August 23, 2019

Dr. Lonhyn Cehelsky, a key leader in Ukraine’s independence movement


Lonhyn Cehelsky reunited with family in 1949.

The year 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the historic unification of the Western Ukrainian National Republic with the Ukrainian National Republic. The author and presenter of the Act of Union was Dr. Lonhyn Cehelsky. Marusia Kvit-Flynn, a relative of Cehelsky (he was her grandmother’s brother), writes about this political leader and the historic events in which he played a key role.


Lonhyn Cehelsky, a lawyer, journalist and political leader, was one of the architects of Ukraine’s independence leading to the historic moment of January 22, 1919, on St. Sophia Square in Kyiv, when the Ukrainian National Republic and the Western Ukrainian National Republic proclaimed their union.

He came from a very patriotic family descended from a long line of priests on both sides of his family. Lonhyn’s father was Father Mychajlo Cehelsky, and his mother was Anizia Dzerowycz. His father was pastor in Kamianka-Strumylova for 70 years.

Lonhyn Cehelsky was born on August 29, 1875, in Kamianka Strumylova (today Kamianka-Buzka). He was the oldest of six children. In 1894 he entered law school at Lviv University, after which he completed his doctorate in international law.

He was very active in the student movement, and in 1899 organized a student gathering in Lviv. In 1901 he organized student speeches at the university, and in 1902 he helped organize the agrarian strike in Halychyna. During 1899-1902 he joined a youth organization called Moloda Ukraina (Young Ukraine) and became the editor of its newsletter. During a student congress in Lviv on July 14, 1900, he gave a speech in which he presented the idea of independence and unity of Ukrainians in Halychyna and Ukrainians in Russia-ruled central and eastern Ukraine. This was one of the first times a call for the independence of Ukraine was made.


Political life and the Austrian Parliament

Upon completion of his law degree at the University in Lviv, Cehelsky received a position as a legal assistant at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also was an editor at the newspapers Svoboda and Dilo in Lviv, and later at Ukrayinske Slovo.

At the general meeting of the Austrian Parliament in 1908, Cehelsky joined a coalition with the Zionists; he was chosen to be the assistant delegate to Dr. М. Gibel, a known activist in the Jewish Zionist movement. After Gibel’s death in 1909, Cehelsky replaced him in Parliament and was re-elected in 1911.

Lonhyn Cehelsky’s Austrian Parliament identification card.

While in the Austrian Parliament, Cehelsky became the secretary of the Ukrainian parliamentary representation. In 1913 he organized an all Slavic conference to push for reforms and more freedoms for the Slavic countries within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That same year he was elected to the Galician Diet. In 1914, during the war, Cehelsky moved with his family to Vienna, where he worked on a parliamentary committee that provided help to refugees.

The Ukrainian Combat Board of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. Lonhyn Cehelsky (standing) is first from right.

He became a member of the Supreme Ukrainian Council, of which Kost Levytsky was president. It was a coordinating center for the protection of Ukrainian-Austro-Hungarian interests. On August 4, 1914, the council decided to create a Ukrainian military organization of volunteers called the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, which was supervised by the Ukrainian Combat Board. It was the only Ukrainian unit in the Austrian Army. In early September, with the arrival of Russian troops, the council moved to Vienna, where it was renamed the General Ukrainian Council.


The end of empires

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Duchess Sophie, were assassinated by a member of a Serbian nationalist organization in the city of Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarian government retaliated against Serbia with the backing of Germany. Serbia, on the other hand, was backed by Russia, Britain and France, referred to as the Allied Powers or Entente. By early August, World War I had begun. As early as spring of 1918, it became clear that Austria-Hungary and Germany would not prevail in the conflict.

In Russia, the revolutionaries overthrew the imperial government in March of 1917. In November, they placed the Bolsheviks in power, and more than 300 years of rule by the Romanov dynasty ended.


Self- determination in Ukraine

In the spring of 1918, as Austria-Hungary was losing the war, western Ukraine and other nations of the former empire fought for full autonomy as separate states. The Supreme Ukrainian Council was formed in Lviv and it released manifestos regarding Galicia (Halychyna) and the creation of a separate country.

On October 18, 1918, the Ukrainian National Rada was officially formed under the leadership of Levytsky. Cehelsky was the author of the Rada’s manifesto and became its state secretary for internal affairs. Yevhen Petrushevych was elected president of the new Western Ukrainian National Republic (known by its Ukrainian-based acronym as ZUNR).

On November 1, 1918, at 3:30 a.m., Ukrainian officers of the Austrian army under the direction of Petro Bubela carried out a takeover of Lviv. The city came under the control of the Ukrainian soldiers serving in Austrian units in Lviv. Dmytro Vitovsky, a company commander with the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, was present during the takeover, but his men did not arrive until November 3, although ZUNR had ordered them to come before the takeover. On the morning of November 1, the leaders of the newly formed Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR), proclaimed, “We fell asleep in Austria, and woke up in our Ukrainian nation.” Cehelsky took an active part in those historic events of November 1.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv in early March of 1917, a political and cultural body called the Central Rada was formed with Mykhailo Hrushevsky at the helm. These young socialist revolutionaries created a General Secretariat, an autonomous government of Ukraine, headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. By July, Russia’s Provisional Government in St. Petersburg had recognized the Central Rada as the regional government of Ukraine. After the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg, the Central Rada proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic in federal union with Russia. The Bolsheviks, however, had planned a coup in Kyiv as well, but it failed. The Central Rada then had no choice but to declare complete independence from Russia, and on January 25, 1918, it issued its Fourth Universal, which proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic as an independent and sovereign state.

Seen in 1918 (from left) are: Ivan Bobersky, Mykhailo Voloshyn and Lonhyn Cehelsky.

Unfortunately, the Rada had no troops with which to defend that independence and on February 9, 1918, in the town of Brest-Litovsk, the Central Rada signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers, i.e., Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies, for their protection. By March 2, they drove the Bolsheviks out of Kyiv. In exchange, Ukraine offered the Central Powers what they needed most – agricultural products, especially Ukrainian grain.

By late April 1918, however, the Germans dissolved the Rada, distrusting its socialist government just days after the Rada agreed to supply 1 million tons of grain. The coup they engineered brought Gen. Pavlo Skoropadsky to power as a hetman and dictator, limited only by the German and Austrian command. The socialist leaders, however, refused to cooperate with the hetman and rose against him. The war ended on November 11, 1918. The Central Powers and the Allies signed an armistice. On November 14, 1918, the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic, chaired by Vynnychenko, took over authority once again.


The Act of Union

Lonhyn Cehelsky (facing the camera in the grey suit) holds the Act of Union that he would be reading.

It was now the will of the people to unite all of Ukraine into one single nation. The Ukrainian National Rada of ZUNR instructed its State Secretariat to prepare the necessary measures for the unification of all Ukrainian lands into a single state. On December 1, 1918, in the town of Fastiv, one hour south of Kyiv, representatives of the Ukrainian National Republic and the Western Ukrainian National Republic met at the train station inside a train car where the UNR Directory handled their affairs, and signed a pre-accession agreement joining the two Ukrainian states into one state. The signatories from UNR were Vynnychenko, Opanas Andrievsky, Andrii Makarenko, Symon Petliura and Fedir Shvets. Dmytro Levytsky and Cehelsky signed for the ZUNR.

At Kyiv’s St. Sophia Square on January 22, 1919, when the Act of Union was proclaimed with thousands in attendance.

It was decided that the proclamation of the Act of Union would take place on January 22, 1919, at noon, on St. Sofia Square in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Together with Lev Bachynsky, Cehelsky was sent from Halychyna to Kyiv to participate in the historic unification ceremony and to prepare the legislative process for the new government. The author and presenter of the Act of Union was Cehelsky.

He was subsequently appointed as director of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs for the Western Province of the UNR (as the territory that was part of the ZUNR came to be called) and simultaneously as deputy foreign affairs minister of the UNR.


Untimely defeat

Tragically, as we know, the new Ukrainian government did not last long. In western Ukraine, as predicted, the Poles immediately reacted to ZUNR’s declaration of independence with warfare.

To resolve the Ukrainian-Polish conflict, the Allies sent French Gen. Joseph Barthelemy at the end of January 1919.  His first proposal to ZUNR was to give Lviv and the naphta-rich regions of Galicia (Halychyna) to the Poles. Petrushevych refused, since naphta was their lifeblood, its most important resource. Barthelemy’s second proposal was to leave the naphta to the Ukrainians, but to give Lviv to Poland.  Again, the majority of ZUNR voted against.  It was at this point that Cehelsky resigned as minister on February 13, 1919.  He felt that this was a historic blunder. He believed that to have western Ukraine, even without Lviv, and be recognized by the Allies would have ensured its sovereignty.

On May 16, the Poles took over Lutsk, capital of the Volyn region. Petrushevych and his government made their way to Vienna, where they established a government-in-exile until the Allies gave Galicia to Poland in March 1923.

In Kyiv, on the other hand, Vynnychenko did not last long as the president of the Directory. By early May 1919, his pro-Bolshevik sympathies led to the election of Petliura, the Directory’s commander-in-chief of the army, who led the Directory with dictatorial powers. In June, however, the Poles entered into peace talks with the Soviets and abandoned Petliura. Petliura and the Directory sought refuge in Poland and from there in Paris, where they led their government-in-exile. The war for independence was over.


Governing in exile

In 1920, Petrushevych appointed Cehelsky as the first ambassador to the United States. Cehelsky left on March 15, 1920, and arrived in Washington on April 10, 1920. His task was to gain support from the U.S. government for the recognition of the Western Ukrainian National Republic. It soon became evident, however, that Petrushevych’s political views differed from Cehelsky’s. Cehelsky, therefore, resigned as ambassador. Soon afterwards, at the Council of Ambassadors of the Allied Powers in Paris, on March 15, 1923, the eastern borders of Poland were decided. The council recognized the sovereignty of Poland over eastern Galicia and western Volyn; Bukovyna went to Romania; and Uzhhorod to Czechoslovakia. For Cehelsky, a return to his native Ukraine was out of the question. He was blacklisted by the new Polish government in Galicia.


Unfaltering fortitude

In Washington, Cehelsky suddenly found himself alone, with no work or income. In Ukraine, he had left behind his wife and two young sons. He soon found a position as a teacher of Ukrainian studies at a Protestant seminary in Bloomfield, N.J. Next, he found his way to New York, where he edited the Ukrainian paper Ukrayinskyi Visnyk. Afterwards, he moved to Philadelphia, where he became the editor of the Ukrainian paper Shliakh (The Way) and in 1943 became the editor of the Ukrainian Catholic newspaper America, remaining in that role until his death in 1950.

In 1940, Cehelsky became one of the founders of Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, and in 1944 one of the founders of the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee.

* * *

Dr. Lonhyn Cehelsky was tireless. He dedicated all his time and effort to promote the Ukrainian cause. He is the only representative of the Western Ukrainian National Republic who left behind memoirs about the events that transpired leading to the November 1 Act (1918) and the Act of Union (1919). His memoirs were published in a book called “From Legends to the Truth” in 1960. A second edition was published in Lviv in 2003.

In 1949, Cehelsky was reunited with his son Yurij, with his wife, Veronica, and two granddaughters, Anizia and Olha, after they had emigrated to the U.S. from the displaced persons camp in Landeck, Austria, after World War II. Unfortunately, Cehelsky’s wife, Olha, died at the camp. The reunion was short-lived, however. On December 13, 1950, Cehelsky suddenly died in his office in Philadelphia.

Lonhyn Cehelsky reunited with family in 1949.

Immediately after Cehelsky’s death, his apartment, which he rented from the convent, was ransacked. A group of men who claimed to be from the staff of America, confiscated all of his documents, books and archives. They also took his notebook, which included his most recent memoirs. It turned out that these men were not who they claimed to be. The valuable documents from Cehelsky’s assignment as ambassador from ZUNR in the 1920s were never recovered.

Cehelsky was buried at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic cemetery in Philadelphia. On January 20 of this year Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly came to honor him on the 100th anniversary of the Act of Union (Read).