“Unexpected Independence”: How Ukraine First Gained and Lost Its Independence

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



100 years ago the Ukrainian People’s Republic declared its independence. However, according to experts this step can hardly be described as prepared and conscious: the independence of the UPR was declared by a small part of the Ukrainian socialists to get the support of the German army in the fight against the Bolsheviks. In three months the Germans dispersed the Rada, having delegated the powers of a formally independent Ukraine to Hetman Skoropadsky. Information about the first Ukrainian independence is in the material RT.

The failed union with the Bolsheviks

At the beginning of November, 1917, in Kiev there were some clashes between groups of Bolsheviks and troops of the Provisional government. The Ukrainian National Council took the side of the reds. As a result, power in the city passed for some time to the Bolsheviks, who initiated the convening of the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets. However they lost the elections.

The Rada, consisting of Ukrainian socialists, adopted the III Universal, which declared the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic as a part of a federation with Bolshevik Russia.

“The Rada didn’t want to declare independence for a long time, because it anyway raised the issue of the borders of Ukraine: claims were made for a large territory from Brest to the Don. Nationalists believed that the issue of independence should be resolved gradually, becoming stronger at the expense of Russia,” said the doctor of historical sciences and associate professor of the department of history of the Lomonosov Moscow State University Fyodor Gayda in an interview to RT.

According to the expert, the Provisional government showed obstinacy concerning the Ukrainian question, while the Bolsheviks, speaking about the right of nations to self-determination, were perceived as allies.

“However, soon the Bolsheviks demanded subordination from the Rada, and in Kharkov a parallel political center was created, which declared the Ukrainian Soviet Republic,” continued Gayda.

Under German rule

Under the Provisional government the local military administration agreed to the Ukrainisation of a number of units of the former Imperial Russian Army. The Rada, seeking to strengthen its power, started forming a united Ukrainian front, blocking the actions of troops under the control of the Soviet government, in particular – sending the military to quell the Don revolt of General Kaledin.

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On December 13th, 1917, the Secretary General of the Ukrainian People’s Republic on military affairs Symon Petliura forbade Soviet military echelons from crossing the territory of Ukraine without his permission. All of this led to bloody clashes between the Red Army troops and Ukrainian troops. In response, the Soviet government created the Southern revolutionary front, which was set the task of occupying Kiev and key Ukrainian cities.

In December, 1917, the Brest-Litovsk peace talks began between a Soviet delegation and opponent-countries on World War I – Germany and Austro-Hungary. Territorial concessions and the future of the lands of Ukraine became one of the key questions. Observers from the Central Rada who were present at the meeting tried to begin negotiations with the Germans — the German army was that alternative military force to the Bolsheviks that the Ukrainian socialists could appeal to.

“The Germans refused to conduct negotiations until Ukraine, at least formally, declared itself as an independent force. This exacted a declaration of independence, which that was done by the Little Rada, which consisted of only a several dozen people. This decision was simply announced to the country. The adoption of this act didn’t involve a vote, referendum, or a democratic procedure,” said Fyodor Gayda.

According to the historian, having signed the peace treaty with Germany, the Rada considerably strengthened the position of Germans in negotiations with Bolsheviks over Brest peace.

“Independence was gained by the UPR unexpectedly and in working order under the influence of conjuctural circumstances. And it is exactly in this same working order than this independence was also destroyed,” noted Gayda.

According to the expert, as soon as the Germans occupied Kiev, they understood that the Rada is only a handful of socialists who settle scores with political opponents. As a result, the German military dispersed the Rada, having called a congress of land owners of Ukraine.

“And already at this congress a decision was made for the creation of a Ukrainian State headed by Hetman Pavel Skoropadsky, who was a former Lieutenant-General of the imperial army,” stated Gayda.

“Retroactive” independence

As of January 22nd, 1918, the key cities of the Center and East of Ukraine — Poltava, Kharkov, Mariupol, and Lugansk — were already in the hands of reds. And the exact date of the IV Universal, which declared the independence of Ukraine, wasn’t known until the last moment.

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One year later, Ukrainian troops returned to Kiev for two months, and the unification of the UPR with the West Ukrainian Republic formed mainly on the territory of the former Austrian lands of Ukraine. At this same time it was declared that two Ukraines united exactly one year after the announcement of independence. Thus, modern Ukrainian historians believe that the real day of the declaration of independence was January 24th [Gregorian date – ed], 1918. But this contradicts the text of the document, where the date January 9th [orthodox date – ed] (22nd [Gregorian date – ed]) is specified.

Gayda noted that independence was declared “retroactively”. The Rada in pro-Russian Kiev didn’t have much support and tried to hold elections in the All-Ukrainian Constituent Assembly.

“But it is Russian nationalists — the non-party bloc of Vasily Shulgin – who won in the elections from Kiev. The Ukrainian independentists were mainly supported in the rural areas only thanks to the socialist orientation of Ukrainian nationalism,” explained the historian.

The opening of the All-Ukrainian Constituent Assembly was appointed exactly for January 22nd, but the results of elections and the offensive of the Red Army prevented it from taking place, the historian notes. As a result, independence at a time of preparation for evacuation was hurriedly declared by 39 Little Rada members out of 49 in total. The Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and representatives of the Jewish Bund party voted against or abstained.

“Day of Unity and Freedom”

Before 2012, in Ukraine there were two holidays — the Day of Freedom (November 22nd) – founded in honor of the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, and the Day of Unity (January 22nd). However, the President Viktor Yanukovych unified the two dates. A new holiday, which is now celebrated on January 22nd, is called the “Day of Unity and Freedom”.

On January 22nd, 2018, speaking about the events of the centenary prescription, in the Kiev History Museum Petro Poroshenko compared them to the modern history of the country, stating that already back then Russia allegedly waged hybrid war against Ukraine.

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According to experts, it isn’t known what historical facts the President of Ukraine refers to. Perhaps he means the events on February 8th, 1918, when troops of the red commander Mikhail Muravyev entered Kiev. Back then, many inhabitants of Kiev fell under the firm hand of the Red Army, including about 3,000 Russian officers living in the city. However it was not the Imperial Russian Army, the Armed Forces of the South of Russia, or the Russian army of General Wrangel — it was the recent revolutionary allies of the Rada, note experts.

In 1919, the historical paths of the two Ukraines forked. Western Ukraine conducted military operations against Czech troops for the possession of Transcarpathia and against the just created Polish army for power over Galicia. And the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Symon Petliura at the same time concluded an alliance with Poland against Bolsheviks. Even the liberation of Kiev from Bolsheviks on August 31st, 1919, didn’t take place without excesses. The forces of the 7th infantry division of the Armed Forces of the South of Russia of General Denikin and the soldiers of the UPR and Galician Army entered the city at the same time. Already the next day, under an agreement with the whites, the troops of Galicians left the city. And short-term fights against the forces of the UPR came to an end with the transition of the city under Denikin’s authority.

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