oDR: Review

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

A groundbreaking new book by historian Marko Bojcun explores a whirlwind year in the life of Ukraine

Simon Pirani
4 November 2021, 12.00am
Ukrainian soldiers rally in support of Ukrainian autonomy in Petrograd, March 1917
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Image: Simon Pirani / Museum of Social and Political History in St Petersburg

October 1917 was the climax of a revolution we have always called Russian, but was so much more.

In Petrograd, the Russian Empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets, or councils, took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Central Council, or Rada, which 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 Russian army and the countryside as much as the towns – which was increasingly beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government – but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.

This whirlwind year in the life of Ukraine is the focus of a new book by journalist Marko Bojcun, ‘The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine: 1897-1918’, – which raises important questions about opportunities lost in 1917 and how coalitions can break apart under severe strain, with tragic human costs.

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Bojcun describes the growing support among workers’ councils across the country in 1917 for a national government based on, and elected by, the councils, and that it “maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government”.

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 other’s 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 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.

Thus, 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.

Then, in late November 1917, as the Rada’s leaders struggled to constitute their own army, they stood aside as Alexey Kaledin, a Don Cossack general, 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.

After Kaledin’s troops put down a pro-soviet rising by armed mineworkers in eastern Ukraine, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd broke off relations with the Rada. Leading Bolsheviks in Kyiv threatened the Rada with a military assault. 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.

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Rally in support of the Central Rada, Kyiv, summer 1917 | Public Domain

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 – the alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman empire – and the new Soviet power in Russia.

This would have profound consequences for the future of the revolution. 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 were often superseded by their “perception of each other as enemies, to be precise as national enemies”.

Thus, 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”, which “ranged from simple identification of nationality to chauvinist and racist depictions of Ukrainians, Russians and Jews”. Bojcun details the streak of Russian chauvinism that ran through the Red forces that arrived in Kyiv in January 1918 and temporarily displaced the Rada.

This overriding of class narratives by national ones in political discourse was followed by a 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.

At the same time, the revolutionary wave shook widely held Bolshevik assumptions about Ukrainian national aspirations inevitably undermining the socialist project. As the 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.

‘Little Russia’ no more

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 instead enter a federation with Russia as a “cohesive economic and social formation”. The congress proclaimed Ukraine to be a federated member of the soviet republic.

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Mykola Skrypnyk, 1929 | Public Domain / Universal Journal

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 teaching the Ukrainian language 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.

Skrypnyk championed Ukrainisation until it was junked by Stalin at the end of the 1920s, and later 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.

Based on a doctoral thesis awarded to Bojcun in 1985 in Canada, The Workers’ Movement and the National Question also speaks of the author’s own journey. Born into a Ukrainian family that left the country for Australia after the war, Bojcun was and is an active participant in the workers’ movement. In Soviet times, he participated in writing, publishing, smuggling Trotskyist and other dissident literature into Ukraine. In post-Soviet times, Bojcun 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.

This is an edited version of a review originally published on People and Nature.

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