Petliura and the Pogroms in Interwar Ukraine, Part 1

The fall of the Romanov dynasty saw Russia descend into chaos and even as the First World War was raging, yet more conflicts would spring up. In Ukraine, the violent confusion that came with the end of the Romanov’s empire has become particularly controversial because of the impact it had upon Jewry living there. One figure in particular is contentious, Symon Petliura, who for much of the last century has been vilified as a murderer of Jews. His death and its aftermath have had an impact not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in Europe, particularly France, where the trial of his Jewish assassin would have effects still felt to this day.

Symon Petliura

After the first Russian revolution ended the monarchy, leading members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia came together to form the Central Rada. The Rada was not initially in favour of independence, but began acting almost immediately as if they were an independent government. With the rise of the Bolsheviks, however, they would proclaim an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic. The leader of this new entity was the historian and socialist Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Indeed, all the members of the Rada were socialist to some degree or another, including Symon Petliura. The first incarnation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic would prove short-lived thanks to the Bolsheviks, who, in January of 1918 successfully captured Kiev. With the help of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, the Bolsheviks were driven out shortly thereafter. However, instead of the Rada the new Ukrainian government was that of the conservative Pavlo Skoropadskyi. He was proclaimed Hetman, but his Hetmanate did not last the year. His government was overthrown by the Directory, which was led by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Fedir Shvets, Andrii Makarenko and Symon Petliura. The Directory was in many ways a continuation of the Central Rada as both were socialist, both claimed leadership of a People’s Republic and many of the leading figures in the Directory, like Petliura, had been part of the Central Rada in 1917.

Even after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the end of the Great War in Eastern Europe, conflict raged on. The Bolsheviks saw their chance to once again strike at Ukraine, but they were not the only rivals the Directory had to face. So-called White armies  — conservative forces loyal to an autocratic Russia of some description, often monarchist but not exclusively — and even an army of   led by the Ukrainian Nestor Makhno were also vying for control of Ukraine.

Certain Cossack hosts like the Kuban and Don also attempted to form their own states, but unlike the Ukrainian People’s Republic, these were generally in alliance with or at least sympathetic to the White movement. Attempts were also made to create Ukrainian states in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire[i] of which the most important of these was the (ZUNR) which had an uneasy relationship with the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Though both were heavily influenced by socialist thought, the ZUNR was more inclined towards less radical social democratic teachings. ZUNR was also under assault although in its case the threat was from Poland.

In February 1919 Petliura had became the leader of the Directory and in this capacity, he tried his best to unify the republics and to focus on the Bolsheviks, as he correctly saw that they were the gravest threat. As such Petliura sought an alliance with the Poles as they were also threatened by Bolshevik incursions. However, given the long history of Polish-Ukrainian animosity and the fact that at this time ZUNR was at war with Poland, they thought otherwise. For them, Poland was the greatest threat. Another point of contention was the more radical socialism of the Directory which bred distrust in ZUNR about how trustworthy their kinsmen to the east really were.

Petliura had also attempted to win support from the French who had forces stationed in Odessa, but they refused to help him as they had ties to the forces of the general  .[ii] Although, French support probably would not have been all that effective, as they do not seem to have done much for Denikin. It turned out that the end of the Hetmanate meant an end to foreign backing of Ukrainian nationalists until April of 1920, when a treaty was signed between Petliura and the Poles which saw them officially become allies. But by this time, it was too late. The Poles were able to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, but unfortunately for the Directory, the Polish victory only secured Poland’s independence as by this time Ukraine had been completely overrun by the Red Army.[iii] As such Petliura was forced to leave and ended up in France, where, on May 25th 1926 he was shot to death in broad daylight by a Jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard.

Schwartzbard’s reasoning for killing Petliura was that it was revenge for the treatment of Jews in Ukraine during the chaotic days of 1918 —20. Schwartzbard may very well have been a Soviet agent and certainly that is what the prosecution set out to prove. The defense rested their case on pulling at the heart strings of the court by bringing up cases of pogroms that had happened in Ukraine, none of which could be connected to Petliura, but that did not matter. At the trial, the defense did not actually seek to prove that Petliura had been responsible for any pogroms, but simply that they had taken place. Evidently this was enough for Schwartzbard to be acquitted.[iv] The defense was helped by the fact that in France the intelligentsia was very much Philo-Semitic and French society in general had been shamed by the Dreyfus Affair, enough to decide that this time they would not turn against a Jewish defendant. Moreover, prior to Petliura’s murder, the international press had largely denigrated the man, casting him as some horrid bigot who purposely went around targeting Jews. The truth, however, is far different.

During the anarchic period in which the Directory existed, the Jewish population was subject to acts of violent persecution. The exact number of people who died from this is debatable. One estimate is that in 1918–19 some 1,236 pogroms took place in Ukrainian provinces with around 40% taking place in the area controlled by the Directory.[v] Orest Subtelny states that 1919–20 saw the murder of 35,000–50,000 Jews.[vi] Soviet Jewish organizations claimed in 1920 that 150,000 Jews were killed by the actions of Ukrainians and Poles.[vii] Given the source for this number I’d say one has every right to be sceptical. One important point to note is that it was not just forces loyal to Petliura that went after Jews but also White armies and perhaps even Makhno’s forces as well. As we will see, the Directory and its predecessor were very much Philo-Semitic,[viii] but before I discuss that, I think it is important to make a few points regarding the targeting of Jews during this time.

As if often the case with such outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence, the prevailing narrative is that it was for no reason; a scapegoat was needed and Jews always just happen to be that scapegoat. Reality, of course, is far different. Its important to note that there had been a long history of animosity between Jews and Ukrainians largely stemming from the high-handed treatment of the latter by the former. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Ukrainian revolts against their Polish rulers saw violence inflicted upon the Jews as a result of their attitudes to Ukrainians and the privileged position in society they held.[ix] Animosity between Jews and Ukrainians, then, was not something recent or contrived for political expediency, but was something which had existed for centuries. It was also not simply the case of perpetual Jewish innocence and Ukrainian villainy.

According to Orest Subtelny, attacks on Jews by White forces were more systematic than those of other armies.[x] Given the heavy presence of Jews in the Bolshevik movement and other socialist movements that were firmly against the Russian Empire (Subtelny also notes that the bulk of Jews in Ukraine at least, were supporters of the Mensheviks; however, he also notes that most prominent Bolsheviks and in particular Chekists and tax officials in charge of collecting taxes and grain were Jews — Denikin’s chief propagandist, Vasilli Shulgin, called Jews ‘executioners’ due to their involvement in the murderous Cheka.[xi]) It is no surprise that anti-Semitism was higher among the White movement which was a successor to the fallen empire. I suspect Ukrainian anti-Semitism was not as systematic or structured given that the Ukrainians weren’t as devoted to the old system which many Jews were actively destroying. During this time, there were many examples of the active role Jews were playing in militant, revolutionary socialist movements throughout Europe which must have helped determine the violent events in Ukraine. In Hungary and Bavaria in 1919, Jewish-led communist groups had briefly taken over, and during their short stints in power they had unleashed a Red Terror upon their subjects. In the case of Hungary, the terror was lead by a militia known as ‘Lenin’s Boys.’ Regular readers will already be aware of how Jewish the Russian Bolsheviks were, especially among the lower echelons of the Bolshevik organization, in particular the Cheka. (For example, the man responsible for the execution of the royal family was the Jewish Chekist Yakov Yurovsky.) And of course, many members of the higher ranks of Bolsheviks were Jews — Yakov Sverdlov, for example, or Karl Radek, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Leon Trotsky. Because of perceptions of anti-Jewish pogroms and discrimination, international Jewry as a whole, seemed to be against the traditional society of the Russian Empire. A good example was he leading Jewish-American banker, businessman and notorious Russophobe, Jacob Shiff. Anti-Semitism was not something made up in the name of finding scapegoats.

In the case of the outbreaks of violence by soldiers loyal to the Directory it is important to note that the bulk of them were peasants — the same people who had also been the most negatively impacted by the economic activities of Jews in the days of Polish rule. The refusal of organized Jewry to support independence undoubtedly also played a role:

The Ukrainians viewed the Jewish concern for a ‘one and indivisible Russia’ with suspicion; it appeared to them as a lack of regard for the Ukraine despite the privileges the country gave them. The Jews, on the other hand, apprehensive of the growing national consciousness of the Ukrainian masses, remained either neutral during the initial phase of the Russo-Ukrainian struggle or eventually, in many cases, moved to the side of the enemies of Ukrainian statehood.[xii]

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn  also noted that Jews were often the targets not so much because of their ethnicity but because they happened to be the most promising targets. They were generally wealthier than the peasant soldiers fighting in the civil war, so it made the most sense to target them. The influence of alcohol is yet another factor which needs to be remembered. Soldiers fighting for the Whites, Ukrainian People’s Republic and Makhno were often undisciplined and easily succumbed to drunken depravity. All armies engaged in these hostilities found it hard to maintain discipline and it would seem that this was especially true for Directory forces whose generals often acted as if they were independent war lords.

On a side note I think it worth mentioning that as is often the case with such outbreaks of ethnic cleansing, it was not simply a case of everyone targeting Jews and Jews alone. In particular, consider the Germans. During World War I, the Russian government had deported Germans living in Volhynia for fear of them becoming a fifth column, but it was during 1919 that the worst acts of violence were committed against them. Many Germans were Mennonites and their prosperous communities, which were pacifist, were the preferred targets. There were 750,000 Germans in Dneiper Ukraine in 1914 but as a result of the deportations and later the attacks on their communities which saw them either killed or forced to flee, the number of Germans was reduced to 514,000 in 1926.[xiii]  In regards to the Mennonites, attacks on them, which were largely from Makhno’s anarchist army, became so bad that they actually abandoned their pacifism and took up arms in self-defence.[xiv]

Despite all the negative portrayals of Petliura and his associates, at that time especially, Ukrainian nationalists had gone out of their way to provide representation for non-Ukrainians and Jews in particular. When the Central Rada was formed, it took control  — or at least claimed sovereignty over  — a mostly homogenous region, at least in the countryside. The rural portions of their new state were largely Ukrainian although there were areas in which Ukrainians were a minority. As for the cities, these were largely non-Ukrainian in make-up, mostly inhabited by Jews, Russians and Poles — groups which the Rada felt had to be won over just as much as their fellow Ukrainians. Given this, laws were passed with the well-being of non-Ukrainians in mind. Jews, like other minorities, were against independence for Ukraine. The Rada went out of its way to encourage participation of minorities in the body politic and to get them to support the government. Their nationality policies were greatly influenced by Otto Bauer  — who was Jewish. National-personal autonomy was granted to various minorities, ensuring that they could speak their language, follow their religion and identify as they wished anywhere in Ukraine. However, this autonomy was only provided to Russians, Poles and Jews. Tatars, Greeks, Romanians, Germans and other minority groups were not given the same rights.[xv] Russians, Poles and Jews were to be represented in the executive branch of government via their chosen representatives who were to hold the position of Under-Secretaries. These Under-Secretaries in turn enjoyed fully equality with the General Secretary for the Nationalities in the area of their jurisdiction. Article 20 of the 1917 constitution also stated that all laws, administrative rules and decisions were to be published not only in Ukrainian, but in Russian, Yiddish and Polish as well.[xvi] Jews were allowed to establish their own schools and plans were made to set up kahals (Jewish self-governing communities) which the Tsarist government had done away with in 1844.[xvii] This shows the influence and power the Jews held  — as well as Russians and Poles although this is more obvious given the history of the region.

Despite all this goodwill, no Jewish party supported independence when the People’s Republic held a vote on the matter. When the Hetmanate came into being, these liberal laws were done away with, but were brought back by the Directory. Petliura, it should be mentioned was very much a Philo-Semite. As such, he and his colleagues readily accepted the suggestion by Solomon Goldelman (a professor and former member of the Central Rada and one of the few prominent Jews who actually supported Ukrainian statehood) that the nationalities law be reinstated. This support for the Jews was not something which had been developed for cynical political reasons, however, because even when he was a boy Petliura was Philo-Semitic. He was nicknamed the ‘Jewish father’ at school because of how readily he came to their defense.[xviii] During the first attempt at revolution in the Russian Empire, in 1905, Petliura again showed his pro-Jewish credentials when he spoke out in favor of granting Jews full access to education as other groups and an end to the Pale of Settlement.[xix]  Similar discriminatory laws regarding Jews and education were overturned in Romania and elsewhere, only for Jews to become heavily disproportionately represented, which in turn only fueled resentment towards them.

Go  to Part 2.

[i]One of which was proclaimed just prior to the outbreak of World War II, but it lasted only one day

[ii]OS 362

[iii]The ZUNR was also destroyed, in its case by Poland. Although Ukrainians did not have to suffer mass slaughter and forced starvation in Poland, they still had to endure Polonization policies which would set the stage for further Polish-Ukrainian bloodshed in the 1940s-50s.

[iv]After his acquittal, Schwartzbard was free to travel the world and live out the rest of his life in peace. His remains were eventually brought to Israel where evidently, there are streets named after him.

[v]George O. Liber, Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2016), 70

[vi]Orest Subtelny, Ukraine A History, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1988, 4th ed. 2009), 363

[vii]George O. Liber, 70

[viii]The ZUNR was as well

[ix]On a side note I think it worth mentioning that Khmelnytsky’s Rebellion had a major impact on the development of a millenarian Jewish movement in the Ottoman Empire led by one Sabbatai Sevi. He claimed to be the messiah and believed that the Jews would one day conquer the world; albeit bloodlessly. The sultan would become his servant and the “uncircumsized nations” of the world would be slaves to Jews; trembling in fear “of what the Jew will command.” (John Freely, The Lost Messiah: In Search of the Mystical Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi, (The Overlook Press, Woodstock & New York, NY, 2001), 68). He ran afoul of the established Jewish leadership by openly flaunting Jewish customs and traditions and more than likely had his followers engage in sexual orgies (John Freely, 196). Sabbatai’s cult would in turn go on to influence the rise of Frankism in Central Europe. He and many of his followers were eventually made to convert to Islam and their relatives exist today in the form of the shadowy Dönmeh community  — in many ways an Islamic version of conversos  — which has included high-ranking members of Turkish society like Djavid Bey, a leading member of the Committee of Union and Progress.

[x]Orest Subtelny, 363

[xi]Ibid, 374

[xii]Taras Hunczak, ‘A Reappraisal of Symon Petliura and Ukrainian-Jewish Relations, 1917-1921’, Jewish Social Studies Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1969), pp. 163-183, 168

[xiii]Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996), 508

[xiv]Ibid, 509

[xv]Ibid, 504

[xvi]Taras Hunczak, 165

[xvii]Paul Robert Magocsi, 504

[xviii]Taras Hunczak, 170

[xix]Ibid, 171


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