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The Ukrainian Union: War and Feuds In 1919
22 January, 2020
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A historic day: the Unification Act is declared on Sofiiska Square in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 22, 1919. Institute of National Remembrance

At noon on January 22, 1919, on Sofiiska Square in central Kyiv, the Act of Union between the West Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed, combining the two into a single independent government. This union occurred on the background of depressing positions on the war front: the Bolsheviks were approaching from the north, while a White Army force was approaching from the east. The south was occupied by troops from the Entente (a name for the alliance of Russia, France, and Great Britain), and the west saw battles with Poles and Romanians. 

Even the leadership of the two republics were in conflict. But regardless of all that, Kyiv was reading itself for celebration. The city was adorned with national symbols, and a prayer service and military parade were planned. Hromadske recalls the goings-on prior to the Unification Act of Ukraine.

The Situation on the Fronts

The Bolsheviks had occupied nearly the entirety of Left-bank Ukraine and were threatening Kyiv. The Red Army had, without warning, invaded Ukrainian territory from Kursk almost immediately after the removal of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi from the head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (or UNR) Directorate in mid-December 1918. On January 3 1919, the Bolsheviks took Kharkiv. It was named as the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – a de-jure independent state but with a puppet government.

Directorate officials had sent notes of complaint to Moscow several times. But they only received an answer after the third complaint: there were no Soviet Russian troops in Ukraine, and the Directorate was actually at war with the “absolutely independent Ukrainian soviet government.” Only on February 16, after then Red Army had seized Chernihiv and Poltava, did the Directorate declare war on the Bolsheviks. On January 21, the Ukrainian army decided to fortify itself on the right bank of the Dnipro. The Bolsheviks, however, broke through to Kyiv from Brovary (a city neighboring Kyiv) and were preparing to storm Dnipro, then called Yekaterinoslav. And the situation was complicated by the fact that several of the Directorate’s own divisions were in open revolt.

There was a war in the Donbas and in Huliaipole (a territory that was part of the Free Territory of Ukraine, an anarchist confederation – ed.) In the beginning of January, a significant part of the Donbas was controlled by White Army troops from the Volunteer Army of Anton Denikin. For nearly a month, the White Army fought with brigades led by Nestor Makhno, an anarchist leader of Huliapole. They attempted to force the anarchist troops out of the Pryazovia region, north of the Sea of Azov. On January 21, the White Army attacked Huliapole. Makhno’s forces were pushed out after several days of fierce fighting, and the anarchist fighters became a key buffer between parts of the UNR and the White Army.

The first half of January saw the Red Army’s advance on the Donbas from Kupiansk, a city in north-east Ukraine, with the Red Army occupying Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Kostiantynivka, and Bakhmut in mid-January, and they forced out the White Army from Luhansk on January 21. 

The Entente front in the south raged across Crimea, the regions bordering the Black Sea, and Pryazovia. After the Bolshevik coup in 1917, two of the Entente’s founding members – Britain and France – split the territory of the former Russian Empire into spheres of influence. Ukraine fell under the French zone. The Entente supported the monarchist White Army, and attempted to create a “united and indivisible Russia.”

By the end of 1918, the Entente governments, worried by the Red Army’s success, decided to militarily intervene in south Ukraine. In December, an Entente squadron entered the Black Sea and landed soldiers in Crimea and on the beaches of Odesa, fighting off Directorate troops in the city. Later, with the help of the White Army, they seized Mykolayiv and Kherson. Part of the squadron entered the Sea of Azov and occupied the ports of Mariupol, Berdyansk, and Henichesk. A total of around 50,000 Entente troops were present in south Ukraine and Crimea. The Directorate government attempted to negotiate with the Entente, agreeing, on January 21, to the Entente’s terms – withdrawing Directorate troops from Odesa, Mykolayiv, and Kherson.

Western Ukraine was torn between four different governments. Almost from the moment of its founding in November 1918, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (or WUNR) found itself under seige. Zakarpattia was invaded by troops from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Romania occupied parts of Bukovyna (a border region on the Carpathians with Romania), and Poland occupied parts of Halychyna (Galicia), including the WUNR capital of Lviv. The WUNR government were forced to relocate to Ivano-Frankivsk, then called Stanyslaviv. Fighting against the Poles caused some of the fiercest battles in the WUNR. A day prior to the proclamation of unification, several UNR units arrived to assist and started to push onto Polish positions. Bloody battles saw the liberation of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, but Lviv remained under Polish control.

Meanwhile, uprisings were erupting in Bukovyna and Zakarpattia. Rebels cleared Romanian troops out of nearly the entire Khotyn district. And in Rakhiv, occupied by Hungary, a Ukranian microstate formed, known as as the Hutsul Republic. These victories allowed an All-Ukrainian Assembly of Zakarpattia to form on January 21, 1919, which voted for joining a united Ukraine.

Internal Conflict

There were internal disagreements from the very creation of the Directorate government. Two of its leaders – the head of the Directorate Volodymyr Vynnychenko, and head Ataman (a title for a Cossack leader – ed) Simon Petliura – had utterly opposing political views. The first wanted closer relations with Soviet Russia, while the second pushed for a union with the Entente. “Vynnychenko would have wanted to talk with Lenin and Chicherin, but for myself, Opanas Andriyevskyi, and Andriy Makarenko (members of the Directorate – ed.) we have different ideas. We need to lean towards the West, towards the union,” said Petliura. 

But Vynnychenko blamed Petliura for turning the name of the Head Ataman into the “brand of the whole movement.”

“All actions, all immediate movements, from the very beginning were put under the brand of a separate personality, pained with a personal character, narrowed, impoverished, and blurred. All the rebels that began to flock to revolutionary centers began to be called Petliurists,” declaimed Vynnychenko.

On the eve of the unification, Vynnychenko began to fear that soldiers loyal to Petliura were going to arrest and shoot him.

A few weeks after the unification between UNR and WUNR, Vynnychenko resigned and fled across the border. “Let the Ukrainian man in the street say and think whatever he wants. I’m going abroad, shaking off the dust of politics, laying down with books and immersing myself in my present, singular work – literature...I’m leaving as a writer, and as a politician I want with all my soul to die,” he wrote in his diary.

Neither was there political agreement with the WUNR government. Most Galician politicians set a social-democratic route for part of the UNR government. “Raised in a constitutional soul, Galicians were scared of anarchism, destructive revolutionary despotism, and atamanism,” wrote the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the WUNR Lonhyn Tsehelsky in his memoirs. That’s why the WUNR government attached “territorial autonomy” to the unification agreement for the after announcing its intention to unite with the UNR.

The Mood in Kyiv

On the eve of unification, on January 21, 1919, Kyiv was restless. They expected the Bolsheviks to enter the city in February. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education decided to create a festive atmosphere, and allocated 100,000 rubles for the task.

The ceremony was to be led by Ukrainian actor, producer, and public figure Mykola Sadovskyi. Under his leadership, the city was adorned with national flags, Ukrainian drawings were hung on the balconies of homes and institutions, and on light poles rose the coat of arms of Ukrainian regions. Sofiiska square, where the Unification Act was to be declared, was particularly lavishly decorated. Solemn prayers and a military parade were planned.

The events of the next day, January 22 1919, were described in this way by a contemporary of those events, historian, and head of the Museum of Antiquities of the University of Kyiv, Nataliia Polonska-Vasylenko:

“The helplessness of the leadership influenced the general mood. Ukraine, squeezed between two great powers – the Entente from the south and Bolshevism from the north – didn’t have the strength to fight. Soldiers fled, and riots spread. This was the situation in which the union of the UNR and WUNR was proclaimed...but under the pressure of these joyless events, it passed by dryly, quietly.”