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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #167

I have often wondered about the colourful, controversial and widely-admired (within Ukraine) early Ukrainian political leader Symon Petliura. He lived a short life - shorter than mine so far - but it was highly eventful and during his 47 years he served as all of Ukrainian nationalist agitator, socialist, political leader, writer and intellectual. He is also widely reviled outside Ukraine as anti-semitic and responsible for the deaths of many of Ukraine’s Jewish population in a series of pogroms that took place at the end of World War One. Although images of Petliura appear all over Ukraine in bookshops and universities and other places where students and intellectuals gather, his legacy will be forever marred by his associations with anti-semitism.

Petliura wrote, and I mean a lot. He puts me to shame. In the course of his life he wrote over 17,000 articles, stories or essays. I am barely up to 1,000 and I have already lived one year longer than he did. He started out writing in Russian, after studying in a Russian Orthodox Seminar in his home town of Poltava. The Russian Empire had banned the Ukrainian language in 1876, in what was known as the Ems Ukaz: a secret decree of Tsar Alexander II that clamped down on all Ukrainian cultural expressions including the use of the Ukrainian language. It was a curious decree in that it was known to the Russian Empire’s military and civilian administrators but not widely understood across the population - or it came to be understood only gradually when people who breached the decree the terms of which they may not have known about found themselves wantonly persecuted. (Russia has never had very high standards of rule of law.) Petliura had been born into a revolutionary Cossack family and joined Hromada, a sort of secret society of Ukrainian intelligentsia plotting Ukrainian independence as the Russian Empire started to collapse and began making concessions to democratic principles in the early part of the twentieth century and in particular during the period of the Duma, a method of trying to conciliate the masses after the Russian Revolution of 1905 nearly toppled the Tsarist regime in St Petersburg.

Petliura joined the illegal Ukrainian Revolutionary Party in 1900, that had a platform for Ukrainian independence, and he was expelled from the Seminary in Poltava in 1901. He then lived a life on the run, moving around Russia, until he was arrested in Krasnodar in 1903 and released in 1904 whereupon he made his way to Lviv, where the concentration of Ukrainian intellectuals pursuing the ideals of Ukrainian nationalism and independence from the Russian Empire was based. He then started writing in Ukrainian, and a nationwide amnesty was declared in 1905 for political crimes as part of the brief Duma period of Russian imperial liberalisation. However his publications kept being closed by the authorities while he was writing in Ukraine, by reason of their seditious content. He ended up moving to Moscow and working as a writer and magazine publisher during the First World War. Amidst the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar in 1917, Petliura attended the first Ukrainian Congress, a sort of protean parliament whose purpose was to declare independence for Ukraine from the collapsing Russian Empire and to appoint a new government.

By reason of the prolific quantity of his writings advocating the Ukrainian nationalist cause, Petliura was widely admired by the most intellectual circles that dominated these early Ukrainian national congresses and he was elected Minister for Military Affairs of the Ukrainian People’s Republic by one of the early councils in June 1917. There was a lot of jostling for power in the early days of this briefly independent Ukraine, including the so-called “Anti-Hetman Uprising” in November 1918 after he had been arrested and imprisoned for four months in April 1918. In November 1918 he became a member of the “Directorate”, a Politburo-style institution of collective leadership for the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and in February 1919 he became the leader of the Directorate, and hence for all practical purposes the leader of Ukrainian People’s Republic. Many Ukrainians consider Petliura to be their first genuine political leader in modern times and for that he is so widely admired.

However as the Bolsheviks’ Red Army progressed across Ukrainian territory the Ukrainian People’s Republic was shrinking and Petliura was forced to retreat to Kamianets-Podilskyi, the short-lived capital of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in the far southwest of the country. By December 1919 Petliura had retreated to Poland to lead a government-in-exile. The Red Army absorbed the entirety of Ukraine aside from the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (which became part of the Second Polish Republic pursuant to the Peace Treaty of Versailles) and Petliura had no country left to lead although the Polish government did recognise him as the leader of Ukraine in exile. Petliura settled in Paris in 1924 after emigrating around Europe, continuing to write about Ukrainian nationalist causes amongst the diaspora, where he was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in May 1926.

The reason given for his assassination by his assassin was that during the period of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, under the leadership of Petliura, there were widespread pogroms against Jewish communities and it has been estimated that between 50,000 and 200,000 Jewish people were killed on Ukrainian territory during this time, although no reliable figures appear to be available. It is also asserted, with some corroboration, that these attacks were orchestrated by the armed forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic under Petliura’s command. For this reason, Petliura is reviled by the Jewish community and considered a hate figure within Israel and internationally he is deeply controversial. Racism against Jewish people in Ukraine is not of course consistent with contemporary European values towards which Ukraine aspires and all traces of anti-semitism must be eliminated within Ukrainian society in order that Ukraine may progress.

It has been asserted that Petliura’s assassin was an agent of the NKVD (Stalin’s Secret Police) which is plausible if not demonstrated because Petliura’s brand of Ukrainian nationalism was a thorn in Stalin’s side in maintaining political stability in Ukraine as he hauled the Soviet Union through its first waves of mass industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture in the 1920’s. Whatever the truth, while Petliura is widely admired as Ukraine’s first political leader of modern times his legacy is also profoundly controversial by reason of the slaughter of Jews that took place on the territory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.


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