The ‘Garrotted Renaissance’: language and nationalism in the 1930s

Almost exactly 80 years ago, on 3 November 1937, the NKVD executed the renowned Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas. Kurbas was not alone that day – a large group of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were executed alongside him. The loss of so many of Ukraine’s cultural community resonated deeply with their compatriots, and those who had been executed became known in Ukraine as the ‘garrotted renaissance’.[1]

This execution was a tiny part of one of the most significant moments in Soviet history, a chain of events often referred to as the Great Terror.[2] As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from

Les Kurbas, in his official ‘mug shot’ taken by the NKVD shortly after his arrest in 1933

the political elite down to the most humble worker.[3]

It was not uncommon for writers and thinkers to be executed or imprisoned during this period, although it was unheard of for so many to be executed together. To grasp why this was so, we need to understand a little more about the complex and varied reasons why writers were arrested or imprisoned.

For some Russian writers, it really was the words that flowed from their pen that were their undoing. Perhaps most famously Osip Mandelstam’s poem – characterising Stalin as ‘the Kremlin crag-dweller’ and comparing his eyes to cockroaches – led to his arrest and sentence to the Gulag. Mandelstam died en route to his destination.

In the case of the ‘garrotted renaissance’ it was not what they wrote so much as their Ukrainian nationality that was the key to their fate. This is confirmed when we examine the interrogation files of the writers in question. Within the pages of Mandelstam’s interrogation file, the focus was very much on the content of the writing, and possible interpretations. During his interrogation, Mandelstam’s interrogator, N.K. Shivarov, actually asked him to compare different drafts of his poem about Stalin and comment upon them.[4]

Even in the interrogation file of Isaac Babel, who was accused of conspiring with Trotskyists, there is much discussion of the former’s writing, and of the effect that his regular meetings with anti-Bolshevik editors and writers had on his work.[5] Babel was executed in January 1940.

In the interrogation files of Ukrainian writers, the focus on the actual creative output of the writers is almost entirely absent. Instead, these interrogations are largely focused on the possibility of the Ukrainians being members of anti-Soviet nationalist groups. The opening statement written by Kurbas in his interrogation file begins: ‘ I hereby… admit that I belonged to the counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation the UVO.’ His

1924 Poster from the Berezil Theatre

statement goes on to detail how his work at the Berezil theatre in Kyiv led him to join the UVO (in Ukrainian, the Ukrayins’ka Viys’kova Orhanizatsiya or Ukrainian Military Organisation).[6]

Why this change of emphasis? What was so different about the Ukrainian intelligentsia? Were they really all members of underground nationalist organisations, writing poems and plays by day, and plotting to murder Stalin by night? The answer lies in the broader context of the 1930s.  As the decade opened, Ukraine had become a problem for the Soviet leadership.

During the 1920s, Ukrainian language and culture had been recognised and positively encouraged by the Soviet leadership, as part of the policy of ‘Ukrainisation’, a pragmatic attempt to win over the peoples of the former Russian empire to the Bolshevik cause. However, by the early 1930s the policy was reversed, amid rising fears of anti-Soviet forces working within the Soviet Union.[7] Bordering Poland, Ukraine was considered both a conduit and breeding ground for spies, and as such allowing Ukrainian language and culture to thrive was seen as too great a risk.

Those who had held prominent roles in the creation of a confident, articulate Ukrainian culture – many of them writers, critics, and university professors – were now identified as enemies.[8] Their crimes were not rooted in their writing as such, but in their supposed nationalist aims. And on that day in November, this supposed threat was extinguished with one brutal blow – not just as a punishment, but as a warning to any other Soviet citizen who might be quietly nurturing nationalist hopes.

Does the nature of the execution matter? Is it even possible for us to compare the manner of one execution to another? Hardly. However, these subtle differences do shed a little light on the dynamics of the Terror: reminding us that it was not just one homogenous act of state violence but a complicated process, with small but important variances.

Polly Corrigan is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, where she is currently writing her thesis on the Soviet political police and their relationship with writers. She studied history at the University of Liverpool, and then completed an MA at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. You can find her on Twitter at @pollycorrigan


[1] Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.

[2] For a useful discussion of the term ‘Great Terror’ see Ryan, J, The Sacralization of Violence: Bolsheviks Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War, Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 808-809.

[3] See Conquest, R. The Great Terror, London, 1968; Getty, JA, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, Cambridge, 1985; Getty, JA & Naumov OV, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, London, 1999.

[4] Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.

[5] Ibid, pp. 30-31

[6] Archives of the SBU, F6, Op1, Spr75608, pp. 38-39.

[7] Harris, J, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, Oxford, 2016, pp. 178-179.

[8] Shkandrij, M, Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology and Literature, 1929-1956, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 272.




Language Policy in Soviet Ukraine

“Son, join the school of officers of the Red Army, and the defence of soviet Ukraine will be ensured!” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

by Katie Harrison

Ukraine’s history has been undeniably tumultuous. The Ukrainian nation as we currently know it has, for centuries, been split territorially, and portioned off to different empires. Broadly speaking, the eastern regions of the country were part of the Russian Empire, and the western regions were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Poland.  These historical divisions have resulted in modern Ukraine being a nation of two almost distinct halves: historically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the fifteen which comprised the Soviet Union. Its borders shifted between the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and its collapse in 1991, with the western Ukrainian territories being annexed from Poland in 1939. As part of this annexation, the Soviet authorities implemented various language policies in an attempt to instil socialist consciousness in the populace and create the socialist union they desired. This had significant consequences on the use of Ukrainian.

The Early Soviet Years: ‘Nationalist in Form, Socialist in Content’

In the early years, as an attempt to unify all nations of the Soviet Union, the government implemented a policy on nationality called korenizatsiia (nativisation) – koren’ being the Russian for ‘root’. This policy gave all non-Russian speaking nationalities the right to use their native language in all aspects of their lives, for example in education or in publications. Stalin had conceived this idea almost ten years beforehand in Marxism and the National Question, in which he argued that all nations should have the right to samoopredelenie [self-determinism] (Stalin, 1913).

It was hoped that transmitting socialist ideology via an individual’s native tongue – rather than compelling them to use Russian – would make it easier to promote Soviet ideology in Ukraine. This policy appeared to have great success in reviving a language which had formerly been repressed by the Russian Empire. Ukrainian was allowed to develop, leading to a rise in the number of Ukrainian publications and theatre productions, as well as a steep increase in the number of children attending Ukrainian schools (Bilaniuk, 2005: 91).

The 1930s: Russification

This resurgence of Ukrainian did not last for very long. Stalin’s government made quite the U-turn at the start of the 1930s, enforcing Russian as the ‘national language’ throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to be instrumental in this, as with nativisation: in The National Question and Leninism, written in 1929, Stalin envisioned the dying out of national languages, which would be replaced by ‘one common language’ (Stalin, 1929).

Ukrainian was forced to become more like Russian: spelling conventions, grammatical forms, and lexicon were altered accordingly. In addition, in 1938 Russian language classes were made compulsory in all schools throughout the Soviet Union in the hope that every young Soviet citizen would possess at least some knowledge of Russian.

Ukrainian School, c.1930-33 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1958-9: A New Schools Policy

This schools policy changed at the end of the 1950s, allowing parents to choose the language of instruction for their children. However, this did not mean that more parents were opting for their children to be instructed in Ukrainian, though this option was available. Due to a combination of high levels of Russian immigration and the comparably high quality of Russian-language education in Soviet Ukraine, Russian schools were the more popular choice for parents. Russian was deemed the language of science and culture, and was ultimately granted higher prestige than Ukrainian.

The Late Soviet Years: Resistance to Russian?

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language continued to be manipulated so as to be more similar to Russian, while Russian maintained its status as the more prestigious of the two languages. Discrimination against Ukrainian-speakers persisted; something which appears to have provoked pro-Ukrainian feelings in those who had previously been apathetic (Bilaniuk, 2005: 9). The emergence of these feelings seemingly acted as a catalyst for the pro-Ukrainian language policies that were implemented even before the fall of the Iron Curtain: the 1989 Law on Languages made Ukrainian the single state language of the Ukrainian SSR.

Announcement in a Lviv school: “We speak Ukrainian here” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, further language laws have sustained attempts to cement Ukrainian’s status as the sole official language of the country. However, despite such efforts, the country remains largely bilingual and linguistically split, with those in the south and east typically using Russian, and those in the west using Ukrainian. This bilingualism appears to be relatively stable and unlikely to change drastically in the near future, as people are able to either switch to the most suitable language in a given situation, or even to conduct conversations in both languages due to their proximity.

Katie Harrison is currently in her first year of a Midlands3Cities DTP-funded PhD on the role of language in the Ukrainian diaspora of the United Kingdom. You can find her on Twitter @karrison27


Bilaniuk, Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine (Ithaca, 2005).

Stalin, Iosif V. 1913. ‘Marxism and the National Question’, [].

Stalin, Iosif V. 1929. ‘The National Question and Leninism’, [].