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1 May, 2014  ▪  Yurii Tereshchenko

Modern Ukrainian Conservatism

In 1918, Ukrainian conservatives tried to implement a reform agenda that was free of populism and relied on private property as the foundation of culture and civilization

In 19th century, as a result of revolutions and increasingly stronger positions of liberal parties, conservative governments in Europe stepped down or joined coalitions with other political forces. Liberalism was on the rise even in Germany and Russia where the monarchy recognized a number of liberal institutes. The advancement of modern industrialism also had an important part in upsetting old conservatism as it supplanted the worldview based on a conservative perception of the world.

Despite losing ground and in the face of a seemingly total triumph of liberalism and social and national radicalism, the conservative parties and movements in Europe were at the time seeking an answer to the question: Can man adequately react to the intrusion of industrial technology? Can man control his own creation of the industrial era?

According to Viacheslav Lypynsky, an ideologue of Ukrainian conservatism, societies revolutionized by the ideology of the “liberal bourgeoisie”, disconnected from land and left without binding dogmas and conservative social and political institutes are “the most fertile ground for revolutionary efforts of non-productive, non-settled and nomadic elements”. Under the slogans of communism and fascism, they speak against the ruling parliaments comprised ofthe fearful and profiteering “bourgeoisie” which has freed these elements from “all moral and political bonds” through its liberal ideology and the republican-democratic system of governance.

Lypynsky emphasized that agricultural ideology had a prominent place in the post-war Europe. It sharply differed from other strands of thought but was, at the time, viewed as a vanquished and unimportant ideology. A farmer attached to land is, according to Lypynsky, the most eminent representative of settled man. “Cooperating and co-existing with nature, [he has] a distinct sense of differentiation and hierarchical organization of the universe” and is guided by the irrational metaphysical religiousness and faith in God, Lypynsky said. It is the idealistic universalism of farmers, he believed, that has to stand in opposition to materialistic universalism in order to save the European civilization. This way or another, conservatism tried to present itself as a tool for preserving traditional spiritual values and social institutes which were seriously endangered by the radical social upheavals of the early 20th century.

READ ALSO: The Ukrainian Navy and the Crimean Issue in 1917-18

In Germany, the reaction took the form of the so-called conservative revolution. According to its spokesman, Edgar Julius Jung, it had to “restore respect for all the elementary rights and values without which man loses connection to God and nature and is unable to build a fair social order”. Unlike socialism or liberalism, conservatism did not offer mandatory political models to be applied universally. On the contrary, conservatives relied on specific historical traditions, experience, inherited customs, religion and social institutes which differed from country to country. (One example was the institute of the hetman in Ukraine.)

A number of European nations which were building their states on the ruins of empires also intended to implement conservative monarchic conceptions. Finland’s Ambassador to Ukraine Herman Gummerus recollected that his country “was moving along a previously chosen direction with Finnish stubbornness. We had to have a German king, even if he was a brother-in-law to Emperor Wilhelm, despite the fact that the foundation of the Hohenzollern’s throne was already shaky”.

The traditional engine of Ukrainian conservatism was the countryside – a kind of a cell in the national organism which spontaneously preserved the language, faith, customs and traditional forms of family and public life. It included both peasants and the nobility. Both classes, despite complicated mutual relationships, laid the foundation for organized conservatism which had to be a conscious tool in preserving Ukraine’s national identity.

The close and enduring connection between the Ukrainian nobility and peasantry and the rich experience of joint economic activity gave Lypynsky reasons for a belief that landowners big and small “were capable, if they so desired, of turning into aristocracy by creating, at their own risk and expense, a political organization for their nation that would enable them to rule the nation”.

The social radicalism espoused by most members of the Ukrainian movement pushed the conservatively minded nobility, which never lost its national instinct. It was within this class that the worldview of Pavlo Skoropadsky, a future hetman, was shaped. He had close blood relationsamong numerous aristocratic Ukrainian families tracing their origins to the old Hetman State: the Kochubeis, Myloradovychs, Myklashevskys, Markovychs, Tarnovskys, Apostols, Zakrevskys and so on. “Despite serving in the military in Petrograd, I constantly studied the history of Little Russia,” Skoropadsky wrote. “I have always had affectionate love for Ukraine not only as a country of fertile fields and an excellent climate but also a land with the glorious past and a people whose overall ideology was different from the Muscovite one.” The emerging conservative conception in the political life of the country meant that liberal democracy and socialist trends in the Ukrainian movement lost their monopolistic position. This new development suggested that society was able to adequately react to the challenges of the time and strove for a balance of ideological and political priorities. The numerous slogans of a huge Ukrainian rally in Kyiv on 19 March 1917 included a call which caught the leaders of the national movement by surprise: “Long live an independent Ukraine headed by a hetman!”

Significant shifts in the conservative circles of the country took place when Skoropadsky became involved in political struggle. Contrary to the position of traditional Ukrainian political parties, his goal wasto implement a programme of transformations that was free of populism and aimed at securing a socioeconomic order based on private property as the foundation of culture and civilization. The proclamation of the Hetman State was just a beginning of the state-political practice of Ukrainian conservatism which still had to go a long way to ideological and organizational perfection. The hetman and his close circle were fully aware of the fact. It was for a reason that Skoropadsky declared: “The Hetman State was the first shift towards a more moderate part of the spectrum, more natural and thereby stronger.”

The complexity of the sociopolitical and economic situation of the time precluded a total victory of the conservative revolution. Ukrainian conservatism lacked sufficient organizational resources or a clearly defined ideology. The transformations launched by Skoropadsky were not exclusively conservative and were, to a large extent, complemented by liberal reforms. During the liberation struggle, so-called revolutionary democracy in Ukraine was in fundamental opposition to conservative and, in general, moderate representatives of the national movement and viewed them as objects of “class” hatred, barring them access to state-building efforts. Yevhen Chykalenko, a Ukrainian landowner and patriot, wrote in his memoirs referring to this situation: “With the outbreak of the revolution of 1917, I as a bourgeois or even a feudal lord was unable to take part in the construction of the Ukrainian State.” Therefore, the Ukrainian conservatism of 1918 can be classified as liberal and such that was opposed to the radical social experiments of Bolshevism and Ukrainian socialists in the Central Rada, rather than to social transformations in general

The most important strata that gave top priority to national liberation – well-to-do peasants, local council members, many officers, prosperous city residents, the clergy and numerous representatives of the scientific and cultural intelligentsia – were labelled “counterrevolutionaries” and were persecuted by Ukrainian socialists. This was the reason why Ukrainian conservatism, represented primarily by landowners of various calibres, implemented its programmatic theses in an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie. Tellingly, many Cadets were members of the Hetman’s government as they tried to implement the liberal programme of their party. Moreover, Skoropadsky sought, with limited success, to involve in his government also the representatives of liberalism, primarily from the Ukrainian Party of Socialists-Federalists. Lypynsky emphasized in this connection that the union of Ukrainian conservatives with local progressiveswas to ‘rejuvenate’ the former, revive the nation and restore the Ukrainian state. “The Hetman government of 1918 was, in fact, this kind of a heroic attempt to rejuvenate and consolidate local conservatism,” Lypynsky wrote. “It had to create one – common to both conservatives and progressives – local territorial government and, jointly with this government, restore normal relationships between conservatives and progressives in Ukraine.”

The proclamation of the Ukrainian State in 1918 marked the restoration of Ukraine’s national state tradition, an end to ruinous “socialist” experiments and the course on civilized reformism and interclass cooperation. Moreover, the Hetman government was a natural reaction of Ukrainian society to the policy of fomenting interclass hatred and antagonism pursued by the socialist leaders of the Central Rada. Their efforts to implement their class doctrine at any cost, even against the interests of the state, led to a deep crisis of the state organism. In this situation, the only solution was to set Ukrainian society on a new track by establishing class cooperation and social partnership, consolidating the nation and strengthening the independence of the Ukrainian State.

The restoration of the Hetman State was an effort by Ukrainian conservatives aimed at ending the attempts to implement the conception of Ukraine as an autonomy within a federation. Instead, the conservatives wanted Ukraine to resolutely and irreversibly separate itself from Russia. The 29 April 1918 Act was, essentially, the first state act that left no doubt about the question of Ukraine’s independence and established the country’s complete and final sovereignty. The legislative sejm, which was to convene later, would only have to establish its internal order. For the first time in history, the principle of the unity of Ukrainian lands was clearly put forward and fixed in the title of Ukraine’s state leader – the Hetman of all of Ukraine.


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