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Ukraine's Carousel of Death
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2015

For most of the 20th century, Ukrainians remained the largest distinct people in Europe without their own nation. This finally ended in 1991 with the birth of independent Ukraine, a state whose existence is still in question a quarter-century later. For Ukrainians the century represented, in the memorable words of Ukrainian historian George Liber, “a carousel of death.”

Ukraine has a large population, rich agriculture and considerable mineral deposits — all the prerequisites for a wealthy economy. But since the 17th century it has been dominated by its neighbor to the north, Russia. Under tsarist rule, in the late 1800s Ukrainians were legislated out of existence, their language banned in public. “Maly’ Rus,” or “Little Russian,” remains a deadly insult a century later.


Yulya Tymosheno, former Prime Minister of Ukraine.

 

Not all Ukrainian lands were under Russian rule, however; a small segment of western Ukraine had escaped the tsars. It was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire that Ukrainian national consciousness found a home. Seeking to balance Polish predominance in Galacia, the Austrians actively promoted “Ruthenian” organizations. Ukrainian-language newspapers flourished in Lviv (Lvov in Polish, Lemberg in German) and the city’s cultural influence slowly seeped across the border.

In much of eastern Europe, cities and countryside spoke different languages and had different ethnic compositions. Prague and Riga, for example, spoke German while the surrounding region spoke Czech or Latvian. In Ukraine, the cities spoke Russian, with majorities of ethnic Russians in the population. Among those claiming Ukrainian ancestry, most spoke Russian as their first language and many spoke no Ukrainian at all. These “Russified Ukrainians” usually identified with the Russian majority.

Outside the cities, few “Ukrainians” were aware of their nationality. “Subject of the tsar” and “from here” dominated the answers given to census-takers asking for nationality in 1896. Industrial growth brought more and more Ukrainian peasants into the cities, where their ways clashed with those of the Russians. By the eve of the First World War a Ukrainian national consciousness was forming, though it remained much weaker than those of other Eastern European peoples.

Ukrainian-language publishing, banned in 1876, was re-instated in 1905 but banned again in 1914 as a form of “subversion.” The fall of the tsar in the spring of 1917 gave the Ukrainian nationalists their chance, and they formed a “Ukrainian Central Rada” claiming jurisdiction over all Ukrainian areas.


Ukraine's first president.

 

As president, the Rada selected an exiled history professor, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi. Initially the Rada had great support from peasants and particularly from soldiers: Over 100,000 people shouted their approval when Hrushevskyi told them that, "The centuries-old fetters have fallen, the hour of your freedom has come!" They excitedly took a loyalty oath, and their president built on the rising nationalist excitement by ... convening a study committee. The committee met for most of 1917, and while events swirled around them they recommended seeking autonomy for Ukraine through gradual use of the Russian legal system.

While the Russian Empire's infrastructure crumbled, the Rada argued over the extent of its authority rather than taking control of the legal system, police and other levers of power. Dismayed at the lack of central direction, some 300,000 Ukrainian soldiers formed their own units and swore loyalty to the Rada as mobs of Russian soldiers fleeing the crumbling front lines rampaged through Ukrainian villages.

A large faction of intellectuals in the Rada argued that in the new order to come, old establishments like a standing army would be obsolete. Therefore, there was no need for a Ukrainian national army that might become a reactionary instrument. Many of the willing volunteers took their weapons and went home to their towns and villages, declaring themselves neutral.


Yulya Tymosheno, former Prime Minister of Ukraine.

 

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in Petrograd. In Ukraine's capital of Kiev, fighting broke out as the Bolsheviks attacked Provisional Government troops. The Rada ordered its forces, down to about 8,000 men in Kiev, to assist the outnumbered Bolsheviks and together they overwhelmed the central government's supporters.

On 22 November, the Rada declared an autonomous republic. Still stopping short of full independence, the Ukrainians sought "a federation of free and equal peoples." Ukrainian parties won overwhelming majorities in the December elections for the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, with the Bolsheviks barely registering 10 percent in the nine Ukrainian provinces. The Bolsheviks responded to their electoral defeat by invading Ukraine with about 12,000 Red troops.

To counter them, the Rada's defense minister, Symon Petliura, had about 15,000 men scattered across Ukraine. With most of the veterans refusing to fight, Petliura shipped high school students directly to the front, where the Ukrainians steadily gave ground to Mikhail Muraviev's Reds. Within Kiev, Russian workers at the Arsenal rose in revolt and fought Ukrainian troops for several days, while at Kruty east of the capital the Ukrainians made a bloody stand.

Arsenal workers rise against oppression in Olexandr Dovzhenko's 1928 film, Arsenal.

The Arsenal finally fell to the Ukrainians, but meanwhile the Reds routed the field army and massacred a unit of 300 high school boys who tried to surrender. Faced with military emergencies on all fronts, the Rada responded by debating a land-reform bill. Finally awakening to the danger, on 25 January the Rada declared Ukrainian independence.

Red troops took Kiev on 9 February, and on the same day the Rada signed an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary at Brest-Litovsk. But the peace talks taking place there between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers broke down at about the same time, with Red lead negotiator Leon Trotsky invoking a unilateral cease-fire under the slogan, "No war, no peace."

The Ukrainians' new allies invaded Ukraine themselves nine days later, pouring in 450,000 troops and easily brushing aside Muraviev's Red army. The Rada returned to Kiev on 2 March under German protection, and promptly began debating a new constitution while their young state collapsed around them. Peasants raged that they had not received land promised to them, despite the land-reform bill. Rich landowners complained that they had lost land to government confiscation and received no protection from marauding Reds, deserters and Cossacks. German and Austrian liaison officers despaired that, rather than gathering the huge quantities of grain needed by their war efforts and promised by the Rada in exchange for their armed help, the Ukrainian intellectuals squabbled over how to frame a separation of powers clause.

German frustration finally boiled over at the end of April, as no grain appeared. German troops disbanded the Rada and installed a Tsarist general, Pavlo Skoropadsky, as dictator under the traditional title Hetman. Ukraine's first experiment with democracy had ended in dismal failure. The carousel of death was just beginning to turn.

See the struggle for Ukraine in our game of
revolutionary strategy, Red Russia.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.