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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Our victorious flag is the Third Universal”

90 years ago the Central Rada passed one of its most important acts
4 December, 2007 - 00:00

Continued from The Day, no. 36

The Ukrainian legislative acts elicited universal excitement and the realization that the people are the source of power. This idea was emotionally expressed by the poet F. Nevestiuk:

It was so beautiful,
The spring of 1917.
Prisons and shackles were shattered,
A free nation was rising,
The song of freedom
Resounded like a golden chorale,
And the Universals spread
The words of the unchained slaves.

Unable to proclaim an independent Ukrainian state for understandable reasons, the Central Rada progressed toward its goal carefully but persistently in order not to endanger the new state. The Rada’s First Universal proclaimed liberty for enslaved Ukrainian citizens: “May the Ukrainian nation on its land have the right to govern its own life.”

These events provided new momentum for the creation of a Ukrainian army. The Ukrainian government and the General Secretariat were formed soon afterwards, and the position of Secretary General (minister) for Military Affairs was introduced. Symon Petliura, who earlier had been elected the head of the Ukrainian General Military Committee (UHVK) at the First and Second Military Congresses, was appointed to this office. The UHVK had the following divisions: mobilization and military communications, military engineering, military schools, free Cossacks, sanitary-medical, special service commission, etc. In the summer and autumn of 1917, despite the obstructive policy of the Russian government, differences of opinion among the Rada’s leaders on ways to develop the military sector, and various incidents and provocations, Ukrainian regiments were enlarged, the ranks of “free Cossacks” increased to 60,000, and a state military command was being cautiously formed. On the initiative of military officers from Odesa, haidamaka kurins and kishes began springing up in June. In November, the Galician-Bukovynian Kurin headed by Yevhen Konovalets was formed from the nucleus of Galician Sich riflemen, who had been captured by the Russians. This military formation was responsible for protecting the Central Rada and its head Mykhailo Hrushevsky.

The Third Military Congress, which took place on Nov. 20-31, 1917, and was attended by 2,500 delegates, was a landmark event. When they received the news about the military uprising spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin, the participants stopped the session and declared themselves a regiment subordinated to the Central Rada. The congress resumed its work on Nov. 28-31 and unanimously adopted a historic resolution demanding “the immediate proclamation...of the Ukrainian Democratic Republic” on the territory populated by ethnic Ukrainians. In this republic, according to the document, all of the “civic and military power” had to belong to the Central Rada and the General Secretariat. These bodies, in their turn, were to have “full authority” in the country and “rely on the revolutionary Ukrainian army.”

On Nov. 7(20), Hrushevsky, citing the resolution of the military congress, which he described as a “representative body of three million servicemen,” and expressing the will of the majority of the Ukrainian people, proclaimed the historic Third Universal, which was the first 20th-century document to restore Ukrainian statehood.

These developments were facilitated by specific events that were taking place in the Russian Empire, including the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The Russian government opposed in all ways the self-determination efforts of the Ukrainian nation and even issued an order to institute criminal proceedings against the General Secretariat “for separatism” and to prepare cells in the Petrograd prison for the Ukrainian leaders.

Whether some people today like it or not, the Bolsheviks overthrew this self-constituted Russian government in late October — early November 1917, thereby creating favorable conditions for the restoration of the Ukrainian state. This also permitted the Central Rada, which neither recognized the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) headed by Lenin, nor opposed it, to declare the absence of a central government in the Russian Republic and, consequently, the end of its existence. Therefore, the Universal’s thesis about “not separating from the Russian Republic” had no practical value and was a tactical and propagandistic maneuver. Furthermore, the Universal declared the need to create a union (rather than a single state or a federation) of equal and free — in all senses-nations of the former empire.

On Nov. 2(15), when the Sovnarkom proclaimed the Declaration of Rights of Peoples of Russia, which acknowledged the right of these nations to self-determination, including separation, all legal obstacles hindering further progress in this direction were removed. What their true intentions were and exactly how the Sovnarkom was implementing the declared principles were different matters altogether. Subsequent events proved to be a departure from these declarations. However, Volodymyr Vynnychenko stated that in November 1917 “the revolution of workers and peasants in Russia... had severed the ties with which the Provisional Government had bound us and freed our hands, enabling us to promptly institute in Ukraine the order mentioned in the Universal.”

The proclamation of the Ukrainian National Republic drastically changed the situation and required that the new status of Ukraine be constitutionalized as soon as possible. In its Fourth Universal the Central Rada set the goal of convening the Constituent Assembly of Ukraine “as soon as possible,” “in a few weeks,” which would “secure freedom, order, and wellbeing, [and] the Constitution of our independent Ukrainian National Republic for the good of all toiling people.”

On April 29, 1918, faced with the immediate threat of a coup d’etat, the Central Rada adopted the Statute of the State Order, Rights, and Freedoms of the Ukrainian National Republic-the Constitution of the new Ukrainian state. It proclaimed Ukraine a sovereign democratic parliamentary republic in which extensive citizens’ rights and liberties were guaranteed. The supreme authority in the republic would rest with the National Assembly as the highest legislative body and the Council of National Ministers as the top executive body. The head of the National Assembly would “in the name of the republic perform all functions connected with the representation of the republic.” This document differed from the constitutions of Western states in that it envisaged a supreme single-chamber body of state administration-the National Assembly. The constitution did not envisage a presidential post.

The hetman’s coup prevented this constitution and other laws from entering into force. Nevertheless, these historical acts exemplify the courage and consistency in Ukrainizing state bodies and defending the rights of the Ukrainian nation. Their contents should be useful in the legislative activity and development of the contemporary independent Ukrainian state.

One of the important directions of the Ukrainizing efforts of the Central Rada was the resolution of acute social problems. This need was dictated by the realities of the day, bitter social contradictions, the oppression of the major part of the nation (workers and peasants), and the personal experiences of many members of the Central Rada. Its deputy head Vynnychenko wrote: “Since I was a child and since the time our landlord Bodisko flogged my father on his farm, cheated and exploited him, drove him out to live in a dugout in a field where I herded cattle-since that moment I have harbored in my soul the seed of hatred toward social exploitation and to Bodiskos of all stripes: later throughout my life organizing this seed into conscious, unreserved, burning hostility to social, political, and other kinds of domination.”

Many Ukrainian leaders of the time viewed Ukrainians as a nation dominated by peasants and workers. Its revival hinged directly on satisfying the justified and burning needs of the foundations of the nation-the peasantry and workers. In his analysis of the national liberation experience Vynnychenko wrote: “It would be a mistake to think that this national struggle was outside the social sphere. On the contrary, this period shows no less clearly that national and social elements are inseparable. What is distinctly manifested here is that national oppression by Ukraine’s capitalist classes went hand in hand with social and political reaction and that in the name of and for the sake of their social interests the parasitic classes had to destroy Ukrainian national achievements. It was equally evident that the cause of national liberation was tied to the social issue and the interests of the laboring masses.”

The small number of Ukrainians among the major industrialists and landowners, the desire of the latter to retain their privileges, and the neglect of the social problems of Ukrainian peasants and workers entailed, according to Vynnychenko, “predetermined acquiescence to the domination of Russian reactionary forces, the Russian feudal and financial bourgeoisie, and thus to the domination of Russian culture and nationality. This approach would also be disastrous for Ukrainian statehood. It is more difficult, and now almost impossible in fact, to create a bourgeois Ukrainian state because we do not have our own bourgeois classes,” he wrote in 1919. The wealthy strata’s striving to preserve their privileged status “could not produce anything other than the domination of the bourgeoisie-in the absence of our own, a non-Ukrainian one — that is, the destruction of Ukrainian statehood and the enslavement of Ukrainian culture.”

Out of the 19 parties active in the Central Rada, 17 advocated socialist ideas. But they viewed it differently from the way it came to be later, particularly in the 1920s-1940s. They viewed the socialist system as a condition of genuine people’s rule in which the independence of the Ukrainian state, the national revival, human rights, and the well-being of the people and their high cultural level would be secured. “As a democrat and socialist, all my life...I have defended national rights and not only those of my own nation,” said Hrushevsky, clearly stating his position.

As one of the leaders of the Ukrainian party of Socialist Revolutionaries and a member of the Ukrainian section of the International Socialist Conference in Lucerne, Hrushevsky always defended the vital interests of the Ukrainian people. The Declaration of the Ukrainian Section of the 1919 International Socialist Conference in Lucerne, which he signed together with the other Central Rada members, affirmed that “the liberty of oppressed nations...is a prerequisite for the progress of socialism.”

The Central Rada understood the danger of separating national problems from social ones and setting these vital aspects of Ukrainization in opposition to each other. Therefore, the Third Universal and subsequent laws satisfied the main social demands of the day- it abolished landlords’ rights to land and capital punishment, introduced state-run industrial production and an eight-hour workday, passed laws on pensions, higher salaries for various worker categories, and public work, etc. The Central Rada enacted nearly 20 socially-oriented laws that reflected the views of Ukraine’s leaders on Ukrainization and the required spheres of their activity. Vynnychenko wrote: “The only chance to be saved is to seize power from the hands of the Russian Bolsheviks, finish off private and corporate capital in Ukraine, destroy (socially rather than physically) the bourgeoisie, and run the economy by means of public initiative by assigning Ukrainian cooperative societies the role of a commercial and industrial factor. The cooperatives would cope with this task because they are a blend of personal, public, and national interests.”

The Central Rada brought together romantically-minded but persistent and goal-oriented people. It should be noted that for a long time the members of the Rada did not receive fixed salaries. As of Nov. 25, 1917, they began receiving compensation in the form of a kind of per diem for the days they had spent working in the Central Rada — and there was no corruption.

In summarizing the activity of the Central Rada, Hrushevsky said in March 1918: “We did not engage in deception. We simply marched ahead; there is not a scintilla of falsehood attached to us. During the year of its existence the Ukrainian Central Rada did not use crafty methods for a single second or take a single false step. It pursued only one goal: to serve the interests of the long-suffering Ukrainian nation and those peoples in Ukraine today, to which history has bound them...With our heads proudly raised, we can lift the flag of the Ukrainian Central Rada over our land. We have carried it though unstained.”

It would be worthwhile to establish a day commemorating the restoration of Ukrainian statehood on Nov. 20, the day when the Third Universal was proclaimed in 1917.