My View with Denise Dunbar: The seeds of dissent

My View with Denise Dunbar: The seeds of dissent
Holodomor statue in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Part II of a series

This is the second in a series of columns about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, drawing on my experiences as a Soviet analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Leadership Analysis from 1986 to 1992, the years during which the USSR increasingly wobbled and finally collapsed.

Many people, including Vladimir Putin himself apparently, have been surprised by the ferocious resistance Russia’s military has encountered in its invasion of Ukraine. They shouldn’t have been.

Ukraine, like Poland and the Baltic nations, has a long history of being attacked and controlled from the East and West. The very name Ukraine can be translated as meaning “borderlands,” and that name is apt: After being settled by Slavs in the 5th through 7th centuries, the territory of modern Ukraine has been overrun by, among others, the Mongols, Poles and Lithuanians together, Nazis and Russians.

Putin, like every General Secretary during the Soviet era, wants to control Ukraine because of its strategic importance – and that importance extends beyond its value as a buffer against invasion. Ukraine’s population, fertile land, geography and industry make it the most valuable former republic.

With more than 43 million residents, according to World Population Review, Ukraine has by far the largest population of the former Soviet republics. Dating back to Russia’s Tsarist empire, Ukraine has been considered the breadbasket of Europe for its grain production. Ukraine also has several key ports on the Black Sea, particularly in Odesa, which are coveted by Russia for economic and military reasons. Ukraine’s industrial output was also among the highest of the Soviet republics.

Ukrainians got a taste of independence in the years between the fall of Tsarist Russia in 1917 and the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power, when Ukraine became a republic of the USSR, in 1922. That brief independence, combined with an urban intelligentsia that emerged in the 1800s, helped sow the seeds for Ukrainians’ current battle for freedom.

Soviet policies also encouraged the Ukrainian nationalism that is burning so fiercely right now, in ways both known and less known.

Ukrainians endured a series of atrocities at the hands of the Soviet state in the 1930s and 40s during Josef Stalin’s murderous reign, events that have fueled Ukrainians’ deep-seated determination to never be ruled by Russia again.

Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture was devastating throughout the Soviet Union and was particularly horrific in Ukraine because of its agricultural prominence. Stalin’s goal was to wipe out prosperous peasants as a class – so individual farms were turned into government-owned and -run collectives.

The Soviet military enforced collectivization, meaning Ukrainians were not allowed to keep any of the grain they grew for themselves. A severe drought in 1932- 33 compounded the problem, resulting in millions of Ukrainian deaths. At the CIA 35 years ago, I believed that between 10 and 20 million Ukrainians died during Stalin’s collectivization, and that it was a deliberate genocide.

Current estimates, presumably based on more recent research, of the loss of lives are considerably lower – that around four million Ukrainians died during collectivization. We don’t definitively know because the Soviets hid the extent of their induced calamity from the world in an era when it was much easier to do so. Ukrainians refer to this event as the Holodomor. Memory of this tragedy is at the forefront of their current resistance.

Stalin’s second atrocity against Ukrainians occurred during “the great terror” later in the 1930s. This was a USSR-wide decimation of leaders from all ranks of life. Around one million perceived dissidents from across the Soviet Union were executed in the most extreme manifestation of Stalin’s paranoia.

Another tactic was to exile people from Soviet-controlled republics to new towns built near large factories, often in desolate parts of Siberia. This was a win-win for the Soviets, as they gained forced labor for industrialization and simultaneously wrested greater control of the republics by reducing their ethnic populations.

For instance, in a 1926 census, ethnic Ukrainians comprised 80% of that republic’s population, but by 1989, just two years before the implosion of the Soviet Union, ethnic Ukrainians were just 72.7% of the population, according to the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine.

The Soviets also suppressed religion nationwide, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. According to, the Russian Orthodox Church took control of its properties in yet another move that outraged Ukrainians.

Perhaps less known is the policy of nativization, which the USSR pursued in its first few years of existence. In the 1920s, the Soviets actually promoted Ukrainian nationalism by requiring that everyone in the republic – including ethnic Russians – learn the Ukrainian language. The republics were encouraged to celebrate their native cultures and ethnic nationalities were allowed to hold low-level posts in the republic communist party. Stalin quickly did a 180 after consolidating control of the USSR in 1929.

Next week’s column will delve more deeply into the last 20 years of Soviet rule in Ukraine, including the Chernobyl tragedy.

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. She worked at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1986 to 1992.