In 1931 Joseph Stalin, determined that Russia would not continue as a ‘backwards’ agrarian country, had already implemented his first Five Year Plan (approved 1928). This set draconian targets for the expansion of Russia’s coal, steel, oil and gas industries, with emphasis on Ukraine, the Volga region and the east. Stalin was prepared to use force to make the peasants work in the mines, factories and building railroads. Those that resisted (Kulaks) were shot or sent to gulags, with many used as slave labour.
In 1932–33 Ukraine experienced the ‘Holodomor’, part of a Soviet-wide famine that was particularly acute in Ukraine, the bread-basket of the USSR. Up to 1- million inhabitants of Ukraine died of starvation in an unprecedented peacetime catastrophe. The causes of the famine are disputed. Many believe that the famine was the result of economic problems associated with Soviet industrialization. Some argue that the famine was perpetrated by the government of the USSR in order to systematically exterminate the Ukrainian people. It is also argued that the famine was caused by natural circumstances (damp weather) and mismanaged cultivation because of an inexperienced workforce.
In 1933, Stalin introduced his second Five Year Plan, like the first but with more exacting targets. Workers were given unrealistic quotas and medals were awarded to ‘heroes’ who vastly exceeded their quotas. By 1937, coal, steel, oil and gas production had more than trebled, cities had grown and factories were producing armaments and tractors. The best scientists, engineers and workers were recruited to the defence sector. The Third Five Year Plan was formally adopted at the 18th Party Congress in 1939, but was cut short by the German invasion of 1941.
The period 1937–45 saw numerous large scale deportations of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. These peripheral groups were seen as threats to the wartime stability of the Soviet Union and, as a result, were mostly sent to work in Siberian gulags or to populate forced labour camps in the southern Soviet Republics of Central Asia. The first large-scale deportation was of Korean migrants around Vladivostok in 1937. When Japan established rule over Korea, Koreans in Russia were perceived as a threat, so around 170,000 were relocated to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Similarly, some 430,000 people of German descent in the Volga area were deported because of their supposed collaboration with Nazi Germany. Many ethnic groups in the Caucasus including Chechens, the Ingush, Crimean Tartars and Kalmyk were also forcibly deported under suspicion of assisting the Nazi German invasion, with many hundreds of thousands dying en route to, or in, the gulags.
Redrawing the Map of Eastern Europe
In 1938 the USSR had been unable to reach a collective security agreement with Britain and France and was facing the prospect of standing alone against Nazi expansion in eastern Europe. Against this background they opened negotiations with Germany and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed on 23 August 1939. Named after the German and Soviet foreign ministers who signed it, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was officially known as the Treaty of Non-Aggression between the USSR and Germany, guaranteeing that neither side would attack each other, or ally themselves with the enemies of the other. But the pact also contained a secret protocol, which carved out Eastern Europe between the two signatories, creating ‘spheres of influence’. Eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland were assigned to the Soviet sphere; an additional supplementary protocol clarified the Lithuanian borders and assigned the region to the USSR and separated Bessarabia from Romania, also assigning it to the USSR. The agreement was effectively a carte blanche for Germany to invade Poland, which it did just over a week later, on 1 September 1939. On 17 September 1939 the USSR launched its invasion of Poland, using concern about ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians as a pretext. The pact was dissolved on 22 June 1941, when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the USSR.
In 1942 Germany, which sought to establish the Greater German Reich in Europe, dominated most of the continent. Austria and Luxembourg had been completely absorbed, as had the ‘General Government for the occupied Polish area’, which was established by a decree in October 1939 and was located in the centre of Poland. This puppet state was governed without any Polish representation and accounted for about a third of Polish territory and 45 per cent of the Polish population. To the east, the remainder of Poland and Ukraine were subject to economic exploitation and were seen as sources of slave labour. The ‘Reichkommissariats’ were quasi-colonial territories, which lay outside the German Reich itself, but were governed by Reichskommissars, German governors who acted as direct representatives of Adolf Hitler. The intention was that ultimately all these diverse regions would be absorbed into the Greater German Reich, which would stretch from the North Sea to the Urals.
The Liberation of Ukraine
Having reached Kiev and the eastern bank of the River Dnieper by November 1943, the Soviet army continued its advance westwards along five fronts, completely destroying 18 Wehrmacht and Romanian divisions and inflicting heavy casualties. It is estimated that over 6 million ethnic Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians, helped by half a million partisans, and by May 1944 the Soviets had reached the pre-war borders of Poland and Romania. The Battle of Crimea (8 April–12 May 1944) ended with a German evacuation across the Black Sea. However, in western Ukraine various nationalist organizations were formed to fight for an independent state. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) represented the exiled Ukrainian government, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) defended the Ukrainian minority in Poland, while the Ukrainian Liberation Army (ULA) allied with the Nazis. It is estimated that about 7 million Ukrainians, including 1.5 million Jews, lost their lives during the war.
In the post-war decades Ukraine was an economic and industrial powerhouse for the USSR. It also served as a cold war military outpost, located on the western borders of Soviet territory. Many of the Soviet elite, including Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, came from Ukraine. The Donbass was highly industrialised, the waters of the Dnieper River were harnessed for energy. But Ukraine’s burgeoning high-tech industry was mainly diverted for military purposes and the supply and quality of consumer goods were inadequate. On 26 April 1986 a large area of northern Ukraine was contaminated when the nuclear power station at Chernobyl exploded.
Political upheaval had left the Soviet Union in an increasingly desperate situation by the beginning of the 1990s. A failed coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 initiated a final series of events, including Ukraine’s proclamation of independence on 24 August 1991 (overwhelmingly supported in a December referendum). These events culminated in the dissolution of the USSR on 26 December 1991. Although the Soviet Union comprised 15 Soviet republics at its height, Russia was its founder and largest economy. Just as the Soviet Union took the diplomatic status of imperial Russia before it, the new Russian Federation took the Soviet Union’s seat on the UN Security Council and was given responsibility for the nuclear arsenal. In December 1991, under the new president Boris Yeltsin, a commonwealth of former Soviet Republics (CIS) was established to foster continued economic and military ties between the new independent states. Georgia did not join the commonwealth until 1993. Ukraine ratified the Creation Agreement in 1991 but chose not to ratify the CIS charter as it disagrees with Russia being the only legal successor state of the Soviet Union. It has never been a full member of the CIS.