World Views

Kyiv has faced adversity before – and a stronger identity grew in response

This is not the first time residents of Kyiv have fought to defend the city from an encroaching, larger army.

On Jan. 30, 1918, a force made up primarily of military cadets and hastily armed students took up positions at Kruty, a railway stop northeast of Kyiv, to defend the capital city of the Ukrainian People’s Republic against Soviet Russia. The republic had only declared formal independence a week earlier to rebuff aspirations by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to control Ukraine.

By the end of the day, the young defenders at Kruty had succumbed to Soviet Russia’s superior Red Army. With the help of aligned local Bolshevik militias, the Reds took Kyiv itself on Feb. 7.

The history of Ukraine following the battle for Kyiv is complex and messy. But as a historian of Ukraine, my research has found that this first period of modern independence from 1918 to 1920 is central to a national narrative that maintains Ukraine is a sovereign country, separate from Russia.

This sense of identity makes occupation a hard task, as the Soviets found out in 1918 following Kyiv’s fall.

With the Red Army in possession of Kyiv, the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic took refuge in the northern city of Zhytomyr. Its representatives signed a peace agreement with the former Russian Empire’s opponents in the ongoing First World War, the Central Powers, and German and Austrian soldiers proceeded to push the Red Army out of Ukraine.

Germany put in place a more pliant government in Kyiv. But after the Kaiser’s army collapsed in defeat on the Western Front, Ukrainian forces under the leadership of a former journalist-turned-soldier, Symon Petliura, retook parts of Ukraine, including Kyiv, only for the city to be occupied again by the Red Army in February 1919.

An army comprising volunteer troops, Cossack units and bands of peasants – some of whom shirked their government’s command and committed pogroms against the country’s Jewish minority – fought for the restoration of dominion over Ukraine. After concluding a hasty alliance with Poland, the Ukrainian People’s Republic briefly recaptured the capital with the help of Polish forces.

But in June 1920, the Red Army subjugated Kyiv for the final and last time.

Lenin was forced to concede a need to accommodate what he described as Ukrainian “national feelings” in the development of the USSR. The Ukrainian language was given equal standing in the early years of the Soviet Union, and Communists in Ukraine had greater say in the management of their republic under the nominally federal system than they would have had in a unitary state proposed by Lenin’s detractors.

The Ukrainian national movement compelled these compromises. Ukraine — Soviet or otherwise — was not created by “Bolshevik, communist Russia” as Vladimir Putin claimed in a recent public distortion of history that has served as a justification for invasion.

If Kyiv passes again to Russian forces, as it did multiple times between 1918 and 1920, history suggests this control will likely not last.

A sense of Ukrainian identity has only grown stronger in the century since young men gathered at Kruty to defend Kyiv.

Now, Ukrainians of multiple ethnicities and linguistic preferences have taken up arms to defend a potent, pluralistic and democratic vision of their homeland.

It is unclear when or if Russia will occupy Kyiv. But Ukrainian defense of the city has been fierce. 

The national movement in Ukraine in 1918 to 1920 was strong enough to complicate, if not defy, Russian and Bolshevik control. And the Ukrainian national idea did not evaporate under Soviet rule. It is likely to animate a tenacious resistance today.


Matthew Pauly, Michigan State University, MDT/THE CONVERSATION

Categories Opinion World Views