A number of news items in recent weeks made me turn to the history books to refresh my understanding of one of the persistent issues facing modern day Ukraine, namely the supposedly great cultural and political divide between eastern and western Ukraine. Whether such a divide really exists and more importantly whether it plays a significant role in contemporary Ukrainian politics is certainly subject to debate. Nonetheless most Ukrainians themselves acknowledge that the “Halychany” from western Ukraine differ from their eastern counterparts in many ways.
Certainly, the historical and geopolitical influences on the two areas in recent centuries have been distinctly different. Eastern Ukraine has been under the constant oppressive rule of the autocratic Russian state, first under the Tsars, and then under the genocidal Communist state. Western Ukraine, on the other hand, has during this same time endured both rule of a somewhat more benign Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as an often repressive Polish government. Western Ukrainians have had more exposure to Western European influences, while Eastern Ukrainians have been effectively cut off until recently from the rest of the world. Needless to say, all this has had a significant effect on the psyches and political outlook of the Ukrainian populace living in the two different parts of the country.
This came to mind when I heard recently of a new historical film produced in Ukraine that is set to tour Canada and the U.S. in the coming weeks titled “Secret Diary of Simon Petliura”. For those not well versed in Ukrainian history, Simon Petliura was the President of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic from 1918 to 1921, as Ukraine struggled for autonomy and independence in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was almost exactly 100 years ago in November 1918 that Petliura and his allies succeeded in ousting the puppet state of Hetman Skoropadsky that had been set up by German forces near the end of the First World War. For the next several years, Petliura and his forces battled both the Red Army as well as Denikin’s Russian White Army before finally being defeated. Petliura went into exile, first in Poland and then France, where he was assassinated in Paris in 1926.
One of the major issues that Petliura had to deal with in his struggle for Ukrainian independence was the lack of unity within Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution. Despite the best efforts of Petliura and his government in Kyiv, known as the Central Rada, he could never really control all the armed and revolutionary Ukrainian forces in Ukraine at that time. Nestor Makhno, for instance, and his sizable anarchist army in southeastern Ukraine, though also fighting the Reds and the Whites, were a law unto themselves, sometimes co-operating with Petliura and often not.
At this same time in western Ukraine, on November 1, 1918, other revolutionary Ukrainian forces declared the independence of the western Ukrainian provinces that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as the newly constituted Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (known under the Ukrainian acronym of ZUNR.) The first President was Yevhen Petrushevych. Almost immediately, they were attacked by Poland who were determined to hold on to their conquered lands in Ukraine.
Although there were strong efforts to unite ZUNR and the Central Rada, cooperation between the two was strained and difficult. From a political standpoint, the Central Rada was far more revolutionary and socialist than ZUNR. The political parties making up ZUNR were far more conservative and traditionalist than their Kyiv counterparts. The military forces of ZUNR, being made up mostly of soldiers that had served in the Austro-Hungarian armies, were better trained and more disciplined, however they faced severe supply issues. The armed forces of the Central Rada were much more independent, divided and harder to control.
To make matters worse, the two aspiring republics had very different military objectives. ZUNR’s prime objective was to fight off the Poles, to which end, they were willing to consider getting assistance from the Russians. The Central Rada, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with fighting off the Russian Red Army, and was willing to secure Polish assistance to achieve that goal. In the end, this lack of unity and divergent priorities contributed to the eventual demise of both fledgling republics.
Echoes of this hundred-year-old divide continue to be felt even today. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, it has been obvious that the political values and priorities of Western Ukrainians are often not in sync with those of the Ukrainians living in the central and eastern regions of the country. This has been effectively exploited by the Russians seeking to undermine Ukraine’s independence.
Ironically, Russia’s recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas regions has almost completely nullified these Russian efforts to divide Ukrainians. In the face of blatant Russian invasion, Ukrainians have set aside their regional and cultural differences and are more united than they have ever been in fighting to maintain their independence. A serious political miscalculation on Putin’s part has done wonders to bring Ukrainians of all stripes together in a common cause. We can only hope that this continues to be the case in the near future, at least until the Russians come to their senses.