|Protest in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 19. Some demonstrators wore saucepans and masks to mock law curtailing protest rights that included ban on balaclava face coverings and helmets.|
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich pushed through the law in an attempt to undercut protests that began in November when he backed out of a deal to sign a trade and “association” agreement with the European Union and instead moved to maintain close economic and political ties with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the time hundreds of thousands took to the streets, demanding that Yanukovich resign. A central slogan at opposition demonstrations has been, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the nation! Ukraine above all!”
The leadership of the protests comprises a heterogeneous coalition of bourgeois parties pressing for integration into the EU. Three of these parties have seats in Parliament: Fatherland, led by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko; UDAR — punch in Ukrainian — led by Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion who campaigns on an anti-corruption platform; and ultrarightist Svoboda (Freedom), which scapegoats Jews and has introduced bills to ban abortions and “communist ideology.”
The new law passed by Parliament last week bans the unauthorized public installation of tents or stages and the use of loudspeakers in public and imposes jail terms for participating in “mass disorder” and wearing balaclavas or helmets.
Some protesters who fought with police defiantly wore saucepans and colanders on their heads. Some 1,500 protesters needed medical attention after the clashes.
Centuries under Russian bootThe suppression of national rights in Ukraine goes back centuries. Eastern Ukraine became a possession of the Romanov Dynasty in 1654 and from that time on the feudal monarchy carried out a policy of Russification there. While rule over the western part changed hands between Austria, Poland and Russia over centuries, the tsars banned the Ukrainian language, suppressed the Ukrainian church and promoted Russian colonization, in the areas under its control.
By the early 1900s Ukraine made up 20 percent of the population of the Russian empire, which at the time was comprised in its majority of non-Russian peoples who faced varying degrees of subjugation. It was a “prison house of nations,” in the words of V.I. Lenin, central leader of the Bolshevik Party and 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Ukrainian bourgeoisie remained small and weak. The ruling class and urban middle classes were drawn from Russia and other nationalities. “In the Ukraine and White Russia,” wrote Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in 1932, “the landlord, capitalist, lawyer, journalist, was a Great Russian, a Pole, a Jew, a foreigner; the rural population was wholly Ukrainian and White Russian.”
At the same time, Ukraine was a key conquest of the empire, serving as a breadbasket for Russia and major source of its coal and iron production.
Among the central tasks of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin’s leadership was the emancipation of tens of millions of oppressed peoples — from the culturally more advanced people of the Baltic region to the Muslims of the Caucasus to nomadic tribes of the Far East.
The Bolshevik Party’s championing of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination leading up to the revolution was decisive in uniting, educating and organizing the working class to take political power, which included forging an alliance with the peasant majority from all backgrounds.
The Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party stated in November 1919 that Bolsheviks in Ukraine “must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet institutions; they must in every way counteract attempts at Russification that push the Ukrainian language into the background.”
The new policy of Ukrainization helped the Bolsheviks win over the Ukrainian Borotba (struggle) Party, which merged with the Ukrainian Communist Party in 1920.
Stalin murder machineBut by the early 1920s the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party had begun, personified by the rise to power of Josef Stalin after the death of Lenin in 1924. Stalin headed a counterrevolution representing the interests of a growing privileged social layer centered in the increasingly bureaucratic state apparatus. This reactionary caste reversed the Bolshevik’s course and resurrected the Great Russian chauvinism of the empire, including the re-subjection of oppressed people, this time under the false banner of “communism.”
“Nowhere did the purges and repression assume such a savage character as they did in the Ukraine,” Trotsky wrote in 1939.
Russification of Ukraine was revived. From 1959 to 1989 the number of Russians rose from 16.9 percent of Ukraine’s population to 22.1 percent.
When the Stalinist regime in Russia and Eastern Europe finally collapsed under pressure of growing social contradictions in the early 1990s, the new regime continued to dominate Ukraine, whose industry remained closely linked to that of Russia. Moscow supplies 60 percent of gas used in Ukraine and has turned off the spigot twice to force compliance with the Putin government’s demands.
Competing factions of emerging and aspiring capitalists arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union, drawn largely from remnants of the Soviet bureaucracy. In Ukraine, the factional contest was partially based on divisions of east and west, Russian and Ukrainian, orientation toward Moscow and the West. Meanwhile, the national aspirations among Ukrainian working people against the Russian boot remain strong.
At the end of 2004, in what became known as the Orange Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the western part of the country took to the streets to oppose the continuing Russian domination of the country and what they saw as a rigged election that gave the presidency to Yanukovich, who was then prime minister.
As a result, a new election was called and bourgeois opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was elected president, taking office in 2005, but a series of corruption scandals left him with little support by the end of his term.
Today about four out of every six people in Ukraine are ethnic Ukrainians and speak the Ukrainian language. One in six are ethnic Russians who speak Russian and roughly one in six are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian. Russian is the main language in much of the eastern and southern part of the country, areas which are more economically developed.
Yanukovich returned to the presidency after winning elections in 2010. In July 2012 his Party of Regions successfully passed a language law that encourages making Russian an official language in some regions.
The Ukrainian Week reported in March last year that the top eight Ukrainian TV stations broadcast less than a quarter of their prime-time content in Ukrainian. Less than 5 percent of the songs on the top six radio stations were in Ukrainian.
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