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Struggles for Statehood

In 1917, the fall of the Russian Empire gave Ukrainians a historical chance to forge their independence. The following three years saw the civil war on the one hand and active state-building on the other. Later, this period became known as the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1920.

The Central Rada

Soon after the February Revolution took place in Petrograd, Ukrainian political activists formed their own parliament, the Central Rada (Council), on 17 March 1917. A historian, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, was elected as its head.[2] During the short period of its existence, the Central Rada changed its vision of Ukrainian statehood from autonomy within Russia ruled by the Provisional Government to full-fledged independence. The evolution of the parliament’s views is recorded in four Universals – declarations issued by the Central Rada. Apart from shaping the political organisation of a new state and establishing relations with the neighbours, the Central Rada had to manage a number of internal issues. Being unprepared for such work and lacking the necessary experience, it neglected important problems such as supplying cities with provisions, maintaining the railway network, the issue of land distribution and the need for a regular army. As further events proved, it was impossible to govern without military support.[3]

The First Bolshevik Occupation

As soon as Bolsheviks had gained power in Petrograd, they set their sights on Ukraine. As such, it became obvious that conflict between the Bolsheviks and the Central Rada would be unavoidable.

As a direct result of successful agitation and propaganda among the military personnel and local peasant population, utilizing the slogans of social justice, economic equality and peace, the initally 15-thousand strong Bolshevik army quickly swelled into a 40-thousand men crowd.[4] Consequently, the Central Rada started losing its influence.[5]

In these circumstances, the Central Rada announced its last, fourth Universal. It proclaimed that the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) was a free independent state and called upon the people to repel the Bolshevik invasion.[6] At the same time, Russian Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin started negotiations in the city of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) which had been in war with the Russian Empire since 1914. They claimed to be representing all the nations of the former empire. To contradict this, the Central Rada sent its own delegation to Brest-Litovsk. Just a few hours before the Bolshevik troops entered Kiev, the Ukrainian authorities signed an agreement with the Central Powers. The document recognised Ukrainian independence and pledged to offer military support against the Bolsheviks. The Central Rada, on the other side, promised to deliver a large amount of provisions to the Central Powers (mostly Germany and Austro-Hungary). By July 1918 a million ton of grain, meat and cereals were to be delivered from Ukraine.[7]

Following the Brest-Litovsk agreement, the Austrian army entered Ukraine. Bolsheviks, who had successfully fought against the small army of UNR, could not resist the regular Austrian armed forces and had to retreat. On 1 March 1918 the Central Rada returned to Kiev.[8]

The Hetmanate[9]

The presence of the foreign army, unsuccessful economic policy and ineffective treatment of crucial issues (such as land distribution, formation of the army and clear vision of the future of the state) caused discontent in the Ukrainian society. Consequently, on 29 April 1918 a new coup d’état took place in Kiev. General Pavlo Skoropadsky, supported by the Austrians, was proclaimed the ‘hetman’ (ruler) of the Ukrainian State – the new official name of the country. Skoropadsky’s rule can be characterised as a bureaucratic military dictatorship.[10] It was based on a mixture of royal, republican and dictatorial features. Private property was declared untouchable and returned to the former landlords. At the same time, during his short 8-month rule, Skoropadsky managed to establish a number of cultural and educational institutions. More than 150 gymnasiums were opened; the State Archive, the National Library, the Opera and Drama Theatre, Ukrainian universities in Kiev and Kamenets-Podolsky as well as the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences were created.[11]

Skoropadsky’s dependency on the Austrians, his ties with the upper classes who tried to reverse the changes brought on by the revolution and his extreme loyalty to Russia led to the formation of a political opposition that represented class interests of the other side of the spectrum. The opposition created an alternative government with Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petlura as its leaders. They openly announced the preparation for a rebellion against the Hetman.

The Directory

A new change of power took place on 14 November 1918 when the Austrian army left Kiev and the opposition forces entered the city. They proclaimed the restoration of Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) ruled by the highest organ of the state called the Directory.[12]

As Orest Subtelny, a Ukrainian historian, indicates, “In 1919 chaos covered Ukraine. In the modern history of Europe, no country has suffered such pervasive anarchy, civil fight or complete destruction of power as Ukraine did. There were six different armies in Ukraine in those days; Ukrainian, Bolshevik, White, Entente’s, Polish and Anarchists’. Power changed five times in Kiev within less than a year”.[13]

The Second and the Third Bolshevik Occupation

In December 1918, the French army landed in Odessa to prevent the spread of Bolshevism. Their plan was to provide military help to the White Army which was preparing for a war for a “united and unbreakable Russia”. At the same time, there were rumours that Bolsheviks were preparing a new expansion to Ukraine. Ukrainian government, however, failed to reach a consensus on whether to prefer a union with Russia or to negotiate with the Entente, and while the Ukrainian politicians were deciding which option to choose, the Bolsheviks occupied Kharkov.[14] On 2 February 1918, the Directory left Kiev and moved to Vinnitsa.

The second Ukrainian Soviet government lasted for about seven months. They started with what Lenin called “a crusade for bread” when three thousand workers were sent from Moscow and Petrograd to take grain from Ukrainian peasants. Bolsheviks also started implementing the collective system in agriculture which caused anger among most groups of the peasantry.[15]

On 21 April 1920 Symon Petlura, one of the leaders of the Directory, signed an agreement with Poland about common fight against the Bolsheviks. The Polish side was motivated to create a buffer state between Poland and the Soviet Russia hoping that as soon as they entered Ukraine they would be supported by peasants. However, even though the joint Ukrainian-Polish forces managed to reach Kiev on 6 May, the local peasants, suspicious of the Polish motives, withheld their immediate support. The Bolshevik counter-attack ended with Soviet-Polish agreement and the latter's retreat. The Ukrainian Army continued its efforts until the end of 1920 when it was ousted by the Bolshevik forces. On 21 December 1919 the third Bolshevik government was formed in Ukraine.[16] This time their rule lasted for more than seven decades.

Western Ukraine

Shortly after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1918, the Ukrainians who lived on its territory in Galicia announced the creation of a new state – Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR). Galicia was historically a Ukrainian region with the population of 5.3 million people, of which (according to the 1910 census) 3.8 million (71.4 per cent) were Ukrainians, 770 thousand (14.4) were Poles, 660 thousand (12.3 per cent) were Jews and 65 thousand (1 per cent) were Germans.[17] ZUNR, with the capital in Lviv, covered mostly Eastern Galicia. On 22 January 1919 the Act of Union between ZUNR and UNR was signed in Kiev. However, as the Central Rada soon left Kiev, it remained a mere declaration.

ZUNR, on the other hand, faced its own problems. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Polish activists, who viewed Eastern Galicia as Polish territory, started building up their own national state. Hence, the proclamation of the ZUNR was swiftly followed by the military conflict with the Poles. In three weeks the new Ukrainian government was forced to leave Lviv and moved first to Ternopil and then to Stanislav. The Ukrainian-Polish war lasted for 9 months and ended with Polish occupation of Eastern Galicia, which was supported by the Entente “to protect civil population from the danger of the Bolshevik bands”.[18]


[2] Ibid. 426.

[3] Ibid. 428.

[4] Ibid. 434.

[5] Т. Гунчак, Україна. Перша половина ХХ століття. Нариси політичної історії (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 121.

[6] ‘IV Універсал Української Центральної Ради’ in Семків O.I. (Ed.) Політологія. Кінець ХІХ – перша половина ХХ століття: Хрестоматія (Львів: Світ, 1996), 761-762.

[7] Субтельний, Україна. Історія, 434.

[8] Гунчак, Україна, 132.

[9] Ukrainian State, a short-lived polity in Ukraine during 1918.

[10] Я. Пеленський, ‘Спогади гетьмана Павла Скоропадського (кінець 1917 – грудень 1918)’ in П. Скоропадскький Спогади. Кінець 1917 – грудень 1918 (Київ-Філадельфія, 1995), 29.

[11] А. Шевченко,‘Родина, которую мы любим’ in Одесский вестник 24 августа (2004), 5.

[12] Субтельний, Історія, 442.

[13] Ibid. 443.

[14] Ibid. 446.

[15] Ibid. 451.

[16] Ibid. 461-462.

[17] І. Гудзеляк, В. Роїк ‘Динаміка етнічного складу населення Галичини у ХХ ст.’ in Науковий Вісник Вглинскького Національного університету ім.. Лесі Українки 2008, No.1.

[18] Субтельний, Україна., 358.


  • About 15 million persons suffered from Communist repressions in Ukraine
  • On 30 December 1922, along with the Russian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian republics, the Ukrainian SSR was one of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)