Chronology of Soviet Ukraine: 1921-1991

Famine, Terror and War

1921: With most of Ukraine now attached to Russia, central Russia, the Volga regions and all of Ukraine are hit by drought and famine. The Bolshevik government turns to other countries for help, and when the famine reaches its peak, the United States supplies provisions for 11 million people. Soviet officials meanwhile cynically sell grain on foreign markets. The final death toll of the 1921-1922 famine is about 5 million, over 1.5 million of them in Ukraine. Peasant rebellions are put down by Bolshevik artillery.

1922: Churches in Ukraine are ransacked and their holy relics desecrated. The USSR consists of 4 republics: RSFSR, Ukraine, Belorussia and Transcaucasia. These make bilateral agreements with the Russian Communist Party. Lenin knows that Stalin wants all four incorporated into Russia, so he proposes a federation of four free republics that would enjoy the right to leave the federation. The formation of the USSR is then proclaimed, and Ukrainians formally receive rights they have not enjoyed since the time of the Cossack state in the 18th century. But these constitutional rights are worthless in practice. In reality, centralized one-party rule from Moscow is about to become more repressive than anyone alive has ever imagined.

1924: Lenin dies, and Moscow’s control over the USSR’s constituent republics weakens. Stalin has labeled Ukraine “the weak link of Soviet power,” and he dispatches Lazar Kaganovich to Ukraine to head a campaign of “Ukrainianization” of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Eighty percent of Ukrainian intellectuals are sent to prison camps and die there. The repression is carried out concurrently with a policy of raising Ukrainian national consciousness within a Soviet centralized, hierarchical system. Ukraine has transformed into a proper nation, but the Soviet campaign of eliminating Ukrainian national elites replaces the drive toward nation-statehood with ersatz “Soviet” nationhood.

1927: A 5-year plan proclaims accelerated industrialization. Its biggest initiative is the development of the Donbas (Don Basin) coal deposits: Zaporizhia Iron & Steel Complex, Kharkiv Tractor Factory. The flagship industrialization project is Dneprogres, the largest hydroelectric power plant in Europe. Parallel to industrialization, a process of urbanization is gaining momentum. The USSR’s main export is grain, and Ukraine is the main supplier. When the wildly overestimated quotas of grain harvests are unfulfilled, Stalin introduces mandatory collectivization and requisitioning of crops.

Lazar Kaganovich, Joseph Stalin, Pavel Postyshev and Kliment Voroshilov in 1934 (Photo: PD-US)

Lazar Kaganovich, Joseph Stalin, Pavel Postyshev and Kliment Voroshilov in 1934 (Photo: PD-US)

1930: The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) carries out large-scale sabotage in Galicia involving about 20 arson attacks, along with railroad demolitions and attacks on power networks. Poland sends regular troops to Galicia and carries out mass arrests and corporal punishments. The OUN responds with terrorism, and mutual hostility and violence between Poles and Ukrainians escalates.

Resistance to collectivization proves more fierce in Ukraine than in any other Soviet republic. An eyewitness account is given in the 1950 memoir, I Chose Justice, by the Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko:

In 1930, in the Dniepropetrovsk region … thousands of peasants armed with hunting rifles, axes, and pitchforks revolted against the regime … NKVD units were sent. For three days … a bloody battle was waged between the revolting people and the authorities … Thousands of peasants, workers, soldiers, and officers paid for the attempt with their lives, while the survivors were deported to concentration camps. In the villages of Ternovka and Boganovka … mass executions were carried out near the balkis (ravines). The soil of this region was soaked in blood. After the executions, these villages were set on fire.

NKVD load the corpses of famine victims onto a train

NKVD load the corpses of famine victims onto a train

1932: Over 200,000 of the most efficient and successful farmers together with their families are exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, some of them to camps. The Soviet militias and army requisition about half the grain for the following year’s sowing. At the same time, southern Ukraine is struck by another devastating drought. The ensuing famine reaches the point of cannibalism. This time, no aid arrives from abroad, as the Soviet regime carefully conceals the famine in Ukraine from the rest of the world.


Pavel Postyshev: Spearhead of Famine

Post-rehabilitation Soviet stamp of Postyshev showing incorrect year of death

Post-rehabilitation Soviet stamp of Postyshev showing incorrect year of death

In early 1933, Stalin appointed Pavel Postyshev as the No. 2 man in the Ukrainian Communist Party and sent him to Kyiv. Though nominally subordinate to the party chief, Stanislav Kosior, Postyshev held real power due to his appointment by Stalin. When Postyshev arrived in Ukraine, he accused the local Communists of insufficient Bolshevik zeal in implementing collectivization after Stalin increased quotas for grain delivery. He – together with Soviet Politburo members Lazar Kaganovich and Vyacheslav Molotov – took charge of implementing collectivization directly. Postyshev and his gang went around the Ukrainian countryside rooting out every last store of grain in houses and villages, thus accelerating the famine. Years later, in 1938, as head of the Kuybishev (now Samara) Communist Party Central Committee, Postyshev was carrying out Stalin’s ‘Great Purge,’ hunting down Communist Party officials accused of being secret agents of exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, when suddenly he was denounced by a fellow Communist, who feared he might become a victim of Postyshev’s campaign against ‘enemies of the people.’ Postyshev was arrested that year and shot in February 1939. Also shot that month after arrest and extensive torture was Postyshev’s former boss in Ukraine, Stanislav Kosior, who at the time of his arrest was a deputy prime minister of the USSR. Postyshev and Kosior were both posthumously rehabilitated during Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization in the 1950s, but in 2010, a Ukrainian court posthumously indicted both officials, along with Kaganovich, Molotov, Stalin and a number of others for having organized the man-made famine of 1932-33.


Peasants dying of starvation on the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1933

Victims of starvation on the streets of Kharkiv, 1933

While the whole region starves, the Soviet press dwells on famines in China and Germany. Westerners are shown model farms and Potemkin villages. A moderate estimate of the number who died as a result of the famine of 1932-33 is 4.5 million. The figure of six million dead in Ukraine alone is often cited in histories. The famine is known as the ‘Holodomor’ in Ukraine and represents a key historical event in Ukraine’s national consciousness.

1933: Stepan Bandera becomes the leader of the OUN in Poland and organizes two impressive assassinations: (1) the Soviet attache in the Consulate in Lviv; and (2) Polish Minister of Internal Affairs Bronislaw Pieracki, who has directed the pacification of Galicia. Poland then renounces the agreement on the protection of ethnic minorities, and a detention center is set up in Bereza Kartuska (today Biaroza in Belarus) to hold Polish opposition members with Ukrainian activists.

While the emergence of Bandera as the most prominent leader of the Ukrainian nationalists signifies a hardening of the line against Poland, it is also a symptom of reaction to the atrocity and suffering in Ukraine at the hands of the Soviet authorities. Bandera, a hardline anti-Communist, makes independence from Soviet totalitarianism ultimately becomes a priority that supersedes freedom from authoritarian Poland.

Stepan Bandera

Stepan Bandera

1935: The name of the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk is changed to ‘Voroshilovgrad,’ after People’s Commissar of Defense Kliment Voroshilov, a close Stalin ally and military mediocrity who has proven incompetent as a political officer in the war with Poland in 1920. As a ‘Marshal of the Soviet Union’ (the highest military rank available in the USSR), Voroshilov will play a central role in Stalin’s ‘Great Purge,’ denouncing many of his military colleagues at Stalin’s request. He will also write personal letters to exiled former Soviet officers and diplomats asking them to return to the Soviet Union, and assuring them that they will not face retribution. When they return, they are imprisoned or executed. Over the course of his career, Voroshilov will personally have signed 185 documented execution lists, ranking 4th among the Soviet leadership after Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin and Lazar Kaganovich.

1937: A wave of purges lasting two years sweeps the USSR, and Ukraine suffers a repeat of the liquidation of the intelligentsia that has occurred in 1933. Over six million people are exiled to the already powerful GULAG (Main Directorate of Camps). About half a million are executed. Mass graves will continue to be discovered in Ukraine long after the collapse of the USSR. The Ukrainian village loses its traditional aspect and character, and becomes collectivized and apathetic, never to be revived.

Map of Soviet concentration camps in the GULAG system (1929-61)

Map of Soviet concentration camps in the GULAG system (1929-61)

Poland initiates a policy of forced Polonization, closing the Ukrainian language department at Lviv University. The long-promised Ukrainian university never opens. Although the 5 million-strong Ukrainian community is the largest ethnic minority in Poland, almost 90% of Ukrainians live in villages. The Polish government begins allotting plots of land to Polish officers and soldiers in Galicia and Volhynia, further exacerbating Polish-Ukrainian ethnic tension.

Ukrainians resist Polonization, both legally and in conspiracy. Legally, they establish a goal of autonomy. Among the political parties, the most influential is the UNDO (Ukrainian National Democratic Organization). There are a large number of social organizations as well: the Union of Ukrainian Women, the Prosvyta societies, private schools and gymnasia teaching the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian journals and papers are published. A powerful cooperative movement develops, incorporating over 600,000 members.

Legally recognized parties and organizations achieve undeniable successes. UNDO introduces a number of deputies to the Polish parliament, and its leader becomes vice speaker. But, the main determinant of Polish-Ukrainian relations is the Ukrainian nationalists, acting in conspiracy. The Ukrainian Sich Riflemen organize the first nationalist-conspiratorial organization. The Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) is formed in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Headed by Yevhen Konovalets, it focuses on assassinations.

Dmytro Dontsov

Dmytro Dontsov

Its targets are Poles and Ukrainians who want to reconcile with the Poles. Its main ideologist is Dmytro Dontsov, who edits the weekly Vistnik, published in Lviv. Dontsov lays blames the democrats and socialists for the defeat of the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-20. He rejects democracy. All occupying powers are treated as enemies. Dontsov’s ideas prove very appealing to young people and lay the foundation for the progress of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which incorporates UVO.

1938: 200,000 Polish settlers have acquired the best land in Galicia and Volhynia. Two hundred Orthodox churches are destroyed in eastern Poland, and 150 are handed over to the Catholics. Even those who have advocated a policy of mutual understanding begin to believe that nothing but a new war can give freedom to Ukrainians.

The state that has been most seeking change in the European order is Germany. For years, the Ukrainian nationalists have been cooperating with German military intelligence thinking the Germans will help Ukrainians create their own free state in any future conflict. Some Ukrainians view Hitler, an enemy of both Poland and the USSR, as a natural ally.

When Great Britain and France sign the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany to partition Czechoslovakia, the weakened government in Prague acknowledges the autonomy of Transcarpathian Ukraine, and Avgustyn Voloshyn is made its prime minister. But Hitler has different plans, and transfers Transcarpathian Ukraine to Hungary. Hardly has the Voloshyn government proclaimed the independence of a new state when Hungarian troops occupy the whole territory.

Andriy Melnyk, a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN)

Andriy Melnyk

The fall of Carpathian Rus becomes one of the reasons for the split of the OUN into 2 factions: Andriy Melnyk’s (OUN-M) and Stepan Bandera’s (OUN-B). The Melnykites continue to believe Ukraine’s independence can only be achieved with the help of the Germans. The Banderists believe independence to be a purely Ukrainian cause. They do not completely exclude German support, but they consider themselves equal partners of Germany. Both the Melnykites and the Banderists prove deluded.

1939: Nazi Germany invades Poland and WWII breaks out. The Red Army occupies the eastern territories of Poland, fulfilling the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet invasion is carried out under the pretext of liberating fraternal Ukraine and the Belorussian people from bourgeois Poland. Many Ukrainians welcome this at first. The new power parcels out community and church estates, and also slows unemployment. Ukrainian museums, theaters, libraries and universities open. But elections to the People’s Assembly are conducted under the surveillance of the Red Army, and undesirable candidates are prevented from standing. The Assembly is elected in such a fashion and claims to be the voice of a liberated people. It officially approves the annexation of western Ukraine by the Ukrainian SSR, and the authorities soon embark on collectivization. When it becomes apparent that the Soviet government is arresting and deporting not only Poles but also Ukrainian intelligentsia and Greek Catholic clergy, the attitude begins to change. Pro-German moods are awakened in Galicia.

1940: The industrial potential of Ukraine is equal to France’s. However, one-third of its income is consumed by Moscow.

1941: Hitler attacks the USSR. Hurriedly leaving western Ukraine, Soviet security forces kill thousands of prisoners, leaving proof of enormous atrocities. Citizens of Lviv greet German soldiers cordially. The Nachtigall (Nightingale) Battalion is established under the auspices of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and is composed almost entirely of Banderists. Under the protection of that battalion, nationalists proclaim an independent Ukrainian state.

Yaroslav Stetsko

Yaroslav Stetsko

Yaroslav Stetsko (Bandera’s deputy) is appointed prime minister of the government. The Germans react instantly by arresting Bandera, Stetsko and other Ukrainian leaders, and transferring them to Berlin. The Governorate General annexes Galicia, and Germany quickly turns the area into a Germany colony, not an allied state. The military units of Melnykites and Banderists are soon arrested as well, and many are shot. The same fate comes to other Ukrainian nationalists. Those who survive the war are sent to Stalin’s concentration camps.


The NKVD in Odessa

The Soviet state mythologized the role of its troops in the Second World War and belittled those of its allies. Indeed, the Soviet Union lost many times more soldiers and civilians in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (as it came to be known in Soviet parlance) than the United States and Great Britain combined. But the relative losses were due less to heroism than to incompetence, Stalin’s destruction of the Soviet officer corps, and the state’s failure to equip the Red Army to confront Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

The same sort of mythology arose within the Soviet secret police about WWII, with NKVD bravery and prowess behind enemy lines highly praised in official histories. In fact, the NKVD’s wartime record – in the words of Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin in their history of the Soviet security services, The Sword and the Shield – ‘was extensively doctored,’ and nowhere more than in the Nazi-occupied Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa during its 907-day siege by enemy forces.

Vladimir Molodtsov

Vladimir Molodtsov

An NKVD detachment was sent from Moscow to Odessa shortly before the city’s capture by the Germans in October 1941 with orders to establish an underground residency for reconnaissance, sabotage and special missions behind enemy lines. It based itself in a labyrinth of underground tunnels. But when the Odessa NKVD functionaries joined the underground residency, fights broke out almost immediately between the two units. When the commander, Captain Vladimir Molodtsov, was captured and executed by the Germans, the senior officer among the Odessans – Lieutenant V. A. Kuznetsov – took over, disarmed Molodtsov’s detachment, and ordered all but one executed for conspiracy. Over the next several months, the Odessans began to fall out among themselves as food and kerosene started to run out. Kuznetsov shot three of his men for stealing food, and a month later the lone survivor of the Muscovite NKVD – a man named Abramov – killed Kuznetsov.

Once occupation forces had killed all but three of the surviving NKVD agents, two of them – Abramov and Glushchenko – killed the other. Abramov then attempted to convince Glushchenko that they should surrender to the Germans. According to the archive on which Andrew and Mitrokhin’s book is based, Glushchenko – ‘apparently suffering from hallucinations’ – wrote that he had killed Abramov by shooting him in the back of the head. Glushchenko abandoned the underground base in November 1943 and, after the city’s liberation in 1945, returned with fellow NKVD to retrieve materials. But he was killed when a grenade he picked up went off in his hands.

Vladimir Molodtsov monument in Ryazan, Russia

Vladimir Molodtsov monument in Ryazan, Russia

Abramov was discovered in 1963 to be living in France. When this news reached her superiors, Abramov’s would-be widow – now working for the KGB’s foreign intelligence – was quietly transferred to another job.

Inside the Museum of Partisan Glory, Odessa

Inside the Museum of Partisan Glory, Odessa

In the words of Andrew and Mitrokhin: ‘The myth of the NKVD heroes of the Odessa catacombs was left undisturbed.’ Part of the catacombs was opened in 1969 as the ‘Museum of Partisan Glory.’ Captain Molodtsov, ‘was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union and suffered the indignity of having his whole life transformed into that of a Stalinist plaster saint.’


Kyiv falls to German forces later in the year, and the Germans occupy nearly all of Ukraine. 33,000 Jews are shot in Babi Yar in two days. In 50 ghettos and 180 concentration camps, almost the entire Jewish population is exterminated. Other executions at Babi Yar consist of POWs, intellectuals, communists, nationalists and random people detained at round-ups. The Germans seize agricultural produce, iron ore and coal and transport it back to Germany. The population of Kiev decreases by 60%.

By the end of 1941, the critical situation at the front forces Stalin to impose a new strategy involving the organization of mass partisan warfare.

1942: The Gestapo, having failed to convince Bandera to rescind the Ukrainian declaration of independence, transfers him, Stetsko and Lev Rebet (another nationalist leader) to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they are put in special barracks for political prisoners. They remain there until almost the end of the war.

Soviet partisan detachments start infiltrating Volhynia. They commit acts of sabotage and resistance, then disappear, condemning local people to acts of retribution by the Nazis. The local Banderists set up self-defense units against both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis. The leader of the OUN decides to form underground military units. Roman Shukhevych (alias Taras Chuprinka), a former Nachtigall Battalion officer, creates a well-organized partisan army. He too accepts the name of ‘Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ (UPA), which becomes the armed unit of the Banderist faction of the OUN. It controls a considerable part of Volhynia, and later of Galicia.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army Gen. Roman Shukhevych in 1943 (Photo: PD-US)

Roman Shukhevych

In the first clashes between Ukrainian partisans (trying to establish an independent state) and Poles (trying to reestablish Poland’s prewar borders), civilians are killed. In Khelm region, the Polish underground kills scores of Ukrainian activists connected with the OUN. In return, the Banderists kill Poles who are cooperating with the Polish Home Army. Before the war, Volhynia has been part of Poland and mostly populated by Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. The Nazis exterminate the Jews, and the conflict divides the Ukrainian and Polish partisans. The UPA is fighting for an independent Ukraine while the Polish Home Army seeks to reestablish the prewar borders of Poland. Both the Nazi and Soviet forces often resort to provocations to further sow divisions between Poles and Ukrainians.

1943: Strong units of the UPA lead long raids through western Ukraine, from the Belorussian forests to the Carpathians in Volhynia. The Nazi defeat at Stalingrad allows both factions of the OUN to conclude that Germany will be defeated in the war, at the same time leaving the USSR exhausted. A strong national army will create an independent state and delineate its borders. Both OUN factions choose their own course of action.

Huge losses on the Eastern Front induce the Nazis to look for additional manpower and to form “national volunteer units” within the framework of the German armed forces. The “Ukrainian Division – SS Galicia” is formed with OUN Melnykites. The Melnykites plan this division as the core of a Ukrainian army, which will fight for the independence of Ukraine after the defeat of Germany. The Banderists view this tactic as collaboration.

Several thousand Ukrainian policemen, hardened by their role in the massacre of Jews, quit German ranks and join the UPA. Dmytro Klachkyvsky (alias Klim Samur), the UPA leader in Volhyn, decides to use his experience to mop up the area of Poles. Units of the Volhyn UPA begin carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Polish population, killing men, women and children by the thousands.

Dmytro Klyachkivsky (alias Klim Samur), the UPA leader in Volhyn

Dmytro Klyachkivsky (alias Klim Samur)

Stalin plays the Ukrainian card more skillfully than Hitler. He appeals to the patriotic feelings of Ukrainians. The name “Ukrainian” is awarded to as many as 4 southern fronts. The Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky is introduced, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense are established in Ukraine. Radio announces the formation of a sovereign nation-state: the Ukrainian SSR.

Stalin in World War Two

Stalin in WWII

In September, the Red Army approaches the Dnipro River. Stalin regards those who have fallen under German occupation as potential traitors, and all men aged 18-50 are mobilized and sent to forward battle lines as cannon fodder without training. During an assault crossing of the Dnipro, Soviet forces again suffer unjustifiably enormous losses.

1944: In its first battle, at Brody in July, the SS Galicia Division is crushed by the Red Army.

Poles massacre the inhabitants of Ukrainian villages in the Khelm region, killing many thousands of Ukrainians, including women and children. The Volhyn massacre casts a dark shadow on the history of the UPA.

In September, Bandera is released from Sachsenhausen and encouraged by the Nazis to incite anti-Soviet rebellion in Galicia and other parts of Ukraine. Bandera establishes headquarters in Berlin. The UPA and OUN-B are supplied with arms and equipment by the Third Reich.

1945: 2.3 million ostarbeiters are Ukrainians.

By the end of WWII, two hundred towns and almost 28,000 villages have been destroyed in Ukraine. Almost 5.5 million civilians are dead. The soldiers of the UPA, owing to the support of the local population, wage a guerrilla war with Soviet power until the early 1950s.

At the victory parade in Moscow, the heroes of the four Ukrainian fronts march across Red Square in Moscow. 1.5 million out of 6 million Ukrainians fighting in the Soviet army are killed.

Stalin introduces Ukraine to the UN with the status of a founding member. The territories that belonged to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania before WWII appear within the borders of the USSR, which means that Ukraine is now “united” under Stalinist tyranny.

United Under Soviet Power

March 1946: An operation conducted by the Soviet secret police (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD), which implemented the terror-famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, recruits priests to do Stalin’s bidding. A group of clerics announce that they are breaking their ties with the Roman Catholic Church, and that all who do not obey their order to return to Orthodoxy will be branded as heretics. Ukrainian ostarbeiters from Germany are put in camps of the Soviet GULAG (the Main Directorate of Camps).

1947: The Communist government of Poland uproots 150,000 Ukrainians and moves them to northern and western Poland. The elite among these Ukrainians are interned in a concentration camp in the new People’s Republic of Poland.


Anti-Soviet Resistance in Postwar Ukraine

NTS propaganda leaflet: 'Down with Communist rule!'

NTS propaganda leaflet: ‘Down with Communist Rule!’

After WWII, Ukraine remained the center of resistance to Soviet rule, and thus a key focus of Stalin’s attention. US and British intelligence attempted to assist anti-Soviet movements within Ukraine, but by the time they began operations in 1949, resistance had already been effectively crushed. The Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB – successor to the NKGB and predecessor of the KGB) had already infiltrated Ukrainian emigre groups, including a social-democratic organization favored by the CIA called the National Labor Alliance (NTS), and all agents parachuted into Ukraine in 1949 were captured. As Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky note in their history KGB: The Inside Story: ‘One of [the MGB’s] most successful agents was a Soviet army officer who defected to the West in November 1949 in order to live with his German mistress. He was tracked down in West Germany by the MGB, which used threats to his family in the Soviet Union to recruit him as an agent. On MGB instructions, he joined the NTS, soon becoming both an instructor at the NTS school for agents infiltrated into the Ukraine and a consultant to U.S. military intelligence. He was eventually discovered after Moscow radio announced the execution in May 1953 of four NTS agents whom he had betrayed.’

Kim Philby

Kim Philby

Likewise, the British spy for the Soviets Kim Philby was able to foil Western attempts to infiltrate Ukraine. As Andrew and Gordievsky note: ‘In the spring of 1951, for example, not long before his recall from Washington, [Philby] gave his controller “precise information” about three groups of six agents who were shortly to be parachuted by SIS into the Ukraine. Philby comments with a macabre attempt at irony: “I do not know what happened to the parties concerned. But I can make an informed guess.”‘


1953: Stalin dies, and a struggle for power ensues between members of the Soviet Politburo. Chief among these are former first secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, including Nikita Khrushchev, Lazar Kaganovich and Vyacheslav Molotov. Of these, Khrushchev is the most recent (1938-49). He has presided over the Stalinist purges in Ukraine, supervised the annexation of western Ukraine after WWII, and led the fighting against the UPA.

1954: Ukraine celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, uniting Russia and Ukraine, and Crimea is transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian SSR.

Oleksiy Kirichenko

Oleksiy Kirichenko

1955: Khrushchev wins the power struggle to succeed Stalin, and Ukrainian Communist Party structures help him in critical ways. Khrushchev later rewards Ukrainian Communist Party Chief Oleksiy Kirichenko by making him the de facto number two official in the Soviet hierarchy.

1956: Khrushchev gives his “Secret Speech” at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, openly criticizing the Stalinist personality cult. The speech marks an easing of Soviet domestic policies concerning dissidents and nationalists, but Soviet foreign policy in many ways becomes more aggressive. 1956 is the year Soviet forces are sent to Hungary to suppress anti-government demonstrations.

1958: In accordance with Khrushchev’s policy of not naming cities after living people, the eastern Ukrainian city of Voroshilovgrad is given its former name, Luhansk. By this time, Voroshilov is Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (the Soviet parliament), making him the de jure ‘head of state’ of the Soviet Union.

1959: Stepan Bandera is assassinated in Munich by an agent of the Soviet KGB named Bohdan Stashynsky, who has infiltrated the Ukrainian emigre community. The operation is carried out by means of a cyanide gas pistol fired at the victim. Two other Ukrainian nationalist leaders – Danylo Skoropadsky (son and heir of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky) and Lev Rebet – have already been murdered (in 1957) in London and Munich, respectively, in the same manner. The assassination of Bandera has been planned by Soviet KGB Chairman Alexander Shelepin and approved by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.


Bandera’s Assassination and the End of the KGB’s ‘Wet Affairs’

After assassinating Bandera in October 1959, Stashynsky was summoned to Moscow and awarded the Order of the Red Banner, one of the USSR’s highest honors. He was then sent on a three- to five-year assignment in the West to carry out more assassinations. However, the KGB’s vision for Stashynsky did not go according to plan, and turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the Kremlin that would change KGB policy abroad in a critical way. According to Andrew and Mitrokhin in The Sword and the Shield, Stashynsky defected to the West from East Berlin with his East German wife the day before the Berlin Wall sealed off all escape.

Bohdan Stashynsky (left) with his sister, brother-in-law, niece, father and mother in the Soviet Union

Bohdan Stashynsky (left) with sister, brother-in-law, niece, father and mother in the USSR

‘Stashinsky confessed to the murders of Rebet and Bandera, was tried at Karlsruhe in October 1962 and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. The judge declared that the main culprit was the Soviet government which had institutionalized political murder. Heads were quick to roll within the KGB. According to Anatoli Golitsyn, who defected four months after Stashinsky, at least seventeen KGB officers were sacked or demoted. More importantly, the Kokhlov and Stashinsky defections led both the KGB leadership and the Politburo to reassess the risks of “wet affairs” (assassination attempts). Fearful of attracting more of the worldwide publicity generated by Kokhlov’s press conference and Stashinskty’s trial, the Politburo abandoned assassination as a normal treatment of policy outside the Soviet Bloc, resorting to it only on rare occasions such as in the elimination of President Hafizullah Amin of Afghanistan in December 1979.’

In 1984, an Associated Press article reported that Stashynsky and his East German wife had been granted asylum by the South African government, and were living in South Africa.


Vasyl Stus

Vasyl Stus

1960s: Ukraine witnesses the emergence of home-grown intellectuals and dissidents who agitate for cultural freedom and rehabilitation of the victims of Stalinism. These include such people as the writer and literary critic Ivan Drach, the poets Irina and Ihor Kalynets, poet and publicist Vasyl Stus, and academic Ivan Dzyuba. A movement called the Shestydesyatnyky (Sixtyists) is born, and inspires dissidents and oppositionists throughout the USSR.

Sergey Korolyov

Sergey Korolyov

1961: When the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to orbit Earth in a spacecraft, Ukraine receives residual prestige from the accomplishment, since the Ukrainian engineer Sergey Korolyov is a leading designer in the Soviet space program. Korolyov will go on to contribute heavily to Soviet achievements in the aerospace field.

Petro Shelest

Petro Shelest

1963: Khrushchev appoints Petro Shelest as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Shelest believes that greater cultural and linguistic freedoms for Ukrainians will be good for both the USSR as a whole, and Ukraine specifically. The new generation of intellectuals benefits from new, relaxed Soviet state policies, which are generating increased opposition from Soviet hardliners in Moscow.

1964: Leonid Brezhnev becomes leader of the Soviet Union in a palace coup against Khrushchev. The immediately ensuing period witnesses an increase in arrests and persecution of intellectuals, particularly Ukrainians, who fall victim to the state clampdown on unauthorized publications, known as samizdat. Contacts with the Ukrainian Diaspora in the West are prohibited.

1967: The Soviet regime admits that its accusation against the Crimean Tatars – that they collaborated with the Nazis during WWII – is false. Crimean Tatars, led by Mustapha Djemilev, agitate to return to their native land.

1970: A cholera epidemic breaks out in Odessa that forces a quarantine by the Soviet authorities.

Luhansk is again named Voroshilovgrad, when Kliment Voroshilov dies. Voroshilov has held no rank in the Soviet state hierarchy for almost a decade by the time of his death, as Khrushchev succeeded in removing him as one of the last of an old generation of Stalinists still in the Central Committee of the CPSU in October 1961. The Brezhnev era is kinder to the old Stalinists, however, and Voroshilov’s memory is honored with the resurrection of his old municipal namesake.

1972: Ukraine’s increasing political autonomy under Shelest and the Soviet Ukrainian regime’s leniency toward nationalism is alarming Moscow, and Shelest is eclipsed by Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, a hardliner who believes in eliminating the Ukrainian intelligentsia.

Volodymyr Shcherbytsky

Volodymyr Shcherbytsky

Chornovil Young

Vyacheslav Chornovil

Within months of replacing Shelest as Ukrainian Communist Party boss, Shcherbytsky orders the arrest and imprisonment of about a hundred Ukrainian intellectual and cultural figures, including the dissident Vyacheslav Chornovil, who has refused to testify against the brothers Bohdan and Mykhailo Horyn, leading figures in the Sixtyists movement and the publication of samizdat. Terms range up to 12 years in the GULAG. Some of the Sixtyists become radicalized and form underground groups and movements, while others fight for human rights and set up the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Arrests and imprisonment increase under Shcherbytsky, and Ukraine undergoes a full-scale policy of Russification, including in Ukrainian schools and institutes. The regime abolishes Ukrainian publications, makes hiring and promotion dependent on knowledge of the Russian language, and bans anything hinting of Ukrainian historical origins. Although Shcherbytsky retains the Ukrainian language in parallel to Russian in the life of the republic, politically Ukraine becomes more like the “Little Russia” of old.

Early 1980s: The Soviet Union has stagnated economically, and the regime finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the pretense of a dynamic state in the face of obvious inefficiencies, shortages and other problems. Following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, the Soviet regime witnesses the leadership of two elderly Communist Party general secretaries – Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – in the space of less than three years. Despite the corruption in Ukraine under Shcherbytsky, the Ukrainian leader supports the reformist, relatively liberal Mikhail Gorbachev for the post of General Secretary, thus becoming one of those Soviet conservatives ironically responsible for the ultimate change in official state policy.

1985: Mikhail Gorbachev is elected General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee.

1986: In the town of Pripyat, 130 kilometers northeast of Kyiv, a nuclear reactor explodes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, spewing over fifty tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The contamination drifts mostly northwest, and as Chernobyl is located not far from Ukraine’s northern border, the poison spreads mostly over northern Europe and Scandinavia. Shcherbytsky and the Soviet Ukrainian authorities try to conceal the scale of the disaster from the rest of the world, and even organize a big May Day parade in central Kyiv, encouraging the local population to come out and attend.


Ecological Disaster in Soviet Ukraine

In their 1992 book Ecocide in the USSR, Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr., give a fairly thorough-going historical account of the regular problems faced by various regions of the Communist empire, which had no independent regulators, lobby groups or Green political parties to challenge the authorities until the USSR was in the process of breaking up.

The abandoned city of Pripyat, with the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the distance (Photo: Jason Minshull)

The abandoned city of Pripyat, with Chernobyl nuclear plant in the distance (Photo: Jason Minshull)

Apart from Chernobyl, some of the worst environmental hazards and catastrophes in the Soviet Union arose in Ukraine. Air pollution in the heavy-industrial zones of Ukraine reached inhuman proportions:

‘At Krivoy Rog in the southeastern Ukrainian area called the Donbass, the air pollution, according to Gosprompriroda’s chairman [Gosprompriroda was the Soviet state agency monitoring industrial output into the atmosphere – Ed.], was “catastrophic.” Plans to reduce the 1989 level of 1.3 million tons [of atmospheric pollutants] per year to 800,000 tons by 2000, he observed, would still leave the population in grave danger. “If we cannot perceptibly clean up the atmosphere of Krivoy Rog,” worried Nikolai Vorontsov, “It might perhaps be more honest to tell the residents so. Will we really have to ship in migratory labor to the Ukraine?”’

Water pollution had become life-threatening as well. Two decades after a cholera epidemic in Odessa in 1970 had forced a quarantine, ‘water quality was one of the major ecological dangers that doctors blamed both for the majority of the birth defects killing 200 to 320 Odessan infants a year and for a mortality rate of 30 per thousand among children up to their fifth birthday. That toll was 60 percent greater than the 1980 average for the entire Ukraine.’ By 1988, Odessa region had the highest infant mortality rate in Ukraine, and the rate of cancer had risen 27% since 1975.

In Crimea in 1988, water tests were conducted from off the beaches of the resort town of Yalta. 43% of all samples taken were infected with harmful bacteria. The following year, the proportion had risen to 60%, and ‘the town supplied drinking water for only three hours in the morning and another three in the evening.’ By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the tourist industry along the shores of the Black Sea had been ‘imperiled by pollution and breakdowns such as the leak from an inland oil pipeline in Georgia in August 1991 that closed the beaches at Sochi.’

By 1990, nationwide concerns over the effects of unsafe nuclear power plants were manifesting themselves in protest actions. A sixth nuclear reactor was being constructed near Zaporizhia on the Dnipro River, and in June protesters from the nearby city of Nikopol protested that they were already living in great danger from radioactivity. Several weeks later, Ukrainian Greens set up tents around the site where three new reactors were being constructed at the Khmelnytsky atomic power station. Official reassurances of safety did not assuage popular worries. Finally, in August, the Ukrainian parliament bent to the popular will, declared the entire republic an ‘ecological disaster area,’ and placed a five-year moratorium on the construction of any new nuclear power plants.


1987: Political prisoners begin to be released from Soviet jails and labor camps. Vyacheslav Chornovil and the Horyn brothers contribute to the compilation of the Declaration of Principles, a program of political demands including the transformation of the USSR into a confederation of sovereign states, democratic elections, a market economy, cultural autonomy and independence for the judiciary.

1988: The US Commission on the Ukraine Famine – an investigative body consisting of members of the US Congress, public officials and individual experts – presents its findings to the US Congress. It concludes, among others, that the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 constituted genocide.

1989: Shcherbytsky resigns as head of the Ukrainian Communist Party and is replaced by Volodymyr Ivashko, an ally of Gorbachev.

1990: Shcherbytsky is due to give testimony to the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet (parliament) in connection with events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster and his attempts to conceal it. He has admitted to a cover-up, but says he was following the orders of the Central Committee in Moscow. On the day of his scheduled appearance to testify, it is discovered that he has died the day before. The official explanation of his death is pneumonia, but rumors circulate that he has committed suicide.

In the first competitive elections ever held in the Ukrainian SSR, the Communists win 331 seats in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament). The “Democratic Bloc” wins only 111 seats. Volodymyr Ivashko is elected by the Communist Party majority to the post of Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, a post that now supersedes that of First Secretary of the Communist Party since the Communists have abandoned their “leading role” earlier in the year. However, Ivashko soon resigns as chairman of the parliament as well, since he has secured the new position of Deputy General Secretary of the CPSU – second only to Gorbachev himself in the USSR. He is succeeded as Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada by Leonid Kravchuk, a career Communist Party politician who has risen through the ranks of the CPSU’s agitprop (agitation and propaganda) department.

By a decree of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, Voroshilovgrad is once more renamed Luhansk.

Volodymyr Ivashko

Volodymyr Ivashko

1991: During the coup attempt against Gorbachev from 19 August, when the State Committee for the State of Emergency briefly takes control of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev is under house arrest in Crimea, Ivashko becomes Acting General Secretary from 24-29 August. Thus, for a few days, a Ukrainian holds the highest party post in the USSR. When the coup against Gorbachev fails, the post of General Secretary is abolished, and Ivashko goes into retirement. He will die three years later at the age of 62 under circumstances that remain unclear.

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