The Centenary Celebration That Wasn’t

Historian and writer Yuri Poliakiwsky talks to Bohdan Nahaylo on the Centenary of the Ukrainian Independence and the the Day of Unity on the 22nd of January

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo


Yuri Poliakiwsky

The Centenary Celebration That Wasn’t
The Centenary Celebration That Wasn’t

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Here you can listen to our feature interview with a guest radio host, followed by some new music from Ukraine. This week we have Yuri Poliakiwsky talking to Bohdan Nahaylo. We’ll hear from his perspective as a historian, on the Celebration that Wasn’t, or, on why the Day of Unity on the 22nd of January this year was actually a much bigger celebration than Ukrainians let on.

Polakiwsky: My name is Yuri Poliakiwsky and I would like to welcome you on Hromadske Radio. Today we a special treat for you. For a change, we asked our regular host Bohdan Nahaylo for an interview today. He agreed to discuss the celebration, or rather a lack of celebration ,  of 100 years of the  proclamation of independence of Ukraine and it’s going to be our topic for today. So I want to welcome you to “your” studio, Bohdane!

Nahaylo: Thank you very much. As our listeners know, this is Ukraine Calling on Hromadske Radio. Yuri is a writer based here from Canada. Thank you very much for stepping in to conduct this discussion.

Polakiwsky: It is my pleasure, Bohdan. Let’s start our conversation. This is a special week in the history of Ukraine celebrating its independence. Give me your views on this event.

Nahaylo: It is a very significant event in our modern history as you rightly pointed out and it should  have been properly observed in  Ukraine. Look, on the 22 January, or at least around that date, the Ukrainian parliament of that day – the Central Rada – was under great pressure from Russians invading from the North, from French and British representatives based in Kyiv, and from German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Turkish delegations meeting at what they saw as a peace conference in Brest-Litovsk. They were under great pressure to define themselves. Was Ukraine to remain an autonomous part of the Russian Empire?  Was it seeking some kind of federalization deal with the Russians? And in Russia, we had turmoil: the Bolsheviks had just seized power. Ukraine had been negotiating through the Central Rada for the best part of 1917 to get a fair deal [from Russia]. At first they thought that they could reach a deal with Russia’s Provisional Government, with broad autonomy being recognized. But clearly that was not on the cards. Even the Provisional Government was not interested [in agreeing to this].  In November 1917 the Central Rada declared the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR). After that things moved very quickly. The government of Ukraine at that time was split between pro-Moscow (not in a sense of pro-Moscow politically, but maybe influenced by a kind of psychological fear of breaking away), and those looking to the West. But the whole set up was influenced by the fact that all of these leaders were socialists. They believed in what would seem [from today’s perspective] to be utopian ideals, and of course they could not see what was about to happen.

Polakiwsky: Do you think that the government at that time was taking an opportunity to make a modern nationalistic expression to declare independence?

Nahaylo: I do not think they thought in modern terms about nationalism. There were a few nationalists around like Mykola Mikhnovsky who had called for an independent Ukraine to be established. But most of the others including [Mykhailo] Hrushevsky, the great historian who had shown through his incredibly detailed historical writing that Ukraine had its own history which went back at least a thousand years, were still looking for some kind accommodation with Russia. Vynnychenko, the prime minister, was leaders of a party linked to the workers, the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party (SDs). He was a popular writer. He was famous. He was very concerned that the masses would not understand what was happening. The Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionary Party were linked to the villages. But on the whole nobody was talking about nationalism. Symon Petliura, who was a literary, journalistic, figure before he became a politician (initially also an SD), was concerned that there was no Ukrainian army. There was not nationalism in a way that we saw nationalism emerge in the late 1920s or 1930s in Western Ukraine.

Polakiwsky: That what I was getting at. I wanted you to express a little bit more on what was the thinking of the citizenry at that point on this issue at that particular moment?

Nahaylo: Well it was very mixed, because there was a war, and it was still continuing. Obviously, there was a great demoralization with the Russian authorities, and the Bolsheviks were promising peace and bread, if not land. And anybody who was prepared to deliver on peace and on improving living conditions, had a good chance of getting into power. But in Kyiv itself, you still had Russian garrisons, you had former authorities that were loyal to the imperial centre, and you had this emergent Ukrainian factor, which was expressing itself through the Central Rada.

Bohdan Nahaylo and Yuri Poliakiwsky in Hromadske Radio's studio Hromadske Radio

Polakiwsky: All that being said, what do you think independence at that time meant?

Nahaylo: Well it meant a great deal. It meant a break with the past. It was a shift away from the thinking that had existed beforehand. Let’s put things in perspective. Ukraine was the second of the non-Russian and East European and Central European countries to declare independence when the empires were breaking up, following on the heels of Finland. Ukraine declared its Independence in January 1918, before Poland did, before Czechoslovakia did, because Austro-Hungary still existed. Western Ukraine, which was under Austro-Hungarian rule, did so on 1 November 1918, almost a year later. So this was a big deal. And they realized, the leaders at that time, that they were taking a risk, but they felt they had to do this.

Now one point I’d like to make, is that Hrushevsky at the time said to the members of the inner Cabinet, or the Small Rada, three days or so before they adopted the Fourth Universal, the Declaration of Independence: “Gentlemen, we’re not proclaiming Independence. We are renewing an independence that has been on and off in various forms for a thousand years”. Which is interesting, because today, in Ukraine, we seem to have lost this idea of a thousand years of history. And the confusion that exists in present-day Ukraine is that independence, up after the fall of the Soviet Union, was proclaimed on the 24th of August 1991. And this has become the official day for celebrating Independence. January 22nd has become the official day, and the national holiday usually, for celebrating the Act of Union uniting Western Ukraine and Central Ukraine, Kyiv and Lviv, which occurred on the 22nd of January 1919. So it’s called the Den Akt Zluky, Den’ Sobornosti. The Day of Union. And this year, to my great surprise, when I was awaiting that an independent Ukraine would make a big deal about the centenary of its Independence, nothing was happening.

Polakiwsky: That was one of my questions that came up in my preparations. Not only what the meaning of independence was. Was it a statement of Ukraine and a view of Ukraine at a particular historical moment? Do you think, that one of the reasons why it may not be celebrated  this day as much as it could have been, simply because now people see themselves and the history of Ukraine in another context, as if it’s another epoch

Nahaylo: There is something to be said for that point of view. But what concerns me is that this is a viewpoint that may exist among those who are not particularly well informed, who don’t know their history. But it’s also something that’s being, I think, consciously fostered for some reason, by the authorities, by the present Ukrainian leadership. I see no other explanation.

Polakiwsky: Let me just challenge that. What do you base that on?

Nahaylo: We have a war going on. Ukraine has reaffirmed its identity as a European, democratic country, that wants to be free of Moscow’s control. It is at war with Russia, because of Russiа’s aggression and seizure of Crimea and seizure of parts of the Donbas.  Parallels with 1918, when Russia did the same thing. Started moving militarily into Eastern Ukraine. Now, you would think that at this stage, the President, the Prime Minister, would want to declare to the population: “We’re a hundred years old. We’ve done it! Look, we’ve been independent now for over a quarter of a century in the more modern phase. But we trace our independence at least to 1918.”

You see, two years ago or so, some younger historians, some of whom have official positions here, even heading the Institute of National Memory, presented a program to the government, and to the President, about how this day should be observed, the 22nd of January, the Centenary of Ukraine’s Independence, in a worthy way. And lip service was paid to that. Yes, yes, yes,, this will be done!  And in fact nothing was done. And I was very concerned. Almost two or three weeks before January the 22nd was about to happen, I saw no signs of celebrations. The only thing I saw was that we would have the annual celebration of the Act of Union on the 22nd, but no mention of 100 years of independence.  And to be fair, there is a small but good exhibition, an outdoor, open-air exhibition, by the Maidan, outside the main post office in Kyiv. But that’s not enough. I raised the questions in my first post on Facebook. I said: A hundred years of Independence – it’s a big deal for us, for Ukrainians, and for our image.

Polakiwsky: Well it should be. But the question remains, if I can interrupt you for a moment, I think it is also a question of how do Ukrainians perceive their own history? And how does modern Ukraine look at its history? I think that’s the key question. Do you want to comment on that? Because I think it’s a question about how we develop the narrative.

Nahaylo: I would pose it differently. I would say not ‘how does Ukraine’ because that’s very amorphous and very nebulous but rather: how is Ukraine led to see its history and to understand what happened? Not everybody reads history books, not everybody is as informed as some of the leading historians are, but the leadership — the President in particular — bears responsibility for saying: I am the direct descendent of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the first President, and that on this day, my fellow citizens, I am proud to tell you that we are celebrating our 100 year anniversary. Now let me just say what should have happened ,and this is what I emphasized, I expected at the very least according to the scenario that was presented to the authorities two years ago that on this day we would have a public holiday. 100 years of independence, right? So that on that day the President, Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, would hold a symbolic meeting in the building where the first parliament of the Central Rada sat on Volodymyrska Street, the Teachers Building, that still stands! It’s remarkable that it’s survived the Bolsheviks and the Communists and wasn’t pulled down. So you would have imagined that would have happened. You would have imagined that on that day, as per the traditions of 1917-1918 when the various documents pertaining to autonomy and then independence we read out on St Sophia Square, that on that day the president or the prime minister would have jointly addressed the Ukrainian nation from St Sophia Square. You would have imagined that the president would have taken the opportunity to inform the Diplomatic  Corps in Ukraine about this. And what happened in fact and what got alarm bells ringing was that on the 16 January, President Poroshenko had his annual meeting with the Diplomatic Corps here in Kyi, and it was held at the Mariyinsky Palace next to the Parliament Building. Why not in the building of the Central Rada? What struck me was that he mentioned and congratulated East European and Central European neighbors of Ukraine on their 100th years of independence, that they managed to achieve independence at the time when empires were breaking up, but he missed the opportunity to stress that Ukraine led the way in many ways and tried to hold out.

Polakiwsky: As a historian and myself as a reader of Ukrainian history, one of the things that its illustrating I think is that this one event — or the lack of celebration for this one event — is one of the problems in how history is done here and thought of here. How does it pertain to doing history and writing narrative in a modern Ukrainian history, not only in a celebration of the 100th anniversary, but also concerning events that happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Declaration of Independence, and even the events of the Maidan. So I think it’s a problem of ‘doing’ history, how history is done, and how to tell the story. Do you want to comment on that?

Nahaylo: I think it’s a very good, apt observation. In fact, in many ways it’s what Shevchenko said “На нашій, не своїй землі “(on our land, that’s not really we’re at home in). And even though we have an independent Ukraine and history is being taught in a more patriotic way, and in a more truthful way, I would say that, rather than simply patriotic; unfortunately the current leadership, which is post-Maidan, supposedly patriotic, leading the country at a time of war, ignores this very important opportunity. But what got me even more concerned and distressed was that on that very day, on the 22 January, the President had a meeting in the Kyiv City History Museum opening an exhibition dealing with diplomatic relations, and he did introduce in his opening paragraph a last minute foreward — because this theme was not evident in the days before and in his meeting with the Dip. Corps that I just mentioned — where he did mention that, first we had the Declaration of Independence 100 years ago, and one year later we had the Act of Union uniting, attempting to unite, the Western People’s Republic with the National People’s Republic centered on Kyiv. Fine, but again, that had very little publicity, apart from on his own page. And what distressed me was that that day, with nothing happening in town, no celebrations for the public to participate in. I personally went out and I thought I wanted to be at the Central Rada Building and at the museum. So, I arrive at the museum where the President had spoken and where there was an exhibition devoted to 100 years of Ukrainian diplomacy and it’s locked for technical reasons on a working day, not public holiday  –  I emphasize! Then I go to the building of the Central Rada and the main building is also locked with red tapes across the doors , as if there’s a danger that it’s going to collapse or something, and yet the side door into the museum is open. And the director tells me that the President was here, 15 meters away placing, f lowers before the statue of Hrushevsky, the first president, but he didn’t come in – he didn’t even bother with the Prime Minister to just, as a courtesy, to come into the museum – and we are paying tribute 100 years later!  What does this say?

Polakiwsky: Well that’s my question, as I am listening to you, and as I was reading and doing some research lately, one of the things came to mind is that the present leadership here, with about the average age of 50, are still people who are products of the Soviet Union. I mean, I don’t want to get off on the lack of supposed reform that’s going on that or that’s not going on. We question, to what extent is the government here and its leadership committed to European values? One of the questions I ask, are they even cognisant of that – are these things that they ask themselves – are they still thinking as products of the Soviet Union or do they think, in some way, do they attempt to define what does it mean to be Ukrainian now in an independent state?

Nahaylo: Well I think there’s an element to add to what you said, “cognitive” – I would say cognitive dissonance – is appropriate here because you have a leadership that is invoking all things Ukrainian and yet not following through on matters that should be Ukrainian.

Polakiwsky: You see major symbols, communist symbols, still prevalent here in Kyiv, is one example and there is little debate how to get rid off these symbols.

Nahaylo: Well, there has been debate, and there is officially a program, a vehicle for de-communization, but let me just add some spice to this. One of the things that was suppose to happen is that quite a few streets in Kyiv, in the capital, were going to have their names changed to bring in to public display the linkage with the period of 1917-1920, the Ukrainian revolution. But, that hasn’t happened even though the planning was done and lip service was paid to this, so that is all still pending. Again, one area where there  was no delivery, so I think it’s not enough. I think sometimes it’s even inflammatory to name one or two streets after Bandera in Central Kyiv, let’s say, and when people who were in Kyiv in 1917-1918, whether Vynnychenko or Petliura, or other members of the Central Rada, have no statue or monument here. There are streets named after them, but not really central in the area where it all happened. We’ve still got a Boulevard Druzhby Narorodiv (Friendship of the Nations) here and this goes on. But what needs to be done is that the government and the president, who have advisors( it’s not as if they’re not informed)) should listen to their historians and at least publicly go through the motions of de-communization and re-writing history in a way that serves objectivity. They should actually listen to them, and not just have them as a token presence, and we should have a change of priorities. The 22nd of January should be both the Day of Independence and of Unity because they both happened on that day: independence was declared in 1918, and unity was declared in 1919.  So call that day, the Day of independence and Unity. Call August the 24th the day of the renewal of Ukrainian independence, and then think logically: what was the Soviet Union, was the Soviet Union, a Ukrainian state or was it a 70-year period of occupation?

Polakiwsky: Okay, that is on a macro level. What are your more specific suggestions in terms of what can be done? I mean those are macro suggestions in terms of dates, celebrations. Can we be more specific?

Nahaylo: I think the Speaker of Parliament should have acted and we should have had Parliament observing a hundred years of independence, not just leaving it to the President. Because, after all, you know, the Central Rada did it. It was not some President from above ,or some Hetman, invoking, his will. It was the will of the people expressed through their representatives. So the Parliament should be more active and it should now move to change the holidays around. So that, as I said,, January 22nd is identified with independence, not just unity,  because that is something of a red herring. Of course unity is important, but how could you have had unity if you did not have the desire to be independent? To link up to independence, unity, a united Ukraine. So, that is one thing. Then, make it a public holiday. Certainly make sure that the children in the schools know more about this, and change the names of the streets, continue with de-communization, but start with the real heroes many of whom were social democrats, social revolutionaries. They were not extreme nationalists. They were very moderate people, writers like Vynnychenko – a writer, Hrushevsky – historian, Petliura – a literaray specialist, etc. And bring home the fact that independence – that idea, that it was not just sown; “the idea was sown” the President said. People died at Kruty, 300 students died within a few days of independence being declared just as young men are dying and women are dying today in defense of 100 years old independence, not simply…

Polakiwsky: And if I could add, dying for a land and a unique culture. They are dying from all around Ukraine and are giving their lives for the land and for the country…

Nahaylo: Yuri, just finally, let us remind ourselves, because I am from Britain originally, you are from Canada. You know, January 22nd was a big deal for us. In America, I am not sure if it was the same in Canada, for the Ukrainian communities in the diaspora generally:  it a very big celebration, sviato, politically very important. They would try their utmost to get the mayors of the cities or towns to issue proclamations, recognizing this. You know, we need to be doing something like that here as opposed to simply paying lip service. I think it was a crime.

Polakiwsky: That is a very strong word.

Nahaylo: You know, that is a very strong word. Before the memory of all the millions of people that gave their lives for the Ukrainian independence, particularly in the period 1917 to 1920 and later, it was a crime to have hushed this up. Yes, there was a last minute attempt, the President did mention this [100 years of independence]. But where were the preparations, where were all the aspects that should have made this a very worthy and memorable centennial celebration?

Polakiwsky: Let me ask you, as we conclude, let me just ask you one question how should we define independence in modern Ukraine? Quickly.

Nahaylo: Independence – the freedom to be ourselves both as individuals and in a state, which is free from outside domination and which serves the interests of its people. The founding fathers stressed in the Forth Universal that they were the servants of the people. And I think here today the leadership for some reasons, maybe it is the Soviet legacy, forget that they are “sluhy narodu” (servants of the people) and not, you know, the masters…  

Polakiwsky: You know it is funny I did not you were going to answer that way, but what a way to end our interview. Yes, the independence and a political leadership are truly the servants, and should be the servants, of the people. And maybe when the leadership understands that, maybe we will have a greater sense of who we are and where we are going, and who we are and what we can be, fulfilling our potential in the modern world. Thank you very much Bohdane.  I hope the questions were not too hard.

Nahaylo: Thanks Yuri, the questions were not hard but they certainly demanded thought and a little bit of diplomacy.

Polakiwsky: Thank you very much for joining us here in Kyiv. This is Yuri Polakivsky on behalf for Hromadske Radio.

Nahaylo: Do join us next week. When we will have another edition of Ukraine Calling for you from Kyiv, from Hromadske Radio. Thank you!


This week’s song is called Чорне Золото, which means Black Gold. It’s performed by a band from Horlivka that relocated to Kyiv once the town in Donets’k was occupied. They’re called Fata Morgana UA, not to be confused with 1980’s Kyiv band Fata Morgana. The Horlivka group recently recorded their version of Vladimir Vysotsky’s 1970’s classic miner’s song. Horlivka is a mining town. Enjoy!


Next week Bohdan Nahaylo will be hosting the show and we’ll be back with more conversation with people who make things happen in Ukraine, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Caroline Gawlik, Oksana Smerechuk, Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, and Ilona Sviezhentseva. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.