Encyclopedia Articles

PETRO SHELEST
Ukrainian writer, 1908-95
 
UKRAINO NASHA RADIANS'KA (O Ukraine, Our Soviet Land)
Political book, 1970
 
Petro Shelest became first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in 1963, and a member of the Presidium (Politburo from 1966) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1964. He was removed from both posts in 1972, following the publication of an extraordinary document of Soviet Ukrainian political literature, his book Ukraino Nasha Radians'ka (O Ukraine, Our Soviet Land). Although it is not a work of profound scholarship or great literary merit, this book is of value because it reflects the events of a remarkable period in the history of Ukraine. It also reveals a great deal about the author, who, despite being a die-hard communist was, as Jaroslaw Pelenski has observed, "one of the first in the Soviet era to lay the cornerstone for Ukrainian statehood".
     Shelest's book was written in 1970 and published in a large edition of 100,000 copies. A belated review of it appeared in the party periodical Komunist Ukrainy (Kommunist of Ukraine) in April 1973, a year after Shelest's fall from power. It harshly castigated the author for numerous ideological transgressions. Shelest was charged with diverging from the communist perspective in his interpretation of Ukraine's historical and cultural heritage. The reviewer noted that more attention was paid in the book to Ukraine's pre-Revolutionary past than to the revolutionary and Soviet periods in the country's history. The Cossacks, the reviewer argued, were idealized and glorified. The significance of the Treaty of Pereiaslav (1654), which, according to the official interpretation, resulted in the "reunification" of the "two fraternal peoples" of Russia and Ukraine, had been sorely neglected. Moreover, the role of this "reunification" in the further evolution of Ukraine, had been ignored. Russia's role as Ukraine's "elder brother" was misinterpreted. The author had overlooked Russia's contribution to the aesthetic and cultural development of Ukraine. Further, the author had failed to lay proper emphasis on the overall role of the Communist Party in the life of Ukraine.  The author was accused of viewing literary issues from an "abstract humanist perspective". Finally, the book was condemned as an example of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism-a staple accusation leveled by the Soviet authorities at those writers and political figures who displayed a sense of national self-awareness, or voiced even mild protests against the policy of Russification.  Shelest was declared to be guilty of this political sin for having dared to advocate the economic self-sufficiency of Ukraine.
     Yet Shelest could hardly be called a rabid dissident. Not only is the book Marxist-Leninist in tone, and not only is Ukraine treated in it as a constituent part of the Soviet Union, but also it omits any consideration of such urgent issues as the centrally sponsored neglect of the Ukrainian economy, or the continuing repression of Ukrainian culture. At the same time, the book not only stressed the socioeconomic achievements of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, and the evolution of Ukraine from an underdeveloped area to a highly developed agricultural and industrial country, it also provided Ukrainians with a historical foundation for the growth of their self-esteem and gave them hope of a better future for their land.
    Shelest's transformation from a conservative party bureaucrat, a hardliner, and a traditionalist into the "reviver of Ukrainian autonomism" and a banned author did not occur overnight, and cannot be accounted for as only a result of his incautious venture into print. From the beginning of his tenure as First Secretary, Shelest was confronted by two conflicting forces that were present in the Ukraine of the 1960s: the official policy of Russification and the Ukrainian cultural revival initiated by the shestydesiatnyky, the generation of the 1960s. As Pelenski has put it, "Shelest tried to diffuse the two opposing pressures by making concessions to both sides and by avoiding taking a clear-cut position", but he was finally compelled to take sides. Since Shelest opted for "Ukrainianization", he unintentionally became a party renegade.
     The publication of Shelest's book was the last of his contributions to the Ukrainian national revival of the 1960s. There were many other initiatives that were undertaken under his auspices. First, there had been his vigorous attempt to improve the status of the Ukrainian language by reinforcing its usage, reintroducing it into educational and administrative institutions, and increasing the number of published materials in Ukrainian. Second, Shelest had implemented a revival of Ukrainian historical studies, and of archeological research and scholarship. He sponsored the publication of the earlier volumes of History of the Cities and Villages of the Ukrainian SSR (26 vols. 1967-74), which appeared in the Ukrainian language. Shelest also made an effort to rehabilitate the major Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevs'kyi (1866-1934), who had been the first president of an independent Ukraine, but this endeavor was suppressed by the Politburo. Without Shelest's support, such works as Oles Honchar's novel Sobor (1968, The Cathedral) or Ivan Dziuba's Internationalizm chy rusyfikatsiia? (1965, Internationalism or Russification?) would almost certainly never have been published.
     Summarizing the reasons for Shelest's fall from grace, Pelenski says that in the later part of his career this "hard-nosed realist and ruthless careerist" behaved contrary to common sense, and abandoned the caution that one would have expected from him. "Somewhere along the road he apparently put abstract values above self-interest and fell victim to the historical patterns and traditions of Russo-Ukrainian relations, which, qualitatively speaking, have changed little over the past two and a half centuries."
Svitlana Kobets
 
Writings
Ukraino Nasha Radians'ka (O Ukraine, Our Soviet Land), 1970
 
Further Reading
Bilinsky Yaroslav, "Assimilation and Ethnic Assertiveness among Ukrainians of the Soviet Union" in Ethnic Minorities in the Soviet Union, edited by Erich Goldhagen, New York: Praeger, 1968.
Kharchuk, Teodor, "Ukrainian Nationalism and the Fall of Petro Shelest", International Socialist Review, 34/9 (October 1973)
Pelenski, Jaroslaw, "Shelest and His Period in Soviet Ukraine, 1963-1972: A Revival of Controlled Ukrainian Autonomism' in Ukraine in the Seventies, edited by Peter J. Potichnyj, Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1975
Simmonds, George W. (editor), Soviet Leaders, New York: Crowell, 1967.
 
© 2017 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.