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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Petliura whom we still do not understand

6 June, 2006 - 00:00

The 80th anniversary of the death of Symon Petliura was recently marked in Ukraine. Commemorations in his honor were secured on the highest level through a decree signed last year by President Yushchenko. Over a period of several days last month, ending on May 25, several events were held in Kyiv to commemorate this noted Ukrainian public and political figure. In 1918 Symon Petliura was the Chief Otaman of the UNR Army, and in 1919 he headed the Directory government of the UNR. He immigrated to Paris in 1924, where he was eventually assassinated by Samuel Schwartzbard.

Decades after his death Petliura is still hotly debated. Why do so many people ignore the existence of much unbiased information on this personality? In the following article historian Yury SHAPOVAL provides answers to these questions.

I have just returned from Poltava, where I presented a paper at the 8th Scholarly Petliura Readings. Earlier, I had been invited to join a roundtable in Kyiv commemorating the 80th anniversary of Petliura’s assassination. Every public action that has anything to do with his name is somewhat predictable. It is understood in advance that “patriotically-minded” historians will portray Petliura as a prophet and sage political leader, while their “leftist-minded” counterparts will condemn him as a political outsider and a dictator manque. It seems that both of these sides do not need the real Petliura. Each side is simply demonstrating “its own truth.”

There is more to this. For a long time we had a force in Ukraine that did not want to demonstrate anything. I am talking about the political leadership. The government did its utmost to avoid any judgments of Petliura, preferring to focus on his contemporaries, like Mykhailo Hrushevsky at first, then even the confused loser Volodymyr Vynnychenko (who is reportedly not a bad writer). Therefore, the government had no use for Petliura either.

The current government seems to be noticing Petliura. A plaque in his honor was unveiled recently in Kyiv, where so much is connected with him. It is not far from the monument to the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and the one to Mykhailo Hrushevsky — parallel to the plaque and house-museum of Mikhail Bulgakov. This completes the schizophrenic political and ideological landscape that we have in the capital of independent Ukraine.

Incidentally, Bulgakov hated the very idea of an independent Ukrainian state and felt the same way about Petliura whom he called a “wonderful bookkeeper.” At the end of his well- known short story “The City of Kyiv” he appealed to readers: “May the memory of Petliura be damned.”

Memories about him are still very much alive, although as Academician Myroslav Popovych correctly notes in his work entitled The Red Century, assessing Petliura as an individual and a political figure remains “the most sensitive issue in the history of the Ukrainian revolution.” This is true and not least of all because there is still no master key to correctly interpreting Petliura’s life and work. Not coincidentally, to this day no one has attempted to write his scholarly biography (without any political coloration: we have enough and to spare).

The key to understanding Petliura is his life, which was constantly in motion. Academician Serhiy Yefremov made a very apt entry in his diary: “I have known Petliura since 1905. I took a closer look at him in 1907, when he was the secretary of the Rada. Closer acquaintance with him was not in his favor. He had a lot of the social democratic spirit about him-boastfulness, doctrinairism, and flippancy. Then there were his incorrect doings that led to his resignation as secretary of the Rada. Then he vanished in Moscow. When we met in 1912 at the editorial office of Ukrainskaia Zhyzn, I did not recognize the former Symon; he had matured, he had become serious, he had evolved and sworn off his former stunts. He was one of the most thoughtful and advanced politicians in the Central Rada in 1917-1918. After he joined the Directory we seldom met, but each time he left a nice impression. People who worked with him during the last and most difficult period for Ukraine say that he was a true statesman, who knew how to treat people, handle difficult situations, encourage his men in combat, demonstrate a personal touch that so charms ordinary people. In any case...he was the only unquestionably honest person in his actions, who was produced by the revolution in our country. Look at Hrushevsky: my God, what happened to him? Vynnychenko is spinning like a wood chip in an ice hole; the rest are simply petty little people. Only Petliura stood his ground and did not waver, and if not for the victorious forces, he would have reached his goal. We are probably not mature enough to ‘listen to our own advice.’ At one time the Muscovite boyars gouged out our eyes, and our own efforts could not overcome the general baseness. One Cossack out of a million swineherds will not accomplish anything... But perhaps the tragic death of one Cossack will beget a thousand new ones.”

It is my profound conviction that the key to Petliura also lies in the problem of blood. Bulat Okudzhava once wrote, “You will not win firm glory/Before blood is shed.” In Petliura’s time Jewish blood was amply spilled in Ukraine. Petliura’s own blood was shed on the rue Racine in Paris in May 1926, the very month of his birth. The fact of his assassination along with the deaths of Jews while he headed the Directory instantly transformed Petliura into a symbolic figure and compelled one to seriously ponder the “Petluirivshchyna” phenomenon.

Petliura wrote: “It is obvious that you should be truthful in assessing my person: the negative aspects of my personality, my actions must be illuminated, not covered up...For me the judgment of history has begun. I am not afraid of it...”

The trial of Petliura’s assassin Samuel Schwartzbard, which was held in the fall of 1927, was a kind of rehearsal of this “judgment of history.” The assassin was acquitted thanks to the professional manipulations of his defense counsel Henri Torres and other factors. To this day the trial also falls under the category of “unwanted things” (as formulated by Yuriy Dombrovsky) because neither researchers nor the government in Ukraine have dared to make a public and detailed assessment of Petliura.

However, such an assessment is necessary in view of the fact that this trial had a crucial impact on Petliura’s image as a “pogromist” and Judeophobe. Mykola Riabchuk wrote at one time: “In fact, the trial turned into an ostentatious demonstration of retribution against Ukraine’s demonized ‘nationalism and separatism’; no Lubianka could ever have come up with anything better.” There are also grounds to believe that the Lubianka “came up with” a lot of things in connection with the trial. I am stating this as the researcher who discovered and publicized documents that convincingly attest to the Kremlin’s interest in an “anti-Petliura” outcome of the trial, and that the trial was “directed” by Moscow.

Taras Hunczak’s Symon Petliura and the Jews: A Reappraisal is the most substantiated attempt to destroy Petliura’s image as a “pogromist” in the eyes of world democracy. However, it appears that his work did not make the right kind of impact. Here is what my esteemed colleague Myroslav Popovych has to say on the subject: “It must be recognized that almost all the facts and testimonies on which this author relies were known to the court, but nevertheless had no effect on the verdict. Obviously, the crux of the matter has to do with legal and moral-philosophical interpretation rather than with ostensibly unknown circumstances that the archives should reveal.”

This explains why the majority of the most authoritative Jewish researchers categorically deny Petliura the right to the slightest degree of rehabilitation. One of them, describing a Jewish pogrom that took place in Zolochiv, Ternopil oblast, in July 1941, in which Ukrainians participated, writes: “The descendants of Khmelnytsky and Petliura turned out to be worthy of their Nazi sponsors.”

This is an example of the “Ukrainian pogromist” stereotype that appears to be carefully and consistently cultivated by certain forces, along with the anti-Ukrainian graffiti that appear now and then on Petliura’s tombstone in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. At the roundtable that I attended recently I heard speakers voicing the following idea: “So many works have been published, showing that Petliura was not a Judeophobe. Professor Volodymyr Serhiychuk of National Kyiv University has worked so hard and published so many collections of documents about the pogroms!” Indeed he has. However, no matter how hard Professor Serhiychuk (or anyone else) tries, the number of pogroms perpetrated during the Directory will not decrease, and the question of responsibility remains open for the international community, no matter how much we “close” this question for ourselves in various Ukrainian publications or during “patriotic” discussions of Petliura’s role as a statesman. The fact that Petliura was not a “pogromist” and an “anti-Semite” has yet to be established through well argued discussion. At the same time we must not only engage in talk but also be heard outside Ukraine. Contemporary Ukrainian researchers do not seem to be succeeding in this.

There is another important aspect that requires an honest answer. This is the problem of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Directory government and Petliura. As a rule, in current historiography, the differences between Petliura and Vynnychenko, who hated Petliura until his dying day as an ambitious demagogue carried to the surface on the wave of the revolution, are treated in Vynnychenko’s favor. In a recent Vynnychenko biography published in Kyiv in 2005, the authors state that after the Directory’s initial successes problems started surfacing, first and foremost among them the rule of otamans, marked by the preeminence of military principles over political ones, the refusal of army officers of various ranks to take orders from the state leadership, constant opposition to the latter, the practice of regional separatism accompanied by military terror, Jewish pogroms, etc. According to the authors, “at the roots of these negative trends stood Symon Petliura, who in every way encouraged the soldiers under his command to [commit] uncontrollable acts, an orientation to the only value, the force of the bayonet.” This is the image of the militarized bookkeeper.

It is hard to cast off the impression when reading such studies that their authors are often too much governed by their likes and dislikes. Here is what Popovych has to say on Petliura: “A certain shift is observed in Symon Petliura’s psychological makeup toward egocentrism, especially in the direction of the need for power over people and events. Or he may have been traumatized by his unexpected power and historical mission.”

This is precisely why it is necessary once again to emphasize the need to prepare a fundamental scholarly biography of Petliura that would also reflect his psychological characteristics. There is another aspect. While recognizing that Petliura was not an aggressive xenophobe (as evidenced by published materials), Popovych nevertheless notes that “it is impossible to visualize Petliura being married to a ‘little Jewish woman,’ like Vynnychenko was.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that such statements should be left out of scholarly works dealing with such important subjects.

Let’s return to the Schwartzbard trial. In his article about the trial, which was published in an encyclopedic text on the history of Ukraine (Heneza, 2001) historian Yaroslav Hrytsak introduces information that is not quite understandable. He concludes by saying that there is no documentary confirmation of the involvement of any Soviet secret services in Petliura’s assassination. In the same publication, Hrytsak’s countryman, the Lviv-based scholar Mykola Lytvyn, writes that “Petliura was treacherously murdered on 25.05.26 by S. Schwartzbard, a Bolshevik agent” and refers to Hrytsak’s article on the Schwartzbard trial.

For me this is not simply an amazing case of publishing but also a vivid illustration of the fact that in all the years since his assassination the figure of Symon Petliura remains incompletely researched and hence the subject of manipulation. I have mentioned academic and other historians who work in institutions of higher education. I will not bother to mention the party-affiliated chroniclers.

I am not afraid of being accused of neopositivism-a fashionable accusation in intellectual quarters these days. In conclusion, I would like to stress the importance of obtaining fresh data, primarily from archival sources, on Petliura, his times, and, above all, the circumstances of his death. I am convinced that one of the key conditions for overcoming the stereotypical perceptions of Petliura lies in an unbiased study of what happened on the rue Racine in Paris and the pressing but well-orchestrated, large-scale support of the Bolshevik secret services in the preparation of the murderer’s trial. It is easy to assume that this would also shed light on other things.

By Prof. Yury SHAPOVAL, Ph.D. (History)