the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

Much has been written on the revolution in Ukrainian, on the nationalists, the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. Yet there were others with a massive following whose role has faded from history. One such party was the Borotbisty, the majority of the million strong Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, they formed an independent communist party seeking an independent Soviet Ukraine.

Though widely known amongst revolutionary Europe in their day, the Borotbisty were decimated during the Stalinist holocaust. Out of print for over half a century Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko has now been republished. Maistrenko (1899-1984) was a veteran of the revolutionary movement. A red partisan in 1918-20 he was a journalist and opponent of Stalin in the 1920’s becoming deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Communist Institute of Journalism in 1931. A survivor of the gulag he lived as a post-war refugee in Germany becoming editor of the anti-Stalinist workers paper Vpered. His Borotbism is a thought provoking study which challenges previous approaches to the fate of the Russian Revolution and European revolutions. With the permission of the author we publish below part of the introduction to Borotbism, by Chris Ford.


With the fall of the autocracy in 1917 the Ukrainian Revolution soon differentiated itself from the wider Russian Revolution, setting as its task the achievement of national liberation through the creation of a self-governing Ukrainian state. The period between February and October 1917 was one of unprecedented “national enthusiasm among the masses of Ukrainian peasants, soldiers and worker masses” in the conflict with the Russian Provisional Government.

The Central Rada was a mass assembly consisting of councils of peasants’, soldiers’ and workers’ deputies elected at their respective congresses; it later expanded its constituency, drawing in the national minorities. This included the pioneering organization of Jewish national autonomy in Ukraine. The Ukrainian word ‘rada’ and Russian ‘sovet’, meaning council, are direct transliterations, and such a political translation was made on many occasions with Ukrainians declaring support for soviet power and the Central Rada because it was a soviet. The Central Rada did not exist in a vacuum; it faced the burning questions of the world war, agrarian revolution, spiralling economic crisis and demands for workers’ control. If the project of national liberation was to succeed, it needed to provide solutions.

But whilst all the leading parties in the Central Rada identified themselves as socialists, there were fundamental differences in their conceptions of the revolution. On the burning questions they prevaricated and at key moments lagged behind the pace of the popular movement, even on the national question with which it was preoccupied. As a result, relations strained within the Central Rada, between its ruling circles drawn largely from the intelligentsia and the middle class, and the rank and file of the Ukrainian movement. The emergence of this milieu, which increasingly diverged from the radicalism of the rank and file, pointed to the danger of bureaucracy even within a body as democratic as the Central Rada.

This divergence was, as Vynnychenko explained, not about personalities but politics. The prevailing opinion was that the creation of a sovereign state was the “precondition of the success of its struggle for political and social liberation”. This perspective corresponded with the predominant view held by most socialists that the revolution in the backward Russian Empire could only be bourgeois democratic. There were differences over who comprised the camp of the ‘revolutionary democracy’, and whether it should be an alliance of the working class with the liberal bourgeoisie or an independent bloc of the workers and peasantry, excluding the latter. Either way, few believed that the requisite conditions were available for a socialist revolution. In Ukraine the national question brought an additional dimension to this debate. As the urban working class was largely Russian, critics of a socialist revolution considered that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would exclude the Ukrainian peasantry, negating national liberation.

These traditional opinions were challenged, on the one hand by the popular movement from below and on the other hand from above by the antagonism towards the Ukrainian national democratic movement by the liberal and conservative wings of Russia. The opinion steadily grew in the socialist parties that they were in a transitional phase; the task being to “carry the bourgeois democratic revolution to its conclusion” and “carry out a social revolution.”

In Russia this radical turn saw the different strands of the popular movement brought into unity by the Bolshevik-Left SRs leadership in the soviets, which caught up with the changed mood. The key feature of the revolution in Ukraine was not of such harmony but of the divergence between the subjective forces.

The Russian or Russified population in the cities was cut off from Ukrainian towns and villages and linked instead economically and psychologically with Russia. They saw themselves as part of a wider Russian Revolution. The result was that the leading role of large sections of the urban labor movement was assumed by leaders who stood apart from the Ukrainian Revolution. Whilst the Russian Mensheviks participated in the Central Rada, except for a brief period, the Bolsheviks in the majority remained aloof from the national revolution, shaking the ground around them, and considered it “chauvinist”.

What rapidly emerged as the salient feature of the revolution in Ukraine was a split between the Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian section of the working class, the alienation of the peasantry from the urban workers and the separation of the social and national dimensions.
The question which could make or break the Ukrainian Revolution was the agrarian question. The engines of the movement were both spontaneous and organized through the All-Ukrainian Peasants Union, and its founder the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries; between them they represented millions of peasants. The agrarian revolution grew apace outstripping the Central Rada. Peasants and returning soldiers proceeded to expropriate estates and redistribute the land; whilst the Central Rada repeatedly made radical declarations it delayed taking decisive action until the convening of a Constituent Assembly.

In its popular base there was increasing feeling that the inactivity of the Central Rada in the social sphere could not be justified by the obstacle of the Provisional Government. The October Revolution brought these contradictions to a head, serving as a stimulus in the national sphere and sharply focusing the question of the nature of the revolution. When the Central Rada seized power in November and declared the Ukrainian People’s Repub¬lic (UNR), it offered the possibility for a new beginning.

The crisis pointed in one direction – a socialist transformation. But the forces that could bring this about did not combine and moved unevenly. The rapprochement necessary for its realization was retarded. Neither the fractious Bolsheviks in Ukraine, nor their leadership in Petrograd were unified around such a perspective from within the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Their approach was tactless, taking no account of the Ukrainian peculiarities and attempting to superimpose the model of the Russian Revolution. The result compounded the divisions, hindering those wishing to give the emerging socialist transformation a Ukrainian character and form.

The All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies on 16th December 1917 was a strategic disaster. The whole event was ignited by the surprise ultimatum of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars threatening war against the UNR. The leaders of the UNR denied proportional representation to the urban soviets and some USDRP leaders ignored their mandate to seek agreement with the Bolsheviks. In an atmosphere of recriminations the Congress endorsed the Central Rada, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and an opportunity lost. The internal fragmentation produced two rival bodies claiming to be the government of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic. One was in Kharkiv appointed by the ‘Central Executive Committee of the All-Ukrainian Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies’, elected by a subsequent smaller Congress of soviets. The other was formed by the Central Rada in Kyiv, which also claimed to be elected by “Ukrainian congresses of peasants, workers and soldiers”.

In this conflict the Central Rada was victim to its own policies which had sown disillusionment amongst its popular base, illustrated in the “fratricidal war” with Soviet Russia. Many Bolshevik workers had been inclined to an accommodation with the Ukrainian movement and did not see the war as being of their making. The Soviet forces that were mustered were small, approximately 6,500 strong. The Central Rada also ran into trouble.

The involvement of Soviet Russia and the Central Powers deepened the malaise; through the substitution of internal elements by external forces, the revolution consumed itself. Lured by the appeal of the Germans the Central Rada delegates at Brest Litovsk entered a union with the Central Powers. The Germans then deposed both Ukrainian Peoples Republics; first the soviet, then like the proverbial horse of Troy, they dispersed the Central Rada as unreliable “left opportunists”.

Maistrenko’s account of the ‘Ukrainian State’ brought into being by the German backed coup is particularly valuable in light of the current fashion for the Hetmanate in some quarters. In his assessment this retrogressive regime of comprador capitalists and landlords was “aimed at the destruction of the revolutionary gains” in the social, then national spheres. This provoked militant resistance by the labor movement, but the most intense and violent opposition was peasant resistance to food requisitioning and restoration of land to the landowners. The Hetmanate proved to be a defining moment, sharpening the process of differentiation in the Ukrainian Revolution.

This is confirmed by the growth of the Borotbisty, the USDRP (Independents) and the trend amongst the Ukrainian Bolsheviks known as the ‘Poltavans’ or ‘nationals’ represented by such figures as Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhray. This diverse current sought the transcendence of the revolution’s contradictions, encapsulated in the idea of an ‘independent Ukrainian Socialist Republic of Councils’.
The experience of year one of the revolution and this unrest was naturally reflected in the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries. Its congress elected a pro-soviet left majority to the Central Committee, splitting the party between the moderates and the reconstituted UPSR, which became known as the Borotbisty.

The strength of this left wing revealed itself during the rebellion against the German occupation and Hetmanate, initially headed by a bloc of parties under the leadership of the Directory of the UNR. The restored UNR also coincided with the revival of the councils of workers’ and peasants’ deputies. Once again the revolution stood at a crossroad. On the one hand the international situation the revolution in Germany and Austro-Hungary and the example of Soviet Russia, pushed it with redoubled force onto the path of socialist revolution. On the other hand the middle class and moderate elements proclaimed the revolution above all a national democratic revolution. The broad movement from below outgrew these constraints into one directed towards an independent soviet Ukraine.


One criticism of the Ukrainian pro-Soviet parties is that whilst the contest remained an internal affair they were defeated by their moderate socialist opponents; evidence of this is seen in the revival of the UNR in late 1918, not the soviet republic they envisaged. The balance was shifted towards them by the Russian Red Army. This critique wrests on the presumption that democratic channels existed under the Directory for such choices to be freely made. But the participatory democracy was not revived within the UNR; instead the conservative elements of the Hetmanate, in particular the military circles – the otamanschyna, were its inherent partner. It was Petlyura’s militarists, who were engaged in pogroms and indiscriminate repression of the labor and peasant movement, who emerged as the face of the revived UNR, not Vynnychenko’s “labor principle” or the democracy of the moderate socialists.

The All-Ukrainian Toilers’ Congress called in January 1919 was to have based the UNR on a new foundation of ‘labor councils’, thus bridging the divide between workers and peasants. It was also the last effort of the revolutionary socialists to come to some agreement with the Directory. The military circles mounted a campaign of harassment of the very forces on which the republic was to be based. As a consequence the popular movement took a passive attitude toward the Congress whilst the radical left was prevented from carrying on agitation, and the elections were stifled.

The above assessment is further flawed in its presumption that the fall of the Directory was due to external factors. In fact the Bolsheviks could not have attained power without a shift internally. A measure of the decline in the popularity of the Directory was the collapse of its armed forces from over 100,000 in December 1918 to a mere 21,000 in just over a month. Having broadly supported the Directory during the ‘November Ukrainian Revolution’, the peasants, who were dissatisfied with its policies, rapidly went into opposition. Extensive evidence reveals considerable support for the Borotbisty in the countryside in their fight with Petlyura’s evaporating forces. That a string of additional partisans actively supported their platform bears further testament to Borotbist influence. The Red Army which advanced on Kyiv did so in circumstances in stark contrast to the earlier war with the Central Rada. Its ranks were swollen by Ukrainian troops who went over en masse, seeing in the revolt the means by which to realize their social aspirations so neglected by the Directory. When Arthur Adams writes that, “Peasant carts carried the Soviet infantry rapidly across the great steppes of the Dnepr’s Left Bank”, he provides an apt description of this conjuncture.

The situation in spring 1919 could not have been more favorable for a convergence between the Ukrainian and the Russian Revolutions, and reconciliation of the internal elements. The creation of a Ukrainian republic based on councils with a plurality of pro-soviet parties was a viable possibility. Why then despite these favorable circumstances was their conception of Ukraine not fully realized?

An explanation can be found in the antagonism which continued between the internal and external forces. The tendency of the internal forces was apparent in the struggle of the Central Rada for self-government, in the proclamation of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic; and in the striving to create an independent Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. In contradiction, the tendency of the external forces strove to subordinate Ukraine to Russia and retard the internal forces. It is a striking example of a clash between what Hal Draper later described as the “two souls of socialism”, the democratic conception of ‘socialism from below’ versus the elitist conception of ‘socialism from above’. The agency of this external, ‘socialism-from-above’ was in this case the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and its regional branch the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine (CP(b)U).

This overarching conflict was exacerbated by the existence of a dual centre inside Ukraine which created a state of instability in the social revolution. This duality also revealed an inherent weakness of the Borotbisty. Maistrenko writes that though they were “strong in the countryside, they failed in their bid to control the revolutionary movement in the cities, where they were powerless to compete with the Bolshevik influence.” But it would be a mistake to believe there was a uniform hostility of urban workers towards the Ukrainian movement. Indeed in May 1918 the All-Ukrainian Workers Congress representing half a million workers, whose delegates were overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian, favored a struggle for “an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

In tracing the fate of the Borotbisty, Maistrenko introduces the reader to a pivotal aspect of the revolution which has been surprisingly overlooked by labor historians and critical Marxist analysis of this period. In 1919 the crisis that arose after the First World War was at its peak. The “whole existing order” wrote British Prime Minister Lloyd George “is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other”. In Hungary a social democrat-communist alliance proclaimed a Soviet Republic, followed by the Bavarian Soviet Republic and in June the Slovak Soviet Republic. The Ukrainian question became the decisive factor in deciding the fate of the social revolution; for it was from here that any unity could be extended to the rest of European socialism.

Symptomatic of the Bolsheviks’ approach to the Ukrainian question at this time was the composition of the ‘Provisional Worker-Peasant Government of Ukraine’. Initially at its head, then posted to Council of the National Economy, was Georgii Pyatakov who provided its theoretical scaffolding. Pyatakov belonged to the ‘radical left’ current of Marxism represented by such figures as Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannakoek which opposed national self-determination as a slogan invalidated by imperialism and in contradiction to internationalism. Flushed with revolutionary romanticism this was a strong current within Bolshevism. By 1919 though still ignoring the national question, Pyatakov considered the Bolsheviks needed to adjust to Ukrainian realities and demanded greater autonomy. But this ‘independence’ from Moscow was one of freedom of manoeuvre for his faction. In their attitude to the pro-soviet parties and even other Ukrainian Bolsheviks they remained elitist and hostile.

By decision of Moscow, Pyatakov had been replaced as Head of the government by Christian Rakovsky. It was not an improvement. Recently arrived from the Balkans this self-styled specialist on the Ukrainian question denied the very existence of Ukrainians as a national entity. He announced that the Ukrainian peasantry had no national consciousness, and that what did exist was now submerged in class consciousness. The national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia as a means to obtain power. These views of Rakovsky, combined with the existing ‘left communist’ and Russophile currents, were a recipe for disaster.

When in March 1919 the “independent” Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded, this was welcomed by the Ukrainian pro-soviet parties. Far-reaching socialist policies were outlined in the resolutions of the Third All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers’ Peasants’ and Red Army Deputies, and by the new Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR. The problem was that the Constitution was not implemented; Ukraine remained, and was considered by the government, a regional unit of Russia.

The rift that grew within the revolutionary left stemmed not only from dissatisfaction with policy on the national question but also despite the promise of the “rebirth of soviet power locally”, there was an overall absence of self-government.

The republic was ruled through appointed revolutionary committees, revkomy, and in the countryside, committees of poor peasants, kombedy. Workers councils existed only in the large towns and then only in an advisory capacity; soviet power as such did not exist. The Ukrainian trade union movement was purged, subordinated to the state and absorbed into All-Russian structures. Despite their adherence to the soviet platform, the Ukrainian socialist parties were sidelined by the Pyatakov-Rakovsky regime. Even though the UPSR had adopted a communist program and sought unity with the Bolsheviks, they were still looked upon suspiciously and excluded from positions of authority. Branded by Ukrainian Marxists as the ‘commissar state’ the administration gave greater prominence to the Russian middle class imbued with chauvinist prejudices. It was, complained the Borotbisty to Lenin, like an “expansion of a ‘red’ imperialism (Russian nationalism)”, giving the impression that “Soviet power has fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter revolution”.

This dangerous alienation was compounded by the retarding of the agrarian revolution through excesses of grain requisitioning and the transplanting from Russia of an elitist land policy of the ‘commune’, formed not by the self-activity of the peasants but imposed from above. As opposed to positively transcending the social and national cleavages, the Bolshevik regime exacerbated them. This produced powerful centrifugal forces; engulfed by peasant unrest, the Ukrainian SSR split and disintegrated into internecine conflict. This crisis saw two distinct tendencies which have complicated historical analysis ever since: on the one hand the attempted revolutionary mobilization of society and on the other its antithesis – fragmentation and class decomposition. Indicative of the latter were pogroms, brigandage and ataman adventurers. No sides in the conflict escaped being tainted by the effects of this vortex.

This was an historically unprecedented situation, a result of the conflict between the internal and external forces and the heritage of imperialism. These risings, which split the Red Army, were on a scale far larger and of greater historical consequence than the more widely known Kronstadt Revolt in 1921. The most popular demand was that of democratically elected soviets. An All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee led by the USDRP (Independents) attempted to gain the leadership of the insurgency, raising the slogan for `the dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants”. It sought to overthrow the “government as an occupation power”, forestall Petlyura and force the Russian communists to agree to a truly Ukrainian soviet republic.

Amidst meltdown the Bolsheviks admitted a handful of Borotbisty to the government. In an act that remains a subject of controversy, with some exceptions the Borotbisty fought alongside the Bolsheviks and sought to curtail the internecine conflict.
It is remarkable considering the conditions in which they operated that the Borotbisty could secure positive achievements at this time, but this was the case in such spheres as education and language. The Ukrainian social democrat Semen Mazurenko visited Soviet Ukraine as a UNR diplomat in the summer of 1919 recording that: “The Ukrainian language has been recognized on a par with Russian”.

Achievements in the intimately connected issue of education were recognized at the time. According to one teacher, the “Bolsheviks in all their policies disclosed two tendencies”, the development of Ukrainian schools by the Borotbisty run Commissariat of Education, and the obstructiveness of local bureaucrats in “suppressing the ‘Petlyurian’ (Ukrainian) language”.


Maistrenko considers that the Bolsheviks had “more chances than the Jacobins to continue the national revolution, in other words to organize the creative impetus of the masses which was directed towards the construction of a new society”. One of those chances afforded to them was in 1919 by the calls for the reconstitution of Soviet Ukraine as a genuinely independent and participatory democracy. This was being demanded not only by the most radical of the Ukrainian socialists, but the Red Army commander on the Ukrainian front Antonov-Ovseyenko, and significantly by the newly established Hungarian Soviet Republic.

The beleaguered Hungarians pinned their hopes on aid from a Red Army advance through the Danube valley; as such the Ukrainian question was key to their survival. In Budapest former head of the UNR Vynnychenko and Soviet Hungary’s leader Bela Kun demanded a radical change of policy. They reached an agreement calling for an independent Soviet Ukraine with a coalition government of the Borotbisty, USDRP (Independents) and the Bolsheviks. But it was spurned by Rakovsky; prophetically Bela Kun concluded: “Forcing Rakovsky on the Ukrainians against their wish, in my opinion, will be an irreparable mistake”.

The experience of this and preceding episodes of the Ukrainian Revolution brings into question what has been a long accepted explanation for the fate of the Russian Revolution: the primary role of external factors in its degeneration and rise of Stalinism. Coupled with this assessment is the contention that unfavorable circumstances imposed on the Bolsheviks a restriction on options available to them. Yet on reading Borotbism, can we really agree that this fully explains the fate of the revolution? Even if one accepted the view that the one-party state in Russia arose from lack of Bolshevik allies this cannot explain events in Ukraine. Here the Borotbisty, unlike the Russian Left-SRs, did not go over to open revolt; whilst many of the other socialists who did were in part pushed and in part pulled by a situation created by the Russian Communists themselves. A multi-party democracy based on the rule of the soviets was denied the opportunity to exist in Ukraine. Any objective reader must surely conclude that Lenin’s insistence that the Borotbisty be accused of a “counter revolutionary mentality” was without any basis in fact.

For the Bolsheviks, socialism could not be developed in a single, isolated, backward country such as Russia without the aid of the more developed countries of Europe. Their project was predicated on extending the revolution westward. The entire approach of socialism-from-above in Ukraine contributed to undermining the very perspective on which the October Revolution was based.

In the summer of 1919 Bolshevik rule in Ukraine disintegrated, changing the correlation of power between the Red Army and the Russian Volunteer Army, and resulting in its occupation of large areas of Ukraine. The appalling policies and practices of the western backed ‘Emergency Government’ of General Denikin with its pogroms; repression and chauvinism are well recorded. They provide an indictment of the Russian liberal intellectuals who headed its Political Center. Barely distinguishable in their nationalism from the conservatives and militarists, their main objective was the preservation of the “one, indivisible Russia” and the restoration of Russia as a ‘great power’.

What is striking about this key juncture is that despite despair with the Bolsheviks there was not a collapse or decline in support for the pro-Soviet parties. Indeed the opposite occurred. In the case of the Borotbisty, having relaunched themselves as the ‘Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty)’ they witnessed a surge in support. Hrushevsky notes that “under the slogan of a Ukrainian Republic that would be independent yet Soviet and friendly toward the Bolsheviks and Soviet Russia, the masses flocked to their banner.” The Bolsheviks received a similar surge of support enabling the Red Army to repulse Denikin’s offensive into central Russia.

One explanation for this mobilization is that it was based on a choice between restoration and resistance; this however does not fully explain Ukraine. This poses again the contention discussed above that whilst the contest remained an internal affair the pro-Soviet groups lost to their more moderate rivals. Yet despite circumstances which would appear most favorable to the parties of the UNR, they did not gain hegemony of the popular resistance in the winter of 1920. Maistrenko points to military inferiority as the cause of UNR defeat by the Whites. There is no doubt some truth in this but it does not fully explain its overall disintegration; for this we must also recognize the progressive political degeneration of the UNR played out in their encounter with Denikin.

In August 1919 Kyiv was handed over to the Volunteer Army with hardly a shot fired. The reason was that the UNR leaders were contemplating an alliance with Denikin, partly in the hope of securing the support of the Entente. The delays in confronting Denikin further eroded its support especially amongst the partisans. Meanwhile life in UNR territory was so bad that even its loyal social democrats complained that citizens saw little difference between Petlyura and Denikin. Internally there was a further antagonism fracturing the UNR.

The Ukrainian Peoples Republic disintegrated when the West Ukrainian leader Petrushevych placed the Galician Army at the service of Denikin, whilst Petlyura turned to Pilsudski’s Poland signing away Eastern Galicia. What was left of the UNR army turned to guerilla warfare, whilst several thousand went over to the Borotbisty.

Considering this end game of the UNR one cannot but question the accusation of “national treason” levelled at the Ukrainian radical socialists. On the question of independence the actual record of the various national governments of 1917-20, supported by the moderate socialists, leaves a lot to be desired. Having declared independence in January 1918, sovereignty was surrendered to the Central Powers; the Directory restored independence only to agree to give the French control over the army, railways, finance and composition of the government. Exchanging territory and sovereignty with Poland continued the same practice in which preservation of independence was not the primary principle.

In contrast the Borotbisty, and many other communists were consistent advocates of Ukrainian independence within an international view of creating a new social order. Throughout this period they made no compromise with regard to the existence of a Ukrainian republic. In their international relations this stance strengthened reciprocal recognition by the Bolshevik leadership who, despite their centralist outlook, did not retreat from accepting the necessity of a distinct Ukrainian republic.

It would be wrong to conclude from the above that the popularity of the Borotbisty can be explained solely by a fierce reaction to the rule of Denikin and Petlyura. Such a view denigrates the fact that ordinary working people, including illiterate peasants, consciously engaged in an effort to transform the society in which they lived. Difficult as it is for some in our era of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘end of history’ to comprehend, revolutions are remarkable moments which radically change people as well as their surroundings. We should not lose sight of the fact that in 1917-1920 Ukraine experienced such a moment.

It is remarkable that even though exhausted by World War, occupation and civil war any Ukrainians remained with a reserve of energy to be powered by such ideals. Yet such was the scale of insurgency in the winter of 1919-1920 that Denikin committed as many troops against Ukrainian partisans as against the Russian Red Army itself. This vice broke the Volunteer Army, bringing a decisive turn in the revolution militarily and politically. It heralded a radical re-examination in Bolshevik Ukrainian policy, the first initiative by the Bolsheviks aimed at drawing together the social and national elements of the revolution. Maistrenko’s thorough outline of the complexities of this shift reveals an approach to ‘communist unity in Ukraine’ by the Borotbisty that was far from “national treason”. They gave every consideration to utilizing their popular base and Ukrainian Red Army to gain the upper hand in shaping Soviet Ukraine and secure recognition of the Communist International.

From our 21st century vantage point it would be easy to consider the faith of the Borotbisty in the Communist International a grave error. This would fail to appreciate the difficult choices they faced and perspective to which they adhered. The Russian Communists as a governing party were in a position to take advantage of the strength of the state apparatus, the Red Army, and the financial and moral support RCP(B) held as the main section of the Communist International.

The Borotbisty considered that the prospects for independence would be more promising in the framework of extending the revolution than on a pan-Russian level. From this standpoint the Borotbisty, like much of the international labor movement, held the Communist International in high esteem. When the Executive Committee of the International instructed them to amalgamate with the CP(b)U, a body already affiliated through the RCP(B), they were faced with the choice of remaining separate and competing with the Bolsheviks for power, or merge.

This episode also reveals the serious contradictions of Lenin’s own thought. He continued to adhere to the RSDRP policy of ‘one party, one state’, which had already had negative consequences for the revolution. Ukrainian socialists had long argued authentic internationalism was represented by self-organized national parties having equal involvement in an International alongside the Russian socialists. The Ukrainians resisted their subordination to an existing dominant-state Party, which could so easily become the conduit for chauvinism and stifle democratic initiative.

The Borotbisty and Lenin shared a common fear; they both sought to prevent a repeat of the internecine conflicts of the summer of 1919. The threat from the Polish regime of Józef Piłsudski influenced both parties, who feared a renewed war between the left which would provide an opportunity to the right. The Borotbisty decision to merge was not considered by all a defeat; writing just three years later the communist historian Ravich-Cherkasski considered it was under their influence that the Bolsheviks evolved from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to Maistrenko, like many others, did not accept amalgamation as the means to achieving a sovereign Soviet Ukraine. Instead he joined the Ukrainian Communist Party founded by the USDRP (Independentists). Known as the Ukapisty, they considered that due to the CP(b)U’s lack of organic links it relied on the military forces of Russia, meaning the revolution had took the form of occupation. After two defeats it was essential the “internal proletarian forces of Ukraine must get control over the socialist revolution and shape its course and character”.

Any honest historian, and most of all a labor historian, would surely recognize that Lenin and the Bolsheviks reneged on their earlier assurances to convoke a congress of Soviets able to freely decide on independence, federalism or union with Russia. The soviets, the subjective element by which the divergent social and national elements of the revolution could have been positively reconciled, fell into abeyance as the locus of real political power shifted to the higher organs of the RCP(B).


In 1920 the depleted, exhausted pro-soviet forces defeated the Volunteer Army and the Polish invasion. The resulting Riga peace treaty re-partitioned Ukraine; five million Ukrainians remained under Polish rule. Maistrenko concludes that the “struggle for a sovereign Ukrainian SSR was decided in the negative not by the internal development of Ukrainian political life but by the external pressure of administrative organization.”

But the failure to establish a fully independent Ukraine in 1920 is neither the end of the history of the Borotbisty nor would it provide an adequate assessment of the Ukrainian Revolution. Prior to 1917 there existed only ‘southern Russia’. The revolution had swept away the old social order and forged the Ukrainian SSR, a “clearly defined national, economic and cultural organism”. It became the framework for a significant struggle between the two trends, the centralist Russophile element, and the ‘universal current’ of Ukrainian communists.

Those communists of the oppressed nations combined with Russian allies and succeeded in committing the Russian Communist Party to the policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) a program of ‘positive action’ with regard to language, culture and promotion of non-Russians in the soviet, party, trade unions and co-operative apparatus.

Whilst this gain was fragile, Ukrainization heralded an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920’s. The Ukrainian communists, including prominent ex-Borotbisty, energetically carried forward Ukrainization, viewed as a “weapon of cultural revolution in Ukraine”. As such Ukrainization was not only the engine of efforts to assert autonomy and liquidate the vestiges of colonialism but a manifestation of opposition to ascendant Stalinism. The dynamics of Stalinist centralism and its inherent partner Russian nationalism destroyed the last vestiges of equality between the republics, The Ukrainian communists and intelligentsia were annihilated. So deeply rooted were the Borotbist “co-founders of the Ukrainian SSR” that they were amongst the last remnants of opposition purged under the guise of the destruction of the fake “Borotbist Center” in 1936. They continued to represent such a vital force in politics that they were still being subjected to official attack in 1938.

The reader of Maistrenko’s Borotbism cannot but be moved by what is an historical tragedy and provoked by the questions that it poses to long accepted explanations of the fate of the revolutions. We may recall a neglected speech in Zurich in 1914 where Lenin had said:

“What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its independence”

How well Lenin should have remembered Marx’s statement that “the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland. This shall not happen twice!” It did, in Russia’s Ireland.

5 thoughts on “the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

  1. I found this article very interesting but there is one small detail that I take objection to. That is the quote “more chances than the Jacobins to continue the national revolution, in other words to organize the creative impetus of the masses which was directed towards the construction of a new society” attributed to Maistrenko.

    The identification, perhaps it would be better termed the amalgamation of, the Jacobins and the popular movement in the French Revolution is a common error in English language histories. The only exception I know of is Morris Slavin, particularly in his “The Making of an Insurrection”. Like the majority of French commentators, Slavin recognizes that the role of the Jacobins was to use the popular movement against attempts to restore the monarchy while preserving the authority of the unelected Convention. The usual comparison of Robespierre and Lenin by both left and right is misleading. The figure who played the role of Robespierre in Russia was not Lenin but Kerensky. The main difference between the two is that Robespierre succeeded and Kerensky failed.

    Hal Draper wrote a manuscript on “Women and Class”, soon to be published by the Center for Socialist History, which includes a lengthy discussion of the issue. A central role is played in the story by Le Club des Cityoennes Républican et Revolutionaires, the main organized force on the left.


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