In January 1918 the Bolsheviks captured Kyiv for the first time, and for an entire three weeks – the period when the city was under their control – robbed and killed its residents. Kyiv had not seen this sort of atrocity since the days of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. Indeed, this comparison can often be found in the memories of those Kyivans who had had the chance to see with their own eyes the first entry of the Muscovite ‘liberators’ of the working class into their city at the beginning of 1918.
Shortly before this, on November 7th, 1917, when the Winter Palace fell in Petrograd, the Central Rada – the first Ukrainian parliament – had proclaimed Ukraine’s autonomy. Winter came, which was bad news for the Bolsheviks, for without Ukrainian bread they wouldn’t have lasted long. Thus, in December, their leader – Vladimir Lenin – declared: ‘Right now, two issues take precedence over all other political affairs: bread and peace.’ The Bolsheviks went to Brest [Poland] to make peace at talks with the German high command, intending to take Russia out of the First World War. But for the bread, they had to go to Ukraine.
It was just then that an uprising of workers at the Arsenal factory started in Kyiv, and the Central Rada decided to disarm the rebels. In response, Lenin put forward an ultimatum demanding that the pro-Bolshevik movement not be stopped. In Kyiv, Petrograd’s reaction was only noted, at which point Lenin decided to use force.
In Kharkiv, a Ukrainian Bolshevik government was hastily formed. Since practically no one dared take personal responsibility for managing this entity, it was headed by four secretaries: Yevgenia Bosch, Voldemar Aussem, Vladimir Zatonsky and Yuriy Kotsiubynsky. These ‘people’s secretaries’ turned to ‘Big Brother’ – Lenin and his team – for help in restoring order in Ukraine.
At that time, there was a serious problem among the military personnel of the Russian Bolsheviks. The army was commanded by Warrant Officer Nikolai Krylenko; the fleet – by the sailor Pavel Dybenko. The revolutionary fervor of these two was of little relevance to the demands of larger operations.
The only Red among the leadership who had any proper military training was Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, who hailed from a noble family from Chernihiv. He led a punitive expedition to his historical homeland. As his chief of staff, Antonov-Ovseyenko had appointed tsarist officer Mikhail Muravyov, a man with his own methods of warfare.
Mikhail Muravyov – the son of a peasant – enjoyed great prestige among the soldiers. He had a simple mode of communication, despite possessing the aura of a self-made man. From February 1917 [date of the first Russian revolution, which overthrew the tsar – Ed.], Muravyov had tried to further his career in different political groups. At one time he was even in the political camp of Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, becoming the commander of the Cabinet of Minister’s guards.
Then Muravyov began to entertain the idea of posing as the savior of the Russian army, which had suffered defeat on the German front. He thus created about a hundred so-called death squads.
Their structure included the most ideologically motivated soldiers and officers. But though these units had no success in the war with the Germans, their methods of formation and ideological development were useful in the war with Ukraine.
The leadership of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), led by the Central Rada and proclaimed after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd [in October 1917 – Ed.], took literally Lenin’s first appeals for peace and his assurances of the right to self-determination of peoples of the Russian Empire.
The historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who led the parliament, and the writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko, head of government, treated the formation of the army of the young state somewhat carelessly. In October 1917, the UNR issued a declaration on the demobilization of the troops who were sworn to it. Historians say that they numbered no less than three hundred thousand. But they disarmed and dispersed the most battle-worthy corps – that of General Pavlo Skoropadsky – since the Ukrainian authorities considered such divisions unnecessary in a country built on socialist principles that was not going to war with anyone.
No one could imagine that loosely-organized gangs were invading Ukraine, and that their leader had one slogan: ‘Be ruthless!’ Those who knew Muravyov personally remembered that he was obsessed with power and eager for all sorts of military adventures, desirous of resembling his idol Napoleon.
However, the Russian Bonaparte was a mass of contradictions. Antonov-Ovseyenko said that Muravyov constantly threw money around and ‘sowed corruption’ in his midst, surrounding himself with ‘suspicious persons, among whom are a group of his bodyguards – some criminals, some drug addicts.’ Indeed, Muravyov himself was addicted to morphine.
The Bolsheviks first started making plans to attack Ukraine in early December 1917 in Moscow. Antonov-Ovseyenko wrote: ‘We had a long meeting. Maps were spread out on the floor, and we pored over them all day. We developed plans for action against Kaledin’s troops (on the Don), as well as against the Central Rada.’
At first, the Russian Bolsheviks were not planning to go to war with the UNR. The plan was to take over the Kharkiv-Simferopol rail links, seize the Tauride (current Kherson and Mykolaiv regions) and Yekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovsk region and part of the Donbas) guberniya [‘governorates’ – tsarist-era territorial-administrative units – Ed.]. This would allow control of productive agricultural areas and block the path of Cossack units returning from the Don front. They had not yet thought about the liquidation of the UNR.
Muravyov developed the tactic of the ‘lightning echelon war,’ which proceeded without a declaration of war and took advantage of confusion in the enemy’s camp. The Red troops were to move quickly by rail into the country of the enemy, and in the absence of a front line. The plan worked: in five weeks, the Bolsheviks had defeated or forced the capitulation of the isolated garrisons of the UNR, and had occupied all routes of communication.
Zhidomazepintsy [‘Jewish Mazepists’ – a reference to followers of 18th century Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa – Ed.]
The leaders of the Red units did not have proper ideological justification for their incursion into Ukraine. The proletariat in these regions was too scarce and passive to play the role of the victim in need of rescue. Even the rebellious workers of the Kyiv Arsenal eventually backed the Central Rada. Wealthy Ukrainian peasants did not resemble an oppressed class at all. From the annals of Great Russian consciousness, it was necessary to resurrect stereotypes from the 200-year-old history of Hetman Mazepa, the betrayer of Peter the Great.
About two weeks have passed since the day of the zhidomazepintsy demonstration, but still the Russian people are worried. ~ ‘Double-Headed Eagle’ newspaper on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko in 1914
The story was forgotten even before the war dragged in ultrapatriotic associations like the Club of Russian Nationalists or the Kievan Russian Assembly, which existed in Ukraine. In March 1914, when the centennial of the birth of Taras Shevchenko had been observed, their representatives demanded that the local authorities ban any demonstrations in connection with this anniversary. But they went ahead anyway. The Double-Headed Eagle newspaper was distressed about it: ‘It’s been about two weeks since the treacherous demonstrations of the zhidomazepintsy, and the Russian people still are uneasy, still worry.’ Then among many Russians there developed a phobia about a phantom conspiracy of Jews and Ukrainians against a united Russia. The Bolsheviks deliberately revived the danger of the zhidomazepintsy.
Muravyov’s troops entered Kharkiv on January 11th, 1917. After a few days, armored vehicles appeared on the streets of the city emblazoned with the words: ‘Death to the Ukrainians!’ Antonov-Ovseyenko recalled that the ‘liberators’ plundered public and private property, behaving criminally, ‘considering any white handle worthy of destruction,’ and treating Ukraine as the territory of a hostile power. Muravyov considered himself the repressor of ‘traitors to the motherland.’
The contemporary Ukrainian historian Victor Savchenko writes: ‘The officials of Soviet Ukraine begged Lenin and the Soviet military leaders to stop the abuse of the population, who were obedient to the Russian forces in Kharkiv. But to no avail… It was not safe to speak publicly in the Ukrainian language, to wear a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt… Often they would simply kill someone for a good pair of boots.’
The researcher goes on to describe the presence of Russians in Ukraine, as if foreseeing Putin’s methods of war in the Donbas: ‘Lenin’s cabinet, conducting a complex game ‘of Ukrainian sovereignty,’ declared the RSFSR a neutral state, shifting responsibility for the actions of the troops of Muravyov and Antonov-Ovseyenko onto the Bolshevik government of Ukraine, even though these forces had no intention of obeying their Ukrainian comrades.’
‘Kiev is ours.’
Stimulated by easy profits, the Bolsheviks decided to change the original plans and seize Kyiv. Since the volunteer units of the UNR were gathering very slowly, the government of Vynnychenko issued an order to untrained soldier-cadets to guard important facilities. Taking Poltava on January 19th, Muravyov ordered the execution of those military academy cadets who had not managed to withdraw. And on January 29th there occurred the legendary battle at the Kruty railway station, where 400 Ukrainian cadets and students came out against five thousand Red troops.
Muravyov and his warriors plundered the conquered territory. From the population of captured Chernihiv he gathered a 50,000-ruble contribution. With this money, as recalled by witnesses, the Red commander drank vodka for several days. In Hlukhiv, the ‘liberators’ put the sailor Tsyganka in charge. After another wave of looting, this drunk decided to start firing a cannon, but the shell exploded on his knees. At the funeral of the sailor the entire city was driven out under the muzzles of rifles.
Learning of these horrors advancing from the east, the Central Rada proclaimed the independence of the UNR on January 22nd. But it was unable to defend Kyiv, which was crowded with rich refugees from Moscow and St. Petersburg, officers and soldiers of the tsarist army who didn’t know whom to swear allegiance to. It was easy prey for Muravyov’s detachments.
Starting from January 27th from the Darnitsa, from the left bank of the Dnipro, the Reds shelled the city for several days. They unleashed more than fifteen thousand shells onto their designated districts. None of the peaceful population of Kyiv was ready for such a bombardment.
Muravyov later boasted of his exploits: ‘We’re going to establish Soviet power by fire and sword. I occupied the city and battered the palaces and churches. On January 28th, the Duma (of Kyiv) asked for a truce. In response, I decreed that they be choked with gas. Hundreds of generals, perhaps thousands, were mercilessly slaughtered… So we took revenge. We could have stopped the furious vengeance, but we didn’t because our motto was: Be ruthless!’
The Red commander then earnestly administered the poison gas, prohibited at the time by international treaties. This allowed him to freely enter Kyiv across the bridge over the Dnieper. Having captured the capital of the UNR, Muravyov gave his soldiers three days to plunder. According to various estimates, in only a week they exterminated two to three thousand Kyivans, of them about a thousand officers and generals.
‘Apart from the officers, they executed anyone who naively showed their red ticket – the certificate of proof of Ukrainian citizenship,’ the ethnographer Nikolai Mogiliansky recalled of the events. Having fled from the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, he was overtaken by them in Ukraine. Mogiliansky later wrote that the Reds systematically plundered Kyiv. Muravyov, as usual, demanded a tribute of five million rubles from the city. He collected the money fairly quickly. As a result, ‘sailors and soldiers rode around the city in cars and luxury cabs with wonderful Phaeton & Landos [early diesel engine cars – Ed.], often in a state of intoxication.’ They threw money around in restaurants and casinos, surrounded by ‘an atmosphere of revelry and debauchery of every kind.’
The Soviet government of Ukraine, moving from Kharkiv to Kyiv, discovered with horror the full extent of the atrocity in its sections. Thousands of corpses of peaceful civilians littered the parks of Kyiv. They demanded that Moscow immediately remove Muravyov from Ukraine. No one would listen to them.
Two days before the arrival of the Bolsheviks, the Central Rada had time to make it to Zhytomyr and quickly joined the peace negotiations between Germany and the Bolsheviks in Brest. The result was that after their stay of three weeks in Kyiv, the Muravyovites hastily left the city, with the arriving UNR allies – the German troops – already breathing down their necks. Suburban residents witnessed an endless trail of carts piles with booty going by for several days. Many of the Red ‘liberators’ were dressed in hussar uniforms looted from military depots.
They would be back briefly in 1919. And then in 1920 – for 70 years.
Photos of 1918 Ukraine courtesy of the Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921
This material was published in Russian in Novoye Vremya (New Time) magazine №5 on 13 February 2015.