How the Galicians Surrendered Lvov to the Poles

Current political propagandists like to remember Kruty. But they completely forgot about how the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic was lost at the end of 1918.

At the end of 1918, two tragic events occurred almost simultaneously. Simon Petliura, having raised an uprising against Pavel Skoropadsky, captured Kiev and destroyed the Hetman’s Ukrainian state, opening the way for the Bolsheviks from Moscow. And less than a month before that – on November 21st – the military formations of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic cleared the capital of Galicia – Lvov – after incoherent street battles with Polish detachments.

Oddly enough, there was a close connection between these events. Hetman Skoropadsky was going to directly help Galician Ukrainians defend their independence. But the unexpected performance of Petliura’s nationalist radicals and the Ukrainian civil war they started tied his hands. And, in addition, instead of defending their native Lvov from the Poles, the most efficient of the Galician army units – the Sich Riflemen – moved to retake Kiev from the Hetman. Once again, the situation in Ukrainian history could be described in the words of Ivan Mazepa: “They conquered themselves”.

Lvov is often called the capital of the “Ukrainian Piedmont“, comparing Galicia with a kingdom that in the 19th century played a crucial role in the unification of Italy. But that wasn’t the case just a hundred years ago. At that time, it was impossible to call Lvov Ukrainian even with a big stretch. It was a typical Polish city that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to the census of 1900, it was inhabited by 84,000 Poles, 45,000 Jews, 5,000 Germans and 34,000 Ukrainians, who, however, were officially called not Ukrainians, but Rusyns.

As can be seen from these figures, Ukrainians were only the third largest ethnic group among Lvov residents. According to political views, they were divided into two parts. Some, who secretly sympathised with Russia, were called “Moskvaphiles”. They considered themselves part of the unified Russian people, separated from the whole. Their political ideal was to return to Russia, by which they meant the Russian Empire.

Another part of the Ukrainian-speaking Galicians, on the contrary, recognised themselves as patriots of Austria-Hungary. Secretly, of course, they dreamed of a great and independent Ukraine “from the San to the Don” as a distant ideal, but as practical people, they did not forget to make an official career in the Habsburg Empire. At least, one that this dynasty allowed them to have.

The Austrians considered it advantageous to support this ethnic group, since local power in Galicia essentially belonged to the Poles. Not being the most numerous among the rural population of the province, they prevailed among landowners, townspeople and cultural figures, claiming a special mission of the “civilising” element. For example, even the classic of Ukrainian literature Ivan Franko was forced to work as a proofreader in one of the Polish Newspapers in Lvov. And it was from the Polish aristocrats that the Viennese government traditionally appointed the next governor of Galicia. But as a counterbalance to them – so as not to get conceited — the “ukrainophile” direction was also fed, giving out subsidies to the local Shevchenko Scientific Society.

A machine gunner of the Legion of Sich Riflemen trains
to shoot down air targets during exercises

In 1914, the Austrian authorities significantly “cleaned up” a group of Moskvaphiles among Lvov residents – about 2,000 of them were arrested and sent to a concentration camp immediately after the start of the First World War — not for having managed to commit something against Austria, but for love of Russia alone.

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World War II forced the Austrians to start forming national regiments in their army. The Ukrainians were allowed to create a Legion of Sich Riflemen. Even more such units were given to Austria-Hungary by the Poles, who expected that after the war, if not independence, then at least broad autonomy of Poland, divided in the 18th century between Germany, Austria and Russia, would be restored.

In a difficult year for Vienna in 1916, memorable for the Brusilov offensive, the old Kaiser Franz Joseph even signed a special letter in which he promised to create a Polish kingdom after the war as part of his renewed empire and attach eastern Galicia and Lvov to it.

But in March 1918, at the conclusion of the Brest peace with the Ukrainian Central Rada, a special secret clause stipulated that the opposite promise was made. The Austrians undertook to create by the autumn on the same territory… Western Ukrainian autonomy. In this situation, with two completely mutually exclusive and not yet issued political loans, the Empire entered the last phase of its existence. And in the autumn, it just fell down, like the Russian Empire the year before, unable to withstand the fighting on the Italian front and the growing economic crisis every day.

The Poles and Ukrainians of Galicia found themselves alone with each other without the paternal attention of Vienna and immediately began to sort things out. The Ukrainians were the first to make a fuss. Early in the morning on November 1st, appeals of a certain Ukrainian National Rada appeared on the walls of Lvov houses. They said: “To the population of Lvov! By the will of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian state was formed on the Ukrainian lands of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The highest authority of the Ukrainian state is the Ukrainian National Rada. Today, the Ukrainian National Rada has embraced power in the capital city of Lviv and throughout the Ukrainian state… The population is called to peace and obedience.”

But since the “population” of Lvov consisted mainly of Poles, it perceived this document in much the same way as a declaration of invading aliens. Some kind of National Rada? Who had ever heard of it, and who was going to listen to it?

However, the Lvov garrison could be enlisted among the supporters of the National Rada. Among his soldiers there were 2,400 Ukrainians. However, these were rear units. Almost half of their personnel was filled by people, as we would say, of pre-retirement age – in the region of 50-years-old. These simple rural folk did not show much zeal to fight for Ukrainian independence. Therefore, almost immediately after the seizure of power, the National Rada issued an order to move to Lvov the Legion of Sich Riflemen – the most famous and ideologically savvy Ukrainian unit, numbering just over 1,000 soldiers and officers and located in Chernovtsi.

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But instead of immediately loading wagons and moving to Lvov, which was only a few hours away, the Riflemen did not hurry. As one of the participants in the Lvov events, Dr. Tsegelsky, wrote: “If anyone was to blame for the fact that the Ukrainians lost Lvov, it was precisely the Sich Riflemen. This mistake of the Galician Sich Riflemen was the first manifestation of Atamanism and politicking, which they became infected with during their stay in Greater Ukraine. Instead of fulfilling the order to take and occupy Lvov without a fight on November 1st, they politicised in Bukovina. As a result, Lvov was lost.”

Shops. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lvov was a city of Polish signs

In other words, the Sich decided: should they recognise the National Rada and what would they be able to bargain from it?

And in Lvov, the next day, an anti-Ukrainian uprising began. Several Polish military organisations operated in the city. Immediately after the appearance of the proclamations of the National Rada, the Poles formed their own Polish People’s Committee, which brought together representatives of all their political parties, and put at the head of the combat groups two initiative energetic officers — the 100-man groups of “Tatar-Tsheslovsky” and “Monchinsky”.


The main force of their improvised army were Polish high school students. After all, it is much more interesting to participate in street battles than to study. Unlike the older Ukrainian soldiers, they wanted to fight with youthful enthusiasm. Among the Poles, there were even young boys — for example, the youngest in the history of Poland, the knight of the order of Virtuti Militari (“Military Merit”) Antos Petrikevich, who was barely 13, or 12-year-old Janek Dufrat. Both of them died in street battles and are buried in Lvov at the so-called Eagle Memorial.

In total, during the Lvov confrontation, according to Polish data, about 200 Polish teenagers were killed fighting for their Lvov. However, some historians believe this figure is greatly exaggerated. Who’s right is hard to figure out. But these young people have become as much a national myth for Poland as the students who died near Kruty are for Ukraine.

In service. The Polish Legion in the Austrian army was several times larger than the Ukrainian one

The Poles immediately correctly chose the direction of the main attack – the railway station. Having captured it, they could easily get help from Poland through Przemysl on the only railway line in these places. In addition, there were the main warehouses of military equipment in the city. The storming of the station was carried out without any problems — due to carelessness, it was almost not guarded.

When the Legion of Sich Riflemen finally arrived from Chernovtsi, the Ukrainian command ordered them very poorly. The Sich were used, dissolving into small groups, instead of collecting into a powerful fist. Having lost confidence in a victory, the National Rada decided to ask for help from Hetman Skoropadsky. For this purpose, two delegates were sent to Kiev — engineer Shukhevych and doctor Nazaruk. In Bila Tserkva, on the territory controlled by the Hetman, at that time there was another detachment of Sich Riflemen, consisting of two battalions, horse reconnaissance and one artillery battery. It was formed from among former prisoners of war and Galician Evgeny Konovalets – a former officer of the Austrian army, who also found himself in Russian captivity during the First World War. It was precisely these gallant lads who were supposed to be asked to come to the aid of the Ukrainians in Lvov by the messengers of the National Rada.

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Skoropadsky was happy to let them go. At the same time, he promised the government of Galicia an air squadron, a battery of howitzers, two armoured cars, several wagons with ammunition and as many boots and overcoats from the warehouses left by the tsarist army.


There was one problem – Konovalets’ Sich Riflemen didn’t want to go to their native Galicia. They liked it very much in eastern Ukraine, where there were almost no Poles. In addition, they got involved in local political intrigues and already agreed with Petliura and Vladimir Vinnichenko that they will raise an uprising against the Hetman and advance to Kiev. In Bila Tserkva, the Riflemen Rada was held, where the decision was made: “Kyiv is more important than Lviv”.

The Lvov delegates also turned out to be quite strange people. Instead of implementing the decision of the government that sent him, Osip Nazaruk agreed with the opinion of the Riflemen “gathering” and remained involved in the anti-Hetman uprising (apparently, he really wanted to take a tourist trip to Kiev), and Shukhevych returned home with nothing.

Reward from the Kaiser. The last Austrian Emperor Charles inspects a Legion of Sich Riflemen

As a result, Kiev was taken, but only to give it to the Reds in five weeks. And Lvov had to be hastily cleared even earlier – on November 21st, leaving the West Ukrainian People’s Republic without a capital, but only with the coat of arms in the form of a golden lion on a blue shield.

The best thing about this was expressed by the Ukrainian historian-emigrant doctor Isidor Nagaevsky, who noted that without the participation of the Sich Riflemen, Petliura would not have dared to start an anti-hetman revolt, and this would have given “the possibility of mutual understanding between the parties and the hetman in the last minutes, when the Bolsheviks advanced into Ukraine. It often happens that a long chain of tragic events depends on one insignificant event. Such an event could be considered the refusal of the Sich Riflemen to go to Lviv”.

I can only endorse this clumsily expressed, but essentially correct conclusion of a convinced nationalist. What else can be added?

Oles Buzina

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