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The First Ukrainian War

Oleh Kotsyuba
October 23, 2015

Live streaming from the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine is available at

The first panel of the second day of the Danyliw Seminar featured two presentations on the history of Ukrainian insurgents in 1917-1922. Thomas Chopard presented his research on the Ukrainian atamans and insurgents during the Civil War (1917-1922) and Christopher Gilley – with a slightly changed topic that did not include the 21st century perspective – on the Ukrainian and Russian warlordism (otamanshchyna) in the beginning of the 20th century.

Chopard explained that in 1917-1922, there were some 50-60 atamans who led military units of different sizes fighting against one or the other power in the region. The question of their allegiance remains a complex one – certainly not all of them fought for Ukraine’s independence, as is sometimes argued, and some of them fought interchangeably for the Reds, the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), and the Whites. The sense of relative independence of these insurgents was very important to them, as they saw themselves deeply rooted in their local origination, often down to a particular village.

Panel on the First Ukrainian War at the Danyliw Seminar 2015. Left to right: Mayhill Fowler, Thomas Chopard, and Christopher Gilley

Their main goal was not to attain a final victory over one army or the other (Red or White), but to weaken each of them, reducing their ability for a long-term war engagement on Ukrainian territory by attacking them behind the front lines and disrupting their supplies. These warlords were also characterized by their particular brutality, which led often to dismissing them as valid political actors. Chopard argued that, although there was little ideology behind their actions, there was still a political dimension to these groups of insurgents. While these insurgents tried not to antagonize the local population, they tended to pick one group of the society that was made the scapegoat that would allow to perpetuate their insurgence – these groups were Jews and Poles in different periods.

Christopher Gilley opened his presentation with a discussion of Felix Schnell’s argument in his book Räume des Schreckens (Spaces of Terror) in which Schnell points to the emergence of “spaces of violence” in Ukraine after the collapse of the Russian Empire. Schnell rejects the role of ideology in the ataman groups’ functioning and argues that such spaces offered their actors chances for effectively pursing their interests. Violence thus held the members of such militant communities together and violence of one group perpetuated violence of the other. However, Gilley argued, dismissing ideology altogether makes a study of material evidence impossible that would provide helpful insight into the militant groups functioning an impossible undertaking.

Such evidence is comprised primarily of leaflets and newspapers of the atamans that illustrate their often situational and changing loyalties and alliances. Gilley argued that such material evidence can be read as expressions of a new identity that would fit the post-revolutionary situation. Against the background of the projected identities often being impostures, it deserves attention what personae atamans usually sought to project. Examples of such identities are, for instance, Nechypir Hryhor”iev (born likely Oleksandr Servetnyk) or Iukhym Bozhko. These and other insurgents often imitated and referred to the image of the Zaporozhian Cossacks – personae that were assumed by or forced upon them by circumstances. Other instances include masquerade in an attempt to infiltrate the Bolshevik forces to undermine them (as part of the partisan warfare). Gilley argued that, in their publications, they also tried to appeal to those ideological leanings that they sensed were popular among the broad population. Over time, many atamans made the movement from trying to motivate the population with social goals to motivating them with national goals. Gilley argued that it is within such a movement that Jews were cast as the representatives of Russian occupation in Ukraine.

The ensuing lively discussion centered on questions of the atamans’ identity and the nature of their violence. Mayhil Fowler raised the issue of other sources of violence in the region at that time that the presenters did not mention (Konarmiia, etc.). Discussing the fluid state of constant side-switching, Jesse Driscoll asked whether the Ukrainian state ever fails at that time, or if it emerges as the prevailing power. Anna Lebedev introduced a discussion of the economic dimension of the ataman phenomenon – the fact that much of the violence was a means of extorting financial resources from terrorized communities.

The attitudes of the Jewish population sparked an interesting debate on the Jewish Battalion in the Galician army, as well as the Jewish participation in the Red Army. Both phenomena point to a political identification of various Jewish communities with one cause or the other, underscoring their heterogeneity in the beginning of the 20th century. 

Amandine Regamey raised the question of the social portrait of the atamans. In response, Thomas Chopard pointed out that the ataman groups were very young, average age being around 27. I.e. the war was frequently their only socialization. Engaging in military activities was for them also a kind of de-socialization, as most other powers tried to establish their control over the society they belonged to. Fighting for their autonomy was an important part of their identity.