Ukraine 1917: socialism and nationalism in a world turned upside down

Review by Simon Pirani of The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918, by Marko Bojcun (Brill, 2021, 413 pages)

October 1917: the climax of the revolution we have always called “Russian”, but was so much more. In Petrograd, the old empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Tsentral’na Rada (central council) that had since the summer pressed for Ukrainian autonomy within the Russian state.

The Rada, like all the parliamentary institutions emerging in the empire’s ruins, sat atop a furious movement – in the army and the countryside as much as the towns – that was beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government, but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.

In the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Marko Bojcun writes,

there grew a powerful tendency, cutting across party lines, to support the formation of a government of Ukraine as long as it was based on the councils locally and nationally, and on the condition it maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government. It was not a question of simply adapting the Russian experience, but of attempting to build with indigenous social forces on the basis of the institutions of popular representation that the revolution in Ukraine had so far created (page 206).

The councils had recognised the Rada – but on condition that it “recognised them as the local governments and agreed to its own re-election by them” (page 201). Such a reorganisation had been proposed in the Rada itself in June, at an all-Ukrainian congress of workers’ councils in July and a soldiers’ congress in October.

The left wings of the populist Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had urged remaking the Rada as a soviet body during the summer. Then Ukrainian Bolsheviks – and organisations of mostly Russian-speaking workers dominated by them – joined the call: the council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Kharkiv in September, and in Kyiv, Katerynoslav, Kremenchuk, Kherson and Odessa in November.

Ukrainian soldiers demonstrating in support of national autonomy, March 1917, St Petersburg

The Mykolaiv council resolved to “enter into constructive relations” with the Rada, the Luhansk council to support it on condition it upheld the decisions of the October soviet congress in Petrograd that had declared soviet power. By Bojcun’s count, “at least seven of the ten most populous cities of Ukraine” favoured sovietising the Rada – implying overwhelming support, since Russian and Jewish populations, who might have been more likely to question national autonomy, were concentrated in the larger cities.

But within four months, this hope of popular, democratic rule by autonomous Ukrainian soviet institutions lay in ruins. Military forces controlled by the Russian Bolshevik-led government and the Rada were at each others’ throats. Nationalist narratives drowned out emancipatory, class-based ones. On all sides, there were pogroms against Jewish communities, foreshadowing the slaughter of Jews during the civil war of 1919-20.

Unity proves elusive

Bojcun traces the process by which this hope for a refashioned Rada, and for unity with the Council of People’s Commissars (that is, the soviet government in Petrograd), escaped the revolution’s grasp. The detail is meticulous, as it is throughout this authoritative history of the pre-revolutionary workers’ movement and of the earth-shaking events between February 1917 and April 1918.

Bojcun describes how support for the moderate socialist politicians who dominated the Rada evaporated in the autumn of 1917 – much as it did for their counterparts in Russia – because they resisted the wave of peasant land seizures, and refused to pull out of the war, even as soldiers deserted the front and returned to their villages. In a grim foretaste of the civil war, some returning soldiers attacked Jewish communities – and while Jewish soldiers organised their own self-defence, the Rada vacillated, unable to discipline the forces nominally under its control.

In late November, as the Rada’s leaders struggled to constitute their own army, they stood aside as general Aleksei Kaledin, a Don Cossack chieftain, assembled a counter-revolutionary military force in south-east Ukraine and prepared to march on Moscow. The Rada agreed that Cossack units could cross its territory to join Kaledin, and its military representatives discussed with the Cossacks possible joint action against the Bolsheviks.

A young mother, bandaged after being wounded in a pogrom

After Kaledin’s troops put down a pro-soviet rising by armed mineworkers at Makiivka, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd broke off relations with the Rada. Leading Bolsheviks in Kyiv threatened the Rada with a military assault: “foolhardy”, Bojcun concludes, “because they were themselves divided and had insufficient forces to carry through on their ultimatum” (page 227). The attack was quickly suppressed by forces commanded by Symon Petliura, the Rada’s minister of defence (and, later, its leader). The Bolshevik leaders departed to Kharkiv, where in December, with the support of local soviets, they formed an alternative government.

The conflict between the Rada in Kyiv and the Bolshevik government in Kharkiv soon became complicated by, and submerged into, the conflict between the Central Powers (i.e. the alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman empire) and the new soviet power in Russia. Bojcun traces the process by which the soviet delegation to the peace talks at Brest first accepted – and then, as the fighting in Ukraine intensified, rejected – independent representation at the talks of the Rada, supported at this point by Britain and France.

By January 1918, the Kyiv workers’ organisations had abandoned hope of compromise with the Rada and once more took up arms against it. Inside the Rada, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the moderate socialist who had headed the government until then, made an unsuccessful last-ditch attempt at compromise, resigned, and was replaced briefly by Vsevolod Holubovych, of the right wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries. But at the end of January the Red army entered Kyiv and installed a soviet government, headed by the leading Bolshevik Yevgeniia Bosh, who had arrived from Kharkiv.

On that very day, the Rada signed a separate peace with the Central Powers, that presumed a non-soviet Ukraine independent from Russia. Its leaders would return to Kyiv in March, with the invading German army … only to be removed by it within weeks, and their government replaced by the brief dictatorship of Pavlo Skoropadsky.

Bojcun concludes that the Rada’s defeat could in part be attributed to the collapse of morale in regiments comprising Ukrainian soldiers, that Vynnychenko had unsuccessfully tried to turn into a popular militia. “In the end”, though, “the war between the Rada and the Bolsheviks was decided not by the numbers of fighters nor by any technical advantages in arms”. Ukrainan men and women were simply unwilling to fight or die for the Rada.

The Rada’s erstwhile supporters were frustrated and demoralised by its failure to act decisively on land reform, to sue for peace or to break with Kaledin. They no longer knew whether they should be supporting the Bolsheviks or fighting them. A whole number of regiments voluntarily disarmed and declared their neutrality when confronted by the choice. Likewise, the peasantry by and large retreated to a neutral position (page 260).

Not that the Bolsheviks were at this stage inspiring unanimous enthusiasm among Ukrainian workers’ and peasants’ organisations. On arriving in Kyiv, the Red army instituted a reign of terror.

In a memoir quoted by Bojcun, the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik Hryhorii Lapchynsky, who entered the city with the Reds, recalled that Red forces led by Mikhail Muravyov killed every officer of the Ukrainian forces they could find in “the first truly mass terror during the revolution in Ukraine” (page 310). To Lapchynsky, “a much worse matter” was the indiscriminate persecution all supporters of the Rada:

During the mass terror it was not just members of the Rada, but people who were simply Ukrainian, that suffered, including those who supported soviet rule, as opposed to those who supported the Rada.

Muravyov, a member of the Russian left Socialist Revolutionary party, was a particular problem: Bojcun describes how he “appeared in many places to proclaim Russia united and indivisible once again, and to denounce Ukrainians as traitors and Austrian spies” (page 314). Muravyov “styled himself as the avenging sword of the revolution”, refused to heed the catalogue of complaints to the civilian Red authorities about his campaign of arrests and executions – and ignored Bosh’s plea that he pursue the Rada’s remaining armed forces as they left Kyiv.

Eventually Lenin, on behalf of the soviet government, instructed Muravyov to go to the Romanian front. When he returned to Russia in mid 1918, he participated in the left SR rising against the government and was killed when resisting arrest.

But this was not a case of “one bad apple” (as the London police claim about every instance of racism in their ranks). Bojcun shows that not only Russian-speaking Red soldiers, but also swathes of the Bolshevik hierarchy, subsumed class identities in national ones: Ukrainians were automatically “petty bourgeois”, Russians automatically proletarian. For Russian Bolsheviks in Ukraine, Lapchynsky wrote,

psychologically it was absolutely clear […] that a ‘Ukrainian’ was a supporter of the Tsentral’na Rada, whereas Ukrainian workers and peasants were ‘simply workers and peasants’. There was a complete mistrust of everyone [in the soviet bodies] who used the Ukrainian language, of every document written in Ukrainian.

Vynnychenko went further, writing that, in Bolshevik activists’ eyes,

he who regards himself as Ukrainian is ‘an enemy of the social revolution’, an active and tenacious enemy. This made it easy for Russian nationalism to break out and fight against the Ukrainian national awakening, under the pretext of fighting social enemies.

Bolsheviks tore down portraits of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, and hunted down and shot Ukrainian schoolteachers in villages.

Bojcun writes:

Members of the Ukrainian political parties succumbed to the same kind of identification of nationality with political allegiance as the Bolsheviks did. They blamed their own loss of popular support on the Bolsheviks, whom they regarded as a foreign Russian element that shared the same imperialist attitude towards Ukraine as the tsarist autocracy (page 302).

Once reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and the Rada had failed, and military conflict erupted, Bojcun argues that, among workers and peasants, the common class interests that had united them in 1917 was often superceded by their “perception of each other as enemies, to be precise as national enemies”. People in leadership positions on both sides described their enemies on the other side “increasingly in national terms or a combination of national and class terms”; these “ranged from simple identification of nationality to chauvinist and racist depictions of Ukrainians, Russians and Jews” (page 301).

At a launch event at the Ukrainian Institute in London for Bojcun’s book, the sociologist Yuliya Yurchenko said she saw an alarming relevance to modern-day Ukraine in these arguments.

How did this overriding of class narratives by national ones in political discourse relate to the flare-up of anti-Jewish violence in 1918? Bojcun catalogues pogroms in areas controlled by, and forces commanded by, both the Rada and the Bolsheviks. Bojcun’s examination of class and national discourses before and during the revolution, and Brendan McGeever’s work on pogroms in the Red-controlled areas,[1] will surely contribute to future work on this.

What happened next

Cruel Russian chauvinism was only one face of Bolshevism in Ukraine. Bojcun shows that, at its height, the revolutionary wave shook widely-held Bolshevik assumptions about Ukrainian national aspirations inevitably undermining the socialist project. As the soviet resolutions on sovietising the Rada had shown, not only Ukrainian-speaking peasants and soldiers, but also organisations dominated by Russian and Jewish workers, were ready to embrace Ukrainian national rights in the form of autonomy within a soviet state.

Both the moderate socialist leaders of the Rada and the Bolshevik government first formed in Kharkiv were “compelled by the facts, by events, the logic of the real revolutionary national liberation movement in Ukraine” towards more radical responses to the national question, the Ukrainian Bolsheviks Sergiy Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai wrote in 1919, in a discussion with Lenin about the lessons of the revolution. Bojcun argues:

Vasyl Yermylov, Suprematic Relief (1923)

By December 1917 a growing number of Bolsheviks were realising that a revolutionary government in Ukraine was not possible without an alliance between the workers and peasants, or without confronting the national question as an integral part of their struggle for emancipation.

This awareness was articulated most consistently by the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik Mykola Skrypnyk. At a congress of soviets in Kharkiv in December 1917, he resisted pressure from activists based in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih –industrialised areas with substantial Russian-speaking populations – to form a separate, local republic that would join soviet Russia unilaterally and directly. To separate these regions from the rest of Ukraine would mean “abandoning the peasantry to the Rada”, Skrypnyk argued; Ukraine should enter a federation with Russia as a “cohesive economic and social formation” (page 242). The congress proclaimed Ukraine to be a federated member of the soviet republic.  

In 1920, Ukraine emerged from the civil war firmly under Bolshevik control and was declared just such a constituent part of the Russian soviet federation. Both autonomy and national independence and autonomy remained out of reach. But from 1923 a policy of Ukrainisation – support for Ukrainian language teaching in schools and the use of Ukrainian in the arts – was adopted, supported from the top of the Soviet Communist party but fiercely resisted by centralist and Russian chauvinist tendencies. Historians have argued that the battles over language and identity in Ukraine, the largest of the non-Russian republics incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922, influenced government practice across the union as a whole.[2]

Skrypnyk, who championed Ukrainisation until it was junked by Stalin at the end of the 1920s, perished in the purges. But Ukraine’s status as a non-Russian republic survived both the devastating famine of 1932-33 (the Holodomor) and the second world war. Ukraine never returned to being “little Russia”, as it was before 1917 – a point made at the launch event for Bojcun’s book by Chris Ford of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.

Before October

Two further aspects of Bojcun’s work – on the 1917 revolution prior to October, and on the long history of Ukrainian socialist organisations before that – seemed significant to me.

In his account of the events that followed the collapse of the tsarist empire in February 1917, Bojcun emphasises the distinct political aspirations of the peasant movement, and of soldiers’ organisations that overwhelmingly comprised young men of peasant background. He describes how soldiers rejected efforts by Ukrainian nationalist officers to organise regiments under their command, and embraced – as did Russian soldiers – the principle of electing officers.

City-based regiments formed a link between urban workers and peasants, Bojcun argues. Right from the beginning, this “new, momentarily urban force” tipped the balance against the old ruling classes (page 120).

It was soldiers who most emphatically expressed Ukrainian national aspirations, often going further than the moderate socialists in the Rada. It was to a soldiers’ congress in June 1917 that Vynnychenko read out the Rada’s First Universal, a unilateral declaration of autonomy – which provoked the ire of the Russian provisional government and the Russian moderate socialists, but was greeted by Lenin, Trotsky and others on the radical wing of the Bolshevik party.

The reverse side of a banknote for 100 karbovanets issued by the Rada in 1917, with inscriptions in Yiddish (bottom), Russian (top left) and Polish (top right (someone has scrubbed off the serial number)). The front of the note has an inscription in Ukrainian

Bojcun shows that, time and time again, the soldiers’ radicalism outstripped that of even the most left-wing Rada politicians, and, after October, collided with Bolshevik centralism.

Bojcun devotes one of his early chapters to the pre-revolutionary history of Ukrainian socialist organisations – Ukrainian, Jewish and Russian – and their outlook on the national question. Among the rich trove of issues raised, I was particularly struck by his perspective on the clash between populism (narodnism) and Marxism.

In Bojcun’s account of the late nineteenth century Ukrainian populists’ views, their opposition to the centralised state is in the foreground. The anarcho-socialist Mykhailo Drahomanov “advocated the self organisation of labouring communities and their spontaneous federation on a local, regional, national and international level”. He developed ideas about national self-determination that 

grew out of this federalist conviction, rather than from latter-day socialist ideas about the seizure, destruction and wholesale replacement of state powers (page 88).

Drahomanov’s study of peasant history led him to the conclusion that the peasant rebellions had produced “the greatest efforts of communities from all over Ukraine to associate with one another”. A critique of Drahomanov’s work, on the grounds that he had failed to recognise the social differentiation of the peasantry, was developed in the 1890s by one of the earliest social democratic circles in Ukraine.   

As far as I know, the polemics between Russian social democrats and populists rarely touched so directly on the state and how it could be superceded. The post-state utopia envisaged by Nikolai Chernyshevsky was taken for granted. But the political arguments were more concerned with the populists’ vision of a potential non-capitalist road of development based on the peasant commune, which the Marxists firmly rejected on the grounds that industrialisation was a necessary step.  

And finally

The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine is a tremendous achievement. It was published last year in Ukrainian, and makes available to a new generation of Ukrainian readers an account that stands in contrast both to the dogmatic justifications of Bolshevik policy by Soviet-era historians and the dogmatic dismissals of the workers’ movement by post-Soviet nationalists.

For English-language readers, it is by far the most comprehensive account of its subject, filling a big gap in writing about Ukraine’s revolution – that has most often been seen through lenses focused primarily on Russia.

In place of a conclusion, the book has a brief epilogue, drawing readers’ attention to Bojcun’s work in progress, on the workers’ movement under the Skoropadsky regime and during the civil war. At the London launch event, he spoke of the book as raw material for future research – a major understatement (so unlike the overselling of meagre “research” that permeates universities under neoliberalism). Bojcun’s assessments – of the Bolsheviks’ blind spots on “national self-determination”, of the left Rada politicians’ paralysis in the face of the mass movement, of the complex interaction of Russian, Jewish and Ukrainian workers’ organisations – are spelled out in the chapters.

The Workers’ Movement and the National Question has its own history. It is based on a thesis for a doctorate awarded to Bojcun in 1985 in Canada, where he was educated, having been born into a Ukrainian migrant family in Australia. Bojcun was and is an active participant in the workers’ movement. In Soviet times he participated in writing, publishing – and smuggling into Ukraine – Trotskyist and other dissident literature; in post-Soviet times he supported new Ukrainian socialist and workers’ organisations. Only after retirement in 2012 did he return to his manuscript with a view to publication, making substantial revisions on the basis of newly published literature. This rare combination of active participation in the workers’ movement, and scholarly research, has produced a truly groundbreaking work. 1 November 2021.

About the photos. The remarkable top picture, of Ukrainian soldiers demonstrating in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in March 1917 – complete with a national flag, brass band and mounted guard – was displayed at the museum of social and political history in St Petersburg, during an exhibition on the centenary of the revolution. Snapped by me – with many thanks to the museum staff who, in the midst of the nationalist mania surrounding the annexation of Crimea, made sure it was included.

The photos of the woman pogrom victim, and of the 100 karbovanets note, are both from: Henry Abramson, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in revolutionary times, 1917-1920 (Harvard Papers in Ukrainian Studies, 1999). The painting by Vasyl Yermylov, who was associated with the flowering of Ukrainian avantgarde art in the 1920s, is from: Ukrainian Avant-Garde Art 1910s-1930s (Mistetstvo, Kyiv, 1996)

The Workers’ Movement and the National Question is available from Brill in a hardback edition. Please ask your library to order it! Let’s hope a paperback is on the way …

More on Russian and Ukrainian history from People & Nature

The Russian revolution: how emancipatory hopes and antisemitic poison overlapped (May 2021)

The Kronshtadt revolt and the workers’ movement (February 2021)

Russia and Ukraine: history called up on national service (July 2015)

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[1] Brendan McGeever, Anti Semitism and the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

[2] See, for example, Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: nations and nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001), chapter 3

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