Regular units of the Russian Army began to be Ukrainized almost immediately after the February Revolution of 1917. The idea to form military units composed of Ukrainians, with national symbols and based on ancient military traditions dovetailed with a surge of national ideas in Ukraine.
National ideas were extremely popular with officers of Ukrainian background at the time. For example, the Chuhuiv Military College was known both for a record number of Cross of St. George bearers and as a “hotbed of Mazepa followers.” There were also plenty of patriots among officers fighting at the front. Ukrainization proceeded simultaneously in three ways.
THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF THE POLUBOTOK CLUB
In early 1917, there were around 3.5 million ethnic Ukrainians and persons born in Ukrainian gubernias in active and reserve units of the 9.6-million-strong Russian Army. As the national movement gained momentum and attempts were made to secure autonomous status for Ukrainian gubernias in Russia, there was an obvious necessity to rely on this force.
On 6 March*, a group of officers and military officials who were members of the Independent Brotherhood called a meeting in a garrison in Kyiv. The initial group was headed by Mykola Mikhnovsky, a lawyer from Kharkiv and a military official who was the leader of the brotherhood. On 9 March, the meeting announced the formation of the Constituent Military Council, and almost 1,000 soldiers joined the Ukrainian voluntary regiment two days later.
On 16 March, the Pavlo Polubotok Ukrainian Military Club was set up to “rally all Ukrainian servicemen and immediately organise a national army as a powerful military force without which complete freedom for Ukraine is unthinkable.” The organization responsible for forming Ukrainian units was the Ukrainian Military Council chaired by Colonel Hlynsky.
The independentistas found themselves in minority in the Central Rada, which was formed in early March 1917, but found a niche for themselves in the military movement as they hoped to pull the political carpet from under the Ukrainian socialist parties which dominated the Central Rada and were looking to secure autonomy for Dnieper Ukraine within Russia. They viewed Ukrainization as a way to form regular armed forces that could come to the defence of an independent Ukraine at a crucial moment.
The command of Kyiv Military District flatly rejected the idea to set up a Ukrainian regiment as part of the Russian Army. Realizing that it was impossible to achieve anything this way, the Polubotok Club members opted for a strategy of accomplished facts, thus forcing the Russian command to recognize the already-formed Ukrainian units.
On 18 April 1917, Polubotok Club members announced the formation of the Bohdan Khmelnytsky First Ukrainian Cossack Regiment in Kyiv. They were able to win over General Mykola Khodorovych, commander of the Kyiv Garrison. On 20 April 1917, the General Headquarters issued permission to the staff of Kyiv Military District to form a separate Ukrainian unit.
However, this initiative lost its edge when the First All-Ukrainian Military Congress, held on 5-8 May 1917, elected the head of the Ukrainian General Military Committee (UGMC), which was charged with Ukrainizing the Russian Army. The position was taken by social democrat Symon Petliura, backed by the Central Rada leadership but unknown at the time, rather than Lieutenant Mykola Mikhnovsky, an influential figure in the Ukrainian military.
Despite this setback, the independentistas drew inspiration from their initial success and got down to forming the next military unit – the Pavlo Polubotok Regiment. And this is where they faced a real impasse. They sincerely hoped that the Central Rada, as the main Ukrainian representative body which included UGMC representatives, would support them. But the socialist parties there held the opposite view on the military issue. “What we social democrats and all sincere democrats need is not our own army but the destruction of all regular armies,” Volodymyr Vynnychenko, head of the Central Rada government, emphasized.
When the command of the Kyiv Military District rejected the idea to form the second Ukrainian regiment, the Central Rada sided with this decision. The conflict between the Polubotok Club members and the government led them to a protest rally on 4-5 July 1917 which was resolutely suppressed by Russian government troops against the background of the Central Rada’s conducive neutrality.
Close to the end of the rally, the newly called-up soldiers in Kyiv demanded to be recognized as the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Third Ukrainian Regiment. In order to avoid aggravating an already tense situation, the Central Rada immediately granted their request and then sent them to the frontline. They were followed by the Khmelnytsky and Polubotok regiments, as well as most members of the Polutobok Military Club. Even though the club’s activities ended, it turned out to be virtually impossible to rein in the spontaneous Ukrainization of Russian Army units. The changes were often initiated by soldiers and officers themselves.
After the February Revolution, soldier councils and committees began to spring up one after another in the Russian Army. Where Ukrainians were in the majority, they quickly took control of these bodies and demanded their units be recognized as Ukrainian. Their demands were only declarative for a while, but this changed when the First Military Congress convened in Kyiv in May 1917 attended by nearly 700 delegates representing almost a million Ukrainian soldiers and officers.
Under pressure of the congress’ resolutions Alexander Kerensky, Minister of War in the Russian Provisional Government, agreed to Ukrainize three corps of the Russian army – the 6th, 17th and 41st. They were not selected arbitrarily – their staff was predominantly Russian. However, Ukrainization continued even despite of counteraction by the Supreme Command. Compromises on top were supplemented with initiatives from the bottom.
Due to the efforts of Petro Trofymenko, chairman of the Corps Council of the 6th Army Corps, this unit received an influx of recruits from Ukraine. Ukrainian officers volunteered to be moved there, too, and their application was granted. Russian officers put up fierce resistance to these processes, in light of the long history of this corps. For example, Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov used to command one of its sections, namely the 62nd Suzdal Regiment. Complicated negotiations ensued, and a decision was taken that officers would form a Ukrainian unit which later came to be called the 2nd Zaporizhia Sich Corps.
Ukrainization had varied success on other fronts. There were cases when commanders of Russian corps and armies, ethnic Russians, facilitated, rather than blocked, this process. The reason was that Ukrainized units proved to be extremely resistant to Bolshevik propaganda. Lieutenant General Alexey Budberg, commander of the 14th Army Corps, personally supported the creation of a Ukrainian brigade on the Northern Front. “We should have, without waiting for any permission, Ukrainized the regiments, and then they would have most likely stood their ground,” he later lamented.
THE RUSSIAN FACTOR
The position of some Russian generals towards Ukrainizing army units was surprising. Pavlo Skoropadsky admitted in his memoirs that he Ukrainized the 34th Army Corps he commanded on orders from Supreme Commander-in-Chief Lavr Kornilov and almost against his own will.
Generals with Ukrainian background trod very lightly here, considering, above all, the policy of the Central Rada. “My impression is that there is a healthy national surge in the Ukrainian movement but a lack of serious statesmen,” Skoropadsky wrote. Chernihiv Gubernia Commissar and Central Rada member Dmytro Doroshenko was of the same opinion: “Socialists, who had completely filled the Central Rada, wanted to build Ukraine from scratch, so to speak.”
However, there is a simple reason why General Skoropadsky’s 34th army corps turned out to be the biggest and most combat-ready Ukrainized formation in the Russian Army. It was the only unit that had been Ukrainized not spontaneously or with declarative improvisation but following a clear plan and with certain facilitation from the Supreme Command. The result was a powerful formation with functional command and communications systems and engaged officers.
The reason Kornilov suddenly wanted to have the 34th Army Corps Ukrainized “up to field hospital units” is explained by Skoropadsky in his memoirs – this was a way to safeguard it against Bolshevik propaganda. However, a different scenario is also likely. This process was supposed to be completed by 15 August, but the corps needed more time to refill its ranks and so it stayed in the same camps. On 27 August, a military putsch broke out that became known in history as the Kornilov Affair. Remarkably, it was driven by the Don, Ussuriysk Cossack and Savage divisions. Neither Don and Kuban Cossacks, nor the Caucasians in the Savage Division considered themselves Russian. Skoropadsky remembered that even Kornilov’s escort consisted of mounted Turkmen rather than Russian soldiers. Not surprisingly, Bolshevik propaganda was most effective with the Russians and least effective among other nationalities.
Was Kornilov planning to send Skoropadsky’s Ukrainian soldiers against the Russian Bolsheviks also? It is hard to be sure, but the undeniable fact is that after the Kornilov Affair, the Russian military command cancelled all Ukrainization efforts in the army. However, by then the army was such a mess that both the troops and the Central Rada simply ignored the order.
After the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, fights between supporters of the Provisional Government and the Reds erupted in Kyiv, as well. On 28-31 October, full-scale battles broke out in the city streets. In these conditions, students of the First Ukrainian Military College, fighters of the First Reserve Regiment and delegates to the Third All-Ukrainian Military Congress took up defensive positions in the district where Central Rada’s bodies were located. At the same time, the Khmelnytsky, Polubotok and Hrushevsky regiments, as well as the 413th and 414th infantry regiments from Skoropadsky’s corps arrived in Kyiv. The street warfare ended in the Central Rada’s victory on 31 October 1917.
However, the leading body of the Ukrainian Revolution did not in any way revise its views on the military, which were disastrous for the country’s security. Socialists in the Central Rada wasted, with extreme ease, the achievements of the Ukrainization of the Russian Army. In January 1918, during the decisive offence of the Bolshevik troops on Kyiv, they passed a law to disband regular army and replace it with people’s militia. “The general arming of the people” proposed by left-wing Ukrainian parties led to the Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine and the “Bread Treaty” with the Central Powers.
THE UNREALISED MILITARY POTENTIAL OF THE UNR ARMY
As a result of semi-spontaneous Ukrainization, a number of Russian Army units declared themselves Ukrainian by October 1917. These included the 10th and 26th army corps (made up of five infantry divisions) and three cavalry divisions on the Romanian Front; the 31st, 32nd and 51st army corps and the 74th infantry division on the Southwestern Front; two Ukrainian divisions composed of Ukrainians from the 11th Corps and the 137th division on the Western Front; the 21st Army Corps on the Northern Front; the 5th Caucasian Corps (made up of two divisions) on the Caucasian Front.
*All dates are given in the old style (Julian calendar).