Forming a Modern Ukrainian State: Rukh, the People’s Movement of Ukraine

Rukh, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, was the leading national movement in Ukraine between 1988 and 1992. It succeeded in becoming an umbrella organization uniting nearly all Ukrainian political movements.

May 5, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
rukh peoples movement of ukraine


Initially called the People’s Movement of Ukraine for Restructuring, Rukh represented a mass and civic political movement in Ukraine during the final years of the Soviet Union. It is often referred to as the Rukh, simply meaning “movement” in Ukrainian. The Rukh was founded in 1989 to support the liberation policies of perestroika and glasnost initiated by the Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, and aimed for the full attainment of political, religious, and human rights. This ultimately led to the economic and political sovereignty of Ukraine in 1991.


The Path to Ukrainian Independence: Establishing the Rukh

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Ukrainians demonstrate in front of the Communist Party’s Central Committee headquarters in Kyiv on Aug. 25, 1991, the day after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union by Anatoly Sapronenko, via Radio Free Europe


Since Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as the head of the Soviet Union in 1985, the ideological grip on the social and political lives of Soviet citizens had begun to weaken. His revolutionary policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) aimed for more publicity and democratization to save the trembling Soviet Union economically and politically. As a result, these policies encouraged people in the Soviet republics to seek more independence and fight for their rights.


Popular fronts and independence movements were formed across Eastern Europe in Poland, Moldova, and the Baltic states; Ukraine was no exception. The People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh) was established in 1989 as part of an all-European wave of mass protests against communism. The movement was launched by members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia previously imprisoned by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.


The Writers’ Union of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the revitalized Ukrainian Catholic Church all endorsed the establishment of the People’s Movement. The autonomous Ukrainian Communist Party, the Yednist Free Trade Union, the Union of Free Journalists, and the Ukrainian Olympic Committee are only a few of the initiatives that the Rukh supported in order to weaken the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.


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Initially, Rukh was founded as a civil-political movement, as at that time, no other political entity except the Communist Party was allowed in Ukrainian politics. The leadership of the Soviet Union had always paid particular attention to Ukrainian civil and social movements, as Ukraine represented the second-largest Soviet republic and had been prone to political instabilities and deviations throughout Soviet history.


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Front page of the February 20, 1991 issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta, via Open Society Archives


Until the autumn of 1989, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky was the head of the Ukrainian Communist Party. He was known for his hardline policies and was the last of the former General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s appointees to remain in power. The new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, did not replace Volodymyr Shcherbytsky as he tried to delay perestroika in Ukraine in order to maintain stability in the whole Soviet Union, which, as history shows, could not be accomplished.


During 1988–1990, mass rallies took place in western Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region, where in 1989, independent workers’ movements managed to completely remove communists from mines and factories. As a result, civic and liberation organizations emerged, and by the spring of 1990, the anti-communist political groups took power.


The dissidents, trying to form Ukraine’s civic and liberation movement, managed to successfully use the political environment created in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, and in February 1989, the Writers Association of Ukraine created the program and statutes of the People’s Movement of Ukraine. It was published in the journal Literary Ukraine the same year.


The draft program of the Rukh called for the reformist wing of the Communist Party and members of independent political groups to join the movement. Initially, the program and agenda of the Rukh were a demonstration of support for the revolutionary reorganization that the Communist Party had started under Mikhail Gorbachev. It also signified a fresh alliance of Communists and non-Party members working together in Soviet Ukraine for a major social transformation in all areas of public, political, and economic life.


From March to September 1989, leaders of the Rukh organized several conferences to acquire more public support. During this time, the movement accepted members of various political orientations, including liberal communists and nationalists.


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Liquidators clean the roof of the No. 3 reactor, via The Atlantic


These developments pushed the Soviet leadership to change their policy to adjust to a new political reality. Shcherbytsky resigned, and Leonid Kravchuk took over the leadership of the Communist Party. The new leader appeared more flexible and allowed the first founding Congress of the People’s Movement of Ukraine on September 8–10, 1989 in Kyiv. The movement’s first leader was the Ukrainian poet and screenwriter Ivan Drach.


Even though the Congress was subject to Soviet censorship and propaganda in Ukrainian media, the first program of the Rukh was still published and publicly available. It represented social and economic affairs as the key communication messages to the wider public to acquire more support. Environmental issues, in particular, found increased support among Ukrainian society as the events of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was still at the center of public attention. In this regard, ecology served as a guise for broader national issues. This phenomenon was later called “eco-nationalism.”


The reason behind this is that in the initial years of the Rukh’s development, the multiethnic and multilingual Ukrainian society was not highly responsive to nationalistic ideas. National identity was a considerably less motivating factor in Ukraine than, say, the Baltic states due to the considerable number of Russians (20% in 1989) and Russophones (40–45%) in the country, as well as the close ties between Russian and Ukrainian culture and history.


Additionally, the local communists viewed any independent actions with great caution. In the summer of 1988, the first initiatives were made to establish a large-scale group modeled after the independence movement, the Lithuanian Sajudis. However, the government brutally suppressed it. To advance perestroika in Soviet Ukraine, the Rukh’s leaders persuaded its opponents that the Rukh was not intended as an alternative to the Communist Party but rather as a supporter of it.


The Role of the Rukh in Achieving Ukrainian Independence

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On the day of announcing Ukrainian independence, 1991, via Vechernyi Kyiv


The year 1989 marked the transition from social mobilization to mass politicization in the Rukh, demanding economic and political sovereignty of Ukraine. With an estimated five million supporters and more than 50 different periodicals, the Rukh emerged as the largest public organization in Ukraine by 1990.


The first step towards achieving Ukrainian sovereignty was to challenge Soviet interpretations of Ukrainian history and replace them with national myths and symbols, which would help build the national consciousness of Ukraine and assist the movement in organizing collective action.


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Protecting the national flag near the City Council, 1990, via Vechirniy Kyiv


The most prominent example of building the Ukrainian people’s national consciousness was the demand by the Rukh and its affiliated parties to change the date of Ukraine’s Day of Unity. In remembrance of signing the Unification Act of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919, the movement suggested January 22 as a national holiday instead of Soviet anniversaries. The purpose of this initiative was to alter the nation’s memory and strengthen national identity.


On January 27, with 300,000 people joining hands in a 500-kilometer line, the Rukh helped organize a human chain from Lviv to Kyiv. The following year, in 1991, the event was once again commemorated with a prayer service and a march on Kyiv’s St. Sophia Square. (Only in 1999 did the day become a recognized holiday.) The human chain showed not only the increasing public support that the Rukh was gaining but also served as evidence of widespread opposition to the Communist Party as the elections of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR were approaching.


Even though the Communist Party made sure that the Rukh could not register as a party in time to run candidates for the elections, it still brought victory to a significant number of non-communist candidates.


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Human Chain in the capital of Ukraine, 1990, via Euromaidanpress


The Ukrainian Republican Party and the Democratic Party of Ukraine were established in January 1990. Eventually, the Rukh became an umbrella organization uniting these two major political entities and other smaller groups. This coalition resulted in the formation of the Democratic Bloc in Ukraine’s parliament, which opposed the communist Group 239.


In addition, in June 1990, the People’s Council was created by the pro-Rukh parliamentarians and members of the “democratic” wing of the communist party, which held 35% of the Supreme Court seats. The adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine on July 16, 1990, was largely the result of the People’s Council’s efforts.


In October 1990, the second Party Congress of Rukh was held in Kyiv. More than 2,100 delegates and 44 civic and political organizations attended the Congress. Members of the movement decided to remove the word “reconstruction” from the name to avoid being associated with the Soviet Union and communism. The Congress also declared that the Rukh’s main objective should be the complete independence of Ukraine, thus forbidding communists from joining it.


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Ukrainians waving their national flag rally for independence in Kyiv in September 1991, during the dying days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy, via The Wall Street Journal


As the Rukh transformed itself into a political organization and acquired wider popular support, it played a crucial role in encouraging Ukrainians to vote “yes” in the Ukrainian independence referendum. Levko Lukianenko, a prominent opposition figure and deputy head of the Rukh, developed the text of the Act of Independence. On December 1, 1991, Ukraine held a national referendum, asking the population: “Do you accept the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine?” 92.3% of voters who participated in the election supported the nation’s independence, with an 84.2% turnout. Ukraine’s independence was acknowledged internationally and locally. The Belovezh Accords announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union one week later.


The third Party Congress of the Rukh was held from February 28 to March 1, 1992. The coalition of the Ukrainian Republican Party and Democratic Party of Ukraine within the Rukh dissolved as their leaders decided to support the new president of the independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, who had been serving as the head of the Supreme Council of Ukraine before that. As a result, the Rukh’s leaders declared the organization’s opposition to the government. Ivan Drach left the party and was succeeded by Vyacheslav Chornovil, who ran in the presidential elections on December 1, 1991, and received 23,3 % of the vote, the second highest.


The Rukh was transformed into a political party at the fourth Congress, held December 4-6, 1992, and was officially registered as such on February 1, 1993, claiming over 60,000 members.


The Rukh After Ukrainian Independence

President Bill Clinton, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, and President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine in 1994 by Sergei Supinsky, via The New York Times


After the Rukh officially registered as a political party and managed to achieve its primary goal of Ukraine’s independence, it played a crucial role in all sessions of the Ukrainian Parliament. By 1999, the Rukh split into two political entities: Narodny Rukh Ukrainy (NRU) and the Ukrainian People’s Party, which are functioning to this day but represent minor political parties. Rukh’s influence gradually declined from 2000 onward.


Rukh was the first civil and political movement within Soviet Ukraine that acted as a vehicle to implement perestroika in Ukraine, aiming for further democratization. It cooperated with the Communist Party and other political entities to gain support, but also put forward candidates in elections, proposed new legislation, and used public pressure and influence, conferences, publications, demonstrations, and the press to achieve its goal. The promotion and rebirth of Ukrainian nationality and national identity, as reflected in Ukraine’s decisive Declaration of Independence, was a key achievement in the formation of the Ukrainian state. As Leonid Kravchuk later admitted, “I agree that, if it had not been for Rukh and other democratic currents, we would not have come so far so fast.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.