New From The Great War: The Actual History of Ukrainian Independence

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

In the chaos and violence of the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires at the end of WW1, new states are being born and armies are on the march. Kyiv is at the centre of the tragedy, as armies of Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, Bolshevik Revolutionaries and White Russian counter-revolutionaries struggle for control of the territory of modern Ukraine.

In the late 19th century, the territory of modern-day Ukraine was divided between the Austrian and Russian empires. Its inhabitants spoke many languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Tatar, and others. Throughout the 19th century, Ukrainian speakers came under pressure to adopt other languages, like Russian, Polish, or German, especially since higher education and career advancement were often available in those languages. Most Ukrainian speakers, didn’t play leading roles in the bureaucracy or politics of either empire – the majority were peasants who worked the land, which was mostly owned by Polish or Russian landlords – or polonized or russified Ukrainian landlords. On the Russian-controlled side, most people in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv spoke Russian – which in some cases did not necessarily mean that they considered themselves to be ethnic Russians, since in Central and Eastern Europe language was not the only factor in national identity.

As in many other parts of Eastern Europe, a Ukrainian nationalist movement began to gather strength in the 19th century. Poets like TarAs Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, historian Mikhaylo Hrushevsky and the Greek Catholic church all contributed to the growing sense of modern Ukrainian identity. Hrushevsky in particular developed the historical narrative of a Ukrainian national history dating back to the medieval Kievan Rus, in opposition to the Russian claim that Russia had inherited the historical continuity from the medieval state. There were obstacles for Ukrainian nationalists though: many peasants were illiterate, the concept of modern nation states was new to them, and the Russian Empire suppressed the Ukrainian language since the authorities worried a Ukrainian identity might turn the people against the Tsar. The 1876 Ems Ukaz was a secret decree that banned new publications, public performances, or the import of works in the Ukrainian language, and many Russian thinkers considered Ukrainians to simply be, as they put it, Little Russians.

In late 19th century Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, authorities allowed Ukrainian to be used in public life and the education system. Only after the 1905 revolution did Russian authorities allow some limited freedom for Ukrainian expression, which helped spur an independence movement and national revival. By 1907 journalist Wilhelm Feldman commented on the phenomenon:

“The 20th century has seen so many nations rise from ashes but there are few cases of rebirth so rapid and energetic as that of the Ukrainians of Austria… their unexpected and vigorous growth is mostly the result of self-help and hard-fought gains.” (Kubicek 73)

The Ukrainian independence movement was small but growing when two events changed its course in 1914.

In March 1914, the Tsarist government refused permission for Ukrainians to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Ukrainian nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko. This caused an increase in national feeling amongst Ukrainians. The other event of 1914 to impact Ukrainian desires for national determination was the outbreak of the First World War. Modern Ukrainian territory, especially then-Austrian Galicia, suffered terribly from the fighting in 1914 and 1915. Ukrainians fought on both sides, and 28,000 volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army – but both Empires feared Ukrainians might be loyal to the other side. Austrian authorities suspected Ukrainians of spying for the Russians, so they interned tens of thousands in camps and executed many thousands more. At the same time, Austria-Hungary tried to drum up anti-Russian feelings among Ukrainians in the Russian empire, and supported the creation of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine. The Russians further clamped down on the use of the Ukrainian language and cultural institutions.

As the war went on, Russian dissidents like Vladimir Lenin paid close attention to the aspirations of minority groups like the Ukrainians. Lenin felt they might help bring down the hated Tsarist system, but he still believed that Ukraine should remain part of a single Russian political and economic unit. Still, before the February 1917 revolution, he firmly saw any minority movements as potential allies:

"We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in a great liberating war of the proletariat for socialism, we were unable to utilize every national movement against separate negative forms of imperialism in order to sharpen and broaden the crisis." (Dmytrzshyn 17)

In reality, Lenin knew little about Ukrainian affairs and assumed – as did many other Russian intellectuals of all stripes – that Ukrainians felt attached to superior Russian culture and economic might.

When the February revolution in 1917 replaced the Tsar with a weak Russian republic, Ukrainian nationalist groups saw their chance for an independent Ukraine.

On March 17 1917, the day after the Tsar’s abdication, the Society of Ukrainian Progressives announced the creation of their own governing council, the Central Rada, chaired by Mikhaylo Hrushevsky. The Rada’s plan was to govern Ukraine as an autonomous member of a future Russian federal system – which did not yet exist and was not in the plans of the new Russian government in St Petersburg. Instead, the Russian government suggested autonomous administration for Ukraine that excluded the industrial regions of Donbas and the Black Sea coast. The Rada rejected the proposal and announced their intention to pass their own laws:

“Let Ukraine be free. Without separating themselves entirely from Russia, without severing connections with the Russian state, let the Ukrainian people in their own land have the right to order their own lives. Let law and order in Ukraine be given by the all-national Ukrainian Parliament elected by universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage… From this day forth we shall direct our own lives.” (Kubicek 81)

In the ensuing Russia-wide elections, which were dominated by the question of land reform, the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party gained a convincing victory with majority peasant support. Although the UPSR was allied with the Russian Soclialist Revolutionary Party, they wanted an independent path for Ukraine. At the Kharkiv Peasants’ Congress in May 1917, a UPSR delegate referenced the Ukrainian Cossack state’s 17th century fight against the Polish lords:

“Three hundred years ago we rose up against the pans, and took everything into our hands. We lived prosperously and free. Schools developed, […] Ukraine was an enlightened region, and from us learned people went to Muscovy. And what do we see now? Thirteen literates in a hundred people. We have not gone forward, but backward. […] Ukraine needs Ukrainian schools, the Ukrainian language has to enter the middle schools and universities. […] Ukraine ought to govern itself, to conduct its own business with its own Rada in K[yi]v.” (Guthier 33/34)

But not all people living in Ukraine supported independence and national development. In urban areas there were far more Poles, Russians, and Jews, who mostly opposed the nationalist movement. Only 10% of city votes went to pro-Ukrainian parties. The Bolsheviks voiced ambiguous support for the Ukrainian cause in an attempt to win over voters, but they only received about 5% support in Ukraine.

Few Ukrainians voted for the Bolsheviks in the short-lived Russian Republic, but once the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 their approach to Ukraine began to change from theory to practice.

Since the Bolsheviks seemed sympathetic to the Ukrainian movement, troops loyal to the Rada at first helped Lenin during the revolution. But the relationship soon soured, because as soon as Lenin took power he moved to a more centralized policy. He spoke of the “socio-economic unity of Russia” and argued that self-determination should not weaken the unity of the proletariat:

"Unconditional recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not at all obligate us to support every demand for national self-determination… We ought always and unconditionally to strive for a very close union of the proletariat of all nationalities and only in […] exceptional cases can we accept […] the creation of a new class state or […] the substitution of full political unity of the state by a weaker federal union.” (Dmytrzshyn 14)

Fellow Bolshevik Joseph Stalin opposed significant autonomy for Ukrainians and other peoples in the former Russian empire, since he feared those regions might come under imperialist influence:

“We are against the separation of the border regions from Russia since separation would here involve imperialist servitude for the border regions, thus undermining the revolutionary power of Russia and strengthening the position of imperialism.” (Dmytrzshyn 43)

As the Bolsheviks’ violent takeover became clear, the Rada changed its position. On November 6, 1917, the council declared itself opposed to the October Revolution and vowed to defend itself, which it did during a Bolshevik-inspired uprising in Kyiv the next week. On the 19th, the Rada declared the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) – but it also said that it did not want complete separation from Russia and was willing to become part of a future Russian federal system. Still, it minted its own currency and flew its own blue and yellow flag, though the colors were reversed compared to the modern version.

The Bolshevik reaction came on December 16. Lenin sent the Ukrainian government an ultimatum. He recognized the right of the Ukrainian People’s Republic to exist, but also accused it of a “two-faced bourgeois policy” and assisting anti-revolutionary forces. Lenin also demanded security guarantees which included supporting the Red Army – if the Ukrainians did not agree in 48 hours there would be war. The UPR refused to comply:

“[It is impossible] to recognize simultaneously the right of a people to self-determination, including separation, and at the same time to infringe roughly on that right by imposing on the people in question a certain type of government… On the territory of the Ukrainian People's Republic, all power belongs to Ukrainian democracy and therefore
any attempt to overthrow that power by force will be met by force." (Dmytrzshyn 32/33)

The Bolsheviks responded by pulling their forces back to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and establishing a Ukrainian Socialist Republic, which they claimed was the legitimate government of the country. In late December, they launched an offensive on Kyiv, which included some Ukrainian peasants who supported the Bolsheviks’ more radical ideology. Pro-Bolshevik uprisings broke out in some cities and in January and February 1918 the Red Army captured Odessa, Mikolaev, Dnipro and Kyiv. The Rada government fled to Zhytomir, but the UPR had been defeated.

The creation of the UPR was the culmination of a Ukrainian nationalist dream, but it was also smart politics. As an independent state, it could enter into treaties with other powers – and in 1918, Germany and Austria-Hungary were looking for deals in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine had long been considered the “bread-basket of Europe” because its fertile soil and high grain yields. By 1918, the Allied blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as their own economic mismanagement, meant that the two Central Powers faced extreme shortages of food and hundreds of thousands had died of starvation. So they recognized the UPR and struck a deal: the UPR would provide 100,000 train car loads of grain and seeds, and the Central Powers granted the Ukrainians the Polish city of Chelm. Ukrainian speakers in Austria Hungary also got improved language rights.

But the so-called Bread Peace treaty was signed the very day the Red Army marched into Kyiv, so the UPR was unable to hold up its end of the bargain. It had lost much of its territory to the Bolsheviks, and it didn’t have enough trains and railroads to move so much grain. So the Germans and Austro-Hungarians marched into Ukraine on February 18. Within a month they had cleared out the Bolsheviks, including from Kharkiv and the Donbas. They reinstated the Rada, but the Germans didn’t like its socialist leanings and the Austrians thought it was too slow in delivering the grain, so the Central Powers disbanded it in April. They replaced it with a puppet state called a Hetmanate, under Pavlo Skoropadskii. German leaders like General Erich Ludendorff were convinced the aristocratic Skoropadskii would do their bidding:

“In Hetman Skoropadskii we found a man with whom it was very easy to get along:” (Darch 161)

Skoropadskii’s regime promoted the Ukrainian language, but also reversed the Rada’s land reforms, and seized the peasants’ grain to send to Germany. The Central Powers’ occupation of the country also produced resistance. Numerous armed groups fought against the Central Powers and the Hetman’s troops, including famous anarchist leader Nestor Makhno, whose Black Army controlled large parts of eastern Ukraine. When Germany surrendered to the Allies in November 1918, Skoropadskii’s days were numbered.

The most powerful political force in Ukraine now became the Directory, led by nationalists Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petlyura. By December 1918 they had rallied most of the peasantry and overthrew Skoropadskii. The Directory then reinstated the UPR and the Rada, but kept it more strictly under their control.

So, as the Great War came to an end, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was created in Kyiv for a second time – but meanwhile other new states were also popping up in the region, which led to still more conflict.

The collapse of the Russian Empire, Germany and Austria-Hungary led to the emergence of a new Polish Republic, and a second Ukrainian state, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (WUPR). Both of these states claimed the linguistically and ethnically mixed former Austro-Hungarian province of East Galicia and its main city of Lemberg.

In November 1918, streetfighting between Polish and West Ukrainian nationalists in Lemberg escalated into the Ukrainian-Polish War of 1919. Poland was by far the stronger of the two states, all the more so because it enjoyed the support of the Allies in its war against Bolshevik Russia. The head of the Ukrainian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, Arnold Margolin, expressed his frustration:

“[The Americans are] as uninformed about Ukrainians as the average European is about numerous African tribes.” (Kubicek 86)

With more numerous, better-trained and better equipped Polish forces facing the Western Ukrainians, the WUPR asked the UPR for help, and on paper the two Ukrainian republics united in 1919. In practice they didn’t cooperate, since the WUPR’s main enemy was Poland, and the UPR’s main enemy was Bolshevik Russia. Since Poland was also fighting Bolshevik Russia, the UPR was not in a hurry to join West Ukraine’s war. By May 1919, Polish forces defeated the WUPR army and established control of East Galicia.

The West Ukrainian state had been crushed by Poland by mid-1919. Meanwhile the Kyiv-based UPR was still fragile after being re-established by the Directory, when the front lines of the Russian Civil War arrived on Ukrainian soil.

The civil war tearing apart the former Russian Empire also saw numerous armed forces fighting in Ukraine, which turned into a primary battlefield for all sides. There were Bolshevik revolutionaries, White counter-revolutionaries, anarchists, peasant movements, and Allied intervention forces. Bolshevik leadership was divided on where to concentrate its forces in late 1918 and early 1919. They did launch an offensive to re-capture Kharkiv and re-establish the Ukrainian Socialist Republic, and they also hoped that by advancing in Ukraine they might be able to open a corridor to support the struggling Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Red Army commander Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko was so frustrated at the lack of reinforcements for his offensive against Kharkiv that he went above his superior’s head to Lenin directly:

“Vladimir Il’ich, they call to us from the Ukraine. The workers everywhere welcome the bolsheviks; they curse the Radists. But the Radists triumph, thanks to our inaction, and are being quickly organised… In such circumstances I have resolved to go forward. At the moment with our naked hands (and with courage) it is possible to take what later will have to be taken with bloodshed.” (Adams 402/403)

Antonov-Ovseyenko also pushed Lenin to allow a separate Ukrainian Communist Party to announce itself before the invasion to add legitimacy to Bolshevik aspirations in Ukraine.

Eventually, Lenin did allow the Ukrainian Party to be announced before the invasion began in December 1918. The Red Army took Kharkiv in January, Kyiv in February, and clashed with French and Greek troops who had entered southern Ukraine only to leave in April 1919.

Once again, the Bolsheviks formed a new state: the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. Bolshevik forces now began to implement land collectivisation, often earning the ire of peasants who resented communal ownership. But once again, this state would not last long either. The anti-revolutionary White Russian army burst out of southern Russia in May 1919 and marched into Ukraine. General Anton Denikin’s troops took Kharkiv and Donbas in July, and most of the rest of the country in August – and they planned to keep Ukraine as part of a reformed Russian Empire if they could win the civil war.

As rival armies marched across Ukraine, terror often came in their wake. Much of this was directed against the Jewish population of the region, who often faced persecution from all sides. Between 1918 and 1920 there were an estimated 1500 anti-semitic progroms in Ukraine. Much of the killing was done by the White Russian army and the forces of the Ukrainian nationalists, but the Red Army and the Polish army also participated to a lesser extent. Both the Directory and the Whites associated local Jewish populations with Bolshevism with deadly consequences. More than 100,000 Jews living in Ukraine were killed during this period.

Civil war had already devastated Ukraine when the White Russians conquered most of the country in summer 1919, and the future of an independent Ukraine looked bleak. The only certainty, was more war.

In late 1919, the Red Army won a resounding victory over the Whites and once again began to push south into Ukraine. Red forces occupied Kyiv for the third time in December, and expelled the last Whites from Crimea in 1920. But unpopular Bolshevik land policies and political terror soon turned many Ukrainian peasants against them.

Ukrainian communist Volodymyr Zatonsky later recalled how many peasants wanted a socialist society, but without the type of Communism the party was forcing on them:

“We submitted ourselves to elements of the peasantry who, although very much sympathetic to Bolshevism, were nonetheless very suspicious, to say the least, of Communism… [Previously] the Bolsheviks had said ‘arm yourself, beat the landlord and seize his land!’ The Communists now say ‘give the state your bread, subject yourselves to discipline … give us your weapons’ … it is no surprise that … they turned against us with almost the same ferocity with which they had risen up against the Hetman and Petliura.” (McGeever 110)

To add to the destruction in Ukraine, in spring 1920 the Polish-Soviet War boiled over when Polish forces attacked the Red Army and advanced all the way to Kyiv. Ukraine’s Simon Petlyura, who had fled to Poland after his defeat by the Red Army, led his few remaining Ukrainian troops alongside the Poles. Petlyura’s support for the Polish state that had defeated the West Ukrainians caused great resentment amongst some other Ukrainian leaders, like former Directory member and socialist Vynnychenko:

“[Petlyura is an] unhealthily ambitious maniac, soaked up to his ears in the blood of pogromized Jewry, politically illiterate… a pernicious and filthy gladiator-slave of the Entente.” (Kubicek 90)

But Polish success in Ukraine was short-lived. The Red Army launched a counter-offensive in June 1920, re-took Kyiv and pushed the Poles all the way back to Warsaw. The resulting Peace treaty in 1921 left most of today’s western Ukraine in Poland, and the rest under the control of Bolshevik Russia. Lenin now hoped to attract the Ukrainian people to his cause, and did not repeat the intense Russification policies of the previous Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic - at least for a while. He allowed a degree of Ukrainian national identity to be expressed, as long as this was tied closely to international socialism. He also renewed his contradictory approach to self-determination. He officially allowed the recognised Ukrainian Soviet government to secede from Russia if it wished, but vehemently advised against it:

"We are opponents of national animosity, national differences, national peculiarities. We are internationalists. We strive for a close union and complete amalgamation of all workers and peasants of all nations of the world in one world Soviet republic…” (Dmytrzshyn 46/47)

Stalin, on the other hand, had more practical concerns about Ukraine’s strategic value:

“[Central Russia], that hearth of world revolution [cannot] hold out long without the assistance of border regions which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs." (Dmytrzshyn 48)

It didn’t take long for even the paper autonomy of the Ukrainian Communist Party to disappear. The Red Army absorbed armed Ukrainian communist units in May 1920, and the Party Central Committee took over the administration of Ukraine and abolished the Ukrainian foreign ministry. The Russian Communist Party justified its decision this way:

“The foreign policy of the Ukraine has not and cannot have any interests different from Russia, which is just such a proletarian state as the Ukraine. The heroic struggle of Russia in full union with the Ukraine, on all fronts against domestic and foreign imperialists, is now giving place to an equally united diplomatic front.” (Adams 62)

In 1922, Soviet Ukraine became one of the four founding republics of the USSR along with Russia, Belarussia and the Transcaucasian Federative Republic. In theory these republics had the right to secede from the Union, but not in practice. Paul Kubicek described the transformation of Ukraine from 1917 to 1922:

“Communism created a new economic and social order, and, instead of a political system in which one person ruled with the assistance of a secret police and a giant, unwieldy bureaucracy, the Bolsheviks established a political system in which one party ruled with the assistance of a secret police and a giant, unwieldy bureaucracy.” (Kubicek 90)

Ukraine emerged from war, chaos, and famine in 1922 without an independent state despite multiple attempts at independence. Well over 1 million inhabitants had died. Only in 1991 would Ukraine leave the Soviet Union and establish an independent republic, re-adopting the yellow and blue flag outlawed for more than 70 years.


  • Adams, Arthur E, “The Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian Front in 1918-1919”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Volume 36, Number 87, (1958)
  • Darch, Colin Major, “The Makhnovshina, 1917-1921: Ideology, nationalism, and peasant insurgency in early twentieth century Ukraine”, Department of Social and Economic Studies, University of Bradford, (1994)
  • Dmytryshyn, Basil, Moscow and the Ukraine, 1918-1953; A study of Russian Bolshevik Nationality Policy, (New York : Bookman Associates, 1956)
  • Guthier, Steven L, “The Popular Base of Ukrainian Nationalism in 1917”, Slavic Review, Volume 38, Issue 1, (1979)
  • Kubicek, Paul, The History of Ukraine, (Westport, CT : Greenwood Press)
  • McGeever, Brendan, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2019)
  • Shkandrij, Myroslav, Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-2017: History’s Flashpoints and Today’s Memory Wars, (New York : Routledge, 2020)
  • Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus 1569-1999 (London: Yale University Press, 2003)
  • Sullivant, Robert S., Soviet Politics and the Ukraine: 1917-1957, (New York : Columbia University Press, 1962)
1922 The Great War

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