You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time. It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame. From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile. What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress. A century on, nothing’s changed.
What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy. So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites. In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.
Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).
News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.
After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.
Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April. The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies. Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time. By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.
During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government. It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine. Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.
Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people. Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority. Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada. In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas. The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.
A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty. The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing. With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.
For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world. Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov. The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring. This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.
On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland. The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important. In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.
Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside. By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.
During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921. From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.
So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure? Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.