01/29 – The Kiev Arsenal Uprising

One of the few images of the Bolshevik participants in the Kiev Arsenal Uprising. (Lord of the Craft)

On this day in 1918, Ukrainian Bolshevik workers picked up weapons and revolted at the Kiev Arsenal. Ukraine had finally declared its independence from Imperial Russia just four days earlier in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, but many Bolsheviks within Ukraine sought a closer alliance with Russian socialists. As the new Red Army moved west, it was decided by the Kiev revkom (revolutionary committee) to link up with the advancing Russians and topple the brand new Ukrainian People’s Republic. In a largely organic uprising, Bolsheviks armed themselves and seized control of the train station, the arsenal and the Shuliavka neighbourhood (site of an earlier, five-day long socialist republic).

Ukrainian government troops known as “Bluecoats” in battle. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although many of the Central Rada (government troops) refused to fire on their citizens, several Free Cossack brigades moved in and stormed the arsenal. The Kievan Bolsheviks were brutally wiped out before the Red Army’s arrival, but their wish was soon granted as Ukraine became one of the first members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the heroism of arsenal’s defenders was immortalized in the 1929 film Arsenal.

Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1929 “Arsenal”, although an explicit piece of Soviet propaganda, is unique for its depictions of the absurdity of war and overall high quality. It is widely regarded as one of the best films of the 1920s. (Youtube)

Many Ukrainian Bolsheviks’ enthusiasm was short-lived, however: the first Ukrainian government was made up almost entirely of Russians and other foreigners The following decades proved extraordinarily unlucky for Ukrainians, who underwent the brutal man-made Holodomor famine, Stalin’s efforts at wiping out the prosperous kulak peasant class, and occupation by Nazi German forces during WWII. Although many agreed that Ukraine’s provisional government of 1918 was inadequate, few could foresee quite how unkind the ensuing decades of Soviet rule would be to the country.

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