Excerpted with permission from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy. Copyright 2015. Available from Basic Books.
The Ukrainian Revolution: 1917 in Kyiv
The Romanov dynasty, if not the empire itself, came to an end in early March 1917. In the previous month, food shortages in Petrograd (the war-era name of St. Petersburg) had sparked workers’ strikes and mutiny in the military ranks. Psychologically exhausted after years of war, Emperor Nicholas II was convinced by the leaders of the Duma to abdicate the throne. He passed the crown to his brother, who refused the honor—the Duma leaders predicted a new revolt if he were to agree. The dynasty was no more: pressure from the street, a soldiers’ revolt, and the skillful maneuvering of the formerly loyal Duma had put an end to it. The leaders of the Duma then stepped in to create a provisional government, one of whose tasks was to conduct elections for a constitutional assembly that would decide the future of the Russian state.
The Petrograd events, which became known in history as the February Revolution, took the embattled leaders of the Ukrainian organizations completely by surprise. Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a key figure in the Ukrainian national movement in Galicia and during the Revolution of 1905 in Dnieper Ukraine, was working on an article in the Moscow Public Library when he heard noises and loud voices outside. When he asked the librarian what was going on, he was told that it was a revolution: Muscovites were rushing to the Kremlin to take control of that symbol of Russian statehood. In Kyiv in early March, representatives of Ukrainian political and cultural organizations created a coordinating body that they called the Central Rada. They elected Hrushevsky as its head and awaited his speedy arrival in Kyiv. When he came, he threw his support behind the young generation of Ukrainian activists, most of them students and professionals in their twenties.
Few of Hrushevsky’s old colleagues from the moderate branch of the Ukrainian movement (now called the Society of Ukrainian Progressives) wanted to join the young revolutionaries: having experienced the Revolution of 1905, they knew that revolutions end in reaction and were prepared to exchange their loyalty to the regime for concessions in the cultural sphere. Making Ukrainian a language of educational instruction was their highest priority. Hrushevsky believed that they were wrong: the time had come not to ask for educational reform but to demand territorial autonomy for Ukraine in a reformed democratic Russian state. That sounded too ambitious, if not downright unrealistic, given the difficult history of the Ukrainian movement, but Hrushevsky and his young, enthusiastic supporters thought otherwise.
They began their activities in March, working from a room in the basement of the Pedagogical Museum in downtown Kyiv. By July, they were recognized as the regional government of Ukraine. They created a General Secretariat—a government of autonomous Ukraine headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, a leading modernist writer who wrote in both Ukrainian and Russian, becoming the first Ukrainian since Nikolai Gogol to acquire a significant readership in Russia proper. The new government claimed jurisdiction over a good part of today’s Ukraine, including the imperial gubernias of Kyiv, Podolia, Volhynia, Chernihiv, and Poltava. By October, it also claimed the Kharkiv, Kherson, and Tavrida gubernias, as well as parts of the Kursk and Voronezh gubernias settled by ethnic Ukrainians. In November, the Central Rada proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic—a state in its own right, but one that would remain in federal union with Russia.
How could all that happen? How could the Ukrainian idea, marginalized after the Revolution of 1905, emerge victorious in competition with visions of the future promoted by Russian liberals and social democrats, as well as proponents of Great Russian nationalism from the ranks of “true Russian” patriots of Little Russian extraction? In the revolutionary atmosphere of the time, the mixture of liberal nationalism and socialism offered by the young leaders of the Rada turned out to be an addictive ideology. The territorial autonomy of Ukraine advocated by the Ukrainian parties came to be regarded as the only way out of the plethora of military, economic, and social problems besieging the country. The Central Rada led the way as the only institution capable of meeting the two main demands of the moment—land and peace.
The soldiers’ committees, which wanted to end the war as soon as possible, enthusiastically backed the Rada. While the Provisional Government in Petrograd was busy launching a new offensive on the eastern front and pleading with soldiers to fight to the end alongside Britain and France, the Central Rada promised peace and became the only hope for it in Ukraine, which had been devastated by the fighting. The “Ukrainized” army units— detachments formed of recruits from the Ukrainian provinces and sent to the Ukrainian sector of the front in the course of 1917—declared their loyalty to the Rada. There were altogether close to three hundred thousand recruits. These war-weary peasants in soldiers’ uniforms were not only eager to return home but wanted to get there in time for the redistribution of noble land, which the Central Rada promised to carry out despite strong opposition from the landowning classes. But the Ukrainian village, politically dominated by the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, which happened to be the largest political party in the Rada, was solidly in the Rada’s corner.
During the summer of 1917, the Central Rada, which was originally little more than a coordinating committee of Ukrainophile political and cultural organizations, had turned into the country’s parliament as all-Ukrainian congresses of peasants, workers, and soldiers sent their representatives to it. The national minorities did likewise. Mykhailo Hrushevsky went out of his way to call on his supporters not to permit the repetition of the pogroms of 1905 and promised Jews, Poles, and Russians cultural autonomy in a self-governing Ukrainian republic federated with Russia. In return, the Jewish socialist parties joined the Rada and backed the idea of Ukrainian territorial autonomy. So did the representatives of other minorities. The Rada’s membership exceeded eight hundred, and its leaders had to create a smaller standing body, the Little Rada, to coordinate the work of the new revolutionary parliament.
Dozens of prominent Ukrainians returned to Kyiv from St. Petersburg and Moscow to take part in building the new Ukraine. One of them, Heorhii Narbut, a talented artist with an international reputation, became a founder of the Ukrainian Academy of Fine Arts. He also became the principal designer of the Ukrainian coat of arms and the country’s first banknotes and stamps. The coat of arms included two historical symbols—a trident borrowed from the coinage of Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv and the image of a Cossack: the new state claimed Kyivan Rus' and the Cossack Hetmanate as its two predecessors. The two colors of the coat of arms, blue and yellow, came from Galicia, where they had been part of its coat of arms for centuries. The colors symbolized the unity of the Ukrainian lands on both sides of the Eastern Front in the world war.
Not everything was rosy in the newly created Ukrainian autonomy. What the Rada and its government failed to do was to establish a viable state apparatus or create reliable armed forces out of the hundreds of thousands of officers and soldiers who pledged their allegiance to it. Writers, scholars, and students, who found themselves at the helm of the new parliament, were busy living the romantic dream of national revolution and destroying the old state machine. The lack of a functioning government and a loyal army became an issue in the fall of 1917, when the Central Rada began to lose control of the situation on the ground. In the cities, where support for the Rada dropped to 9–13 percent (the only exception was Kyiv, with 25 percent), power was shifting toward the Bolshevik-dominated soviets (councils). The countryside was growing ever more restless as the Central Rada failed to deliver either land or peace. The peasants began seizing state and noble lands on their own initiative.
The Rada’s declaration of Ukrainian statehood in November 1917 was a direct response to the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, subsequently known as the October Revolution. In Kyiv, the Rada helped the Bolsheviks defeat troops loyal to the Provisional Government, but that was the full extent of its cooperation with Lenin’s party. As the Rada claimed the provinces of southeastern Ukraine, which had not been under its jurisdiction earlier, the two political forces locked horns over control of Ukraine. The Bolsheviks gained power in Russia by taking control of the soviets—a new form of government created by representatives of workers, peasants, and soldiers and contested by various political parties. The October coup, which brought down the Provisional Government, was rubber-stamped by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which met during the coup and was dominated by the Bolsheviks and their allies. They tried the same tactic in Ukraine, calling a session of the Ukrainian Congress of Soviets to take place in Kyiv in December 1917. But most of the delegates turned out to be peasant supporters of the Central Rada: the planned Bolshevik coup in Kyiv failed.
That turned out to be a temporary setback. The Bolshevik organizers left Kyiv for Kharkiv, where a congress of soviets from the industrial east of the country met in late December. It declared the creation a new state, the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets, on December 24, 1917. At the beginning of January 1918, Bolshevik troops from Russia entered Ukraine and moved on Kyiv under the banner of the virtual state proclaimed in Kharkiv. Led by the Russian officer Mikhail Muraviev, they advanced by railroad and took control of major industrial centers, where they were backed by workers’ detachments mobilized by the Bolsheviks. The Central Rada had effectively lost control of the industrial towns, where it held sway over the liberal intelligentsia but not over the workers. It also had very few troops to protect itself against the Russian invasion. Those military units that declared support for Ukrainian independence in the summer of 1917 had been sent to the front, while Ukrainian politicians continued to think in terms of autonomy within Russia and spent little time or effort on building state institutions and an army of their own. Now they were constrained to declare their country’s complete independence of Russia, but they had no troops to defend it.
On January 25, 1918, the Central Rada issued its last universal—the Cossack-era word for decree—which proclaimed the political independence of Ukraine. “[T]he Ukrainian People’s Republic hereby becomes an independent, free, and sovereign state of the Ukrainian people, subject to no one,” read the text. In introducing the bill to the Rada, Mykhailo Hrushevsky stressed its two immediate goals: to facilitate the signing of a peace treaty with Germany and Austria—only an independent country could do that—and to protect Ukraine from the Bolshevik invasion and the insurgency of the Red Guards. But the historical significance of the Fourth Universal went far beyond its immediate importance. It was Ukraine’s first open break with Russia since the times of Ivan Mazepa. The idea of an independent Ukrainian state, first formulated in Dnieper Ukraine only seventeen years earlier, was now acquiring broad political legitimacy. The genie of independence was now out of the imperial bottle, and no force on earth could put it back.
“We want to live in peace and friendship with all neighboring states: Russia, Poland, Austria, Romania, Turkey, and others, but none of them has the right to interfere in the life of the independent Ukrainian republic,” read the universal. It was, of course, easier said than done. Russian troops were converging on Kyiv from the north and east, while in the city itself, the Bolsheviks staged a workers’ uprising at the Arsenal—the major military works whose buildings serve today as Kyiv’s art center and exhibition hall. There was a shortage of reliable troops, as many had been lured away by Bolshevik promises of land, peace, and the revolutionary transformation of society, which the Central Rada had failed to deliver. The Rada called for mobilization. At the railway station of Kruty in the Chernihiv region, advancing Bolshevik forces consisting of sailors from the Baltic Fleet and a military unit from Petrograd were met in battle by a detachment of approximately four hundred Ukrainian students and cadets. Twenty-seven of them would end up in enemy hands and be shot in retaliation for the stubborn resistance they had put up to the Bolshevik advance for five long hours. In Ukrainian historical memory, they would be celebrated as the first martyrs for the cause of national independence. There would be more to come.
Learn more about this tumultuous period during our "Ukraine in the Flames of the 1917 Revolution" series. Through four public events, we examine different aspects of the revolution and its aftermath.