Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ukrainian nationalists struggled for independence in the wake of the collapse of Russia’s czarist government and the October Revolution, but they failed in their bid for autonomous statehood.

Summary of Event

Russia’s new Time of Troubles, 1917-1921, involved foreign interventionist armies, civil wars among Russians, and wars of national liberation. One of the last was the Ukrainian bid for independence that began weeks after the Bolsheviks seized St. Petersburg in November, 1917. Russian Revolution (1917) The attempt to establish a separate Ukraine was made difficult by the Russian White forces that invaded the Ukraine under Anton Ivanovich Denikin from the southeast in the name of imperial unity, by the occupying German armies that set up a puppet state under Pavlo Skoropadsky, by the French armies in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, by the forces of newly independent Poland under Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who seized the western Ukrainian territories, and by the civil strife among Ukrainian parties. Ukraine;independence struggle [kw]Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence (1917-1920) [kw]Nationalists Struggle for Independence, Ukrainian (1917-1920) [kw]Independence, Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for (1917-1920) Ukraine;independence struggle [g]Russia;1917-1920: Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence[04160] [g]Ukraine;1917-1920: Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence[04160] [c]Government and politics;1917-1920: Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence[04160] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1917-1920: Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence[04160] [c]Independence movements;1917-1920: Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence[04160] Denikin, Anton Ivanovich Skoropadsky, Pavlo Piłsudski, Józef Petliura, Symon Vasylovych Vinnichenko, Vladimir Kirillovich Antonov-Ovseenko, Vladimir Alexandrovich Rakovsky, Khristian Georgiyevich

An unrepresentative Ukrainian government called the Central Rada Central Rada was set up in Kiev in March, 1917. Following the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg, the Rada desired a people’s republic within a Russian federation. When the Rada allowed rebel Cossacks to cross its borders with impunity, Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Ukrainian independence government regarded that as a hostile act and responded with armed force that was resisted by the Ukrainians in the so-called Railway War. Russian forces moved into Kharkov and used that Ukrainian city as a base from which to attack the White armies to the east and Ukrainians to the west.





Disagreements within the Communist Party in Russia on how to deal with the Ukraine led to further confusion, but in December, the government of Lenin sent an ultimatum to Kiev to cease disarming Red Guard detachments and support the military campaign against the Whites. When the Ukrainian Congress of Soviets met in Kiev, the delegates overwhelmingly supported the Rada and rejected the ultimatum. By the end of December, however, most Ukrainian towns, including Odessa, had fallen to the Red armies; only Kiev held out. Bolshevik agitators infiltrated the Rada forces led by Symon Vasylovych Petliura, and on February 8, 1918, Bolshevik armies entered Kiev to reassert Russian control over the thirty-two million “Little Russians.” In truth, Ukrainians were less than enthusiastic about independence, as national feelings had not penetrated the peasant villages and the cities were populated by large numbers of Great Russians and Jews. The Bolsheviks were not popular either, although they did manage to seize the moment to take more decisive actions.

The Germans, still fighting in World War I on the eastern front, sought to make a protectorate over the Ukraine. On February 12, 1918, the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) signed a separate treaty of peace with the Ukrainian Rada in exile, sent an occupying army into the country, and were welcomed by some people who were anxious to restore order and prevent the Russian Bolsheviks from maintaining control. In March, the Central Powers signed a treaty with Russia at Brest and compelled the Russians to withdraw from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, German armies continued to advance deep into Ukrainian and Russian lands, taking Kharkov on April 8, the Donets basin by April 29, and Sevastopol naval base on May Day. The Rada, overthrown by Bolsheviks, restored by Germans, was soon (April 29) ousted by the Germans in favor of Skoropadsky, who headed a puppet state supplying the Central Powers with much-needed raw materials.

The Rada had been popular at least among the urban working classes, but Skoropadsky’s regime found less support. Consequently, when the armistice was signed ending World War I in November, 1918, the armies of the Central Powers evacuated the Ukraine, and one month later the nationalists sent Skoropadsky packing to Germany. The Rada then returned as the Directory under Petliura and Vladimir Kirillovich Vinnichenko. This nationalist government, however, which called itself the Ukrainian People’s Government, was hampered by divisions in its ranks and fell prey to advancing Red armies from Russia. Although by the spring of 1919, the latter successfully removed the Directory leaders, by then much of the country had been overrun by the White armies of Denikin, who was also hostile to Ukrainian independence.

After a year of fighting, Soviet armies had defeated the White forces and ensured that most of the Ukraine was again subservient to Russia. Vladimir Alexandrovich Antonov-Ovseenko, the veteran revolutionary who arrested the provisional government in St. Petersburg in November, 1917, organized the Ukrainian Soviet Army as the Bolsheviks established their own capital at Kharkov under G. L. Piatakov and Khristian Georgiyevich Rakovsky. Their refusal to share power with other radical parties and their policy of requisitioning grain from the villagers ensured that support for the Bolsheviks would be minimal. Petliura mounted a counteroffensive in the west and briefly retook Kiev, but monarchists and Whites (especially the Don Cossacks) took Kharkov from the Bolsheviks and arrived in Kiev to frustrate attempts at Ukrainian national unity, carrying out vicious pogroms against the Jewish communities. French armies in Odessa tried to protect that city against both Whites and Reds, rendering some support to Petliura. After the French withdrew, White forces took Odessa and Ekaterinoslav, then crossed the Dnieper and chased Petliura westward, where his troops were caught in the so-called triangle of death among hostile Polish, Russian, and White armies.

By June, 1919, the new Moscow government reversed itself by abandoning national armies in favor of centralized administrations, civil and military. Leon Trotsky Trotsky, Leon told the Red armies that their duty was not to conquer but to liberate the Ukraine from German allies in the Rada. Meanwhile, Piłsudski, the hero of Poland reborn, invaded western Ukraine and even captured Kiev by May, 1920. Making a deal with Petliura to take eastern Galicia from Ukraine, Piłsudski hoped that the forces of Petliura could be restored to power, but the nationalists of the Rada were no more popular than before and so were little help to the Poles. The resulting Russian-Polish war was a seesaw contest between the Polish leader and the armies of Marshal Mikhail Tukhashevsky, who brought his Russian forces to the outskirts of Warsaw only to be pushed back again. The Treaty of Riga Riga, Treaty of (1921) in March, 1921, left the western Ukraine in Polish control. Ukrainian resistance to Bolshevik rule ceased because there was too little support from the rank-and-file peasantry for a nationalist government and no national army of consequence remained. All leftist parties merged with the Reds, and Moscow controlled the Communist Party of the Ukraine.


In the end, the Russian government retained control of this large Slavic region. Many Russian historians view this episode as part of the historic struggle between North and South, the latter the traditional haven for rebels. Others see it as continued evidence of foreign interference in the internal life of Russian lands. Although Lenin had stated his support for the principle of self-determination of all nations, he was surprised when some nationalities opted to take the Bolsheviks’ declaration of the right of national self-determination seriously and leave the new proletarian state. Lenin justified the use of force against those separatists by arguing that such societies were unrepresentative of the working class. Although Ukrainian nationalism was too weakly perceived in that region for the struggle for independence to succeed, the folklore that emanated from the revolution helped to create a deeper feeling of nationhood in succeeding years. Ukraine;independence struggle

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brovkin, Vladimir N., ed. The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Collection of essays by distinguished scholars focuses on the reactions to the Bolsheviks and their rule among the rest of Russian society. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iroshnikov, M., D. Kovalenko, and V. Shishkin. Genesis of the Soviet Federative State, 1917-1921. Moscow: Progress, 1982. Provides a standard Soviet view of Ukrainian upheavals resulting from bourgeois class interests and leading to the triumph of Lenin’s nationalist principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921. 1989. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999. Comprehensive, masterfully written history describes all aspects of the Ukrainian bid for independence. Includes endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. 2d ed. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005. Presents a clear account of Russia’s troubles. Explains how the Bolsheviks succeeded by making a favorable offer of some state independence coupled with centralization of the Soviet military and the party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pipes, Richard. Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Comprehensive history by one of the leading authorities on the Soviet Union provides coverage of the Bolshevik policy toward non-Russian nationalities. Shows how the Bolsheviks derived great advantages from the civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reshetar, John S., Jr. The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-1920: A Study in Nationalism. 1952. Reprint. New York: Ayer, 1972. Argues persuasively that the fundamental failure of Ukraine’s bid for independence can be traced to the weak feelings of nationhood among the vast peasantry.

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Finland Gains Independence

Baltic States Gain Independence

Poland Secures Independence

Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland

Categories: History