Deportations of Ukrainians in the 1920s

The history of Ukrainian deportations to Russia dates back to the colonization of Cossack lands in the late 18th century and continues to this day. The process has seen various stages, reflecting changes in Moscow’s governing policies, but the method has remained unchanged. This article will explore the start of active eviction of Ukrainians in the 20th century, looking at its causes, mechanisms, and rhetoric.

During the Soviet Union era, the deportation of Ukrainians was a deliberate, criminal tool of the state policy. This meant forcibly moving groups of people to remote areas of the USSR, known as «special settlements» [1]. These evictions were carried out in accordance with an administrative or court decision and often involved terror. In the context of the USSR, deportation became a form of political repression that the Communist Party heavily relied on for governing [2, p. 110]. 

Professor Vasylenko M.P.

Professor Vasylenko M.P.
(from the T.S. scientific soc. encyclopedia [9])

These actions had several defining features:

  • Administrative nature. Decisions on deportation were often made outside of the courtroomby authorities without proving the guilt of those being deported.
  • Collective focus. Rather than targeting individuals, deportation mostly aimed at entire groups of people.
  • Spatial aspect. The goal of deportation was  to remove large groups from their homes, relocating them far away without a chance to return [3, p. 5].

The Soviet government employed mass deportations as a way to punish and control both the state and its citizens. These efforts included a series of actions known as deportation operations, carried out forcefully and systematically within specific territories  and time frames. Such actions were usually part of a well-planned strategy laid out in Soviet laws, orders, directives, and regulations [3, p. 11]. 

In the 1920s, the key factor driving Soviet deportation operations was the socio-ethnic background of the deportees. Authorities first sought to evict the intelligentsia from the pre-revolutionary generation, who hindered their political control. In Ukraine, pressure was mainly applied to scientists, as the government wanted intellectual discourse to serve the Bolshevik ideology. “Soft re-education” measures included dismissing scientists, banning research and artistic activities, and restricting publications [4, p. 8]. The initial intent was to isolate these intellectuals from active work and limit their influence on the nation’s mindset and development. 

On June 1, 1922, the GPU, a Soviet police organization, informed the Politburo of the Central Committee of the RCP (b) about the formation of “anti-Soviet groups among the intelligentsia,” linking their rise to the proclamation and execution of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The authorities felt that this policy shift, along with reduced repression, had led to an increase in “anti-Soviet elements” [5, p. 409]. Universities, public groups, the press, publishers, cooperatives, religious organizations, and trade institutions were seen as anti-Soviet centers. Each was closely watched.

To counter what they saw as a trend towards “autonomy of higher education”, the GPU began organizing informers among professors and students on November 23, 1922. [6, c. 135]. Educators and learners were ordered to regularly report on political sentiments, non-partisan groups (scientific circles, clubs), illegal associations, professors’ “political physiognomy”, and statements about the “autonomy of higher education”.

This overt control and isolation of dissenting professors and students paved the route to mass arrests and subsequent deportations. On July 16, 1922, Vladimir Lenin, the ideologist and initiator of selective deportation of the intelligentsia, wrote to the Central Committee of the RCP (b). He insisted on the decisive “eradication of the remnants of the Mensheviks”, Socialist Revolutionaries, and Jens, and demanded “to expel all of them”, using harsh terms like ”cunning enemy”, “fierce enemies of Bolshevism”, “ruthless traitor” [6, p. 87]. 

For the Bolsheviks, identifying the “anti-Soviet intelligentsia” was easy thanks to a network of “sexots” (snitches/informers) within educational institutions. However, deportation itself was much more challenging. The most reliable method was to send intelligentsia abroad, but this required funds for visas and transportation. To avoid these costs, authorities tried to force scientists to leave the USSR voluntarily, sending them questionnaires in German and requiring them to apply for visas and travel documents, essentially making them pay for their own deportation [5, p. 410]. 

Arrests of intellectuals in Ukraine began in July 1922 with the detainment of several doctors in Kharkiv and Kyiv. Later that year, on August 3, the Central Committee of the CP (b) U approved a full list of university professors who were to be deported. It included teachers from Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv and Podillia — 77 people in total. In September, another 56 people were arrested, including 10 in Kharkiv, 9 in Ekaterinoslav, 17 in Odesa, and 20 in Kyiv. Among the prominent scientists imprisoned that summer were M. Ptukha (demographer), O. Korchak-Chepurkivsky (hygienist, epidemiologist), V/ Chekhivsky (Prime Minister of the Ukrainian People’s Republic) and others. They were first arrested and then sent to undisclosed locations.

To save its employees from imprisonment and deportation, the UPR Academy took significant steps. Whenever an employee was arrested, the General Assembly of the UPR Academy was notified and decided whether to petition the authorities. They would then sign a special protocol and send letters to the necessary officials, often successfully preventing the deportation [7].

Academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR Korchak-Chepurkivskyi O.V.

Academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR Korchak-Chepurkivskyi O.V. (from the collection of Mykhajlo Hrushevsky e-archive [8])

The first wave of deportations in the USSR targeted Ukraine’s intellectual potential,  its true elite. However, a few months after the campaign began, on November 24, 1922, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CP (b) U found these actions impractical. Some scientists managed to go abroad to continue working, while others were forcibly deported from the USSR. The remaining professors in the country were put under political oversight, but they still actively supported peasant insurgencies in the early ‘20s. The Soviet authorities, especially the punitive bodies, regularly conducted political purges to prevent this alliance between intellectuals and peasants. This was evident in the summer of 1923, during the exposure of “The Kyiv Regional Action Center” organization. The legal proceedings, which ended in March-April 1924, led to dozens of people,  including famous historians M. Vasylenko and P. Smirnov, being put on trial. Archival documents from September 1922 revealed that the arrests of Kyiv professors and other Ukrainian intellectuals were considered not as “imprisoned” but as “isolated” to meet Lenin’s objectives of purging anti-Soviet intelligentsia. After the leader’s death, his successors continued his work but repressed more “seriously and for a long time” [5, p. 411].

Another group affected by deportation in the 1920s were Ukrainians living near the borders between the Ukrainian and Russian Soviet republics. The government aimed to define the state borders by altering the ethnic landscape, deporting hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians  from the lands of Starodubsk, Belgorod, Kursk, Orel, and Don regions (now the territory of the Russian Federation) to the east of uninhabited lands – to the Green, Malinovy, and Gray Wedges. The first is located in the Far East between the Amur River and the Pacific Ocean, the second – in  Kuban, and the third – in Southwestern Siberia [10].  

The evidence of the Ukrainian nationality of those deportees is found in the documents, such as a letter to the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR on September 21, 1924. It protested the accession of Shakhtyn and Taganrog districts (now Rostov region, Russia) to Soviet Russia, where the majority of the population was Ukrainian. The author of the letter insisted it would be more sane to give these lands to the Ukrainian SSR. There were also mentioned the districts of Kursk and Voronezh regions, where ethnic Ukrainians lived as well. The author of the letter disregarded the policy of forced Russification of the mentioned lands[11, p. 100]. There were even instances where local communities, such as the residents of the Zaoleshenka settlement in the Kursk region, declared their desire to be part of Ukraine. They mainly argued that more than 5,000 inhabitants of their settlement were “one hundred percent ethnic Ukrainians” and that they have strong economic ties with Kharkiv and Sumy, cities remaining a part of the Ukrainian SSR.

The growing sense of national self-consciousness and the Ukrainian nation’s inherent love for freedom – both among intellectuals and peasants – increasingly became an «uncompromising obstacle» to the Russification and Sovietization efforts within the Soviet Union. It was during the 1920s that the staffing of the ODPU-NKVD was scaled up. Concentration camps were established for the deportation and repression ofpeople deemed ideologically unacceptable, or “socially harmful,” by Soviet authorities. On March 28, 1924, a regulation outlining the ODPU’s rights regarding administrative evictions, exiles and imprisonments in concentration camps was approved. This broadened the criteria for what constituted “igns” of social danger among USSR citizens[12, p. 15]. By October 1926, both the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR granted the ODPU bodies the authority to initiate criminal cases, conduct inquiries, and preliminary investigations. Over time, these bodies were granted even more power, including the confiscation of property from “administratively expelled” individuals. The Soviet repression didn’t stop there; they sought to seal the “criminal circle” of the deportation process to prevent forcibly evicted citizens from returning home. From February 1928, those who served their sentences in concentration camps were further exiled, and those whose exile terms expired were denied the right to return. [Ibid].

In summary, the deportations of Ukrainians in the 1920s marked the birth of the Soviet criminal repression machine. Its goal was to erase ethnic and cultural differences through mass evictions. Initially,  this terror targeted intellectual elites, aiming to eliminate those who could shape Ukrainian culture and sciences, and thereby foster national pride and self-consciousness.

Next, the repression “Moloch” turned on the ethnic Ukrainian peasants, particularly those from the borderlands with the Russian SSR. Their national identity and successful farming practices were seen as obstacles to the Party’s goal of building a “Soviet state” with the idea of “one people” at its core, using deportation as a primary tool. This system’s policy from its inception applied a centralized authoritarian method of governance from Moscow, ignoring the unique national, cultural and ideological characteristics of the occupied territories, and trying to equalize all colonized societies. In essence, the 1920s saw the commencement of Stalinist  state policy that led to the practical restoration of Russian imperialism, masked by the ideological doctrine of “friendship of peoples” [16, p. 65].


Chronology of deportation processes in the 1920s:

October 16, 1922 — the Special Commission under the NKVD of the USSR for deportation to forced labor camps was established.

August 10, 1922 — the decree of the Central Executive Committee “on administrative expulsion” granted the authorityto expel all suspected individuals to specific regions of the USSR.

March 28, 1924 — the «Regulations on the rights of the ODPU in terms of administrative expulsions, exile and imprisonment in concentration camps» were approved.

April 4, 1925 — the ODPU was given the power to prohibit “socially harmful” persons from residing in certain areas.

1925-1928 — the so-called Trilateral Commission of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian Socialist Republics convenedto redistribute borders.

June 12, 1929 — A Resolution was passed on “On the exile of particularly malicious criminals”.


Vladyslav Havrylov, author
Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors

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