The Ukrainian Navy and the Crimean Issue in 1917-18
The Ukrainian Navy in the Crimea has long traditions. In 1771, the Cossacks jointly with the Russian army and with the support of Zaporizhzhian Cossack boats overcame the short-lived resistance of the Turks and Tatars and conquered the peninsula. The tsarist Black Sea fleet was built primarily in the shipyards of Mykolaiv and Kherson, and many Ukrainians were its admirals, officers and seamen. In 1917-18, part of the fleet was Ukrainianized and pledged allegiance to the Central Rada.
Ukrainian Sevastopol in 1917
The Ukrainian national movement stirred the military in the Crimea immediately after the February Revolution in Russia. In March 1917, the Sevastopol Ukrainian Black Sea Society was formed and headed by 24 personsrepresenting local residents, military units and the fleet’s ships. Its first chairman was Professor Viacheslav Lashchenko, and his deputies were teacher Mykola Kolomiiets and seaman Mykhailo Pashchenko.
In early April 1917, the society organized a Ukrainian rally in Sevastopol involving many seamen from the Black Sea Fleet. Admiral Kolchak, the then commander of the fleet, came to welcome the crowd. According to an eyewitness account, he said (in Russian): “Now I have the honour of speaking to Ukrainians who have gathered here to declareand prove that they exist. The Black Sea Fleet, which I am honoured to lead, has a staff which is 90 per cent Ukrainian, comprised overwhelmingly of the sons of this nation. I cannot but welcome the Ukrainian nation which has given me the best seamen in the entire world.”
After Kolchak supported the rally, the Ukrainian society in Sevastopol grew to 4,000 members. The Sevastopol Naval Sub-Depot headed by Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Savchenko-Bilsky was Ukrainianized. All its Russian staff were moved elsewhere and replaced with Ukrainians. The new staff made a nice Ukrainian flag with a Taras Shevchenko portrait and the orchestra wasted no time in learning how to play the Ukrainian anthem Ukraine Has Not Yet Died.
In Simferopol, where reserve units were located, the 34th infantry reserve regiment of the Russian Army was partly Ukrainianized. It was soon renamed as the Hetman Petro Doroshenko Simferopol Regiment. Yurii Tiutiunnyk, a notable military and civic figure and UNR (Ukrainian People’s Army) Army general, was one of the organizers of this unit.
However, in the revolutionary year of 1917, a Ukrainian banner could be hoisted by a military unit alongside with a red or St. Andrew’s flag. Moreover, the raising or hauling down of a flag depended only on the attitudes of the seamen and soldiers as a group. And these could oscillate almost on a daily basis. Mykola Nekliievych, one of the leaders of the Sevastopol Ukrainian Society, recollected: “As our movement grew, Ukrainian flags began to be hoisted on ships. Destroyer Zavidnyi was the first to do so. Other ships alternated between raising the Ukrainian flag and hauling it down again. Our Ukrainian state centre, the Central Rada in Kyiv, sided with the socialist party camp, causing nothing but disorganization of our national movement in the fleet to our enemies’ delight.
In this continuous struggle of the Ukrainian movement for national identity in the Black Sea Fleet, one bright moment stands out. In November 1917, Sevastopol received the Third Universal of the Central Rada proclaiming the Ukrainian Republic, albeit still a federative one. At the time, all the ships of the Black Sea Fleet ran up blue-and-yellow flags on an appointed day – I think it was 25 November 1917 – but together with St. Andrew’s flags and red banners. The cruiser Pamiat Merkuria, however, replaced St. Andrew’s flag with the Ukrainian one. A Ukrainian parade was then held in the square by the Admiral Nakhimov monument involving ship crews and military units of the Sevastopol fortress. Lieutenant Colonel Savchenko-Bilsky surrounded by Rada members reviewed the troops, because Rear Admiral Nemits was unable to attend. (Admiral Kolchak was gone from the fleet by then.) The parade was a great success. The Ukrainian seamen were able to show, amidst total revolutionary disarray (the Bolsheviks already ruled in Saint Petersburg), their discipline, bearing and training – all acquired before the revolution – and marched past the commandersin neat files, dressed as one. The parade made a great impression on both the population and the enemy, which already started receiving reinforcement in the form of new Bolshevik units coming from the north, the Baltic region and Bolshevik-ruled Saint Petersburg.”
In November 1917, the crew of the Black Sea Fleet’s most modern dreadnought Volia was also Ukrainianized. According to one of the participants in this event, waving on its mast was a magnificent flag with an image of a woman, a symbol of Ukraine, and an inscription that read: “Don’t cry, Mother, don’t be sad; Your sons in the fleet are fighting for Your Freedom – smile”.
After the October coup in Petrograd, the most patriotic officers and seamen of the Black Sea Fleet set up a kurin(battalion) of 612 men. This unit soon went to Kyiv to provide armed support to the Central Rada. Its departure proved to be a grave mistake for the Ukrainian Society in Sevastopol: Bolshevik seamen, primarily delegates from the Baltic Fleet, agitated and won over the rest of the Black Sea Fleet for the Bolsheviks. There was also one important political circumstance which precipitated the situation. In the Third Universal, the Central Rada proclaimed the creation of the Ukrainian National Republic comprised of all Ukrainian gubernias except the Crimea, which it did not consider Ukrainian territory.
On 22 December 1917, Dmytro Antonovych, a noted public figure, was appointed Secretary General for Naval Affairs in the Central Rada. Professionally, he did not have anything to do with the sea but was a conscientious and decent man.
Under his command, the General Secretariat for Naval Affairs was created, initially having only three people on its staff: Lieutenant Colonel Savchenko-Bilsky, Lieutenant Colonel Vadym Bohomolets and Lieutenant Mykhailo Bilynsky.
Antonovych was supposed to have jurisdiction over the Ukrainianized ships in the Baltic Sea Fleet, the Danube Naval Flotilla and commercial vessels in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. However, his authority was essentially limited to the ports in Kherson Gubernia of which Odesa was the biggest. Odesa was to became the base of the Ukrainian Fleet, while non-Ukrainian ships were supposed to move to Sevastopol. However, it was merely a theory. In practice, Ukrainian influence in Odesa and the Black Sea Fleet was too weak to implement the plan.
In late December 1917, Antonovych ordered to move all Ukrainianized ships from Sevastopol to Odesa. Bolshevik-dominated Tsentroflot (Central Fleet) instructed the fleet not to comply, but the ships soon reached Odesa. The Volia, however, stayed in Sevastopol as the Bolshevik-leaning seamen finally had the upper hand among her vacillating crew members.
All Ukrainianized ships of the Black Sea Fleet were soon gathered in Odesa. Several ships supporting Tsentroflot also arrived “to keep an eye” on the Ukrainians. The political preferences among the seamen were unstable, but a majority sympathized with the Bolsheviks. Military physician assistant Zhuk was Chairman of the Ukrainian Naval Council in Odesa and was considered the formal leader of all the ships loyal to the Central Rada.
On the night of 28 January 1918, street fights between Red Guard men and Ukrainian troops broke out in Odesa. The Bolsheviks succeeded in persuading the crews of Ukrainianized ships to stay away from the action. However, on Bolshevik orders, the ships loyal to Tsentroflot fired over 100 shells at Odesa, killing many civilians. The local Bolshevik government seized power in the city, and all the ships were again subordinated to Tsentroflot.
It was only on 13 March 1918 that the Ukrainian troops together with Austro-Hungarians, their new allies, returned to Odesa. By the end of April, the Crimea was also cleared of the Bolsheviks. A brigade of the Zaporizhzhian Division of the UNR’s Army led by Colonel Petro Bolbochan took part in this operation. The Central Rada, and later Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky, did not demand taking possession of the peninsula, so a local Crimean government was soon formed there under the protection of the Germans and the Turks.
Rear Admiral Sablin, commander of the Black Sea Fleet, hoped that the Ukrainian troops (Bolbochan’s brigade) would save the ships in Sevastopol from being captured by the Germans. On 29 April 1918, at 4pm, the commander of the fleet sent a signal from the battleship Georgii Pobedonosets to the fleet instructing ships crewsto hoist Ukrainian flags. Nearly all ships complied, and only the torpedo boat Pronzitelnyi kept the red flag. In order to avoid confrontation, Sablin ordered it to leave the Sevastopol Roads and move to Novorossiysk.
The next day, the first German troops entered Sevastopol. They did not know about the Black Sea Fleet’s switch of allegiance to the Central Rada and began bombarding its ships. Thus, Sablin ordered his ships to also go to Novorossiysk. Seven battleships, three cruisers, several torpedo boats, 17 submarines and special-purpose ships, all under Ukrainian flags, stayed in Sevastopol. The commander of this squadron was Rear Admiral Ostrohradsky, who said he would take orders from the Ukrainian government. However, the Germans did not want to see representatives of the Central Rada in the Crimea. They soon disarmed the ships and took the crews to the shore. The squadron that had left for Novorossiysk was sunk on orders from Lenin’s government to prevent the Germans from seizing its ships.
The Central Rada returned to Kyiv in early March 1918 and set about developing a naval secretariat. Earlier, on 18 January, it approved “A Temporary Law on the UNR’s Fleet” drafted by the General Secretariat for Naval Affairs. It proclaimed, among other things, that the entire Navy and the commercial Black Sea Fleet was Ukrainian. It also placed all of the ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov under the UNR’scommand. The ships had to hoist Ukrainian flags.
In essence, the authority of the General Secretariat for Naval Affairs extended only to the ports of Kherson Gubernia: Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson and others. On 9 May 1918, the official sea traffic between Odesa and Mykolaiv and Kherson, and later with Constantinople, was restored.
After Hetman Skoropadsky rose to power, the secretariat asked the German command to hand over the old Russian battleships. The first one, the gunboat Kubanets, was received in September 1918. It was officially renamed as the Zaporozhets. Moreover, the Ukrainian government received several auxiliary warcraft. All ships were in Odesa, but their condition was poor: the Kubanets was unable to leave her pier even one prior to being captured by the White Guard. Skoropadsky took measures to obtain other previously arrested warcraft from the Germans in Sevastopol. The Crimean government also staked a claim to them. Rear Admiral Viacheslav Klochkovsky was in the city starting from 10 June 1918 as a permanent representative of the hetman in these matters. An agreement in principle was reached under which the Ukrainian government was to receive the 17 submarines which were in Sevastopol, but it was never implemented in practice.
Conducive conditions to free the Black Sea Fleet from German possession emerged after Berlin and Vienna suffered a defeat in the First World War and capitulated on 11 November 1918. That same day, Hetman Skoropadsky claimed his right to the fleet and appointed Rear Admiral Klochkovsky its commander.
Representatives of the Crimean government and the White Guard command also claimed they had a right to the fleet. In these conditions, the Germans decided not to hand over the ships to anyone until the Entente’s fleet was in the Black Sea. On 24 November 1918, as its ships passed through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles and were headed for the Crimean shores, the Germans finally let naval officers in Sevastopol come to their old ships. That day, Rear Admiral Klochkovsky in collusion with Captain 1st rank Tikhmenev, a representative of the White Guard, ordered to hoist St. Andrew’s flags on all ships.
Meanwhile, Ukraine was swept by an insurgency against Hetman Skoropadsky which erupted on 15 November, one day after he issued a universal saying that the Ukrainian state may become enter a federation with a future Russian state ruled by the White Guard. Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petliura, former leaders of the Central Rada, fiercely opposed this move. Part of the troops switched to their side, and they were soon joined by groupsof armed peasant.
In order to stop the spiral of a civil war, the Entente’s troops, the French and Greeks, landed in southern Ukraine and in the Crimea in late November 1918. These territories found themselves under the control of the Armed Forces of South Russia headed by General Denikin. War ships that were in Sevastopol and Odesa were taken by representatives of the Entente. In the course of several months after that, they were gradually handed over to the “legitimate Russian authorities”. All these ships were involved in evacuating the White Guard army led by General Vrangel in October and November 1920 and were later interned in Bizerte, a French port in Tunisia.
Naval institutions of the UNR
In Ukraine, the supporters of the UNR were finally victorious in mid-December 1918. Hetman Skoropadsky was forced to emigrate to Germany. The new authorities also planned to create a fleet. The government of the Ukrainian National Republic created the Ministry for Naval Affairs which formally existed until September 1919. It was then replaced by the Naval Directorate in the Military Ministry, which was dismissed with all the staff of the UNR’s government in Poland in June 1924.
The activities of the ministry and later the directorate were purely theoretical, because the UNR did not actually have any port or ship under its command by the end of 1918. All of them had been captured by the Entente. However, in August 1919, after the Ukrainian troops successfully advanced on Kyiv and Odesa, the Naval Directorate set up a Naval cadet school in Kamianets-Podilsky and tried to form the Dnieper River Flotilla in summer 1920.
The naval institutions of the UNR were headed by patriotic naval officers. For example, Mykhailo Bilynsky, a nobleman, economist by profession and talented organizer and commander, was the first naval minister in the Directory. In May 1919, when it became clear that the Black Sea Fleet could not be reclaimed, Bilynsky formed a marine division. A little more than one regiment was actually formed, but this unit was one of the best in the UNR’s army and successfully fought against the Bolsheviks and the White Guard. In November 1921, Bilynsky participated in the Second Winter Campaign under the command of General Yurii Tiutiunnyk. On 17 November, he was severely woundedin a fight against the Red cavalry near village Mali Mynky. To avoid being taken prisoner by the enemy, he killed himself.
General Savchenko-Bilsky, another naval leader of the UNR, was also of noble origin. He served his entire life in Sevastopol. He was among the founders of the local Kobzar Ukrainian circle in 1907and the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet Society in 1917. He lived a long life and died at age 88 in France. There is one more Ukrainian naval officer worth mentioning – Sviatoslav Shramchenko, the invariable aide-de-camp of all the heads of Ukraine’s naval institutions. Many members of his family had served in the Russian Navy. He graduated from the Law Department of Saint Petersburg University and volunteered to go to the front when the war broke out. He served on ships in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. In 1917, he finished a naval cadet course and was commissioned as a naval officer. He then returned to Ukraine and immediately joined the Ukrainian navy. After demobilization, Shramchenko lived in various countries abroad. He died and was buried in 1958 in Philadelphia (USA). Until his last days, Shramchenko kept the flag and insignia of the Ukrainian Navy.
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
The Ukrainian Week talked with Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on the act of aggression in the Kerch Strait and the military assistance to Ukraine.