Scholarly conference marks centennial of Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921

February 18, 2018

By Anna Procyk and Alexander Motyl

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Ukrainian Revolution and the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence, the Shevchenko Scientific Society in America, the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. and the Ukrainian Institute of America sponsored a two-day conference held on January 20-21 in New York.

This international gathering of scholars from Ukraine, Canada and the United States sought to examine the events in Ukraine during the war and revolution at the beginning of the 20th century from the political, ideological, military and cultural perspectives. Yet, while focusing on the past, the presenters attempted to establish a link between this pivotal landmark in modern Ukrainian history and the present.

The director of the European Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Vladyslav Verstiuk, in the keynote address, “The Impact of Revolutionary Events of 1917-1921 on the History of Ukraine in the 20th Century,” stated that the Ukrainian Revolution imparted a new meaning to what had been formerly known as the “Ukrainian question” in the Russian Empire and validated the existence of the Ukrainian nation.

Vladyslav Verstiuk addresses the conference. Panelists (from left) are: Alexander Lushnycky, Anna Procyk, Zenon Wasyliw and Serhy Yekelchyk. (photo Vasyl Lopukh)

The speaker was pleased to report that in the course of the past 25 years Ukrainian historians, through painstaking research and scholarly resolve, succeeded in reanimating the study of the Ukrainian Revolution and in this manner freed it from the constrains of the Soviet narrative according to which events in Ukraine during 1917-1921 were considered a regional variation of the Russian Revolution. The speaker noted that this was accomplished not without lengthy and at times acrimonious debates with Russian historians who continue to adhere to the Soviet interpretation of this event.

Furthermore, the speaker added that, in contrast to the dated views of their Russian colleagues, Ukrainian scholars and Western specialists have marked a number of striking differences between the two upheavals: if for the Russian revolutionary leadership the chief aim of the revolution was the attainment of a monopoly of power, for the Ukrainian political activists the main concern was the construction of the foundations of a Ukrainian state guided by democratic principles. In contrast to the Russian civil strife between the Reds and the Whites, the military conflict in Ukraine did not bear the marks of a class struggle but involved mainly a defensive effort against foreign invasions and occupations.

Among the weaknesses of the Ukrainian revolution the speaker singled out the dearth of experienced statesmen and high-ranking military officers, as well as the predominance of leftist ideas among politically active members of the intelligentsia who found it difficult to abandon their pre-revolutionary conviction that a military conflict among the socialists would not be possible. In spite of these deficiencies which together with external factors would be responsible for the loss of independence, the historian called attention to the fact that the Ukrainian revolution had a number of noteworthy achievements that left an indelible mark on the history of Ukraine.

In his concluding statement the speaker noted that without the reawakening of the Ukrainian national spirit as well as the establishment of Ukrainian political and cultural institutions in the course of 1917-1921, the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic would have never taken place. In spite of its political limitations at home and international impotence abroad, this state would provide the framework on which an independent Ukraine stands today.

Similar views were expressed by the American historian Anna Procyk whose presentation “Policies and Tactics of ‘White Russia’ toward the Ukrainian Central Rada and its Successors” focused on the problems encountered by the leadership of the Ukrainian Revolution due to the corrosive anti-Ukrainian propaganda unleashed by Russian intellectuals tied to the main centers of “White Russia.”

The speaker contrasted the high marks the White generals and their political advisers were ready to acknowledge in private talks regarding the effectiveness and intelligence of the leaders of the Ukrainian Central Rada with the disparaging depiction of the Ukrainian cause in White movement’s official pronouncements. These efforts, together with persistent attempts to deny the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, would continue in emigration, blocking for many an objective approach to the study of 20th century Ukraine. In her presentation, the speaker made a number of striking parallels between the propaganda warfare conducted by White Russia and Vladimir Putin’s hybrid war of today.

At the podium is Alexander Motyl; seated (from left) are Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, Anna Procyk, Serhy Yekelchyk, Henry Abramson and Lubomyr Hajda. (photo Vasyl Lopukh)

The events of the Ukrainian Revolution were examined both from a broad geopolitical and a narrower regional perspective by the well-known American political scientist of Rutgers University Alexander Motyl. In his presentation, “Ukrainian State-building in Comparative Perspective,” the speaker divided the nationalities of the rapidly disintegrating Russian Empire into three categories: those which succeeded in attaining and preserving their independence; those which gained full independence but only for a few years; and those which, in spite of their efforts, failed to attain any meaningful political success in their quest for an independent existence. According to this classification, Ukraine belonged to the second category.

In view of the fact that there has been no national liberation movement in modern history that succeeded in attaining its ultimate objective without some form of outside assistance, the speaker noted that the geopolitical realities in the period of the first world war – in contrast to the international constellation of today – did not favor Ukraine. Therefore the leaders of the Ukrainian national movement, irrespective of their military strength or political talents, had no chance to preserve Ukraine’s independence for a longer period of time.

Two historians, Serhy Yekelchyk from Canada and Zenon Wasyliw from the United States, chose to view the Ukrainian Revolution through the prism of biographical sketches of well-known historical personalities.

The Canadian scholar in his presentation, “A Soldier of Three Armies: Yurko Tiutiunnyk as a Symbol of the Ukrainian Revolution,” concentrated on the life of a youthful charismatic officer of the Russian Army with deep roots in the Ukrainian village. Because of his ability to understand the yearnings and desires of the Ukrainian masses, as well as because of exceptional organizational abilities, Tiutiunnyk was able to adapt his tactics with ease to new circumstances in the rapidly changing world of the revolution. His talents were valued highly by the leaders of the Ukrainian national cause and were not unnoticed by the Bolsheviks. Like a number of his idealistic contemporaries, Tiutiunnyk was lured to return to Ukraine in the 1920s. When the Bolsheviks gained full control of the state, however, the services of nationally conscious Ukrainians were no longer needed and Tiutiunnyk, together with thousands of his countrymen, became a victim of the mass executions by the Soviet regime at the end of the decade.

The American historian in his interesting and well balanced presentation, “Iuliian Bachynskyi: Ukrainian Independence, the United States, and Transnational Discourse,” chose to focus on the political ideals and diplomatic efforts of a political thinker from Galicia who found arguments for Ukraine’s right to an independent existence in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Prof. Wasyliw described the young man’s scholarly endeavors and diplomatic efforts during his stay in the United States at the end of the war. He noted with interest that Bachynskyi sought support for Ukraine’s independence not in the leftist revolutionary groups in the West but in the diplomatic circles of the global community. Discouraged by his lack of success, Bachynskyi left for the Soviet Union, where his life ended tragically, similarly as Tiutiunnyk’s.

The life and work of Ukrainians in the United States during World War I was also the subject of discussion by the educator and authority on émigré communities Alexander Lushnycky in his presentation, “Ukrainian Revolution and the Ukrainian Diaspora in America.” The speaker observed that, because of a serious epidemic which raged in this country during the first world war, not much thought could have been given by the leaders of the Ukrainian communities in North America to the events taking place in the land of their birth. However, as evidence that the revolutionary events of 1917-1921 were not completely overlooked, the speaker pointed to a marked rise in organizational life among the Ukrainian immigrants during the 1920s.

Highly original and thought-provoking ideas and observations were expressed by Prof. Henry Abramson in his talk: “Should We Tear Down Statues of Khmelnytskyi and Petliura? Contemporary Reflections on Conflicting Visions of National Heroism and Villainy.” The speaker, a well-known Canadian-American authority on Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the Revolution, proposed that in order to avoid conflicts that have beleaguered the Ukrainian-Jewish debates in the past, a thorough scholarly investigation of the factual material with respect to events of the past, as well as great sensitivity on the question of constructing monuments at present would be essential.

The speaker also noted that the well-known figure of the Ukrainian Revolution, Symon Petliura, should not be viewed as the architect of the pogroms of which he has been often accused, but rather as a victim of the geopolitical situation during a very turbulent era. In his concluding remarks the speaker added that the measures which Petliura initiated to stop the pogroms could have been introduced somewhat sooner and implemented with greater force.

Prof. Abramson’s lecture, which touched upon the socio-cultural aspect of the past and its reverberations in the present, provided a bridge to the third session of the conference, which focused on the interconnection between the events of 1917-1921 and the literary scene in Ukraine before, during and after the revolution.

In her presentation “The Nation as Aesthetics: Modernism and Nationalism of Ukrainska Khata,” Tamara Hundorova of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine examined the dominant themes discussed in the monthly journal of literature, literary criticism and politics appearing in Kyiv on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. Since the journal played a vital role in both the historical development of Ukrainian literature and the evolution of Ukrainian political thought, the presentation provided an excellent background for an assessment of the strength and nature of Ukrainian nationalism among the members of the Ukrainian intellectual elite before the revolution.

The journal’s editors, representing the younger generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia, the speaker noted, promoted with great energy and determination the idea of an independent Ukrainian culture. While they sought to incorporate into their works elements of new artistic trends fashionable at the beginning of the 20th century in Western Europe, they considered the existence of an independent culture an essential element for the validation of an independent nation.

For his discussion of revolution and modernism in literature, the literary scholar from Harvard University George Grabowicz selected a collection of poems written by one of the most talented writers of the period, Pavlo Tychyna. The collection appeared in 1920 under the title “Instead of Sonnets and Octaves.” By reading excerpts from the poems, the presenter skillfully illustrated the radical shift in the way writers approached culture and tradition during the revolutionary turmoil and noted that Tychyna saw himself as an indirect participant in the events, perceiving death as a process of redemption, an Easter morning after the night of darkness.

Valentyna Kharkhun, a professor at Mykola Gogol State University in Ukraine, in her presentation “Between Two Powers: Nationalist vs. Bolshevik in Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s Works about the Ukrainian Revolution,” through an analysis of the prominent politician’s diary as well as some of his literary works drew the conclusion that Vynnychenko, in the course of the revolution, did realize the necessity of an ideological struggle with the populism of the Bolsheviks, but the rapidity and violence of the revolutionary events made it impossible for him to initiate or participate in this struggle.

In addition to the presenters noted above, there were three chairs and three discussants: Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak of the Fulbright Program, Prof. Procyk from Kingsborough College of the City University of New York, Myroslava Znayenko from Rutgers University, Prof. Yekelchyk from University of Victoria in British Columbia, Lubomyr Hajda, from Harvard University and Oleh Kotsiuba from the journal Krytyka. Through their original commentaries and pertinent questions, these participants enriched the conference and provided an opening to a brief but spirited discussion.

The scholarly part of the conference was closed by Prof. Procyk, who in her concluding remarks spoke of the pioneers in the study of the Ukrainian Revolution in the United States beginning with John Reshetar of Harvard University and called attention to the significant achievements in this field that have been made in the course of the past 25 years in independent Ukraine.

A concluding part of the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the Ukrainian Revolution and the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence was a solo recital by the talented American soprano Vira Slywocky. The program of the recital was arranged by Solomiia Ivakhiv, music director at the Ukrainian Institute of America.