Was Symon Petliura “an antisemite who massacred Jews during a time of war”?

100 years on from one of the bloodiest pogroms during the Russian civil war, a leading figure in Ukraine continues to provoke controversy.

Christopher Gilley
13 February 2019

Symon Petliura and Józef Klemens Piłsudski (right), Vinnytsa, 1920. Source: Wikipedia. Public Domain.This year, 15 February marks the centenary of the Proskuriv pogrom. On this day in 1919, a detachment of the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) massacred around 1,500 Jews in this West-Central Ukrainian town. The unit’s commander Ivan Semesenko employed the common antisemitic canard of “Judeo-Bolshevism” as justification, accusing Jews of disloyalty to the UPR and sympathy for the Bolsheviks.

The massacre was perhaps the bloodiest of the Russian Civil War, and it was part of a much larger wave of antisemitic violence in Ukraine between 1917 and 1921: soldiers serving the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the “White” Russian Volunteer Army, independent warlords, bandits and, to a lesser extent, the Red Army murdered, raped, assaulted, mutilated and dispossessed tens of thousands of Jews.

The army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic was perhaps the worst perpetrator. The UPR had declared independence from Russia in January 1918, becoming the focus of many nationally conscious Ukrainians’ desire for liberation. It spent the next three years trying to defend itself from various enemies before the Bolsheviks finally defeated it at the end of 1920. However, according to the most reliable statistical investigation, its troops were responsible for about two fifths of all pogroms and half of the total deaths.[1]

Indeed, in 1926, Scholem Schwarzbard, a Jewish anarchist, killed the UPR’s leader Symon Petliura in a Paris street in revenge for the pogroms. The trial that followed became a cause celebre, one concerned less with Schwarzbard’s’s guilt and more with Petliura’s responsibility for the pogroms. Schwarzbard was acquitted as having committed a crime of passion. In the historiography, the question of Ukrainian nationalist responsibility for civil war-era antisemitic violence became tightly bound up with the – often vitriolic – debate over Petliura’s personal guilt.[2]

The current memory conflict between Kyiv and Moscow that accompanied the 2014 Maidan protests, the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbas has relit this controversy. The civil and military organs of the Ukrainian People’s Republic are among the “fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th Century” whose memory are protected by Ukraine’s so-called “de-Communisation” laws of 2015.

On 14 October 2017, the recently created Day of the Defender of Ukraine, the municipal government of the city of Vinnytsia erected a statue to Symon Petliura. This created consternation among many Jews in Ukraine and abroad, not least because the statue was in Ierusalymka, Vinnytsia’s historical Jewish quarter. Yet it also provided the Kremlin with further ammunition to discredit Ukraine as a bulwark of fascism and antisemitism. “Petliura was man who had Nazi views,” reacted Vladimir Putin at the time, “an antisemite who massacred Jews during a time of war.”

Was Petliura a pogromist? He headed a government ostensibly committed to a multinational Ukraine, which had granted Jews the right to govern their own national-cultural life and created a Ministry of Jewish Affairs to represent them. In the first half of 1919, the UPR cabinet of ministers met after each atrocity to condemn the violence, call for severe punishments and demand an inquiry into the crime.[3] The UPR government issued several public denunciations of the violence and created a special investigatory commission to bring perpetrators to justice. Sometimes representatives of the Ukrainian state opposed the violence in their locality, and in many cases UPR troops did put an end to their comrades’ pillaging.[4]

The pogroms were not UPR policy. They were outbursts of military indiscipline during which UPR troops and commanders, proceeding from the prejudice that Jews supported the UPR’s enemies, punished entire Jewish communities, brutally and without discrimination. Some perpetrators had only a very loose affiliation with the UPR.

However, the view of Jews as hostile was not simply held by a few rogue units or irregular peasant partisans. Representatives of the UPR in powerful positions singled out Jews for special punishment. For example, the commandants of the cities of Dubno and Kremenets’ exacted a extraordinary tax from the local Jewish community as a punishments for its perceived disloyalty to the UPR.

Even some of the officials charged with bringing pogrom perpetrators to justice were willing to see Jews as a hostile force. When the Ministry of Jewish Affairs asked the Ministry of Justice to investigate Ukrainian units spreading antisemitic leaflets and propaganda, the Ministry of Justice accused the Ministry of Jewish Affairs of wanting to “take under its wing all Jews, even if they are Bolsheviks and even Trotskii-Bronshteins”. The Ministry attacked the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, which, it claimed, “insults our army, insults our national feelings, and without doubt underlines its hostile relationship to our national cause”.[5]

While the chaotic circumstances in the country hindered the investigation and punishments of pogromists, there does also seem to have been some understanding for their motivations in some of the higher military and civilian organs of the UPR. Unsurprisingly, then, few prominent perpetrators were punished. Several commanders responsible for pogroms at the end of the 1918 were arrested for pillaging and disobeying orders, but they were soon released. Ivan Semesenko, the commander in Proskuriv, spent most of 1919 in prison; however, this was not because of his crime in Proskuriv, but rather because he had disobeyed orders. By November 1919, he still had not been punished; he escaped captivity when the Whites attacked the town in which he was being held.[6]

One finds the same ambiguity in the person of Petliura. The UPR leader certainly did not order anti-Jewish attacks. Even before his well-known condemnation of the violence in August 1919, Petliura wrote several telegrams to local commanders calling on them to act against pogromists.[7]

However, Petliura does seem to have accepted the idea that the Jews had brought the pogroms on themselves by failing to support the UPR. In March 1919, Petliura visited the city of Zhytomyr while a pogrom was in full swing, and did not stop it.[8] While there, he sent a telegram describing how in Zhytomyr the “pillaging, banditry, brutality and shamelessness” with which the Bolsheviks had ruled Ukraine had turned the Ukrainian people against “these new pillager Muscovites and Jews”.[9] In July 1919, he met a delegation of Jewish leaders to discuss the pogroms. While Petliura promised to take measures against his troops, he requested that the delegation influence their community to oppose the Bolsheviks; he pointed to the neighbouring Ukrainian province of Galicia, where Jews had supposedly supported the Ukrainians against the Poles and received the gratitude of the population for this. The underlying implication was that Jewish safety depended upon Jewish loyalty to the UPR.[10]

A methodologically sound history based on archival documents rarely provides a useable past amenable to politicians wanting to legitimise or delegitimise a state or policy. The Russian demonisation of the Ukrainian state is based on a crude and simplistic historical account. Yet the Ukrainian heroising, exculpatory narrative is as equally distorted: it ignores much of the documentary evidence and fails to do justice to the memory of the victims of horrendous violence. Consequently, this narrative provides a weak response to the Russian attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the contemporary Ukrainian state.


[1] N. Gergel, “The Pogroms in the Ukraine in 1918–21”, Yivo Annual of Jewish Science, 1951, Vol. 6.

[2] David Engel (ed.), The Assassination of Symon Petliura and the Trial of Scholem Shwarzbard 1916–1927. A Selection of Documents, Archive of Jewish History and Culture, Göttingen: Vandehoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

[3] Volodymyr Serhiichuk (ed.), Pohomry v Ukraïni: 1914-1920. Shtuchnykh stereotypiv do hirkoi pravdy, prykhovuvanoi v radiansk’kykh arkhivakh, Kyiv: Vydavnytstvo imeni Oleny Telihy, 1999, pp. 187, 194–195, 268, 271, 275, 308, 309, 311–312, 342–243.

[4] L.B. Miliakova et al. (eds.), Kniga pogromov. Pogromy na Ukraine, v Belorussii I evropeiskoi chasti Rossii v period Grazhdanskoi voiny. 1918–1922 gg.: Sbornik dokumentov, Moscow: Rosspen, 2008, pp. 55–58, 63–64, 153–155.

[5] Christopher Gilley, “Beyond Petliura: the Ukrainian national movement and the 1919 pogroms”, East European Jewish Affairs, Vol. 47, 2017, No. 1, pp. 45–61. The quotation is on pp. 52–53.

[6] Gilley, “Beyond Petliura”, pp. 53–55.

[7] Pohromy v Ukraïni, pp. 198, 310–311

[8] Kniga pogromov, p. 91; The Committee of the Jewish Delegations, The Pogroms in the Ukraine under the Ukrainian Governments (1917–1920). Historical Survey with Documents and Photographs, p. 205.

[9] Kniga pogromov, p. 85.

[10] Pohromy v Ukraïny, pp. 316–317.



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