Money or Just a Piece of Paper? Ukrainian Karbovantsy - 1918
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
I have a rather modest collection of older coins and banknotes, but there is a clear theme. I search for items that come from fleeting countries; the kinds of states that only lasted a few years or, even better, only a few months. I like the reminder that those notes and coins are just pieces of paper or metal, and through a sort of alchemy they can be imbued with value. But then just as quickly, they can lose value when the country fades away or when people lose trust in that state.
One of my most prized possessions is a Ukrainian banknote from 1918. It probably isn't worth much, I paid only a few Georgian lari for it at a flea market in Tblisi a few years back. (I suppose there's a separate story about how this artifact ended up in Tblisi, but alas) I'm especially attached to this promissory note from a bygone bank because unravelling where it came from and how it exists in the first place is a fun historical puzzle.
The bill says that it is worth 1000 "karbovantsiv" and is backed by the "Ukrainian State." But this is not enough information to know where it came from or who was backing it. I imagine that most people didn't know there was a Ukrainian state before the Soviet Union collapsed. But there were a few actually, coming and going as they did in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the multiple wars that followed. After peeling back the layers, I discovered that the Ukrainian government that backed this currency only existed for eight months.
Ukraine, has only very recently had a state of its own for any length of time. With the fall of the Soviet Union there was even some controversy over whether Ukraine would remain independent or be absorbed into the Russian Federation. The issues surrounding Ukraine's complex past are part of the reason that Russian militias occupied Crimea and started a war in eastern Ukraine that is continuing on as I write this. Needless to say, Ukraine is a contentious place and has been for a very long time.
The area that is now Ukraine was within the Russian Empire before the First World War, but this quickly changed when the empire collapsed under the weight of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Kiev, the ancient capital of the region, served as the center of politics in the absence of the old regime. The politics of the city are complicated, it was a symbol of power for one of the most important regions of what was then called "Southern Russia," the breadbasket of Europe. Kiev was a mostly Russian-speaking island, with a prominent population of Polish gentry, surrounded by Ukrainian villages. After Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in March 1917, a rather small group of Ukrainian socialists proclaimed a representative government, called the Rada. But this did not last long since the Ukrainian capital found itself at the center of conflicts for the next few years. Between 1917-1921, Kiev changed hands no less than 21 times, passing among different armies and governments.
Between 1917-1921, Kiev changed hands no less than 21 times, passing among different armies and governments.
The October Revolution (actually in November according to the Gregorian calendar), brought Lenin's Bolshevik party to dominate much of central Russia's urban areas. However, the process to control the rest of the former empire would take years. In 1917, the Bolsheviks famously had three main goals summed up in the slogan "Land, Bread and Peace." To accomplish point number three, Lenin wanted to end the war that Imperial Russia had began, and so after the Revolution they started protracted talks with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). During these negotiations, the German army continued to creep further east in the hopes that a peace deal would include a huge swath of Ukraine. The area was strategically valuable for its agricultural wealth, mineral resources and Black Sea ports.
The peace negotiations between the Central Powers and the Bolsheviks culminated in the fairly well-known Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that legalized the occupation and solidified a huge loss for Bolshevik Russia. What is less well-known is that a month before the Bolsheviks signed any treaty, there was another treaty with the Ukrainian Rada government. The plan from the German perspective was to grant some autonomy to a puppet Ukrainian government so that they could exploit the fertile fields to feed their starving countrymen back home. As it turned out, the cabinet in Kiev proved to be rather inefficient at governing. The truth was that the Ukrainian Rada was in no position to force farmers to give over their grain. This was a particularly anarchic time and place in world history. Chaos reigned in the countryside as “warlords” roamed the villages, pillaging, murdering Jews, and fighting with whichever force stood in their way. The German military leaders grew weary of the fact that the Rada could not hold up its end of the bargain, they decided to remove them from power.
In late April 1918, a crowd of Ukrainians gathered in front of the opera house in Kiev and sang Taras Shevchenko’s poem Testament (Zapovit) in four-part harmony. This bit of political theater was put on by the Germans to stage a kind of coup against the Rada, in order to put in place a conservative politician Lt. Gen. Pavlo Skoropadskyi, as regent of Ukraine, with the ancient title “Hetman.” Skoropadskyi came from a distinguished gentry family, and was distantly related to Ivan Skoropadskyi who the Zaporozhian Cossacks elected hetman in 1709. Skoropadskyi spent the spring of 1918 negotiating with the great landowners of Ukraine for their support of his rise to power. Having attained their consent, the Germans supported Skoropadskyi’s singing coup d’état that replaced the Rada.
It's at this point in our story, with Hetman Skoropadskyi in power, that the money I found in Tblisi almost a century later came to be. This German puppet government—the Hetmanate—shrewdly started printing their own money. The Skoropadskyi regime was able to fund its operations by simply producing the funds for it. With these karbovantsy, the government paid civil servants, and purchased the grain the Germans craved. Through these multiple regime changes and truly uncertain times, the mere fact of the government claiming sovereignty and guaranteeing the value of the currency, transformed these pieces of paper into money. But I am fairly certain that the lack of legitimacy for the German-puppet government meant that the Hetmanate karbovantsy were practically worthless outside of Kiev and maybe a few other cities where the Germans had a presence. It's not as if there was particular need for more currency in circulation, there was plenty of other currency around.
In Ukrainian lands at this time there were still plenty of Russian roubles, but also German marks and Austrian crowns, some US and Canadian dollars brought back with returning emigrants. Lots of currencies could be traded for goods and services, and in many cases the further the sovereign backing the currency, the more valuable it was.
In the case of the Hetmanate they were only a (semi) legitimate government in so far as they were backed by the German occupying army. That all changed on November 11, 1918, on Armistice Day, the day the Germans surrendered and had to relinquish all of their gains in the east. The collapse of the German occupation in Ukraine created an opportunity for Ukrainian nationalists led by Simeon Petliura. Petliura was briefly arrested by the Hetman's police, but he escaped to form an army-government called the Directorate, named after a French Revolutionary committee. Thousands of peasants and Cossacks flocked to Belaya Tserkov (Bila Tserkva) to join their new army. In early December 1918, Petliura managed to come to an agreement with Western Ukrainian forces from Galicia, units formed from the Austro-Hungarian army. With this newfound strength, Petliura was able to quickly take control of much of the area around Kiev. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, the German command decided to defend the city for a few days. During this time Skoropadskyi held nominal power with German troops and imperial Russian officer detachments.
The German army quickly decided that fighting against the Ukrainians made no sense and negotiated a surrender. In order to avoid unnecessary casualties, Petliura’s army agreed to the quiet German withdrawal from the city on December 12. However, there were still some Russian units in the city that held out hope they could maintain Kiev for themselves and be relieved by counterrevolutionary White troops that were fighting to restore the Romanov monarchy.
Mikhail Bulgakov's novel White Guard (published 1925) recounts this very moment, and focuses on an imperial Russian cadet corps that was charged with defending the city from Petliura's Ukrainian onslaught. Bulgakov recounts a dramatic scene in which young volunteers and cadets are preparing for the coming attack. The commanding officer decides to call off the defense and encourage them to go home. Some soldiers are furious with him, and wish to arrest him for treason. The colonel then poses a question to his mutinying inferior officers:
“What do you mean to defend?…”
With sparks of tremendous and warm interest, Myshlaevsky stepped out form the group, saluted, and said, “It is our duty to defend the Hetman colonel.”…
“The Hetman?” the colonel asked. “Excellent. Battalion, attention!” he suddenly barked in such a way that the regiment instinctively shuddered. “Listen to me! Today at approximately four o'clock in the morning, the Hetman shamefully abandoned us all to the tyranny of fate. He fled! He fled like the supreme rat and coward he is! Today, an hour after the Hetman, Cavalry General Belorukov, our army commander, fled to the same place as the Hetman, that is, a German train.”
Indeed Bulgakov was correct. Skoropadskyi fled the city, disguised as an injured German officer, with his face bandaged. Some Russian officers and other loyalists, perhaps unaware of these developments, held out hope to face the monstrous enemy of the countryside. Petliura’s army defeated the Russians in a few skirmishes around the city, and entered Kiev on December 14, 1918.
Petliura then led what was the most viable Ukrainian effort for independence, but he and his troops could not hold on to Kiev for long. The forces of White, Red, Green (peasant), and Black (anarchist) armies all competed for Ukraine in 1918-1919. Soon after, the Polish-Soviet War also spilled over into Ukraine. Petliura's Directorate kept moving west, but they held on to something from Kiev, namely the same currency notes that I have in my collection.
The karbovantsy, printed by the German puppet Hetman Skoropadskyi regime, lived on past the life of its government with the Ukrainian Directorate. As that military-government retreated westward, they continued to make claims over territory and institute the use of this money. But this too was rather short lived. The Ukrainians came into conflict with the rising Polish army in 1920. To avoid more bloodshed and stop the spread of the communist revolution, the two sides joined forces to fight the Red Army. In the end, the Poles betrayed the Ukrainians and Petliura. The Treaty of Riga (1921) swallowed up Ukraine, dividing it between Poland and Bolshevik Russia. Despite guarantees of autonomy or self-government for Ukrainians in Poland, that never materialized. Ukraine would only rise again after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
 Mark von Hagen, War in a European Borderland: Occupations and Occupation Plans in Galicia and Ukraine, 1914-1918 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 87-92.
 Henryk Józefski, "Zamiast pamiętnika" Zeszyty Historyczne vol. 59, (1982), 19.
 Serhy Yekelchyk “Bands of Nation Builders? Insurgency and Ideology in the Ukrainian Civil War” in War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence after the Great War, ed. Robert Gerwarth and John Horne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 116
 Martha Bohaczevsky-Chomiak “The Directorate of the Ukrainian National Republic” in The Ukraine, 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution ed. Taras Hunczak (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1977), 82-90
 Mikhail Bulgakov White Guard trans. Marian Schwartz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 118-119