The Political Heritage of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian Liberation Movement between the two World Wars

(Speech at the conference “Commemorating the Ukrainian National Republic and Its Legacy in Princeton Club of New York. September 22, 2018).

The topic of a nation’s struggle for state independence has never lost its importance in art and international political life. The aspiration for independence is associated with dignity and justice and accompanies the entire human history, like the eternal theme of love. Extremely popular was the film “The Brave Heart” by Mel Gibson, which is about the struggle of the Scots for their independence from England. Much wider was the artistic representation of the Irish liberation struggle, which ultimately led to the creation of independent Ireland.

The same list includes the struggle of the Jewish people against the Roman Empire, the liberation war of Germans against the French in Napoleonic age, and the “Polish problem” of Europe after the third division of Rzeczpospolita [Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth], also the struggle of Americans for independence against the mentioned British Empire, of the Latin American nations – against their metropolitan countries of Spain and Portugal, and numerous European resistance movements – against the Nazis during the World War II as well.

A particular place is the history of the liberation struggle of the peoples that were part of the Russian Empire, later – the Soviet Union as its modification and Putin’s Russia today. These include the history of restoring the Ukrainian state.

All these movements are informally divided into two main categories: progressive and destructive ones. It is believed that the former “have the right” to independence, but the latter deserves only to be called “separatists” destroying the world order. Many peoples managed to shift from the second to the first category. A result of the First World War was the emergence of newly independent states in Europe, and after the Second World War, they were joined by newly created states in Asia and Africa. Now, Kurds are in the process of such a transition. Many discussions are taking place around the Catalans, who do not have this right, who insist they are a separate nation.

Special attention is given to the Ukrainians who gained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, some academic and political circles still have an opinion that Ukrainians do not have such a right. Or they do, theoretically, but for some reasons, they should not fight for their independence.

Ukrainian case

The case of the liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people in the twentieth century may be interesting for understanding the phenomenon of liberation nationalism when a nation resists an assimilation policy of the occupiers and aspires to organize its own state life independently. The Ukrainian people approached the beginning of the twentieth century in a complex social and political condition. The Ukrainian ethnic territory was divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. The very question of “ethnic territory” is contextual, connected with the mobilization of non-state nations in that historical period.

Numerous peasants, a dedicated but few intellectual elite, and a very small number of rich people, first of all, aristocratic landowners and representatives of the bourgeoisie, who felt a certain sentiment for their Ukrainian origin, only represented the Ukrainian nation. The historical heritage of the Cossack era has played an important role. It has become the basis for a stable tradition of insistence in Ukrainian society regarding political rights and freedoms, as well as of powerful militaristic tradition.

A legal basis for Ukrainian independence had also existed – the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement between Ukraine and Russia. It is interesting that while Ukrainians have always been treating this document seriously, it has never had any significance for the Russian political tradition since the “great” Russian tsars had no need to fulfill any international obligations. It is so similar to our days.

The modern Ukrainian nationalism was shaping at the end of the XIXth century, influenced by the national liberation movements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, first of all, by Czech movement. The “Independent Ukraine” (Poltava – Kharkiv – Lviv, 1899-1900) by Mykola Mikhnovskyi was a milestone event. Conservative ideas co-existed with more popular socialist ideas, initiated by Mykhailo Drahomanov in 1870-s. Unlike Russian (imperialist) socialism and later communism, Ukrainian socialism had a liberating, anti-imperial, and anti-colonial nature.

The beginning of the XXth century saw the development of the first Ukrainian parties, which formed the basis of the first Ukrainian parliament and government in 1917. That is, Ukrainians proved to be a nation at the decisive moment of collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. They quickly managed to take a decision on their political principles, organize their armed forces and institutions of power. What is most important for our conference agenda is that the United Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) was, without any doubt, a democratic state.

It could not stand under the pressure of her neighbors. Almost all of them revealed themselves as new imperialists (except Czechoslovakia in the times of Tomas Masaryk) who did not recognize the right of Ukrainians to their own independence. By the way, the contemporary Republic of Poland officially tolerates the tradition of collaboration with the Chief Otaman (Warlord) Simon Petliura in 1919-1921 precisely because of the weakness of the UPR which was not able to simultaneously fight several fronts and therefore was tactically concessive to the territorial violations from the Polish side.

Defeat and demoralization

After the defeat of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a politically active part of Ukrainian society was demoralized. Ukrainians had to adapt to living in the new circumstances of the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary, which largely meant the loss of the social base for the liberation movement in the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. Alongside with that, Ukrainian national communists, representatives of other Ukrainian socialist parties, including those who were previously actively involved in the activities of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, had a significant impact on the social and cultural life of Soviet Ukraine until the Holodomor.

The defeat in the Liberation Movement led to great disappointment with the policy of the Entente, which supported the new European states that became subjects of international politics. Ukrainians were out of the legal field; their rights to their own state were ignored, and the policy of newly neighboring states was primarily aimed at de-nationalization of the Ukrainian population. Therefore, effective collaboration with the Entente countries on the eve of World War II was impossible.

All the Ukrainian political forces that continued the struggle for independence saw the Soviet Union as the main imperialist threat. That is why, the Ukrainian liberation movement was pushed out into the category of peoples dissatisfied with the consequences of the First World War and the collapse of the two largest continental empires: together with Croats, Slovaks, and Germans. Gradually, the fashion for authoritarianism was growing in Europe. That was caused by successful suppression of the pro-communist forces in Italy, economic successes in restoring the ruined and humiliated Germany, and social mobilization and preparations for a new world war in virtually all European countries.

Under such circumstances, the Ukrainian liberation movement finds new allies represented by military intelligence services in Italy, Germany, Lithuania, and Finland. Firstly, the governments of these countries were clearly anti-communist. Secondly, Ukrainians did not have much choice. For the reasons mentioned above, the anti-communism of the Entente did not give grounds for the Ukrainians to hope for its support in the state-aimed aspirations in the future.

New discourse of the Ukrainian liberation movement

So, how did the Ukrainian political discourse change in its attitudes to the inheritance of the Ukrainian People’s Republic? First of all, we should emphasize that this heritage is divided into achievements and losses. The achievements include devotion to the democratic ideals, political and social responsibility to society. The losses include an unrealistic vision of international politics, carelessness in the relations with the Russian imperialism, and the inability to protect the national interests of one’s own state.

The Ukrainian political discourse in the interwar years developed under the strong influence of Dmytro Dontsov. This prominent political thinker did not consider the UPR worthwhile at all because of the devastating defeat of the Liberation Movement. The UPR’s political legacy has also been seriously discredited by the collaboration of some of its leaders (including the head of the Tsentralna Rada (Central Council) – the UPR’s Parliament – Mykhailo Hrushevskyi and Yurii Tiutiunnyk, a prominent military commander) with the Russian occupation regime, which allegedly took place on “common” socialist positions.

In the territory of Soviet Ukraine, the liberation movement continued as numerous, yet disconnected, peasant uprisings. Their leaders were unable to unite in the times of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and after that, they had neither ideological alternatives nor military capacity to stand against Soviet occupation. Recent Polish allies, who revealed themselves as new and persistent invaders, interned the UPR Army. In 1920-30-s, the Second Rzeczpospolita (Polish Commonwealth) even tried to change the ethnic composition of Galicia and Volyn, in different ways discriminating the Ukrainian population and increasing the population number of the Polish minority.

Accordingly, the Ukrainian liberation movement in the interwar period emphasized the importance of nation-wide mobilization, the priority of resolving the issues of national interests, and renounced party-based politics. The socialist orientation of the majority of the UPR leaders and the so-called “Otamanship” [many disconnected warlords’ activity], which prevented all pro-Ukrainian forces from becoming united to support the UPR as a state of the whole Ukrainian nation, were defined as the main causes of the defeat of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The underestimated objective factors related to a long break in the traditions of Ukrainian statehood also had an impact. The inter-war Ukrainian liberation movement produced predominantly “right” rhetoric.

The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) gradually took upon the leadership of the Ukrainian liberation movement. It would be a big mistake to think that while disapproving of the pro-socialist orientation of the UPR leadership the OUN leaders and ideologists ignored the issues of social justice. The Marxist orientation of the UPR, when even the liberal political forces had to disguise under socialist political banners, was condemned for underestimating the importance of one’s own state in defending the national interests, including those raised by the Ukrainian socialists. Instead, the OUN linked the solution of social issues of the Ukrainian nation to national liberation.

Later, the reason why active representatives from the left political circles and various community leaders migrated to the nationalist underground was not that Ukrainian Insurgent Army was switching to a position of some national exclusiveness or national selfishness, but that they perceived the nationalist resistance as a united liberation movement aimed at gaining Ukrainian statehood.

The ideology of Ukrainian nationalism was built in the context of the short-term experience of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, mostly denying the political practices of the latter and, in concord with the rhetoric of authoritarian movements in Europe of that period, to the extent that they were aimed at achieving the goal of national mobilization. At the same time, one should take into account the top general priority coming from the UPR legacy and defining the content of the political doctrine of Ukrainian nationalism. This is the creation of the Ukrainian Independent United [“Soborna”] State. That is, neither racism, nor xenophobia, nor authoritarianism, or totalitarianism was in the focus of attention of the liberation movement in its vision of future Ukraine.

The OUN focused on the need for armed struggle and, accordingly, took actions, at first, to build an underground network and then deploy broad-armed resistance. The rigorous criticism of the Ukrainian People’s Republic did not in the least mean that the Ukrainian liberation movement denounced the idea to build its own democratic state. This is evidenced by all the political projects initiated by the OUN: Carpathian Ukraine (1939), the Ukrainian Government (1941), and the Ukrainian Main Liberation Council (1944). The Ukrainian nationalists always adhered to the principle of political coalitions, stressed the need for fulfilling political freedoms in an independent state, and emphasized the hereditary nature of the UPR traditions.

Military traditions of the Ukrainian People’s Republic were honored, examples of military heroism (in particular, the Kruty heroes) were commemorated, and the activities of personally Simon Petliura were highly praised. However, unlike the UPR times, the anti-imperialist orientation of the Ukrainian liberation movement intensified. From interpreting the USSR as a prison of nations, it shifted to the concept of national liberation revolutions in the Soviet Union – revolutions which would have been initiated by the example of Ukrainian resistance. That was supposed to lead to the creation of one’s own independent states by the peoples suppressed by Russian imperialists/communists. Such policy was represented by the dominant slogans “Freedom to the peoples – freedom to man!” or “Kyiv against Moscow!”


The Ukrainian liberation movement of the interwar period (as any liberation movement in history) faced two main tasks: to attract the attention of the international community and to demonstrate its ability to obtain state independence by its own forces. Due to historical circumstances, the international context was the most threatening to Ukrainians. Their aspiration to create their own state was not on the agenda of any of the parties of the military confrontation in Europe: Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, and Western democracies.

No democratic ideals prevented the Atlantic allies under the difficult circumstances of the interwar era first to tolerate Mussolini and Hitler and then solidify with Stalin, thus collaborating with Russian communism for the sake of defeating German Nazism. Yet, the contextual factors of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement are still ignored by a significant number of researchers. The situation is unique because the state-building tradition demands that we take a broad look at Ukrainian history in the XXth century.

We must recognize the merits not only of the liberation movement participants but also the contribution of those Ukrainians who fought against Nazism and communism in the armies of different countries. However, the creation of Soviet Ukraine (having defeated the UPR army, the Bolsheviks could not ignore the independence paradigm stood up for by the UPR), and the restoration of the Ukrainian state in 1991, and the victory of the Revolution of Dignity were the results of a continual liberation tradition and respective rhetoric that has been mobilizing Ukrainians to fight.

We can argue that the legacy of the Ukrainian People’s Republic helped the Ukrainian liberation movement to maintain the sense of responsibility for the state they were fighting for. It is such responsibility that distinguishes fighters for independence from ordinary terrorists. Extremely symbolic was the election of the former member of the Central Council, Cyril Osmak, as the president of the Ukrainian Main Liberation Council, which meant to confirm the heredity of the statehood traditions.

The restoration of Ukrainian statehood in 1991 was not a consequence of some kind of illusory evolution of Soviet Ukraine. That was the merit of those people who did not surrender their weapons and efforts even in the darkest times. The unprecedented self-sacrifice of the Ukrainian liberation movement participants, as well as its ideological, political, and intellectual heritage ultimately led to the demolition of the Soviet Union from the inside. Today, the Ukrainian political nation and Ukrainian civil society continue the struggle against the Russian imperialism, wishing to be free and defending their political rights and freedoms as the ideals of the Western world.

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