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16 February 2022

From the NS archive: The Ukrainian peace and the Bolsheviks

16 February 1918: With Russian troops threatening, Ukraine appeals to foreign powers for help.

By New Statesman

With the war in the West still ongoing and the Russian Revolution in its early days, Trotsky menaced Ukraine. The Ukrainian People’s Republic had been declared on 23 June 1917 but the country was split between nationalist and social groups. The first sought total independence from Russia, the second – driven by the peasant class – was in sympathy with Bolshevik land reform and working-class unity. Poland, Austria-Hungary and Germany all had an interest in Ukraine, which possessed some of the richest agricultural land in central Europe. The writer of this analysis saw the various powers in a state of delicate stand-off with each party holding back – for now – from sending troops into the country.


The Ukrainian Rada [parliament] has concluded peace with the Central Powers because it no longer feels secure in its own country. It had therefore to seek outside support and guarantees for the stability of its rule, in which the Central Powers have now acquired an interest. The programme which the Rada has been pursuing is both national and social.

On the national side it stands for the doctrines of that group of Ukrainian intelligentsia which considers the southern branch of the Russian nation a nationality apart from the Great Russians. To the leaders in the Rada the national aspect is all-important, and they will sacrifice to it, if necessary, all other considerations; to the great masses of the Ukrainian peasantry it is only the social side of the programme which matters – the land problem – and there is no genuine desire among them for a separation of the Ukraine from Russia or any interest in its achievement. They also are, of course, in favour of provincial autonomy and of a certain legislative independence, which is but natural and just, as there are considerable differences in conditions between the north and the south.

To the Ukrainian nationalists the present time is of critical importance. The events of the next few months may decide for ages to come whether or not in the south of Russia a nationality will finally grow up entirely separate from the Great Russians. In that respect, the Ukrainian peasantry, consisting mostly of illiterates, can be moulded like clay, and either answer is as yet possible to the question. The Bolshevist theory neither asserts nor denies the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation; it leaves to all nationalities or groups perfect freedom to determine their own fate. Yet it is in its essence international, and tends to emphasise that which the Little Russian or Ukrainian and the Great Russian peasants have in common. It brings out the unity of the peasant movement throughout the entire expanse of Russia; and the Ukrainian peasant feels that unity and responds to it.

It is this aspect of Bolshevism which has frightened the Rada. The conflict between it and the Bolsheviks is not one of two nations, nor is it based on a contrast between bourgeois and proletarian interests; it has its roots in the difference between the ways of thinking of the nationalist and the socialist. It is a civil war inside the Ukraine which cannot even be described as class war. The Rada has for Ukrainian nationalist reasons adopted the most advanced socialist measures. Capital in the Ukraine takes the form of big landed estates and of factories connected with them (sugar refineries, alcohol distilleries). These estates are almost exclusively in the hands of Poles or of Great Russians.

Ukrainian nationalism identifies itself, therefore, with extreme social radicalism, just as the Fenian movement did in Ireland. By the very proclamation in which the Ukrainian Rada constituted itself the supreme authority for its country, it also ordered the seizure of all big landed estates without compensation. It was not, therefore, to the social programme of Bolshevism that the Rada objected, nor even to disorders and pogroms of manor houses – which they viewed with complacency as they were committed on non-Ukrainians for the benefit of Ukrainians. But the uniform nature of the peasant movement throughout Russia blew like an icy wind on the tender plant of Ukrainian nationalist separatism, and its votaries therefore began by intriguing with Russian counter-revolutionaries and with Polish reactionaries, and finished by a pilgrimage to the stronghold of conservatism in eastern Europe – Germany.

It was clearly to the interest of the Central Powers, for the present as also for the future, to drive a wedge between northern and southern Russia and to destroy the one power in eastern Europe which can hold the balance against them. It is further to the interest of the Central Powers to inflict a blow on the Russian Revolution, which threatens the dominion of German militarism over other races and even over its own people, not with defeat, but with annihilation. It was to their interest, in the silent struggle which is now proceeding between them and the revolutionary parties in their own countries, to prove that they, the existing governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary, are capable of concluding peace “if only the other side is reasonable”.

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[see also: The Ukraine crisis shows “Global Britain” can’t afford to turn its back on Europe]

Finally, as the Ukraine is the richest agricultural country in Europe, it was of supreme importance to the Central Powers to secure an access to its supplies, or at least a prospect of obtaining food. For in spite of all the natural riches of the Ukraine it is not at all certain that it possesses at present any considerable surplus of food. Yet the psychological factor of a new hope is calculated by itself to give relief – at least for the time being.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian Rada counted on it that peace with the Central Powers would benefit it in two ways. The people in the Ukraine desire peace, and by securing it for them the Rada stood to gain considerably in popularity. The fall of the Rada, had Russia remained at war with the Central Powers, would have meant its renewal for the Ukraine also. It is tenable also that the Rada had been preparing to call in Austrian and German help against its own Bolsheviks and the reinforcements which might be sent to them from Great Russia. The clauses of the peace treaty hitherto published – there is good reason to believe that these are not all – to the fullest extent satisfy the national claims of the Ukrainians as far as they concern territories which have previously been under Russia.

During the last two years Polish imperialists have been raising absolutely unwarranted claims to Vlhynia and eastern Cholm, almost purely Ukrainian country. They are to have none of it now, and even worse; that which they had desired to do on a gigantic scale to others is now done to them, though in a comparatively small measure. The Ukraine is to receive western Cholm and a strip of country round Biala, districts predominantly Polish in character. A frontier just to both sides would not have suited the methods of German realpolitik a standing feud between Poles and Ukrainians will enable Germany to play the part of the judge as he appeared in certain semi-barbaric courts, where he used to be considered a third interested party to the lawsuit. As under present circumstances the Germans could not have given Ukrainian territory to the Poles, they have reversed the trick. They will probably try in turn to compensate the Poles by White Russian territory in the governments of Vilna and Grodno, so as to secure there also material for future feuds and intervention.

Between Austria-Hungary and the Ukraine the frontier remains unchanged, and the Ukrainians of Eastern Galicia, the Bukovina and north-eastern Hungary thus remain included in alien states. Yet it seems hardly likely that the Ukrainian nationalists from the Rada should have entirely abandoned East Galicia to its fate – East Galicia is the cradle of the Ukrainian separatist nationalism and the home of many of the leaders in the Rada. Although the Poles form in East Galicia a very small minority, they own practically all the big landed estates and before the war were politically complete masters of the country.

During recent months a union of the whole of Galicia with the Kingdom of Poland has been foreshadowed, a prospect which has driven the East Galician Ukrainians into the most extreme opposition against Austria, and which if realised would drive them into revolution. There can be hardly any doubt that the Ukrainian Rada must have stipulated in some secret clauses for Eastern Galicia to be made an autonomous Ukrainian province, even though under the Hapsburg sceptre. What the Ukraine in her turn is to do for the Hapsburgs still remains to be known.

[see also: “Finlandisation” is not an option for Ukraine]

The defection of the Ukrainian Rada and the separate peace concluded by them gave the Central Powers the upper hand over Russia and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky had now to guard against the possibility of the Central Powers sending troops into the Ukraine at the invitation of the Rada. There was also the probability that his enemies in Russia would accuse him of having promised space to the people and of having broken his word. Yet it was of the most vital importance to the future of the Russian Revolution and also of revolution in Central Europe that he should not secure it by signing away any of his principles, and should not acknowledge defeat in the contest against German militarism.

Trotsky was expected to achieve his aims by a stroke which is amazing in its simplicity. He declares that Russia no longer considers herself at war with the Central Powers and has ordered the demobilisation of the Russian army. At the same time he declares that he will not sign a formal peace treaty. If Russia is no longer at war with the Central Powers they will find it extremely difficult to send troops into the Ukraine, and incidentally to help themselves to its resources beyond what the Ukrainians themselves are willing to sell to them.

The Rada fights the Bolsheviks, and if the Central Powers were still at war with Russia their armies might at the invitation of the Rada have entered the Ukraine without any further explanations. If they do so now, they deliberately recommence war with Russia. Will the working classes of Germany – still more those of Austria-Hungary – stand any such attempt? New violent upheavals would certainly follow. Nor can anyone in Russia now accuse Trotsky of not having kept his promise. The Russian peasant has been told that the Tsarist war has come to an end – that he may go back to his home. The circumstances under which this has been done are too subtle for his understanding. If he sees German armies advancing into Russia he will understand that it is they who are committing an act of deliberate aggression.

And yet all this has been attained without a surrender of principles. The enemy occupation of Poland, Lithuania and Courland remains what it has been, an act of violence with no legal or moral sanction behind it. The nations inhabiting these territories now that the war has been ended and the Russian army officially demobilised, will be able to demand their rights with even greater emphasis than they have done hitherto, and the German government, whilst still engaged in war elsewhere, will have to show its hand to these nations, to its allies, and lastly to its own working classes. The question which had been disputed at Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and the Bolsheviks remains open, and no advance has been towards a real settlement since the day when Russians entered into negotiations – the character of the enemy governments has been exposed merely and will now be exposed still further.

It is no less the duty of the working classes of the Central Powers than of the Great Russians, and no less to their own well-understood interest, to demand self-determination for all nations. The Great Russians are not able for the present to continue the war, but they hold out a fiery sign of revolution to guide the working classes of the Central Powers. The one concession which Trotsky has in appearance made to the enemy was to order the demobilisation of the Russian army. In reality that army no longer existed.

This is clearly proved by the development of the Polish revolt against Russia. The Polish army corps which remains under the command of a reactionary Polish group – the quondam friends of the quondam Tsar – attacked the Bolshevik main headquarters at the front at the very time when Trotsky was pleading at Brest-Litovsk in favour of complete self-determination for the Polish nation, and when the Germans threatened to break off negotiations with him. This Polish corps, 26,000-strong, has proved able to advance within less than a fortnight for about 150 miles without encountering resistance. Obviously, effective resistance could not have been offered to the Germans. The German bourgeois press shows signs of acute embarrassment at Trotsky’s declaration. Will Germany be able to refuse to accept it? The next move lies with her, and the most consummate skill will be required from her statesmen to find a way out of this situation.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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