Kyiv, January 29: This weekend Ukraine honors the 400 young men, most of them new conscripts, who fought for and protected the newly formed Ukrainian People’s Republic by battling Soviet forces advancing on Kyiv on January 29-30, 1918. Sadly, most lost their lives.
The remembrance is poignant and timely as Ukraine finds itself under mounting pressure from Russian forces stationed along the majority of its borders.
The Battle of Kruty took place about 80 miles north of Kyiv at an important rail juncture. The battle was sandwiched between the UPR’s Central Council issuing a declaration called the Fourth Universal on January 22, 1918, breaking ties with Bolshevik Russia and proclaiming a sovereign Ukrainian state and the Red Army seizing Kyiv just weeks later, on February 9. As the 4000-strong Bolshevik forces advanced towards the capital, the student cadets found themselves totally outnumbered. The battle between unequal forces ended tragically.
The small Ukrainian unit of 400 soldiers of the Bakhmach garrison, of whom around 300 were students, withdrew from Bakhmach to the small railroad station of Kruty, which is not far from Nizhyn. Support from a regiment that was stationed nearby failed to arrive. Around 300 of them were killed during the battle, which lasted around five hours.
Some conscripts and officers managed to flee. Others managed to settle overseas, mainly in North America.
At the funeral the then President of the UPR, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, called every one of the 400 students who fought in the battle, heroes.
After the fall of the Ukrainian People’s Republic their bodies were moved by the Soviets to the Lukyanivske Cemetery in the capital. Although Soviet history totally ignored the battle, independent Ukraine finally began to give recognition in the 1990s. A nickel coin was issued by the National Bank of Ukraine on January 30, 1998, to mark the 80th anniversary.
The first ever film made to re-enact those events came out in 2019 to mark the centenary. Kruty 1918, or its streaming title, Winter of the Braves, is the only film to depict those events. A museum and monument was built at the site of the historic battle in 2006, which is about 80 miles north of Kyiv. The film shows the lack of training of the student soldiers. Both the monument and the museum feature in the film, which shows photographs of the fallen in the closing credits. Some of them were re-buried at Askold’s Grave in March 1918, which is a historical park on the steep right bank of the River Dnipro, between Mariyinskyi Park and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
The conscripts were unable to stop the Bolshevik forces from advancing on Kyiv, but managed to delay them and win time for the city to make preparations. The Battle of Kruty really was 400 young bravehearts against a huge army with greater resources. They were young Spartan-like soldiers, who died for the sake of their homeland in a fight against foreign aggressors. It was both sacrifice and selfless love. By laying down their lives they became forerunners of the Ukrainian political nation.
Poet Pavlo Tychyna wrote about the heroic students. His poem about the 30 who were buried at Askold’s Grave, entitled The Memory of the Thirty, ends with the verses “They died in the New Testament With the Glory of Saints. At Askold Cemetery They were buried.”
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