The First Attempt at Independence: Birth & Decline of the Ukrainian People's Republic in the Early 20th Century

Ukrainian People's Republic

In the recent history of Ukraine, there was a brief period of independence that quickly ended under the pressure of Bolshevik Russia. Despite the mistakes and failures of the Central Rada and other governing bodies, this attempt at statehood is crucial in Ukraine's history because it allowed the realization of the possibility of independence and laid the foundation for the concept of a state, which influenced the formation of modern Ukraine, celebrating its 32nd anniversary this year.

We are again defending the right to exist in a war against the same enemy that seeks to take away this right. As part of the project "32 Materials for the 32nd Anniversary of Ukraine's Independence," we offer materials on this important historical period.

The Beginning of the Story

The Ukrainian Revolution began immediately after the victory of the February Revolution in the Russian Empire, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy. At that time, the Ukrainian Central Rada was established in Kyiv, initially just a regional Kyiv-based organization. However, after the All-Ukrainian National Congress, it gradually transformed into a full-fledged parliament. The Central Rada passed numerous laws, including those on citizenship, administrative-territorial structure, the Ukrainian army, an eight-hour workday, land, and declared autonomy for Ukraine within the federative and, at that time, seemingly democratic Russia, with its own government represented by the General Secretariat. In other words, complete independence was not initially discussed. Ukrainian elites were not ready to assume such responsibility as centuries of subjugation and imperial rule had left their mark.

Poster from 1917: "Our enemies will perish like dew in the sun, and we, brothers, will prevail on our land too!.."

Independence During Wartime

However, after the victory of Bolshevik forces, it became clear that expecting democracy from Russia was not an option. The newly formed Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) almost immediately faced Bolshevik aggression. At that time, amid hostilities, realizing that counting on broad autonomy within Russia was not feasible, the Central Rada declared full independence for the UPR. By the end of the autumn of 1917, there were approximately 300,000 loyal troops under the control of the government. However, the Central Rada, still firmly holding autonomist positions, decided that the country did not need a regular national army. They viewed it only as a bargaining chip in their struggle with the central Russian authorities to achieve their moderate demands. This decision was one of the fatal mistakes that ultimately led to the loss of the newly acquired and fragile independence.

The Central Rada created a militia-type army, which required the complete dissolution of existing forces. In the Fourth Universal, the last of the foundational documents of the Central Rada, it was stated, "To disband the army entirely and then establish a people's militia so that our army serves the protection of the working people, not the desires of the ruling classes." As a result, a significant portion of the Russified Russian troops (16 divisions) prepared to defend the newly established republic were disarmed and disbanded under Bolshevik influence. The Ukrainian army suffered a catastrophic blow. The immaturity of the elites, belief in socialist visions, and incompetence led to the critical ineffectiveness of what remained of the Ukrainian army. In January 1918, only two thousand soldiers rose to defend Kyiv against a 30,000-strong Bolshevik force.

Despite the heroism of the small group of soldiers in the Battle of Kruty, which included students, and in other uneven battles, Ukrainian forces had to retreat repeatedly under the pressure of the more numerous and better-armed enemy.

Ukraine as of 1918

The Search for Allies

The Ukrainian Central Rada (UCR) understood that the country lacked sufficient resources and strength to withstand the Bolshevik onslaught alone, so it began desperately seeking support from abroad.

Initially, the UCR oriented its foreign policy toward the Entente countries. However, the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) was cut off by the front lines and couldn't receive effective support from them. The Central Powers emerged as an alternative. Although UCR leaders understood that the defeat of the Central Powers was inevitable, they had no other choice.

This led to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty on February 9, 1918. Despite the difficult situation of the UPR, the signed treaty was advantageous. First and foremost, it obligated the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires to help liberate the territories occupied by Bolshevik Russia, which had already occupied Kyiv and established its puppet government. As a result of the assistance from the allies, on March 1, 1918, the occupiers left the capital of the UPR.

However, upon returning to Kyiv after de-occupation, the Ukrainian authorities could not stabilize the domestic political situation in Ukraine, establish effective local administration, and guarantee the fulfillment of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty commitments. The socialist course followed by the Ukrainian government before the Bolshevik occupation remained unchanged, and corruption and banditry flourished in the regions. A severe conflict was brewing between the UCR and the newly established allies, but neither the head of the Central Rada, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, nor the head of the Council of People's Ministers, Vsevolod Holubovych, rushed to seek compromise with them.

After a meeting with the leading leaders of the UCR, including Hrushevsky, the German Ambassador Alphons Mumm von Schwarzenstein summarized, "Permanent cooperation with these people, who, due to their socialist theories, fail to understand the real state of affairs, is impossible."

Considering the weakness of the UPR, the German Oberkommando increasingly leaned towards a complete change of power. Ideas were even voiced to introduce a general governorship on the territory of Ukraine. Still, they had to be rejected due to insufficient military and administrative resources. Therefore, the focus was on finding a person capable of leading the state, uniting the majority of the Ukrainian population and parties of various orientations, and carrying out such a coup.

Pavlo Skoropadsky

The Era of Hetman Skoropadsky

The choice fell on Lieutenant General Pavlo Skoropadsky, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, an aristocratic landowner with moderate right-wing views. His authority was expected to garner support from a portion of the military, wealthy segments of society, and even provincial patriotic circles. Thus, after careful preparation and with the help of German forces, a state coup took place on the night of April 29 to 30, 1918. Pavlo Skoropadsky was anointed as the Hetman, and the Central Rada was removed from power.

The situation in the country was critical, and the state was on the brink of ruin. Pavlo Skoropadsky understood the depth of the problems and knew that action needed to be taken immediately. For the Hetman, the top priorities were private property, a strong economy, and a robust military to guarantee the country's existence. The Ukrainian People's Republic was reorganized into the Ukrainian State, or the Second Hetmanate and the socialist reforms of the Central Rada were reversed. This included the laws on socialization, which had facilitated the return to private ownership. The Hetman actively supported and encouraged free entrepreneurship, giving industrial and trade circles significant influence over the government's economic policies. The wide-ranging sale of goods to Germany and Austria-Hungary also contributed to the economic recovery of the Hetmanate. During Skoropadsky's rule, monetary circulation was established, the financial system was improved, a state budget was created, new joint-stock companies were founded, and several Ukrainian banks were opened.

The formation of the military did not proceed smoothly, primarily due to strong resistance from the Germans. While they welcomed economic reforms, the regular army issue remained UPResolved.

"Why do you need an army? We are here and won't allow anything harmful to your government within the country. And as for your northern borders, you can rest assured: we won't let the Bolsheviks through. Create a small detachment of two thousand people to maintain order in Kyiv and for your personal protection," the Germans told Skoropadsky. The Hetman was forced to disband most of the military units inherited from the former Ukrainian People's Republic.

Over time, as the situation on the front deteriorated and the Germans required troops to defend Ukraine, they finally gave the green light to create a regular army. According to the plan, by the spring 1919, the strength of the military was to increase to nearly 310,000 personnel. To raise such an army, a military draft was planned, initially set for November 15 but pushed to December 1 at the insistence of the Germans. The primary goal was to conscript 85,000 new recruits to reinforce the existing units.

Valuable time was lost. In the fall of 1918, Austria-Hungary and Germany lost the war. The Habsburg monarchy ceased to exist. Consequently, the Ukrainian State lost its most valuable ally, and without it, Hetman Skoropadsky's authority began to waver.

The Fall of the Second Hetmanate

Skoropadsky's conservative policies and alignment with large landowners did not make him popular among Ukrainian peasants. Distrust of the Hetman was fueled by social-democratic and socialist-revolutionary parties, whose leaders included Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petliura.

However, the most controversial move by Skoropadsky, which ignited the flames of rebellion, was the issuance of the "Federative Charter," which discussed the federation with non-Bolshevik Russia in the future and declared a renunciation of Ukraine's state independence. From Skoropadsky's own statements, it can be inferred that he genuinely believed in the prospects of such a "union."

On November 13, during a congress of socialist parties in Kyiv, the Directorate of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) was formed. As the anti-Hetman uprising gained momentum, more and more people, both military and ordinary peasants, joined the ranks of the Directorate.

On November 18, 1918, a battle occurred near Motovylivka between the insurgents advancing towards Kyiv and the Hetman's forces. The insurgents emerged victorious, but a substantial German military presence still stood in their way and had no intention of allowing the rebels into the capital.

However, the uprising spread across all of Ukraine. The insurgents captured city after city, and the Hetman's authority outside Kyiv ceased to exist. Finally, Skoropadsky relinquished power and left Ukraine under the protection of German forces.

Statehood in Western Ukrainian Land

On October 19, 1918, the Western Ukrainian People's Republic was established on the former empire's territory. It immediately faced aggression from the newly formed Polish Republic, which claimed its territory. However, on January 22, 1919, a unification occurred between the UPR and the Western Ukrainian People's Republic (WUPR). Finally, Ukraine united for the first time in many centuries, even if only in a declaration.

Reforms of the Directorate

After coming to power, the Directorate implemented a series of anti-bourgeois measures. The government intended to strip the industrial and agricultural bourgeoisie of their voting rights. Management at the local level was supposed to be transferred to Labor Councils representing peasants, workers, and the labor intelligentsia. Due to such radicalism, the Directorate lost the support of most specialists, industrialists, and government officials. However, despite its decrees, the Directorate hardly implemented them in practice, which led ordinary Ukrainians, especially peasants, to have more faith in Bolshevik agitation. The revolutionary movement began to transform into destructive anarchy.

On December 26, 1918, the confiscation of land from landowners without compensation was declared. To appease them, promises were made, including compensation for various improvements (agricultural, drainage, etc.) previously made on the estates. Industrial enterprises' and sugar factories' land was declared untouchable. Landowners were allowed to keep the houses they lived in, purebred cattle, and vineyards. Lands belonging to foreign nationals were exempt from confiscation. However, despite these relatively moderate measures, the landowners and bourgeoisie in Ukraine were dissatisfied with the Directorate's policies, which openly ignored their interests. Some wealthy peasants were left with land plots of up to 15 acres. However, most peasants saw these measures as pro-landowner, creating more space for Bolshevik agitation.

At that time, most of Ukraine's territory was at war with the Bolsheviks, Denikin's forces, and Poland. The country was turning into ruins.

At the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, most of Ukraine's territory, especially Kyiv, was captured by the Bolsheviks. The capital was looted, people were raped, and massacres occurred on a massive scale.

Very quickly, the Bolsheviks began implementing their plans - land distributed to peasants was being taken back. Their lands were transferred to "soviets" and "communes," forcing everyone to hand over almost all of their produce, except for a minimal norm that barely allowed survival. Peasants began to realize that they had relied in vain on Bolshevik propaganda, and uprisings against the Bolsheviks started across Ukraine, but it was already too late. There was no one to protect the Ukrainians - neither the government, army, nor allies. In April 1919, the forces of the Directorate were finally defeated on the Right Bank. Most of Ukraine's territory (except for Transnistria and western regions) fell under Bolshevik occupation, which continued until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Occupation by Bolshevik Russia

This was perhaps the most destructive period for Ukraine, as elites and the most active segments of the population were annihilated during the Stalinist era. Unprecedented repression, the Holodomor (famine genocide), and mass terror were intended to rid rebellious Ukrainians of any notion of independence. We still feel the consequences of this today. However, the deep-seated desire for freedom, the aspiration for independence, and the unyielding resistance to occupiers ultimately could not be wholly extinguished. These qualities allow Ukrainians to stand up against Russians in the largest war in modern human history. Currently, the Ukrainian state enjoys unprecedented international support and unwavering determination, making victory inevitable, and this "second" attempt at independence will be final.


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