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Nick Oleniuk: An Early Leader of the Trotskyist Movement in Canada

The Socialist History Project is very pleased to publish the following reminiscence of Nick Oleniuk, a leader of the Ukrainian-language Trotskyist movement in Canada. The author is John Boyd, who was a leader of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Canada from 1930 until his expulsion in 1968 for opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (For more information, see John Boyd’s memoir of his life in the Communist movement, on this website.)

The history of the first decade of Canadian Trotskyism is not well documented – and even less information is available about the Ukrainian wing of that movement. It appears to have functioned independently of the English-speaking group headed by Maurice Spector and John Macdonald, and it quite certainly had more members. Many of Trotsky’s articles and pamphlets were published in Ukrainian at a printshop the group operated on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. (The same shop printed The Vanguard, the English group’s paper.)

In 1936 the Ukrainian Trotskyist group in Canada appears to have merged with a group of dissidents who had recently been expelled from the Communist Party and the Ukrainian Labor Farmer Temple Association. Much more research needs to be done on this subject.

My Memories Of Nick Oleniuk

By John Boyd

My earliest recollection of Nick Oleniuk goes back to the late 1920s, when I was in my early teens. A relatively new immigrant, Nick had come to the town of Thorold, where my family lived at the time, to teach at a children’s Ukrainian language after-hours school. I was one of his pupils. Then, in 1930, at the age of 17, I was chosen to go to a Ukrainian leadership training school organized by the ULFTA and held for some five months near Winnipeg. Whereas the earlier training schools were for teachers of Ukrainian language and conductors of choirs and mandolin orchestras, this was the first one for organizational and political training. It was directed by Matthew Popovich and was in a sense a party school. At 17, I was the youngest student. It included individuals like Peter Prokop, Tom Chopowick and Misha Korol. Nick Oleniuk also was signed up but did not stay through the entire term. With his knowledge, he probably felt he would not learn much there, but I suspect also that by then he was already having doubts and differences with the party around the issues raised by Trotsky and his followers. Of which at that time I was totally ignorant (and was kept ignorant).

When the training school was finished, in the fall of 1930, I came to Toronto. Neither the ULFTA or the party had anything for me to do, although I found out much later that I had been one of four graduates of that school selected to attend a three-year training schools in Kiev but the party leadership had intervened and vetoed my going; they planned to have me attend the Lenin School in Moscow later and work in what was then called the “Anglo-Saxon field.” In Toronto, I got a job in a cap factory owned by one of the party members but I had no place to stay. So Nick Oleniuk invited me to stay with him in a  room he was renting on Bellwoods Avenue. We slept in the same double bed, which wasn't so unusual in those days.

In the four or five months I stayed with Nick, we got to be very good friends and I learned a great deal from him. I liked Nick very much and looked up to him. He was for a time my mentor. It was during that time that I discovered what a bright, indeed brilliant, man he was and how basically kind, caring and compassionate he was. I learned much from him about life in general and about himself. Before coming to Canada, he lived in the region of Bukovyna, the part of Western Ukraine that was then under Romanian rule, as distinct from Galicia (Halychyna), which was under Polish rule. He was attending the medical school at the University of Chernivtsi, the capital city of Bukovyna., but he was also active in the illegal Communist Party of Western Ukraine and at one point, more than half way through his medical studies, to avoid impending arrest and imprisonment, he fled the country and came to Canada. Very soon after his arrival, he became a member of the ULFTA and the Communist Party. In the Toronto ULFTA branch he was a very active member, mainly on the stage. He was a talented actor and an able director.

Very early on in the struggle that was going on in the CPSU – the persecution by Stalin of anyone who was critical of his policies – Nick sided with the opposition: Trotsky and his followers. For most of the time I wasn’t really aware of all this. I was a naive and idealistic young Communist, enamored of the young Soviet Union and its leaders and the leaders of the Comintern. Nick did not discuss these issues with me or involve me in the ideological debate that was going on. It wasn’t until some time later, when Nick and his colleagues were expelled from the party, that I became aware of the seriousness of the matter. Like most of the party members, I was brainwashed into believing that Nick had “taken the wrong road.”

Looking back at the events of those days, two aspects of that struggle haunt me. To this day:

1) When Nick and several of his Ukrainian comrades (Bosovich, Kuchmak and others) were expelled for “Trotskyism,” within one week a meeting of the Ukrainian party “fraction” was held, at which it was decided that they also be expelled from the ULFTA (supposedly an independent, non-party cultural organization).

There was a germ of an idea within me at the time that this didn’t square with what the party leaders were saying, but that was overshadowed and overpowered by the virulent anti-Trotskyist propaganda we were all fed.

2) How effectively and successfully, over the years, the party leaders in Moscow, at first through the Comintern and later through their the powerful world-wide propaganda machine, were able to brainwash the membership of every Communist Party in the world, and even of other organizations the party influenced, into believing that Trotskyists were traitors of socialism. Yet never was a shred of evidence ever produced to back up those charges. It was all “based” on the concocted “confessions” of the staged Moscow trials of the mid-1930s. I vividly recall, for example, how  in 1937-38, when the Canadian Youth Congress was organized and included young Tories, Liberals and CCFers, the YCL could not accept the sincere efforts of the Trotskyists to participate and sought ways to denigrate and denounce them. And they did it at all subsequent peace conferences, demonstrations and union conventions.

I lost touch with Nick after I went to Winnipeg in 1931 to become national secretary of the ULFTA Youth Section. While I often thought of him, I could hardly be seen trying to re-establish contact with someone who was a known Trotskyist.  But I never ever could condemn him or think ill of him either in my mind or publicly.

I didn’t face up to the whole idea and concept of Trotskyism until after the CPSU’s 20th Congress and the Khrushchev revelations, which coincided with the fact that all three of my children had by this time become active members of the Trotskyist movement. My wife and I had many heated arguments with them, during which I desperately tried to defend the dogmatic positions I had been taught to uphold all my life, during which also all the doubts, disappointments and disillusionments about the CP that I had accumulated over the years came to the fore and during which I also became shamefacedly aware that I had been rejecting and condemning Trotsky without ever having read anything by him or about him!.

In 1967, with those arguments with my children still ringing in our rears, my wife and I left for Prague, where I spent the next two years working as a Canadian CP representative on the extended editorial board of the World Marxist Review. Those two years were “my university,” so to speak. I  learned a great deal: from the events that transpired there at the time but also from the many one-on-one and heart-to-heart conversations I had with Russians, Czechs and active CP members from other countries, who took me into their confidence. Two of these were particularly helpful: (1) Molly Perlman, one of the Soviet editors and translators on the magazine staff. She had come to the Soviet Union at the age of 18, with her mother from South Africa in the early 1920s, had worked for the Comintern and had learned enough about the workings of the Stalin regime and how to miraculously “survive,” and especially (2) John Gibbons, the British CP representative, who lived through all the war years in the Soviet Union and then spent all the subsequent years working on the party’s international journals and was therefore privy to a lot of what happened behind the scenes during all that time. From all these contacts and conversations I also learned how right the Trotskyists were in most of what they said about the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.

By the time I returned to Canada, many important changes had taken place. Most of the Communist parties, including the Canadian, were bitterly divided over the events in Czechoslovakia and many members left their ranks. I, too, resigned. Following the visit of the Canadian party’s delegation to the Soviet Union to investigate the russification of Ukrainians there, the leaders of the Ukrainian organization no longer took their leadership from the party In this new atmosphere, Nick Oleniuk decided to rejoin the organization (the AUUC) and was accepted, although he proved to be quite the maverick, challenging every evidence of the old bureaucratic party methods within the leadership of the organization. On my return, I quickly re-established my old friendship with Nick. And he welcomed me back very warmly. Besides, my three children, as fellow Trotskyists, had also become his dear friends.

During this time I got to know Nick even better. And how truly talented and bright he was. I would venture to say that of all the leading and active people in the Ukrainian left-wing movement he was perhaps the most knowledgeable. He was the only one of them that had attended a university. He knew several languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Romanian (the language of his university studies), Latin (to which the Romanian is closer than the Italian), and some German. He was well versed in Ukrainian and Russian literature and, somewhat to my surprise, his knowledge of English and English literature was amazing. Not only did he appreciate the nuances of Shakespeare but he was good at cryptic crosswords, which really require an unusual appreciation of the language’s nuances. I also learned that he was also skillful with his hands, that during all the years I had not been in touch with him he worked for living as a talented wood craftsman, a cabinet-maker.

It is a commentary on Nick’s perception and independence of thought that he began questioning the methodology of some of the Soviet leaders, as early as the late 1920s, when Stalin began the process that eventually led to his takeover of the party. This quickly led him to side with Trotsky and his followers and his expulsion from the party. During Trotsky’s stay in Mexico, Nick carried on a brief correspondence with him, in Russian.

Rae Murphy, on reading my memoirs some time ago, wrote me and included the following: ”There are so many other things in your memoirs I enjoyed. I remember Nick Oleniuk at our house when he was talking with my father about correcting an error in one of Trotsky's articles and getting an answer from Trotsky. My dad said ‘Wow, that's like getting a personal letter from Joe (Stalin).’ Nick just said, ‘Better.’"

That was Nick. Modest and unpretentious. With his knowledge, his talent and his many skills he could have been a leader in the Ukrainian left-wing movement. But he never sought the limelight. He preferred to just do his bit and stay in the background. He was very critical of many of the leaders in the Communist Party (Ukrainians and others) because he hated big egos but he always did it with a touch of humour. Indeed, his ready smile and cheerful outlook is what I remember most about him. He was my mentor and my model when I was with him at the age of 17 and 18 and later someone I held awe and great esteem right up to his final years. He left a lasting impression on me.

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