Why Ukraine’s statehood collapsed 100 years ago
Foreign — particularly Russian — intervention and internal political fighting are nothing new to Ukraine.
On a snowy Dec. 14, 1918, Ukrainian revolutionaries led by Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Simon Petlura stormed Kyiv, deposing the German-backed Ukrainian government of hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky.
Skoropadsky, who relied on foreign bayonets during his brief stint as Ukraine’s strongman, alienated Ukrainian intellectuals by expressing pro-Russian sentiment, while also denying land to peasants, prompting them to revolt against the hetman.
The fragile Ukrainian state was dragged into anarchy, followed by years of foreign occupation.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s third largest city at that time, fell to the Bolsheviks in early January 1919 and was proclaimed the capital of the revived Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, crushed by German troops less than a year earlier.
On New Year’s Eve, lacking the strength to impose authority outside Kyiv, Ukraine’s newly formed government proposed peace talks with Russia, receiving a dry response from Moscow that there aren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.
A month later, the Bolsheviks stormed Kyiv, crushing all hopes for an independent Ukraine.
In 1918-1921, Soviet Russia’s war against Ukraine, fueled by internal turmoil and international indifference, led to Ukraine losing its brief statehood.
Today, 100 years later, Ukraine is facing the same old problems — Russian imperialism, which cannot accept an independent Ukraine with its own political agenda, internal divisions pulling the country apart from within and indifference towards Ukraine in the West.
In some ways, Ukraine is back where it left off 100 years ago. However, in other ways, its far better off: Its international borders are widely recognized, the national identity is strong, and, as the recent presidential and parliamentary elections show, the voters can unite to choose politicians they want to lead them.
Promise them anything
By 1919, Ukrainian territory was in the midst of chaos, heavily relying on foreign backing, unable to pacify different political groups inside the country.
After two revolutions in St. Petersburg — one toppling the Russian tsar, the other installing Bolsheviks in power — the Ukrainian People’s Republic proclaimed its independence on Jan. 22, 1918.
However, the proclamation of independence was rather a formality, meant to seal Ukraine as a subject of international law. The formal independence was needed to allow the republic to sign a separate peace agreement with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the small town of Brest-Litovsk.
Russia was still technically fighting in World War I on the side of the Entente, including the French and the United Kingdom
Mykhailo Hrushevsky, then leader of the Ukrainian National Republic, was a proponent of Ukraine having autonomous status in a democratic Russian Federation. “Without separating from the Russian Republic and preserving its unity,” according to a proclamation of the time. Yet Russia never turned democratic, nor keep promises of autonomy made to Ukrainian authorities.
In early 1918, the Bolsheviks were in a dire state themselves, unable to extend their rule over every corner of the multi-ethnic empire and were promising independence to anyone willing to take it.
A prominent Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, saw the Russian Revolution as only the beginning of a larger global revolution.
“We formally have acknowledged in our statements the independence of a Ukrainian Republic,” wrote Trotsky to Soviet diplomat Adolf Joffe, who headed the Russian delegation to Brest-Litovsk, adding that Joffe is permitted to promise Ukrainians anything, as long as they cooperate with the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks’ initially friendly attitude prompted a number of Ukrainian left-wing intellectuals to side with them.
Georgiy Kasianov, head of the history department at the National Academy of Science of Ukraine, says most Ukrainian politicians back then shared socialist views.
“When saying that (the Bolsheviks) occupied Ukraine, it’s not exactly right,’ says Kasianov, adding that Ukraine had a lot of left-wing politicians sympathetic to the Bolsheviks.
At first, the majority of Ukrainian peasants supported the Bolsheviks as well, being promised land, the most important asset at that time. “Peasants sided with whoever allowed them to keep the land they seized from landlords,” adds Kasianov.
However, after their victory the Communists started stripping farmers of land and forcing collectivization in 1928, resulting in a nationwide famine.
While Moscow appeared to hold talks with Kyiv, recognizing Ukraine’s left-wing government, in reality the Bolsheviks backed the Ukrainian Soviet Republic that formed in
Kharkiv, proclaiming it the sole representative of the Ukrainian people.
Communists sacked Kyiv a month later, relying predominantly on Russian warlords hostile to anything Ukrainian.
According to existing accounts, after Communists stormed Kyiv in February 1918, thousands were slaughtered, mainly Russian imperial officers taking residence in Kyiv and those who spoke Ukrainian.
Bolsheviks were pushed out of Ukraine in 1918 by German and Austria-Hungary troops who backed an independent Ukrainian state in return for grain and food.
However, Ukraine quickly lost foreign backing, with the Bolsheviks retaking Kyiv again in February 1919.
“The success of those attacking is mainly the inability of those defending,” says Kasianov. Ukrainian forces were too busy fighting for power in Kyiv and neglected the creation of a proper army until it was too late.
The Directory, led by Vynnychenko and Petlura, entered Kyiv with an army of around 60,000 people, which was reduced quickly to a handful of armed men willing to protect Kyiv from the Bolsheviks.
In early 1918, Skoropadsky, a wealthy nobleman and a skillful imperial general in charge of 100,000 soldiers, was dismissed from heading Ukraine’s army by Hrushevsky, who feared the general’s personal ambitions. His army, battle hardened during World War I, was left without supplies and dissolved a month later.
In April, Skoropadsky took office after the Central Rada, Ukraine’s parliament consisting of around 900 lawmakers, couldn’t agree on key issues, failing to raise an army, collect taxes and draw a consistent policy toward both Communist Russia and the invited German troops.
Contemporary accounts cite that German troops entered the parliament building and sent everyone home, without a gunshot fired.
Skoropadsky, who was proclaimed hetman a day later, also remained in office only briefly. After Germany lost the war, he decided to side with the Russian monarchists.
On Nov. 14, 1918, Skoropadsky issued a decree proclaiming his intention to “fight for the strength and honor of the all-Russian state.” These events, together with the hetman’s neglect of peasants, the largest social group of that time, sparked a major revolt spearheaded by the Directory.
The Directory heavily relied on local warlords and volunteer battalions, often lacking discipline and a common goal, including armed peasants who were denied land and the army of Petro Bolbochan, a right-wing Ukrainian nationalist who disliked both the Bolsheviks and Russian monarchists.
“The power of the Directory extended only over the train in which they traveled,” says Kasianov, implying that they were able to spearhead the anti-hetman movement, yet lacked actual supporters to keep them in power.
In February 1919, after Bolsheviks occupied Kyiv, Vynnychenko was ousted by Petlura for his pro-Communist views, while Bolbachan soon became an active opponent of
Petlura and was killed in the summer of 1919.
At the same time, Kharkiv was occupied by Bolsheviks, while Odesa was in the midst of a tug-of-war among the monarchists, the Bolsheviks and local warlords who often switched allegiances.
The war itself, Kasianov says, was fought in cities, while villages and towns were left with a power vacuum often filled by feuding local warlords. Among them was Nestor Makhno, an anarchist controlling large chunks of rural Ukraine, and Ilya Struk, a chief of the small town of Chornobyl, who was able to capture Kyiv in April 1919.
In 1918–19, Kyiv itself was sacked 15 times.
The personal ambitions of rival politicians played a major role in Ukraine losing its statehood.
Hrushevsky settled in Kyiv, dying during surgery in 1931.
Vynnychenko visited Moscow in the 1920s, yet soon moved to France. He remained a left-wing theorist, often writing sympathetically about the Soviet Union.
Today, when Ukraine once again is forced to defend itself against Russia, it enjoys far greater support from Western countries than a century ago.
In 1919, when Germany and Austria-Hungary surrendered, Ukraine lost its major supporters. Ukraine’s representatives were invited to the Paris Peace Conference, yet were marginalized by powerbrokers, who preferred a centralized Russian state and supported Russian monarchists.
Petlura was called an adventurer seeking power.
At the same time, Ukraine looked toward Poland for assistance.
On Jan. 22, 1919, the Ukrainian People’s Republic led by Petlura united with the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. This date is celebrated in modern Ukraine as an act of unity. In reality, unity between east and west was fleeting, with the leaders of the two republics breaking with each other in a couple of months.
Petlura favored an alliance with Poland against Soviet Russia, in return for ceding western Ukraine. The West Ukrainian Republic favored an alliance with Russian monarchists against the Poles.
After Kyiv was lost and an independent Ukrainian state was in dire straits, the Ukrainian Galician Army, the army of West Ukraine, joined Russian monarchists in November 1919. But a typhus epidemic almost destroyed their ranks.
The Ukrainian People’s Republic army, led by Petlura, allied with Poland against Soviet Russia, wasn’t permitted to take part in the eventual peace talks. In the end, the agreement divided Ukrainian territory between Poland and Russia.
Today, a number of parallels can be drawn, says Kasianov.
Russia is waging a war against independent Ukraine, while local elites still fail to unite in the face of the external threat.
After receiving its independence in 1991, Ukraine neglected its military for years, leaving the country unable to defend itself from the Russian invasion of Crimea in February 2014. When Russian aggression spread to eastern Ukraine, volunteers had to do most of the fighting as Ukraine’s army had to quickly rebuild.
Russia is also using the same playbook, denying its participation in a war against Ukraine and using local proxies to fight as many Ukrainian politicians travel to Russia, seeking support in their local fights.
Ukraine’s parliament has shrunk in numbers yet is arguably still ineffective.
Western countries lose interest in Ukraine’s struggles and prioritize relations with Russia. A sign of eroding Western support came earlier this year with the reinstatement of
Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, despite Ukraine’s protests.
However, much progress has been made in the century.
In 1919, the concept of Ukraine as an independent state was weaker than today. Now, the idea is supported not only by an overwhelming majority of its 42 million citizens, most of whom reject Russian imperialism. Independent Ukraine also has strong international backing.
“Today, no political party can deny that Ukraine is an independent state,” says Kasianov.
On that score, its survival as a nation is assured.