As part of our series of articles to mark the Centenary of the Ukrainian Revolution the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign is pleased publish for the first time this essay by the historian John-Paul Himka.  Reconsidering the Ukrainian Revolution was written in the mid-1980s, but the author refrained from publishing it and eventually moved away from some of the essay’s positions.  John-Paul Himka is the author of numerous books and articles including Socialism in Galicia: The Emergence of Polish Social Democracy and Ukrainian Radicalism (1860-1890) and Galician Villagers and the Ukrainian National Movement in the Nineteenth Century, he is author of a study on the holocaust in Ukraine which is forthcoming .Ukrainian Revolution anniversary 3




Let us start where the revolution started: with the world war. Russian soldier on the barbed wireThe slogan put forward at the formation of the Central Rada’s first regular military unit, the Bohdan Khmelnytsky regiment, was: “War to a victorious finish under the banner of Ukraine.”[1] This was a triply suicidal slogan. Firstly, with this attitude the Rada followed the bellwethers of the Russian Provisional Government into the unprecedented slaughter of World War I, in which, conservatively estimated, some 8.5 million men perished in the service of the territorial ambitions of their governments and elites. Secondly, it was primarily the world war, with its carnage and acute economic dislocation in Russia, which precipitated the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government. To continue the war was unstabling enough for the Provisional Government, but the latter compounded its error by intensifying the war effort. The lemmings of the Provisional Government were blindly followed to the sea by the lemmings of the Rada. It can, and indeed has, been contended that the Bolsheviks would never have come to power were not the population at large, but particularly the soldiers, so dissatisfied with the prolongation of the war. And thirdly, establishing its regiments for the express purpose of fighting World War I to “a victorious finish” meant that the Rada would be sending what few forces it had at its disposal from Kiev to the man-devouring front.  The Khmelnytsky regiment was sent to the front in 1917, which left the Rada virtually powerless, since its other main unit, the Polubotok regiment, had been disarmed and arrested in the wake of an attempted coup (the coup was provoked by the decision to send this regiment to the front). No wonder that the spring of 1917 witnessed such phenomena as Kharkiv gubernia’s “Sviatohorivka Republic” which wanted to conclude a separate peace with Germany. [2] 

Ukrainian Military Congress in Kyiv

The mass soldiers movement in 1917 –  the First All-Ukraine Military Congress  held in Kiev.

The continuation and intensification of the war was a major error on the part of the Provisional Government, but at least the Provisional Government could invoke Russian national interests as a “justification” for its murderous policies. The same cannot be said of the Rada, though, which should have understood that Ukraine least of all had any interest in a “victorious finish.” After all, Ukrainians fought on both sides during the war. The Ukrainians of Galicia, Bukovyna and Transcarpathia fought on the side of the Central Powers, and their allegiance was endorsed by the ‚emigres’ from Dnieper Ukraine who formed the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine. The Ukrainians of the Russian empire, as well as Ukrainian immigrants to North America, fought just as loyally on the side of the Entente, and the allegiance of the rank-and-file soldiers was endorsed by all the Hrushevskys[3]  and Petliuras[4] from the outbreak of the war in 1914 until the collapse of the Provisional Government.

Moreover, not only did Ukrainians fight on both sides, but Ukrainians were savagely persecuted by both sides.

As soon as the war broke out, the tsarist government arrested prominent leaders of the Ukrainian movement in Russia, in spite of their protestations of loyalty, and closed down all Ukrainian newspapers. Within a month, the Russians had occupied Galicia and begun to engage in an orgy of anti-Ukrainian excesses, complete with arrests, book burnings, the abolition of Ukrainian education and forcible conversions from Ukrainian (Greek) Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy.[5] On the eve and in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, the Austro-Hungarian army summarily executed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and sent other tens of thousands to concentration camps, on the pretext that they were pro-Russian.[6] Meanwhile, thousands of Galician Ukrainian immigrants in Canada were also being shunted off to concentration camps, on the pretext that they were pro-Austrian.[7] Where, one is moved to ask, did the Rada get the idea that Ukrainians had anything to gain by a victory of either of the alliances in this terrible war?

Much that has already been said or implied about the Rada and the question of war applies also, and even more strongly, to the Rada’s handling of the land question. Here too the Rada followed in the footsteps of the Provisional Government as it rushed down the path to its own destruction. Here too the Rada had less cause than the Provisional Government to pursue the fatal policy of postponing meaningful reform, since the Provisional Government at least had the excuse that it was also representative of the interests of Russian landowners, while the Rada represented the interests of a nation composed overwhelmingly of peasants. Mikhail Frenkin is essentially right in his critique of the first Ukrainian peasant congress, sponsored by the Rada and held in Kiev 28 May – 2 June 1917 (O.S.):


Delegates to the First Ukrainian Peasant Congress in 1917

The First Ukrainian Peasant Congress spoke out against taking lands [from large landowners] at the peasants’ own initiative, [but] nothing was said about the immediate transfer of land to the Ukrainian peasantry. Although the SR P. Khrystiuk declared at the congress that “we need autonomy today,” no representative of the congress’s leadership said anything about the peasantry needing land “today,”[8] and the honourary president of this forum, M. Hrushevsky, limited himself to the following advice to the delegates: “to discuss the land question, which is the fundamental question for the Ukrainian peasantry, wisely and calmly.”[9]

            The Rada indulged in “wisdom” and “calmness” on the land question much to its own peril. This point has been made retrospectively by Khrystiuk himself (although, in true partisan spirit, he blamed the failure entirely on his SD [Social Democrat] rivals)[10] as well as by subsequent historians.[11] I would even venture to say that the clerically dominated Supreme Ruthenian Council in Galicia in 1848 (which also called itself a “rada”) showed more decisiveness on the agrarian question and therefore won more unified support from the peasantry than did its nominally socialist equivalent of seventy years later.[12]

            The acuteness of the agrarian question in 1917 is well known. Immediately after the February revolution, for example, the peasants of the Dnieper uezd of Tavriia gubernia sent to Petrograd a description of the almost-feudal exploitation still existing on the Falz-Fein estates in the region. Faith in the good offices of the new government, however, had already been undermined by April. A report concerning Poltava gubernia stated that the peasants’ “consciousness that the land question can only be resolved by the Constituent Assembly has been powerfully shaken.” By late spring and summer, returning soldiers and sailors were leading agrarian disturbances and land seizures in Poltava gubernia as well as in other gubernias of Ukraine; in the small town of Malyi Butlyk, near Odessa, peasants and soldiers began to expropriate estates and divide them up among the poor.[13] “In October the agrarian movement in Ukraine grew stronger, with widespread participation of both the Ukrainian peasantry and Ukrainian national units [i.e., soldiers]. Mass plunder, arson and seizure of estates and warehouses of spirits began.”[14]       The Rada’s reaction to all this is also well known. It made a series of purely declaratory statements about a settlement of the land question in the future, when the Ukrainian Constituent Assembly would meet and determine an equitable arrangement. This foolishness lasted a very long time. Indeed, as late as December 1919, by which time the Rada had been dissolved and resurrected as the Directory (and the Bolsheviks had twice taken Kiev), the Ukrainian government declared that “the final resolution of the complex agrarian question in the direction of justice and the satisfaction of the broad popular masses will be undertaken by the All-Ukrainian Constituent Parliament.”[15]

picDEDemonstration near Kyiv duma Summer 1917

‘Long Live Free Ukraine’ – Demonstration of peasants in 1917

The Rada’s indecision on the land question undoubtedly reflected the division within the Ukrainian peasantry itself. As early as the spring of 1917 the richer strata of the peasantry were making common cause with the landlords, rightly fearing that the radical revolution of the poor and middling peasantry would not leave their own holdings untouched. The Rada tried to appeal to both camps within the peasantry, relying increasingly on the arms of the Free Cossacks, the militia of the well-to-do peasantry, while making declarations for the benefit of the poor and middling peasantry.

Closely related to the Rada’s unfortunate policies on the war and land was its attachment to the Russian Provisional Government, even when that government was in an advanced stage of disintegration. It is characteristic that even while the Bolshevik revolution was progressing successfully in Petrograd, there arrived in the city a three-man delegation from the Rada’s General Secretariat; they had come to continue negotiations with the Provisional Government.[16]

            All during the period from February to October, representatives of the Rada had been negotiating with the Provisional Government for essentially two things: recognition and funding. For all their efforts they received little of either. In his memoirs, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the head of the General Secretariat, attempted to justify these negotiations by a pathetic account of the poverty of the Rada’s government. The General Secretariat conducted its business and received hundreds of delegations in two small, muggy rooms that Vynnychenko suspected were converted bathrooms. The Secretaries, i.e., the ministers of the Ukrainian government, typed up their own decrees because there was no clerical staff, and they swept their own floors because there was no janitorial staff.[17] To improve these conditions, the Rada negotiated with the Provisional Government for financial assistance. The justification seems valid, but only if we abstract from the actual historical situation. Russia, and Ukraine within it, was experiencing a revolution. With a bit of decisiveness, so woefully lacking in the Rada, it was possible simply to take whatever was necessary for the Ukrainian government to function. This revolutionary perspective seems to have been entirely alien to the Rada.

General Secretariat of the UNR

The General Secretariat of the Central Rada, first government of autonomous Ukraine in 1917  Volodymyr Vynnychenko is centre

            Vynnychenko also justified the policy of hanging on to the Provisional Government’s coattails by the argument that the Rada had to avoid an unequal battle with Russia.[18] This is an entirely specious argument, since on the one occasion when the Rada did defy Petrograd, in June 1917,[19] there were no concrete repercussions. The Provisional Government was a mere paper tiger. When the Provisional Government was nearly toppled a few weeks later (the July days), the Rada did not draw the obvious conclusion, that it was negotiating with the mere silhouette of a government, but instead it accepted the niggardly concessions grudgingly offered by the tattered paper tiger and it even issued the Second Universal limiting the autonomy declared in the First.

            This interpretation–that the Rada, in spite of all the self-styled socialists and socialist-revolutionaries in its ranks, was incapable of functioning in a decisive and revolutionary fashion and completely misunderstood the political conjuncture–receives powerful confirmation in Mikhail Frenkin’s book on the Bolshevik takeover. Although Frenkin bemoans it, he points out again and again that the Provisional Government was rapidly losing effectiveness almost from the moment of its creation. It could not retain control over the army and its laws were ignored. The culmination of its disintegration came in October 1917 when it could not summon soldiers nor rally the populace to its own defence against the Bolsheviks. The Ukrainian historian reading Frenkin’s account of the degenerating authority of the Provisional Government time and again asks himself in bewilderment: Why did the Rada take this government seriously when it seems no one else did?

Sovietof workers deputies

Militia of the Council of Workers Deputies in Kiev

            By contrast, for all his hysterical hatred of the Bolsheviks, the same Frenkin unwittingly depicts them as the very model of revolutionary decisiveness. While the regular troops of the Provisional Government were abandoning military discipline, deserting and mutinying, the Bolsheviks were forming disciplined, trained units of armed workers–the Red Guards. Ukraine was not a Bolshevik stronghold, but even here the growth of the Red Guards was phenomenal. From the beginning of the revolution there were two thousand Red Guards in Kiev. By mid-May Red Guard formations were also being established in Kharkiv, Katerynoslav (now Dnipropetrovske), Luhanske (now Voroshylovhrad) and Odessa. [20] On the eve of the October revolution there were Red Guard units in over forty cities and railroad junctions in Ukraine; altogether there were about twelve thousand Red Guards in Ukraine. [21] (Needless to say, the Bolsheviks did not have to send their Red Guards to the world-war front.)

            Red Guard units, like all military formations, cost money. Where did the Bolsheviks get the money to pay each Red Guard 15 rubles daily? They simply took the money.[22] The Bolsheviks and their Red Guards terrorized factory administrations into paying levies and contributions for the maintenance of military units which, incredibly, were dedicated to overthrowing the factory administrations along with the entire capitalist class. Capitalists were thus forced to pay the costs of their own destruction. Of course, from the revolutionary Marxist persepective of the Bolsheviks, this was hardly an immoral thing, but only the revolutionary reversal of the normal relations pertaining under capitalism, in which the workers are made to pay the costs of their own oppression. But revolutionary Marxism aside, does not this Bolshevik forcefullness stand in striking contrast to the pusillanimity of the Rada?

Demonstration in Katerynoslav (Dnipro) 1917

Demonstration in Katerynoslav in 1917

On the subject of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia and Ukraine, Frenkin offers some interesting ironies. He points out that Ukrainian national units played an important role in bringing the Bolsheviks to power in Moscow. The Seventh Ukrainian Heavy Artillery Division and the Zaporozhian Ukrainian Reserve Regiment both fought on the Bolshevik side, while two other Ukrainian units, the Serdiuky Zaporozhian Cavalry Regiment and the Sahaidachny Regiment, deserted from the side of the Provisional Government and observed a neutrality that only benefitted the Bolsheviks.[23]  Of course, within weeks war would break out between the Ukrainian Rada and the Bolsheviks.

            This war, which lasted from December 1917 to early February 1918, was a war marked by paradox. The Bolshevik invasion force was quite small, perhaps consisting of fewer than 6,500 men.[24]  The war-weary and revolutionized soldiers were not prepared to fight against the Rada.[25] Polish and Belorussian troops sent against the Ukrainian government refused to fight, as did the majority of the regiments dispatched from the north to join Antonov-Ovseenko, the commander of the Bolshevik invasion forces. Antonov in the end had to make do with special “revolutionary detachments,” who concentrated their efforts on organizing uprisings of the local population.

At the same time that the Bolsheviks were unable to muster sufficient troops for a regular invasion, the Rada was also unable to muster troops for its defence. The Nalyvaiko, Sahaidachny, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Doroshenko, Shevchenko, Hrushevsky and “Free Ukraine” regiments all either remained neutral during the fighting or else sympathized with the Bolsheviks.[26]  The Rada was not so much defeated by Bolshevik troops as destroyed by its own unpopular policies on land and peace.

 The incontrovertible facts that until the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia Lenin had consistently spoken out as a champion of Ukraine’s right to self-determination and that after October 1917 he did all in his power to bring Ukraine under Bolshevik control have given rise to the view that Lenin all along was a Great Russian centralizer who cunningly and deliberately concealed his true intentions.[27]  But why really did the Marxist champion of self-determination wage an unrelenting war against the Ukrainian national governments in 1917-20? It will be my contention that this apparent contradiction between Lenin’s words and Lenin’s deeds had nothing to do with political deceit, with Russian great-power aspirations or even with a doctrinaire Marxist preference for centralism or fusion of peoples, but stemmed solely from the conflict then raging between revolution and counter-revolution.

           Above Left:  Ukrainian demonstration in Kharkiv – Right: Paper of the Kharkiv  Comitttee of the RSDRP(Bolsheviks) 

To begin with, it is necessary to lay to rest the myth that the Ukrainian national governments of 1917-20 were fighting against the Bolsheviks out of dedication to the ideal of Ukrainian independence. This may be a fine and appropriate piety for sviato derzhavnosty concerts, but in objective historical analysis it serves only to obfuscate issues. The Rada, the Hetmanate and the Directory did not oppose the Bolsheviks because the Bolsheviks limited Ukrainian independence, but because the Bolsheviks were Bolsheviks. This is already implicit in the amazing Third Universal issued in the aftermath of the October revolution. In this novel historical document, the Rada proclaimed itself in federation with a state that did not exist! It claimed to be in federal union with the Russian republic, but simultaneously announced that that republic’s government had “collapsed” and been replaced by “anarchy, lawlessness and ruin.”[28] It simply did not recognize the new, Bolshevik government in Russia, although it held fast to the principle of federation with Russia. When war broke out between the Rada and the Bolsheviks in December 1917, the Rada’s Ukrainian republic still considered itself in federation with the Russian republic, whose de facto rulers were attacking it.

800px-Brest-litovsk-feb-9-1918a-Ukraine and Germany

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917

            It was partly in order to eliminate this very odd situation that the Rada declared full independence in January 1918, in its Fourth Universal. However, the main reason for declaring independence was the need to sign the peace of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers (only independent states can sign peace treaties).[29] The Rada regarded its declaration as a purely tactical and temporary measure. This emerges clearly from a brochure written by Hrushevsky, the president of the Rada, in the immediate aftermath of the promulgation of the Fourth Universal: “Ukraine has become an independent, separate state. How long it will remain in this condition, i.e., how soon it will have the real possibility of establishing a federative link with other republics, no one can say for certain at this moment.”[30]

Òðåò³é óí³âåðñàë Óêðà¿íñüêî¿ Öåíòðàëüíî¿ Ðàäè. 7 ëèñòîïàäà 1917 ð.

The Fourth Universal declared independence.

“Not breaking with the traditional idea of federalism, leaving the last word in this matter to the Ukrainian Constituent Assembly, the Central Rada nonetheless has considered it necessary for the given moment to underscore the complete and absolute independence of the Ukrainian Republic, i.e., its full right to manage itself….With those with whom it has common interests (z kym bude ii po dorozi), it will establish a federative link….Not breaking with the federalist tradition, as the leading idea of our national-political life, we must firmly say that now our slogan is independence.[31]

Very clearly, the Rada did not value independence for its own sake, but only as a means to keep Ukraine out of a federation with Bolshevik Russia.

            How little independence as such mattered to the Ukrainian national governments is also evident in the regularity with which they surrendered their sovereignty to anti-Bolshevik foreign powers. Within days after issuing the Fourth Universal, the Rada placed itself under the protection of the Central Powers. German and Austrian troops brought the Rada back into Ukraine and the German General Staff made the major political decisions, including the decision to dissolve the Rada and replace it with the even more pliant Hetmanate of Pavlo Skoropadsky. The Germans had extracted from Skoropadsky formal agreement to a long list of limitations on Ukrainian sovereignty and considered the hetman himself to be “only a puppet.”[32]  

GermanTroops in Kyiv 1918

The German Army marches into Kiev in 1918

As soon as his German guardians were defeated on the Western front, in the fall of 1918, Skoropadsky bowed to Entente pressure and declared Ukraine part of an all-Russian anti-Bolshevik federation. Skoropadsky was overthrown by the Directory, which restored Ukraine’s formal independence but continued to auction off its factual independence. Almost a year to the day after the Rada had surrendered Ukraine’s sovereignty to the Germans, the Directory surrendered it to the French. In return for the promise of aid against the Bolsheviks, the Directory agreed to give the French control over the army, the railroads, the finances and the composition of the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Another year later and Petliura was trading Ukrainian territory as well as sovereignty for Pilsudski’s aid against the Bolsheviks. In light of these well-known facts, how can anyone take seriously the claim that the Ukrainian national governments were fighting the Bolsheviks in order to preserve Ukrainian independence?

            As for the Bolshevik leadership, and Lenin in particular, it took pains to respect the separate existence of a Ukrainian republic.

Shakhray 1917

Vasyl Shakrai – a militant advocate of an independent Ukraine until his murder by White Troops in 1919

Vasyl Shakhrai (a Bolshevik who was more insistent on the need for Ukrainian independence than were most leaders of the Rada) correctly pointed out that in the first Bolshevik-Rada war of December 1917 the Bolsheviks recognized the Ukrainian People’s Republic, but waged war in order to revolutionize its government.[33]

And thereafter Lenin never wavered in accepting the principle of a separate Ukrainian republic. It was never simply suspended or abolished, no matter how bitter the fighting between the Bolshevik and Ukrainian national armies. Never did the Russian Bolsheviks follow the example of the Russian Whites (with whom the Hetmanites as well as the Petliurites sought an accommodation) of refusing altogether to recognize a distinct Ukrainian political entity. Thus to reduce the struggle between the Rada-Hetmanate-Directory and the Bolsheviks entirely to a national struggle is to misunderstand the events of 1917-20.

            This is not to deny the existence of national elements in the conflict, only to point out that they were not as clear-cut and decisive as assumed by many writers. Clearing away the layers of myth allows us to bring into relief what were historically the genuine national aspects of the conflict between the Bolsheviks, on the one hand, and the Rada and its successors, on the other. It would seem that there were three such aspects. First, the Rada and the Directory were the direct continuation of the traditional Ukrainian national movement; all their leaders had been active in Ukrainian political parties in Russia from the turn of the century until the world war. The Bolsheviks by contrast were very weakly represented in Ukraine prior to the revolution and, as internationalists, did not play a role within the Ukrainian national movement per se. Second, the Bolsheviks were always under central direction from Petrograd and Moscow and always worked in the interests of the all-Russian revolution, while the Ukrainian national governments (even when in federation with Russia or under the domination of Germany, France or Poland) had an exclusively Ukrainian perspective. Third, the struggle took on the most primitive form of national struggle–ethnic conflict, since the Rada and the Directory were largely ethnically Ukrainian in composition, while the Bolsheviks in Ukraine consisted disproportionately of Russians and Jews. The common denominator of these three aspects is that the Rada and its successors were Ukrainian nationalist, the Bolsheviks were not.

Nardny Secretariat 1917

The Peoples Secretariat elected at the Congress of Soviets held in Kharkiv was a coalition of RSDRP (Bolsheviks)  and left-Ukrainian Social Democrats – it included a number of strong advocates of an independent socialist Ukraine.

Lenin never posed as a Ukrainian nationalist and he never made a secret of his principled opposition to nationalism as such, whether Great Russian, Polish, Jewish or Ukrainian. What he stood for were democratic national rights, including the right to use a national language in publications and education and the right for a nation to determine the form of its political existence. In so far as it proved possible in a revolutionary situation, Lenin held to this position consistently after 1917.

Kharkiv Vistnik

‘News of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic’ – Published by the Peoples Secretariat in Kharkiv

            None of the Bolshevik governments during the civil war abolished the Ukrainian language[34] and none dissolved the separate Ukrainian republic. During the civil war the formal relation of the Ukrainian republic to the Russian republic was never firmly established, and the possibility of independence was not excluded. What occurred was entirely consistent with Lenin’s policy from before 1917. This is not casuistry. There were certainly armed forces contending in Ukraine at that time which wanted to return the Ukrainian nation to the oppression it had suffered in pre-1905 Russia. Lenin’s policy on the Ukrainian question was different from the policy of the Whites or of the Provisional Government; it represented a meaningful recognition of the national aspirations of Ukrainians as put forward before and during the revolution.

            If the Bolsheviks did indeed stand for self-determination, even after 1917, then why–one may ask–did they not simply let the Rada and its successors continue to function as the governments of Ukraine? It almost suffices to formulate this question to have part of the answer. Self-determination refers to the form of a nation’s political existence, not to the composition of the government of this political form. The Rada wanted to be the government of the Ukrainian republic in 1917, so did the Bolsheviks.

            It should be clear why the Rada wanted to be the government of Ukraine. It regarded itself as (and it was) the rightful heir to the Ukrainian national revival of the nineteenth century. By its lights, any other group in the government of Ukraine would be there as a usurper. Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko and Petliura belonged at the helm of the Ukrainian republic in the same way that Masaryk belonged at the helm of the Czechoslovak republic and Pilsudski at the helm of the Polish republic. The leadership of the national movements had inherited the right to become the leadership of the new national republics. Such was the logic of nationalism.

            For the Bolsheviks, this logic was invalid. They had no qualms about sending the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw in the summer of 1920 to overthrow Pilsudski’s government, and they would have been glad to see the Czechoslovak general strike of December 1920 topple Masaryk and his appointees.[35]  For them the sole concern was the spread of the socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks, especially their leading theoreticians (Lenin, Trotsky, Preobrazhensky, Bukharin), were intent on provoking an all-European, if not world, revolution even before their seizure of power in Russia in 1917, and they held fast to this aim into the early 1920s, until the prospects for an extension of the revolution had certainly disappeared. In their analysis, socialism could not be developed in a single, isolated, backward country such as Russia without the aid of socialist states in the more developed regions of Europe. Hence the major concern of the Bolsheviks in the period 1917-20 was to push the boundaries of the revolution westward.

Group of Armed workers from the January Kyiv 'Arsenal' Uprising 1918

Workers Militia and Red Guards in Kiev in 1918

With hindsight we can say that they overestimated the power of the European revolutionary forces. However, we must also remember that there were symptoms enough of a general leftist upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe to encourage them in their revolutionary internationalism: the Communist government of Bela Kun in Hungary in 1919; the January strike in Austria, 1918;[36] the revolutionary ferment, complete with short-lived insurrections and Soviet republics, in Germany, 1918-19; the general strike in Switzerland, November 1918; the agrarian discontent in the Balkans at the end of the war. With their revolutionary-internationalist perspective, the Bolsheviks could not tolerate a counter-revolutionary government to the southwest, namely, the Rada and its subsequent permutations. That the Rada was counter-revolutionary from a Bolshevik perspective had been evident even before October 1917 in its policies on war, land and the Provisional Government. Any doubts were erased in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power, when the Rada expressed its hostility to the Bolshevik revolution both in word[37] and in deed, by disarming Bolsheviks on Ukrainian territory while allowing the Don Cossacks to pass through Ukraine as they rallied to their reactionary general Kaledin.[38] The whole subsequent policy of the Rada-Hetmanate-Directory, with their anti-Bolshevik alliances and acceptance into their governments of such White Russian refugees as were willing to serve under a Ukrainian banner,[39] could only confirm in the Bolsheviks’ eyes the counter-revolutionary character of the Ukrainian national governments.

            Ultimately, the clash between the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian national governments was not a clash between Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms, as implied by much of the literature, but a clash between the revolution and the counter-revolution, which was simultaneously a clash between internationalism and nationalism.

            Seen in this light, the Ukrainian revolution was thus a very tragic thing. No sooner had Ukrainian nationalism come to a relative fruition and emerged from the underground to become a contender for state power than a young, and momentarily very powerful, force–internationalism–also emerged on the stage of history to oppose it. From yet another perspective, the perspective of such Bolshevik true-believers as broke with Stalin, the Ukrainian revolution was an even greater tragedy than this.

The Ukrainian national movement, by fighting a counter-revolutionary struggle against the Bolsheviks, contributed its part to the all-European counter-revolutionary effort which eventually succeeded in rolling back the socialist revolution not just to the old Russian borders, but far to the east of them. The Bolshevik nightmare of an isolated Russian revolution came to pass in a more terrible form than had originally been feared. By the 1930s the problems of “socialism in one country” were being “solved” in a ghastly way, with deadly consequences for the Ukrainian nation. Without wishing to minimize the personal contribution of Stalin himself to the horrors, this perspective would suggest that the preconditions for the catastrophe were put in place not only by the Clemenceaus and Wilsons, not only by the Pilsudskis and Masaryks, but also by the Hrushevskys and Petliuras.[40]


[1] Mikhail Frenkin, Zakhvat vlasti bolshevikami v Rossii i rol tylovykh garnizonov armii. Podgotovka i provedenie oktiabrskogo miatezha  1917-1918 gg. (Jerusalem 1982), 121. This book figures somewhat disproportionately in the notes that follow because a close reading of it was what originally inspired this essay.

[2] Ibid., 216.

[3] See, e.g., Oleh S. Fedyshyn, “The Germans and the Union for the Liberation of the Ukraine, 1914-1917,” in The Ukraine, 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution, ed. Taras Hunczak (Cambridge, MA 1977), 318.

[4] Symon Petliura, “Viina i ukraintsi,” in Ukrainska suspilno-politychna dumka v 20 stolitti. Dokumenty i materiialy, ed. Taras Hunczak  [Hunchak] and Roman Solchanyk, 3 vols. ([Munich:] 1983), 1:207-10.

[5] On the Russian occupation of Galicia, see Kost Levytsky, Istoriia vyzvolnykh zmahan halytskykh ukraintsiv z chasu svitovoi viiny 1914-1918, 3 vols. (Lviv 1929-30), 1: 41-6, 64. Lenin correctly noted about tsarist war aims: “Russia is fighting for possession of Galicia, which she needs, in particular, to throttle the Ukrainian people (for Galicia is the only place where the Ukrainians have liberty–relatively of  course).”  V.I. Lenin,  “A Separate Peace,” Collected Works, 23:126, cited in Roman Rosdolsky, “Imperialist War and the Question of Peace–The Peace Politics of the Bolsheviks before the November 1917 Revolution,” Revolutionary Communist (London), no. 8 (July 1978): 39 note 30.

[6] See the speeches of protest by Ukrainian deputies in the Austrian parliament in 1917: Ievhen Petrushevych  (16 June), Stanislav Dnistriansky (3 July), Illia Semaka (4 July), Oleksander Kolessa (12 July) and Stefan Onyshkevych (23 October), in Stenographische Protokolle Über die Sitzungen des Hauses der Abgeordneten des ”sterreichischen Reichsrates im Jahre 1917. XXII. Session, vol. 1 (Vienna 1917), 367-9, 613, 652, 905-6, vol. 2 (Vienna 1918), 1709. See also: M.H. Tsehlynsky, Halytski pohromy (Trahichna storinka z zhyttia halytskykh ukraintsiv v chasy evropeiskoi viiny 1914-1915 r.r.) (Cleveland 1917); Voennye prestupleniia Gabsburgskoi Monarkhii 1914-1917 gg. (Trumbull, Conn. 1964).

[7] Peter Melnycky,  “The Internment of Ukrainians in Canada,” in Loyalties in Conflict: Ukrainians in Canada during the Great War, ed. Frances Swyripa and John Herd Thompson (Edmonton 1983), 1-14.

[8] Nor did the congress call for peace “today.” Its resolution on the world war, while not devoid of lip-service to the idea of a quick peace with no annexations or contributions, concluded with the following statement: “In view of the fact that the rout of the Russian army threatens Ukraine with ruin, the congress considers it indispensable to help the army by all means and summons it to the active defence of the Native Land.” V. Vynnychenko, Vidrodzhennia natsii, 3 vols. (Kiev-Vienna 1920), 1:180. Frenkin is mistaken, however, in assuming that there was no connection between the questions of land and autonomy. On this point see Bohdan Krawchenko, Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth-Century Ukraine (London 1985), 58-9.

[9] Frenkin, Zakhvat vlasti, 119.

[10] Pavlo Khrystiuk, Zamitky i materiialy do istorii ukrainskoi revoliutsii 1917-1920 rr., 4 vols. (reprint of 1921-2 edition; New York  1969), 1:106.

[11] For example: “The outlook of the Rada was constantly lagging behind the rapid advance of the Revolution, particularly with regard to the agrarian question, for the leaders of the Rada were not yet prepared to face the peasant problem.” Michael Palij, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution (Seattle 1976), 247.

[12] See especially Klasova borotba selianstva Skhidnoi Halychyny (1772-1849). Dokumenty i materialy (Kiev 1974), 392-522.

[13] Frenkin, Zakhvat vlasti, 75-7.

[14] Ibid., 341.

[15] Ukraine and Poland in Documents 1918-1922, ed. Taras Hunczak, 2 vols. (New York, Paris, Sydney, Toronto 1983), 1:436.

[16] Wolodymyr Stojko, “Ukrainian National Aspirations and the Russian Provisional Government,” in Huncak, The Ukraine, 1917-1921, 31.

[17] Vynnychenko, Vidrodzhennia natsii, 1:258-9; on the need for material aid as one justification for the negotiations with the Provisional Government, see 1:274-5.

[18] Ibid., 1:274-5.

[19] The Rada held the Second Ukrainian Military Congress despite a prohibition by Kerensky; at this same congress the Rada unilaterally declared autonomy in the First Universal.

[20] Frenkin, Zakhvat vlasti, 255.

[21] Ibid., 261.

[22] Frenkin is so indignant at this that he seems to forget about the German funding he had conjured up elsewhere in his book and launches into a detailed account of the recruitment and financing of the Red Guards. Ibid., 271-4.

[23] Ibid., 312-14.

[24] Yaroslav Bilinsky, “The Communist Take-over of the Ukraine,” in Hunczak,  The Ukraine, 1917-1921, 110-11.

[25] Frenkin, Zakhvat vlasti, 339-42.

[26] Ibid., 242.

[27] This interpretation has gained considerable currency in non-Soviet Ukrainian scholarship. See e.g., Jurij Borys, The Sovietization of Ukraine 1917-1923: The Communist Doctrine and Practice of National Self-Determination, rev. ed. (Edmonton 1980). Frenkin thinks of Lenin as a master of deceit. On p. 179 of Zakhvat vlasti, Frenkin writes: “Lenin’s entire tactics had nothing in common, except for phraseology, with the principles of so-called Marxism, and he endeavoured by every means to create his own, i.e., Leninist, party, to whose members in their practical activity he recommended to enter into ‘all sorts of artifices, cunning tricks, illegal methods, silences, concealed truths,’ since he was profoundly convinced that the ends justify the means.” Then he cites two sources to document his quotation from and characterization of Lenin. One source is vol. XXV, p. 199, of the third edition of Lenin’s Sochineniia. But upon checking, one discovers that the quote from Lenin does not appear there, nor does anything remotely justifying Frenkin’s characterization. The other source Frenkin cites is vol. II, p. 31, of G.V. Plekhanov’s God na rodine (Paris 1921). Not surprisingly, here the compromised and embittered Plekhanov does offer a judgment of Lenin very similar to Frenkin’s, but Lenin’s alleged quote is nowhere to be found. In his discussion of Lenin’s position on the national question, Frenkin grew frustrated that he could not find sufficiently damning quotes in Lenin’s own writings. Convinced that Lenin was hiding his true views, Frenkin felt justified in exploring the writings of other Bolsheviks to establish Lenin’s “real” views: “If the leader of the Bolsheviks, as we have already emphasized, used every means to mask his centralist views on the national question and outfitted his speeches, in N. Sukhanov’s phrase, ‘with provisoes and fig leafs,’ his companions in the party clearly demonstrated their inimical attitude to the national-liberation struggle of peoples” (p. 113). And who does Frenkin quote to get Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ “real” views?  The Luxemburgists  Feliks Dzierzynski and Georgii Piatakov, i.e., adherents of a national-nihilist deviation consistently fought by Lenin and also rejected by the majority of the other Bolsheviks.

[28] “Third Universal of the Ukrainian Central Rada,” in Hunczak, The Ukraine, 1917-1921, 387.

[29] According to the Rada’s president, Hrushevsky, “the first motivation” for declaring independence was “the conclusion of the peace.” “The need for a more decisive policy in the struggle with the crusade of Great Russia under the leadership of the People’s Commissars against Ukraine” was “the second motivation.” Mykhailo Hrushevsky, “Ukrainska samostiinist i ii istorychna neobkhidnist,” Vybrani pratsi. Vydano z nahody 25-richchia z dnia ioho smerty (1934-1959), ed. Mykola Halii (New York 1960), 37.

[30] Hrushevsky, “Velykyi oboviazok,” ibid., 35. The brochure consisted of a series of short articles.

[31] Hrushevsky, “Ukrainska samostiinist i ii istorychna  neobkhidnist,” 37, 39.

[32] See Ambassador Baron von Mumm’s report to Berlin, 18 May 1918, quoted in Taras Hunczak, “The Ukraine under Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky,” in Hunczak, The Ukraine, 1917-1921, 71.

[33] It is worth quoting Shakhrai in extenso: “When open, armed struggle with the Central Rada began, Bolsheviks from all parts of Ukraine…were of one mind in proposing that a Soviet centre should be established in Ukraine as a counterweight to the Central Rada,  and not one responsible member of this party ventured to protest against the promulgation and creation of the  Ukrainian People’s Republic. On the contrary, in complete agreement with the programmatic demand of the right of every nation to  self-determination, they openly or at least tacitly stood on its [the Republic’s] ground. The will of the Ukrainian nation emerged, the Ukrainian people separated into a Republic in federative union with other parts of Russia. Well and good! We in this Republic will wage a war not against the Ukrainian People’s Republic, not against the Ukrainian people, not in order to strangle it. No! This will be a struggle for power within the Ukrainian People’s Republic–this will be a class struggle….” Vasyl Shakhrai [V. Skorovstansky], Revoliutsiia na Ukraine, 2nd ed. (Saratov 1918), 110-11. Emphasis in the original.

[34] It should be pointed out that the undeniable anti-Ukrainianism of the Piatakov government has been exaggerated in the literature. Compare the conventional summary in Palij, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 134 (which includes the statement that “the Ukrainian language was completely proscribed in state institutions and printing houses”) with the facts as reported to the Karlsbad conference of Ukrainian diplomats by Semen Mazurenko, who had been sent to Soviet Ukraine to negotiate with the Piatakov government in the summer of 1919, in Hunczak, Ukraine and Poland, 1:290 (“The Ukrainian language has been recognized on a par with Russian”).

[35] The crisis in Czechoslovakia is sometimes grossly misunderstood, as in Antony Polonsky’s The Little Dictators: The History of Eastern Europe since 1918 (London, Boston 1975), 120. It may be a misprint, but Polonsky gives the year 1919 instead of 1920 as the year of the general strike. The events leading up to the strike were intimately connected with the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, since in the summer of that year Czech railway workers went on strike to prevent the shipment of French arms to the Poles and the militant workers’ movement forced the government to declare neutrality in the Polish-Soviet war, much to the displeasure of the Entente powers. To describe the tenure of the two Tusar governments as a “period of radical reform” is an exaggeration, while it is absolutely wrong to affirm that when Tusar resigned in September 1920 “power passed to the more broadly based Pětka.” In fact, power passed to President Masaryk, who appointed a nonparty government in order to quell the growing workers’ unrest. That the general strike “failed dismally” is an overstatement, and to omit the causes of the failure (the new government’s struggle against the left in the fall of 1920 and the complete lack of preparation for a general strike) is misleading. Finally, to claim that “the Communists hoped that the strike would lead to their seizing power” is erroneous on two counts: a Czechoslovak Communist party was not formed until 1921 and the leaders of the 1920 strike had not worked out any political programme at all. Victor S. Mamatey, though also unsympathetic to the radical left in 1920, at least presents the facts of the case in “The Development of Czechoslovak Democracy 1920-1938,” in A History of the Czechoslovak Republic 1918-1948, ed. Victor S. Mamatey and Radomir Luza (Princeton 1973), 101-7.

[36] See Roman Rosdolsky, “Die revolutionäre Situation in Österreich im Jahre 1918 und die Politik der Sozialdemokraten: Der Österreichische Jännerstreik 1918,” Studien über revolutionäre Taktik: Zwei unveröffentlichte Arbeiten über die II. Internationale und die österreichische Sozialdemokratie (West Berlin 1973), 119-74.

[37] Not only in the Third Universal, already cited, but in a separate resolution. See Borys, The Sovietization of Ukraine, 113.

[38] Vynnychenko told the Little Rada on the day before the Bolsheviks sent the Rada their ultimatum: “We will allow the passage through Ukraine of the armies of those nations which today are engaged in self-determination [i.e., the Don Cossacks]….And, standing on the ground of strict neutrality, we will not let pass the Bolshevik armies for a fratricidal war on the Don.” Cited in Khrystiuk, Zamitky i materiialy, 2:82.

[39] Vynnychenko later referred to this practice as “collecting Petrograd’s garbage.”

[40] The thesis that the Stalinist tyranny was the result of the isolation of the Russian revolution finds its classical argumentation in Leon Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed. The argument has been restated, with some original insights, by the Ukrainian Marxist Roman Rosdolsky, “Zur Analyse der russischen Revolution,” in Sozialismusdebatte: Historische und aktuelle Fragen des Sozilismus, ed. Ulf Wolter (Berlin: Olle & Wolter, 1978), pp. 203-36.


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