The conservative revolution of Pavlo Skoropadskiy

31 March 2017, 14:20

A number of extremely important events in modern Ukrainian history are connected to Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskiy and the return of Ukrainian aristocracy to socio-political and state-building activity. The central event in this process was the declaration of Pavlo Skoropadskiy, the heir of an ancient Ukrainian kozak family, hetman of all Ukraine on April 29, 1918. This act signified the revival of the Ukrainian tradition of statehood that had been established by the kozaks in collaboration with the Ukrainian gentry, a stop to the ruinous socialist experiments of the Central Rada, and a shifting of Ukraine towards the path of class cooperation and civilized reforms in the public interest.

Conservatism vs socialism

Ukrainian society had long been captive to liberal-democratic and socialist ideas, so this historic event had enormous meaning, as Ukraine’s aristocratic class had not, so far, demonstrated its political independence. The First World War and an explosion of revolutions in a slew of European countries led to the collapse of once-powerful conservative institutions and the further expansion of the liberalism enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. Together with this, both prior to and after the War, a number of social movements were galvanized across Europe that wanted to establish an ideological and political alternative that went beyond the liberal-democratic system and radical socialism.

RELATED ARTICLE: How Ukrainians built Communism: When Nikita Khrushchev came to power, he brought a "Ukrainian clan" with him. It later removed their patron from the helm of the USSR

They merged into a conservative revolution that was marked by an intellectual, political and literary trend against the destructive nature of radical social movements. It criticized the bourgeois philistinism of the 19th century and the revolutions that it led to, and attempted to resist them through political and world views that offered an alternative to marxist socialism and democratic liberalism. The last two are, of course, hostile to each other, both ideologically and politically, although their roots lie in the same 19th century revolutionary practices and social notions. According to its spokesman Ernst Junger, the conservative revolution was intended to restore “a return to honoring all the basic rights and values without which humans lose their connection with God and nature, and become unable to build a just society.” A profound crisis in Ukraine brought about by the class politics of the traditional national parties in 1917 pushed conservative elements to become more active. They then announced their determination to organize a normal state in Ukraine based on cooperation among all groups in Ukrainian society, not just the “working masses.”

The non-revolutionary aristocracy

At that time, most Ukrainian political parties that were part of the Central Rada were firm in their conviction that the Ukrainian aristocratic elite had been fully russified or polonized and was completely antagonistic to all things Ukrainian. This attitude made the leaders of the Rada openly negative towards members of the Ukrainian gentry, especially the landed ones. And so, the appearance of Pavlo Skoropadskiy on the political scene in 1917 drew a hostile reaction from the Central Rada and a slew of baseless accusations of anti-Ukrainian positions, plans to restore the regime of the bourgeoisie and landowners, and so on.

Similar attitudes towards many other members of Ukraine’s gentry were widespread at the time, despite the fact that many of them had demonstrated through their efforts on behalf of their homeland that they clearly considered themselves native sons and had made an enormous contribution to the Ukrainian movement. One of the active builders of the national rebirth, Yevhen Chykalenko, assessed the situation as follows: “When the revolution of 1917 took place, I, as a bourgeois, and even a feudal lord, was not given the chance to participate in the building of the Ukrainian State.” Another patriot who was also sidelined from the nation-building process in 1917 was Vyacheslav Lypynskiy, because of his social status as a Roman Catholic and a landowner. The most blatant example of this was the way the Central Rada rejected his proposal to organize a cavalry regiment at his own cost.

The reasons why the Central Rada rejected an experienced military man like General Skoropadskiy, precisely the kind of professional that the Ukrainian State was in desperate need of, was that he belonged to the “exploiting class” and that his approach to the most pressing political and social problems of the time was moderate and measured. However, an objective look at the social position of the descendants of the kozak elite and Ukrainian aristocracy and their attitudes towards Ukrainian issues shows that these individuals had largely preserved their national identity and were anything but indifferent to the fate of their homeland.

RELATED ARTICLE: From autonomism to statehood: The evolution of Ukrainian elite and its state-building concepts in the 19-20th centuries

The conservative forces that had not been “declassed” may have distanced themselves from the Ukrainian liberal-radical movement, but they had not lost their national instincts. This became completely evident after February 1917. It was in this environment that the world views of the future hetman, Pavlo Skoropadskiy, were shaped through tight family ties to a large group of the aristocratic families of the old Hetmanate like the Kochubeys, Myloradovyches, Myklashevskis, Markovyches, Tarnovskis, Apostols, and Zakrevskis.

Descendants of kozak aristocracy. The hetman’s entourage included many representatives of well-known Ukrainian families, such as Vasyl Kochubey (the first man on the left) and Mykhailo Khanenko (the second man on the right)


“Thanks to my grandfather and father, and to our family traditions, to Petro Doroshenko, Vasyl Horlenko, Novytskiy and others, I was always learning about the history of Malorossiya, despite my service in Petrograd,” wrote Skoropadskiy. “I always loved Ukraine passionately, not just as a land of lush fields and a marvelous climate, but as a country with a great historical past and people whose ideology was completely different from that of Moscow.”

The traditions of the hetmanate continued to live in these historical aristocratic circles of Left Bank Ukraine, and this gave reason for a secret report to the Russian government about Ukrainians “wanting a free republic headed by a Hetman.” Except that the candidate for this position was believed to be Vasyl Tarnovskiy, the scion of an ancient kozak aristocracy, a patron of the arts and a collector of Ukrainian antiques.

Betting on the Hetmanate

Prior to World War I, the idea of monarchism manifested itself in a variety of ways among Ukrainian politicians and became an asset of the pro-Ukrainian movement. Among others, it lay at the foundation of the political platform of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and, thus, went beyond conservative circles.

Once the concept of a monarchy appeared in Ukrainian politics, the liberal democrats and the socialists lost their monopolist positions. This demonstrated that Ukrainian society was quite capable of responding appropriately to the challenges of the times and wanted to balance values-based ideological and political orientations. With the growth of the national liberation movement and the very real prospect that multi-national empires were about to collapse, the idea of monarchism was capable of turning into one national option or another, depending on how it was brought to life. After February 1917, Ukraine was very clearly attracted to those social trends in its past that were inclined to “ensure statehood based on monarchic principles.” Among the numerous slogans waved by the many thousands demonstrating in Kyiv on March 19, 1917, the most surprising for those leading the national movement was “Long live independent Ukraine with a Hetman at its head!”

RELATED ARTICLE: What pushed Ukrainian elites to switch loyalty in favor of the tsarist Russia, the phenomenon of Little Russians

The persistence of hetmanate traditions in Ukraine served as a foundation for the continuing search of Vyacheslav Lypynskiy and other conservatives in Ukraine to come up with a concept for a hereditary monarchy. Only this one would be in the form of a hetmanate tied personally to Pavlo Skoropadskiy and his dynasty.

Once Skoropadskiy and the “Ukrainian National Society” that he founded joined the political fray, the goal became to unite “all owners without exception.” Skoropadskiy promoted this objective in contrast to the position of traditional Ukrainian parties because he wanted to bring about a program of transformations devoid of demagoguery and populism, and aimed at ensuring a socio-economic order based on private ownership as the foundation for culture and civilization.

Against brutality and class warfare

The announcement of the Hetmanate was only the beginning of Ukrainian conservatism in political action and a long path of ideological and organizational learning lay ahead. The Hetman and his colleagues understood this very well. It was no coincidence that Skoropadskiy emphasized from the start: “The Hetmanate was only the first step towards a more moderate approach, one that was more natural and therefore more powerful.”

But the difficulties of the socio-political and economic circumstances in Ukraine at that time made it impossible for the conservative revolution to completely succeed. Ukrainian conservatism had neither the necessary organizational skills nor a clearly formulated ideology. The transformations launched by Skoropadskiy were not exclusively conservative and had many elements of liberal reformism. And so the conservatism of 1918 can easily be labeled liberal today and one that stood not against social transformations per se, but specifically against the radical social experimentation of bolshevism and of the Ukrainian socialists in the Central Rada.

Ukrainian conservatives, represented primarily by landowners of various types, carried out their fundamental programs in alliance with the liberal urbanites. It was hardly surprising that the Government of the Hetmanate included many freshmen politicians who were trying to implement the liberal platforms of their parties under the conditions available in Ukraine then. Among them were quite a few activists from the Ukrainian national movement. Skoropadskiy also kept trying to involve Ukrainian liberals in his government, especially the Ukrainian Socialist-Federalist Party. In this he succeeded only up to a point.

In Ukraine, liberalism was able to make a breakthrough precisely because its positions were mixed with conservative ones, a breakthrough that proved impossible to achieve in Russia, which was engulfed in the flame of radical social changes. The proclamation of a Ukrainian State marked the recovery of its own Ukrainian traditions of national statehood, putting an end to destructive socialist experiments, and steering Ukraine towards class cooperation and civilized reforms. It also marked the end to efforts by the liberal-democratic and socialist movements in the country to squeeze Ukrainian conservatives out of the state-building process and monopolize the formation of a government in Ukraine.


This was a logical response in Ukrainian society towards the politics of class hatred and warfare that was being promoted by the socialist leaders of the Central Rada. Attempts at all costs to institute their class doctrine, even if this went against the overall national interest, led to a deep crisis in the body politic of Ukraine, one that could only be overcome by moving Ukrainian society onto a completely new track by gradually establishing class cooperation and social partnership to counter class warfare, unify the nation, and consolidate an independent Ukrainian State.

A state, yet not quite independent

This last point was especially urgent: it was hard not to notice that setting up the Ukrainian National Republic in the legal sense was based on a federalist, autonomist concept that was historically sponsored by liberals and socialists in Ukraine and did not yet mean complete state independence for Ukraine. In its Third Universal, the Central Rada had clearly declared that the new state entity would remain a component of a federated Russia. The main point of this act, as far as Ukrainian socialists were concerned, was not establishing a Ukrainian national state but doing what was necessary to preserve the Russian one. “Laying the road to federation!” cried Robitnycha Gazeta or the Workers’ Daily. “By this our work we are saving the unity of the Russian State and strengthening the unity of all the proletariat of Russia and the power of the Russian Revolution.”

The hetman’s diplomacy. Pavlo Skoropadskiy holds a reception for ambassadors 

Indeed, although it proclaimed the independence of Ukraine, the famous Fourth Universal of the Central Rada repeated the thesis about the purpose of a federated tie between Ukraine and “the peoples of the republics of the former Russian State.” This formulation in the manifesto did not reject the possibility of restoring the state union between the former metropole and the newly emerged Ukrainian State. This was confirmed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s speech, in which he declared confidence that “the basis of this Universal will bring us to a federation of socialist republics around the world.” It was understood that first among them would be Russia. Significantly, the very appearance of this document seems to have been motivated, not primarily by vital need for the nation to have its own, independent, sovereign state, but by the need of the moment: to establish peace as quickly as possible. The socialist leaders of the Central Rada demonstrated a fatal lack of interest in independence and refused to drop the idea of federalism, even after the bloody bacchanalia that took place when the bolsheviks captured Kyiv.

It’s also worth noting that, prior to this, the leaders of the Rada had declared in numberless documents, including the Fourth Universal, the need for a class government that was to consist of “representatives of the working people: farmers, workers and soldiers,” and not broad-based Ukrainian statehood. The social limitations of this kind of state led to a logical extension when the Directorate deprived the so-called “bourgeois classes” of the right to vote during the elections to the Labor Congress in January 1919.  In fact, the most valuable state-building groups in Ukrainian society who pushed the idea of national liberation as a top priority were the prosperous farmers, local officials, military officers, better-off urbanites, the clergy, and many members of the academic and arts intelligentsia, all of whom were labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and became objects of scorn among Ukrainian socialists.

RELATED ARTICLE: The history of Kharkiv

Just as they had immediately after the February Revolution, Ukrainian socialist parties aligned themselves in an all-Russian united front of what they called revolutionary democracy, announced a “class war” with their own “bourgeoisie,” and tried to maintain Ukraine’s traditional imperial links to Russia. Even as they adopted independence as a tactical goal, they continued to argue that it was more important to expand the war with their own bourgeoisie. Robitnycha Gazeta stated firmly, among others, that, in an independent state, “class warfare could expand across the entire society. Only in such a state could the success of this struggle be best ensured.”

In the end, the doctrinaire positions of the Central Rada’s leadership brought the Ukrainian National Republic to the edge of political and economic disaster. Germany’s military paid less and less attention to the limp institutes of the Rada and instituted an occupation. In the end, the inability of the government to control the situation in the country put an end to the chaos caused by the revolution placed the very existence of a Ukrainian State in jeopardy. Indeed, the portion of the country occupied by the Germans could well have been declared part of Russia, as well. This was something Pavlo Skoropadskiy was all-too aware of. In his Memoirs, he wrote his comments to “those who call themselves Ukrainians:” “Remember, had it not been for my speech, the Germans would have instituted a general governorate in Ukraine within weeks, based on the same principles as any occupation. And it would have had nothing in common with Ukrainian society at all.” As a precaution against a Ukrainian State, the Germans started by disarming the bluecoat divisions, as the UNR forces were called.

In short, restoring the Hetmanate under these circumstances meant that the conservative forces would rescue the Ukrainian State and an end to efforts to establish an autonomist federalist concept of Ukraine’s political future. It also meant a decisive and irreversible break with Russia.

National integration instead of class war

Establishing a state meant a decisive shift in the socio-political and cultural development of Ukraine towards western European civilization, based on its legal and spiritual foundations. The Promulgation to the Entire Ukrainian Nation on April 29, 1918, stated that “as the foundation of culture and civilization, the right to private property is being fully restored.” Those who established the Ukrainian State in 1918 looked at the institution of the hetmanate not as a way to overcome or eliminate all other Ukrainian political movements, but as a means to integrate the nation and establish cooperation among all classes and organizations.

In contrast to the political intolerance of the socialist leadership in the Central Rada, and then the UNR under the Directorate, the socio-political position of the Hetman was to bring the battle between conservatism and social radicalism into the legal arena and to have it take on an original national form. From the first day the Ukrainian State came into being and to its last, the door to cooperation was never closed to any Ukrainian political party. On the contrary, the Hetman was always doing his best to engage the broadest possible spectrum of politicians in his government.

But all his efforts failed. For most leaders of Ukrainian parties, the most important thing was the social achievements of the 1917 revolution. And so, the Hetmanate was seen as a reactionary phenomenon that brought a petty landowner and imperial general to power, rather than the restoration of the traditional national state.

During the entire period of Skoropadskiy’s government, Ukrainian “revolutionary democracy” kept gaining force while rejecting cooperation and putting all its energy into opposing the Ukrainian State. An anti-hetman insurrection was not long in coming, with Ukrainian socialists at the forefront, and demonstrated just how much enormous social power was dormant in Ukraine at that time. Unfortunately, just as had been the case so many times in the past, it was aimed against its own statehood. The anti-hetman leadership was unable to make use of this energy for state-building and a consistent battle against the bolsheviks and the White Guard.

RELATED ARTICLE: The history of Odesa

The geopolitics of the Hetman

Although the boycott of the Ukrainian socialists was very short, only seven and a half months, the Hetmanate managed to operate with unusual intensity and productiveness in establishing a Ukrainian State. It managed to encompass all aspects of social organization, from establishing foreign policy and a state adminsitration, building up the military, and implementing land reforms to opening a Ukrainian university and National Academy of Science, and expanding public education.

One extremely important aspect of Ukraine’s foreign policy at the time was the effort to consolidate all territories with ethnic Ukrainians. The Hetman was clearly determined to include Kuban and Crimea, which were largely settled by Ukrainians who had never lost their spiritual and cultural connection to the Ukrainian metropole.

The Head of State set the objective of expanding Ukraine’s geopolitical influence to a broader territory known as the kozak lands, from the Caucasus Black Sea territories to the Caspian Sea. This territory, settled by Don, Kuban, Tersk, Ural or Yaik cossacks, by Caucasian peoples, Kalmyks and Kazakhs, also contained substantial enclaves of Ukrainian colonists that stretched in a broad swath all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Setting up a close alliance with cossack statelets and the Caucasian states would make it really possible to constrain Russian imperialism, the main enemy of Ukrainian independence.

Starting from the ground up

Among the most serious problems that faced the Hetmanate was deciding the issue of land ownership and bringing to bear the best possible agricultural policy. This, more than anything, would determine the further survival of the Ukrainian State. Later, Skoropadskiy was to write: “I was convinced that only by a strong organization of big, mid-sized and petty landowners would our State be able to get on the right development track, but every government we put together depended on socialist parties and inevitably reverted to bolshevist principles.” As one of the first steps in its plans, the Hetmanate government set the task of large-scale land reform, whose purpose was to establish a strong class of middle and prosperous farmers. This rural population group was supposed to get land with the help of the state by parceling out the holdings of large landowners for sale. With this same goal in mind, a State Land Bank was planned to be set up to ensure that farmers could acquire land for cheap and easy loans.

Draft land reform documents were drawn up by early November 1918 and provided for the state to nationalize all the largest estates to then parcel them out among farmers with the help of the State Land Bank. No household was to be allowed more than 25 desiatins (a desiatin being 2.7 acres or slightly larger than the modern hectare). Only those estates that were being used for agricultural purposes were not subject to expropriation—and even then, only up to 200 desiatins.

Specialists say that this law was one of the most democratic of land reform bills drawn up by any state back then. Without any doubt, had these reforms taken place, they could have been a powerful engine driving Ukraine’s socio-economic development. For one thing, it laid down an organization of land based on medium prosperous self-sustaining individual farmsteads. This would have affirmed an economically healthy, independent grain-growing sector as the foundation of the Ukrainian State. The actual implementation of these reforms got in the way of the anti-Hetmanate insurrection organized by Ukrainian socialists.

RELATED ARTICLE: Historian Gulnara Bekirova on Crimean Tatars, their identity

The achievements of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskiy most certainly do not imply that there were no mistakes or miscalculations on the part of his top officials. Vyacheslav Lypynskiy thought that all the errors that were made could have been eliminated had Ukrainian democrats been willing to cooperate with the government to strengthen and expand the Ukrainian State. “If our revolutionary leaders and intellectuals taken up and supported the local conservative government of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskiy,” he wrote, “the Ukrainian State would have remained to this day… Because the pathetic pressure of the bolsheviks in 1918, like all the other foreign pressure on our land, succeeded only because of domestic differences that Ukrainian revolutionaries and Ukrainian conservatives could not resolve between them.”

The desire for class peace, the reconciliation of the interests of farmers, middle and large landowners, of entrepreneurs and workers, largely at the expense of the better-off population that Skoropadskiy and his Government demonstrated established a real social partnership, fostered national consolidation of all social groups among the Ukrainian people, and could have ensured the long-term stability of Ukrainian statehood.

A pillar of the Ukrainian State. Pavlo Skoropadskiy with the delegates to the Pan-Ukrainian Congress of Breadmakers 

In demonstrating the fruitful combination of national conservative and liberal reformatory basis of state-building, Lypynskiy brought up the example of the Baltic nations where, he wrote, “even without a population of 40 million, they were able to resist the pressure of armed bolshevik aggression.” Why? “Because they were democracies,” he explained, “and did not engage in ‘all-national’ insurrections against their own ‘foreigner barons,’ against the local conservative state-minded elements, and so they preserved their states from the bolsheviks.”

And so the nature of Pavlo Skoropadskiy’s actions as a state leader were completely in line with contemporary trends in social development among civilized European nations, leading to the conclusion that Ukrainian socialists really did not need to destroy the Ukrainian State. Based on the way that the bolsheviks were devastating national and social values, the Hetmanate of Skoropadskiy demonstrated a kind of breakthrough into the future, confirming incontrovertible constitutional and national cultural values. The short-lived experience of the Ukrainian State under Skoropadskiy is clear evidence of real creative achievements by Ukrainian conservatives whose adaptation to the situation in Ukraine today should not be underestimated.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter or The Ukrainian Week on Facebook

This is Articte sidebar