Aug 2006 Journal

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Ukraine, Jews and antisemitism

nreported by the British media, a considerable affront to Jewish sensibilities was staged by Ukrainian activists in Paris, in the form of a celebration at the grave of the former Ukrainian leader Simon Petliura, under whose brief rule thousands of Jews were murdered in the bloodstained chaos that followed the Russian Revolution. Petliura had to flee from Bolshevik rule and was assassinated by a Jew in Paris in 1926.

The Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria are naturally preoccupied with the Nazi brand of antisemitism that harnessed nineteenth-century racial theory and twentieth-century German technocratic efficiency to an unprecedented project of genocide. But one should not ignore the older, atavistic forms of antisemitism that flourished across Eastern Europe. By 1917, Ukraine had a long tradition of antisemitism, dating back to the uprising of 1648-54 against Polish rule led by the Cossack Hetman (leader) Bogdan Khmelnitsky. The Polish landowning nobility often left the management of their estates to Jewish middlemen, who thereby incurred the hatred of the Ukrainian peasants. Khmelnitsky's uprising witnessed one of the largest series of massacres of Jews perpetrated in Eastern Europe; it formed the subject of Sholem Asch's harrowing novel Al Kiddush Hashem: A Novel of 1648.

Now that Ukrainians, Europe's last submerged nationality, are forging their own independent state, they may be tempted to cast Petliura, who fought for Ukrainian independence between 1917 and 1921, in the heroic mould of Hetman and national leader. But that would be to deny the darker side of the legacy of Ukrainian nationalism, its ingrained antisemitism. During Petliura's rule, it has been estimated that between 35,000 and 100,000 civilian Jews were murdered, up to 40 per cent of them by his forces. Some scholars have argued that Petliura was no antisemite, but he certainly did nothing to prevent the excesses committed by his forces, preferring, as did other warring factions, to use hatred of the Jews as motivation for his troops.

In the witches' cauldron that was Ukraine in the revolutionary period, three separate conflicts were fought out simultaneously: the international war between the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Russia; the national struggle of Ukraine for independence from Russia; and the civil war between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and the counter-revolutionary forces (Whites). This turmoil gave rise to Mikhail Bulgakov's unforgettable novel The White Guard; in its dramatised version, The Day of the Turbins, it was a favourite of Stalin.

After the 1917 February Revolution that deposed the Tsar, Ukraine had its own parliament, the Rada, which in June 1917 proclaimed Ukraine an autonomous republic; this brief period of self-rule ended when German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupied Ukraine and installed a puppet government under Hetman Paulo Skoropadsky. After Germany's defeat in November 1918 and the withdrawal of the occupying forces, Petliura was a member of the new government, the Directorate of the Rada and, in January 1919, when war broke out between the newly established Soviet Russian regime and Ukraine, he became the leading figure in the Directorate. But in late 1918, it was White forces, breaking out of their southern strongholds, that occupied Ukraine; as convinced Russian nationalists unwilling to compromise the integrity of the Russian Empire, the Whites were no friends of Ukrainian separatism.

When the Bolsheviks defeated the Whites in autumn 1919 and the civil war ended, Ukrainian nationalists fared no better under the ruthless centralising force of Soviet power. Petliura withdrew to Poland, and played a part in one of history's more fantastical forgotten episodes, the attempt by newly independent Poland to reconquer territories it had not held since the seventeenth century by invading Ukraine. In the Polish-Bolshevik war (1919-21), Marshal Pilsudski's forces took Kiev (Kyiv), the Ukrainian capital, aided by forces under the command of Petliura. But the Poles were pushed back, and most of Ukraine fell to the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian antisemitism reached its lowest point during the Nazi occupation; the Ukrainian auxiliaries who played their notorious part in the operation of the death camps are forever part of the image of the Holocaust. Indeed, had the Germans not behaved with insensate savagery in the occupied Ukraine, it is likely that they would have secured substantial local support. As it was, collaboration was widespread, and Ukrainians and especially Cossacks were prominent in the army of General Vlassov, commander of the renegade Soviet forces who fought with the Germans.

Vassily Grossman, whose novel Life and Fate, centred on the Battle of Stalingrad and encompassing the fate of the Jews under both warring dictatorships, is one of the towering epics to emerge from the Second World War, was born into the Jewish community of Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1905. Grossman witnessed the aftermath of the Nazi occupation first-hand as a Soviet war correspondent. But his Black Book, with details of Ukrainians who worked as Nazi police, was suppressed after the war, and Life and Fate, written in 1959, was published in Switzerland only in 1980, 16 years after his death. As the celebration of the anniversary of Petliura's death shows, the lethal antisemitism that disfigured Ukrainian national life is still being airbrushed out of its history, to the detriment of the country's healthy political development.
Anthony Grenville

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