Independence: 1917-1921

In March 1917, political parties and social organizations in Ukraine convened a parliament called the Central Rada in Kyiv. It was headed by the academic Myhaylo Hrushevsky, and it issued the first ‘universal’ (decree) declaring the autonomy of Ukraine within a Russian federation. A government was formed, headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. Symon Petliura was in charge of military affairs.

Volodymyr Vynnychenko, prime minister of the Ukrainian People's Republic (1917-1918) and first chairman of the Directory (1919-1920)

Volodymyr Vynnychenko

Simon Petliura

Symon Petliura

As Russian soldiers deserted from the army and returned home armed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks overthrew Russia’s Provisional Government in October 1917. Their first decrees – on peace and land – gained them massive support. Lenin’s regime issued the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia,’ proclaiming a policy of ‘voluntary and honest union of the peoples of Russia,’ with the following principles:

1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia.

2. The right of the peoples of Russia to self-determination, secession and the formation of independent nation-states.

3. The abolition of all nation and national-religious privileges and restrictions of any kind.

4. The free development of national minorities and ethnic groups on the territory of Russia.

In November, Lenin gave a speech, saying:

Lenin with Joseph Stalin (R), his designated successor

Lenin with Joseph Stalin (R), his designated successor

We now see a national movement in the Ukraine and we say that we stand unconditionally for the Ukrainian people’s complete and unlimited freedom… We are going to tell the Ukrainians that as Ukrainians they can go ahead and arrange their life as they see fit. But we are going to stretch out a fraternal hand to the Ukrainian workers and tell them that together with them we are going to fight against their bourgeoisie and ours. Only a socialist alliance of the working people of all countries can remove all ground for national persecution and strife.

Both decrees turned out to be deceptions. For the people of the former Russian Empire, World War One was replaced by a civil war that was even more destructive and lethal. Land was confiscated from the Ukrainian peasantry by the kolkhozy (collectives), sparking widespread resistance.

In response to the Bolshevik coup in Russia, the parliament in Kyiv issued a 3rd decree to garner popular support. It promised land to the peasants and declared the establishment of a Ukrainian People’s Republic. This was to be a ‘Soviet state’ – i.e. governed by ‘councils’ representing working people – which would maintain friendly relations with Russia within a federation of ‘free and equal nations.’ Lenin rejected this vision of ‘social democracy’ and ordered Red Army troops to seize power in Kyiv by force. But the Ukrainian troops remained loyal to their parliament and suppressed the Bolshevik putsch. The Bolsheviks then moved to Kharkiv and declared a Ukrainian Soviet Republic, and Lenin sent Red Army troops in to support it.

In the town of Brest in eastern Poland, peace negotiations began between Germany, Soviet Russia and Austria-Hungary. The representatives of the Ukrainian People’s Republic also arrived to sign a separate peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and were greeted as a legitimate national delegation. Then at the beginning of February 1918, the Red Army began shelling Kyiv. The Central Rada withdrew its initiative of a Soviet-friendly state and declared the full independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

The conditions of the peace treaty signed by the delegates of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in Brest on 8 February 1918 involved recognition and military support from Germany and Austria-Hungary. But the military support came in exchange for substantial deliveries of bread and meat from Ukraine, which the Ukrainian government could only provide under great difficulty. Lenin and the Soviets incessantly attempted to subvert and destabilize the new state.

A couple of hours after the treaty was signed, Red Army divisions entered Kyiv and carried out mass slaughter. The 3rd Red Army exacerbated peasant discomfort by requisitioning livestock and grain for Moscow and Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now called), both of which were threatened by full-scale famine. Under the Brest treaty, the territory of Ukraine was to be occupied by German troops, who would back the parliament in Kyiv against Bolshevik aggression. But the peasantry did not support the Ukrainian parliament, which had been unable to make good on its promise of land. Nor was it able to fulfill its commitments to the Germans to deliver food.

On 12 February 1918, as civil war raged around the former Russian Empire, pro-Bolshevik insurgents fighting on the territory of Ukraine proclaimed the ‘Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic’ (DKSR), encompassing the Yekaterinoslav [today’s Dnipropetrovsk], Kharkov [‘Kharkiv’ in Ukrainian] and Taurida Guberniya [guberniya were ‘governorates’ – Tsarist Russian areas ruled by a governor on behalf of the Russian emperor – Ed.]. The new entity was located within the borders of the country recognized by Germany as the ‘Ukrainian People’s Republic’ only a few days before, and was intended to challenge the authority of the independent Ukrainian government in Kyiv. The DKSR was disbanded in March 1918 when the ‘independence’ of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was announced by forces loyal to Moscow. Similarly, on 5 January 1918, local Bolshevik sympathizers proclaimed the ‘Odessa Soviet Republic,’ encompassing the provinces of Kherson and Bessarabia. This entity was overthrown in March 1918 when German and Austro-Hungarian forces sacked the city of Odessa and disbanded pro-Bolshevik forces.

A map of Ukraine in 1918, showing the territories declared by the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic (dark green) and the Odessa Soviet Republic (purple). Ukrainian forces fought the Bolsheviks for control of these areas during the period of the independent Ukrainian state.

A map of Ukraine in 1918, showing the territories declared by the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic (dark green) and the Odessa Soviet Republic (purple). Ukrainian forces fought the Bolsheviks for control of these areas during the period of the independent Ukrainian state.

At the end of April 1918, German military units dispersed the Ukrainian legislators, causing the downfall of the first Ukrainian parliament. The Central Rada had found it too difficult to complete the formation of the new state under prevailing conditions. The middle classes supported the Whites in the Russian Civil War, and the young social democrats in the Central Rada were unable to consolidate power under circumstances of constant Bolshevik destablization.

Hetman of Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadsky, who headed a Cossack monarchy for seven months in 1918 (Photo: PD-US)

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky

A ‘Congress of Agrarians,’ held under German jurisdiction, elected Pavlo Skoropadsky as Hetman of All Ukraine. Skoropadsky ruled as an elected monarch, encouraging the development of Ukrainian culture, schools, and other manifestations of national identity. He also tried to establish a pre-revolutionary order, canceling decrees of the Ukrainian parliament and fostering cordial relations with non-Bolshevik Russians. But he organized coercive deliveries of supplies to the Germans, provoking a series of peasant riots.

Political opposition to the Hetmanate grew, prompting the foundation of the Directorate, with Vynnichenko and Petliura at its head. The capitulation of Germany in WWI left Skoropadsky without support from Berlin, and he relinquished power and left Ukraine with the German army. Troops loyal to the Central Rada entered Kyiv, and the Directorate proclaimed itself the official body of supreme state power in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians in Galicia, still loyal to Austria-Hungary, would not disconnect their aspirations from Vienna. Two weeks before the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the Ukrainian National Council proclaimed the establishment of a Ukrainian state within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Young officers were anxious to seize power in Galicia by force, and reunite with eastern Ukraine.

Nikita Khrushchev during WWI

Nikita Khrushchev during WWI

Nikita Khrushchev joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918 and became a political commissar for the Reds’ 9th Army in the Civil War, stationed just south of Yuzovka (today’s Donetsk).

On 31 October 1918, the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen captured the most important institutions of Lviv without bloodshed and immediately proclaimed the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. This shocked the Poles, who considered Lviv to be their city, which they called Lwów. Local Poles organized an effective defense, and Ukrainian troops withdrew after fierce fighting over 2-3 weeks. The Ukrainian-Galician Army was formed in the city of Ternopil, in western Ukraine, on the basis of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. General Pavlenko became its commander-in-chief, and a Polish-Ukrainian war broke out. In the midst of fierce fighting, the Second Polish Republic was born on 9 November 1918, following the capitulation of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Poland regained its independence after more than 120 years of partition between Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia.

Georgi Pyatakov

Georgi Pyatakov

After the First World War, Yuzovka became a key destination for deportees during de-Cossackization in 1920. At a time when most deportations took people to labor camps in remote areas of Russia, thousands of people from Cossack areas in the North Caucasus and Don areas of Russia were sent by train to Yuzovka to work in the mines. At the end of 1920, Bolshevik leader Georgi Pyatakov was appointed head of the Central Directorate of the Coal Industry and imposed a work regime that included the death sentence for absenteeism. The region was gripped by widespread famine, with starving peasants scavenging the countryside, and Pyatakov kicked all those who didn’t work in the mines out of the mining villages, casting them off into the wastes to fend for themselves. Even miners received only half the amount of bread necessary to survive.


Early Soviet Terror in Ukraine

In August 1918, less than a year after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, a disgruntled member of the Socialist Revolutionary party named Fannie Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin in Moscow, shooting him in the chest and shoulder. Lenin had already expressed his view that state terror was a necessary component of revolution, and had decreed some mass executions around Russia. But after the attempt on his life – from his hospital bed – he ordered that mass terror be carried out immediately throughout all areas under Bolshevik control.

This statue of Grigori Petrovsky in central Kyiv.was torn down in 2009.

Monument to Petrovsky in Kyiv (torn down in 2009)

The campaign of terror began officially days later, in early September 1918. The historian Richard Pipes gives an impressive account of the period in his masterwork, The Russian Revolution. By order of People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Grigory Petrovsky on September 4th, ‘resort must be had at once to mass executions…’ Terror, according to the decree, was a response to the murders of V. Volodarsky and Moisei Uritsky, and the ‘attempted murder of the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.’ On September 5th, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) ordered that class enemies would be committed to concentration camps, and that all those linked to ‘White Guard organization conspiracies, and seditious actions to be summarily executed.’

The terror was to be implemented by the ‘All-Russian Extraordinary Commission’ (‘Cheka’ for short), which became the political police of the Bolshevik regime. Ukraine was to be a particular target of Cheka terror, as it represented a region not only of reasonably well-to-do farmers and peasants living off Ukraine’s rich soil, but also of repeated attempts to achieve national self-determination within the former Russian Empire. As such, the terror was not limited to targeting particular classes. Members of all social strata fell victim. Mass arrests, torture and shootings occurred in many areas of eastern, central and southern Ukraine, with the Cheka acting as judge, jury and executioner in condemning thousands. The rate of executions during 1918-19 defies the imagination in some cases, with thousands being summarily arrested, tortured and shot over the course of only a few weeks. For a detailed account of the Cheka’s activity in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa, see ‘Moscow’s Legacy of Terror in Ukraine.’


Khrushchev became a ‘labor brigade commissar’ in 1921, charged with meting out sentences and punishments to counterrevolutionaries and saboteurs at a time of serious worker unrest. At the end of the 1920s, hundreds of thousands were sent to the mines and the region began its precipitous growth into a Soviet industrial heartland, the most densely populated area of Ukraine. Stalin had erased Pyatakov from the history books after his execution in 1937, but Gorbachev rehabilitated him during the reform period of the late 1980s.

Coat of Arms of the West Ukrainian People's Republic

ZUNR Coat of Arms

UNR Coat of Arms

UNR Coat of Arms

On 3 January 1919, in Kyiv, an act of unification between the two Ukrainian states – the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR) – was passed, forming the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Two weeks later, the Bolsheviks invaded Kyiv. Fighting between Polish and Ukrainian forces in Galicia intensified.

In July, the Galician army was forced to withdraw from Galicia and unite with Petliura’s troops in eastern Ukraine, leaving all of eastern Galicia in Poland’s hands.

Anton Denikin

Anton Denikin

Makhnovite banner: "Death to All Those Who Obstruct Freedom for Working People."

Makhnovite banner: “Death to All Those Who Obstruct Freedom for Working People.”

At this time, the troops of Anton Denikin – a White Army general in the Russian Civil War – invaded Kyiv and carried out a slaughter. Power in Kyiv seemed to change hands every few months. Peasants in Ukraine who wanted to protect their property formed armed detachments and elected local chieftains. Unions were formed and broken. A bloody peasant war was intensifying. Nestor Makhno, a notorious peasant chieftain and a confirmed anarchist, commanded 50,000 men as the ‘Black Army.’ They conducted pogroms and murder under the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets without the Communists.’

World opinion blamed Petliura, whose army had suffered great losses during an epidemic of typhoid. He was torn by internal conflict. The Directorate was trapped by the Reds, Whites, Romanians and Poles. Petliura made a dramatic decision. He turned to Poland for support in return for handing over eastern Galicia and western Volhynia to Poland, thus receiving Marshal Jozef Piłsudski’s recognition as the only legitimate power in Ukraine.

Pilsudski believed that using Ukraine as a buffer between Poland and Russia would guarantee the safety of the Polish state. But when Allied forces occupied Kyiv in May 1920, Petliura did not find the support he had expected. Despite Piłsudski’s strict orders, Polish officers retook their former estates, threatening local peasants with inevitable reprisals in the event of opposition or any attempt to reignite hostilities. The Galicians could not forgive Petliura for selling their lands to Poland.

Marshal Jozef Piłsudski, the leader of Poland (left) and Symon Petliura, leader of the Ukrainian People's Republic, in Kyiv (1920)

Marshal Jozef Piłsudski (center) and Symon Petliura (right) in 1920 (Kyiv)

In June 1920, the Red Army launched a counterattack and took Kyiv. By August, Soviet forces were approaching Warsaw, which the Bolsheviks viewed as the gateway to Europe. But the Polish people did not rise up against the Polish government as the Reds had hoped. Thousands of volunteers joined the ranks of the Polish army, Piłsudski broke through the Bolshevik front, and Ukrainian troops made a contribution to the final victory over the Red Army. But the opponents of Piłsudski in Poland gained the upper hand and ended support for the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Ukrainian troops were interned.

On 18 March 1921, Poland and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Riga, ending the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920. Poland retained control over eastern Galicia and western Volhynia, and recognized the Soviet government in Kyiv. Piłsudski begged for forgiveness from his Ukrainian allies, but claimed he had no choice. The government of the UNR remained in Poland for several more years, waging its struggle from abroad. But its leaders could not unite the nation. A political chasm had opened between the Galician army and the troops of Petliura.

Caricature of the Treaty of Riga drawn by a Belarusian cartoonist, showing Belarus being torn in two by Poland and Soviet Russia, while the two states trample on Ukraine

Caricature of the Treaty of Riga drawn by a Belarusian cartoonist, showing Belarus being torn in half by Poland and Soviet Russia, while the two states trample on Ukraine


Lenin, Ukrainian nationalism, and the Soviet secret police

Even after victory in the Russian Civil War, two groups remained of serious concern to Lenin: émigré ‘White Guards’ in foreign capitals such as Paris, Berlin and Warsaw, and Ukrainian nationalists. According to Christopher Andrew and Vasily Mitrokhin in ‘The Sword and Shield,’ a history of Soviet intelligence operations, ‘[i]in the spring of 1922 the Ukrainian GPU received intelligence reports that Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian government-in-exile had established a “partisan headquarters” under General Yurko Tutyunnik which was sending secret emissaries to the Ukraine to establish a nationalist underground.’

Yurko Tutyunnik in 1929

Yurko Tutyunnik in 1929

Lenin’s strategy was to ‘infiltrate and destabilize’ the Ukrainian nationalists by establishing ‘bogus anti-Bolshevik undergrounds under GPU control,’ which would ‘lure General Tutyunnik… back across the frontier.’ First, one of Tutyunnik’s agents, Zayarny, was captured in 1922 and successfully returned by the GPU to Tutyunnik’s HQ ‘with bogus reports that an underground Supreme Military Council (… VVR)’ in Ukraine wanted ‘to set up an operational headquarters under Tutyunnik’s leadership to wage war against the Bolsheviks.’ The GPU then succeeded in recruiting one of Tutyunnik’s close associates – Pyotr Stakhov – as a double agent.

Eventually, in June 1923, Tutyunnik was persuaded to return to Ukraine in person, and ‘at a remote hamlet on the Romanian bank of the river Dniester… Zayarny met him with the news that the VVR and Pyotr Stakhov were waiting on the other side.’ Tutyunnik still believed the VVR to be a phony organization, and Stakhov was compelled to cross the river to convince him otherwise. Stakhov was ultimately successful. Tutyunnik crossed the river, where he was delivered into the hands of Lenin’s secret police. Subsequently, according to Andrew and Mitrokhin, ‘letters written by Tutyunnik or in his name were sent to prominent Ukrainian nationalists abroad saying that their struggle was hopeless and that he had aligned himself irrevocably with the Soviet cause. He was executed six years later.’


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