The Ukrainian Revolution 1917-1921: Deciding the fate of European socialist revolution

Submitted by AWL on 21 November, 2007 - 3:51 Author: Chris Ford

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution it is important to recognise that it was more than a Russian event. It swept across the entire Russian Empire with the long oppressed nations making their bid for freedom. The most important challenge was in “Russia’s Ireland” – Ukraine. To mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic ninety years ago on November 22, 1917 this article examines the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-21, which was pivotal in deciding the fate not only of the Russian Revolution but the entire European socialist Revolution.

In 1917 Ukraine was partitioned between the Austrian and Russian Empires, the majority having been held in a colonial position by Tsarist Russia for over two and a half centuries, exploited and subjected to policies of Russification. Capitalism did not develop organically but to suit the needs of Russian and European capital, shaped in a colonial framework. This impacted on the state, capital, labour relations.

The capitalist class was overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian, whilst the working class which amounted to 21 percent of the populace, bore the stigmata of colonialism with a Russian upper layer.

Ukrainians were relegated to the low paid, flexible labour strata. The Russian and Russified element of the urban workers was the domain of the Russian socialist organisations; situated in Russified cities, this element was disconnected from the mass of Ukrainians in the rural districts, mostly classed as peasants. “Peasant” was synonymous with “Ukrainian”.

Here the social and national questions were enmeshed in an explosive cocktail. Alongside the Russian state and church, the overlords of the impoverished peasants comprised a class of Russian and Polish gentry. In this context the Ukrainian Marxist Mykola Porsh had concluded that the:

“Ukrainian national movement will not be a bourgeois movement of triumphant capitalism, as in the case of the Czechs. It will be more like the Irish case, a proletarian and semi-proletarianised peasant movement.”

The social and national revolution

Following the fall of the Tsarist autocracy the Ukrainian revolution soon differentiated itself from the wider Russian Revolution, setting as its task the achievement of self-government. The movement was a bloc of the middle class, the peasantry and the Ukrainian section of the working class, centred in the Ukrainian Central Rada.

At its head was Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, Ukraine’s greatest historian, elected on behalf of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR), and the Marxist Volodymyr Vynnychenko, popular writer and a leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party (USDRP). The Central Rada was a mass assembly consisting of councils of peasants’, soldiers’ and workers’ deputies elected at their respective congresses; it later expanded its constituency, drawing in the national minorities, with the pioneering organisation of Jewish national autonomy.

The Central Rada faced the burning questions of the world war, agrarian revolution, spiralling economic crisis. But whilst all the leading parties identified themselves as socialists, there were fundamental differences in their conceptions of the revolution.

On the key issues the leaders prevaricated and lagged behind the pace of the popular movement, even on the national question with which it was preoccupied. Increasingly relations strained within the Central Rada, between its ruling circles drawn largely from the intelligentsia and the middle class, and the rank and file.

The prevailing opinion was that the creation of a sovereign state was the “precondition of the success of its struggle for political and social liberation”. This corresponded with the dualist view, that there should be a socialist revolution in the west but in “backward” Russia it would be bourgeois democratic.

The opinion steadily grew in the Ukrainian socialist parties that the task was to “carry the bourgeois democratic revolution to its conclusion” and “carry out a social revolution”. But what rapidly emerged as the salient feature of the revolution was a division between the Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian section of the working class and the estrangement of the peasantry from the urban workers, resulting in the separation of the social and national dimensions.

In its popular base, there was growing feeling that the inactivity of the Central Rada in the social sphere could not be justified by the obstacle of the weak Russian Provisional Government.

The October revolution brought these contradictions to a head, sharply focusing the question of the nature of the revolution.

When the Central Rada seized power and declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), a favourable conjuncture for a rapprochement between the divergent elements arose from two trends. The first was the growth in support in the USDRP and the UPSR for the radical socialist regeneration of the Central Rada. The second was the surge of support in the soviets recognising the UNR and seeking its re-election.

The cleavages on the social and national questions found its resolution encapsulated in the idea of an independent Ukraine based upon the organs of workers’ and peasants’ self-government. That this was a viable possibility can be seen from two short-lived initiatives.

In Kyiv the Bolsheviks and Central Rada co-operated to overthrow the Provisional Government united in a “National Committee for the defence of the revolution” composed of all revolutionary organisations in Kyiv and the socialist parties. Similarly a “Kharkiv Province Military Revolutionary Committee” was formed combining the soviets and the Free Ukrainian Rada.

The cry for workers’ control, land seizures, and the anti-war mood of soldiers all pointed in one direction — a socialist transformation. But the forces that could bring this about did not combine and moved unevenly.

The Bolshevik leaders in Russia were tactless, taking no account of the Ukrainian peculiarities. The All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies on 16 December 1917 was a lost opportunity. The event was ignited by a surprise ultimatum by Soviet Russia threatening war, without any consultation with Bolsheviks in Ukraine.The moderate leaders of the UNR denied proportional representation to the urban soviets and some USDRP leaders sabotaged their mandate to seek agreement with the Bolsheviks. In an atmosphere of recriminations the Congress overwhelmingly backed the Central Rada, but it was a pyrrhic victory.

The internal fragmentation produced two rival governments of the UNR, one in Kharkiv appointed by a smaller Congress of soviets, the other formed by the Central Rada in Kyiv. In the ensuing “fratricidal war” many Bolshevik workers abstained. The Central Rada also ran into trouble — many took a neutral position or defected. For all the efforts of the Russian Bolsheviks to make the war one of classes, it took the form of a national conflict, which paralyzed much of the Ukrainian left. The Kharkiv government of Bolsheviks and USD (Left) was largely ignored by Soviet Russia’s troops, sections of whom indulged in chauvinist outrages.

The continuing war by Germany on Soviet Russia had deepened the malaise; through the substitution of internal elements by external forces, the revolution consumed itself. The Kyiv government of right-UPRS’s entered a union with the Germany at Brest Litovsk. The Germans deposed the Kharkiv government then the Central Rada, as unreliable “left opportunists” establishing a client “Ukrainian State” under Hetman Skoropadsky.

The conflict of the internal and external forces

With the end of the world war, the UNR was revived by the “November Ukrainian Revolution” in 1918. But it was Petlyura’s militarists engaged in pogroms and indiscriminate repression who were the real power, not the democracy of 1917.

The popular movement directed their struggle towards a republic of soviets; this was represented by the most radical of the Ukrainian socialists, the Borotbisty, the left wing majority of the UPSR and the USDRP Independentists (Nezalezhnyky). Energetic efforts by the left of the UNR to reform it from within proved impossible; in spring 1919 a broad based Red Army defeated Petlyura constituting the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The situation could not have been more favourable for internal reconciliation and a convergence between the Ukrainian and the Russian Revolutions. The creation of a republic with a plurality of pro-soviet parties was a viable possibility. Why was their conception of Ukraine not realised? An explanation can be found by the unresolved contradiction between the internal and the external of elements of the revolution.

The tendency of the internal forces was apparent in the struggle of the Central Rada, in the proclamation of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic; and in the striving for an independent Soviet Republic. In contrast, the tendency of the external forces was to subordinate Ukraine to Russia and as a result retarding the internal forces. The agency of the external “socialism-from-above” was the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).

This overarching conflict fomented instability in the social revolution. Symptomatic of the Russian Communist approach was the unelected “Provisional Worker-Peasant Government of Ukraine” formed in Russia. By decision of Moscow Christian Rakovsky was placed at its head and he denied the very existence of Ukraine as a nation. These views, combined with Russophile and left-communist currents, were a disaster.

The far-reaching socialist policies announced in March 1919 were not implemented. Ukraine remained, and was considered by the government, a regional unit of Russia. There was an overall absence of self-government; the republic was ruled through appointed revolutionary committees and the Ukrainian and Jewish socialist parties were sidelined by the regime. The administration gave greater prominence to the Russian middle class imbued with chauvinist prejudices. The USDRP Independentists bemoaned:

“It is now two months since the soviet authorities occupied Kyiv, but we have yet to see real soviet power or the dictatorship of the proletariat. All we have is the dictatorship of the communist party.”

This situation was compounded by the retarding of the agrarian revolution through excesses of grain requisitioning and the transplanting from Russia of an elitist land policy imposed from above. As opposed to positively transcending the social and national cleavages, the regime exacerbated them. This produced powerful centrifugal forces; engulfed by peasant unrest, the Ukrainian SSR descended into internecine conflict.

This crisis saw two distinct tendencies which have complicated historical analysis: on the one hand the attempted revolutionary mobilisation of society and on the other its antithesis — fragmentation and class decomposition. Indicative of the latter were pogroms, brigandage and warlord adventurers. No sides in the conflict escaped being tainted by the effects of this vortex.

The most popular demand was that of democratically elected soviets. An All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee sought to overthrow the government, forestall Petlyura and force the Russian Communists to agree to a truly Ukrainian soviet republic. With some exceptions the Borotbisty fought alongside the Bolsheviks and sought to curtail the internecine conflict.

The Ukrainian question decides the fate of European revolutions

Amidst meltdown the demand for the reconstitution of Soviet Ukraine received support from the Hungarian Soviet Republic founded in March 1919, soon followed by the Bavarian and Slovak Soviet republics. The resolution of the Ukrainian question was urgent, for it was from here that direct aid could be provided to the Hungarian and European revolution.

The Hungarian leaders sought to act as mediator, proposing an independent Ukraine with a government including the Nezalezhnyky and Borotbisty. The Red Army commander Antonov, under orders to go on a westwards offensive echoed their demands. All their efforts were shunned by Rakovsky. From Budapest Bela Kun wrote to Lenin that: “Forcing Rakovsky on the Ukrainians against their wishes, in my opinion, will be an irreparable mistake”. The historic opportunity was lost. The Romanian and Polish Armies closed the road to Hungary.

The experience of this and preceding episodes brings into question the long accepted explanation for the fate of the Russian Revolution: the primary role of external factors in its degeneration and rise of Stalinism. Coupled with this assessment is the contention that unfavourable circumstances restricted the choices available to the Bolsheviks. Yet the idea that the one-party state in Russia arose from a lack of potential allies cannot explain events in Ukraine. Here the Borotbisty, unlike the Russian Left-SRs, did not go over to open revolt; indeed many of the others who did were in part pushed by a situation created by the Russian Communists themselves.

For the Bolsheviks, socialism could not be developed in a single, isolated, backward country without the aid of the more developed countries of Europe. Their project was predicated on extending the revolution westward. The entire approach of socialism-from-above in Ukraine contributed to undermining the very perspective on which the October Revolution was based.

In the summer of 1919 General Denikin’s nationalist Russian Volunteer Army occupied Ukraine. Armed by Britain and France they instituted a reign of terror for Ukrainian Jews unparalleled until the the Nazis. Yet despite despair with the Bolsheviks, there was not a decline in support for the soviet idea. The Borotbisty, re-launched as the “Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty)” witnessed a surge in support. Hrushevsky notes that “under the slogan of a Ukrainian Republic that would be independent yet Soviet and friendly toward the Bolsheviks and Soviet Russia, the masses flocked to their banner.”

One explanation for this mobilisation is that it was based on a choice between restoration and resistance; this however does not fully explain Ukraine. These events also challenge those historians who argue whilst the contest remained an internal affair the pro-soviet groups lost to their moderate rivals.

The parties of the rump UNR did not gain hegemony of the popular resistance. This can be found in the progressive political degeneration of those claiming the title of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic. The UNR had disintegrated when the West Ukrainian leader Petrushevych placed the Galician Army at the service of Denikin, whilst Petlyura signed away Eastern Galicia in return for an alliance with Pilsudski’s Poland.

In contrast the Borotbisty, the USDRP Independendists and the current amongst Ukrainian Bolsheviks represented by Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhray were consistent advocates of independence. Their stance strengthened reciprocal recognition by the Bolshevik leadership who, despite their centralist outlook, did not retreat from accepting the necessity of a distinct Ukrainian republic.

It would be wrong to conclude from the above that the popularity of such parties can be explained solely by a reaction to the rule of Denikin and Petlyura. Such a view denigrates the fact that ordinary working people consciously engaged in an effort to transform society. Difficult as it is for some in our era of “post-modernism” to comprehend, revolutions are remarkable moments which radically change people as well as their surroundings; in 1917-1920 Ukraine experienced such a moment. It is astounding that though exhausted by world war, occupation and civil war Ukrainians retained the energy to be driven by such ideals. Yet such was the scale of insurgency ranging from the Borotbisty to Makhno’s anarchists that Denikin committed as many troops against the partisans as in his attack on Soviet Russia. This vice broke the Volunteer Army, bringing a decisive military turn in the revolution.

The Nezalezhnyky considered that twice the revolution had suffered defeat due to the weakness of the “internal forces of the Ukrainian revolution”. In order to ensure a third victory the internal forces “must get control over the Ukrainian socialist revolution.” Amongst the Bolsheviks active in Ukraine a current emerged which echoed the opinions being raised by the Nezalezhnyky and Borotbisty, led by Yurii Lapchynsky. Whilst the federalists proved unable to found a new party they helped change Moscow’s policy. After three years of revolution, in a series of resolutions and proclamations Lenin and Trotsky took the initiative to secure the support of the Ukrainians.

In the winter 1919, the Borotbisty made serious attempts to gain hegemony in Ukraine but they failed to gather the necessary strength. The Borotbisty considered that the prospects for independence would be more promising in the framework of extending the revolution; from this standpoint when the Comintern in high esteem. Executive instructed them to amalgamate with the KP(b)U a sub-branch of the Russian Communist Party, they were faced with the choice of remaining separate and competing for power, or merge. Both the Borotbisty and Lenin sought to prevent a repeat of the conflicts of 1919 fearing a renewed conflict between the left would be an opportunity to the enemies of socialism.

This episode also reveals the serious contradictions of Lenin’s own thought. He continued to adhere to the old Plekhanovite policy of “one party, one state”, which had already had negative consequences for the revolution. The amalgamation of the Borotbisty sparked controversy but was not considered by all as a defeat; the communist historian Ravich-Cherkasski suggested that it was under their influence that the Bolsheviks evolved from “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to the “Communist Party of Ukraine”. The fact the Nezalezhnyky formed a rival Ukrainian Communist Party reminds us that for many the concept of a one party state subordinate to Moscow tended to vitiate the emancipatory goals of the revolution. Whereas as in other countries the communist parties were founded through a process of unity between groups, this was not the case in Ukraine.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks clearly reneged on their assurances to convoke a congress of soviets able to freely decide on the status of Ukraine. The winter of 1920-21 was a critical turning point.

The broad based attempts to reconstitute workers’ self-government proved unsuccessful. A socialist revolution had not succeeded in the west, Soviet Ukraine was intact but it was the scene of “arid bureaucratism and Bonapartism.” The soviets, the subjective element by which the social and national elements of the revolution could have been reconciled, fell into abeyance as the locus of political power shifted to the higher organs during the growing “Bolshevist Thermidor”.

The paradoxical legacy of the Ukrainian revolution

In 1920 the exhausted soviet forces defeated the Polish invasion. The resulting peace re-partitioned Ukraine. Five million remained under Polish rule. Maistrenko concludes that the “struggle for a sovereign Ukrainian SSR was decided in the negative not by the internal development of Ukrainian political life but by the external pressure of administrative organization.”

But the failure to establish an independent Ukraine in 1920 is neither the end of the history nor would it provide an adequate assessment of the revolution. The years 1917-20 presented an historic opportunity to resolve the Ukrainian question. The divergences which arose were not irreconcilable.

An interesting early analysis was presented by Andrii Richytsky, in a memorandum by the Ukrainian Communist Party to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. Richytsky outlined how the workers’ revolution was but one manifestation of the contradictions of modern capitalism.

“The task of the international proletariat is to draw towards the communist revolution and the construction of a new society not only the advanced capitalist countries but also the less developed peoples of the colonies — taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfil this task, it must take part in these revolutions and play the leading role in the perspective of the permanent revolution. It is necessary to prevent the national bourgeoisie from limiting the national revolutions at the level of national liberation.”

The fact that repeated opportunities to realize this conception were negated by the unresolved contradiction between the internal and the external elements of the revolution does not devalue its viability. The organised workers’ movement saw a significant shift during the revolution, steadily turning towards support for a Ukrainian republic.

Prior to 1917 there existed only ‘southern Russia’. The revolution had swept away the old social order and forged the Ukrainian SSR, a ‘clearly defined national, economic and cultural organism’. It became the framework for a significant struggle between the two trends in Ukraine, the centralist Russophile element, and the “universal current” of Ukrainian communists.

The “universal current” succeeded in securing the policy known in Ukraine as “Ukrainization”, a programme of positive action with regard to language, culture and promotion of non-Russians in the apparatus. It heralded an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920s. The Ukrainian communists energetically carried the policy forward as a ‘weapon of cultural revolution in Ukraine’. In the eyes of the some it was an engine of efforts to assert autonomy and liquidate the vestiges of colonialism. To others it was a manifestation of opposition to ascendant Stalinism.

The experience of Ukrainization provides us with the paradoxical legacy of the revolution, which brought “the Ukrainian people to the threshold of nationhood by the end of the decade”.

The dynamics of Stalinist centralism destroyed the last vestiges of equality between the republics, The Ukrainian communists and intelligentsia were annihilated. So deep rooted was the vernacular socialist tradition that they were amongst the last remnants of opposition purged in 1936, and represented such a vital force in politics that they were still being subjected to official attack until the fall of the USSR.

In conclusion we may recall Lenin’s neglected speech at Zurich in 1914:

“What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its independence.”

How well Lenin should have remembered Marx’s statement that “the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland. This shall not happen twice!” It did, in Russia’s Ireland.

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