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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

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!


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Chapter 3

 p25  Chapter Two

The Foundation of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic

As the power of the Provisional Government in Petrograd declined and more and more responsibility was assumed by the Central Rada in Kiev, relations between Petrograd and Kiev grew rapidly worse and the conception of Ukrainian independence gained strength in all circles, except among the Russian population of Ukraine. The seizure of power in Petrograd by Lenin could not fail to hasten the progress of separation.

During the summer and autumn of 1917 Lenin had advocated the widest application of the principle of self-determination and encouraged the non‑Russian peoples to demand separation from the Provisional Government. He and his friends had hardly come into power, when he showed at once the cynicism and hypocrisy of his entire policy. The Central Rada in Kiev and the vast majority of the soviets in Ukraine repudiated the demand for the confiscation of all property, the expropriation of the land and the turning over of the control of all industry to the workers, although in the Third Universal it did provide for "state control over production in the interests of Ukraine and Russia" and declared that all land not worked directly by the owners was to become the property of the workers. For all intents and purposes, the Third Universal which was issued on November 20, 1917, did its best to separate Ukrainian affairs from Bolshevik control without as yet resorting to a declaration of formal independence.

This produced a very unsatisfactory situation, for the Bolsheviks attacked the efforts of the Secretary of the Rada for Military Affairs to effect an understanding with the old Russian Army  p26 Headquarters at Mohylev and with the other national groups which were rapidly making common cause with the Central Rada in their opposition to the extreme measures of the Petrograd Soviet. The Council of Commissars in Petrograd claimed to speak for the whole of the former Russia in its efforts to make peace with the Germans. When the Rada denied this and approached the other non‑Russian peoples, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd formally accused the Rada of withdrawing Ukrainian troops from the front, of disarming Bolshevik units in Ukraine and of allowing the Don Cossack forces to retire to their homeland across Ukrainian territory. On December 17, it hypocritically recognized the right of Ukraine to independence but threatened war on the Rada if it did not meet the conditions of the Council of People's Commissars.

At the same time the Bolsheviks in the Kiev Soviet arranged an All‑Ukrainian Congress of Soviets in the hope of putting pressure on the Rada. The attempt missed fire for the Congress proved to be under the influence of anti-Bolshevik parties and adopted resolutions declaring that the Ukrainians had not thrown off the power of the tsar to accept the domination of the Commissars. The Bolshevik spokesman Zatonsky was unable to make himself heard above the opposition and only 80 members supported the Soviet demands.

As a result of this failure Vasili Shakhray and Zatonsky left Kiev for Kharkiv where they joined a Congress of Soviets largely from the Donets basin and Kryvy Rih. There, on December 20, they established a new Ukrainian Rada under Russian Communist control and set up a Ukrainian Soviet Republic. They were joined by a group of Ukrainian Bolsheviks including Neronovych and George Kotsyubinsky, the son of the well-known Ukrainian author who had been a friend of Gorky.

The so‑called Ukrainian army loyal to this new regime was composed almost exclusively of Russian troops and was under the open command of a Russian officer, Michael A. Muravyev. This force occupied Kiev on February 7, 1918 and held the city for about three weeks. Its actions showed clearly the nature of the government. Under the pretext of liberating the Ukrainians from  p27 the control of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and the Rada, it abolished all Ukrainian newspapers and its disorderly elements not only executed members of the Ukrainian and Russian bourgeoisie but also Ukrainian Communists and radicals who used the Ukrainian language in their hearing.

In the meantime the Bolsheviks had opened negotiations with the Germans in Brest-Litovsk where Trotsky claimed to speak for the entire former Russian Empire. To circumvent this, the Rada formally declared the full independence of Ukraine and sent delegates to the peace conference. As a balance to this, Trotsky introduced into the conference the representatives of this new Ukrainian Soviet Republic who claimed to be the spokesmen for the Ukrainian peasants and proletariat. Their arguments did not convince the Germans and Austrians, who saw greater possibilities of profit by recognizing the Ukrainian National Republic, so as to secure without fighting a large part of the Ukrainian grain supplies. The Ukrainian National Republic signed this agreement with misgivings, for, in fact, it threw the Rada into the power of the Germans and ended all chance of assistance from the Allied democratic powers which had previously regarded Lenin as the tool of the German General Staff. Now, with the conclusion of this peace, they extended their ill‑will to the Ukrainian Central Rada.

The immediate result was German assistance to the Rada and the Soviet forces were quickly forced out of Ukraine and back into Great Russian territory. The leaders of the Ukrainian Soviet government were members of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and could not raise the question as to whether or not their new state was actually independent, and whether it could be, if it did not have its Communist Party associated on a par with the Russian Party in the Communist International.

This brief Communist interlude in Ukraine should have been most instructive to both the Allied powers and the Germans, but neither drew the true lessons from it. The Allies, who were still opposed to the principles of Bolshevism and were annoyed by the speeches of Zinovyev and Chicherin, became more friendly disposed to the Russian Whites and gave up their efforts to win through  p28 invoking the democratic principles of self-determination the support of any of the non‑Russian peoples. The Germans, on the other hand, after aiding the Rada to return, dispersed it on the ground that it was too radical, but when a more conservative regime was set up under Hetman Skoropadsky, they did not give this honest support. They sought only for Ukrainian supplies and by their actions they weakened the power of the Hetman and strengthened discontent against his regime without allowing him to do anything that would weaken the power of the Communists.

The situation became all ridiculously complicated. Germany, anxious to secure troops for the Western Front, was, by the spring of 1918, at peace with both the Commissars of Moscow and the government of Ukraine. It was therefore opposed to both the White Russians and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Even the Czechoslovaks on their way to Vladivostok, thanks to the negotiations between President Masaryk and Muravyev, were on friendly terms with the Ukrainian Communists and had difficulties with the Ukrainian government and the Germans. As soon as they crossed into the Russian Soviet Republic, they had difficulties with the Russian Communists and the Germans and found their support among a part of the White Russians. It was the same situation as in the far north where the Germans backed the White Finnish forces under Mannerheim against the red Finns who were the favored party of their friend and associate, Moscow. Yet all the time there was no Ukrainian Communist Party, for the Ukrainian Communists owed their prime allegiance to the Russian Communist Party which was, in theory at least, on the opposite side in the general disturbed situation.

To the Communists, as Skrypnyk, Shakhray and George Pyatakov who had played an important role in the Communist occupation of Kiev, this seemed a serious gap and at a meeting in Tahanrih in April they triumphed over the Communists from Katerynoslav​a who had insisted upon remaining merely a part of the Russian Communist Party. Their victory was of short duration, for when there came an organization meeting in Moscow on July 5, the Russian authorities definitely made it clear that they would not tolerate  p29 the existence of a Ukrainian Communist Party. Bela Kun warned that in the international civil war that was to be begun, great efforts were to be made not to allow it to assume anything of a national character, but to keep it restricted and fought on class lines. They were also informed that they could in this new struggle have no relations with Mensheviks or any Ukrainian Social Revolutionists or Social Democrats. A few months later Stalin was elected to the Central Committee of the Ukrainian branch of the Russian party as a symbol of the dependence in which the party was to be kept.

The first people to appreciate fully the dilemma in which the Ukrainian Communists found themselves were the Ukrainian Communist leaders who had established, with Russian help, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. They were quickly taught that as long as the control of their Party was not in their own hands, they were completely helpless and at the mercy of the Russians.

Shakhray, who had endeavored to argue at Kiev in December, 1917 that the Ukrainian Communists were to be counted as Ukrainians, very soon in Russia became so disgusted that he resigned from the Russian Communist Party and retired to Saratov to establish a Ukrainian Communist Party of Bolsheviks. He criticized the extreme policy of centralization carried on by the Russian Communists.

Along with S. Mazlakh, he published a book entitled The Wave — What is being done in Ukraine and with Ukraine. This book, which was often quoted later by Skrypnyk and his associates, was the theoretical basis for Ukrainian Communism. Shakhray tried to foster discontent against the regime of Hetman Skoropadsky by stressing his relations with both the German forces in Ukraine and the White Russian refugees who had taken shelter in that country. He declared that Ukrainian independence could only be consistently won by the Ukrainian Communists, for they, as the Ukrainian proletariat, were the only people who could advocate and carry through a real revolution in view of the treachery of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, he attributed the Communist failure in Ukraine to the fact that the Party was entirely under  p30 Russian control and looked at the cause of the Communists through the eyes of the Russian colonists in Ukraine who were, in accordance with Russian imperialistic tradition, working not for Ukraine but for Moscow.

He soon left Saratov for Kuban and here he was captured and killed by the Denikin forces. Mazlakh, who had remained a member of the Russian Communist Party, was later shot by them for nationalism. The third Commissar for War, Neronovych, became disillusioned and on the entrance of German troops into Ukraine he gave up politics but he fell into the hands of the Ukrainian National Army and was shot. Thus, the first attempts of the Russian Communist Party to seize Ukraine and expel the Ukrainian National government ended disastrously and relatively few of the early leaders survived. Most of them paid the penalty for their actions to one of the contending forces, with the Bolsheviks executing then or later the larger number.

During the summer of 1918 while Hetman Skoropadsky remained in power, the chief work which the Communists could hope to do in Ukraine was through their mission in Kiev under the leader­ship of D. Z. Manuilsky. This was ostensibly engaged in negotiations for a definite peace treaty between the Ukrainian National Republic and the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic. In reality, Manuilsky was almost openly intriguing with the tacit consent of the Germans who had no desire to see their own position in Moscow jeopardized, as their armies were being driven back on the Western Front. Manuilsky was also able to notice the constant splitting of the leftist Ukrainian parties, which, in their hostility to the policies of the Hetman, tended to move nearer to the Communist position.

The disintegration in both the Social Revolutionist and the Social Democrat ranks became steadily more marked during the summer of 1918. When the German armies collapsed and the Hetman could no longer retain his post, a Directory of five men, including Petlyura and Vynnychenko, set themselves up at the news of the abdication of the German Emperor and they soon recovered Kiev. At the same time the left wing of the Social  p31 Revolutionists (Borotbisty) refused to recognize the new Directory and drifted rapidly toward the Bolshevik position.

The Kremlin, sensing the great change in the Ukrainian situation, at once refurbished the idea of a Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Its real head was now Christian Rakovsky, a Rumanian with Bulgarian citizen­ship who had never been in Ukraine, but its nominal leaders were Pyatakov and George Kotsyubinsky. These moved from Kursk along the railroad line into Ukraine at the end of December but Chicherin, in his telegrams to the Directory, categorically denied that the Russians were supporting this movement in any way. He laid all the responsibility upon the Ukrainian Communists. The ruse did not work and finally on January 16, 1919, the Directory, in which Vynnychenko's star was sinking, declared war.

This was opposed by the left wing of the Social Democrats who were very influential in the Directory. On January 10‑12, the two wings definitely parted and the left adopted the name of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers' Party (Independent) and insisted upon the establishment of a non‑Communist Soviet Republic. The right wing, in view of the weakness of the Ukrainian proletariat, advocated instead a Congress of Workers which would include both peasants and the city proletariat. When war actually started, the left wing split again between those who were willing to stand for an independent Ukraine and those who refused to act against Russia under any circumstances. The latter took the name of USDRP (Independent Lefts).

It was not long before the Borotbisty and the USDRP (Independent Lefts) began negotiations for merging. Both were convinced of the superiority of the Soviet form of democratic government and both were convinced that any Communist government would inevitably recognize the essential rights of the Ukrainian people. In this respect they were far more naive than were the leaders of the first Ukrainian Communist regime who had already become completely disillusioned at the contrast between the theories and the practice of Lenin and his associates. They refused to cooperate with Petlyura and the Directory and, in effect, they withdrew  p32 from its support a considerable section of the Ukrainian intellectuals at a crucial moment.

On the other hand, with their own armies they fought against the White Russians of Denikin, because they saw in these merely an attempt to restore the old order. Yet they declined to be included in the organized army of the Directory and by their independent actions they made more difficult the burden of the army commanders. They encouraged the formation in the country of independent military bands which added to the growing chaos. To emphasize their position they again changed their name to the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty) and constantly sought to ingratiate themselves with the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Communist Party which had again succeeded in reoccupying Kiev and in forcing the Directory to flee.

On the other hand, the USDRP (Independents), almost as true admirers of the Soviet system but far more critical of the Russian influence, did merge their forces for the fighting against Denikin with the forces of the Directory. In the summer of 1919, this group, under the influence of the Khmelevtsevs of Kobilyaky in Poltav­shchyna, commenced again to review their position. After the death of their leaders in a crossing of the Dnieper and after the defeat of Denikin, they decided to adopt the appellation of Communists and to rename themselves the Ukrainian Communist Party without any additional description title. Thus, they took the name of Ukapistyb and as such they dragged on an independent existence for some years, confidently expecting that they would ultimately receive national and international recognition from the Comintern, the Communist International.

This endless splitting and regrouping of the various parties proved a headache to the Directory which was trying to organize the country for defense against both of the Russian invaders. The individual armed forces, acting independently, aided in wrecking the economy and this inspired peasant leaders of various kinds to seek the control of their own native regions. Some of these men proved themselves able, if short-sighted, leaders. Some, as Nestor Makhno, were unadulterated anarchists who saw no need of any  p33 central regime. Others were mere adventurers thrown into prominence by the course of events and willing to shift their principles for the sake of a momentary personal advantage. Others were patriots with no broader vision than their home districts.

As a result, throughout 1919 there were some 328 revolts against the extending power of the Russian Communist forces which were fanning out over Ukraine, slaughtering and robbing as they went but still unable to secure a definite control of the villages.

As opposed to this welter of conflicting ideals, the policy of the Russian dominated Ukrainian branch of the Russian Communist Party was simplicity and clarity itself. This supported the paper independence of the Ukrainian Soviet regime and openly avowed its intention of subjugating the country and of exploiting it for the benefit of Moscow. Their purposes were even openly avowed at the Moscow Soviet of Workers' Deputies on March 22, 1919 when Shlikhter, a Ukrainian German and one of the commissars appointed by Moscow to collect grain, declared: "You all remember how Ukraine began to become Soviet; with every day of the advance of the Red Army, we and you felt more easy; the rich grain-producing Ukraine is ours. We have four central military divisions collecting and on them we rest all our hopes. We have a mass of workmen sent in (from Moscow to Ukraine), who know how to search all the Ukrainian villages. We always remember that the eyes of proletariat of Russia are turned toward Ukraine."

These remarks represented the cynical attitude of Lenin and the Communists. They ignored the statements as to a Ukrainian Soviet Republic that were being made by Lenin and others to woo the various leftist Ukrainian parties. They were safe speeches made to reassure the Great Russians that the Bolsheviks still had a monolithic outlook, even though they were prepared to go to almost any lengths to create a paper regime which would insure and facilitate the plundering of the rich grain-producing Ukraine. They told, more or less, the truth, that was not recognized by the more idealistic theoreticians, that the Ukrainian Communists were, in fact, the dupes and victims of the Moscow regime which cared nothing for the Ukrainian people, or even the Ukrainian proletariat.

 p34  By the end of 1919 the Ukrainian Soviet regime was so satisfied with the success of its raiding and collecting parties that it felt able to proclaim an amnesty and to disarm the population completely. To accomplish the latter purpose, new Russian forces were sent into the country, the villages were thoroughly searched and disarmed. The peasants were tiring of the apparently endless exactions of the independent commanders and they turned against many of the patriotic partisan bands and declined to give them further support. This broke the movement and even the alliance of Petlyura with the Poles and the short occupation of Kiev by the combined armies in the spring of 1920 did not suffice to restore the old enthusiasm for the hard-pressed Directory.

By the end of 1920, when the Russian and Ukrainian Soviet delegations met the Poles in Riga in October, 1920, the fighting was nearly over. The Poles signed a treaty of peace without consulting their Ukrainian allies of the Ukrainian National Republic. There was nothing for the forces of the Directory to do but to retire abroad and continue their unsuccess­ful efforts to secure Western assistance. This was not forthcoming. The French were interested in aggrandizing Poland as a bulwark against Germany; the other allies were openly supporting Denikin through a misinterpreted friendship with the Russian people and there did not seem to be left even a spark of the principles enunciated but a short time before in Wilson's attitude toward self-determination and the rights of people to govern themselves. The struggle was ended and the Ukrainians were left at the mercy of their Russian over­lords, now back in a new guise.

Thayer's Notes:

a Now Dnipro.

[decorative delimiter]

b From the abbreviation for Українська Комуністична Партія (Ukrainian Communist Party), УКП, letters pronounced U Ka Pi.

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