Books of the Month

1918: Soviet forces liberate Ukraine, inspire fighters worldwide

March 6, 2023
Red Army troops welcomed in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 1917. Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 put Russian workers and peasants in power, ended Russian involvement in World War I, put an end to czar’s “prison house of nations,” forming Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Virtual Museum of the Ukrainian RevolutionRed Army troops welcomed in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 1917. Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 put Russian workers and peasants in power, ended Russian involvement in World War I, put an end to czar’s “prison house of nations,” forming Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography by Leon Trotsky is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. Under V.I. Lenin, Trotsky was a central leader of the Russian Revolution, including as foreign minister of the young Soviet republic. He led the Russian delegation in 1917-18 talks to end the war with representatives of the belligerent regimes of Germany and Austria. Lenin and Trotsky championed self-determination for nationalities oppressed by czarism and for a voluntary union of the Soviet republics, including Ukraine. The excerpt is from the chapter “Negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.” Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


During the last stages of the negotiations, [Richard von] Kühlmann’s and [Count Ottokar] Czernin’s trump card was the independent action of the Kiev Rada,1 which was hostile to Moscow. Its leaders represented the Ukrainian variety of Kerenskyism, and differed from their Great Russian prototype only in that they were even more provincial. The Brest-Litovsk delegates of the Rada were never intended by nature for any other fate than to be led by the nose by any capitalist diplomatist. Kühlmann’s and Czernin both engaged in this business with disdainful condescension. The democratic simpletons felt as if they were walking on air, so elated were they at the thought of the two stalwart firms of Hohenzollern and Hapsburg taking them seriously. When the head of the Ukrainian delegation, Golubovich, after making his due comments, sat down in his chair, carefully separating the long skirts of his black frock coat, one was afraid that he would melt on the spot from the intense joy and admiration that were simmering inside him.

Czernin eventually succeeded, as he himself records in his diary, in inciting the Ukrainians to come out against the Soviet delegation with an openly hostile statement. But the Ukrainians overdid it. For a quarter of an hour their speaker heaped rudeness on arrogance, even embarrassing the conscientious German interpreter. … I must admit that the scene was most distressing — the distressing thing about it being not, as Czernin thinks, that our fellow countrymen were insulting us in the presence of foreigners, but the frantic self-humiliation of what was after all a representative body of the revolution before vain aristocrats who only despised them. A grandiloquent baseness and a servility that choked with its raptures flowed like a fountain from the tongues of these miserable national democrats who for a moment had been touched with power. … With a glance at his patrons after each sentence, as if he were looking for encouragement, the Ukrainian delegate read from his notes all the vituperation that his delegation had prepared. … I never for a moment doubted that these over-zealous flunkies would soon be thrown out-of-doors by their triumphant masters, who in turn were soon to be ejected from the seats they had been holding for centuries.

At that time revolutionary Soviet detachments were victoriously advancing through the Ukraine, fighting their way through to the Dnieper. And on the very day when the matter came to a head, and it was obvious that the Ukrainian delegates had struck up a deal with Kühlmann’s and Czernin for the sale of the Ukraine, the Soviet troops took possession of Kiev. When [Karl] Radek inquired over the direct wire about the situation in the Ukrainian capital, the German telegraph-operator, mistaking the person he was addressing for some one else, announced: “Kiev is dead.” On February 7, I called the attention of the delegations of the Central Powers to the telegram from Lenin informing us that the Soviet troops had occupied Kiev on January 29; that the government of the Rada, now deserted by every one, was already in hiding; that the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of the Ukraine had been proclaimed the supreme power in the country and had taken its seat at Kiev; and that the Ukrainian government had adopted a federative connection with Russia, with complete unity in home and foreign policies. At the next meeting, I told Kühlmann’s and Czernin that they were treating with the delegation of a government whose entire territory was confined to Brest-Litovsk. (By the treaty this town was to be restored to the Ukraine.) But the German government, or rather the German high command, had already decided by that time to occupy the Ukraine with German troops. The diplomacy of the Central Powers was merely drawing up a passport for their admission. [Gen. Erich] Ludendorff worked magnificently to prepare the final agony of the Hohenzollern army.

During those days, confined in a German prison was a man whom the politicians of the Social Democracy were accusing of crazy utopian ideas, and the Hohenzollern judges of state treason. This prisoner [Karl Liebknecht] wrote: “The result of Brest-Litovsk is not nil, even if it comes to a peace of forced capitulation. Thanks to the Russian delegates, Brest-Litovsk has become a revolutionary tribunal whose decrees are heard far and wide. It has brought about the exposé of the Central Powers; it has exposed German avidity, its cunning lies and hypocrisy. It has passed an annihilating verdict upon the peace policy of the German [Social Democratic] majority — a policy which is not so much a pious hypocrisy as it is cynicism. It has proved powerful enough to bring forth numerous mass movements in various countries. And its tragic last act — the intervention against the revolution — has made socialism tremble in every fibre of its being. Time will show what harvest will ripen for the present victors from this sowing. They will not be pleased with it.”

  1. The Rada, an assembly of representatives of various public organizations in the Ukraine, was formed after the February revolution and claimed to be the spokesman for the Ukrainian nation. After its overthrow by the Bolsheviks, the Rada favored the German occupancy, which, when established, dissolved the Rada government and made Hetman Skoropadsky the sole ruler of the country.