Skoropadsky and the Course of Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Unity Themes

On pages 285-286 of Oleh S. Fedyshyn's book "Germany's Drive to the East and the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-1918," (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1971) there is a translation of Pavlo Skoropadsky's November 14, 1918 "Edict Calling for the Formation of an All-Russian Federation," as cited from pages 414-415 of Dmytro Doroshenko's Volume 2 "Istoriya Ukrayiny - History of Ukraine, 1917-1923" (Svoboda, Uzhgorod, 1930). 

Skoropadsky's edict is as follows:

We are now confronted with a new political task. The Allies were always friends of the old united Russian State. Today, following a period of turmoil and dissolution, Russia has to adopt new conditions for her future existence. The old might and power of the All-Russian State must be restored on the basis of a different principle - that of federalism. The Ukraine should assume the leading role in this federation, since it was she who gave the example of law and order in the country; it was also within Ukrainian borders that the citizens of the old Russia, oppressed and humiliated by the Bolshevik despotism, found freedom and security. [...] These principles, which I hope are shared by Russia's allies [...] should be the basis for the Ukraine's policy in the future. The Ukraine should thus take the lead in the formation of an All-Russian Federation, the principal goal of which should be the restoration of Great Russia.

The achievements of this task shall guarantee not only the well-being of all of Russia, but the further economic and cultural development of the Ukrainian people as well, on the basis of national and political independence. Being deeply convinced that any other course would result in the Ukraine's collapse, I appeal to all who care about her future - so closely linked to the future and happiness of all of Russia - to unite behind me for the defense of the Ukraine and Russia. [...]

The newly formed cabinet is hereby instructed to proceed immediately with the implementation of this great historical task.

Skoropadsky's edict exhibits the idea of a post-Romanov-governed and non-Soviet alternative for Russian-Ukrainian togetherness, with an emphasis placed on Ukrainian cultural identity and self-governance. From a Soviet perspective, there was the theoretical ideal of national republics in a multinational union.  The inclusion of Soviet-era Belarusian and Ukrainian United Nations (UN) delegations, minus the individual U.N. representation of other Soviet republics, was explained by stressing the role that Ukraine and Belarus each played during World War II.  This Soviet U.N. representation was a compromise among the key founding U.N. member nations.  The Soviet government sought all of its republics represented, but instead, there were only Soviet, Belarusian Soviet, and Ukrainian Soviet U.N. delegations.


Post-Soviet Ukraine's standing as an internationally recognized independent state and the varied Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia are influenced by a lengthy historical process.  After several centuries as a unit, Rus (the 9th- to mid-13th-century state, which modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are descended from) came under a prolonged era of Mongol subjugation.  The post-Mongol occupation period of that land saw Rus territories come under different rule.  Coupled with that aspect, the relatively large land of Rus was ripe for nurturing different cultural and linguistic attributes, while not completely eliminating a feeling of kinship, dating back to Rus's pre-Mongol subjugated existence.  Upon the defeat of the Mongols, the territory making up much of the contemporary European part of Russia emerged as the most independent of foreign domination and strongest of Rus territories.  There are signs that Rus was undergoing a shift toward greater influence in the north (away from Kiev) before the Mongol subjugation.  At around this time, there was some evidence of regional differences as well.

The rise of Poland and Ottoman Turkey as major powers and their at times tense relationship with the territories constituting Rus served as one reason for bringing together much of the Rus entity into the Russian Empire.  Rus's common past provided a further unifying base.

Pavlo Skoropadsky (1873-1945) was born into a family of prominent Cossacks in what is now independent Ukraine.  He is related to Ivan Skoropadsky (1646-1722), who opposed Ivan Mazepa's shift of allegiance from Russia to Sweden and Poland.  Ivan Skoropadsky was to replace Mazepa as leader of the Russian Empire Ukrainian situated Cossacks. 

The different accounts of Mazepa serve to highlight the historical division in the assessment of a number of Ukrainian territory-based issues through the centuries.  Some emphasize Mazepa's change of alliance on the premise that Sweden and Poland would be victorious in a war with Russia.  Others stress the notion that Mazepa's move was made in opposition to the Cossacks' relationship with the Tsar.  The record on this matter reveals that Mazepa's geopolitical shift was not supported by most of the Cossacks or much of the rest of the population in his area.

Between the time of Mazepa's downfall and World War I, the development of a separate Ukrainian national identity gradually gained stature.  At the same time, there was a noticeable degree of commonality.

Napoleon's 1812 attack on Russia was actively supported by tens of thousands of Poles in what was (at the time) the latest historical twist to troubled Russian-Polish relations.  The degree of Polish activity against Russia was not evident then among the population related to contemporary Ukrainians, who were generally loyal to the Russian Empire's war effort.  Another example of this mood is the literary relationship of Nikolai Gogol to Russia and Ukraine.  Gogol identified with Russia while expressing pride in the part of the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine) where he was from.  In 2009, both Russia and Ukraine honored Gogol's 200th birthday.

Turning Point

As World War I was drawing to a close, Pavlo Skoropadsky found himself in a unique situation.  The initial post-Tsarist Ukrainian government, known as the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR), had ties with the Russian Provisional Government as an affiliate of Russia.  (The Ukrainian People's Republic is also referred to as the Ukrainian National Republic.)  Faced with a difficult situation in Russia, the Provisional Government was not in a good position to deal with matters in Ukraine.  Following the Bolshevik overthrow of the Provisional Government and testy Bolshevik-UPR relations, the UPR declared Ukraine's full independence.  With World War I not yet over and Germany in an influential position in Ukraine, the UPR became close to Berlin.

With German support, Skoropadsky overthrew the UPR and proceeded to head a new government supported by Berlin.  The impression is given that the Germans turned to Skoropadsky because they felt that the UPR was not governing a society benefiting German war aims.  In addition, the monarchical Germany of that period likely felt more at ease with the socioeconomically conservative Skoropadsky when compared to the politically left-of-center UPR.  (Alexander Kerensky writes in his memoirs of a German policy seeking deals across the political spectrum in Russia and Ukraine.  The Germans gave support to the Bolsheviks, while also considering ties with some conservative Russian anti-Provisional Government and anti-Bolshevik elements.)

During his roughly eight-month period of governance in 1918, Skoropadsky faced criticism and opposition from the Ukrainian political left for favoring a conservative socioeconomic approach.  He was also criticized for being too subservient to Germany and for taking authoritarian measures.  (On that last particular, a kind of "whataboutism" of sorts contrasts what was evident or became evident in parts of former Russian Empire territory, including Ukraine.)  As German power declined, Skoropadsky's stature became more vulnerable.  An increasingly tenuous situation in Ukraine served the interests of the political left, who opposed a government viewed as (among other things) conservative and favoring the wealthy.

Problems existed between Skoropadsky's German-supported Ukrainian government and the anti-Bolshevik Whites.  The former initially proclaimed a continuation of the UPR's stance on Ukraine as an independent nation.  This position suited the geopolitical interests of Germany and the rest of the Central Powers.  The breakup of lands making up the Russian Empire decreased the stature of an adversary.  In contrast, the Whites favored Russian-Empire Ukrainian territory and Russia as part of the same nation.  The Whites (at least most of them) felt obliged to honor the Provisional Government's ties with the Entente against the Central Powers.  During World War I, the Entente was not so keen to see the territories of the Russian Empire and its Provisional Government successor broken up.  When backed by Germany, Skoropadsky was nevertheless able to attract some pro-White advocates into his government.

Skoropadsky and the UPR government he overthrew shared a similar thought process towards Russia.  At different points in time, each stated a willingness to see Russia and Ukraine as one country.  A weakened Russia coupled with a strong German presence in Ukraine challenged Russian-Ukrainian togetherness.  In addition, there were Ukrainian separatist-leaning tendencies, especially noticeable within the UPR body politic.  Simultaneously, a good portion of Ukraine's population was not against some form of a national entity comprising Russia and Ukraine.  When the Russian Civil War became concentrated in Ukraine, the warring Whites and Reds found a mix of native support and opposition for their respective causes, as well as individuals who were not enthusiastic about any of the factions in conflict (Reds, Whites, or Ukrainian separatists).  Despite their differences, the Reds and Whites each favored Russian-Ukrainian togetherness.

Skoropadsky's November 14, 1918 edict for an All-Russian Federation came shortly after the armistice agreement that led to the end of World War I.  Before the end of the year, his government was toppled by Ukrainian forces loyal to separatist/socialist Symon Petliura.  (Skoropadsky lived the rest of his life in Germany.)  Petliura's support came from many of the individuals associated with the UPR.  Towards the end of 1918, the Whites were not yet at their pinnacle of prowess, in a way that made it difficult for them to militarily assist pro-Russian/anti-Bolshevik elements in Ukraine.  The following year saw the Russian Civil War move significantly into Ukraine, when the Whites were at their strongest.

After Skoropadsky's government was overthrown by Petliura's forces, the latter faced a series of challenges.  It appears that Petliura was unable to successfully mobilize enough of former Russian-Empire Ukrainian territory to oppose his White and Red adversaries, who in turn opposed each other.  Muddying things further in Russian Civil War-era Ukraine were the differences between many Galician Ukrainians and Petliura's supporters.  Overall, the former were more rural and conservative than the latter.

These circumstances serve to explain Petliura's decision to make an alliance with Poland -- an alliance that included his agreeing to have the majority Ukrainian-inhabited portion of eastern Galicia (which had been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) come under the rule of Warsaw.  That move motivated the Galician Ukrainians (by and large) to come under the military command of the Whites.  Poland was willing to recognize a pro-Polish Ukrainian state comprising former Russian-Empire Ukrainian territory, whereas the Whites viewed that land as being united with Russia, as they tended to view eastern Galicia as foreign territory apart from Poland.  Concerning Russian-Polish differences on Ukraine and other Russian Civil War-related issues, George A. Brinkley's The Volunteer Army and Allied Intervention in South Russia, 1917-1921 (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1966) and Dimitry V. Lehovich's White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin (W W Norton & Company, New York City, 1973) have an array of detailed insight based on primary sources.

Two leading Petliura allies, Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Mykhailo Hrushevsky, were to go over to the Soviet side.  Before his death in 1934, Hrushevsky fell out of favor with Soviet officialdom.  Vynnychenko became disenchanted with the Soviet Union and settled in the West. 


When reviewing the Russian Civil War situation in Ukraine, several factors should be considered for clarity's sake.  During this period, some national independence movements across the world were more advanced than others, as worldwide imperial possessions remained quite evident.  At about that point in history, many Brits came around to acknowledging an independent Ireland without doing the same for other colonies.  Yet Russians and Ukrainians, ethnically and linguistically, are more closely related than English and Scots.

The Whites are considered reactionary when compared to their Red counterparts.  Note that the Whites supported Finnish and Polish independence, unlike some other independence movements.  (The White view on Finnish and Polish independence has been clearly stated and is well-documented in the previously mentioned books by Brinkley and Lehovich.)

The Russian Civil War era suggests a growing separate Ukrainian national identity.  Following the Soviet breakup, the 100% international acknowledgement of an independent Ukrainian state saw many Ukrainians revealing an interest in having close ties with Russia.  (The post-Soviet polling done on this particular includes a May 25, 2009 Research and Branding Group study and a February 18, 2010 IFAK-Ukraine International Research Agency survey.) 

Every post-Soviet Russian government has recognized Ukraine's independence on the basis of the latter's Soviet-drawn boundaries.  Among the few in Russia and Ukraine favoring a single Russian-Ukrainian state (along with the possibility of some other former Soviet territories), there seems to be (for the most part) an understanding that such a move should be mutually agreed upon and non-violent.

These facets put into perspective the at times overly hyped perceptions of Russian revanchist thoughts.  Russia's response to not being a part of other former Soviet republics is arguably not so relevant, even with some influential analysts prone to negatively portraying closer relations between Russia and Ukraine (and perhaps some other former Soviet lands).

In the foreseeable future, it does not seem so unreasonable to envisage closer Russian-Ukrainian ties, which could very well fall short of a multinational state. The May 6, 2011 Russia Profile Weekly Experts' Panel provides insight on the practicality of that kind of relationship.

Michael Averko  is a New York-based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.