Nationalists, Jews and the Ukrainian Crisis: Some Historical Perspective

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


Recent days have seen several comments touching on the allegedly fascist or anti-Semitic leanings of Ukrainian nationalists involved in the revolution. Most recently, Vladimir Putin has stated that the revolutionaries are a band of “fascists” and “reactionary anti-Semitic forces” that have gone “on a rampage.” Commentators remain divided on whether Putin truly believes Ukraine to be on the cusp of a fascist takeover, or whether this is simply an excuse for Russian military intervention in Crimea. Nonetheless, despite the ambiguous nature of the nationalist coalition, Abraham Foxman, still lingering at ADL headquarters and still apoplectic at any sign of nationalism among Whites, recently took to the pages of the Huffington Post to assert that “the Ukrainian Jewish community is nervous,” and urged the new government to “reassure” Ukrainian Jews.

Foxman and many news outlets have singled out the Svoboda party, and other groups and individuals within the loose alliance of nationalists, as being particularly concerning. Since many of these individuals and groups (as well as their attitudes towards Jews, multiculturalism, and the West) are likely to be unfamiliar to Western readers, what I hope to achieve in this article is to provide an historical overview and some analysis of the trends in Ukrainian nationalism. It is hoped that this might aid the development of a clearer understanding of events in Ukraine from a Western White Nationalist perspective.

Ukrainian nationalism has always had to struggle for free expression. Ukrainian lands have been the subject of incursions from Poles, Turks, Cossacks and Russians since at least the seventeenth-century, and in the eighteen-century these lands were divided between the Russian Empire and Austria. Even today, scholars Andres Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov have noted that “present day Western Ukraine belongs to the Central rather than to the East European context, and in some ways resembles the Baltic countries more closely than it does other former Soviet republics.”[1]

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During the mid-1700s Ukrainian society, still overwhelmingly rural, witnessed several serious outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence, with most actions targeting Jews and Poles who were seen as exploitative, foreign elites. Ukrainian nationalism only began to find its voice, following modernization and industrialization, in the mid-nineteenth-century, beginning with the writings of intellectuals like the poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) and the political theorist Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841–1895). Even at this early stage, the centre of the nationalist movement was in Western Ukraine, in Austrian Galicia.

Because of the division of Ukraine, Ukrainians entered World War I on both sides. Those in Austrian Galicia fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the banner of the Central Powers, while those under Russian control fought for the Imperial Russian Army under the Triple Entente. As the war came to an end, several empires collapsed, among them both the Russian and Austrian Empires. Amidst the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, a Ukrainian national movement for self-determination emerged. The scene of almost unceasing violent conflict between 1917 and 1920, several distinct Ukrainian states were formed from varying portions of the Ukrainian lands, with equally varying levels of allegiance to Bolshevism, ending only in 1921 with the absorption of most of Ukraine by the Soviet Union, and the remainder by Poland and Romania.

From the very beginning of the Bolshevik incursion into Ukraine, an ethnic dimension in the struggle for control of Ukrainian lands was apparent. Writing in the Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Marco Carynnyk points out that by 1920 Ukraine had “perhaps the largest Jewish population in the world.”[2] The influence of Jews in Ukrainian lands, hitherto restricted to the monopolization of numerous trades, was given an enormous boost by the invasion of the Red Army, which was directed in many instances by Russian-Jewish commissars. Scholar Sergei Pavliuchenkov has asserted that “any serious analysis of the history of communism and in particular of the Russian revolution unavoidably raises the so-called Jewish Question.”[3] Pavliuchenkov points out that one of the earliest factors in the development of an explicitly ethnic dimension to Ukrainian nationalism was anti-Bolshevism and “the participation by representatives of the Jewish population in the establishment of Soviet power in the beginning of 1919 and its contradictions with the overwhelming majority of the region’s indigenous inhabitants.”[4]

In fact, communism in Ukraine was utterly dominated by Jews. Pavliuchenkov states that by the beginning of 1919, “the Soviet and Party organs created [in Western Ukraine] were wholly staffed by Jews.”[5] A report written by an official from the Food Department of the Moscow Soviet, following a visit to Ukraine in early 1919, recounted that “since everyone feels certain that all power is in the hands of the Jews, anti-Semitism is becoming even stronger amongst the population. Throughout the whole population the only thing one hears is that they ‘won’t bow to yid power.’”[6]

According to the author of the report, Ukrainian and Russian Jews, working in tandem, were acting ruthlessly as “speculators in food supply,” and had ensured that “virtually all surviving private trade is in their hands.” The report concluding by remarking that Jews “enjoy considerable protection from the authorities and this enables them to play a dominating role in food supply operations, in the purchase and dispatch of goods, in raising prices and generally in the food question. And since the food question in the Ukraine is becoming ever more acute by the day and prices are being inflated, it is understandable that all hatred for the crisis falls on those ill-fated Jews.”[7]

A wave of violence against Jews broke out across Ukraine in May 1919. Similar to some of my remarks on the nineteenth-century “pogroms”, Pavliuchenkov noted that historians have tended to focus on the violence itself rather than attempting to place it in some kind of context or subject it to deeper analysis — which would inevitably bring a Jewish role to light. Pavliuchenkov states that “as a rule…the literature about them simply notes the fact of these pogroms without going into the reasons why they occurred.”[8]

Undeterred, and undistracted, by mainstream historical accounts of anti-Jewish violence being provoked by some kind of irrational cultural “disease,” Pavliuchenkov consulted Soviet censorship archives and analyzed hundreds of contemporary letters from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their dissatisfaction with Soviet rule. The results were overwhelming in their consistency, with one letter explaining that “Soviet power is being criticized for the fact that its representatives are in most cases Jews,” and another complaining that “everybody has been reduced to poverty except the Jews; they’re better dressed than us, they eat a hundred times better than us.”[9]

As the riots and insurgencies against Jewish Bolshevism gained pace and intensity, thousands of Jewish commissars fled to Moscow by any available means. Moscow responded to the crisis by drawing up proposals intended to improve Soviet standing in Ukraine by defusing the ethnic element to anti-Bolshevism in the country. This was to be done by removing Jews from influential commissar positions in Ukraine and replacing them with Russians, and also by conscripting Jewish communists into the Red Army as simple soldiers “because up to now there haven’t been any Jewish communist rank-and-file soldiers in the Red Army.”[10]

These proposals were seen as important because the Russian Soviets were preparing for a second invasion attempt at the end of 1919, having been defeated by Ukrainian nationalists under Symon Petliura in the spring of that year. Indicative of the extent of Jewish power in the Moscow Soviet, these decisions to reduce the Jewish presence were “not fully implemented,” and Pavliuchenkov was able to discover that in the list of leading commissars and Soviet officials drawn up to accompany the second invasion (December, 1919–January, 1920), “30 out of 47 people were clearly of Jewish nationality.”[11]

The problem remained sufficiently endemic for Lenin to be personally handed a note during the Communist Party conference in Warsaw in September 1920, complaining that “the filling of Party and Soviet organizations with workers of Jewish extraction” in Ukraine was causing “extreme dissatisfaction” among the Ukrainian peasantry.[12] By 1921, Ukrainian communism was itself fractured along ethnic lines as Ukrainian communists bristled against the realization that Bolshevism in the country was dominated by Jews. The result, argues Pavliuchenkov was “sharp warfare at all levels of the party-state apparatus” as Ukrainians fought to take back control from Jewish commissars.[13]

As Jews and communist Ukrainians wrestled for control, outside the Bolshevik halls of power Ukrainian nationalists were fragmented into half a dozen groupings and were relatively ineffectual. By the mid-1920s, they began to loosely affiliate with one another, and were able to form stronger bonds following the assassination of Symon Petliura (who had led the defeat of the first Soviet invasion) in Paris in 1926.

Petliura had been assassinated by Sholom Schwartzbard, a Russian Jew and habitual criminal. Schwartzbard, who now has several streets in Israel named after him, claimed that Petliura had led “pogroms” in Ukraine, during which several of his family members had been killed. Two emergent Ukrainian nationalist journals, Surma and Rozbudova natsii, helped unify the cause by defending Petliura and condemning the fact that “all of Israel” had leaped to defend Schwartzbard. One account in Surma stated that at Schwartzbard’s trial “there came to the surface not only the shared Jewish blood, which tells every Jew to defend his co-religionist … but also the Jewish ethic that orders Jews to use any means to obtain their ends.”[14]

Another Surma article pointed out that “Jewish behavior toward the Ukrainian population” had “engendered the hatred of the Ukrainian population for the Jews,” and added that “instead of engaging in theatrical poses and shedding tears, the Jews and the defenders and supporters of Schwartzbard should have beaten themselves on the chest and accepted part of the responsibility for the pogroms.”[15]

Such appeals to reason, of course, went unheeded, and an unrepentant Schwartzbard was acquitted and remains the object of Jewish hero-worship until this very day.

The incident proved to be a galvanizing force for Ukrainian nationalism. By the late 1920s it was clear that they were facing overwhelming odds and would have to join forces. In January 1929, the groups united as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) under Colonel Ievhen Konovalets, and concentrated their activities in Western Ukraine. The OUN, which engaged in acts of terrorism and violence as well as disseminating nationalist ideology, described itself as “an integral nationalist movement that set itself the goal of driving Polish landowners and officials out of eastern Galicia and Volhynia, joining hands with Ukrainians in other countries, and establishing an independent state.”[16]

In preparation for the first OUN congress, Konovalets wrote that the new nationalist government would “coordinate the cultural process with the spiritual nature of the Ukrainian people and its historical traditions, and eradicate the evil consequences of foreign enslavement in the fields of culture and the national psyche. … In addition to a number of external enemies Ukraine also has an internal enemy … Jewry and its negative consequences for our liberation cause can be liquidated only by an organized collective effort.”[17] Shortly after the first OUN conference, a leading OUN ideologist wrote that the harm wrought by Jews upon Ukraine was so extensive that “there was no need to list all the injuries that Jews caused Ukrainians.”[18]

The pages of Rozbudova natsii played host to much comment on the role of Jews in Soviet Ukraine. One nationalist journalist, Makar Kushnir, wrote that “the dictatorship of the proletariat in Soviet Ukraine is putting power in the hands of a Russian and Jewish minority and preventing the Ukrainian majority from defending its economic and cultural interests.”[19] At the OUN congress, Kushnir had argued that “Russians and Jews had taken over the economy and the masses considered the government to be alien.”[20]

OUN member and editor of both Surma and Rozbudova natsii in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Volodymyr Martynets published a special article in 1938 on “The Jewish Problem in Ukraine,” which was later circulated as a separate reprint by the OUN. In it, Martynets wrote that “our Jews are from a political perspective a hostile element, from a socio-economic perspective parasitic, from a cultural and national perspective harmful, from a moral and ideological perspective corruptive … and from a racial perspective unsuitable for mixing and assimilation.”[21]

Although never a member of the OUN, Dmytro Dontsov was considered by many Ukrainian nationalists as “their spiritual father.” Initially a socialist, Dontsov came to believe that democracy, humanism, and socialism had all been compromised, and that the only answer “was a sharp turn to the right.”[22] After Schwartzbard’s assassination of Petliura, Dontsov wrote that “we have to and we will fight against the aspiration of Jewry to play the inappropriate role of lords in Ukraine.”[23]

For a number of reasons, 1939 proved to be a significant year in the history of Ukrainian nationalism. That year the OUN held its Second Great Congress in Rome, and elected to replace Konovalets with Andrii Mel’nyk, upon whom was bestowed the title “Vozhd” or “Leader.” That same year however, a young Ukrainian nationalist named Stepan Bandera (who is the subject of much discussion in current news coverage), was released from a Polish prison following the German occupation of Western Poland. Bandera refused to accept Mel’nyk as leader and formed him own nationalist organization under the same name but known commonly as OUN (B) or OUN-Bandera. The two factions subsequently fought each other bitterly and violently until in August 1940 Bandera wrote to Mel’nyk offering a truce and to accept his role as leader on one condition — that he take action on the fact that a number of leaders in the OUN had Jewish wives, if not suspected Jewish origins themselves.[24]

Bandera’s approach was unsuccessful. In April 1941 OUN (B) held a congress in Krakow at which a resolution was passed stating that “the Jews in the USSR constitute the most dedicated support for the ruling Bolshevik regime and the vanguard of Russian imperialism in Ukraine. … The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists combats Jews as supporters of the Russian Bolshevik regime.”[25]

Carried away with the prospect of German support following Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, OUN (B) leaders issued proclamations of a new independent Ukrainian state on June 30th 1941. Unimpressed, given their wish to reduce Ukrainians to the status of serfs, German authorities began arresting OUN leaders and started cracking down on the OUN more generally.

Hunted and executed if caught by both Soviets and Germans, the Third Great Congress of OUN-Bandera was held in August 1943 on an isolated stretch of fields in the northern stretches of the Ternopil region. The meeting revolved around the defeat of German forces at Stalingrad. In a fit of warped logic, the 25 members present concluded that Britain and America would soon declare war on the Soviet Union, with or without Germany by their side. Believing, somewhat bizarrely, that Jews in Washington and London would be crucial in bringing about the alliance against the Soviet Union, these leaders of OUN-Bandera decided to appease their would-be comrades by changing its policy on national minorities and stressing the “equality of all citizens.”[26]

Two months later OUN-Bandera leaders began drawing up lists and accounts absolving Ukrainians of having participated in any anti-Jewish/anti-commissar actions. In 1944, with the Red Army now firmly in control of Western Ukraine, regional OUN-Bandera leaders issued orders that “no actions against Jews are to be carried out.”[27] Despite its new “Jew-friendly” policy, OUN-Bandera was emphatically proscribed by Soviet authorities. The majority of those in the OUN, or its later incarnation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were forced to live abroad. In Soviet Ukraine itself, all attempts to revive right-wing thought, even on the smallest levels, were suppressed by the police and the KGB.[28]

Ukrainian nationalism was then essentially absent from the country until perestroika. In 1990, the first ultra-right groups in decades began appearing. In 1990 the Ukrainian National Assembly was established in Lviv, and began conducting torchlight processions through the city the following year. Despite attracting media attention for its clashes with left-wingers, pro-Russian forces, and the police, there was little electoral success. Another nationalist group to emerge in the 1990s was the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (CUN). More than any other nationalist grouping, CUN could claim to be the direct heir to OUN-Bandera, given that it was composed of several former OUN exiles. Unlike the Ukrainian National Assembly, CUN had some success in the 1997 pre-term elections, and CUN leader Ianoslava Stets’ko became a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament. The CUN later aligned itself with Viktor Yuschenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ bloc, in return for getting three deputies into parliament in 2002 and 2006, but afterwards fell into disarray and abandoned elections altogether.

The third significant nationalist party of the 1990s was the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU). With no obvious links to OUN-Bandera at all, the SNPU had been formed by a significantly younger cadre than the CUN. It was established in 1991 by Iaraslav Adrushkiv, Andrii Parubi, and Oleh Tiahnybok, who until 1994 was also chairman of the Lviv Student Fraternity. Initially based on the public organization of veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the group soon adopted black uniforms and formed “people’s detachments” which protested outside parliament. In 2004, the SNPU changed its name and image, now calling itself All-Ukrainian Union — Svoboda.

It is Svoboda which is currently the subject of the greatest amount of hysterical press attention. Although it failed to achieve an immediate union of right-wing conservative parties in 2005, by 2009 the part was demonstrating an “as yet insignificant but stable growth in popularity.”[29] In keeping with the history of Ukrainian nationalism, Svoboda is a Western Ukrainian entity, and its successes are disproportionately located there. Scholars Andres Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov have pointed out that levels of ethnocentrism are higher in Western Ukraine, and that “xenophobic ideas are strongest amongst pro-Western Western Ukrainians and the younger generation of Ukrainians as a whole.”[30] Writing in September 2013, Umland and Shekhovtsov pointed out that improvements in the Ukrainian economy have begun to attract non-traditional, non-White migrants from China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Afghanistan, adding that “it is easy to guess that the rapidly rising Svoboda will probably gain most from this situation.”[31] Svoboda has a strong conception of Ukraine as a nation founded on ethnicity, and in the last elections took 10% of the vote. For this crime alone, last year the World Jewish Congress called on the EU to ban the party along with Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Despite Foxman’s cringe-worthy bleatings about Svoboda and the legacy of Stepan Bandera, the position of Jews in Ukraine is probably very secure, despite what could be considered reasonable grounds for anti-Jewish attitudes among the Ukrainian population. In addition to the rich historical context outlined in this article, Betsy Gidwitz, at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, points out the “disproportionately large role of Jewish oligarchs in Russian and Ukrainian economies,” that “several Jews and half-Jews were prominent figures in the bank collapse and subsequent economic crises of the late 1990s,” and that Ukraine’s richest man is the Jew Viktor Pinchuk who “was denounced by many of his compatriots as a robber baron who used his personal connections to snap up some of the most valuable assets in Ukraine for a song during the post-Soviet privatization wave while millions of his countrymen struggled to make ends meet.”

At the time of writing, interesting developments are taking place in Ukraine. Andrii Parubi, one of the three founding members of Svoboda, has been made head of national security in the new government. Another Svoboda member now controls the ministry for agriculture. Most impressively, Svoboda member Oleksandr Sych has been made deputy Prime Minister. In total, there are now seven ministers in the Ukrainian government who can be deemed racially aware nationalists.

I think these developments warrant a deeper understanding and, obviously, our support.



[1] A. Umland and A. Shekhovtsov, “Ultra-right Party Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and the Puzzle of the Electoral Marginalization of Ukrainian Ultranationalists in 1994-2009,” Russian Law and Politics, Vol. 51, No.5, (2013), pp.33-58, (35).

[2] M. Carynnk, “Foes of our rebirth: Ukrainian Nationalist discussions about Jews, 1929-1947,” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 39:3, 315-352 (317).

[3] S. Pavliuchenkov, “The Jewish question in the Russian revolution, or concerning the reasons for the Bolsheviks’ defeat in the Ukraine in 1919,” Revolutionary Russia, 10:2, 25-36, (25).

[4] Ibid, p.26.

[5] Ibid, p.28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, p.30.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p.32.

[11] Ibid, p.33-4.

[12] Ibid, p.26.

[13] Ibid, p.35.

[14] Carynnk, “Foes of our rebirth…”, p.317.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, p.315.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, p.317.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p.322.

[22] Ibid, p.319.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p.323.

[25] Ibid, 328.

[26] Ibid, p.344.

[27] Ibid, p.345.

[28] A. Umland and A. Shekhovtsov, “Ultra-right Party Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and the Puzzle of the Electoral Marginalization of Ukrainian Ultranationalists in 1994-2009,” Russian Law and Politics, Vol. 51, No.5, (2013), pp.33-58, (38.).

[29] Ibid, p.44.

[30] Ibid, p.52.

[31] Ibid.

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