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Carol of the Bells & the fight for national dignity. Lessons from the history of the Ukrainian National Republic

The Ukrainian Republican Cappella, Ukraine’s first cultural diplomacy project, had brought the Ukrainian folksong Schedryk to New York, where it was transformed into the Carol of the Bells. Photo:
Article by: Viacheslav Horshkov
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
[editorial]For many, Carol of the Bells is an irreplaceable symbol of Christmas. Few know that not only is this originally a Ukrainian folksong, but a folksong that was performed one hundred years ago all over Europe and the Americas in Ukraine’s first-ever cultural diplomacy project. The fledgling Ukrainian National Republic sent a capella on a worldwide tour in a bid to preserve the statehood of the country – and ended up giving a timeless gift of Ukrainian music to the world.

This article is an abridged version of a lecture given by Viacheslav Horshkov as part of the conference “Human Dignity – Socio-ethical Legacy and Challenge of the Revolution of Dignity” organized by the Center for Eastern Europe and International Studies in Berlin (ZOiS) in cooperation with the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Konrad-Adenauer foundation, and the Open Orthodox University with the aim to rethink the meaning and Christian understanding of human dignity in the Ukrainian socio-political context in Kyiv over 31 October-1 November 2019. [/editorial]

The 2013-2014 protests on Independence Square, which we call the “Revolution of Dignity,” are easier to understand when viewed within the framework of a larger historical context associated with the Ukrainian national liberation movement, which dates back to the 19th century.

The Euromaidan revolution rose up in defense of such manifestations of human dignity as political subjectivity. In fact, Euromaidan rebelled against the pro-Russian policies propagated by ex-President Yanukovych and his government, which threatened to return Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence that existed during the Soviet regime. Through the Euromaidan, Ukrainians protected their own subjectivity as a political nation.

However, where does this subjectivity, which asserts the freedom and independence of the Ukrainian political nation, come from?


This map, titled “World peace in Ukraine,” was published in Vienna in 1919 or in 1920 in the publiching house “Christipher Reiser and sons,” reflects the situation in the fledgling Ukrainian National Republic in that year.

The period from 1917 to 1921 is called “The Ukrainian Revolution.” During those tumultuous years, the dream of Ukrainian patriots and fighters to create or revive Ukrainian statehood finally came true. This was an extremely turbulent, exciting and dramatic period of Ukraine’s history, which Ukrainian scholars have only recently started exploring and researching. The ignorance of history is dangerous to the future of Ukrainian society as it significantly impedes its socio-political and cultural development because it forces us to reinvent the past over and over instead of acknowledging our own achievements and moving forward.

The more I learn about Ukraine’s achievements during those years, the more I am convinced that the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921 should be called the Revolution of Dignity.

One of the prohibitions was the Ems Decree, an order signed by Emperor Alexander II of Russia in the town of Ems (now Bad Ems, Germany) on May 30, 1886. The decree forbade the publication of original and translated works (even music) into Ukrainian, the import of Ukrainian-language publications from abroad into the Russian Empire, performances in Ukrainian, and concerts of Ukrainian songs and recitals.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ukrainians had no distinctive subjectivity, political ideals, or social program, as they lived in cultural spaces dominated by different colonial powers. As an example – for more than 300 years under the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth of Poland), the Ukrainian language was subjected to various restrictions and prohibitions more than 30 times!

At this point, I would like to quote Mykhailo Drahomanov, a Ukrainian scholar and public figure, who delivered a report on the Ukrainian question at the 1878 Paris Literary Congress:

“… I draw your attention to the exceptional situation of writers of a certain nation, representatives of a certain literature, a nation that is destined to carry out its mission in the development of European civilization…

I would like to make the Paris Congress aware of prohibitions and persecutions promulgated against Ukrainian literature by one of the most powerful states in the world.

It will not be easy for members of the Congress to believe that a certain national literature has been banned in Europe, and that this fact, no matter how improbable it may seem, is now in force, in the second half of the 19th century!”

The end of World War 1, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian Revolution contributed to the emergence of two Ukrainian republics on historic Ukrainian lands – the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) in 1917 and the Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR) in 1918, which subsequently united into a single Ukrainian National Republic on 22 January 1919.

However, due to the aggression of its neighbours, primarily Bolshevik Russia, and the lack of recognition and political support from the most important countries of that period, the UNR was annexed by Poland and Soviet Russia after the conclusion of the Treaty of Riga in March 1921.

So, Ukraine’s actual independence lasted a very short time. And even this period of independence did not include the whole territory of the country.


The First General Secretariat of Ukraine was the autonomous Ukrainian executive government of the Russian Republic from 28 June 1917 to 22 January 1918. For most of its existence it was headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. Standing, from left to right: P. Khrystiuk, M. Stasiuk, B. Martos. Sittting (from left to right): I. Steshenko, Kh. Baranovskyi, V. Vynnychenko, S. Yefremov, S. Petliura

In this context, let’s examine what kind of Ukraine its leaders were trying to build in 1917. Here are some facts that will give you an idea of the policy of dignity implemented in Ukraine in 1917:

  • In 1917, the UNR government created a Ministry of Jewish Affairs, an important achievement recognizing Jewish rights of that period of history.
  • On January 22, 1918, the government approved the Law on National-Personal Autonomy, according to which:
    – “Article 1. Each of the peoples living in Ukraine has the right within the Ukrainian National Republic to national and personal autonomy, that is, the right to self-organize their national life through the bodies of the National Union, whose power extends to all its members, regardless of their place of residence within the Ukrainian National Republic. It is an inalienable right of peoples, and none of them can be deprived of, or restricted in that right.”
    – The Great Russian, Jewish and Polish peoples have been granted autonomy by virtue of this law, and other peoples could avail themselves of this right, subject to the submission of an application signed by “at least 10,000 UNR citizens, regardless of their sex or faith.”
  • In 1918, a UNR Constitution was drawn up by a professorial collegium, but unfortunately, it was not approved in time. Article 14 of this Constitution expressly prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment:
    – “Article 14. Neither UNR citizens nor anyone else residing in the UNR shall be put to death for a crime, endure corporal punishment, or any other acts that violate human dignity, or have their property confiscated as punishment.”
Otto Eichelmann. Photo:

The draft of the Constitution was authored by a Ukrainian political statesman and professor at Kyiv University Otto Eichelmann, a German by birth and a Lutheran by religion. The concept of dignity became a constitutional norm after World War 2 and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations in 1948. But in 1918, only one other country – Mexico – mentioned human dignity in its Constitution. By 1940, the concept of human dignity was included in the Constitution of four other countries: Germany (1919), Finland (1919), Ireland (1922) and Cuba (1940).

  • In 1919, the Law on criminal liability for insults against national honour and dignity was approved by the UNR government, which provided for imprisonment from 3 months to 1.5 years if “the honour or dignity of any nationality of the Ukrainian National Republic is violated”.
  • The UNR’s religious policy is extremely interesting. No faith was forbidden or imposed. The State only made sure that religion was not used as a weapon against Ukraine. As an example, I quote some eloquent words from a speech by Prof. Ivan Ohiyenko (the future Metropolitan Hilarion and translator of the Holy Scriptures into Ukrainian) on the occasion of his appointment as Minister of Confessions of the UNR:
    “I will take into account that our free State has proclaimed freedom of religion and belief for all, and I will be committed to all religions and all religious work, but our government will not tolerate any means to use religion as a tool to denationalize Ukrainians. Ukrainians may be Orthodox, Uniate or Catholic (or they may not adhere to any faith), but they must remain Ukrainian.”
    – It is impressive to study the projects of this UNR Ministry, for example, “On the establishment of a commission for the translation of the Holy Scriptures and Divine Books into the Ukrainian language,” “On the allocation of 10,000,000 hryvnias for the publication of the Holy Scriptures and other liturgical books” or “On the release of 504,000 hryvnias for the conversion of the Ukrainian Liturgy into real life.” It was an attempt to bring into real life what one could only have dreamt of during the three hundred years of Moscow enslavement.
    – At this very time, bloody terror reigned in Bolshevik Russia as Bolshevik authorities instigated political repression and mass killings against their own citizens and the church. So, as we can see, the vector of forces released by the revolution in Russia and Ukraine was diametrically opposed.
  • During the last year of the UNR’s existence in 1921, the Brotherhood of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin was organized within the Ukrainian army. The Statute contains a paragraph that required the members to conduct themselves with dignity and respect for others (paragraph “d”):
    – “Article 6. When joining the Brotherhood, each member solemnly swears:
    a) To forget the shameful muscovite habit of cursing your mother and singing shameful muscovite songs.
    b) To carry and use weapons in order to protect the Homeland from enemies, and not to instigate violence or plunder the civilian population, and also not to rob others or misuse weapons, and to prevent other Cossacks from committing such dishonest acts.
    c) To protect weak, defenseless people, and especially the elderly, women and children.
    d) To remember that all people are brothers and children of one Heavenly Father, and to refrain from insulting or abusing Tatars, Jews, or any other peoples, and consider them all as citizens of the Ukrainian National Republic.
    e) To love one’s native land, one’s people, one’s ancient customs, to respect the elders, to make the sign of the cross when passing by a church, to pray, in the morning and in the evening, before and after meals, to respect the Ukrainian language and to support the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
    f) To love and respect one another, to help the sick, to financially support Cossack widows and orphans.

It should be noted that respect for all peoples, for members of other peoples (paragraph “d”) comes first, and love for your own people (paragraph “e”) follows. That is, protecting the dignity of other peoples was primordial.

The aforementioned examples give us an idea of what country Ukrainians were striving to build 100 years ago. But, after the Bolshevik occupation, everything related to the UNR was deliberately discredited, stigmatized and eliminated from public space.

Symon Petliura, who organized the tour of the Ukrainian Republican Cappella

So, how was Ukraine to impose itself on the world scene, to gain recognition from other countries? The leaders could not count on a powerful economy or a powerful army. Diplomatic representation was also lacking. One of the key figures in this period was Symon Petliura, who was also in charge of the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Arts, a man who knew that not everybody could be a good soldier. In order to include the greatest number of people into the process of statehood, Petliura organized a series of cultural programs, funded by the Central Directorate of Ukraine, to actively promote Ukrainian culture abroad. One such initiative was the Ukrainian Republican Cappella.

The Ukrainian Republican Cappella tours the world

The Ukrainian Republican Cappella in Prague, 1919. Photo:

The Ukrainian Republican Cappella was created on 16 January 1919 under the direction of Oleksandr Koshyts, a brilliant conductor and composer. All the members were listed as civil servants, and concerts and other activities were funded by the Ministry of Arts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the patronage of Symon Petliura.

Oleksandr Koshyts, the Cappella’s conductor. Photo:

The first tour of the Ukrainian Republican Cappella began in Czechoslovakia on 26 April 1919. The tour continued from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England.

Here are some reviews of the tour of the Ukrainian Republican Cappella, which show how this cultural diplomacy influenced foreign audiences 100 years ago and the effectiveness of Ukrainian “soft power”, or rather “song power.”

Prominent Prague conductor and professor at the Prague Conservatory Jaroslav Křička writes:

“The Ukrainians came and won! It’s sad, but we knew so little about them and often offended them when we unknowingly merged them with the Russian nation. Our desire for a “great and indivisible Russia” is indeed a weak argument against nature, against the will and sentiment of the Ukrainian people, for whom freedom and independence, just as for us, means everything.”

Musica Divina, Vienna, 7 August 1919:

“The Ukrainian Ministry of Arts and Culture has focused on choral singing as a means of political propaganda. The world, which has been so deliberately and negatively informed by a despotic Russia about Ukraine, should now be aware of Ukraine’s unique cultural identity. Such cultural maturity should also legitimize this country’s political independence.”

La Tribune de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland, 14 October 1919:

“Here’s an example of one of the best propaganda promotions ever. While the young republic struggles in the stifling embrace of Denikin and the Bolsheviks, its government strives to establish its right to freedom and independence, to its own national culture. After two centuries of enslavement, the Ukrainian song has proclaimed its right to freedom… These artists sing in a most convincing and attractive manner. The choir members feel that they are fulfilling a patriotic duty; the soul of a whole nation echoes in their voices, a nation that has preserved its optimism, good humour, healthy morals and strong belief in a free country despite years of terrible suffering. Their songs reflect the language of a nation of 40 million people who want neither Bolshevism nor tsarism but only to be able to govern their own country.”

Libretto with Ukrainian national symbols. London, 1920. Photo:

From a speech by a French journalist at the Ukrainian Republican Cappella concert at the Théâtre Des Champs-Elysées, on 25 February 1921 in Paris. Here is an introductory speech presented by a French journalist:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve decided to acquaint us with your country and thus to make us love it…

You’ve decided to address the general public and you’ve sent us a wonderful national choir. We have a popular saying in France: “It all ends with a song”. Today, we must change this phrase and say that something of great importance has been started with a song – the era of French-Ukrainian friendship…

But, it is regrettable that the success of this Ukrainian choir does not motivate the French government to promote our culture abroad. It’s good to convince the mind, but it’s also necessary to touch the hearts.”

The famous Belgian writer Franz Hellens dedicated an entire article to the Ukrainian Republican Cappella in the newspaper La Muise (Liege), 22 January 1920:

“If it’s true to say that the moral development of a nation can be judged by its poetic activity, then Ukraine is among the countries that deserves most interest. Poetry in all its forms – lyrical, epic, satirical – has flourished in Ukraine at all times, reflecting the depth and peculiarity of their spirit, as well as their strength and flexibility…

Obviously, we would continue living unaware of the wonderful poetry and music of the Ukrainian soul if these individuals, who aspire to have their place under the sun of free nations, had not opened their art and cultural traditions to Europe through this choir, which is touring Europe from one capital to the next, and familiarizing us with such exquisite coloratura. Liege has had the opportunity to hear this wonderful choir and everyone who has listened to this music will never forget it …”

Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, 29 April 1920:

“The Ukrainian National Chorus has visited Berlin. The purpose of this world tour is to win a moral victory for the young Ukrainian Republic. We were immediately subjugated…

The nature of Ukrainian songs differs from Russian ones. The most striking general characteristic of authentic ethnic Ukrainian folk music is the wide use of minor modes or keys, but there is little fatal pessimism, which prevails in Russian music. Ukrainian music is more cheerful, determined and optimistic. Therefore, there is something fresh, strong and life-affirming in their music. Therefore, we see how a strong nation struggles to become free and fights for its existence with a song. If the song were a country, Ukraine would have taken first place a long time ago.”

Renowned German publicist and writer Robert Friedlaender-Prechtl reviews the concerts of the Ukrainian Republican Cappella in The Vossische Zeitung, Berlin, 29 May 1920:

“On my way home, I wondered why we Germans with such rich folklore have not been able to create such a choir?… We could also send a German choir to tour the world, as the Ukrainian government did. It would do so much more to acquaint the world with Germany, its customs and soul than all the newspaper articles and speeches in parliament. But … Are we a nation? Are we a people?… The Ukrainian people have been oppressed, enslaved, raped, and torn apart for centuries. And yet, what a treasure trove of pride in their past! What unwavering belief in their future and resurrection! What certainty in the immortality of their national existence lives in those folk songs!”

After the Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine, the choir lost much of its financial support from the State and became a purely commercial project managed by foreign impresarios, but it continued its original mission until 1924. The Ukrainian National Chorus toured South America, the United States and Canada between 1922 and 1924.

A concert of the Ukrainian National Chorus on the stadium “Plaza de Toros” in Mexico on 26 December 1922. Then the singers faced the largest audience in their history and set a world record (32 600 listeners). Photo:

The choir was greeted with great enthusiasm in the New World. On 1 February 1924, Clay M. Greene, an American playwright, wrote in The San Francisco Journal:

“Not only did they give the greatest musical performance that we have ever heard in our country, but they also put Ukraine, as a music-loving nation, on the artistic map of the world. In the meantime, we always thought of it as a devastated land of wandering Cossacks and peasants.”

US Congress Senator George Wharton Pepper called the Ukrainians “the first people to come to America not to take but to give.”

Mexican President Alvaro Obregon Salido wrote the following:

“For the first time in my life, I regret that I’m missing my right arm and cannot applaud you (his right arm was blown off in the war-Ed)… I’d be happy if I could send such a choir to the enemies of the Republic in order to make them friends of Mexico.”


For five and a half years, the Cappella toured 200 cities in 17 countries, gave over 600 concerts, and received more than 1,300 reviews from the world press. All this time, as Maestro Koshyts recalled, Shchedryk was “the focal point of our repertoire.”

Below is the first-ever recording of Schedryk performed by the Ukrainian National Chorus made by the Brunswick recording company upon the chorus’ arrival to New York in 1922.

Shchedryk (The Little Swallow) is a folk song, a greeting, a wish that has existed in Ukraine since pre-Christian times. It was sung as a New Year’s wish for abundant blessings when the New Year was celebrated not on January 1, but in the spring time, when the first swallows arrived. It tells the story of a swallow flying into a household to sing of wealth and prosperity that will come with the following spring. Arranged by composer and teacher Mykola Leontovych, Shchedryk was so successful that it was often greeted with standing ovations and demands for an encore. Even without translation, it was considered a gift to the world from the true Ukrainian heart. Such gifts are always gratefully acknowledged, and the memory of those who gifted them remains forever.

Today, we have not only our Ukrainian Shchedryk, but also the world-famous Christmas song – Carol of the Bells – the same Shchedryk, but with an English text, written by an American of Ukrainian origin Peter Wilhousky in 1936. Thus, Shchedryk became a Christmas carol and a Christmas gift to the world. Every Christmas, it echoes throughout the world in different languages, preserving the memory of the dignity of the Ukrainian nation, which is still fighting for the right to lead a dignified life and the right to exist in harmony with the rest of the world.

Viacheslav Horshkov is a religious scholar, postgraduate student of the chair of religious studies and theology in the National Dragomanov Pedagogical University, a senior methodist at the Ukrainian Scripture Union.

Mr. Horshkov’s full lecture in Ukrainian can be watched here:

Read more:

Other materials from the conference:

More about Schedryk:

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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