February 9, 2018

A Ukrainian centennial

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This year, January 22 marked the 100th anniversary of the historic Fourth Universal issued by the Central Rada, the parliament of Ukraine in 1917-1918, which proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic an independent state. And yet, in Ukraine, that milestone was somewhat disregarded as January 22 is celebrated annually as Ukraine’s Day of Unity, a national holiday that remembers the January 22, 1919, Act of Union between the Ukrainian National Republic and the Western Ukrainian National Republic, which encompassed lands that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though the Day of Unity exalts the noteworthy union of all Ukrainian lands, it is not the only January 22 act that should be widely celebrated.

A bit of history is in order. As explained by the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine (www.encyclopediaofUkraine.com), the Central Rada’s four universals, or edicts, led Ukraine from autonomy to independence. These universals also addressed such matters as capital punishment, land ownership, the length of a workday, the right to strike, the welfare of the handicapped, the inviolability of the person and the home, and freedoms of speech, the press, religion and assembly, etc. They were promulgated in the Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish languages.

In the First Universal, dated June 23, 1917, the Central Rada proclaimed Ukraine’s autonomy, noting “from this day on we alone will create our life.” Five days later, the first government of autonomous Ukraine, the General Secretariat of the Central Rada, was named. The Second Universal of July 16, 1917, written after negotiations between the General Secretariat and representatives of the Russian Provisional Government, proclaimed that the Central Rada would be expanded to include representatives of national minorities and would thus become “the single supreme body of revolutionary democracy in Ukraine.” The Third Universal, dated November 20, 1917, was issued after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. It declared the creation of the Ukrainian National Republic, albeit within a federated Russia of equal and free peoples, and set January 9, 1918, as the date for elections to the Constituent Assembly of Ukraine that would hold its first convocation on January 22.

The Fourth Universal, which was issued after the Ukrainian-Soviet war had begun, proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic as an “independent, subject to no one, free, sovereign state of the Ukrainian people.” It denounced the Bolsheviks’ aggression, expressed Ukraine’s desire for peace and directed the UNR to negotiate an independent peace treaty with the Central Powers. The universal was antedated to January 22, the day the Constituent Assembly was to convene but ultimately could not; in fact it was passed by the Little Rada, the Central Rada’s executive committee, on January 25, 1918. The anniversaries of the historic act have traditionally been celebrated on January 22.

Which brings us back to January 22, 2018. In the diaspora, many communities and institutions are marking the centennial of the Fourth Universal. To us here in the U.S., January 22 was the original Ukrainian Independence Day, marked for decades with flag-raisings at city halls, proclamations by elected officials, etc. We dare say it was the most important date on the Ukrainian calendar. When Ukraine re-established its independence on August 24, 1991, we had a new Ukrainian Independence Day to celebrate. But we celebrated it as the affirmation of the our nation’s decades-long struggle for freedom. Thus, the January 22 holiday remained important to the narrative of independent Ukraine.

However, in Ukraine the anniversary of the January 22, 1918, proclamation of independence is not a national holiday. Radio Svoboda recently interviewed Prof. Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University about that peculiarity. Prof. Plokhy pointed out that “the intellectual roots” of the Ukrainian state proclaimed in 1991 are found in January 1918, “and this intellectual impetus remained throughout the entire 20th century.” He went on to comment that it is probably due to a Soviet-era mentality that 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, is celebrated, while 1918 is largely forgotten. It is also a result, he opined, of a post-Soviet syndrome and post-colonial discourse. “We must rethink and reformat this tradition,” Prof. Plokhy stated, as “Ukraine of 1991 is a continuation of the act of 1918.”

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