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The image of Poland and Ukraine in the British narratives (1914–1920)

Contribution by Sabina Kotova

Isaac Don Levin, The resurrected nations. Short histories of the peoples freed by the great war and statements of their national claims, New York 1919, p. 103.


Before the First World War, there was no Polish or Ukrainian state. Central and Southeastern Europe was divided between the imperial powers of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Therefore, this region had – for a long time – not been in the focus of British politicians. However, the international situation was changing. As Russia’s ally, Britain was forced to refrain from publicly criticizing its domestic policy. At the same time, the peoples within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy could count on the full support of the Entente powers in their struggle for independence. Poles and Ukrainians found themselves in a dual situation: the British were unable to support the national liberation movement in the Russian Empire but had every reason to promote the same movement in the hostile Austro-Hungarian Empire.

With the outbreak of the First World War, British intellectuals turned their attention to Central and Southeastern Europe. In general, the British government did not specify its goals in the war until mid-1916; discussions centred only on the defeat of Germany and the restoration of Belgium’s territorial integrity. Therefore, Poland’s request for creating its own state was considered only to the extent that it benefited this goal. By contrast, Ukraine did not become a topic of discussion in London for a long time.

After the occupation of Galicia by the Russian army, the Ukrainian national movement was brutally suppressed. But even then, British intellectuals were forced to refrain from harsh assessments of their ally’s policy. Thus, George Rafalowicz expressed the hope that “liberal Russia” would pursue a more balanced policy of tolerance after the war was won. The difficult Polish-Ukrainian relations complicated the situation even more. After all, there was no reason to expect close cooperation between supporters of Polish and Ukrainian independence (Raffalovich Sept. 1914, pp. 481–89).

The pro-Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Stepankivsky familiarized the British public with the state of affairs in Galicia. He exposed the Russification policy of the Russian Empire. In his opinion, the Russians sought to seize Galicia because of its favourable geographical location for the capture of the Balkans and Constantinople. Furthermore, this was intended to suppress the national movement in Galicia, which was feared to otherwise become active in Russia itself.

Arnold Toynbee, one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century in Great Britain, devoted a separate chapter to the Polish question in his work Nationality and the War. He points out that in the fourteenth century, the Poles seized territories that had been “Russian by language, creed and tradition,” but these Russian territories, in turn, had been divided into Belarusians and Ruthenes, or Little Russians. The partitions of Poland-Lithuania in the eighteenth century led to the incorporation of almost all of the former lands of Rus’ (with the exception of Galicia) into the Russian Empire (pp. 314–15).

Toynbee uses the term “Ukraine” in the context of the “borderland” between forest and steppe. He uses it to refer to “all areas of population within the present-day borders of the Russian Empire,” namely Volyn, Podillia, Kyiv, Poltava, Kharkiv, and the southern regions of Chernihiv and Voronezh. Little Russians, as Toynbee argues, have a strong national identity:

“Little Russians remember the day when the Mongols had not yet appeared, when the Dnipro, not the Volga, was the holy river of Russia, and Kyiv, which is in the middle of its course, was its sacred city, the meeting place of a centralized government and a world religion that came from opposite sides, from the Baltic and Black Seas.”

Little Russians consider themselves the heirs of the state-building tradition of Kyiv, this golden age of their history. After the Mongol invasion, the lands of Little Russia were divided between Lithuania and Poland, and later between Russia and Austria. However, the Russian Empire had never been able to fully resolve the problem of “Little Russian nationalism.” According to Toynbee, this could have been achieved only if Moscow would have recognized Kyiv as equal. In this case, “the Little Russians would […] remember only that they and their Great Russian brethren were all part of the same Orthodox Church, and inhabitants of Holy Russia.” However, this did not happen. As a result, Ukrainian nationalism, which could not manifest itself in the Russian Empire, found a home in Austrian Galicia.

In a few words only, Toynbee mentions the situation of the “Ruthenian” population in Galicia, which, although it constituted almost half of the province’s population, had virtually no power, as it was concentrated in the hands of local Polish landowners. However, Ruthenians still had many more opportunities for national development than, for example, in the Russian Empire or Hungary. In 1916, Toynbee even published a separate article on the Ukrainian question, in which he noted: “Many despised nations have gained recognition during the war, but the case of the Ukrainians is perhaps the strangest of all. A nation of thirty million, and we have never heard their name!” However, as a subject of the British Empire, Toynbee held no sympathy for the Galician idea of a united and independent Ukrainian state “stretching to Kyiv and Odesa” under the patronage of the Central Powers.

In the spring of 1916, the Foreign Office began to develop British war goals and related possible scenarios in Eastern Europe. To support allied Russia, a decree was issued banning pro-Ukrainian literature in the United Kingdom on the grounds that “Ukrainian agitation is supported by the Austrian government to discredit Russia.” While British intellectuals were quite aware of the difference between Ukrainians and Poles, they were not convinced of the difference between Ukrainians and Russians (pp. 11–12).

The revolutionary events in Russia 1917 and the Soviet-German armistice prompted Britain and France to conclude a secret agreement on the division of spheres of influence in strategically important regions as well as on the launch and coordination of actions aimed at countering the Germans. The major Entente powers feared the chaos of the civil wars and therefore sympathized with the White Guard movement led by Anton Denikin. The best way to fight Bolshevism would be for Denikin’s forces to cooperate, or even merge, with the Ukrainian army and support Polish independence.

Winston Churchill strongly opposed Bolshevism in his memorandum of September 19, 1919 and warned the British government of a possible understanding between Russia and Germany. Echoing Halford Mackinder's Heartland-Formula, he drew attention to the smaller players operating in Eastern Europe: Poland, the three Baltic republics, and the “fragile Ukrainian forces under Petliura” (p. 3). All of these small players could, in Churchill's view, influence the fate of the confrontation with Bolshevism, and should thus be given serious attention in London.

Poland and the Baltic states were to become fully independent. As for Ukraine, Winston Churchill, not believing in the possibility of its complete independence from Russia, still had “a concept of Russia that would consist of several autonomous states united on the basis of federalism in an alliance with Russia.”

In early 1920, as a result of the defeat of the White Guard troops, the United Kingdom decided to stop armed support for anti-Bolshevik forces. In addition, it put pressure on Poland to make peace with the Bolsheviks, meanwhile demonstrating at the highest level its ignorance to the existence of the peoples who were between Poland and Russia.

In general, in 1919–1920, Great Britain oscillated between anti-Bolshevism, hopes to restore the territorial integrity of the Russian Empire, the need for a balance of power in Europe, and the idea of newly independent states as a “sanitary cordon” between Western Europe and Bolshevik Russia, as well as banal pragmatism and fatigue from the war. In compareisonto the pre-war period, it is at the same time impossible not to note a significant increase in the interest of British intellectuals, diplomats, and politicians in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, and in particular in the Polish and Ukrainian issues.


Washington Government Printing Office, Texts of the Ukraine "peace" with maps (1918).


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