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1917: The Empire’s Diverging Revolutions

1917: The Empire’s Diverging Revolutions

We have long acknowledged and taught that 1917 was not one but many revolutions, including parallel, sometimes overlapping, but often conflicting movements of soldiers, workers, peasants, white-collar workers, and other intelligentsia and social groups. But all these revolutions were refracted through national, imperial, and colonial prisms, so there were also Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, and Tatar revolutions.

As a hundred years of eyewitness-participant accounts and later historians’ scholarship have long affirmed, the revolutions of 1917 have been correctly understood as having been about the politics of war and peace and—inextricably linked with the growing costs of the world war—social justice appeals for peasants and workers, as well as the broader access of all citizens to self-government by way of a thoroughgoing democratization of all imperial institutions.

But outside the capitals of Petrograd and Moscow, and even for large non-Russian communities in those capitals, the revolutions of February and October 1917 were also about empire and national self-determination in one form or another.

The growing calls over the months of 1917 for a federal and democratic republic with equal rights for non-Russians (equal to those of Russians) in such a republic also linked any solution of the war or any progress toward social justice to the “national question,” or, alternatively, the question of the future of empire. For the majority of imperial subjects who were non-Russian, the revolution was also about ending the inequality of the “oppressed peoples” of the empire and their gaining rights to self-rule in their native languages and with native elites taking part in more democratic institutions. In most imperial borderlands, national self-determination might also be understood as national territorial autonomy.

The Provisional Government almost immediately after its formation lifted nearly all censorship of the press and public speech, making revolutionary Russia arguably the freest country in the world for a few months between February and October. The Provisional Government also abolished many of the policies of legal and administrative discrimination of the non-Russian and non-Orthodox citizens of revolutionary Russia and allowed the return of political exiles and prisoners, including those persecuted for agitating for federalism and national rights. But those measures failed to address the larger issues of the roles of non-Russian citizens in their own self-government, above all the demand for recognition of the principle of national autonomy.

The most ardent and experienced “national” opponents of the autocracy, and specifically of imperial rule, had been the Poles, with their large West European émigré communities and their history of legal and clandestine resistance. But because Poland was under German occupation throughout 1917, the largest movements for national self-determination were the Ukrainian and Finnish ones, though the Ukrainian revolution was perceived as the greatest threat in Petrograd and encountered the most resistance. In Kyiv the “dual authority” of the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government was quickly replicated with the Kyiv Soviet and the Executive Committee of Public Organizations, but the situation was also quickly “complicated” by the addition of the Ukrainian Central Rada. Though the Rada was created by a group of veteran Ukrainian activists in the Society of Ukrainian Progressivits (TUP), it quickly found mass support in the Ukrainian soldiers’ movement, peasant congresses, and the rapid growth of “Ukrainian” parties—above all the Party of Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries and the Ukrainian Social Democrats—which also quickly began to distance themselves from their all-Russian counterparts.

Indeed, virtually from day one, the revolutions in Petrograd and Kyiv began to diverge from each other. More important, and more threatening from the vantage point of the Petrograd coalitions, however, other national liberation movements took advantage of the Ukrainian movement’s advocacy for a federalist and democratic Russian republic and often worked in solidarity with the Ukrainian movement, above all the Jewish socialist parties in Ukraine, the United Zionist Labor Party and the Poalei Tsion (Workers of Zion, a movement of Marxist-Zionist Jewish workers).

The Ukrainian model of federation was envisioned to be built from the bottom up, from equal, sovereign people’s republics, and was not limited to successors to the Russian Empire.

The Ukrainian Central Rada convened the first and only congress of oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire in Kyiv in September 1917. The Ukrainian model of federation was envisioned to be built from the bottom up, from equal, sovereign people’s republics, and was not limited to successors to the Russian Empire. This model differed from both the Kadets’ (Russia’s Constitutional Democratic Party) administrative-territorial (but not national) federalism and the Bolsheviks’ top-down federalism within the framework of a one-party dictatorship.

The Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in the Fourth Universal of the Central Rada in January 1918 and promulgated the first law of personal national-cultural autonomy, the joint work of a Ukrainian Socialist Federalist, Oleksander Shulhyn, and a member of the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party, Moishe Zilberfarb. This “Ukrainian-Jewish” interpretation of national personal autonomy went much further than its Austro-Marxist intellectual fathers in granting political rights, not merely cultural institutions and language rights, to national minorities.

The only similar contemporaneous experiment in national autonomy was adopted in Lithuania in the early 1920s but was abandoned by the end of the decade. Poland was obliged to undertake protection of its minorities as a condition of its 1919 treaty signed as part of the Versailles peace talks. The Bolshevik Council of People’s Commissars created a People’s Commissariat of Nationality Affairs, headed initially by Joseph Stalin, but the commissariat was not motivated by protection of the rights of minorities as much as it was an effort to win over the large populations of prisoners of war and refugees, including Poles, Jews, and others, from the influence of “bourgeois” nationalist parties and organizations.

The Ukrainian Central Rada, by contrast, formed a General Secretariat for Nationality Affairs, with three initial sub-secretariats for Jewish, Polish, and Russian affairs. This arrangement was upgraded in January 1918 to a ministry with the proclamation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Fourth Universal, which itself was published in four languages: Ukrainian, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian. Though the ministry went into abeyance under the rule of Hetman Skoropadskyi, it was revived with the return of the Ukrainian socialist government in the directorate at the end of 1919. Among other tasks, the Ministry for Jewish Affairs fought against the anti-Jewish pogroms committed by Ukrainian troops under Symon Petliura, but Jewish ministers remained in the Ukrainian government and were also numerous among the government’s diplomatic representatives.

The Ukrainian solution to the multinational character of successor states to the Russian Empire was one key component of the Ukrainian revolution that places it somewhere along a spectrum of revolutions between the February and October revolutions of 1917 in Petrograd and the next set of European revolutions, which broke out in November 1918 in Berlin, Vienna, and other Central and East European capitals, most notably in Lviv (Lwow, Lemberg), where a second, but Western, Ukrainian People’s Republic was created and fought for survival with nascent Polish national forces and later the Polish Republic.

The Ukrainian revolution bears comparison with other “third way” Russian democratic regimes, most notably in Omsk, Samara, and Ufa, where coalitions of “democratic parties” included left Kadets and usually at first even Bolsheviks, but eventually stood for all-socialist coalition governments.

The Ukrainian revolution bears comparison with other “third way” Russian democratic regimes, most notably in Omsk, Samara, and Ufa, where coalitions of “democratic parties” included left Kadets and usually at first even Bolsheviks, but eventually stood for all-socialist coalition governments.

The Ukrainian revolution also proclaimed the principle of all-socialist homogeneous government, a slogan also articulated in Petrograd before October 1917, but Kiev also acted on that aspiration in the composition of the Ukrainian Central Rada and later the General Secretariat, and still later in the Ukrainian People’s Republic and its Council of Ministers.

Finally, on the issues of war and peace, the Central Powers in effect signed two treaties that were the first to halt fighting in the war, one with Ukraine on February 9, 1918, and a second with Soviet Russia a month later. At first the Soviet Russian delegation recognized the Ukrainian delegation in the hopes of having an ally against the Germans and their Central Power allies in Brest-Litovsk. But shortly after that recognition, the Council of People’s Commissars declared war on the Ukrainian Central Rada and proclaimed its own Ukrainian Soviet Republic in Kharkiv following a soldier-worker–dominated congress of soviets there. When the Germans refused to accede to Trotsky’s demands that the Ukrainian People’s Republic delegation no longer be recognized in favor of the Kharkiv “Ukrainians,” the first peace of the war, at least in words and principles, was a just one that recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The second treaty, with Soviet Russia, concluded after a German offensive that brought the Soviet delegation back to Brest after a split in the Central Committee (which in the meantime had had to move to Moscow), was indeed a draconian one, a victor’s crushing peace of submission. The peace with Ukraine, however, turned quickly into a brutal occupation of the country once the Germans had restored the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Also in short order the German occupiers tired of the socialist People’s Republic and abetted the coup by the former tsarist general Pavlo Skoropadskyi.

This brief survey of some of the key moments of the Ukrainian revolution underscores that it diverged very quickly from the Russian revolutions, especially in Petrograd, sharing more with various Russian “third ways” (between Red and White dictatorships) and perhaps more still with the politics of revolution in November 1918 in Central and Eastern Europe. As the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma noted in the title of his book, Ukraine is not Russia. Similarly, the Ukrainian revolution is not the Russian revolution, despite its inextricable and fatal links to that revolution. It is instead closer to the other revolutions of non-Russians in the empire, from Jews to Tatars to Caucasians to Poles.

About the Author

Mark Von Hagen

Short-Term Grant;
Administrator, Columbia University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more