Missed Opportunity

28 March 2012, 16:27

The February Revolution in the Russian Empire, which resulted in the tsar’s abdication and the rise of a new, democratic government, triggered cardinal changes in Ukraine’s social and political life. After a long period of statelessness and repression, the national liberation movement revived. The scale of the new mood caused the central government to pay attention to the local demands, and acknowledge the presence of a “Ukrainian issue” in Russia.


On 24 February 1917, mass strikes broke out in Petrograd. Soon afterwards, the military units of the Petrograd garrison joined in. Among them was the Volyn Regiment, mostly manned with Ukrainians. On 2 March, the Russian emperor Nicholas II abdicated on behalf of himself and his son Aleksei in favour of his brother Mikhail, who on the next day refused to take on the responsibility of leading the state. Power subsequently passed to the Provisional Government formed by members of the State Duma committee and led by Prince Georgii Lvov. Meanwhile, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies became an alternative source of power.

The first wires about revolutionary developments in Petrograd started to arrive in Kyiv as early as 28 February. At the time, the situation was murky. No-one could imagine that two tsars of the Romanov dynasty that had ruled the empire for three centuries would abdicate.

On 4 March 1917, to represent Ukrainian demands on the all-Russian level, Kyiv civil organizations united in a “committee” dubbed the Central Rada (council). In its first days it wired congratulations to Georgii Lvov, head of the Provisional Government, and Aleksandr Kerensky, the minister of justice. The telegrams expressed support for the new government’s democratic policy and hopes that Ukrainians’ national requirements would be met in a democratic Russia. In the meantime appeals to stir up national life were sent to all regional organizations of Dnieper Ukraine. This would include opening Ukrainian schools and gymnasiums, introduction of Ukrainian as the language of teaching and of official institutions, raising money for the national fund, and so on.

On 14-15 March 1917, the assembly hall of the Pedagogic Museum in Kyiv hosted the Ukrainian Cooperative Congress, which grew into a true political force.

The conditions proposed by the Congress were widely supported by Ukrainians in Russia. In the very first days of the revolution, a Ukrainian National Council, led by Oleksandr Lototsky, formed in Petrograd. Its leaders had several meetings with the head of the Provisional Government and Prince Georgii Lvov, and submitted a memorandum listing their demands.

From its very start, the Ukrainian revolution was not confined to putting forward only national and cultural goals. It had much broader intentions, in particular, a change in the system of government. However, the Central Rada did not rush to make those political changes.


The victory of the Russian revolution created favourable conditions for the revival of all sectors of the Ukrainian social life. The spring of 1917 saw the massive revival of Prosvita[1] centres, which were busy with raising the educational and cultural standards of the population. Over a short period, in March 1917, nearly a hundred Prosvita organizations sprang up in Dnieper Ukraine. Serhii Yefremov noted that “not only big cities with their intellectual resources and ample means, not only smaller towns, where you could also come across a many thinking people, but also remote Ukrainian villages seemed to be anxious to make up for the former dead time when everyone kept silent in every tongue, prospering” [an allusion to the quotation from Taras Shevchenko’s poem The Caucasus: “From the Moldavian to the Finn, in every language silence reigns, for everyone is prospering” – Ed.].

The Society of Ukrainian Progressives (Tovarystvo ukrainskykh postupovtsiv – TUP), which actually gave rise to the Central Rada was among the most active inter-party associations. On 25-26 March 1917, the organization's first congress was held in the assembly hall of the Pedagogic Museum in Kyiv with delegates from various regions of Dnieper Ukraine.

At the onset of the revolution, a Society of School Education formed in Kyiv. The Society forwarded a demand that schooling be provided in the Ukrainian language. The first practical step in this direction was the opening of a Ukrainian gymnasium, led by Petro Kholodny, in Kyiv on 18 March.

On 3 March 1917, the first youth assembly was called by the students of several colleges in Kyiv, and the Main Ukrainian Student Council was created. The Council launched a broad campaign for de-Russification in various spheres of social life. The rapid awakening of national conscience would soon affect the army, too.


Overthrowing the monarchy and the establishment of a new government caused a surge of rallies which overflowed many Ukrainian cities. In the first days of March, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Poltava were swarming with crowded meetings. Demonstrators expressed their support for the Provisional Government, disarmed the police, and set political prisoners free.

On 12 March 1917, a 25,000-strong Ukrainian protest took place in Petrograd. After a solemn requiem for Shevchenko, which several priests celebrated in a square outside Kazan Cathedral, and a short rally, the protestors marched to the State Duma carrying yellow-and-blue flags and slogans reading “Long live free Ukraine!” and “Long live the federal democratic republic!”

On 16 March, Revolution Day was celebrated in Kyiv. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate their rejection of monarchy, express their support for the revolution, and demand the democratic development of the former Russian empire.

On this day the monument to Russia’s prime-minister Piotr Stolypin, assassinated in 1911, was dismantled as a symbol of the old regime. The attempt to take the monument apart at night on 16 March failed, so the site was fenced off, the statue chained, and then thrown off the pedestal. Onlookers would later comment that it looked as if Stolypin had been hanged.

After Revolution Day, the Central Rada leaders decided to hold a “Ukrainian protest.” The agenda of the event was developed by a special committee led by Dmytro Antonovych.

In the morning of 19 March, the square opposite St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, which had been chosen as an assembly point for the demonstrators, was too small to hold all who came. The demonstrators filled Bibikov Boulevard (now Taras Shevchenko Bvd.) and Volodymyrska Street opposite the university buildings. Overall, nearly 100,000 persons convened to take part in the protest. This included almost 30,000 people in the military as well as numerous workers, gymnasium and university students, orphanage inmates, employees, members of Ukrainian associations and so on.

After paying homage to Taras Shevchenko outside St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, the procession set out along the central streets of Kyiv. The columns of demonstrators marched down Volodymyrska, Fundukleivska (now Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street) and Khreshchatyk and reached the building of the Kyiv City Duma. They carried numerous yellow and blue flags, banners with national symbols of Ukraine, Shevchenko’s portraits, gonfalons with the images of Archangel Michael, and placards. One newspaper reported that the demonstrators were carrying more than 320 Ukrainian flags. The most common slogans were “Long live Free Ukraine!”, “Long live the democratic federative republic!”, “Long live free Cossacks in Ukraine!”, “Ukraine’s glory has not yet perished,” “Glory to Ukraine!”, “Long live the national and territorial autonomy of Ukraine!”, “Independent Ukraine together with Free Russia!”, “Independent Ukraine with the Hetman as its leader!”, etc. Fourteen military bands and seven choirs added to the festive atmosphere as they performed the national anthem and patriotic songs.

Kyiv city officials watched standing on the balcony of the City Duma. There were members of the Presidium of the Executive Committee of the United Civic Organizations Council, the command of the local military district, and the City Duma administration, who had to show respect to the national protest. Then the floor was given to Professor Mykhailo Hrushevsky, chairman of the Ukrainian Central Rada. After a short description of the national liberation movement and anti-Ukrainian political repression, Hrushevsky called for the demonstrators to take an oath to fight for Ukraine’s autonomy within Russia.

After taking the oath, the protestors marched to the Bohdan Khmelnytsky monument in Sophia Square. There a memorial mass for Ukraine’s martyrs was celebrated, flags blessed, and the first Ukrainian popular assembly held. The assembly approved the Central Rada resolution, containing the demand for autonomy and the Ukrainization of public institutions.

The 19 March protest was the climax of the movement. It showed the high level of national consciousness in Dnieper Ukraine, the power the people to organize, and made the Russian revolutionary democrats take a fresh look at the aspirations of Ukrainians – as well as frightening them to a degree. Quoting Hrushevsky, it showed that the “Ukrainian movement is not mere fiction in the minds of romantic circles or some intellectual maniacs, but a living force,” inspiring and leading the masses.

However, the Central Rada leaders, overcome with the ideas of Drahomanov’s federalism and socialism, were unable to fully realize the true potential of this grass roots movement. Ukrainian mass mentality was becoming more and more radical, despite centuries of oppression. Yet the big social expectations, nurtured by the overthrow of the monarchy, were largely atomized by the Central Rada’s counterproductive policies in 1917. Later, the Bolsheviks would take advantage of this situation.


For some time the Russian authorities turned a blind eye to the “Ukrainian question” in their democratic state. They would rather interpret people’s national and cultural demands as the whims and fancies of a few intellectuals, who “devised them to harm Russia’s interests.” Yet later the ignoring of Ukrainian demands turned into real concern and resistance.

To oppose the Ukrainian organizations, a South Ukrainian’s Association was created in Kyiv. Its mission was to “defend” the rights of Russians in Dnieper Ukraine and fight against “narrow national” movements. According to Yefremov, “South Ukrainians” were our fellow countrymen “who would also proudly call themselves ‘Little Russians’ or ‘Russian-speaking Ukrainians,’ and denounced Ukrainian literature for ‘narrow-mindedness,’ ‘popular appeal,’ etc.”

Rumours were spread through the cities and towns about “the domination of nationalists,” who allegedly aimed to clear Ukraine of all non-Ukrainians, or reduce them to the status of slaves. Of course, such claims were totally absurd and groundless. On the contrary, the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution used every opportunity to demonstrate their democracy, while national minorities’ rights were prominent in the programmes of each and every political party and group involved. However, the opponents of the Ukrainian movement were interested in spreading this disinformation in order to steal the support of the democratically-minded population, non-Ukrainian nationals, and the international community. Proponents of the “Russian progressive ideas” disguised themselves as benevolent advisors, trying to appease the Ukrainians’ revolutionary ardour and restrain them from unwise and hasty steps. In fact, it was just a game to win time and wait for the central government to gain sufficient power to rule as it willed.

[1] Prosvita is a society created in the nineteenth century in Ukrainian Galicia for preserving and developing Ukrainian culture and education among population.

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