The Ukrainian press of the early 20th century survived only thanks to a handful of subscribers and funding from selfless donors
Why did Ukrainians lose the liberation struggle of 1917-1921? One key reason was the weak propagation of national consciousness within Ukrainian society. One indicator of this is the number of subscribers that the national press had at the turn of the century.
SMALL PRINT RUNS
The Finns did not gain national independence by accident – according to Olherd Bochkovsky, 83 periodicals were published in Helsinki alone and 168 across the state by 1898—in other words, one periodical per 13,000 residents. At the turn of the century, the Finns had 20 dailies, 21 tri-weeklies, 32 bi-weeklies and just as many weeklies. Newspapers in the capital had circulations of 12,000 copies and provincial papers had 7,000-8,000 copies.
In the part of Ukraine that was under Russia, the first daily newspaper, Rada (Council), was launched as late as 1906 and had 2,000-3,000 subscribers, while Ukraine’s population was 10 times bigger than that of Finland. Viacheslav Lypynsky may have had a point when he wrote in his famous Lysty do brativ-khliborobiv (Letters to Brothers-Agrarians) that, in fact, 30 million Ukrainians in Russian-dominated Ukraine was a fiction. The real number was the 2,000-3,000 who subscribed to Rada.
The first Ukrainian daily, Hromadska dumka (later Rada) in Russian-ruled Ukraine was launched as late as 1906 and had a mere 2,000-3,000 subscribers
From 1905-1914, a mere 40 Ukrainian-language periodicals were published in Russian-ruled Ukraine. Of these only about a dozen lasted for more than a year. The majority were flashes in the pan that disappeared after only a few issues. The reason for this was simple: a lack of subscribers.
True, the tsarist authorities put pressure on Ukrainian readers, used the gendarmerie to keep them in check and threatened them with persecution. However, similar problems were faced by the Finns and Poles, Baltic and Caucasian peoples. And they all understood the need to support the national press because as long as it existed, their nations could be said to exist.
The print runs of the Ukrainian periodicals of the time were extremely small. Remarkably, even Kievskaia starina (Kyiv Antiquity) – deservedly called the “encyclopaedia of Ukrainian life”, which published not only historical research and documents, but also works by all classics of Ukrainian literature – had a circulation of just 300 copies in 1901, according to Serhiy Yefremov’s memoirs. By 1907, when it was closed, it boasted 700 subscribers thanks to a bigger share of political writing and belles-lettres. Nearly all Ukrainian magazines had similarly small print runs. Nova hromada (New Society) had 400 subscribers in 1906. Ukrainskaia zhyzn (Ukrainian Life), a newspaper for Russian-speaking Ukrainians edited by Symon Petliura and Oleksandr Salikovsky and published in Moscow, had a mere 800 subscribers and, despite the Ukrainian intelligentsia being conversant in Russian, it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy throughout its existence. Ukrainian intellectuals were too few to be able to support the periodical. Meanwhile, the Russian-speaking audience that the magazine actually targeted was not the least bit interested in the Ukrainian question. Literaturno-naukovyi visnyk (LNV, The Literary-Academic Herald) performed somewhat better because it was considered an all-Ukrainian periodical published in both Russian-ruled and Austrian-ruled Ukraine. While it was published in Kyiv, it had up to 1,500 subscribers, mostly Galicians, and a mere 700 subscribers in the Russian-ruled part of Ukraine.
The subscribing audience was so narrow that several periodicals could not co-exist as they shared the same readership. When Mykhailo Hrushevsky moved LNV to Kyiv, Nova hromada and Kievskaia starina had to close. All of these magazines were subsidized, and were it not for the sponsorship of Ukrainian industrialist Vasyl Symyrenko, Kievskaia starina would have closed shop back in the 1880s. Every year he had to inject up to 15,000 roubles into its budget to cover expenses not defrayed by subscription revenue.
DONORS TO THE PRESS
When the Ems Ukaz of 1876 was annulled following the first Russian revolution (1905-1907), Yevhen Chykalenko took over the role of the altruistic patron of the Ukrainian daily press. Prior to the October 1905 manifesto of Tsar Nicholas II, Ukrainians relished bright prospects. Activists of the Ukrainian movement believed that all social problems were rooted in the repressive policies of the tsarist regime, and as soon as they ended, Ukrainians would rush to subscribe to the long-awaited Ukrainian press. They had hoped that Hromadska dumka (Public Opinion) would have 100,000 subscribers and would stand on its own feet. However, the reality turned out to be less optimistic. In the first half of 1906, the periodical had 4,093 subscribers, and this number dropped to 1,509 by year’s end. Most people subscribed for one to three months, and a mere 500 for the entire year.
Chykalenko found himself in a stalemate. He was the initiator of a periodical that stood no chance of survival supported by subscription only. The newspaper created huge deficits throughout its existence under both the first title and the second, when it was published as Rada in 1906-1914. Its budget was around 30,000 roubles a year. Subscription covered a third, while the rest had to come from someone’s pocket. The periodical would have been fine if it had managed to maintain 3,000-5,000 constant subscribers a year. But even this minute quantity was missing in a nation of 30-million scattered from the Zbruch River to Malynov Klin in the Far East.
Western Ukraine was not part of that equation. It had its own daily, Dilo (The Deed), which had been published since 1880 and had 3,000 subscribers. It was supported by Western Ukrainian society, though it was quite costly. Chykalenko wrote in his diary that Dilo was the world’s most expensive newspaper because its subscription price was 18 guldens, much more than Rada’s 6 roubles. There was no way the price could have increased because its readership was comprised of peasants. Unprecedented bonuses for readers – Mykola Arkas’s Istoria Ukrainy (A History of Ukraine)—a book worth 1.5 roubles, i.e. one-fourth of Rada’s entire subscription fee – did not help, either. In its later years, Rada offered a bonus in the form of Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar. But such moves did almost nothing to boost readership. Chykalenko appealed to the leaders of the Ukrainian movement in Galicia to organize subscription to Rada through the reading halls of the Prosvita society branches in Western Ukraine, but they recruited a mere 70 new readers. Chykalenko sadly stated that a similar Galician newspaper would not gain even that number of readers in Russian-ruled Ukraine.
AN INDICATOR OF NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Meanwhile, the same stratum – peasants – subscribed to Dilo in Galicia, but they did so under the propaganda of the local Greek Catholic priests and Prosvita societies – they had the Polish press supported by Polish society as an example. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Western Ukrainians were more successful in their liberation struggle. Town and countryside showed examples of self-organization, and Bolshevik radicalism did not muddle peasants’ thinking. Galicia did not experience anarchy and Cossack Otaman rule; its cities did not become centres of anti-Ukrainian ideas as was the case in Russian-ruled Ukraine. Galicia’s own national press taught Western Ukrainians to engage in public life, self-organize and understand the social value of the national factor.
To the very end, Chykalenko showed unbreakable faith in one guiding conviction: a nation that did not have at least one daily newspaper does not deserve to be called a nation. In a letter to Petro Stebnytsky he wrote, with good reason, that when peasants got accustomed to reading the Russian-language press, the Ukrainian cause would be lost forever. Every year he would sell a piece of his land near the village of Pereshory in the Kherson region to receive the 10,000 roubles needed to cover the newspaper’s expenses. Symyrenko chipped in another 10,000 from his own pocket. In 1911, the ice seemingly broke up, and Rada’s subscribing readership exceeded the magical number 3,000. It was only in the sixth year of its existence that the only Ukrainian-language newspaper in Russian-dominated Ukraine reached 3,500 subscribers.
The first year of Rada’s publication demolished the stereotype of the absolute value of democracy in the sense of poverty over wealth. It proved the commonplace truth that the people who need culture are not so much peasants and workers, demoralized by poverty and destitution, as the stratum which has freed itself from the burden of earning to survive, i.e. the so-called middle class.
If a person rises above the illiterate masses thanks to his industriousness and education, he alone will value and buy national periodicals, because this money does not have to be spent to feed himself and his family. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Ukrainian national movement pinned their hopes on poor peasants, playing to their desire to take away land from the wealthy. Chykalenko wrote to Stebnytsky on this account: “By targeting peasants, the poor, we have fixed a low price for the newspaper and adopted such a tenor that we set all well-off strata against ourselves. Meanwhile, the peasants do not subscribe because they are illiterate, and even if literate, they are not mature enough to consider the national question… [The newspaper] has taken a sharply critical stance against bureaucracy, landlords and priests, and that is why the authorities are removing it from villages and punishing the subscribers, while priests do not let deacons and teachers subscribe to it. Landlords consider it revolutionary and equate the Ukrainian movement with the haidamakas while the peasants, i.e. the haidamakas, do not understand a thing in it…”
Falling on deaf ears. Ukrainskaia zhyzn, a literary-academic and social-political monthly, was published in Moscow from 1912-17 in Russian, but the Russian audience expressed hardly any interest in the Ukrainian question
It was only in 1907-1908 that Chykalenko, Hrushevsky and Volodymyr Leontovych adopted a view that urban bourgeoisie needed to be won over and that they would be the only source from which national consciousness would spread to the countryside. A decision was made to publish a newspaper not for the common folk but for the petit bourgeois intelligentsia: teachers, medical attendants, clerks, small bureaucrats, etc.
THE LONG-TERM EFFECT
Both illiterate, Ukrainian-speaking peasants and the intelligentsia had a hard time grasping the importance of Ukrainian printed media. Many well-off Ukrainians rejected the Ukrainian orthography prior to the revolution of 1917. For example, Rev. Maksym, a priest from the village of Kononivka in what is now Cherkasy Oblast, told how a 15-year-old boy taught him to read in Ukrainian, because he was initially unable to read the Rada newspaper properly and thought it was in Bulgarian or Slovak. When he was young, the priest used to read Kobzar with no problems of comprehension. But Rada got rid of the letter “ы” and he struggled with this change.
In a letter to Stebnytsky, Chykalenko complained that the “working masses” for which Rada was initially designed were almost indifferent to the newspaper: “They say that it was printed in a language that differs from the village vernacular and that Russian newspapers are easier to read.” It took time for readers to adjust to the literary language the newspaper was using. This was one of the reasons why its readership did not grow. Chykalenko wrote: “There are no geniuses of the written word who would fascinate readers to the point of making them forgive the language of publication. Our newspaper is published by mediocre people, and that is why the newspaper itself is mediocre. This would be acceptable in times when the language of publication is not an issue and when the readers only demand fresh news. In contrast, we need to supply fresh news and in a language that is understandable, native and idiomatic. Meanwhile, the ‘native language’ is only good enough for telling stories and only those that focus on people’s everyday lives. The language of newspapers is broader and comes close to scientific language, which is alien, not ‘native’ to the public.”
Despite these difficulties, Rada made a great contribution to the awakening of national sentiment among Ukrainians. Chykalenko remembered how surprised Volodymyr Korolenko was to hear school supervisors in Poltava speak standard Ukrainian, rather than Russian, among themselves under the influence of Rada. This convinced Korolenko that the Ukrainian cause was not a figment of the intellectuals’ imagination but a deep popular desire. In the restaurant of the Continental Hotel in Kyiv, a Russian landlord asked a waiter about his nationality and the waiter replied that he was a Ukrainian – a conviction he developed by reading Rada.
Khliborob was the first Ukrainian-language newspaper in Russian-ruled Ukraine. It was published in Lubny in December 1905 and had a circulation of 5,000 copies. The empire’s censors banned it after the first five issues
The circumstances of its publication proved another axiom: a national newspaper can only exist in respectable society where conservative traditional values are upheld, where there is a well-off middle class and where citizens honour evolutionary development rather than revolutionary hysteria, looting, dumbing-down and expropriation. The will of the crowd and its demagogues cannot be placed above the rights of respectable peasants. It is their regard for private land ownership and healthy individualism that creates a society where the tone is set by decent producers rather than by plebeians guided by deceptive slogans of equality in poverty. The part of Ukraine that was under Russia did not have this kind of society at the time; it simply had not had time to develop. The March revolution of 1917 awakened dormant national forces. As many as three dailies sprang up in Kyiv in March and April. These were published by the three biggest political forces: Nova Rada (The New Council) by socialist federalists (former centralists, members of the Society of Ukrainian Progressives), Robitnycha hazeta (Workers’ Newspaper) by social democrats and Narodna volia (The People’s Will) by social revolutionaries. Their total circulation was up to 25,000, which was already an indication of the massive character of the Ukrainian national movement. However, there was still a long way to go. The Kievlianin, a monarchic, imperial periodical reflecting the values of the Black Hundred movement, had as many subscribers as all of Kyiv’s combined Ukrainian dailies had readers. Liberal Russian magazines such as Kievskaia mysl (The Kyiv Opinion), had readerships of about the same size.
Are we in a position to throw stones at the Ukrainians who founded Rada a century ago? While reading the newspaper that Chykalenko lambasted for a lack of journalistic talent, primitive interpretations of important social problems, a lack of talented satire, etc., one is immediately tempted to draw a comparison with the conditions in which the periodical press in Ukraine finds itself today: the share of Ukrainian-language periodicals has plummeted in the past year from 50.4 to 28.7%.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration