Defiant Russia:
1919: Chaos in Ukraine

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2023

In April 1918, the German occupiers of Kyiv installed Tsarist General Pavlo Skoropadsky as Hetman of Ukraine, reviving a title last held by the Cossack rebel Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the 17th Century. To inaugurate his rule, the Germans had Skoropadsky appear at a congress of the League of Landowners held, appropriately, in the Kyiv Central Circus’ building.

The Ukrainian State proclaimed by Skoropadsky functioned as little more than the Ukrainian face of the Central Powers occupation forces. Real decisions came from the occupation’s commander, German Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn. German military courts had jurisdiction over criminal cases in Ukraine, and banks in Ukraine became indirectly controlled by the Reichsbank. The weak military units formed by the Rada, the socialist/liberal government dissolved by the Germans in February 1918, were likewise disbanded.

A gun crew of the People's Army. Most of them are too young to shave.

Few Ukrainian nationalists agreed to serve the Hetmanate, which turned to petty landowners, former officers of the Tsarist army and those who had served in the Tsarist zemstvos, the elected local councils. Balked by the Germans at forming an army, the Hetmanate government concentrated on the areas where the zemstvos had specialized, chiefly education. Here it had some real success, setting up two Ukrainian-language universities and over 150 Ukrainian-language high schools, and printing millions of Ukrainian-language textbooks. In November 1918, the Hetmanate established the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, which still exists.

Other areas went less well. The occupiers demanded grain, and the Hetmanate complied, requisitioning wheat and rye for shipment to Germany and Austria-Hungary, and confiscating that the land peasants had seized for themselves, and returning it to large landowners. When peasants resisted both of these measures, the Hetmanate’s officials turned to occupation troops for support. That destroyed what little legitimacy the Skoropadsky regime retained.

By mid-November, with the First World War having ended and the troops of the defeated Central Powers streaming homeward, the Hetmanate faced armed opposition. Skoropadsky tried to organize an army based on White Russian (that is, anti-Bolshevik) officers of the old Imperial Army, but these were few and unenthusiastic. Kyiv fell to the hastily-organized Ukrainian People’s Army in mid-December, when the Hetman abdicated and fled to Germany.

Symon Petlyura, proof that journalists make poor leaders.

The year 1919 would be one of chaos and anarchy in Ukraine. The anti-Skoropadsky forces formed a government of their own, called the Directory. A Ukrainian expatriate journalist with no military experience, Symon Petlyura, became the head of the Ukrainian People’s Army and soon dominated the Directory.

Even as the Hetman fled, the Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine again, and joined forces with anarchist insurgents led by Nestor Makhno. Romanian troops occupied Bessarabia on Ukraine’s south-western border, and seemed poised to invade. French troops landed in Odessa, while Greek divisions took over Kherson and Mykolaiv. The German garrisons gladly handed over the cities and headed for home. Anton Denikin’s White Russians also invaded Ukraine, as did the newly-formed Polish Army.

Petlyura’s military strategy consisted of attacking them all. The Ukrainian People’s Army merged with the Ukrainian Galician Army, which had formed in West (formerly Austro-Hungarian) Ukraine, and in early 1919 had perhaps 100,000 men. The poorly-armed, mostly unorganized Ukrainians duly carried out the offensives mandated by Petlyura, which led to massive casualties. A total lack of logistic services brought on thousands of deaths from typhus, and a failure to match Bolshevik propaganda campaigns saw thousands more desert to the Red Army. In a matter of weeks, Petlyura’s 100,000 had become 15,000. The foreign contingents – as opposed to the Ukrainians as they were to the Bolsheviks - departed in April 1919, following human-wave assaults on Kherson by one of Petlyura’s subordinates, who had switched sides to join the Bolsheviks along with his troops.

By springtime the Directory had fled Kyiv and controlled only a small territory around Kamyanets just north of the Romanian border. There, Petlyura managed to fight off attacks by both Whites and Reds, holding Kamyanets for the next few months. As the summer wore on, Ukrainian peasants, enraged by grain requisitions carried out by Moscow factory workers, rose against the Bolsheviks. Denikin’s monarchist Whites invaded Ukraine, conquering most of the Left Bank (Ukraine east of the Dnipro River). There, they massacred at least 50,000 Jews; all participants murdered at least some Jews during the Civil War in Ukraine, the total reaching 200,000.

The territorial claims made by Ukraine’s delegation to the 1919 Paris Conference.

Petlyura took advantage of Bolshevik setbacks to re-occupy much of the Right Bank, and his troops entered Kyiv on the morning of 30 August 1919. That afternoon, before the Directory could stage a triumphant entry march, the Whites arrived and kicked out the Ukrainians. The Bolsheviks launched a counter-offensive in the fall of 1919 that ejected the Whites, with Petlyura and the remnants of the Ukrainian forces withdrawing into Polish territory in December 1919.

The Poles had waged their own war against the Ukrainians of Eastern Galicia, the formerly Austro-Hungarian territory, crushing the Ukrainian forces by November 1919. Petlyura now made a deal with the enemies of his supposed allies, recognizing Polish rule over Eastern Galicia in exchange for Polish support in taking back Kyiv and the Right Bank. The Poles recognized the Directory as the legal government of Ukraine, with Petyura as its head, and formed an alliance. In April 1920 Petlyura’s army, now organized with Polish help into two infantry divisions, marched back into Ukraine alongside the Poles.

The battle-hardened Poles swept the Red Army before them, capturing Kyiv on 7 May. The Polish-Ukrainian plan had counted on Petlyura greatly expanding his army with new recruits, but these didn’t appear. Peasant villages built barricades and armed themselves with the mountains of weapons left behind by the many armies that had retreated across Ukraine over the preceding years. Semyon Budenny’s Red 1st Cavalry Army, the famed Konarmiya, ruptured the defenders’ overstretched lines in early June. By the 10th the Poles had ordered a general retreat, and on the 13th, Kyiv fell to the Reds.

The Red offensive broke in front of the gates of Warsaw in August, and the Poles with the remnants of Petlyura’s Ukrainians pushed the Reds back, taking Western Ukraine, but never approached Kyiv again. The Poles and Reds, mutually exhausted, made peace in October 1920.

The Reds had won the war for Ukraine, and in 1922 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic would form part of the new Soviet Union. Ukrainians had gone from very little national consciousness in 1917 to a great deal less than three years later. And they now for the first time had a state of their own, if in name only.

As for Petlyura, he went into exile in Paris, writing articles and editing a magazine. In 1926 a Ukrainian Jew shot and killed him, in what he said was revenge for Petlyura’s oversight of the mass killings of 30,000 Jews.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

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