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23 March 2022

From the NS archive: The Ukrainian revolt

19 October 1918: A peasant revolution aimed at foreign troops, landowners and the Church.

By New Statesman

Between 1917 and 1921, Ukraine was convulsed by a bewildering series of conflicts that constituted the Ukrainian War of Independence. The combatants encompassed various interests, both foreign and national, from anarchists and Bolsheviks to the government and army and the forces of Germany-Austria and Poland. One of the conflicts was a peasant revolt that spread, as the magazine’s correspondent noted, “with the same uncanny rapidity as among African tribes”. Landowners were butchered, foreign troops massacred (whose comrades then retaliated in kind), Catholic priests were killed and guerrilla bands roamed the countryside as the pre-existing agrarian life was upended. The fighting, said our correspondent, would flare, die down and flare again. No one knew what would happen next but the consequences, although “unforeseen”, would be bloody.


German and Austrian military intervention and Skoropadsky’s newly created militia, even at the height of their success, had been unable to extinguish the peasant revolt altogether, nor have they succeeded in completely disarming the peasants. Penal military expeditions were undertaken, and entire villages were burnt down: such measures cowed but at the same time embittered the peasants, and added recruits to the guerrilla bands.

A stoppage of traffic is now reported on the Volotchisk-Odessa railway line, which would seem to indicate that the movement has, as least temporarily, gained the upper hand in the Austrian sphere of occupation. A German withdrawal of troops from the Ukraine is reported to be in process, and obviously they must choose between leaving strong garrisons or none at all, because small detachments would certainly be overpowered by the peasants. But a complete withdrawal followed by a new revolution in the Ukraine on the very frontier of East Galicia must produce most serious consequences in Austria.

On September 2nd an official notice was posted at the Lemberg railway station announcing that traffic had been stopped on the Volotchisk-Odessa railway. This line is a continuation of the main Galician railway Cracow-Lemberg-Podvolotchisk, and runs from the Austrian frontier through Podolia almost parallel to the Bessarabian frontier. It falls entirely into the Austrian sphere of occupation, the river Boh forming approximately the line of demarcation between the Austrian and German spheres, leaving the towns of Proskurov, Litin, Vinnitsa, Human and Olgopol on the Austrian side. Peasant revolts caused by the requisitioning of the harvest are reported to have been the cause of this stoppage, and are said to be spreading daily. In the first half of September the following two official army orders showing the seriousness of the situation were published in the Austrian sphere of occupation:

“The possession of bombs, hand grenades or other explosives is in itself a proof of planning attempts and constitutes a crime against the armed forces of the State. A state of siege is therefore proclaimed in the sphere of the Austro-Hungarian administration and every transgression will be punished with death.”

The second order runs as follows:

“Rumours have been spread recently about an imminent general strike which is to lead to a change in the political situation of the Ukraine. Agents attempt to provoke disorders across the country. The population of Odessa and surroundings has hitherto maintained peace. We hope that in the future also we shall be able to count on a friendly attitude on their part, and we call upon all the inhabitants to refrain from having anything to do with the revolutionary movement but to help in combating it. We notify the population that all preparations have been made for the severest repression of the revolution, should the agitators succeed in provoking it. The part of the town wherein the revolutionary movement begins is threatened with destruction by artillery.”

Guerrilla warfare has never ceased in the Ukraine throughout the spring and summer, but has merely subsided in some districts, to revive in others. In the late autumn and winter of 1917 the revolt was fiercest in Podolia and Volhynia; in the spring it was serious in Poltava; this summer it raged in the Government of Kiev. In Volhynia a strong militia had been organised under the auspices of the Germans and of Skoropadsky and with the help of the Polish landowners, by the new Governor, M Andro, a Russian of the landowning class who had served under the ancient regime.

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A detachment was assigned to every village, and moreover special detachments for penal expeditions were distributed throughout the province. Yet all the troops and militia could not altogether extinguish the revolt. There were regular guerrilla bands, frequently over a thousand men strong and armed with guns and machine-guns, which roamed through the country secretly, supported by the peasants, among whom their chiefs Hrebenko, Angel, Shin Razh, etc have by now achieved legendary fame. These bands frequently attacked even regular troops and then quickly disappeared without trace. It was not until after many months that the Germans succeeded, eg in destroying most of Hrebenko’s band north-east of Poltava.

Naturally one hears but seldom of these battles fought by the Ukrainian peasant bands against Austrian and German soldiers – only incidentally some writer blabs out and the censor overlooks the slip. Thus, for instance, the following reference to an otherwise unknown massacre of German soldiers can be found in an article on the Ukraine written by a Dr von Dobay, and published in the Vienna Neue Freie Presse of August 4th: “Unfortunately it is not always easy to restore order; bloody encounters cannot be avoided, as is shown by the recent sad incident at Yekatcrinoslav, the ghastly tragedy of the heroic Lieutenant Franz Heinrich and his seventy two men.”

Apart from action by organised bands, one may note a very considerable number of minor outbreaks in a country which, officially at least, had already been pacified. Information about these outbreaks, frequently resulting in the massacre of the landowners, officials or detachments of militia, is much more plentiful, and, as most of the big landowners in the Western Ukraine are Poles, considerable space is devoted to them by the Polish press in Galicia. Equally if not more frequent are pogroms of Jews, but these no one seems to take the trouble to recount.

The local outbreaks are interesting because they give an idea of the potentialities of revolt which there are in the Ukraine. As examples, two from among many may be quoted, the massacres in the sugar factory of Luka, in the Government of Kiev, close to the Kiev-Odessa railway line, and at Avratin, on the very frontier of Galicia, north of Volotchisk. Twenty German soldiers stationed at the sugar factory of Luka had been withdrawn in the afternoon of June 12th, whereupon the peasants from the five surrounding villages at once prepared an attack, which was delivered at two o’clock in the morning of June 13th, and ended in a massacre of all the officials and refugees who were in the factory – man, woman and child.

At Avratin the pogrom was caused by the manager of the estate trying with the help of the militia to enforce payment for damages caused by the peasants during the revolution. The militia were forty men strong, but had only revolvers and sabres, whereas the peasants had guns, machine-guns and hand grenades. Thirty of the militia and the Polish manager himself were killed or wounded, and the wounded were clubbed to death. As punishment, a detachment of Austrian Uhlans stationed at Volotchisk surrounded Anatin, burnt down the village and scattered its inhabitants. No better method could have been devised for providing recruits for the guerrilla bands – which has been effectively done by penal expeditions throughout the Ukraine.

Lastly, a very interesting description may be quoted, given by a Polish nobleman who in July had visited his estate in Podolia, only some thirty miles from the Galician frontier. Of his chateau, farm buildings, etc, he found hardly a trace – “Do not leave a single brick” had been the cry of the peasants, “or the old fellow will return to that brick.” And not merely the Ukrainian peasantry, but even the petty Polish gentry which, but for claims to nobility differs hardly at all from the peasants, had taken part in the looting. Now the “old fellow” came back with a bodyguard of Magyar Honvéds in full war kit. “A few young peasants who had served in the Russian army, when met in the road, looked at me in a hostile manner. I am not astonished that my manager goes every night to the neighbouring town, although the peasant community has in writing guaranteed the safety of his life.”

A few days ago the peasants massacred all the officials on the estate Koszowata, although they themselves had invited them to return. During the summer the peasant has been busy gathering the harvest. By the middle of October the remaining work in the fields – the digging of potatoes and sowing of winter crops – will have been finished. This is therefore the most suitable time for a peasant movement; and the peasant has time to ponder over his “grievances”, and there is something to seize. Last winter he expected the land and crops to remain his. This summer the big landowners, supported and protected by the German and Austrian troops, and by local militias, have regained the land and retained a very considerable part of the produce.

As soon as the peasant feels that this restraining force has broken down, he will rise again, and news among the Ukrainian peasants travels with the same uncanny rapidity as among African tribes. The writer himself once saw how within a few days an agrarian strike spread through at least a thousand villages, and how a village perfectly quiet at night, and to all appearance unconscious of any impending movement, was in full revolt the next morning.

When the new revolution breaks out in the Ukraine it will probably be of the fiercest character, and will surpass even that of last winter. Big landowners, Polish intelligentsia and Jews are likely to be massacred without discrimination, and not even the clergy, especially not the Roman Catholic clergy, will be safe. One may expect a return to the days of the Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky, when nobles, Jews and Roman Catholic priests were hanged on the same trees by the revolting peasants.

A Ukrainian peasant revolt stops short at nothing. The following paragraph from the graphic description by the Polish nobleman, who was quoted above, of the visit to his estate in Podolia, shows how even religion, the one spiritual factor in the life of the peasant, breaks down in an agrarian movement:

“Near the lake, in a semicircle of dark fir trees, on a high column, with distant clouds for background, stands a statue of the Holy Virgin, so calm, so marvellous, so high above human hatred and crime. We go towards it, fall on our knees and, oh horror! we refuse to believe our eyes. The wooden column bears deep marks of bullet-shots. An old servant tells me that the peasants from across the lake shot at the statue – it was mere accident that they hit the column and did not smash the statue. Lord, how savage the village has grown in the course of the war! He tells me also that young Zielonka shot at the statue of St John, which since time immemorial has stood in the village near the lake, and he continued until he had shot off its head. And this although the Zielonkas are Roman Catholics, Poles. The young apostate!”

On the other side of the Austrian frontier in East Galicia, conditions are the same as in the Ukraine, except that its peasantry is much more educated, and therefore much more revolutionised (the writer remembers how some ten years before the war, a village in the district of Zbarazh, expecting a visit from its bishop, put up an arch of triumph with the inscription “We do not believe any longer”); they have been hit much more severely by the war. And are thus much more embittered and exasperated; and the hatred of the Polish-Austrian regime is very much stronger than the hatred of the Russian Government had ever been in the Ukraine.

If the revolution breaks out once more in the Ukraine, if the Galician peasants hear of a retreat of German and Austrian troops, and a new war breaks out in Rumania, then a peasant revolt in Galicia seems almost unavoidable, and of that the consequences can hardly be foreseen. 

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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