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31 May, 2013  ▪  Ihor Losiev

Pavlo Skoropadskyi: Torn Between Dual Loyalties

Becoming Ukrainian was as difficult and controversial for Pavlo Skoropadskyi as it was for the Ukrainian nation

Pavlo Skoropadskyi, Ukraine’s hetman in 1918 and descendant of an 18th century Cossack hetman, was a controversial figure in his own lifetime. The historical debate between supporters and opponents of Skoropadskyi and his policies continues to this day. He built the Ukrainian state while simultaneously destroying it through various risky and unreasonable moves. He supported the establishment of the agrarian class promoted by historian and politician Vyacheslav Lypynskyi (the ideologue of Ukrainian conservatism and the founder of the Ukrainian Democratic-Agrarian Party) but failed to protect it from inevitable requisitions by Ukraine’s Austro-German allies. Skoropadskyi tried to preserve social stability in Ukraine, yet the fear of radical land reforms fuelled tension in rural Ukraine, increasing the impact of Bolshevik “land to the peasants!” propaganda. Skoropadskyi was a Ukrainian hetman and a Russian general close to Nicholas II. He represented a Ukrainian aristocracy that had long considered itself to be part of the pan-empire elite. He contributed to the development of a national state while failing to overcome pro-Russian sentiments, at least during his brief reign from 1918-1920.

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As a military officer who fought in the Russo-Japanese War and WWI, Skoropadskyi was eager to address the many issues neglected by the doctrinal and profoundly demagogic Tsentralna Rada (Central Council). This included the creation of an efficient Ukrainian army with professional officers—he did not share the pacifism of UNR (Ukrainian People’s Republic) leaders who often did not think beyond their desks or home libraries. While the Central Council had long debated the fate of Crimea, Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet, Skoropadskyi swiftly declared Crimea to be part of the Ukrainian State and began negotiations to integrate it with its local government led by General Suleyman Sulkiewicz. Skoropadskyi helped transform the Black Sea fleet into a part of Ukraine’s military force. In doing so, he proved wiser and more efficient than Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk in 1991.

The hetman realized that the Central Council’s enchanting slogans were not enough to keep the state running properly. It needed a government, thousands of professional officials, and dozens of institutions and facilities – so he worked to develop these. However, he had too few patriotic professional state-builders since the tsarist administration made sure that such people were kept out of civil service, and those hired eventually shed any views that might stand in the way of career success. As a result, Skoropadskyi had to work under a harsh deficit of managers. “Where are the Ukrainians? Give them to me! The ones I need, the ones I can talk to and work with. Where are they?” he lamented desperately. These would have been people loyal to a patriotic ideology, yet pragmatic enough to actually do their work, achieve specific objectives, and take charge of their respective tasks. Unfortunately, most Ukrainians fit a very different profile at that time: all they could do was lament Ukraine’s misfortune, sing folk songs and complain about current problems.  

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It took Skoropadskyi himself much time and effort to become Ukrainian. Seven and a half months in power was obviously not enough time given his upbringing in a Russian aristocratic environment, his life in the tsarist establishment and service in the emperor’s army. At the time, very few Ukrainians were politically conscious. In fact, there was not even agreement on what to call Ukrainians—the term “Ukrainian” had not yet become widespread. Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, Ukrainian historian, academic and intellectual, shared Skoropadskyi’s illusions of an autonomous Ukraine within a federative Russia, even though the two belonged to opposing political enclaves. When, in 1917, a rallying crowd approached the Central Council building on Volodymyr the Great St. in Kyiv and greeted Hryshevskyi with “Long live independent Ukraine!”, the national leader replied with “Long live federative Russia!” Even the Fourth Universal declaring Ukraine’s complete independence was a move forced by political and military circumstances: at that time, Hrushevskyi, Vynnychenko and other socialist leaders still believed that Ukraine could be independent and remain part of the Russian federation at the same time. Some thought otherwise, but Hrushevshkyi, Skoropadskyi and others with pro-Russian illusions represented the mainstream ideology.

Skoropadskyi was forced to invite Russian and pro-Russian officials to serve administrative roles in the Ukrainian state – much like the Bolsheviks who appointed former tsar’s officers as commanders in the Red Army, with a red commissar supervising each of them. Skoropadskyi did not have pro-Ukrainian professionals to appoint as such “commissars”. This resulted in the domination of Russian chauvinist officials in the Ukrainian government and as officers in the hetman’s army.  

Skoropadskyi should have been more cautious with the military. In his eyes, the Russian commanders in his army were just good professionals and his brothers-in-arms from WWI. Meanwhile, he turned a blind eye to their powerful anti-Ukrainian views. This caused animosity among patriotic Ukrainian officers who often faced chauvinist bullying from their peers. They were not the only ones who were frustrated. To please his pro-Russian officers, Skoropadskyi issued a decree on Ukraine’s federation with non-Bolshevik Russia on November 14, 1918. Ukrainian patriots denounced this as treason.

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As a result, many Ukrainian officers left the hetman’s army for that of the UNR and contributed to the anti-hetman coup of the UNR Directorate. The idea of a federation with Russia was a utopian fantasy. Virtually all White Movement leaders supported the revival of the “single undivided Russia”, i.e. a unitary centralized state with no flirtation with “nationals”. General Denikin stated in public that the first man he would hang after the victory over the Bolsheviks was the “treacherous” Finnish military leader Carl Mannerheim. Admiral Kolchak rejected Finland’s independence, while General Nikolai Yudenich whose army dislocated at the Baltic territory refused to acknowledge independence of the Estonian Republic despite its significant contribution to his military accomplishments. Officer Pyotr Vrangel refused to negotiate an alliance with Poland and the UNR against the Bolsheviks. How could Ukrainian political leaders have expected to create a federation with unwilling partners? According to some historians, White general and Ataman of the Don Cossack Host Petro Krasnov supported the idea, but he was known as a Cossack separatist in the White Movement, therefore he did not represent overall sentiments.

Some wonder whether Skoropadskyi could have become a Ukrainian Mannerheim if luck had been on his side. However, it is hardly possible to compare the two. Mannerheim belonged to a different political culture based on deep Western traditions (Russia’s influence on the Finnish mindset was strongly countered by Sweden and Germany). Unlike many Ukrainian leaders, he had no pro-Russian illusions, although like Skoropadskyi, he had been a loyal servant of the Russian Empire, fighting against the Japanese and the army of the German Kaiser. Finland also had Russian officers in its army in 1918-1920, yet Mannerheim did not agree with them, especially when it came to matters of principle. Even if not a Finn ethnically, Mannerheim followed Finland’s national interests in his every move. When Russian generals who stayed in personal contact with him demanded that the Finnish army go to Petrograd to help revive the Russian Empire, Mannerheim found a polite yet harsh way to put them in their place.

Mannerheim became a Finn faster than Skoropadskyi became a Ukrainian. It took the hetman many years in exile to finally break his ties with the Russian Empire, but it finally happened, and in recent years he has assumed his place Ukraine’s history as a patriot and statesman without geopolitical prejudice. The fact that in 1944 Skoropadskyi used his many connections to facilitate the release of Bandera, Mel’nyk and Stets’ko from Nazi concentration camps shows that at least these people were not entirely alien to him in the ideological sense. Thus, Skoropadskyi’s path to becoming Ukrainian was as difficult and controversial as that of the entire Ukrainian nation.

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