Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Ukraine under the Soviets
by Clarence Manning

published by
Bookman Associates
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 2

 p15  Chapter One

The Background of the Communist Triumph

No idea could be more erroneous than that the triumph of Communism in Ukraine and the destruction of the Ukrainian National Republic, which had declared its independence on January 22, 1918, was the choice of the Ukrainian people themselves. It did not suit their desires or their interests, and the methods which Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin adopted to master Ukraine were essentially the same as those by which the iron curtain has been pushed steadily to the west. Ukraine was the testing ground for the development of the Communist methods of control of their helpless satellites.

From the moment when he arrived in Petrograd in April, 1917, Lenin commenced a policy of disintegration. The collapse of tsarist Russia had destroyed all the organized forces of law and order throughout the empire, and it was no easy task to restore these in an area where there had not been allowed for centuries a popular government resting upon the will of the people and staffed by experienced democratic administrators. Under such conditions, Lenin's propaganda of self-determination for all the peoples of the empire fell upon ready ears, as did his efforts to promote class conflict on every hand. At the same time his promises to the Great Russians constantly called, under one guise or another, for the restoration of Russian unity even while his talk of internationalism and the Communist International seemed to imply a world Communist regime in which all peoples would be equal. It was this policy of lying and deceiving until the moment for success­ful armed intervention came that gave him the dominating position.

 p16  He enjoyed an immense advantage in the fact that the civil war between the Whites and the Reds was largely fought on Ukrainian territory and thus compelled the young Ukrainian government to fight upon two fronts throughout the entire period, while for some time the new republic was forced also to oppose the Poles in the west. Lying as Ukraine did on the shore of the Black Sea, the armed forces of General Denikin, who was heading the effort to create an anti-Communist monolithic Russian government, could only reach Moscow by crossing Ukrainian territory. It was only across Ukrainian territory that the supplies sent to him by the Western nations after the ending of World War I could be delivered and it was his policy to allow no manifestation of Ukrainianism in any form, for he intended to continue that denial of Ukrainian existence that had characterized the old tsarist regime.

His efforts in this direction were aided by the unfortunate failure of the Western democratic powers which had triumphed in the war to understand either the nature of Bolshevism or the desires of the various national movements. At the same time his success was rendered impossible by the refusal of the West to back him in his efforts to restore all or most of the social and political order which had vanished with the abdication of the Tsar.

Thus with the White Russians and the Ukrainians locked in a desperate struggle, the way was open for Lenin to move with relative freedom on his path of disintegration and of conquest. He did not fail to take advantage of every opportunity, and the advances and retreats during the period from 1917 to 1920 and even later were but a preliminary for the later tactics of Communism.

On the other hand it cannot be denied that there existed in Ukraine certain factors which also worked to his advantage. The political and social system prevailing up to 1917 had not given any training in self-government to the Ukrainian people and in the midst of war and revolution they had to start on the most elementary tasks of popular education, while at the same time they corrected fundamental abuses in the economic situation and created and administered a government. Let us, therefore, look briefly at  p17 the outstanding elements of the situation as they were at the beginning of the revolution.

From the time of the organization and Christianization of the Kievan state at the end of the tenth century to the eighteenth century, Ukraine, whether independent, or subject to Poland-Lithuania, or to the Russian Tsars, had remained as a political unit, even though divided. However, in 1775 Catherine II destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich, the centre of the Ukrainian Kozaks, and in 1783 she abolished all Ukrainian political institutions and privileges. From that time the area was divided into gubernias as the rest of the Russian Empire and the full Russian methods of administration were introduced.

From that moment, too, the Russian government spared no efforts to destroy every vestige of Ukrainian national and cultural consciousness. The Ukrainian language was treated as a peasant dialect of Russian; the name Ukraine was forbidden and even the substitute Little Russia was treated as a generic term for the area north of the Black Sea, but it did not figure on the political map of the Russian Empire as a distinct entity. The Ukrainian revival in the nineteenth century beginning with the publication of Kotlyarevsky's parody of the Aeneid in 1798 was confined to the cultural sphere and could offer little or nothing in the way of administrative experience to the Ukrainian people. Those Ukrainians who entered the Russian service were usually sent to distant areas, while the administrative personnel in Ukraine was chiefly Russian in origin and feeling.

The great estates were largely owned by Russians or by Poles and even many Ukrainian landowners who had succeeded in retaining their holdings were so thoroughly Russianized that they felt little sense of kinship with the peasants on their estates. Ukrainian life was lived chiefly in the villages. The Ukrainian language was not taught in the schools or used in the courts, for all education and administration were in the Russian language. Still the peasants continued their own manner of living with their own traditions and their own tastes and desires.

 p18  The cities of Kiev, Kharkiv and Odesa had a large Russian population. The administrative, commercial and financial institutions were largely in Russian hands and the directors and leaders of these, whatever their political disagreements, were united in opposing the efforts of the Ukrainians to secure even that minimum of rights that they were guaranteed by Russian imperial law. The Russian element in Ukraine, radical or conservative, acted as a unit during the fateful years 1917‑1920. On the other hand, the miners and workers in the Donets basin and Kryvy Rih, the centre of the Ukrainian coal and iron industry, were in very large part likewise Russian and the ideology of St. Petersburg, especially in its radical aspects, was dominant throughout this part of the Ukrainian territory. Many of the most bitter opponents of Ukrainian rights were, in fact, Russian radical miners and workers from this area.

The Jewish population of Ukraine, a large minority, was little interested in the Ukrainian problem. Insofar as they were not actively sharing in the movement for special Jewish institutions, the majority, with certain conspicuous exceptions, were strong supporters of Russian unity, either conservative or radical or, like Leon Trotsky, they were at the service of any government which was opposed to the Ukrainian demands.

Thus in 1917 the strength of the Ukrainian movement was to be found in the villages. Here Ukrainian life was lived, Ukrainian thoughts and ambitions were sponsored and it was here that the vision of an old and a future independent Ukraine found its chief support. Even so, that population was itself divided, not according to the class principle but on an ideological pattern which included members of all classes and walks of life.

When the revolution broke out in 1917 or, to be more precise, when the tsarist regime collapsed, there were four main divisions in Ukrainian society and they were made clear within a very few months.

The first of these were the nationalists and the advocates of the restoration of order in the country. At the very beginning of the  p19 century Mykola Mikhnovsky had issued a call for an independent state and for a while he had exerted a strong influence upon such future Ukrainian leaders as Symon Petlyura, Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Volodymyr Chekhovsky, but his ideas of pla­cing national liberation in the forefront seemed too extreme for his adherents and by 1917 many of these had in a sense fallen away from his advanced position.

On the other hand, two and a half years of war had shown to many of the Ukrainian officers and men in the Russian army the need of a disciplined force to uphold the national cause. Some of the Ukrainian regiments had early joined the forces of the Revolution, had adopted the Ukrainian flag and introduced Ukrainian as the language of command. Now at the Military Congresses which were held in Kiev in 1917, they took a strong stand in their demands that the Ukrainian National Rada adopt a firm policy toward St. Petersburg and the Provisional Government and they were willing to go much further than the Rada in the setting up of independent governmental machinery.

Opposed to this group were the great mass of the peasants. They were little aware of the involved task of governing or even maintaining order. It would be hardly fair to say that they were anarchistic in temperament. Few of them had been further from their villages than the nearest administrative centre and they could not see the necessity of substituting another regime on a broad scale for the fallen tsarist system. For decades they had attributed all their hardships and difficulties to the tsar, the bureaucrats and the police, and with all three vanished, they had no desire to replace them. It seemed to them that the land was intended by God for their use, and once the landlords were dispossessed, they were ready to forget the past and live in peace and quiet with their neighbors. Two and a half years of war had taught them the folly of organized destruction and they willingly adopted the position that a new world had come into being in which there was no need for complicated forms of government, for the collection of taxes and the enforced maintenance of order.  p20 They believed that the Revolution had almost automatically given them all that they desired — the right to use their own language, to have that language placed on a par with Russian and the right to secure their own land and to live peacefully upon it.

Between these two groups stood the bulk of the Ukrainian intellectuals grouped in the Social Revolutionist and Social Democratic Parties, each of which was modelled on its Russian equivalent. Yet we must not delude ourselves into thinking that these were political parties in any sense known to the Western world and America, where there has been a long record of political activity. They were before the Revolution rather conspiratorial and debating groups, busied with theorizing about all manner of political questions and (except where they had an opportunity to take part in the work of the zemstvos) without practical experience. A few of their members had served in the First Duma in 1906 but this had been dissolved within a couple of months by Tsar Nicholas II and each succeeding duma had become less representative. Thus the number of those intellectuals who had had practical political experience even in the conduct of elections was very small, while the debators, students, theoreticians, etc. in these parties cared more for the proper solution of ideas than for their application to practical life.

Neither of these groups existed as distinct Ukrainian parties. They tended largely to follow the leader­ship of the similar Russian groups; they had learned to employ the same methods, listened to the same leaders, and their demands as Ukrainians were loosely connected with their social and political theories. They were conscious, but only potentially active, nationalists and at the moment when it was necessary to make rapid decisions, they hesitated and splintered on the importance which they assigned to national and to economic and social measures.

The Social Revolutionists, largely intellectuals from the villages, were at first the more important. They were populists and non‑Marxian socialists who voiced the desires of the peasants for the owner­ship of their land. They called for the confiscation of the large estates, for they did not believe that any one should have  p21 larger holdings than he and his family could work. Since the land in Ukraine was held individually and the village community was only a figment of Russian law, they differed sharply from the Russian Social Revolutionists who stressed the existence of the community with an emphasis on the almost annual redistribution of land. Finally, they set themselves up as a Ukrainian party but still grouped around the journal Narodnya Volya (The People's Will), the traditional name for a Social Revolutionist paper.​a

By the autumn of 1917 this party had definitely split. The left, which stressed the economic and social aspects of the party, established another journal Borotba (The Struggle). This was soon followed by a formal schism and the creation of a new Social Revolutionist Party (Borotbisty) with the name taken from their paper. It was only natural that the relations between this group and the Bolshevik Great Russians tended to become closer as radical ideas gained strength in the country.

The numerically smaller Social Democratic Party was purely Marxian and it spoke primarily for the Ukrainian factory workers. Like the Russian Party, it was divided between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, with the latter drifting steadily toward the Social Revolutionists and even some of the bourgeois groups. On the other hand, the efforts of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks to establish their own party met with continual opposition. The Marxian theories of the withering away of the state had long been used by Lenin and some of the German Social Democratic leaders as weapons against the Poles in both the Russian Empire and Germany, and the same ban was now applied to the Ukrainian Bolsheviks. If they wished approval by the central authorities, they were told to become merely a Ukrainian section of the Russian Party. If they persevered in their efforts, they were read out of the party which in Ukraine was dominated by the Russian factory workers and the Russian miners from the Donets basin and Kryvy Rih.

The position of the Ukrainian Social Democrats and especially the Bolsheviks was thus much more difficult than that of the less organized and more spontaneous Social Revolutionists. Strict party  p22 discipline hampered them at every turn and ardent Ukrainians as Mykola Skrypnyk, a personal and trusted friend of the Russian Bolshevik leaders, refused to make any schism in the party, even though he and his Ukrainian friends quite regularly appealed for recognition as a separate party, especially after the Bolsheviks recognized the existence of an independent Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

He, as an old Bolshevik, however, refused to cooperate with those Ukrainian Bolsheviks who dared to risk a fight with the central committee in Moscow and who finally tried to set up a Ukrainian Communist Party.

The greatest weakness of both these intellectual groups was their lack of appreciation of the importance of foreign policies. It was with great hesitation that their representatives in the Central Rada in the summer of 1917 approached the Russian Provisional Government to include a Ukrainian representative in all Russian diplomatic missions. They had had few or no representatives in the pre‑revolutionary Russian diplomatic service; relatively few of them had been abroad, even to Western Ukraine under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; they had no distinguished Ukrainian emigrants abroad who could speak to the world with the great authority of Ignace Jan Paderewski, Thomas G. Masaryk or Michael I. Pupin​b and during the crucial early months they largely neglected any consideration of foreign policy.

They wasted precious time in futile negotiations with the Russian Provisional Government over questions of federalism and they turned rather slowly toward the idea of independence. At each move of the more nationally conscious toward this goal, a certain portion of the more leftist members drew away toward the appropriate Russian camp in the name of internationalism and thus became the unconscious tools by which both the Provisional Government and later the Bolsheviks hoped to retain their control of the wealth of Ukraine.

It was this vagueness on the part of many of the intellectuals which kept them from being true intermediaries between the nationalist and military groups and the great mass of the peasants. It weakened the energy and zeal of some of the Ukrainian regiments  p23 which had declared for the Ukrainian cause immediately after the outbreak of the revolution and facilitated the development of pacifist opinion in the rank and file. So when, at the end of 1917, actual fighting started between the Russian Communists and the Ukrainian Central Rada, the armed forces of the new state were not as well prepared as they had been some months previously, and it was necessary to start again under almost new and more unfavorable conditions.

The pressure of events and the necessity for defense against the Red and the White invaders brought together the more consciously nationalist elements, first to declare the independence of Ukraine and then to organize, but the economic and social divergences were never solved. The dissolution of the Central Rada by the Germans and their support of a conservative government only embittered the political feuds and encouraged the rise of peasant leaders who were content to operate in their own state and created the bewildering succession of such forms of government as the Rada, the Hetmanate of Skoropadsky and the Directory under Petlyura and gave the struggle at times a bizarre appearance as the different forces raised by the different political groups now combined against one or other of the invaders, only to separate when the other became the more pressing danger.

Under such conditions the central authority was finally overwhelmed and those people who were most strongly committed to a free and independent Ukrainian state withdrew from the country. The Soviet regime was able to take control. This did not, however, end the difficulties for there soon came a revelation that all was not yet well and harmonized. The peasants continued to be restless. The guerilla leaders did not at once cease their activity. Above all, the country was ruined but the relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians were not yet solved.

Thayer's Notes:

a I.e., this is the Russian form; the Ukrainian form would have been Narodna Volya.

[decorative delimiter]

b Polish, Czech, and Serbian respectively.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 25 Apr 22