Iwrite these lines as the Ukrainian crisis continues to rage, not at all daring to predict anything: to be a prophet is risky. What I can point out, as a historian, is that Ukraine’s history has always been complex and tense. The English word for the country derives from the Russian word “U Kraina”: the border. This territory has always been a border, hence the lurches of its history.
There is not enough space for even a cursory account of its history in past centuries, and I will confine myself to what happened in a specific period, 1917-1920, which illustrates the tensions that run through this territory.
With the fall of the Tsar in February 1917, the “Rada” (Council) came to power in Kiev, a government composed of moderate nationalists and non-Bolshevik leftists, which called for autonomy for Ukraine. In October Russia’s historical crisis deepened: if in St. Petersburg the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup, in Kiev a “Rada”, where nationalists were increasingly influential, proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic, UNR. But the Bolsheviks, strong in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, the region with Kharkov as its capital, proclaimed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in December, and this new entity appealed to the Russian communists for military aid. In January 1918, the Red Army entered Kiev and the UNR became an entelechy.
Soldiers of the 1st Blue Coat Division in training, 1918.
But things were not going well for Lenin, who had to yield to pressure from the sponsors of his coup d’état. That is, the German Army High Command, which imposed on the nascent Russian communist regime the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which – among other clauses – was to cede control over the Ukraine to Germany. On 1 March, the Kaiser’s troops entered Kiev, and soon the entire Ukraine was under German occupation. Disregarding the UNR, the Germans imposed their own “puppet”, a member of the Ukrainian nobility, Skoropadsky, even though real power was exercised by a Teuton, General Eichhorn, whom the Bolsheviks assassinated in an assassination attempt (on 31 July).
Germany, despite its successes on the Eastern Front, had to admit that it could no longer go to war, and in November 1918 it asked the Allies for an armistice. To grant an armistice, the Allies forced the Germans to abandon Ukraine, among other things. Quickly, UNR supporters staged a coup and deposed Skoropadsky, imposing a government led by a radical Ukrainian nationalist, Petliura.
But Ukraine has another region, Galicia, which had been under Habsburg sovereignty, and when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, it proclaimed its independence. It was the West Ukrainian Republic (ZUNR) created on 1 November 1918, but its existence was short-lived. The newly restored Poland claimed sovereignty over the territory, and on the 21st of that month Polish troops occupied the capital, Lviv. The fact that the city is known by many names (Leopolis, Lemberg, Lviv and Lvov) suggests the mix of nationalities in the region. The ZUNR asked for help from its twin sister, the UNR, but the latter was not in a position to help its compatriots in Western Ukraine.
In February 1919, the Red Army again attacked the territory of the UNR, accusing it of complicity with the “White Russians” movement, which sought to overthrow the coup power established by the communists. The reality is that there were indeed “White Russians” troops in Ukraine, but this movement did not recognise Ukrainian independence at all. Their project was to restore the Russia of the Tsars, where there would be no place for communists or the separatists of the dissident nationalities who had taken advantage of the crisis to establish independent states.
The Ukraine that was to be born as a state faced the Poles in Galicia, the communists and the White Russians, and also armed anarchist bands, led by Majno. Chaos descended into chaos. The UNR Army eventually collapsed and had ceased to exist by December 1919.
The Government of Southern Russia created by Pyotr Wrangel in Sevastopol , Crimea in April 1920.
The commander of the “White Russians” in the region, Denikin, hoped to settle the score with the Ukrainian independence fighters as soon as he had completed his advance on Moscow along the Volga. Unfortunately, that advance was cut short at Tsaritsyn (the city later known as Stalingrad, now Volgograd). From then on, the defeats of the “White Russians” followed one after another, and Denikin left command to Wrangel in April 1920. The Red Army expelled Wrangel to his last refuge, the Crimean Peninsula, and set about liquidating the UNR.
In April 1920, a desperate Petliura (one of the leaders of the Ukrainian war of independence) decided to agree to let Poland keep Galicia in exchange for Warsaw’s military aid. The fighting Poles soon reached Kiev, where they entered in May. But at the same time the Red Army launched itself on Poland, and was only miraculously stopped at the Vistula. The Poles left Kiev as quickly as they had arrived: they had to return to defend their capital, Warsaw. Wrangel, on the other hand, was expelled from the Crimea and thus lost his last foothold in Russian territory….
Poland and Soviet Russia realised that neither state could win, so in October 1920 they reached an armistice, which, after negotiations, led to the signing of the Treaty of Riga (March 1921). Among other clauses, the treaty ratified the annexation of Galicia by Poland, leaving the regions of central and western Ukraine for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was, of course, integrated into the USSR.
Postcard map of Ukraine in 1919
It is not unusual for the reader to have made a complete mess of the preceding lines: it is not unusual. Things that happen on the borders are never easy to narrate, nor to understand.