The Limmud FSU conference gathers Russian speaking Jewry from across the former Soviet Union and is typically a convivial setting for hummus-making workshops and lectures about the Yiddish theater. This year’s gathering took place in Odessa—I took part in a pair of panels and presentations of a special Jewish-Ukrainian relations themed issue of my magazine, The Odessa Review—and gathered almost a thousand Russian speaking Jews of the Russian speak Jewish world, from Haifa to Minsk and Moscow. What the conference typically is not, however, is a forum for international political scandals. That was not the case this year, as the conference kicked off with Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Eliav Belotzercovsky, denouncing the Ukrainian state for the erection of a statue to Symon Petliura, leader of the short lived Ukrainian People’s Republic. The estimates of Jews killed in pogroms during Petliura’s 1918 and 1921 reign run from 35,000 to 50,000.
On October 16th, the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa (incidentally the home town of Ukraine’s Jewish Prime Minister) erected the statue to the former journalist and statesman leader in the middle of the former Jewish quarter of the city. The World Jewish Congress and numerous other Jewish bodies also expressed their unhappiness with the statue. Belotzercovsky expressed his own opposition at the Limmud conference’s opening, stating that the Israeli state was bothered by the monument, which he judged to be an indicator of a rising wave of nationalism in Ukraine. A Russian speaking member of the Kenesset wrote a public letter.
The scandal unspooled uncontrollably over the following week and a large number of articles quickly appeared through out the Western Jewish press. Most of these dealt with this issue without any nuance, proportion or historical context.
By the beginning of the week, Josef Zissels, the venerated leader of Ukraine’s Jewish community, issued a statement that for him personally, moving the statue out of the former Jewish quarter of Vinnytsia and further away from the Synagogue would be sufficient to settle the matter. Earlier this week, the issue reached a crescendo of political reverberations as Russian president Vladimir Putin personally intervened in the debate, and mentioned the statue in the course of his latest round of denouncing Ukrainians as Nazis. Putin compared the Ukrainian State’s refusal of political amnesty for pro-Russian separatist rebels in any possible future peace deal to leaving them open to Sarajevo style killings. At the end of his comments, he threw in reference to Petliura being a Nazi and anti Semite for good measure, and commented on the erection of the statue.
It is an undeniable fact that as Russia’s war continues to frustrate Ukrainians and the national mood darkens, the nation has consolidated its identity under a patriotic banner and has become noticeably more nationalistic (this process, however, has not translated into an increase in racism or anti-Semitism). As this particular form of Ukrainian nationalism has come into being as a result of Russian belligerence, aan independent national identity is being constructed to replace Soviet narratives. As part of that process of decommunization, various interwar and second world war political figures who led the struggle for an independent Ukrainian state become newly lionized as the Ukrainians reconstruct their historical pantheon. Many of these figures had fraught and violent relationships with Poles and with Jews, two groups with whom they lived together as subjugated peoples under the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian search for heroes to venerate amongst those who fought against communism in dark times when most everyone was faced with extraordinarily punishing choices is respected and understood by most members of the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Petliura’s legacy remains a highly contested one and it is a litmus test for one’s politics. The 1926 assassination of Petliura in Paris by the Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwarzbard was for decades a point of grievance for Ukrainian-Jewish relation. Furthermore, Western Ukrainians in Galicia viewed Petliura’s ceding of their province to the Polish in 1920 as a form of treason, a legacy that was only somewhat rehabilitated after his murder. The charitable assessment of Petliura’s role in relation to the Jews was that he himself was a liberal, and held philo-Semitic views, was horrified by the killings that took place, and took active (if futile) steps to stop it in the middle of a bloody conflict fought by numerous armies. Those who hold that opinion understandably view attempts to hold Petliura accountable for what happened in the middle of a fratricidal war as categorically unfair. Other historians view him as well intentioned, if also fundamentally weak willed in the face of total chaos. “In the case of Petliura, the issue is what has been done by his followers, under his banner» Prof. Wolf Moskovich, an expert on Ukrainian and Jewish history explained to me. “He did nothing to stop the pogroms carried out by units under his command, and when he gave some orders to cease the killing it was too late. Therefore as a commander in chief he bears legal and moral responsibility.”
On this question, there is also a significant number of members of those of both the Ukrainian and Jewish communities who think that the entire issue has been vastly and absurdly overblown.
It should also be remembered that Israeli-Ukrainian relations have only very recently been restored to their former state in the wake of the political fallout of Ukraine’s vote against Israel in the United Nations while the country held a rotating temporary seat on the security council. That vote led to the cancelation of Prime Minister Groysman’s state visit to Jerusalem the next day, and continues to haunt Ukrainian-Israeli relations. At the time, I had reported that the outgoing Obama administration had put substantive pressure on the Ukrainian government to vote against Ukraine in the UN.
Still, it is important to remember that this is far from the first time that President Vladimir Putin has used the subject of the Jews, and the politics of interwar memory, to bait the Ukrainians, as well as other Eastern European nations. What the Russian president was engaged in is in fact colloquially known as “trolling.” In some cases, Putin’s snide riffs against the Ukrainians are based on some kernel of historical accuracy, however distorted, amplified, and cynically weaponized for the consumption of those lacking any semblance of historical memory and the intricacies of regional history. As in other cases, with Putin it is trolls all the way down. Observers of the ostensibly philo-Semitic president’s complex relationship to the Jews have spent the last three years analyzing the Kremlin’s capacity to instrumentalize the tragedies of European and Jewish into its wider foreign policy aims.
Needless to say, such cynical weaponization of history for contemporary ideological usage has clear and dangerous implications for the lives of millions of people. Those parts of the history of the second world war that are the least known to Americans and Western Europeans are now the ones that are suddenly the most important in terms of the construction of contemporary ideology and state formation. Thus, it is extraordinarily important to separate the two kinds of accusations in the context of Eastern European history as it actually took place, and to be vigilant against the misuse of that history, lest we allow it to be devalued and used for the mobilization of contemporary political passions.
However, what both sorts of historical cases leave out is that the Russian Empire, having annexed Polish territory and inheriting large numbers of Jews that it did not know what to do with, becoming perhaps the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe. The Russian empire pursued a cynical policy of channeling the rage of a repressed peasantry against the Jews. It is an undeniable fact that in overseeing his postmodern hybrid regime, Putin glories in the symbolism of Russian power under both the Czars and the communist commissars, having embraced the pomp of the former and widespread nostalgia for the latter to buttress his rule. In fact, many of the most adroit observers of contemporary Russian political culture have made the case that interwar and Second World War memory now constitutes the fundamental grounds of the ideology of the Kremlin’s continued case for ruling Russia. In the meantime, Putin cynically proffers us his opinions about Ukrainian statues as the Russian air force delivers critical air support to Iranian backed militias committing ethnic cleansing across Syria.