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Ukraine’s taste of freedom

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Ukraine has been a pawn in the imperial games of more powerful nations for centuries—but the 1917 Russian revolution offered a glimpse of hope, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2394
Ukraine's taste of freedom

‘The Ukrainians and the Russians have a common cry’ according to this 1920 poster by Bolshevik artist Vladimir Mayakovsky

The name Ukraine means borderlands and the country has been a pawn batted about in wars between the great powers for hundreds of years. But the revolutionary Bolsheviks’ attitude during a civil war that followed the Russian revolution in 1917 showed that an alternative was possible. 

The Bolshevik leader Lenin called tsarist Russia a “prison of peoples” because of the range of nationalities exploited and oppressed across the Russian empire. Greater Russian chauvinism looked down on all the other people in the empire as less civilised, and oppressed their culture and languages. Russia’s government banned literature and newspapers in Ukrainian from the 1870s to 1905 and again from 1914.

Before the First World War began Lenin argued, “The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods.”

He said that the Bolsheviks “strongly oppose the incredible humiliation of the Ukrainians and demand complete equality for them”. Most peasants were Ukrainian speakers. They sweated under Russian landlords in the east and Polish landlords in the west, and hated both. In the industrial centres—most significantly Kharkov in the east—both workers and managers were mostly Russian immigrants. This division between town and country created difficulties for the middle class nationalist movement in trying to create a unified Ukrainian culture, but also for largely urban revolutionaries.

Ukraine was on the front line between Russian and German forces in the First World War. In February 1917 a revolution overthrew the tsar and set up a provisional government in the Russian capital Petrograd. In the aftermath of the revolution, an organisation called the Rada came to run Ukraine. It was dominated by nationalists, but not elected like the soviet councils. The Rada declared an “autonomous Ukrainian Republic” in June.  In October the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian provisional government under the slogan All Power to the Soviets. 

The Rada declared its intention to “become a federation of equal and free peoples”. Russia’s soviet government accepted Ukrainian independence, but the Rada did not recognise the soviet government in return. Instead the Rada looked to France for financial and technical aid. It allowed Cossack regiments through to join the fight against the soviets, but not Bolshevik troops.

The military manoeuvring accompanied mass social movements of strikes and protests. A parallel soviet government grew in Kharkov demanding recognition of the new Russian soviet state. The two governments in Ukraine went to war. This conflict became rapidly subsumed in a wider civil war. Though the First World War was still going on, powers on both sides were determined to strangle the new soviet state at birth.

At first imperialist armies invaded. But later they preferred to support the “White” armies run by generals from the former tsarist state. The Bolsheviks expanded the Red Guards who had defended Petrograd into a Red Army that could take on the Whites. Leon Trotsky, a Jew from Ukraine, led the Red Army.

This new army didn’t just rely on military strength. It promised a new world to workers, peasants and national minorities determined not to see the return of tsarist landowners and bosses. The strategy won quick results in Ukraine, despite the lack of many Bolsheviks among the Ukrainian masses.

The head of the Rada, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, complained that, “The vast majority of the Ukrainian population was against us”. More and more of its forces went over to the Bolsheviks. The Rada retreated out of the capital Kiev as the Red Army advanced. The local soviet declared an independent soviet Ukraine.  Lacking local support the Rada called on German and Austro-Hungarian troops to save its rule. These troops enthusiastically invaded. By early March 1918 Ukraine was occupied. Its new overlords dismissed the Rada and set up a puppet government.

But mass movements in Germany affected their ability to occupy. Towards the end of the year anti-war mutinies and strikes forced Germany to withdraw its troops to deal with revolution at home. Its puppet government collapsed and the Rada took control again, now led by Symon Petliura. The occupation had made it much less popular. The next spring the Red Army marched back into Kiev. It was received with much more enthusiasm than before. The retreating nationalist forces massacred Jews.

Later in 1919 a White army under the brutal General Denikin occupied Ukraine. He had no local support. The country became disorganised, with armies of revolutionaries, such as that of the anarchist Nestor Makhno, and bandits vying for control of the countryside. The Red Army pushed the Whites out by the end of 1919. But just when peace looked possible Petliura called on support from Poland. The war resumed with fighting between the Red Army and Polish forces.

Once again the interests of people in Ukraine were subsumed under those of another power that saw a chance to expand its influence. What support for nationalism remained was largely based on hostility to Polish landlords, so many now saw Petliura as a traitor. The soviet regime drove the Polish forces out of most of Ukraine, though the war ended in 1921 with a compromise that left four million Ukrainians in Poland. Finally a stable soviet Ukraine was established. This was not a matter of soviet Russia annexing the state. Through the various Rada governments the Ukrainian bourgeoisie had shown the population it had nothing to offer.

Lenin had emphasised in 1920 that the new government would show no chauvinism. He denounced some Bolsheviks’ “artificial attempts to push back the Ukrainian language into second place”. The government demanded that all officials learn Ukrainian and that large estates should be distributed to peasants rather than refettled to supply food to Russia.

The Bolshevik policy was not only words. For a period in the 1920s life was transformed for people in states that had been vassals to the Tsar. They took the same attitude to oppressed nations within the tsarist empire and those who faced imperialism outside it from Ireland to Turkey, China and India.

Throughout the former empire the Russian language ceased to dominate. Schools taught in native languages and governments used them. In some places the new state offered help in developing scripts for previously oppressed languages. Publishing flourished. Indigenous people were given preference over Russians in employment. The soviets set up universities to train non-Russian leaders.

The changes could be seen most dramatically in the Muslim areas to the east. The February Revolution radicalised millions of Muslims. The First All-Russian Congress of Muslims took place in Moscow on 1 May 1917. Some 200 of the 1,000 delegates were women. A parallel sharia court system was created in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Tragically this period lasted a very short time. Joseph Stalin came to lead Russia on the back of a bloody counter-revolution. 

For the Russian state to stand up to imperialist powers on its own it needed military and economic strength. It built this by reimposing many of the oppressions that the Bolsheviks had successfully pushed back. Looking back from exile in 1939 Trotsky wrote, “Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin.

“Since the latest murderous ‘purge’ in the Ukraine no one in the West wants to become part of the Kremlin satrapy which continues to bear the name of Soviet Ukraine. The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine, in Bukovina, in the Carpatho-Ukraine are in a state of confusion: Where to turn? What to demand?

“This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their ‘nationalism’ by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence.” Regrettably, recent events show the situation is little changed today.

Further reading: 

  • The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Online at
  • The Return of the National Question. Chris Harman. Online at
  • Bolsheviks and Islam. Dave Crouch. Online at
  • History of the Russian Revolution. Leon Trotsky. Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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