Between national liberation and class equality

ID: 249
Nationalism and the 'class struggle' rhetoric in the Soviet prewar policy. Who and why suffered the most (statistics). The events in honour of Adam Mickiewicz as an attempt to change the attitude of the Polish society towards the Soviet authorities due to the approaching war. 

This story is a part of the theme about Soviet Occupation in 1939-1941, prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

On November 26, 1940, at 1:00 p.m., a solemn delegation of representatives of the Lviv NKVD, party figures and writers cooperating with them laid flowers to the monument to Adam Mickiewicz on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of his death. The end of November was the culmination of events in honour of the poet and the beginning of his cult in its Soviet version. The Soviet authorities saw the works of the romantic singer of Polish traditions and independence revolutionary and international enough to adapt them to the communist historical narrative of the struggle of classes and peoples. It was this cult that saved the monument from the post-war fate of many other monuments in Lviv, such as the monuments to Jan Sobieski or Aleksander Fredro.

During the first year of the occupation of Lviv, the instruments of repression were largely directed against Poles, who were rightly suspected of wanting to rebuild their statehood. Authorities spread the cult of Ivan Franko and Taras Shevchenko to emphasize a more sympathetic attitude toward Ukrainians. Measures and events in honour of Mickiewicz were to attract the Polish population to the new regime. They were held in most schools and houses of culture; the poetry was recited on the radio not only in Polish, but also in translations into Ukrainian, Russian, and even Yiddish. An evening of poetry with the participation of Leonid Hryshchuk, the first secretary of the regional communist party committee, and Vasyl Serhiyenko, the head of the Lviv NKVD department, took place in the Opera House. Due to his messianism, mysticism and anti-tsarist attitude, Mickiewicz was presented from the Soviet perspective as a revolutionary, an advocate of national freedom and social justice. The author of the poem To Friends Muscovites was given this status despite his praise of the "backward" culture of the petty nobility (i.e., "class enemy"), which he described in the poem Pan Tadeusz, his most popular work.

During this evening, Lev Nikulin, a Russian writer and member of the CPSU, quite "spontaneously" shouted: "Immortal Mickiewicz, the immortal Polish people." Such measures revealed two aspects. Firstly, in Soviet rhetoric, nationality could either be suppressed altogether or put in extreme forms — admired as "great" or criticized as "bourgeois" and hostile in class terms. Secondly, this rhetoric could change radically by 180 degrees virtually from day to day.

In the Soviet Union, the proletariat was a fundamentally privileged class. However, apart from class divisions, the Soviet power was perhaps the first to institutionalize ethnicity. Depending on its political needs, it granted privileges to a chosen ethnic group even at the cost of the idea of equality of peoples.

Using national policy, the Soviet government flirted with a "bourgeois", that is, hostile, national culture. After all, they believed that the nationality of power was ultimately only a "form" (territory, language, folklore) without an immanent attachment to particular political interests, so it could be filled with communist ideas. Only in this case the class character of society would manifest itself, and national differences would lose their significance. For Lenin and Stalin, the concept of "chauvinistic" (great-power) and oppressed peoples was also essential. In the former, a revolution could be conducted due to discipline and purification while in the latter it could be done with a more tactical approach.

The policy of granting national privileges reached its peak in the second half of the 1920s, when the so-called Korenizatsiya (nativization) policy provided administrative support to as many as 192 minorities. In the mid-1930s, the number of ethnic groups given territorial privileges declined radically. Only peoples with "great traditions" were recognized, their status confirmed by the provision of a separate territory — a republic. Theoretically, all republics in the Union should have been equal, but, according to Stalin, the Russian people were "the most prominent of all the peoples of the Soviet Union." Minorities not assigned territories were the lowest in the hierarchy, doomed to limitations and deportations. Nationality became a biological trait passed down from generation to generation, no matter how complex a person's identity might be and no matter how much it changed. It was this frozen concept of nationality that was brought by the Soviet authorities to Eastern Poland (Western Ukraine).

In September 1939, NKVD forces, having just finished the Great Terror, entered the occupied territory of the Polish state. The victims of the massacres of 1937–1938 were primarily Poles (110,000), who were accused en masse of anti-Soviet conspiracy. The loss of statehood in September 1939 gave the Poles in the annexed territories a real reason to be hostile to the Soviet regime. Accordingly, they became the main target of the NKVD. In Soviet propaganda, the Polish-Ukrainian dispute of the interwar years was disguised by the rhetoric of class struggle. Defeated Poland became "noble" and "lordly" (that is, like it was described by Mickiewicz), a representative of French and English capitalism, which "chauvinistically" oppressed Ukrainians — a real "proletariat" of the annexed territories. Although the propaganda of “liberation” was directed at the Polish people too, its members could always be accused of "bourgeois nationalism." Accordingly, the attitude of the new government towards Ukrainians was much softer, intending to create the impression that the new regime could bring equality, which the previous government failed to ensure.

Along with the Poles, the Jews were one of the greatest threats to Soviet rule too. Not only because they were accustomed to Polish culture (according to the 1931 census, 24% of Lviv's Jews spoke Polish as their mother tongue), but also because their professional structure was not very reliable for communism. Approximately 47% of Jews in Lviv were self-employed or business owners, while such a "capitalist" position was held only by 11% of Greek Catholics and 14% of Roman Catholics. At the same time, workers were as many as 66% of Ukrainians in Lviv, 48% of Roman Catholics and 28% of Jews. As a result, between September 1939 and June 1941 among the deportees there were almost three times as many Jews as Poles and seven times as many Jews as Ukrainians. However, these statistics do not prove that the reason for the deportation was solely nationality (as is often the case with supporters of national victimhood competitions). Social and economic status or political views were also important to the new regime.

The program of the Soviet government was inspired by cultural programs of Ukrainian nationalists and only from the mid-1940 by Polish ones as well. Thus, at first it tried to attract the broadest circles of Ukrainian society, knowing that most of them did not expect "liberation" from the East. Aleksander Wat, a writer who initially actively supported Soviet rule in Lviv, recalls:

The Soviets were very careful that no Russian was ever in any presidium. It was the incredible Stalinist scrupulousness in keeping formal norms. There were only Ukrainians there, because it was Western Ukraine.

"Liberation" did not mean equality. Despite the fact that the majority of the population spoke Polish or Yiddish, Lviv was to be a Soviet "ancient Ukrainian city." Polish symbols were removed from its public space, and street names were changed. It was decorated with portraits of Stalin and Lenin and with new monuments. Education was to be in Ukrainian. The Ukrainian language was forcibly introduced in schooling and culture. The Great Theater was transformed into the Opera and Ballet Theater. The Jan Kazimierz University was transformed into the Ivan Franko State University. The number of Polish students at the University and the Polytechnic halved in three months. After the change of language in public institutions, the change of employees was to be next. By April 1940, 13,000 people lost their jobs, mostly disproportionately many Poles. In the Soviet concept of nationality, there was no place for mixed national identities, such as Ukrainian-Polish or Jewish-Polish (with the exception of acculturation to the privileged one, that is, Russian). According to this concept, the integration of Jews into Polish culture was insincere. Yiddish was the real Jewish language while Hebrew was considered "reactionary." The authorities promoted Yiddish writers and introduced Yiddish instead of Polish as the language of instruction in Jewish schools.

To the extent that Ukrainian culture was officially favoured at the expense of others, Poles or Jews were never officially recognized as the target of national repression. No official recognition was needed as national motives for repression were intertwined with social, political or class ones. This flexibility of the category allowed the Soviet government to make adjustments in its policy depending on current needs. The wave of deportations, which affected the Poles mostly, took place on April 12-13, 1940; as a result, 7,000 Lviv residents were sent to Siberia with the families of Polish prisoners of war, police officers, and officials of the Polish state. In June 1940, the NKVD arrested some 20,000 refugees from German-occupied Poland, typically fleeing Nazi terror. In December 1940, the target was the anti-Soviet underground (both Ukrainian and Polish). Socialist and communist activists formed outside the Soviet Union, intellectuals, religious leaders and prostitutes were also persecuted. Regardless of nationality, housing, businesses and firms were nationalized.

From the mid-1940, when Germany invaded France, the geopolitical situation gradually changed. In anticipation of the imminent conflict with Germany, Stalin decided to change his attitude towards Poles in Western Ukraine and recommended "to immediately eliminate [...] extremes and apply methods to establish fraternal relations between Ukrainian and Polish workers." Public lectures in Polish were allowed, restrictions on the issuance of passports to Poles were lifted, and aggressive criticism of the Polish state was stopped. In the autumn, Poles began to be admitted to public office, and creating a system of Polish schools started.

The events in honour of Adam Mickiewicz were part of this turn in the political course. They aroused enthusiasm but it was different from what was planned. Instead of supporting the Soviet government and the future Soviet Polish Republic, which might have emerged after the war with Germany, the celebrations awakened Polish patriotism and nationalism.

In addition to repression, cynical manipulations of the occupying regime with national feelings were one of the main methods to exercise its power over society. The use of the national "form", however, was not filled with class content over time. Its emptiness began to be filled with the thirst for independence, nostalgia and nationalist sentiments.

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Pl. Mitskevycha – monument to Adam Mickiewicz

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Tomasz M. Jankowski
Translated by Andriy Masliukh