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In February 1917 the position of the Russian government became more difficult. Rasputin had been murdered and an atmosphere of gloomy foreboding spread over the entire nation. Unrest began to spread and before any one realized what was happening, there broke out in Petrograd the revolution.
This opened, by a strange coincidence, on February 25/March 10, the anniversary of the death of Shevchenko. Under the enthusiasm of the revolution, the ceremonies commemorating the great poet, which had always been an occasion for tsarist repressive measures, were held on a larger scale than ever before. On the next day, a regiment composed largely of Ukrainian soldiers was one of the first to go over to the Revolution as a mass and soon the glad tidings of the abdication of the Tsar swept over the country. Of course it was received joyfully in Ukraine but there was at first no clear idea of what this downfall of the Romanovs was actually going to mean in practice.
The early days of the Revolution were a period of steadily increasing confusion. Once the strong hand of the old regime had been removed, there came the task of putting something in its place. A Provisional Government was set up, first under the premiership of Prince Lvov and later of Alexander Kerensky. It was the fond dream of these men and their associates that they could maintain the unity of the country and they even hoped to continue the war more effectively now that the dark forces which were supposed to be working with the Germans had been removed.
This was not the dream of large sections of the population. p217 The peasants saw in the Revolution the opportunity to divide the land and to improve their material well-being. This had been their dream in 1905 and now it seemed as if they would be able to carry it out. But there were in Russia also large numbers of minority races and these thought of securing their practical independence or at least of bettering their condition through some sort of a federalized Russia. Under the changed conditions it seemed very possible that all those schemes of federalization which had been put forward by the Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius and later by such publicists as Drahomaniv might have some chance of success.
As soon as the Revolution broke out, Prof. Hrushevsky left Moscow and made his way to Kiev. There he got in touch with the Ukrainian Progressive Organization, which had been a secret organization in Russia working for Ukrainian independence, and with the various socialist parties in Ukraine. There was set up without delay the Ukrainian Central Council (Ukrainska Tsentralna Rada) which aimed to crystalize Ukrainian interests and take over the necessary administrative functions in Ukraine and Professor Hrushevsky was elected President. At this period the Rada, or at least its majority, were far more interested in forming themselves into a government which would become part of a federal Russian republic than in full independence.
In the meanwhile the chaos throughout Russia continued to increase and the Provisional Government showed itself unable to master the situation. The various Councils of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies were meeting throughout the country and passing resolutions which cut directly at the power of the Provisional Government. These Councils represented all the various radical parties and were by no means in the beginning under Bolshevik influence. Yet they reflected the various currents of popular thought which ranged from desires to secure the land for the peasants p218 to definite local class aspirations. The prime necessity for the Provisional Government was the creation of an armed force that would be disciplined and obedient to it, but it was exactly this that was most neglected.
Another important problem which was never sincerely tackled was that of the various nationalities. All around the borders of the old Great Russian territory, from Finland in the north to Central Asia on the east, groups of earnest patriots, to whom the problem of nationality was even more important than were the economic problems connected with the land, were coming into existence. In the beginning they all stressed the fact that the future Russia would have to become a federal state and that the old idea of a monolithic Russia had passed with the fall of the tsar. This the Great Russians refused to accept and the Provisional Government was fighting a losing battle in its attempts to hold all of those groups in line. Yet it held on stubbornly and made no attempt to do more than interpose an ineffective veto on everything that was suggested.
Events moved rapidly in Ukraine. The Central Council called for a demonstration in Kiev on March 19/April 1 and declared that Ukrainian autonomy should be set up without waiting for the approval of the Provisional Government. Then followed another series of meetings during the next weeks. A teachers' convention was held on Easter day and then on April 6‑8 a Ukrainian National Convention was called for, in order to broaden the government and prepare for elections to determine the personnel of the new administration. It was attended by over nine hundred delegates and at once arranged to admit to its membership representatives of the various classes of the population: the army, the peasants, labor, professional organizations, etc.
So far, so good. The early groups which started the movement had represented all types of social thought and it seemed to some of the leaders that the national question p219 was the predominant one. At the same time, the peasants were more interested in the changes that were coming on in the agrarian situation. This was an unconscious movement that was growing by popular demand and it was not long before the leaders of the Rada became convinced that they would have to reckon with this new movement. In reality there were two great movements, each running its own course but impinging upon the other at every point.
At the same time the Ukrainian soldiers in the army began to demand that they be reorganized as Ukrainian regiments with their own commanders, their own flag, and their own units. To enforce their demands they held a military council in Kiev at which there were representatives of approximately one million men on April 5/18 and a month later there was held a still larger meeting at which appeared delegates of 1,736,000 Ukrainian soldiers from all over the Russian Empire. This was the more remarkable inasmuch as Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of War of the Provisional Government, definitely forbade its holding and gave orders that the delegates should not be allowed to go to Kiev. However, by this time the army was paying less and less attention to the Provisional Government, which could only threaten and bluster without accomplishing anything constructive for the country.
At the same time the task of organizing a Ukrainian press was overwhelming. There were almost no Ukrainian newspapers before the Revolution and under the disturbed conditions, the task of founding and developing them and of securing their circulation in the disordered rural areas was almost insoluble, the more so as there were scattered Russian groups and organizations throughout the entire country which were bitterly opposed to the new efforts.
All through the spring there went on this agitation with the Ukrainian army and the new regiments demanding that the Rada take more definite action, and the Russian p220 authorities both in Petrograd and in Kiev complaining that already too much had been done. Yet at a Convention of the Ukrainian Soldiers and Peasants held on June 2‑10 there were insistent demands that the Council arrange for a definite Ukrainian autonomy. On June 10/23, the Council acted and issued the First Universal which was read by Volodymyr Vynnychenko acting as Prime Minister and concluded that "From this day on, we ourselves will create our own life."
By this act the Rada had definitely set forth its claims to be the government of Ukraine and it created the Council of General Secretaries with Vynnychenko acting as Prime Minister. Yet it is noticeable that the great majority of the Council still thought in terms of Ukraine as a state in a Russian federation. The news created a bombshell in Petrograd and three of the socialist ministers, Kerensky, Tsereteli and Tereshchenko, came down to Kiev for a conference with the Ukrainian Council. This was on the eve of the last offensive of the old Russian army and Kerensky and his friends were desirous of smoothing out conditions in Ukraine before the offensive was launched. At the same time, the more conservative members of the Provisional Government objected even to these negotiations and as soon as word reached the capital, they definitely resigned from the cabinet.
In these conferences it was expected that Ukraine would take over the nine provinces that comprised the country and with this in view the Council drew up a Statute or Constitution for the governing of the country. They added to the Council representatives of the various minorities in Ukraine and then sent the document to the Provisional Government. Here it was badly received and when the conservative members returned to the cabinet, they sent a series of Instructions to the Council which cut Ukraine in half and worked to hamper its activities.
The continuation of these tactics brought no profit to p221 either the Ukrainian Central Council or the Provisional Government. They served only to weaken and embarrass the former and brought no benefit to the latter, for during July the Provisional Government was faced by a revolt of the Bolsheviks under Lenin in Petrograd. Although this was suppressed, it had its own not inconsiderable part in the general breakdown of administration.
The six months between the Revolution and the accession to power of the Bolsheviks was a confused and confusing period. On the one hand the steadily weakening power of the Provisional Government was carrying down with it the old Russia, but the leaders declined to see this and loved to imagine that the new ideals of democracy would ultimately straighten out all the difficulties. The Central Council was endeavoring to go along with the Provisional Government and at the same time to secure the rights of Ukraine. Along with this, there was a vast majority of the peasants who were far more concerned with the solution of the agrarian problem than they were in matters of general policy and they envisaged freedom as meaning that there would be no government of any kind, no taxes, and no formal organization.
This dubious situation could not continue indefinitely. Sooner or later one side or the other would have to yield and the Council was only weakening its own position and dignity by continuing negotiations. Yet no one wanted to take the initiative in any decisive action.
The situation was not made any better by the actions of the foreign representatives in Petrograd. They too were unable to make up their own minds. On the one hand, they felt very strongly that they had an obligation to the Provisional Government because of the sacrifices that Russia had made in the common war. On the other, they were themselves sending representatives to be present in Kiev and the other national states but they refused to express themselves p222 definitely as to what they desired to see set up on the ruins of the Empire. Under these circumstances it was difficult for the young governments to know on what diplomatic support they could rely or what policy would be most effective and practical.
The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks promised for a while to clear up conditions. No one believed that the Bolshevik party would be able to maintain itself long in power but at the same time it made all talk of a federal Russia purely theoretical and placed upon Ukraine and the Rada the task of maintaining law and order in its own territory, of solving the economic problems of the country, and of setting up a generally efficient government. This was an overpowering task, for the political revolution and the agrarian movement were moving along at a rapid pace. Disorder reigned in the country and there was no time to bring together the various conflicting points of view.
At the same time the curious political philosophy of the Bolsheviks was complicating the situation still further. The Soviets were perfectly willing to grant independence to Ukraine or to any of the other border territories, but they insisted that the power could only be turned over to true representatives of the workers and peasants, i.e. the Bolsheviks themselves, since all other elements of the population were clearly counter-revolutionary and not typical of the ideals of the workers and peasants. As most of their leaders in Ukraine were of non‑Ukrainian origin, this meant that the Ukrainians as a people were to be governed by the Russians, who alone were able to speak for the Ukrainian population.
This novel philosophy forced the Rada to take definite action, and on November 7/20, it issued the Third Universal, which declared that "from this day on, Ukraine becomes the Ukrainian People's Republic." There is a definite ambiguity in this phrase, for in Ukrainian the word p223 "Narodna" means both "People's" and "National." It expressed both the idea of a government of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation and also the idea of the government as one preeminently of the common people, i.e. those who were concerned with the vague but revolutionary agrarian program. As a matter of fact the term had become a slogan in all the area affected by the Russian Revolution and like all such slogans with an indefinite and unclear meaning, it created as much confusion as it did agreement.
Under the terms of this declaration the Council attempted to establish a definite government. It passed certain liberal regulations on land ownership for the benefit of the peasants, it instituted the eight hour day, granted amnesty to political prisoners, and also called for the holding of a Pan‑Ukrainian Congress, to be composed of elective members, to found a constitutional government. This election was to be held on January 9, 1918 and the Constituent Assembly was to meet on January 22.
It stands to reason that the Bolsheviks had no intention of allowing such an Assembly to meet, for they well knew that the Council and the Ukrainian people were opposed to the excesses of the Bolsheviks and their system of massacring their opponents, and that any expression of the wishes of the people would establish some other form of government. As a result they continued their policy of trying to disintegrate the Council and of arousing discontent in all possible quarters. By sending Bolshevik bands, composed largely of non‑Ukrainians, into the country, by spreading incendiary appeals to the people, by fomenting class hatred in every way, they succeeded in keeping the country stirred up and in preventing the stabilization of conditions.
Then they induced the Kiev Soviet, composed chiefly of non‑Ukrainian workers in some of the factories, to demand the calling of an All‑Ukrainian Council of Soviets on December p224 5/17. The Council saw to it that this was not a mere rump convention of the Bolsheviks, as Stalin had planned, but was widely representative of all the leftist elements of Ukraine which were grouped in Soviets or Councils. As a result, the Bolshevik resolutions were voted down and the following was adopted: "The meeting of the Ukrainian Councils emphasizes its definite decision that the Central Council in its further work stand solidly on guard over the achievement of the revolution, spreading and deepening without halt the revolutionary activity to safeguard the class interests of a laboring democracy and call together without delay the Ukrainian Constituent Assembly, which alone can reveal the true will of all democratic Ukraine. The meeting of the Councils of Peasants', Workmens' and Soldiers' Delegates of Ukraine in this manner expresses to the Ukrainian Central Council its full confidence and promises it its absolute support." The resolution went on to say, "On paper the Soviet of People's Commissars seemingly recognizes the right of a nation to self-determination and even to separation, but only in words. In fact, the government of Commissars brutally attempts to interfere in the activities of the Ukrainian government which executes the will of the legislative organ of the Central Council. What sort of self-determination is this? It is certain the Commissars will permit self-determination only to their own party; all other groups and peoples they, like the Tsarist regime, desire to keep under their domination by force of arms. But the Ukrainian people did not cast off the Tsarist yoke only to take upon themselves the yoke of the Commissars."
This resolution, adopted in December, 1917, expresses with rare nicety the entire policy of Soviet thought on its relations with other peoples and groups and it would have been well for Ukraine, had the sober judgment of these Councils prevailed. It would have saved a great deal of p225 anguish and bloodshed in the coming years.
When the Bolsheviks saw that they were unable to control the assembly which they had inspired, Stalin sent an ultimatum to it, demanding unconditional submission within forty-eight hours. At the same time, the Bolshevik members, some 150 out of about 2000, under the leadership of two Russians, Sergeyev of the Don basin and Ivanov of Kiev, and a Ukrainian Communist, Horowitz, moved to Kharkiv and there proclaimed a Ukrainian Soviet Republic and called themselves the Secretaries of the new government instead of Commissars. They at once received support from the Russian Bolsheviks and opened a civil war.
It is noticeable that throughout 1917 there had been far less disorder in Ukraine than there had been in Russia. There had been none of those revolts that had characterized the situation in Petrograd and adjacent areas since the very beginning of the revolution. During this year Ukraine alone of the territory of the former Empire had been relatively peaceful. The Council had been gradually assuming power and endeavoring to make the transition from the old to the new. It had seen the passage of large numbers of demoralized soldiers but it had escaped the main part of the violent scenes that had gone on elsewhere.
Now all this was changed. The Bolsheviks definitely began an invasion of the country and this added to the trials of the Council. The changing conditions on the Eastern front now brought Ukraine into the international scene. It was impossible to hold elections with the chaos in the country. Finally, to solve the situation, on January 9/22, the Council announced in a Fourth Universal the complete independence of Ukraine and declared that, "From to‑day the Ukrainian People's Republic becomes the Independent, Free, Sovereign State of the Ukrainian People."
It had taken almost a year to bring the council to this p226 decision. As in the case of the United States, the vast majority of the people did not realize in the beginning the issues involved. For a century many of the best and most patriotic minds of Ukraine had dreamed of a great federation of the Slavs or of a reorganized Russia which would give equal rights and liberties to all classes of the population. They had sought this from each of the governments since the Revolution and had failed to obtain it from any. Federation had never appealed to any party in the Russian Revolution. The conservative Cadets, men like Milyukov and his friends, Socialists like Kerensky, Bolsheviks like Lenin and Stalin, all in their own way demanded that there should be a centralized state. Just as the Russian intelligentsia in the field of thought throughout the nineteenth century refused to admit the possibility of a cultural development in Ukraine apart from Russia, just as Peter the Great and Catherine could not admit that they had to deal with a situation different from that prevailing in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so the revolutionary leaders held fast to the same idea. The Council had wasted months in futile discussion and negotiations at a time when they could have been profitably employed in building up local institutions and restoring order. Now when it became clear that war and organized war was to be the order of the day, they finally acted and Ukraine appeared again as an independent state with its capital at Kiev.
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