Ukraine is a small country compared to Russia – but it punched above its weight when it came to political influence within the Soviet Union.
When Ukraine’s military capabilities are compared to Russia’s, there is an obviously vast difference and a near impossibility that Kiev could resist a full-scale invasion of Moscow’s superior armed forces.
But in terms of political influence, Ukrainians have shown their guile, dominating political life in Russia’s predecessor state of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had ruled between 1922 and 1991 and Ukrainian-origin leaders led the country for more than half of that time.
Even Vladimir Putin, a Russian nationalist, conceded Ukrainians’ powerful influence on the Soviets.
“Incidentally, during the Soviet period, natives of Ukraine held major, including the highest, posts in the leadership of the unified state,” wrote Putin, in an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” last year, referring to the Soviet Union.
“Suffice it to say that Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, whose party biography was most closely associated with Ukraine, led the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for almost 30 years,” Putin remarked.
Beyond Soviet leadership, Ukrainian historical influence over Russia is clear in an inviolable fashion because of the fact that Kiev was the capital of the first Russian state in history, dating back to the 9th century.
Ukrainian novelists like Nikolai Gogol’s hero Taras Bulba, the story of Ukraine’s famous Cossacks, have also been a great inspiration for many Russian generations for centuries.
Here is a list of Ukrainians, who led Russian-majority Soviets in the past.
Khrushchev was born in a Russian village close to the Ukrainian border, but raised in Eastern Ukraine, which is now de facto ruled by pro-Russian rebels backed by Moscow.
In time, Khrushchev became the head of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. After Joseph Stalin’s death, he consolidated power and led the Soviet state between 1953 and 1964.
While Khrushchev was ethnically Russian, he fell in love with Ukraine. There is a definite proof of that, which is the transfer of the Crimean Peninsula’s regional management from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian SSR, which happened under Khrushchev.
“It was somewhat symbolic, somewhat trying to reshuffle the centralized system and also, full disclosure, Nikita Khrushchev was very fond of Ukraine, so I think to some degree it was also a personal gesture toward his favorite republic. He was ethnically Russian, but he really felt great affinity with Ukraine,” said Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader.
The Crimea’s transfer to Ukraine was a controversial move, angering many including Putin in the Russian establishment. “In 1954, the Crimean Region of the RSFSR was given to the Ukrainian SSR, in gross violation of legal norms that were in force at the time,” Putin said of Khrushchev’s act, which the latter described as a “symbolic gesture”.
Khrushchev was also known for his de-Stalinisation policy of the Soviets. As part of de-Stalinisation, he also opposed Stalin’s Russification policy, allowing its criticism in communist power circles. In 1953, the Ukrainian Communist Party openly criticised Stalin’s Russification policy. Stalin, a Georgian, was not an ethnic Russian.
Brezhnev was born and raised in central Ukraine. Some official Soviet documents like his passport also listed his ethnicity as Ukrainian – but others believe he was of Russian descent. Brezhnev was one of Khruschev’s proteges and ruled the Soviet state between 1964 and 1982, the second longest-reigning communist leader of the state after Stalin.
Under his leadership, there were several Ukrainians running high offices from the defence ministry to the KGB. During his term, the Soviets reached an equal level with the US in terms of nuclear power and Moscow also gained a lot of leverage over Central and Eastern Europe.
While Brezhnev’s pragmatic approach helped the Soviets improve their international standing, his anti-reform agenda led to an eventual decline, an era known as Brezhnev Stagnation. After 1975, he mostly withdrew from active politics due to his declining health.
Chernenko was another Ukrainian, who also reached the upper echelons of Soviet power. He led the communist state for a brief period from 1984 to 1985.
He rose in the communist party ranks thanks to the help of another Ukrainian, Brezhnev.
Gorbachev, whose maternal family had Ukrainian descent and migrated from Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, succeeded Chernenko as the next general secretary of the ruling Soviet Communist Party.
Gorbachev established the office of the President of the Soviet Union in 1990. He was the first and the last president of the Soviets, overseeing the dissolution of the world’s communist superpower. In total, he had ruled the Soviets from 1985 to 1991.
While Gorbachev is liked and praised by many in the Western world and some former Soviet republics for his glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) policies, he remains a controversial figure in Russia today. He ran for the presidency in 1996, receiving 0.5 percent of the total vote.
Gorbachev, a reformist and pro-democracy supporter, provided occasional criticism of Putin’s policies, describing the president’s United Russia party as having “embodied the worst bureaucratic features of the Soviet Communist party”.
But he also believes that Putin is the best man for Russia. “I am absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else,” he said in 2014.
He was also a critic of the West’s Russia policy, which was conducted in an attitude of “triumphalism”, according to him. He warned the world that Ukrainian escalations could trigger a new Cold War, pointing out that increasing US-Russia tensions create “great concern”.
Ukraine banned Gorbachev from entering the country after he disclosed his support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.