Rodina Mat. 

(Photo credit: Akhil Bakshi)

'Gorbachev Considered Himself a Russian'

Chernenko didn’t entangle himself in Ukraine affairs. He died before he could find his feet.

Gorbachev came to power in 1985. “Though he had a Ukrainian mother and learnt our folk songs as a child, he did not long for Ukraine and considered himself a Russian,” remarked Yulia. Gradually, Gorbachev replaced the Ukrainians dominating the central committees with his Russian cronies.

“Despite all the initiatives taken by Russia towards national integration, the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, want to be as far away from them as possible, especially the younger generation,” growled my guide. “We do not want to hug the knife that stabbed us – even if some of the butchers were Soviet Ukrainians.”

Though Putin’s provoked Russia may win the ongoing war, it will never win the ravaged hearts of Ukrainians.

(Akhil Bakshi is the author of Ukraine: A Stolen Nation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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