What caused the defeat of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917—1920

Two major events occurred in Ukrainian history almost eighty years ago. A small detachment of the anarchist peasant leader Nestor Makhno crossed the Romanian border by the river Dnister in late August 1921, and the second winter campaign of the Ukrainian National Army led by Yurko Tiutiunnyk tragically ended in November that same year, as 359 of his men were cut down by Kotovsky’s Red forces at the village of Mali Manki, marking the last desperate attempt of the anti- Bolshevik forces to revise the results of the bloody civil war of 1917-20 in Ukraine. What lessons should we learn from that period?

There are several and they are precious from the moral-ethical standpoint (hundreds of thousands fighting to implement their ideals, a fact which imposes certain cultural obligations on posterity, whether we like it or not) and in terms of politics and pragmatism (top political leadership failing to learn from past mistakes will inevitably fall in the same trap time and again).

Thus it will be quite some time before the lessons of the 1917-20 Ukrainian national liberation struggle are shelved in the archives. They are even more relevant now, an eloquent warning to the living. I do not think I should retell what happened in the period. Let us better try to analyze why the aspiration of the best sons of the Ukrainian people to win freedom for their native land ended in a shattering bloodbath. It all began in the revolutionary spring of 1917 when things earlier regarded as impossible became an actual possibility. The Russian Empire was gone and ahead lay freedom without bloodshed, the unity of all political parties based on the Ukrainian national idea. Why, then, did they fail?

I think the main reason was the ambiguity of that national idea, its abstract and schematic nature the way it was presented by the Central Rada, Hetmanate, and Directory. At the period, the Ukrainian nation was still to take shape in the true sense of the word (I am going to voice a rather seditious idea: are we certain that this nation exists now?). Otherwise how can we explain The Day’s statistic that 32% of the respondents in a recent poll said they were prepared to reunite with Russia in a single state? Perhaps that was why even the outstanding Central Rada leaders (Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko, Doroshenko, and Yefremov) were constantly unsure of themselves; they wanted to keep pace with revolutionary events, rather than predict, let alone outrun them. And so those at the head of the national revolution stood for Ukraine’s autonomy rather than complete independence until 1918. They were the product of their epoch and society.

The national idea failed to embrace all social strata, ranging from the political and intellectual elite to the impoverished peasantry. The elite turned out incapable of solving the most pressing social problems — fair reallocation of property, effective solution to the land issue, bridging the glaring gap between poverty and wealth, between 3% learned and culturally advanced intellectuals and the rest of the people. Here lies the second reason for the defeat. Also, the sharpening differences between the socialist parties that made up the bulk of the Central Rada, later UNR, to an extent, and the national conservatives, future integral nationalists (this was the beginning of the political and military careers of Yevhen Konovalets, Dmytro Dontsov, and Andriy Melnyk). They ought to have preserved the unity between the Left and Right wings of the liberation movement at all costs (Socialist Simon Petliura became a living symbol of uncompromising nationalism). The absence of such unity was an excruciating blow to the social base of the national-liberation movement.

Third, the abortive attempt to build a Ukrainian state in 1917-20 is explained, without doubt, by Ukraine being exposed to aggression from a number of hostile governments (Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Triple Entente). This factor fatally added to the death toll on the wartime battlefields. However, could that course of events have had a different outcome, had the national-liberation movement been spared its own rift (due to the leaders’ ambitions) and able to withstand external aggression?

Another significant factor contributing to the defeat of the national-liberation struggle in the early twentieth century was the incorrigible “national romanticism” of the Central Rada and UNR policies (the other side of the coin being the utter confusion of those romantics, their inability to meet the challenge of realities, or undisguised political cynicism). Indeed, what other than “national romanticism” can explain their discarding the idea of a national army in late 1917 and the attempt to come to terms with the Bolsheviks (in November-December 1918) made the UNR lead by Vynnychenko and Chekhivsky, followed by Kruty and Muraviov. This at times chronic inconsistency resulted in the Ukrainian movement losing the propaganda war to the Bolsheviks. The factor of Bolshevik force and repression played a crucial role, yet one must admit that the [Bolshevik] party and its slogans (Land for the Peasants, Ukraine — Free, but Only in Unity with the Russian Proletarians) won over a considerable part of the urban and rural population.

These are only some of the factors that set the historical course in the direction it took. I think the most important lesson we ought to learn is that the state will remain markedly fragile and national slogans unconvincing unless the Ukrainian citizenry (businessmen, teachers, farmers, office employees, servicemen, etc.) can be convinced, once and for all, that this is their state, built not for Moscow, Washington, or all those oligarchic clans, but for us and our children. This can be proved only by actual deeds and here lies the continuity of construction of the Ukrainian nation-state at the start of the twenty-first century.