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

1917: Russian Revolution as a warning

100-year-old lessons to be learned from in modern Ukrainian context
21 February, 2017 - 10:24
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

History tends to repeat itself. This is especially true of the Russian Revolution [the Bolshevik coup d’etat in St. Petersburg, then renamed Petrograd, October 1917] and its impact on Ukraine. Those tremendous social upheavals changed the Old World and we are now witness to similar ones. Back in 1917-21, the leaders of the Ukrainian national liberation movement fell into a historical trap (as did the Russian liberal democrats, but this rates a different story). We are about to fall into a similar trap, in which case we would kiss goodbye to an independent, democratic, and European Ukraine. This is bound to happen unless the ruling political class and every Ukrainian in the street know exactly what happened in 1917 and 1918; unless they learn from that heroic and bitter experience…

Ukrainian-Russian political and religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote that all revolutions inevitably bring a reaction [from the regime], that the more violent the revolution, the stronger the reaction; that this is a vicious circle. The response to the defeat of the Ukrainian national liberation movement and the victory of the ultraradical leftist Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin during Russian Revolution, was the bloodthirsty totalitarian Kremlin regime. The political – not ideological – defeat the Ukrainian National Republic suffered in its struggle for independence (actually, during the war between Ukraine and Russia) cost tens of millions of Ukrainian lives lost during the 1932-33 Holodomor, as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, during the Great Terror [a.k.a. Great Purge, 1936-38], and other crimes perpetrated by totalitarian Russia.

This is something one has to bear in mind when analyzing the experience of the 1917 revolutions in Ukraine and Russia. Those tragic events were a warning for us Ukrainians in 2017. Ukraine can’t afford to lose the war with Putin’s Russia. More on this, the nature and driving forces of the revolution, its leaders, and especially the reasons behind the defeat, in the following interview with The Day’s leading contributors and analysts Dr. Stanislav KULCHYTSKYI, Ph.D. (History), department head, Institute of History of Ukraine; Volodymyr VIATROVYCH, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, and Serhii HRABOVSKYI, Ph.D., noted Ukrainian journalist, winner of James Mace Prize.


Ihor SIUNDIUKOV: “I believe that our esteemed guests will agree that we are gathered here to discuss a topic which is more important than the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, that this topic has more to do with what is happening before our very eyes. The mistakes made by the leaders of the revolution in Ukraine 100 years ago often remind us of the mistakes being made by our current political leadership – like during the ‘proxy intervention’ back in 1918 and in a number of other cases. I think we could combine our efforts and find an answer to this fundamental question: Why did the revolutions in Ukraine and Russia fail, with such horrible consequences, causing millions of lives lost?”

Stanislav KULCHYTSKYI: “I have repeatedly criticized the concept of two Russian revolutions in February and October 1917. In fact, Russia has decided to discard this concept. Vladimir Putin’s recent edict says there was one revolution that took place in 1917. Also, it is anyone’s guess who will be eulogized – Denikin or Lenin – during the October Revolution Centennial festivities in Moscow. Could be both. The main thing for the Kremlin is that if a country falls apart, so does an empire, then where to find people who can revive this empire.

“We know that Kornilov’s putsch in August 1917 failed and that Lenin’s left radical coup succeeded in October that same year. It is necessary to know exactly why. There are a number of parallels one can draw between what happened 100 years ago and our current realities. In my opinion, such tragic events are explained by the fact that the common folk is always prone to respond to populism. Tell something to a man in the street that he likes, you’re sure to receive a positive response. At the time, the Bolsheviks were absolute populists. In 1917, when launching their campaign, they had the right slogans and action plan – then, in mid-1917, everything changed. ‘Factories for the People!’ started being interpreted in a number of ways. The way the workers interpreted it was condemned by Vladimir Lenin as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist idea.’ They screwed up using the slogan ‘Land for the Peasants!’ – they wanted to transfer landlords’ ownership to the local councils [Soviets], then discarded the idea. In the end, they adopted their rival Socialist Revolutionaries’ idea of Black Repartition.

“I must admit that I’m worried to see many people in this country being attracted by such populism. People believe when told there are simple solutions to problems that are actually very complicated. This is a dangerous practice.

“As for the consequences, for Russia, of what happened back in 1917 – I will focus on this subject at the moment – it was then ‘communal socialism’ was born. It was different from what would become a reality in Sweden. This kind of socialism would enslave three generations in the Soviet Union. Ukraine fell prey to it after three desperate attempts to free itself.

“End of story? Hard to say. I think that modern Russia has Lenin’s formula of power. What is it all about? The [ruling] party consists of two parts. One is absolute dictatorship and the other one is ‘Soviet,’ facing the masses. This second part is formed through elections and these elections are invariably rigged, as in the good Soviet times. Russia’s current regime is holding the people, society, by the throat, while destabilizing other [post-Soviet] countries. Ukraine, thanks to our Maidans, also the Baltic states (and Georgia, even if partially) have escaped this lot. All the other former Soviet republics remain within this system.”


I.S.: “And so Ukraine fell into one communal socialist trap. Why do you think this historical tragedy happened?”

Serhii HRABOVSKYI: “Before we discuss the trap, I guess we should trace the roots of the Russian Revolution of 1917 – following the revolution that took place in 1905. At the time, the Russian empire was a textbook anachronism. The system was absolutely ineffective, as evidenced by World War One. There were good army generals, patriotic soldiers, but the goals the empire set were insane – and I’m putting this mildly – like the cross on top of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople [Istanbul]. Such ideas could attract the Russian peasant’s attention for a month or two at best.

“There was another goal: Halychyna [Galicia]. Russia seized it and made it a general governorate. Followed ruthless deportations… Paradoxically, such brutal imperial measures proved a big help for the Ukrainian revolution. Mykola Kulish, then warrant officer, later a noted Ukrainian playwright, recalled that, back in 1915, he read Ukrainian books in occupied Lviv, books to which he had had no access in the empire, and that it was then he became aware of his Ukrainian identity.

“Also, Russia’s newly established parliamentarism was actually destroyed in 1907 after Stolypin had turned the State Duma into a structure where the supremacy of the ‘Great Russians’ was guaranteed in the first place and, second, the dominance of people of noble birth and ranking bureaucrats. I think that, had the Duma been a real parliament, with the government having to take orders from it, the Bolshevik coup would’ve never succeeded. As it was, [Russia’s] parliamentarism proved totally ineffective. Or take Stolypin’s court martial practice when people – among them many innocent victims, most likely – were executed by a firing squad, there and then, without due process.

“Stolypin’s agrarian reform, currently a subject so popular with the Russian politicians and historians – and with some in Ukraine – actually played into the hands of revolution and Bolshevism. It did worse than dividing the rural community at large into the rich and the poor. It deprived the well-to-do peasants of political rights, considering that those peasants were supposed to be the pillars of a regime facing a revolution. Those peasants hated the autocratic system. Also, it left the landlords’ property intact. Add here rampant corruption that flourished during World War One, what with budget military appropriations, all those funds that were so easy to steal. Finally, there was Grigori Rasputin who embodied the absurd of the Russian power pyramid. That was the dangerous mix that triggered off the revolution.”


I.S.: “There were serious reasons behind the Russian Revolution that took place in 1917. For the first time in 200 years (after the tragic Battle of Poltava), Ukraine stood a real chance of building a nation-state. It failed to use it. Hrushevsky, Skoropadsky, Vynnychenko, and Petliura were, of course, Ukrainian patriots [and did their best]. Why?”

Volodymyr VIATROVYCH: “As stated earlier, there are certain parallels that can be drawn between what happened back in 1917-21 and what is happening. I think that the experts who refer to what’s happening as ‘proxy war’ and believe it’s a new kind of warfare know little about what happened in 1918-19. Putin’s occupation forces are using techniques strongly reminiscent of the Bolshevik ones, used 100 years back. I mean forming ‘parallel’ puppet authorities, providing military assistance, thus making an act of aggression look like a civil war or ‘aid to the fraternal people.’ There were two factors that caused the fall of the Ukrainian National Republic. The first one was internal. In 1917, the Ukrainian people made it clear they wanted to become an entity in international political life, that they wanted to become a sovereign state. However, there was a big gap between the elite – I mean Hrushevsky, Skoropadsky, Petliura – and the masses. The masses lacked the awareness of political, let alone national identity, to reach the level where they could achieve national freedom.

“At the same time, I don’t think that inner weakness was the main reason behind the fall of the Ukrainian National Republic. I think the main reason was Bolshevik Russia and its aggression. Whereas new independent states emerged after WWI – Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Finland – they lacked Ukraine’s elevated national liberation spirit. But they survived and the UNR didn’t because of Bolshevik Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“Why was the Red empire’s project aimed against Ukraine? Because it would be impossible in the presence of an independent Ukrainian state. The outcome of the Battle of Ukraine would mean that of Russia, what would come of it. What we’re witness to is history repeating itself, another Battle of Ukraine that will determine the destiny of the world.

“Back in 1917-21, the Bolsheviks won the battle and established a powerful Soviet empire. At a certain stage, it stopped expanding through Ukraine and proceeded further in Eastern Europe. What we see now is a similar situation. Should Russia succeed in changing the course of events in Ukraine, somehow or other, it would not stop here, but would move further. West. The good news is the big difference between the Ukrainians who lived 100 years ago and those here and now. I mean in terms of national identity, self-organization, and unity. That’s why I believe that Russia’s attempt to use the 1917-18 scenario is bad mistake. Recent events are proof enough. What worked so well a hundred years back doesn’t work today at all.

“Another important reason why we should remember what happened in 1917-21. For the Russian Federation, item one on the foreign policy agenda is to present Ukraine as a geopolitical misunderstanding resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. They say the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, and that one of the fragments became known as Ukraine, due to circumstances that remain to be ascertained. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly declared that Ukraine is not a state and is not worth reckoning with. Regrettably, many in the West believe this and are prepared to allow Russia to get Ukraine under control. It is important to refute this thesis by referring to history, taking a look back one hundred years. We must present Ukraine with its state-building legacy, and the history of the Ukrainian National Republic (1917-21) comes in handy.

“We have proposed a number of projects to this end for the next four years, including the Centennial of Ukrainian Parliamentarism this March, the Central Rada, the Centennial of the [UNR’s] General Secretariat, the Centennial of the Ukrainian Army, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, and other state-building structures. We have to commemorate them. This is our Ukrainian historical experience, our achievements, the reason behind the degree of international recognition we have today. I believe that this is also an important tool in our current confrontation with Russia. We can use it to prove that Ukraine is not a ‘geopolitical misunderstanding,’ but one of the major countries in this part of Eastern Europe; that the destiny of Europe, and the rest of the world, will depend upon what happens to Ukraine.

“We can’t keep telling ourselves that our fellow Ukrainians are on a level of self-consciousness where no manipulations can work. They are not. They work. I agree with Dr. Kulchytskyi about the danger of populism.”

S.H.: “It is also true that populism isn’t the only hazard. There is also procrastination and irrational acts on the part of the Verkhovna Rada. Remember what happened 100 years ago? Why did they keep the land reform delayed long enough for the Bolsheviks to take over? Why didn’t they seize the initiative? The Central Rada screwed up, as did Skoropadsky. They had a land reform bill ready. It was rational, clearly formulated, but it was in the fall of 1918. Too late. Talking of Skoropadsky, there was an oligarch who was in the hetman’s inner circle and actually ruled Ukraine, pushing it in this or that direction. That was one of the reasons behind the catastrophe. This is one problem. Populism is another one – they propose quick acts, but there are times when such acts must be done by the government and the government doesn’t want to do it. Certain things must be done the simple way. For example, martial law should have long been imposed on Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. This would’ve made what we know as Operation ATO much easier. It’s like when the UNR Directorate took their time acknowledging the war with the Bolsheviks.”


Ivan KAPSAMUN: “Russia is using all the Bolshevik warfare techniques against Ukraine. On the other hand, the impression is that our political leadership is making the same mistakes the UNR’s made at the time…”

S.K.: “Ukraine declared national independence in 1991, but many tend to forget that the declaration was made by Soviet Ukraine. In other words, 100 percent of the population knew nothing about market economy. Remember the MMM pyramid swindle [pulled off across the former Soviet Union]? People were robbed clean, selling their apartments for peanuts, believing they’d make a fortune overnight. They acted as though blind as a bat. Or take Ukraine. We stopped celebrating another anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ in 2000.

“I’d like to get back to national self-consciousness, the way it was in 1917. I wrote a newspaper article, comparing Mannerheim to Pilsudski and Petliura. The trio is about the same age, also in terms of experience, yet they cut different figures. Mannerheim actually secured Finland’s independence, so did Pilsudski [in Poland], but Petliura failed [in Ukraine]. Why? Because Ukrainians in 1917 saw themselves as residents of ‘Little Russia’ rather than Ukraine. In the 19th century, Poland witnessed two nationwide revolts against tsarist Russia. Both failed, followed by stiffening Russian purges, but the Poles will always remember them.”

I.S.: “There is a lot we can discuss concerning the achievements and failures of Hrushevsky, Petliura, et al. Don’t you think that the main reason behind the fiasco of our national liberation movement was our society, its condition at the time? Any parallels with the current status?”

S.H.: “Yevhen Malaniuk, UNR lieutenant, said ‘we lost the war.’ He referred to men like him, lieutenants, captains, et al., who had allowed the politicians to dull their minds with their cadaverous ideology.”

V.V.: “Yevhen Konovalets agreed with him. Both believed the war was lost because of the politicians, and that the military would keep fighting. That was the reason behind the establishment of the Ukrainian Military Organization. It distanced itself from politics. However, the political elite can’t be blamed as the only reason behind the fiasco. Then – as today – the easiest way would be say that those ‘upstairs’ are to blame for everything. They are, but they are part of society. The adage about the people getting the government they deserve holds true.”

Drawing from the website behance.net


S.H.: “Today’s Verkhovna Rada is essentially different from the UNR’s Central Rada or ZUNR’s National Rada. None of the MPs at the time were corrupt the way our parliamentarians are. They had no offshore bank accounts. They had different ideas and ideals. They were intellectuals way above their future Soviet and post-Soviet counterparts. I don’t agree with Dr. Kulchytskyi who said actually that no one understood anything in Ukraine, that it was Soviet back in 1991. It was not! Had it been Soviet, nothing would’ve happened. It would’ve become another Belarus. About one quarter of the population knew what was happening and those people made the Verkhovna Rada [then ‘Supreme Soviet’] vote for national independence. In fact, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was formally independent until 1923. Then [decades later] we proclaimed independence, as though for the first time. It was like cutting the ground from under the feet of that independence. Georgia didn’t make this mistake.”

I.S.: “The Baltic states didn’t, either.”

S.K.: “We have a Maidan generation, people born after 1970, then there is a post-Maidan one, I mean those born after Ukraine became independent. There will be a third generation, people without the Soviet mentality. I guess it’s safe to assume that time is working in our favor. Eventually, there will be no people left who’ll regard themselves as residents of Little Russia.”


I.K.: “You’ve mentioned the Maidan generation, people who organized the revolution. What about the people they brought to power? We had a roundtable recently, at the editorial office. The topic was ‘Why Our Revolutions Are Done the Wrong Way?’ Would you care to comment on this?”

S.K.: “As a historian, I could give you answer on a global scope. Most revolutions have been bourgeois, like those that took place in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The 20th century witnessed the Russian Revolution. The first one produced the Soviets that would lay the foundations for the second one. Take our Maidan. Was it victorious? What happened afterward? No resources, no experience, no contacts to help make progress anywhere. There were social networks, so what? That wasn’t enough. In the end, the old elites came to power. The problem is that our political elites are at our oligarchs’ beck and call. It’s hard to tell how many members of our parliament are truly unaffiliated.”

V.V.: “For as long as we had Maidan, we debated, saying the event would end up being well organized – perhaps not as a political party, just as an organized movement. There seemed to be favorable conditions, with activists building a horizontal chain of command. After the revolution, the public-political movement turned out to be immature. Most young activists decided to go the easier way, siding with the existing political forces. Some went to the front. Each faction thought it necessary to add to its campaign slate the names of Maidan, ATO and volunteer heroes. Those people made deals with the old elites and this is one of the reasons behind the current situation, and correcting such mistakes will take a long time.”


Vadym LUBCHAK: “Two points. First, the foreign political mistakes during the 1917 and recent revolutions. The role played by the media and propaganda. How well are people living in the war zone informed about what is actually happening in Ukraine? For the past two years, Den has been sending copies of each issue to the ATO area, three times a week, through volunteers. Don’t you think that the government should support this initiative?”

S.K.: “In short, at the time Ukraine banked on the wrong group of countries, I mean Skoropadsky in the first, but we know that he had to take that step.”

V.V.: “Learning from 1917 and from what is happening appears rather banal. We have to grow up and realize that there are no stable allies, that there are certain interests to be served. Ukraine has no ‘lasting friends’ or advocates in international politics. There are only situational partners. No one will ever need Ukraine more than the Ukrainians. Other countries may support and defend us, depending on how well we are prepared and willing to defend our country. Hadn’t our guys, volunteers, risen up in arms to defend the east of Ukraine, our partners abroad would’ve heaved a sigh of relief and given up on Ukraine. Then the Minsk agreements would’ve contained provisions more to the detriment of Ukraine.”

S.H.: “Talking of 1917 experience and media support. Back then, the Bolsheviks were given free copies of newspapers supplied to every frontline unit, every factory, every province.”

V.V.: “The current situation is different, compared to that in 1917. There were different technologies at the time. A single periodical could do all the brainwashing it took. Later, they could use the radio. Today, we have lots of channels and the audiences can take their pick, watching and hearing various views. Today, Russian propaganda is tasked not only with conveying a certain message, but with proving that there is no truthful reporting, period. This is the so-called post-truth. A man in the street is hard put to figure out what is blowing in this media wind. This is a problem everywhere in this world. What’s happening is information warfare rather than a war on a given territory. A war for national identity. They [i.e., Russia] want to conquer the Ukrainians, rather than seize the territory. It is true that Ukraine is proving unpardonably weak in terms of information warfare – I don’t mean Donbas, I mean Kyiv where one can get a free copy of the expressly anti-Ukrainian daily Vesti at every Metro station. A hundred years back, the Central Rada and General Secretariat made a similar mistake, allowing Russian Bolshevik propaganda access [to Ukraine].”


I.K.: “Suppose we draw yet another parallel. Was it possible, back in 1917, to have power in one hand, in order to build a [nation] state, establish law and order, and beat off the Bolshevik attack? Would this prove effective and necessary? And now that Ukraine is beating off Russia’s aggression, do we need a presidential republic, even if for a while?”

S.K.: “What we have now is a presidential republic de facto and a parliamentary presidential one de jure.”

V.V.: “If those in power a hundred years ago could, they would take power. We’re now struggling to build a democracy. The crux of the matter is that this is the only way to build the state of Ukraine. Yes, a simpler way would be to build an authoritarian model, with all resources being controlled by one man, thus resisting Russia’s aggression, but then there would be little difference between Ukraine and Russia; then Russia would feel free to absorb Ukraine.”

S.H.: “I disagree. I have contributed to Den/The Day a number of pieces concerning Great Britain’s experience in 1941-45. The Brits practiced things that seemed incompatible with the freedom of speech and free market, but none damaged their democracy. I think we should learn from British experience. Yes, they have the Royal Family, they had Sir Winston Churchill, they have an effective parliament that ruled to have no elections at the start of WW II, that all had to work for the government and support it. On top of all that, there was no fifth column in Great Britain. Adolf Hitler offered support for Oswald Mosley and his party [the British Union of Fascists], but he declined. Churchill had him and his Parteigenossen quietly interned, just to make sure, although he would later release them, one by one, to fight the Nazis. I mean this British experience proved quite effective.

“Talking of what happened 100 years ago, I think the only chance [Ukraine] stood was in 1918. Had the Ukrainian National Union and Skoropadsky come to terms and quenched their ambitions, events would have taken a different course. There was an opportunity of getting the leftists and rightists united, as was the case in Finland and Poland, but this didn’t happen.”

V.V.: “I might as well point out that President Yevhen Petrushevych of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic was granted extraordinary powers, but that this didn’t help him save his republic. There were unfavorable foreign political circumstances. History teaches you if you study history. I think that what happened back in 1917-21 should serve as a good lesson today. We should launch a project, something like a collection of memoirs with eyewitness accounts dating back to the Ukrainian revolution, and give each Ukrainian politician a copy.”

S.H.: “Right, and give a copy to each Ukrainian serviceman and communal member. Our civil society may be imperfect, but without it we wouldn’t have our current political system. I see reasons for optimism within our society. History has to be studied and understood, just as we have to learn its lessons. All these Kremlin Cheka men must have learned their lessons from that ‘proxy war’ against the Ukrainian National Republic, Finland, and so on.”

S.K.: “It is very important for Den/The Day to keep this topic in the limelight during the year. Your readers have much to learn and we must keep our society supplied with ready-made knowledge, not just information. There are still myths being spread within our society, concerning events dating back a hundred years. We can’t build a civil society, we must teach it. Also, it is important to closely follow events in Russia – I mean the revolution centennial – and properly assess them.”