WWI Ukraine

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Ukraine did not exist as a separate political entity before World War I, as the imperial Russian government refused to grant the region autonomous status. Indeed, the Russian government officially denied the existence of a Ukrainian language and Ukrainian nationality. Despite repression and the disruptions of World War I, however, a nascent national movement remained. Located in Eastern Europe, Ukraine in 1914 had an estimated population of 34.4 million.

In August 1914 several Russian armies pushed into Austro-Hungarian territory in eastern Galicia and advanced into the Carpathians. The following summer a German-led counteroffensive drove the Russian armies back across the San River. During the next two years, the front moved back and forth as the armies fought over western Ukraine. Following the June 4–September 1, 1916, Russian Brusilov Offensive and a rapid decline in Russian military morale, the Eastern Front subsided into relative inactivity. Nonetheless, the widespread destruction of villages and towns during these years uprooted much of the local population, and the problems associated with the war and the refugees encouraged Ukrainians to think about national independence.

In early 1917 the Russian war economy collapsed owing to rampant inflation, rail transport failures, and a growing shortage of food in the cities. The February political crisis in Petrograd led to the new provisional government on March 3, disrupting imperial rule throughout the Russian Empire. In Kiev the following day, various political parties, military units, and civic organizations formed the Ukrainian Central Rada (Council), which called for a National Congress and the establishment of an autonomous Ukrainian state. In early April in Kiev, that congress created a socialist-dominated coalition government. Following this fait accompli, the Russian provisional government recognized Ukrainian self-determination later that summer.

Policy disagreements marred relations between Petrograd and Kiev, as the Russian government headed by Alexander Kerensky sought a unified “Russian” effort against the Central Powers. This friction worsened after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, as Vladimir I. Lenin’s party began political agitation in Kiev. On December 4, a Bolshevik ultimatum accused the Kiev government of weakening the front and shielding counterrevolutionaries in the Don region. After a Congress of Soviets in Kiev condemned this interference in Ukrainian politics, the local Bolsheviks departed for Kharkiv (Kharkov) and formed their own Rada on December 13. In response, the Kiev Rada abandoned its original federalist policy and declared full independence on January 9, 1918.

Despite that proclamation, Bolshevik troops occupied much of Ukraine by February, including Kiev. At the same time, a peasant-based anarchist movement (the Greens) under Nestor Makhno began spreading in Ekaterinoslav Province. Ukrainian military units were unable to counter either of these opponents, and the Rada appealed to the Central Powers. In March 1918 following the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, German and Ukrainian forces reestablished the Rada in Kiev. The Central Powers, however, distrusted the socialist-dominated Rada and staged a coup d’état, forming a new government under Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky on April 29. The Germans spent the next six months trying, without success, to secure much-needed food and raw materials from Ukraine.

With the collapse of the Central Powers in November 1918, an uprising by socialist and nationalist groups drove Skoropadsky from power and established the Ukrainian Democratic Republic (UDR) on November 15. Both the Red Army and Makhno’s anarchists moved independently against the UDR, and the Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petliura retreated from Kiev in February 1919. A fourth army, General Anton Denikin’s counterrevolutionary White forces in the Crimea, launched a counteroffensive against the Bolsheviks in May 1919. Provided supplies and ammunition by the British and French, the Whites advanced quickly, taking Kiev in August and pushing north toward Moscow. In October the offensive stalled at Orel, in part owing to Makhno’s guerrilla attacks on White supply lines. Denikin’s position then rapidly collapsed, and the Red Army took Kiev for a third time on December 17.

Desperate to regain power, Petliura allied with Polish leader Józef Piłsudski, joining the Polish offensive against the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1920. Although Kiev was captured on May 7 and the UDR was reestablished, the offensive soon ebbed. A Red Army counterattack seized Kiev for a fourth time in July and firmly established a Bolshevik-dominated government in Ukraine.

In October a White army under General P. N. Wrangel attempted another advance but was quickly defeated. The anarchist peasant army suffered the same fate that winter, with both Makhno and Petliura’s nationalist government driven into exile. On December 30, 1920, the Ukrainian Soviet joined with the other Soviet republics to form the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. In August 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine finally became an independent republic, although Ukrainians and Russians continue to view one another with suspicion.

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German Army field marshal Paul von Hindenburg (left) shakes hands with Hetman of Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadsky.

Pavlo Petrovich Skoropadsky

Birth Date: May 3, 1873

Death Date: April 26, 1945

Russian Army general and ruler of Ukraine in 1918. Born on May 3, 1873, in Wiesbaden, Germany, into an aristocratic landowning family from Poltava, Russia (now in Ukraine), Pavlo Petrovich Skoropadsky enjoyed a successful career in the Russian military. In December 1905, Czar Nicholas II advanced him to the rank of colonel. A major general by 1912, Skoropadsky served with distinction in World War I. He was awarded the Order of St. George and was a lieutenant general by the time of the March 1917 Russian Revolution, when he commanded the XXXIV Infantry Corps on the Southwestern Front.

Following the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, nationalist leaders declared Ukraine’s autonomy from Russia and established a government centered around the Central Council (Rada) in Kiev. Skoropadsky at first offered to provide military support for the new government by forming an army consisting of units from the former XXXIV Corps, but the relationship between the socialist-leaning Rada and the conservative Skoropadsky soon soured. Skoropadsky then left the government and organized the Union of Landowners to protect the interests of the Ukrainian aristocracy.

On April 29, 1918, Skoropadsky overthrew the Rada and proclaimed himself the ruler of Ukraine, using the traditional Cossack title of hetman. The Germans, who had entered Ukraine two months earlier, supported the coup in the belief that a Skoropadsky-led dictatorship would be better able than the Rada to carry out an agreement to ship large quantities of foodstuffs and raw materials to Germany. In return, German and Austro-Hungarian troops would help maintain Skoropadsky in power.

From the beginning, Skoropadsky’s regime was on shaky ground. His superficial efforts to promote Ukrainian culture and education failed to win over the nationalists, and his slavish support of large landowning interests all but guaranteed a lack of popular support. His dependence on German military support further alienated him from the Ukrainian people. Thus, when Germany sued for peace in November 1918, Skoropadsky’s regime came to an end.

Skoropadsky went into exile in Germany and maintained close contacts with Weimar military and government officials. He refused, however, to collaborate with the Nazis after they came to power in the early 1930s. As the Soviet Army swept into Germany during the last stages of World War II, Skoropadsky fled. He died at Metten, Bavaria, on April 26, 1945, when the train in which he was a passenger was attacked by Allied aircraft. Skoropadsky’s vision for an independent Ukrainian state finally came to fruition in August 1991.

Further Reading

Borys, Jurij. Sovietization of Ukraine, 1917–1923: The Communist Doctrine & Practice of Self-Determination. Edmonton, Ontario: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Distributed by the University of Ontario Press, 1980.

Fedyshyn, Oleh S. Germany’s Drive to the East and the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917–1918. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1971.

Hunczak, Taras, ed. Ukraine, 1917–1921: A Study in Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918–1921. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hunczak, Taras, ed. Ukraine, 1917–1921: A Study in Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Reshetar, John. The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917–1920: A Study in Nationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.

One thought on “WWI Ukraine

  1. Ukraine did exist has the Cossack Hetmanate, prior to being attacked and conquered by Catherine the Great of Russia, 1775 to 1828. Also, Ukrainian provinces existed within the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1795, under control of local Ukrainian nobles and maintained Ukrainian language, culture and history.

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