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

Heroes and traitors

OUN leader Bohdan CHERVAK reflects on the lessons of the 1917-21 and 2014 Ukrainian revolutions
27 June, 2017 - 11:14
A UKRAINIAN DEMONSTRATION IN KYIV, SPRING 1917 / Photo from the archives of the Museum of the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution

The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) recently handed over the personal belongings and documents of Yevhen Konovalets, a UNR army colonel, the first OUN leader, from its archives to the Museum of the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution.

The Day intended to speak about these historical relics, the lessons of the Ukrainian Revolution whose centenary we are marking this year, about the legendary figures whose names our contemporaries have undeservingly forgotten for a long time, with the OUN leader Bohdan CHERVAK. But the events around the museum altered the subject of our conversation.

It became known in early June that the Kyiv City Administration’s public utilities department had instructed the Museum of the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution to vacate the Kyiv House of the Teacher (a.k.a. Central Rada building) by November 2017 in connection with the upcoming renovation. Being afraid that limited access to these premises may mean further privatization and construction of a shopping and entertainment center at the place of this historical structure, the public has launched a drive in defense of the museum and the Central Rada building. Among the first to support this drive were Ukrainian nationalists with Bohdan Chervak at the head.


Mr. Chervak, can the Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution really vanish in the year of its centennial?

“What worries the public is, above all, uncertainty about the museum’s future. For nobody explained whether the Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution would remain behind at the Central Rada building after the reconstruction or some businesspeople would come as new owners. But I don’t think anybody will dare ruin – in the year of the Ukrainian Revolution’s centennial – the building that symbolizes it.

“Why is it so important to preserve this structure in its original shape? Because it is a memorable place – the Ukrainian National Republic’s government had its offices here. The Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution fits in very well with these premises. It keeps a lot of systemized documents about all the periods of the UNR and the Ukrainian Revolution and reproduces the spirit of that time. But, above all, the museum’s exposition illustrates the scale of the Ukrainian Revolution which embraced all of the Ukrainian territory. It is still common to think here that the Central Rada, the Hetmanate, and the Directory were purely Kyiv events that had nothing to do with Ukraine as a whole. But it’s wrong to think so.

“Incidentally, we planned to broaden cooperation between the OUN and the museum. In particular, it is 25 years in 2017 since Mykola Plaviuk, the last UNR president in exile and the fifth OUN leader, ceded his powers to President Leonid Kravchuk, which testified to present-day Ukraine’s legal succession to the UNR. The OUN archive keeps some documents and artifacts of those years, which would undoubtedly interest the general public and which we wanted to hand over to the museum.

“At the same time, we expected the museum’s researchers to help us find some vanished artifacts. For example, it is still unknown where the UNR attributes of statehood, which Plaviuk solemnly handed over to Kravchuk, are now. We saw them on the premises of Leonid Kuchma’s and Viktor Yushchenko’s administrations, but they could not be found at Viktor Yanukovych’s administration. These attributes, which date back to the times of Ivan Mazepa, must not be part of a private collection, for they belong to the Ukrainian nation.

“The OUN archive keeps all the correspondence of Colonel Andrii Melnyk with Yevhen Konovalets and other prominent UNR and OUN figures. We also planned to hand over some of these documents to the Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution.”

In April-December 1918, the Ukrainian State (Hetmanate), which controlled the largest territory in the whole period of the Ukrainian Revolution, negotiated the accession of Crimea and Kuban, where a large Ukrainian-speaking population resided. Most of the Ukrainians supported the state in this matter. Do many Ukrainians know that the Ukrainian State was recognized by 30 countries in 1918 – i.e., by almost a half of the states that existed at the time? However, Russian ideologists repeat over and over again that Ukraine has never had a state of its own and has no experience in state-building.

“The UNR had its own army, currency, public administration bodies, flag, emblem, and was recognized internationally. It was a full-fledged state which we, unfortunately, failed to preserve. And our enemies know this. This is why the propaganda of the so-called ‘Russian World’ is aimed at convincing the world that Ukraine has never been a state and what is going on today is temporary. But the history of the Ukrainian Revolution, particularly of the UNR, shatters these stereotypes. It shows that Ukrainians had a state of their own as far back as the early 20th century. We proclaimed and took up arms for it, but we lost it due to Russian aggression. In 1991, we in fact restored Ukraine’s independence that dates back to the UNR times.”


But older-generation people do not even know such a term as “Ukrainian Revolution.” Soviet historiography deleted this notion from schoolbooks, from the minds of Ukrainians…

“The communist and, later, Russian propagandas allow only a negative interpretation of the 1917-21 events in Ukraine. Such figures as Hrushevsky, Petliura, and Konovalets are called ‘enemies of the Ukrainian people’ or ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists,’ which is the same thing for the ‘Russian World.’ According to Soviet and Russian historians, the main events took place in St. Petersburg and Moscow only. But in reality, the scale of the events that unfolded in 1917-21 in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine fully justifies calling them Ukrainian Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in those days. There are photographs and other documentary evidence of those times.

“The events in Russia aimed to preserve the empire by modernizing it a little. At the same time, the goal of the Ukrainian Revolution was to establish a Ukrainian state. While in the 1st Universal the Central Rada declared its political goal to gain autonomy for Ukraine as part of a democratic federative Russian republic, it proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) in the 3rd Universal, and almost immediately the Russian Bolsheviks committed aggression against the young Ukrainian state. It is in the heat of the hostilities that the Central Rada passed the 4th Universal that declared the UNR’s independence from Russia. And we can draw a parallel with the present-day developments again.”

The more historical factors are made public, the more Soviet myths are debunked. Among the latter is enmity between Ukrainian Galicia and Central Ukraine. But pictures show that hundreds of thousands of Kyivites welcomed the Act of the Union of the Ukrainian National Republic and the Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR), which testified to the Ukrainian people’s aspiration for unity, on St. Sophia Square on January 22, 1919. I saw such a huge crowd of people with my own eyes only in 2014 at the Kyiv Maidan. But Russian propaganda was marketing the idea, as it was doing 100 years ago, that there were only Western Ukrainians at the Maidan, while Kyivites did not support it. Times are changing, but propagandistic ploys remain, as before, based on lies.

“It is the Museum of the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution that systematized this knowledge and documents. This is why this museum and the events that took place 100 years ago and are so consonant with those in Ukraine’s contemporary history are attracting so much attention.

“Another very important detail is that museum expositions restore historical justice by spotlighting the people who are the symbols of this revolution. We know, as a rule, the names of Hrushevsky and Vynnychenko only. We also spoke, albeit cautiously, about Petliura. The museum’s researchers have collected documentary information on all the outstanding figures who were creating the Ukrainian state 100 years ago and whose names were hushed up for ideological reasons. They made a tremendous contribution to the Ukrainian Revolution, and they must be remembered.

“It is, above all, UNR army colonel, the first OUN leader Yevhen Konovalets. If you closely examine the photos of those times, you will see that Hrushevsky and Vynnychenko are always accompanied by Konovalets and Petliura because the destiny of other people and the state depended on their decisions. But, as Konovalets led the OUN later, it was considered that he did not need to be recalled.

“During the Ukrainian Revolution, there were a lot of people who did not have an ideological linchpin and fell prey to an inimical ideology, such as the ideology of socialism. The impression is that, in the UNR era, we were blinded by the ideas of socialism and, as a result, we turned out helpless and were easily coming under Moscow’s influence. On the contrary, the life and struggle of Konovalets challenges this stereotype. You will never find in his life story, by contrast with those of, say, Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko or even Dontsov, even a single moment that shows his inconsistency. He would make all the important decisions exclusively in the interests of the nation and the independence of Ukraine. All the other ideologies had no impact on him. There are very few figures like this in our history.

“Take, for example, Ivan Franko. He lived a long life and followed a tortuous evolutionary path in his world-views: he was a socialist, a social democrat, a liberal, an atheist, but then he became a national democrat, a nationalist, and a committed Christian. There have been very few historical figures that were integral and had chosen their way forever. Colonel Yevhen Konovalets was one of them. The Galician-Bukovynian kurin [battalion. – Ed.], which he commanded, was one of the most battleworthy units in the then Ukrainian armed forces. All the attempts of Bolshevik propagandists to demoralize it from inside produced no results. Moreover, they were afraid to approach the kurin because such propagandists were usually shot on sight.

“One of the most urgent problems in the UNR period was the security of governmental premises, for they were very often seized by some provocateurs or overt Russian saboteurs. The only unit that could provide security was that of Konovalets, for its soldiers were well-disciplined and loyal to the oath. In other words, the Galician-Bukovynian kurin of Sich Riflemen was in fact the prototype of the present-day National Guard of Ukraine.”


Poet Yevhen Malaniuk applied the phrase “a man of silk and steel” to Colonel Andrii Melnyk, another active participant in the Ukrainian Revolution, who led the OUN after the death of Konovalets.

“The name of UNR Army Colonel Andrii Melnyk is also an integral part of the Ukrainian Revolution’s history. It is Melnyk who nipped in the bud the anti-Ukrainian revolt at Kyiv’s Arsenal factory. I have already said once that the first special Operation “Shatun” [a modern-day Russian plan to destabilize Ukraine. – Ed.] was tried out in the UNR, when the Bolsheviks stirred up a rebellion at the Arsenal factory in attempt to destabilize the political situation so that the Russian occupational troops stationed near Chernihiv could advance and seize Kyiv. The question was how to quash this rebellion. The UNR leadership believed this could be done by way of negotiations, but Melnyk and Konovalets argued that there was no time to talk with the enemies of Ukraine. To hold talks meant to lose time, to lose Ukraine. So all the rebels were either arrested or eliminated. These tough measures against what we now call ‘separatists’ produced a result – the revolt was put an end to.

“A gun is now standing at the place of those events near the Arsenalna metro station. It was put up in the Soviet era to glorify the Bolsheviks. Paradoxically, it is at this very place that Melnyk ordered the Sich Riflemen to shoot the rebels. Colonel Melnyk lived a long life and even led the OUN during World War Two. In exile, he formed the World Congress of Free Ukrainians. Yet he was always addressed as ‘My Colonel’ in gratitude for his outstanding role in the Ukrainian Revolution.”

The OUN recently handed over Colonel Yevhen Konovalets’ documents and personal belongings to the Museum of the Ukrainian Revolution. What can you say about these exhibits? How come they were at the OUN’s disposal?

“Among the handed-over items is Konovalets’ passport issued by Lithuania, the country that granted citizenship to the Ukrainian nationalist persecuted by the Stalinist regime, and his personal watch. Another special relic is the table Crucifix that was handed down from father to son in several generations of the family. Konovalets was a devout Christian. This Crucifix accompanied him in all of his travels. On the fatal day, when he went to see NKVD operative Sudoplatov, who pretended to be a member of the anti-Soviet underground, Konovalets left the Crucifix at a Rotterdam hotel.

“After the death of Konovalets, the OUN decided to keep all the belongings of the leader of Ukrainian nationalists. Since then, there has been a tradition for a new OUN member to take an oath, placing his hand on Konovalets’ Crucifix. This is the way members of OUN expeditionary groups were taking an oath during World War Two. It is a symbol of our struggle. I can remember well my predecessor, Mykola Plaviuk, putting the Crucifix on the table next to the Bible and saying that one thing the OUN had always had was missing here – he meant weapons. But we lived in peacetime and no longer needed weapons. But it is interesting and important that when the Moscow-Ukraine war broke out in 2014 and we began to administer an oath to OUN fighters on a military training ground near Zhytomyr, weapons appeared again next to the Bible and the Crucifix. The one who restored this tradition was Vasyl Kindratskyi, an OUN battalion fighter who was killed two years ago in a battle with Muscovite invaders at the Butivka coalmine near Vodiane.”

Which lessons of the 1917-21 revolution should we learn first of all?

“We should learn lessons from the mistakes we made 100 years ago. The first of them was no unity in the political leadership of that state, which Moscow successfully took advantage of. Unfortunately, we are ignoring this lesson today. And Moscow is striving again to take advantage of this in order to enslave Ukrainians and put an end to Ukraine’s independence. But there are instances when we can say we have drawn conclusions from the events of the Ukrainian Revolution. It is, particularly, the awareness of the role of the armed forces in defending the state. A hundred years ago, neither Hrushevsky nor Vynnychenko, who were social democrats, attached due importance to this. On the contrary, they were trying to persuade their colleagues and society that the Ukrainian state could do without an army of its own. Their logic was very simple: socialists and the Bolsheviks, who also consider themselves Left, have come to power in Ukraine and Russia, respectively, so a socialist won’t fight a socialist.

“But another wing – Konovalets, Petliura, and Mikhnovsky – believed that it was necessary to be guided, above all, by national interests. And national interests call for a strong state, and the state must be defended by its own army. Unfortunately, the position of Vynnychenko and Hrushevsky got the upper hand, and, accordingly, we failed to form a strong army and, as a result, lost our state.

“We have learned this lesson, and there are no debates now on whether or not Ukraine needs a Ukrainian army. But another question arose: what kind of spirit should this army have? And here, too, we must not forget the lessons of history. There are documents that show how the Bolsheviks easily spread their propaganda in military units. Two or three propagandists could enter a Ukrainian kurin and say that land must be returned to peasants and factories to workers and that only the Moscow government knew how to do this. The Ukrainians would believe this, lay down their arms, or even do a more shameful thing – they went to fight for Soviet power.

“Why did this occur? Because nobody attached importance to patriotic upbringing. In other words, military units were considered as an institution of force, not as an institution of Ukrainian spirit and statehood, which was supposed to inherit the history of our victories over the enemy. If we want the present-day Ukrainian army to be battleworthy, it must not only have the cutting-edge equipment, means of communication, and be well trained. We must take care of what is in the brains of Ukrainian generals and soldiers. If it is historical memory connected with the Ukrainian Revolution, the heroic exploits of Sich Riflemen and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, then this army will be invincible and able to win back the Donbas and Crimea.”

By Svitlana BOZHKO, special to The Day