For the past several decades, Ukrainians world-wide have celebrated Ukrainian Independence Day on August 24, marking the day in 1991 when Ukraine broke free from its Soviet past and finally became an independent country. This year is particularly memorable in that it marks the 25th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence.
Now 25 years may not seem like much when compared to the centuries that most western countries are able to claim for their liberation from colonialism or subjugation. The U.S. is marking its 240th anniversary this year and Canada will be celebrating 150 years as a nation next year. Nonetheless, in the context of Ukraine’s mostly tragic thousand year history, 25 years is still a memorable accomplishment. Cursed by circumstance with rapacious neighbours and invaders, Ukraine has enjoyed little peace and even less freedom.
What is also notable is, that over the past century, there have been numerous other Ukrainian Declarations of Independence, and Aug. 24th is but the latest date to bear that label. The first occurred in 1918 in the aftermath of the fall of the Russian Empire. When the Russian Tsar was deposed in 1917, Ukraine sought to free itself from centuries’ long Russian domination. A Central Rada (Council) was formed, and on June 10, 1917 it proclaimed the formation of a Ukrainian National Republic. However, the proclamation fell short of true independence, as it foresaw Ukraine as part of a larger Russian federation of states. In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup and soon made it clear they would not countenance any idea of Ukrainian “autonomy”. Civil war quickly broke out with the Red Army invading Ukraine. On January 22, 1918 the Central Rada issued a new proclamation known as the Fourth Universal which formally proclaimed total independence for Ukraine.
Alas, this independence was short-lived. In April of the same year, Hetman Petro Skoropadsky, with the assistance of German and Austrian forces, overthrew the Central Rada and declared the formation of a new Hetman state under his absolute leadership. That too, was not to last long. By December of that year, with the defeat of Germany and Austria, Hetman Skoropadsky was overthrown by the Central Rada forces under Simon Petliura, who struggled for another several years trying to maintain the independence of the Ukrainian National Republic, but the opposing forces were too overwhelming. By 1922 the battle had been lost, Petliura went into exile, and the Soviets gained control over most of eastern and central Ukraine, while western Ukraine was absorbed by Poland.
World War II brought new hopes for Ukraine. In March of 1939, Nazi Germany seized Czechoslovakia and Ukrainians in its eastern Carpathian regions seized the opportunity and on March 15 they declared independence for the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, with the Reverend Avgustyn Voloshyn as head of state. Within days however, the Hungarian army with the approval of its German allies, invaded Carpatho-Ukraine and quickly crushed the Ukrainian forces.
There was to be one more Ukrainian declaration of Independence during the course of World War II. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists under their leader Stepan Bandera had allied themselves with Germany and when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the OUN forces followed in their footsteps. On June 30, 1941 in German occupied Lviv, Yaroslav Stetsko, Bandera’s right hand man stood on a balcony in Lviv’s historic city hall square and read out yet another declaration of independence stating “By the will of the Ukrainian people, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists under the direction of Stepan Bandera proclaims the formation of the Ukrainian State for which whole generations of the finest sons of Ukraine have laid down their heads.” Alas, the Nazi’s had no intention of granting Ukrainians anything other than slave status, and most of the OUN leadership was soon either killed or arrested and incarcerated in German concentration camps. And so Ukraine’s hopes and dreams of freedom were to lay dormant for another five decades until the unthinkable happened and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Declarations of independence for Ukraine have not been lacking during the past century. Hopefully the one of August 24, 1991 will be the one that lasts and enables Ukrainians to finally assume their rightful place in the community of nations on this planet earth. All the previous declarations involved great sacrifices and loss of life and this latest one is looking like it will not be an exception. Let us hope and pray that the Ukrainian people stand strong against all challenges, and that the rest of the world does not stand idly by like they did in the past when Ukraine’s freedom was at stake. Glory to Ukraine and Glory to its Heroes!