The article presents an overview of the background and course of the first of four Russian–Ukrainian wars during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921: the war unleashed by the Russian Bolsheviks in late 1917. The author shares the story of the Bolsheviks’ political manipulations which preceded the military invasion; he talks of the Bolsheviks’ public hypocrisy, which combined recognition of the right of nations to self-determination with unacceptable demands of Ukrainians. The Bolshevik strategy was to portray the attack on the Ukrainian People’s Republic as an internal Ukrainian conflict – the struggle of the “proletariat” against the “bourgeois Central Rada”. We examine the process of creating a puppet Soviet government of Ukraine, under the cover of which troops from Russia led the occupation of the republic. In addition, we emphasize the theme of “red terror” that was widely used by the Bolsheviks during the war. We draw attention to the similarity of approaches to warfare in contemporary Russia of today and a century ago.

The war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine in 2022 amplified the issue of Russian–Ukrainian relations manyfold. Previously, these relations were presented as friendly and even fraternal. Although one “sister” was older and one was younger, a positive assessment of relationships dominated for the most part, while negative elements were considered exceptions rather than the norm. Not surprisingly, the current war has wiped out such views. Behind congenial talk about friendship of peoples – the great Russian history and culture and its exceptional influence on the history and culture of Ukraine – lurk predatory Russian nationalism, imperialism, and the communism of Soviet times, stained with the blood of peoples who, for various reasons, ended up in the orbit of the Russian authorities. The kind of orbit from which, as if from a prison, it is incredibly difficult and dangerous to escape. Ukrainians have attempted such escapes several times. In the early modern times, hetmans Ivan Vyhovsˈkyi and Ivan Mazepa were eager to do just that, while in the 20th century the call for independence became a symbol of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921. The revolutionary impulse was so strong that Russia had to wage several wars to reoccupy Ukraine. This article deals with the first of them – the shortest one – which nevertheless crystallized all the deceit of the Russian Bolshevik propaganda: the cynicism of political leaders, who publicly said one thing and did another; their attempts to present blatant aggression as internal struggle within Ukrainian people, or as fraternal assistance to workers in their fight against nationalism; and finally, the incredible brutality of the military operations, mass terror against the civilian population, and complete lack of morality. Contemporary Russia has inherited a big portion of this legacy, which has become its ancestral feature and is being actively used today.

* * *

The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in Petrograd in late October of 1917 opened a new chapter in the history of the revolution. The conflict between the Ukrainian Central Rada and the Provisional Government was immediately followed by overt armed struggle with the Bolsheviks. The withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Mala Rada,[1] as well as the Central Rada’s condemnation of the uprising in Petrograd, confirmed that these forces followed different trajectories. On November 5th, 1917, the organ of the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, the Workers’ Newspaper, tried to list the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian revolutionary democracy,

 ...and when we seemed to be marching together against our common enemies, we never merged. We stood for the Ukrainian Democratic Republic and Federation (Union) with other parts of Russia. They (Bolsheviks – V.V.) were completely opposed to our demand... They are still, if not openly hostile, then completely indifferent to the vital national-cultural and political needs of our proletariat. Our differences have always been significant. But now these political differences stand out powerfully. They are getting on the agenda of the political struggle in Ukraine.[2]


The national liberation movements, including the Ukrainian variant, were supported by the Bolsheviks only as an accompanying force in the struggle against the Provisional Government. After the Bolshevik Party came to power, these movements were regarded exclusively as bourgeois-nationalist counter-revolution. Despite Marxist-Leninist rhetoric about the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, it was obvious that the national liberation movement and the Bolsheviks used different ideologies: the former aimed to create a sovereign nation-state and saw a nation subordinated to the unity of political will as the basis of its ideology; on the other hand, the latter recognized only class principles, considered the nation a historical anachronism, and juxtaposed the principle of national sovereignty against the principle of international class unity and the universal proletarian revolution.

The Bolsheviks came to power in Petrograd in the wake of the growing radicalization of society. The weak democratic state institutions of post-Romanov Russia proved incapable of overcoming the giant tangle of unresolved social problems that resulted in the February Revolution. Delaying their solution, including of that of the national issue, led to the fall of the Provisional Government. In 1917 in Russia, socialist and anti-bourgeois sentiments grew and strengthened, and Bolsheviks skilfully combined them with the communist doctrine, anti-war propaganda, and criticism of the government; finally, they used them all when seizing power.

The populism of the first Leninist decrees (on Land, on Peace, on Workers’ Control) is obvious. Manipulating the social instincts of soldiers, workers, and peasants contributed to the complete breakdown of the old social system. Soldiers were exempt from the need to comply with military duty; workers, instead on focusing on productive labour, were offered a chance to settle the score with their employers; peasants were given the right to appropriate the property and land of others with impunity. After October 1917, the Revolution took the form of an apocalypse when destructive forces took hold of constructive ones. Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev made a note of this peculiarity of the Russian revolution:


 …the greatest paradox in the fate of Russia and the Russian Revolution is that liberal ideas, ideas of law, as well as ideas of social reformism, have proved utopian in Russia. Bolshevism turned out to be the least utopian, the most realistic, the most appropriate to the situation as it developed in Russia in 1917, and the most faithful to certain primordial Russian traditions […] and Russian methods of governance and dominating violence.[3]

After the seizure of power in Petrograd, the Bolshevik leadership considered it a primary task to extend its power to the territory of Russia and Ukraine; furthermore, it perceived the Central Rada as one of the real opponents in the struggle for power. A series of political strikes were directed against the Rada. First of all, ideological war broke out, which aimed to discredit the Rada and prove to the masses the counter-revolutionary and bourgeois nationalism of the Ukrainian authorities. On November 26th, SovNarKom (Council of People’s Commissars) published an appeal to the population reporting on the counter-revolutionary uprising of generals Aleksei Kaledin, Alexander Dutov, and Lavr Kornilov, who were flooded with demagogic accusations in an attempt to disrupt the peace process, take away power from the Soviets, take away land from the peasants, and force soldiers and sailors to shed blood for the profits of Russian and allied capitalists. These “counter-revolutionaries” included the “bourgeois Central Rada of the Ukrainian Republic”, which was accused of waging “a struggle against the Ukrainian Soviets, helping Kaledin to gather troops on the Don, and preventing the Soviet authorities from sending the necessary military forces to the land of the fraternal Ukrainian people to suppress the Kaledin rebellion”.[4] This was the first call, the first threat.

At first, the Bolsheviks counted on the peaceful absorption of Ukraine. Their plan was voiced by Joseph Stalin. On November 24th, he gave an interview dedicated to Ukraine to the Petrograd newspaper Izvestiia VTsIK in which he demanded to hold a referendum in Ukraine on the issue of self-determination. As emphasized by the NarKom (People’s Commissar) of the National Affairs in Russia, the SovNarKom would reckon only with a government established on the basis of a referendum. Also, the NarKom immediately announced that power in Ukraine should belong to the Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. Together with the UTsR (Ukrainian Central Rada) – and without it if it refused – the councils should convene the All-Ukrainian Congress of Councils to resolve the issue of power and relations with Russia. According to Stalin, this was the only way to communicate the will of the masses; without it, the SovNarKom refused to recognize the power of UTsR as legitimate. This plan did not work out: the Central Rada eventually agreed to hold a congress in Kyiv that – as we know – supported the UTsR. The local Bolsheviks’ forces attempt to prepare an armed attack on Kyiv also failed because it was prevented by the actions of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Having accepted that they would achieve nothing in this manner, the Bolshevik leaders placed a bet on overt military aggression and began issuing ultimatums to the Ukrainian authorities.[5] Lenin and Trotsky prepared a Manifesto to the Ukrainian People Containing Ultimatums to the Central Rada, in which they basically repeated the accusations that had already been expressed in the Proclamation from November 26th. The manifesto-ultimatum was sent to Kyiv on December 3rd, 1917. Its brutal and unacceptable language addressed to Central Rada was obvious, and its rejection was exactly the reaction the SovNarKom was expecting. After all, the decision regarding the military intervention in the affairs of Ukraine was approved days before the ultimatum. In his Notes on the Civil War, Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko wrote about this quite frankly: “The collision with the Rada seemed absolutely inevitable, and in my presence and at the direction of Smolny, comrade Krylenko sent to Kyiv ... the ultimatum”.[6]

The first echelons of Bolshevik troops arrived in Kharkiv on December 9th under the command of Nikolai Khovrin and Rudolf Sivers. They were supposed to transit to the Don to fight general Kaledin’s troops – at least, that was the original explanation for their arrival in Kharkiv. The local RevKom (Revolutionary Committee), led by the Bolshevik Artem (Fyodor Sergeiev), instructed the Soviet units not to engage with “any hostile action against the Kharkiv Soviets”. According to Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko, “the local Bolsheviks united forces [with the Kharkiv Soviets] in the RevShtab (Revolutionary Staff) and did not find it possible to come into conflict with Central Rada”.[7] Mykola Chebotariv, who led the Ukrainian armed forces in Kharkiv in late 1917, also mentioned the Ukrainians’ cooperation with the Kharkiv Bolsheviks. He wrote that Artem and Moisey Rukhimovich, “the leaders of Kharkiv Bolshevism were willing to talk to us, Ukrainians, and we willingly settled more than one issue”.[8] However, this did not stop Rudolf Sivers, and by his order, in the early morning of December 10th, the Ukrainianized armoured division was disarmed. Mykola Chebotariv mentioned that this was done in secret. After a rally organized by the representatives of the city party organizations to protest against the pogrom behaviour of the Bolshevik army, negotiations began regarding the presence of Bolshevik troops, who upon arrival in Kharkiv initially declared that they would stay there for a short time. “The discussion between the Bolshevik army and the Ukrainians dragged on until late at night, about half past two”, writes Chebotariv. “Suddenly, an assistant commander of the armoured division entered the room where the meeting was taking place. He was white as a sheet… I just glanced at him and realized that a disaster had befallen the armoured division and the developments were not in our favour. He had barely managed to sit down when the sound of machine-gun fire came from the city, followed by cannon blasts. I turned to the representatives of the Antonov army with a question: “What is the meaning of this? Have we not decided to wait with any action until 9:00 in the morning?” And this representative folded his legs and, blowing cigarette smoke, said “What’s the point in saying anything now when the machine guns and cannons have spoken”.[9]

On December 11th, the commander of the Russian Soviet troops, Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko, arrived in Kharkiv. The city had become a springboard for the Russian troops. They were tasked with overseeing strict order in the city. The headquarters of Rudolf Sivers’ platoon turned into a place for lynching. Antonov-Ovsiienko mentioned a member of the revolutionary court, a certain sailor Trushin, who “thought that every softie deserved to be killed”. However, the commander himself wrote that the “fantasy of the philistines” led to the extreme exaggeration of the scope of shootings “that were taking place near the seventh kilometre outside the city of Kharkiv”.[10]

Concurrently, a group of delegates who had left the Kyiv Congress of Councils arrived in Kharkiv. Under the protection of the Soviet troops in Kharkiv, an alternative All-Ukrainian Congress of Councils was staged in a hurry on December 11th–13th. Eighty-nine councils and military revolutionary committees were represented by 200 delegates. Although there were more than 200 Soviet councils in Ukraine at the time, the legitimacy of the Congress, unlike the Congress of Councils in Kyiv in Kyiv, did not raise doubts. The Congress was entirely in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Therefore, it welcomed the uprising in Petrograd and the policy of the SovNarKom; it also proclaimed the Soviet Councils’ establishment of power in the UNR and elected the Central Executive Committee (TsVK) of the Soviet Councils of Ukraine, which in turn created the People’s Secretariat – the Soviet Government of Ukraine. Some problems arose during the establishment of the government. One of its members, Vasylˈ Shakhray, observed with irony that no surnames of the people’s secretaries were known in Ukraine, although they were selected based on the principle of “if possible, [those] with Ukrainian surnames”.[11]

Volodymyr Zatonsˈkyi mentioned that “the people’s secretaries called themselves the government, but their attitude to it was a bit humorous. And really, what kind of a government was it without an army, practically without territory, since even the Kharkiv Council did not recognize us? There was no apparatus, we needed to do everything from scratch. At the time there was a great simplicity of customs, and confusion with understanding certain things was also evident. For example, we were not able to separate the functions of the people’s secretary of finance from the duties of a cashier. In general, everyone had a complete commissariat – or a secretariat, as it was called back then – in their pocket. I arrived when the government had already been formed. It was decided not to elect the Head of the Government. And so, we lived without the head”.[12]

Even the Kharkiv Bolshevik Committee and the Kharkiv Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were unwilling to recognize the authority of the “government”. Interesting details about this fact were left by Yevgenia Bosch: “The lack of active support from Kharkiv’s leading comrades made the work of the Soviet government in Kharkiv very difficult. Had there been a different attitude from the top party administration in Donetsˈk-Kryvyi Rih oblast, there would have been no interruptions in the work of the TsVK, since it wouldn’t have been necessary to move to Kyiv immediately after the fall of the Central Rada, and in the future it won’t be necessary for the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat to roam around, moving from one city to another”.[13]

Other councils in Ukraine were not in a hurry to recognize the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat, while in Petrograd they were welcomed as a formation of a “true people’s Soviet power in Ukraine” and a “genuine Government of the people’s Ukrainian Republic”[14]. The demands for a referendum dissipated like smoke – they were simply forgotten. SovNarKom promised “the new government of the fraternal republic full support of all kinds in its struggle for peace, as well as in terms of the transfer of all lands, factories, plants, and banks to the working people of Ukraine”.[15] This help did not last long. The commander of the Russian Soviet troops, Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko, established contact with and actively took care of the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat. His troops helped to requisition the premises of the newspaper Yuzhny Krai, which housed the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat.

            There is no doubt that the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat were puppet formations of Red Petrograd. Thanks to them, the SovNarKom managed to formally distance itself from the events in Ukraine, presenting them as an internal conflict between the Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Central Rada. On December 17th, the TsVK of the Councils of Ukraine published a manifesto declaring the overthrow of the Central Rada and General Secretariat; the next day, it created a regional committee to combat the counter-revolution. The Ukrainian-Bolshevik conflict was rapidly shifting from the ideological and political spheres to the level of overt military actions.

            In accordance with Lenin’s ultimatum, Soviet Russia and the UNR had been in a state of war since December 6th, 1917. However, the ultimatum failed to provoke the kind of public support expected by its creators, Lenin and Trotsky; on the contrary, it raised a tidal wave of protests in both Ukraine and Russia. On December 4th, 1917, the Second All-Russian Congress of the Councils of Peasant Deputies, which had taken place in Petrograd in late November to early December 1917, split for political reasons into left and right factions. The right-wing section adopted a special resolution concerning the ultimatum, in which it was noted that “the declaration of war on the domestic Russian front is criminal and shameful hypocrisy generated by the Council of People’s Commissars”. The Congress unanimously expressed its indignation to the SovNarKom, demanded that an immediate end be put to the fraternal bloodshed, and urged the soldiers and sailors to refuse to advance toward the self-determined borders of Ukraine. The Congress also warned the SovNarKom that by causing the massacre it [the SovNarKom] would bear responsibility to the people and the Constituent Assembly. The Congress sent greetings to the “Ukrainian Council and the Ukrainian Congress of the Councils of Peasants’, Workers’ and Military Deputies, which defended the integrity of the rights of the free Ukrainian people”.[16] The left-wing section of the Congress was concerned about the situation in Ukraine and formed a special group of delegates for negotiations with the Ukrainian Central Rada via telegraph, “for the purpose of [gathering] preliminary information and immediate cessation of possible bloodshed”. On December 8th, Congress sent a special delegation headed by the left-wing representative of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (Esers), Prosh Proshyan, to Kyiv, in hope of reaching a mutual understanding with the leaders of UNR.

On December 14th, the All-Ukrainian Central Election Commission (VTsVK), whose leadership was already in the hands of the Bolsheviks, examined the issue of relations with Ukraine. Without discussion, it approved the measures proposed by the SovNarKom by a majority vote; however, at the meeting the Menshevik, Boris Moiseyev introduced the following resolution: “To declare illegal the actions of the People’s Commissars, who arbitrarily declared war on Ukraine, bypassing the VTsVK, and did not report it to the VTsVK upon entering the state of war”.

At that time, when the country was looking forward to the opening of the Constituent Assembly, and the Bolsheviks desperately needed the support of the All-Russian Congress of the Councils of Peasants’ Deputies to expand the social base of their power, they did not dare to cause immediate escalation of the conflict with Ukraine. An interview with Stalin, who was the person responsible for the national affairs within the Bolshevik leadership, appeared in Petrograd newspapers. In it, Stalin attempted to convince the public that there was no conflict between the Ukrainians and the Russians, and it was hard to find anything to challenge that; instead, in his opinion, there was a conflict between the Councils of Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Deputies on one hand, and the General Secretariat on the other. In fact, Stalin gave a new ultimatum, this time not to the Central Rada but to the Ukrainian people, who were asked to “call to order their General Secretariat or re-elect it in the interest of finding a peaceful solution to a dangerous conflict”. Stalin did not hide [his intentions] and even threatened that if the changes desired by the Bolsheviks did not take place and everything remained as it was, the blood of the fraternal peoples would be shed.[17] It is worth noting that in mid-November 1917, when speaking at the Congress of the Finnish Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, Stalin advocated for full freedom in terms of self-determination by the Finnish and other peoples of Russia. “No guardianship, no supervision of the Finnish people! Such are the guiding principles of the Council of People’s Commissars policy”, he assured. In the case of Ukraine, however, custody and supervision were still needed.

Thus, according to Stalin, the problem was not the aggressiveness of the SovNarKom but the counter-revolutionary nature of the Ukrainian government. He developed the same thought in the article “What is the Ukrainian Council”, published in Pravda on December 15th. Stalin accused the Central Rada of all possible sins: alliance with Aleksei Kaledin and the French military mission, disruption of peace, betrayal of Socialism, and deception of the masses and bourgeoisie. While Stalin was creating a propaganda smokescreen in the media, Lenin, in his secret directives, explained the real reason behind the Bolsheviks’ interest in Ukraine. Here is his telegram to Kharkiv, addressed to Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko and Sergo Ordzhonikidze: “For God’s sake, take the most energetic and revolutionary measures to send bread, bread, and bread!!! Otherwise, Petrograd might ‘kick the bucket’. Special trains and squads. Collect and gather. You should convoy trains. Notify on a daily basis. For God’s sake!”[18]

Upon the return of the delegation of the All-Russian Congress of Councils from Kyiv, where the delegates held conversations with Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Mykola Porsh and other political figures, the Council of People’s Commissars was forced to recognize that it was “advisable to open business negotiations with the Council” in Vitebsk or Smolensk.

The SovNarKom’s proposal was examined by the General Secretariat on December 22nd. The review uncovered a certain divergence of opinions among the secretaries. Volodymyr Yeshchenko believed that the proposal of the Council of the People’s Commissars was nothing more than a manoeuvre to buy time for the organization of the Council’s troops.[19] Mykola Porsh’s position was close to Volodymyr Yeshchenko’s. Oleksandr Shulˈhyn, Mykhailo Tkachenko, and Mykola Shapoval formulated requirements that, in Porsh’s opinion, should be set as prerequisites for the negotiations. Finally, it was decided to charge Volodymyr Vynnychenko with conveying an official answer. On December 24th, the reply was sent to Petrograd. The General Secretariat agreed to send its representatives to Vitebsk, provided that the Russian side fulfilled the following requirements:

– Immediate cessation of the military operations and withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of the UNR;

– official recognition of the Council of the People’s Commissars of the UNR and a statement of non-interference in its internal affairs;

– establishment of a federal connection between Ukraine and Great Russia through the mutual understanding of self-determined republics;

– the struggle against the counter-revolution in one of the republics, which threatens the rest of the republics, must be conducted with the consent of the states concerned;

– the inadmissibility for any republic to interpret the counter-revolutionary tendencies of the other.[20]

On December 30th, 1917, without publishing the response of the General Secretariat, Pravda informed its readers that the SovNarKom “deems the Rada’s response vague” and “assigns all responsibility for the continuation of the civil war to the Rada”. It was hardly possible, even if one so desired, to characterize the position of the Ukrainian Central Rada as vague, but SovNarKom could get away with it, since it had – at last – finalized its own position. On January 13th, 1918, it was Stalin again who announced this position in Pravda: “1. The Council of People’s Commissars has not been negotiating with the Kyiv Rada and is not going to negotiate; 2. The Kyiv Rada has got itself mixed up with general Kaledin and is negotiating treacherously with the Austro-German imperialists behind the back of the peoples of Russia. The Council of People’s Commissars considers it permissible to carry on a merciless fight with this Rada until the complete victory of the Soviet Councils of Ukraine”.  

It would not be fair to say that the Ukrainian government did nothing to stop the aggression. Within historian circles, it is widely believed that one of the prominent mistakes of the Central Rada was its unwillingness to create its own army because Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Volodymyr Vynnychenko presumably did not understand the importance of having an army. This point of view is not entirely correct. It would be more accurate to say that Hrushevsky and Vynnychenko did not foresee that an army would have to be used on the internal front, especially against the ideologically related left-wing political forces to which the Bolsheviks belonged. This turn of events really caught them by surprise. Under these conditions, the Central Rada approved the law of the “Free Cossacks”. As early as November 22nd, Symon Petliura signed an order to form multiple Haydamatsˈki kureni, or three battalion-size units in the cities of Yelisavethrad, Oleksandrivsˈk, Kherson, Birzula, Kryvyi Rih, and Tiraspol, on the basis of the disbanded regiments of the old Russian army.

On December 15th, the General Secretariat formed a Special Defence Committee of Ukraine (Mykola Porsh, Symon Petliura, Volodymyr Yeshchenko). On December 18th, it appointed Colonel Yuriy Kapkan as the Commander of the entire Ukrainian army to fight the Bolsheviks. On December 26th, the General Secretariat approved a resolution establishing the UNR army on the basis of voluntary and paid service. Ukrainian troops carried out a number of preventive measures to disarm especially dangerous Bolshevik-minded units, starting with the Second Guards Corps. In addition, the All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee on the South-Western and Romanian fronts was liquidated. No matter how much the Bolsheviks sought to undermine the Central Rada, these fronts did not pose a direct threat toward the end of 1917; at the same time, they did not provide substantial support either.

Thus, some efforts to master the military apparatus had taken place, but they clearly turned out to be insufficient. Without liquidating the Kharkiv “Government”, without banning the Bolshevik party that acted quite legally and played the role of a fifth column, the Ukrainian Central Rada put itself and the Ukrainian People’s Republic in an extremely precarious position.

By the end of December, up to 20,000 sailors, soldiers, and Red Guards had been sent from Russia to Ukraine, mainly to Kharkiv. These were the squads of Nikolai Khovrin, Rudolf Sivers, Aleksandr Yegorov, Anatolii Zheleznyakov, Reinholds Bērziņš, and Yurii Sablin; all of them were under the command of Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko. On December 13th, Bolshevik troops seized the station of Lozova; on the 18th they seized Pavlohrad, and Synelˈnykovo on the 21st. For some time until the end of December, the Russian Bolshevik troops were wary of carrying out active offensives. Their commander explained this by the absence of “any Ukrainian troops at the disposal of the Soviet Ukrainian authorities”.[21] Vasylˈ Shakhray, who headed the military Soviet Secretariat, was of a similar opinion.[22] Therefore, the idea of creating Red Cossacks units to counter the Free Cossacks (the former ones headed by the Bolshevik Vitaliy Prymakov) was hastily implemented. In early January 1918, the Red Cossacks counted only 700 fighters and could not carry out any independent operations; however, the existence of these units gave the People’s Secretariat the grounds to present them as an army supported by the Secretariat.

On December 25th, Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko ordered a general offensive by the Bolshevik troops against the UNR, with the aim of capturing Kyiv. The plan was to simultaneously attack from different directions: from Bryansk and Kursk to Vorozhba-Konotop; from Gomel to Bakhmach, and from Novozybkov to Novhorod-Siversˈkyi. The main attack was supposed to come from Kharkiv, first toward Katerynoslav, and then through Poltava toward Romodan. At first, the Bolshevik forces did not have a substantial advantage, but the majority of the Ukrainianized units within the old army turned out to be demoralized and not ready for combat. As the Bolshevik units approached, the Ukrainianized units declared their neutrality. That is why, having realized that the old but Ukrainianized army was not capable of active combat, the Ukrainian authorities tried to find an alternative by creating a new army comprised of volunteers and Free Cossacks.

            After Kharkiv, the first city to fall to the Bolsheviks was Katerynoslav. Ahead of the battle, the city prepared an uprising of workers and units that supported the Bolsheviks, which were joined by the Ukrainianized Pylyp Orlyk Regiment. Only the 134th Theodosian regiment (1,000 soldiers), which remained loyal to the Central Rada, and Ukrainian volunteer formations (the Katerynoslav Haydamatsˈkyi kurinˈ and Katerynoslav kurinˈ of the Free Cossacks) were able to oppose the rebels.[23] Toward the evening of December 26th, they managed to get the situation in the city under control; however, the next day the Bolshevik units led by Pavel Yegorov entered Katerynoslav. The Ukrainians were forced to leave the city. The Katerynoslav kurinˈ of the Free Cossacks, headed by Havrylo Horobecʹ, left for Kyiv, where its members joined the local Free Cossacks, who were destined to resist the armed offensive initiated by the Bolsheviks in mid-January. Katerynoslav was followed by Oleksandrivsˈk (on January 2nd) and Poltava (on January 6th).

            On January 13th, an armed Bolshevik uprising broke out in Odesa. Squads of Bolshevik-sympathizing soldiers, sailors, and Red Guards captured the district headquarters, railway station, telephone station, post office, telegraph, and treasury. On the same day, however, the Haydamaks, under the command of Viktor Poplavko, recaptured the headquarters of the district from the Bolsheviks. In response, following the orders of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee, the cruisers Symon and Rostyslav and the mine carrier Almaz opened cannon fire on the city. Rumcherod[24] proclaimed itself the supreme authority on the Romanian front and in the Odesa region. In the early morning of January 16th, the Bolshevik forces began a new offensive. From the Romanian front, a battalion of the 657th Infantry Regiment arrived to help the rebels. Because of the fierce battles and heavy losses on the part of Ukrainian forces, the Haydamaks were forced to send a delegation to the City Council with a request for mediation in negotiations with the Bolsheviks. As a result of the agreements reached, 200 first sergeants and junkers were captured by the Bolsheviks. The Ukrainian formations were disarmed and the power in the city passed into the hands of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee. In such a manner, Soviet power was established in Odesa.[25]

The Ukrainians courageously fought in uneven rear-guard battles, defending the railroad tracks along which the Russians advanced, as long as they [Ukrainians] had enough forces. On January 14th, 1918, after several days of fighting between the units of the Petro Doroshenko Regiment and the Smertˈ (Death) kurinˈ on one hand, and Bolshevik units led by Reinholds Bērziņš and Mikhail Muravyov on the other, Ukrainian forces suffered significant losses and were forced to leave Bakhmach station. The commander of the Petro Doroshenko Regiment and the Head of the defence of the Bakhmach railway hub, Kostˈ Khmilevsˈkyi, was killed in this battle. The rest of the Ukrainian units left the city and retreated to the station of Kruty, where a symbolic battle of Ukrainians sacrificing their lives in a struggle for their own state would take place a few days later.[26]

By the end of January, the Left-Bank and the South of Ukraine had fallen into Russian hands. Then Odesa, followed by Kherson, Mykolaiv, Poltava, Bakhmach, and Chernihiv. Gradually, Kyiv found itself under direct threat. While still in Bakhmach, Mikhail Muravyov gave an order to attack Kyiv, urging his troops to “ruthlessly eliminate all officers and students of the military academies, Haydamaks, monarchists, and all enemies of the revolution in Kyiv”.[27]

On December 29th, in his report presented at a meeting of the General Secretariat on martial law in Ukraine, Mykola Porsh noted that the Kyiv garrison, some of which supported the Bolsheviks, some of which assumed a neutral position, and some of which remained loyal to the Ukrainian Central Rada, was in a miserable state and was “very tired and, at the moment, ill-suited to active work”.[28] The report suggested that the most reliable and capable was the workers’ regiment of the Free Cossacks under the leadership of Mykhailo Kovenko.[29] Naturally, the hopes of the General Secretariat were pinned on the Free Cossacks. Concerned about the likely threat of the Bolshevik uprising in Kyiv, the Government instructed Kovenko to disarm the Red Guards and ‘unload’ the city of ‘elements’ that were hostile to the authorities. In the early morning of January 5th, 1918, units of Free Cossacks and military units loyal to the Central Rada raided several dozen enterprises, seizing a large number of weapons and arresting about 200 people.[30] The next day, in his comments on the operation at the meeting of the Mala Rada, Mykola Porsh noted that “the regular army in our country, as well as in Russia, is now in a state of complete decay, therefore all hopes are now pinned on the revolutionary organizations – the partisan units. These units are ready to march out to the defence of Ukraine”.[31] He then further reported that, with the help of the Free Cossacks from the Arsenal, “20 cannons, thousands of guns, and millions of rounds had been seized”.[32] On January 15th, Mykhailo Kovenko was appointed commandant of Kyiv, and on the same evening he and a group of Free Cossacks arrested seven left-wing Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionaries who were suspected of colluding with the representatives of the Kharkiv People’s Secretariat and planning to seize power.

The preventive measures carried out by Mykhailo Kovenko did not stop the Bolsheviks; on the morning of January 16th, they staged a rebellion in Kyiv that was opposed by military units loyal to the Central Rada, including the Free Cossacks. Meanwhile, these brigades of workers were not particularly familiar with military affairs and had never taken part in military action; according to Volodymyr Kedrovsˈkyi’s account, they were people of “different ages, from children to the old, wearing different attire, armed in different ways”.[33] In their subsequent memoirs, the Ukrainian military figures were rather critical of Kovenko’s performance as the organizer of Kyiv’s defence. He was a civilian engineer by profession, therefore military affairs were not his forte; he had neither a concept nor a defence plan, and his Cossacks had no experience of combat. That is why it took a week to suppress the uprising. Only on January 22nd, when the units of the Haydamatsˈkyi kish[34] of Sloboda Ukraine under the command of Symon Petliura entered Kyiv, was the rebellion suppressed. However, the initiative had already passed to the Bolsheviks.

For the most part, Soviet military units that were formed in Russia behaved as conquerors in Ukraine in accordance with the revolutionary legal consciousness, which replaced law and regulations, while their rifles and machine guns opened wide opportunities for looting, massacres, and shootings. Their own commanders set an example. In Kharkiv, Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko forced several manufacturers – under threat of reprisals – to pay a million roubles of contribution, which even led to a protest by the local Bolsheviks; at the same time, Lenin admired this approach and hastened to support the commander in his letter dated December 29th, saying, “I particularly approve and welcome the arrest of millionaire-saboteurs... I advise you to send them to the mines for forced labour, for six months”.[35] Mikhail Muravyov, a left-wing Social-Revolutionary and Antonov-Ovsiienko’s subordinate, also kept up with his superior. During the capture of Poltava, he reported to the commander, “...I’d rather ruin the whole town, to the very last building, than retreat. Give orders to mercilessly massacre all defenders of the local bourgeoisie”.[36] Muravyov’s conflict with the Poltava Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies also turned out to be curious. When the Council’s representatives asked Muravyov, together with the army, to leave the city, referring to the neutrality of the Poltava Council in the conflict between the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian Central Rada as the reason, Muravyov replied that he and his army “came here to restore the trampled Soviet power in Ukraine, particularly in Poltava”, and added that he would not leave there until the “genuine People’s Kharkiv Council” is recognized.

It is worth noting that Antonov’s headquarters paid so little attention to the “Kharkiv Rada” (the TsVK and the People’s Secretariat) that Lenin had to mentor his subordinate, convincing him, “... For God’s sake, make every effort to eliminate all friction with the TsVK (Kharkiv). This is extremely important in terms of our state. For God’s sake, make peace with them and recognize their sovereignty on all levels. I kindly request you to remove the commissioners you have appointed”.[37]

If the commanders found it possible to behave this way, it is only natural that their subordinates allowed all kinds of liberties. Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko repeatedly admitted instances of looting, drinking, and non-compliance with orders, which went hand in hand with the actions of revolutionary troops: “In Kharkiv itself, with the help of Muravyov, I managed to stop unauthorized requisitions, searches, and arrests. The requisitions were carried out through the local Military Revolutionary Committees, and only through them were searches and arrests carried out (these committees were well aware of this). The units that arrived, as well as the local ones, largely turned out to be undisciplined, refused to go to the front, drank and looted”.[38]

            Ukrainian Central Rada responded to the offensive of the Russian troops by way of political measures, declaring the UNR an independent, sovereign state. This decision was formalized as the Fourth Universal of the Ukrainian Central Rada. Its historical significance is obvious. It completed the complex, controversial development of the Ukrainian national liberation movement, which finally broke away from the ideas of autonomy and federalism. However, this apex in the history of the state formation of Ukraine did not coincide with the period of the highest exaltation of the Ukrainian national movement. Moreover, it took place at the time of the greatest aggravation of the socio-economic crisis.

While describing the state of Ukrainian society at that time, Mykhailo Hrushevsˈkyi had to acknowledge the following,


Bolshevik campaigning had its effect. In the army and in the rear alike, they looted and plundered property, threw the rest to death, and spontaneously dispersed, at times also looting and dismantling what was scattered along the road. In the villages, one could see more and more anarchist cells, which attracted the weaker parts of the peasantry and terrorized even those that were the most resistant. Looting and destruction of noblemen’s estates, factories and plants became more widespread. The wealth of the land was lost – its productive forces were cut down.[39]


The virus of demoralization penetrated Ukraine and dominated its society, which had been undergoing some strange and rapid metamorphoses. It is as if there had been no large-scale demonstrations and congresses just a few months ago, no political passions boiling and pouring into the numerous declarations and resolutions. All of this seemed half-forgotten, like a poorly remembered lesson. As Mykola Halahan recalled,


Until recently, Ukrainian soldiers declared and manifested their willingness to ‘lay down soul and body for our freedom’, but when the time came to prove it in deed, it turned out that there were very few descendants of the ‘Cossack kin’ who were at the disposal of Central Rada. Maybe someday researchers of the Ukrainian liberation movement will highlight the real reasons behind what happened: whether the general fatigue of the soldiers, caused by the World War, was to blame, or the lack of national consciousness, or perhaps it was the fault of the Central Rada and its failed policy.[40]


In this context, the courage of several hundred university and gymnasium students from Kyiv who were part of the newly created voluntary Ukrainian formations is worth being honoured and remembered by future generations. On January 16th, they entered an unequal battle with the predominant forces of the enemy near the station of Kruty. The majority of them were killed. About thirty were captured and then slaughtered in beastly fashion with bayonets. The heroism of the students who defended Kruty and sacrificed their lives to delay the advance of the enemy, thereby providing an opportunity for the Ukrainian military forces near Kyiv to regroup, has become one of the most important components of Ukrainian modern historical memory.

               In fact, the victory of the Bolsheviks in the battle of Kruty opened a route for them to close on Kyiv. On January 21st, the Bolshevik units from the Left Bank [of the Dnieper] approached Darnytsia and seized an artillery battery in Slobidka, from where they began the barbaric shelling of the city centre, firing some 15 thousand artillery shells. From the Right Bank, Kyiv was shelled by an armoured train. As a result, the city was engulfed by fires and suffered immense damage. Among the shelled properties was the house of Mykhailo Hrushevsˈkyi on Pankivsˈka Street. His large library and archive perished in the ruins of the house; Hrushevsˈkyi’s mother was seriously injured and died shortly after. On January 26th, in order not to subject the capital to even greater destruction, the Ukrainian authorities and the army decided to leave Kyiv.

               A few days earlier, when the assault on Kyiv had just begun, Mikhail Muravyov had telegraphed Petrograd to inform the authorities that the city had been taken. The Bolsheviks perceived this as an outstanding triumph, and the Moscow Izvestia ran a piece on this subject which was signed by Lenin under the title “To All, To All, To All”. According to this piece, the Soviet army entered Kyiv on January 22nd (in fact, it happened on January 26th); the Kyiv City Council headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko was toppled, and the TsVK of Ukraine with its People’s Secretariat in Kharkiv was recognized (by whom?) as the highest authority in Ukraine. The federal connection with Russia was renewed, as well as complete unity – in terms of domestic and foreign policy – with the Council of People’s Commissars. Hence the conclusion: Ukraine was once again in Russian, albeit communist, hands. But Lenin, who from time to time recognized the right of Ukrainians to self-determination, was very reluctant to speak about the occupation directly; therefore, from the very beginning he emphasized that the Soviet army was not led by Volodymyr Antonov-Ovsiienko or Mikhail Muravyov, but by Yuriy Kotsiubynsˈkyi, the son of Mykhailo Kotsiubynsˈkyi.

               Mykola Skrypnyk hastened to inform Leon Trotsky. In a telegram sent to Brest, where peace talks with representatives of the Quadruple Alliance were taking place, he reported,


        …our artillery bombed the central quarters, where counter-revolutionaries were holding on in the midst of fires. The City Council attempted to act as an intermediary, but our representatives demanded the unconditional surrender of weapons and extradition of the leaders of the counter-revolutionary rebellion. Step by step, our forces drove out the supporters of the Rada with artillery and bayonets, and at last Kyiv was taken... the entire city is in the hands of the Soviet army, the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, becomes red Kyiv.[41]


               Obviously, when writing about “red Kyiv”, Skrypnyk resorted to a metaphor, but within three days the city was flooded with rivers of blood. In his next order, Mikhail Muravyov gave permission for three days of terror and looting. People were grabbed right on the streets and led to execution; it was enough to have in one’s possession documents written in Ukrainian, an officer’s rank, or a priestly cassock. The murder of Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv caused a great resonance in the city. His cell was robbed and he was taken outside the walls of the Lavra and shot. Muravyov tried to give excuses, insisting that it was the work of provocateurs, who he promised to find and severely punish. Of course, no one found these murderers, or the murderers of generals Viktor Gavrilov, B. Bilchynsˈkyi, Illia Volkovytsˈkyi, Vladimir Dankvart, A. Rydzevsˈkyi, Kostjantyn Krakovetskyi, Fedir Dems’kyi , a number of officers, including Prince Mychajlo Golitsyn, Prince Petro Kochubey, Baron Korf, and Georgiy Rodzianko, the son of the former Head of the State Duma, Mychajlo Rodzjanko.

               In the garden of the Mariinsky Palace, where the headquarters of the Red Army were located, Bolshevik Serhij Mojsjejev, who witnessed the events, recalled


…a lot of people were shot for no reason. The shootings were left to the discretion of the Red Guards themselves; soldiers who left the hospital and did not have identification documents were also shot... All the corpses were undressed, and all belongings were immediately distributed among those who were shooting, right in front of the crowd. When [Mikhail] Muravyov came to the location of the shootings and realized that he was surrounded by a crowd of savage Red Guards holding on to looted property, he did not say anything regarding the lootings; on the contrary, he urged them to continue with the shootings, saying that first and foremost one had to be merciless. [42]


               Another place of mass shootings was the City Opera House, where former officers were summoned for document verification and registration, but it was actually a cynical massacre.[43]

               While in Odesa, Muravyov himself related, very eloquently, his Kyiv “escapades”:


                              We come with fire and sword, we established Soviet power […] I took the city, I attacked palaces and churches, priests, monks, I showed no mercy! On January 28th, the oboroncheskaia Duma asked for a truce. In response, I ordered to attack with asphyxiating chemical gases. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of generals were killed mercilessly. That is how we took revenge. We would have been able to contain the explosion of revenge, but there was no need for that because our slogan was to be merciless. [44]


According to conservative estimates, 2,576 officers were killed on the streets. Dmytro Doroshenko claims that some 3,000 people were killed on the first day of the occupation, while the total number of victims and prisoners amounted to more than 10,000.[45] The figures provided are possibly substantially inflated (historians struggle to determine the number of victims in Kyiv)[46]; however, that does not call into question the fact of the tragedy caused by the Bolshevik troops in the city.

                There is not much documentary evidence regarding the Kyiv massacre that has survived until now; therefore, I want to use Serhiy Yefremov’s literary journalism works to the fullest. The newspaper Nova rada, which he edited, was closed down by the Bolsheviks but resumed its work on February 4th, 1918. On the same day, Yefremov published in this newspaper four articles describing his eyewitness account of the Bolshevik siege and occupation of the city. Yefremov was certain that Kyiv had not suffered such a massacre since the times of the Mongol invasion. The shelling of this city of one million people had catastrophic consequences: the centre suffered huge damage, and a significant number of civilians was affected. The retreat of the UNR units did not deter the attackers, “On January 26th, all of Kyiv was already in the hands of the Bolsheviks; the arriving army, the Red Guard, and the new Soviet power took over”, testifies Serhiy Yefremov as a journalist and eyewitness.[47] “The cannonade subsided, but occasional shots were still heard for a couple of days, especially near the former Royal Palace and in Mariinsˈky Park: the conquerors triumphed and turned to mob law and execution of random victims... and those last days claimed even more victims than the previous days of the ardent battle”.[48] Residents of Kyiv became the first victims of massive red terror. The shootings and the bacchanalia experienced by Kyiv led Yefremov to publicly appeal, through the newspaper, to a Bolshevik high-ranking official, the People’s Secretary of Military Affairs Yuriy Kotsiubynsˈkyi. The article, The Letter Missing an Envelope, had a humanistic outlook, deep morality, and spiritual courage – all the characteristics that do not allow one to remain silent even in the face of deadly danger. Even though Yefremov addressed the letter to a particular person, he also accused Bolshevism as a political movement,


           There is an abyss between us, an unsurmountable chasm that distances a Bolshevik from an old Socialist, who has repeatedly experienced the tsar’s prison and the gendarmes-scorpions. And yet, I do not envy your power, nor will I trade it for my lack of such.[49]


Serhiy Yefremov was conscious of the fact that ephemeral future socialist happiness is by no means an excuse for the destruction of a city and its population. He rejects as hypocritical the statement claiming that the executed people were counter-revolutionary and bourgeois:

           You would say, “This blood belongs to the bourgeois”. How do you know that, I’ll ask. During those ten cursed days, was not even more proletarian blood shed? Actually, it does not matter to me because bourgeois blood is as red as proletarian blood, and it is just as much fun for it to flow through the veins than drip on the sand in Mariinsˈky Park, and just as much it intoxicates the people who can swim in it. And naked, robbed, undressed corpses, which were driven through the streets in sheaves – they are a mute testimony to the fact that people, drunk on vodka and blood, do not set limits to their predatory instincts.[50]


The Ukrainian theme plays an equally important role in The Letter Missing an Envelope since it is addressed to the eldest son of a prominent Ukrainian writer and public figure, the late Mykhailo Kotsiubynsˈkyi, who devoted his entire life to the national cause and up until his death had faith that Ukraine would have a bright future. At the time when this future started to be actualized, when “freedom has already started shining under the Ukrainian sky […], the degenerate son of the famous father” arrived as the leader of those who “again put this freedom in the coffin and nail down the heavy lid with weights”. Knowing the tragic fate of Yuriy Kotsiubynsˈky, who was purged by the Stalinist regime in the mid-1930s, I would like to pay attention to the prophetic nature of the Letter. Yefremov did not believe in the power of good imposed by force, so he concluded with a warning:

 You too should know that the seeds that you sowed in your native land will not bring forth what you expected. Not equality and fraternity, but only knives on both sides, hatred, and blood... Clean work requires clean hands, whereas dirty hands soil, stain, and contaminate the cleanest work. Even if you wash them in ten buckets of water, you won’t wash away the shame and disgrace wherewith you have covered yourselves and your work.[51]

We should note that the brutal behaviour of the Bolshevik troops, including the shootings, plundering, drinking, and debauchery (known from the materials provided by Mikhail Muravyov’s legal case), was an everyday phenomenon that accompanied the Bolshevik units throughout their entire stay in Ukraine. These were the first manifestations of the “Red terror”, not yet declared as an official policy of the Bolsheviks. These atrocities made a significant impact on the attitude of the population, which initially, under the influence of propaganda, was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks’ cause but was later struck by this turn of affairs and started to resist. This opinion has been expressed by the historian Liudmyla Garcheva, whose investigation focused specifically on the causes and course of the First Bolshevik–Ukrainian War. She believes that the population’s anti-Bolshevik protests were due to the brutality of the Bolshevik regime, which fully manifested itself in the first few weeks of the war and occupation.[52]

Numerous testimonies to the participation of the Free Cossack units in the struggle against the Bolshevik aggression in the winter of 1917–1918, throughout entire Ukraine (Bakhmach, Vinnytsia, Zolotonosha, Katerynoslav, Konotop, Kremenchuk, Odesa, Rivne), have been preserved within memoirs and archival sources. For the most part, the resistance took the form of local partisan movements. For instance, the Free Cossacks of the Novomoskovsk county in Katerynoslav province, led by a member of the UNR, Fedir Storubel, waged a rail war by dismantling the railway tracks in order to slow down the movement of the Bolshevik units. In general, the power of the Bolsheviks did not extend beyond provincial and county towns, which were encircled by garrisons. Villages located within the narrow strips near railways suffered from raids for provisions, but the Free Cossacks successfully repelled these raids.

In February 1918, the Free Cossacks of Zvenyhorodka county and those around it carried out successful large-scale actions. In early February, Yuriy Tiutiunnyk was elected the kish otaman (of the Zvenyhorodka Cossack kish). A little later, Mykola Shynkar arrived in Zvenyhorodka. An eyewitness, Volodymyr Kedrovsˈkyi, recalled,


Only a few other officers who made up the initial personnel of the so-called regular Free Cossack units in Zvenyhorodka came here with them. Thanks to this, Zvenyhorodka was tightly surrounded by Ukrainian forces, and for quite some time, until the arrival of the Germans and the return of the Central Rada to Kyiv, it remained (together with most of the county) a stronghold of national dedication among the waves of the Bolshevik “sea” overflowing Ukraine. Had we had similar folks in other counties of Ukraine, the Bolsheviks would have seen Ukraine as well as their own ears”.[53]


The partisan Cossack resistance to the Bolshevik offensive was a glorious page of Ukrainian military history, but it failed to determine the main course of this military campaign. The situation became such that only external military assistance could save the UNR from final defeat by the Bolsheviks. By signing the peace treaty with the countries of the Quadruple Alliance on February 9th (January 26th), 1918, the UNR received powerful military assistance in the struggle against the Bolsheviks. On February 14th, under the pressure of Ukrainian formations and German troops, the Soviet People’s Secretariat left Kyiv for Poltava. As Serhiy Yefremov wrote,


they fled. Shamefully, secretly, in the middle of the night – truly, “like a thief in the night”, one by one. Kharkiv’s “people’s secretaries” disappeared. [They did so] having plundered the city, having bred anarchy, having led it to hunger and extreme decline. “[54]


The war with the Bolsheviks lasted several years, with brief interruptions, and is reminiscent of what we today call hybrid war. On paper, the Bolsheviks recognized the right of nations to self-determination, but in reality they were not particularly concerned about this. At the centre of their policy was the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat. To spread this dictatorship, they created their own pocket “Soviet governments of Ukraine”, which were assisted by the armed forces; in the underground, they organized armed rebellions and conducted subversive work among Ukrainian politicians with the help of leftist elements and their secret services. A brutal occupation regime was established in the seized Ukrainian territories. This regime was based on the “Red terror” and entailed dictatorship of the proletariat, a one-party political system, severe restrictions of human rights and freedoms, and the economic exploitation of Ukraine.

The course of the revolution, which was closely connected to the Ukrainian–Bolshevik war, provides certain paradigmatic clues that bring light to the nature of the Bolshevik regime. Forcefully imposing communist ideas, the regime used ideology to occupy Ukraine. It was this occupation, as well as liberation from it, that became an important component of the history of Ukraine in the 20th century. In fact, while constantly identifying itself with the idea of internationalism, Bolshevism turned out to be a kind of Russian messianism, centralism, and nationalism – all three being extremely aggressive and everlasting. These ideas did not disappear in 20th-century revolutionary Russia; instead, they were successfully sublimated into the ideas of dictatorship of the proletariat, struggle against bourgeois nationalism, assimilation of minor ethnicities, and rebuffing of Western civilization.

In recent decades, this terrible ideological mishmash has become the state ideology of Russia, and today it attempts to prove the viability of this ideology with its blatant aggression against Ukraine, as well as threats to the world. Only the absolute unity of the democratic world, our belief in inevitable victory, as well as the courage with which we fight for our native land can bury these efforts. In conclusion, let us recall the words of Serhiy Yefremov, which were written at the time of the Bolshevik occupation of Kyiv in February 1918 and are filled with deep faith,

 We sail through a sea of darkness. As in the past, it is not hope that shines ahead but an unshakeable certainty that we will get to our shores and enter our promised land. Travel adventures, however terrible and bloody they might have been, are just episodes, and we should not allow these fleeting episodes to knock us off the path in front of us. In front of us, not behind us...[55]

These wise words, filled with faith and invincible optimism in the historical fate of Ukraine, provide not only evidence of past hardships but also a roadmap to overcoming them today.




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Zdorov, Andrij, ‘Červonyj teror u kyjevi na počatku 1918 r.: mify ta realiji’, Historians.in.ua, 25 December 2015 <https://www.historians.in.ua/index.php/en/dyskusiya/1729-andrii-zdorov-chervonyi-teror-u-kyievi-na-pochatku-1918-r-mify-ta-realii> [accessed 11 September 2022]


[1]Mala Rada (Minor Council): a permanent part of the Ukrainian Central Rada (Velyka Rada, or General Council), which in its entirety met only periodically at General Assemblies (sessions). The Mala Rada had the same powers as the Velyka Rada and was composed in proportion to the factions of the General Council.

[2] Mykola Hordijenko, ‘Naši i jichni zavdannja’, Robitnyča hazeta, 177 (1917).

[3] Nikolaj Berdjaev, Istoki i smysl russkogo kommunizma (Moskva, 1990), p. 104.

[4] Sobranie uzakonenij i rasporjaženij pravitelʹstva za 1917–1918 gg. Upravlenie delami Sovnarkoma SSSR (Moskva, 1942), pp. 45–46.

[5] In 1923, Mykola Skrypnyk, a Bolshevik leader, wrote and published The Historical Outline of the Proletarian Revolution in Ukraine. Despite all the Bolshevik orthodoxy that permeated this work, he admitted that “the Central Rada and its General Secretariat completely dominated in Kyiv”. It was a laboratory where new military units were formed, which were then sent by the Central Rada to all regions of Ukraine. There, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie “sold” the workers and finished off the workers’ leaders with terror, as was done with Leonid Pyatakov and others. From Kyiv, the influence of Ukrainian social patriotism and Ukrainian Central Rada spread to other cities in Kyiv region and Podillia, Volynˈ, Kremenchuk, and Katerynoslav regions. In Katerynoslav, it was exactly then that the Haidamakas seized power, letting only Cossacks pass through Katerynoslav on their way to the Don. In Odesa, the Bolshevik’s Rumcherod (Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Romanian Front, Black Sea Fleet, and Odesa oblast) was in power; concurrently, there were also military units sympathetic to the Ukrainian Central Rada. In Mykolayiv, where the Bolsheviks constituted an unstable majority, the Menshevik minority hindered the development of the Soviet system and made the advance of Ukrainian nationalists possible. On the southwestern front, the Bolshevik units that constituted the predominant military force, and even the neutral units, were spontaneously discharged and then passed through Kyiv, where the Central Rada disarmed them; and the more the Rada did so, the more spontaneously they walked towards Kyiv, constantly getting into fights and even real battles with military units remaining under the influence of the Central Rada. These were times of enormous confusion and decomposition in the Ukrainian Central Rada, even though almost all of Ukraine, including both villages and cities, was under its actual power”. Mykola Skrypnyk, ‘Načerk istoriji proletarsňkoji revoljuciji na Ukrajini’, Červonyj šljach, 2 (1923), 89–117 (p. 84).

[6] Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Zapiski o graždanskoj vojne, 4 vols (Moskva, 1924–1933), I (1924), p. 48.

[7] Ibid., p. 54.

[8] Vyzvolʹni zmahannja očyma kontrrozvidnyka: dokumentalʹna spadščyna Mykoly Čebotariva, ed. by Volodymyr Sidak (Kyjiv: Tempora, 2003), pp. 22/23.

[9] Ibid., p. 25.

[10] Ibid., p. 55.

[11] Vladyslav Verstjuk, Ukrajinsʹka Centralʹna Rada: Navčalʹnyj posibnyk (Kyjiv: Zapovit, 1997), p. 228.

[12] Volodymyr Zatonsʹkyj, ‘Uryvky z spohadiv pro Ukrajinsʹku revoljuciju’, Litopys revoljuciji, 4 (1929), 139–72 (p. 159).

[13] Evgenija Boš, God borʹby (Moskva: Gosizdat, 1925), p. 166.

[14] This seems to have been the first case of formation of a fictitious government by the Bolsheviks; later on, however, they actively used similar practices. In late November of 1918 in their territory in Kursk, they created the Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Ukraine, which they used as a cover to launch a new attempt at seizing Ukraine. Somewhat later, in early December of 1918, following a decision approved by Moscow, the Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Lithuania was established as part of the Red Army convoy. On December 16th, this Government published a manifesto regarding the establishment of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. In late December, following the same scenario, the Belorussian Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government emerged. On January 1st, 1919, it proclaimed the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia. The Lithuanian and Belorussian republics existed for only a brief period of time and were later “reformatted” by the Bolsheviks into the united Lithuanian-Belorussian Soviet Republic, which, in turn, being an artificial entity, could not survive for long. In a confidential letter dated November 29th, 1918, addressed to the commander of the Red Army, Jukums Vācietis, Lenin explained the actual purpose of forming such governments as follows: “With the advance of our troops to the West and toward Ukraine, regional provisional Soviet governments are being created; they are designed to strengthen the councils on the ground. The circumstances are good in the sense that they deprive the chauvinists in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estland of the ability to consider the movement of our units an occupation and create a favourable atmosphere for further advance of our troops. Otherwise, our troops would find themselves in an impossible situation throughout the occupied regions, and the population would not meet them as liberators. In view of this, we ask you to instruct the officers of the relevant military units to ensure that our troops fully support the provisional Soviet governments of Latvia, Estland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Of course, [this should apply to] only Soviet governments” (Vladimir Lenin, Voennaja perepiska. 1917–1922 gg. (Moskva, 1987), pp. 102–103). Clearly, within a narrow circle of close comrades, Lenin called things by their proper names, that is, he recognized the fact of the occupation of Ukraine by Russian troops. For a while, the Government was located in the city of Sudzha; it moved to Kharkiv only in January, when Sudzha was occupied by the Bolsheviks. The Kremlin-appointed head of the Government, Ch. Rakovsky, did not hide the nature of the Government and the purpose of its establishment, or the purpose of the Soviet Army’s presence in Ukraine. Upon his arrival in Kharkiv, he prepared and distributed the following document for internal use: “1. The Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Ukraine was established by the resolution of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (TsK RKP); the Government represents the RKP and unconditionally carries out its orders, as well as the orders of the TsK RKP. 2. The Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Ukraine does not constitute an independent entity; nor has it established or intends to establish its own independent command; it calls the Revolutionary Military Council of the Kursk Direction group the “Revolutionary Military Council of the Ukrainian Soviet Army” solely for the purpose of referring to the Soviet Army of Ukraine, and not to the offensive of the Russian troops, that is, to continue the policy which was initiated by the formation of the Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Ukraine. This renaming did not and does not entail any change in substance, especially since the personnel of said Revolutionary Military Council is determined not by us but by the central institution of the RSFSR; tacitly, it is understood to be the same Revolutionary Military Council of the group of troops on the Kursk line, only with a different slogan for Ukraine” (Vladyslav Verstjuk, ‘Novyj etap revoljucijno-vojennoho protyborstva v Ukrajini’, in Revoljucija v Ukrajini: polityko-deržavni modeli ta realiji (1917–1920). Polityčna istorija Ukrajiny ХХ stolittja, ed. by Valerij Soldatenko, and Vladyslav Verstijuk, 6 vols (Kyjiv: Heneza, 2002–2003), II (2002), p. 328). In late 1919, when the Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine for the third time, they created VseUkrRevKom, which acted as the supreme authority. In the summer of 1920, GalRevKom was created in Kyiv; this organization proclaimed the establishment of Soviet power in the territories of Eastern Galicia and appointed itself the supreme body of power. (Mykola Lytvyn, ‘ZUNR i Halycʹka SRR u heostratehiji bilʹšovycʹkoji Rosiji’, Ukrajina: kulʹturna spadščyna, nacionalʹna svidomistʹ, deržavnistʹ, 18 (2009), 101–18). In the same summer of 1920, during the Soviet-Polish War, the Bolsheviks established the Provisional Revolutionary Polish Committee in Smolensk, at the rear of the frontline. The task of this Committee was to “to build the foundation for the Polish Soviet Republic”.

[15] Sovet Narodnych Komissarov, ‘Privetstvie raboče-krestʹjanskomu pravitelʹstvu Ukrainy ot Soveta Narodnych Komissarov RSFSR. 16 dekabrja 1917 g.’, Izvestija CIK i Petrogradskogo Soveta rabočich i soldatskich deputatov, 254 (1917).

[16] Ukrajinsʹka Centralʹna Rada. Dokumenty i materialy, ed. by Valerij Smolij, and others, 2 vols (Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 1996–1997), II (1997), p. 22.

[17] Iosif Stalin, ‘Otvet tovariščam ukraincam v tylu i na fronte’, Pravda, 213 (1917).

[18] Lenin, Voennaja perepiska, pp. 32-33.

[19] Volodymyr Yeshchenko was absolutely right. The Council of the People’s Commissars made every effort to consolidate troops against the UNR. Take, for instance, a telegram from Lenin to Nikolai Krylenko, dated December 11th, 1917, and published for the first time only in 1970: “... convey the order to the most energetic people so that they organize, as soon as possible, a big number of completely reliable troops in Kharkiv, and so that there is forward movement without any obstacles or other considerations. We are extremely concerned about the not sufficiently energetic movement of troops from the front to Kharkiv. Take all measures, including the most revolutionary, for the most vigorous movement of troops, and a large number of them, to Kharkiv” (Ibid., p. 25).

[20] Ukrajins 'ka Central 'na Rada, p. 67.

[21] Vladyslav Hrynevyč, and Ljudmyla Hrynevyč, Slidča sprava M.A. Muravjova: dokumentovana istorija (Kyjiv, 2001), p. 216.

[23] Isaak Mazepa, Centralʹna Rada-Hetʹmanščyna-Dyrektorija. Ukrajina v ohni j buri revoljuciji, 1917–1921, 2 vols (Praha: Probojem, 1942), I, p. 39.

[24] Rumcherod was the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Romanian Front, the Black Sea Fleet and the Odesa Region (Kherson and Taurida provinces).

[25] Viktor Holubko, Armija Ukrajinsʹkoji Narodnoji Respubliky 1917–1918. Utvorennja ta borotʹba za deržavu (Lʹviv, 1997), p. 164.

[26] Jaroslav Tynčenko, Ukrajinsʹki zbrojni syly berezenʹ 1917 – lystopad 1918 rr. – orhanizacija, čyselʹnistʹ, bojovi diji (Kyjiv: Tempora, 2009), p. 77.

[27] Mark fon Hagen, ‘Skladnyj zachidnyj front ta formuvannja Ukrajinskoji deržavy: zabutyj myr, zabuta vijna ta narodžennja naciji’, Ukrajina dyplomatyčna, 19 (2018), 45–59 (p. 46).

[28] The forces of the Central Council in Kyiv and its environs, according to the calculations of the historian Yaroslav Tinchenko, counted at the end of 1917 about 27 thousand bayonets and sabres, but their fighting capacity was low // Jaroslav Tynčenko, Perša ukrajinsʹko-bilʹšovycʹka vijna (hrudenʹ 1917- berezenʹ 1918 r.), pp. 40–1.

[29] Ukrajins 'ka Central 'na Rada, p. 76.

[30] Valerij Soldatenko, Ukrajinsʹka revoljucija. Istoryčnyj narys (Kyjiv: Lybidʹ, 1999), p. 407.

[31] Ukrajinsʹka Centralʹna Rada, p. 67.

[32] Ukrajins 'ka Central 'na Rada, p. 94.

[33]Archiv Vilʹnoji Ukrajinsʹkoji Akademiji Nauk u Nʹju-Jorku (hereafter Uvan), fond V.Kedrovsʹkoho, Verstka spomyniv.

[34] Original name – Hajdamacʹkyj kiš Slobidsʹkoji Ukrajiny.

[35] Lenin, Voennaja perepiska, p. 26.

[36] Antonov-Ovseenko, Zapiski o graždanskoj vojne, p. 135.

[37] Ibid., 35.

[38] Hrynevyč, and Hrynevyč, Slidča sprava M.A. Muravjova, p. 215.

[39] Mychajlo Hruševsʹkyj, Iljustrovana istorija Ukrajiny (Nʹju- Jork, 1967), p. 543.

[40] Mykola Halahan, Z mojich spomyniv (1880-ti-1920 r.) (Kyjiv: Tempora, 2005), p. 326.


[41] Tynčenko, Perša ukrajinsʹko-bilʹšovycʹka vijna, p. 52.

[42] Memorial Vseukrajinsʹka pravozachysna orhanizacija Memorial imeni Vasylja Stusa, ‘8 ljutoho 1918 - zachopyvšy Kyjiv...’ (Facebook post, 8 February 2021) <https://www.facebook.com/memorial.ukraine/posts/3875441999172691> [accessed 11 September 2022].

[43] Sergej Melʹgunov, Krasnyj terror v Rossii 1918–1922 (Berlin, 1924), p. 75.

[45] Hagen, ‘Skladnyj zachidnyj front’, p. 46.

[46] Andrij Zdorov, ‘Červonyj teror u kyjevi na počatku 1918 r.: mify ta realiji’, Historians.in.ua, 25 December 2015 < https://www.historians.in.ua/index.php/en/dyskusiya/1729-andrii-zdorov-chervonyi-teror-u-kyievi-na-pochatku-1918-r-mify-ta-realii > [accessed 11 September 2022]; Olena Betlij, ‘Bilšovycʹkyj teror u Kyjevi u sični-ljutomu 1918 r.: žertvy i pam 'jatʹ’, Krajeznavstvo, 3 (2018), 178–95.

[47] ‘Podiji v Kyjevi (23–26)’, Nova rada, 14 (1918).

[48] Ibid.

[49] Serhij Jefremov, ‘Lyst bez konverta’, Nova rada, 15 (1918).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Jefremov, ‘Lyst bez konverta’.

[52] Ljudmyla Harčeva, ‘Zbrojni syly Centralʹnoji Rady u ljutomu – kvitni 1918 roku’, Vijsʹko Ukrajiny, 8 (1993), p. 107.

[53] Ukrajinsʹka Vilʹna Akademija Nauk, fond V.Kedrovsʹkoho, Verstka spomyniv.

[54] Serhij Jefremov, Publicystyka revoljucijnoji doby, 1917–1920 rr., 2 vols (Kyjiv: Duch i Litera, 2013), I, p. 482.

[55]Ibid., 476. 

Author:Vladyslav Verstiuk