The struggle to overthrow the cruel tyrant called the Russian Czar was long and difficult. The czarist empire was a prison house of nations.
Czarist Russia’s conquering of Siberia meant killing and exploiting Indigenous peoples like what was done in the United States and Canada.
Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria. Unlike Poland, which had been a powerful state for centuries before its partition, Ukraine was a nation in formation.
Revolutionaries fought against the oppression of dozens of nationalities in Czarist Russia.
“The situation of the Ukrainian working people today is tragic in the extreme,” wrote the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky in 1916. “The czarist cutthroats give them no chance to develop their language, literature and art.”
It was even illegal to publish books and newspapers in Ukrainian.
Before the Bolshevik Revolution, 76% of Ukrainians didn’t know how to read or write. In 1900, there were only 35 Ukrainian women who had attended college.
The treatment of the Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was particularly outrageous. Born into serfdom, a form of feudal enslavement, he became the most famous figure of the Ukrainian national renaissance.
Czar Alexander II had Shevchenko imprisoned for writing a satirical poem, an action that helped shorten his life. Besides criticizing serfdom and the czarist dictatorship, Taras Shevchenko also opposed the grotesque discrimination suffered by Jewish people.
The great majority of Ukrainian people had been serfs. So had Russians and other nationalities in the empire. Thirty thousand serfs were worked to death in building St. Petersburg.
Serfs could be bought and sold like cattle. They were beaten by their owner with a leather whip called the knout.
But unlike enslaved Africans in the United States, their families couldn’t be broken up. Their names and languages weren’t stolen from them. Children of serfs weren’t thrown to the sharks in the Atlantic Ocean.
Serfdom was abolished in 1861 by the same czar that had persecuted Taras Shevchenko. Alexander II did so before serfdom was overthrown from below.
One factor might have been the anti-slavery struggle in the United States and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War there in 1861.The martyrs of Harpers Ferry were not able to immediately overthrow the slave masters but they may have helped frighten the Czar into getting rid of serfdom.
Poverty and pogroms ….