The Right to Revenge: Why Was Symon Petliura Killed?

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


On October 26, 1927, Sholom Schwartzbard, who was accused of murdering the former head of independent Ukraine Symon Petliura, was acquitted by the Parisian jury. Schwartzbard shot him for participating in Petliura’s army in the Jewish pogroms. However, today Petliura is a very prominent figure in the Ukrainian pantheon of national heroes. Recently a monument to him was unveiled in Vinnytsia. Why Petliura is worshipped in Ukraine is in the material of RT.

On May 25th, 1926, shots were fired in Paris at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel and Racine Street. In broad daylight, a man shot the passerby examining a show-window. Having achieved revenge, he threw the gun and waited for the police.

The deceased appeared to be the former leader of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR; a state formation on a part of the territory of present Ukraine during the years of the Civil war) Symon Petliura.

Crime and acquittal

The native of Poltava Petliura became the head of independent Ukraine almost by accident. He wasn’t a skilled politician, although before the revolution he took part in the activity of the organizations of “Independentists” — supporters of Ukrainian separatism. However, for most of his life Petliura was known as a publicist and editor, and only in 1918 did he suddenly join the establishment of the young state.

A lack of experience and a distinct political program (both for Petliura and his most close associates) led to the UPR being handed defeat after defeat by all participants of Civil war in Ukraine: red, white, green…

The only thing that Petliura’s adherents became known for is regular Jewish pogroms. Petliura formally tried to resist them, but in practice Petliura’s army almost didn’t submit to their commander. Especially concerning matters of arbitrary bloody massacres and marauding.

And it is because of the pogroms that Petliura was killed. The former serviceman of the French foreign legion, Jewish poet, and anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard shot him. He was born in Ukraine, and all his family lived there. They were completely by Petliura’s adherents during riots, and Schwartzbard decided to revenge their leader for death of relatives.

Sholom Schwartzbard

On October 26th, 1927, the jury completely acquitted Petliura’s murderer. The process lasted about a year. Outstanding scientists and artists stood up for Schwartzbard: from Einstein to Chagall. In court the participation of Petliura’s army in pogroms was proved, and the jurors decided that Schwartzbard had the right to get revenge.

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“Gang of murderers and robbers”

During the Civil war in Ukraine Jewish pogroms repeatedly took place. The command of some armies considered this as a crime and strictly punished the guilty, but in other armies pogroms were nearly a norm.

So, for example, the anarchist father Makhno – who is perceived often as an embodiment of the spontaneity and chaos of Civil war – was shot on the spot for manifestations of anti-Semitism. And the intellectual Petliura closed his eyes to what his militants got up to.

As a result for Ukrainian Jews Petliura, who wasn’t an anti-semite, turned into a symbol of violence and death. The Jewish poet Itsik Manger, whose family fled the pogroms in Ukraine and the Civil war, wrote the poem “Ballad about Petliura”:

“Black birds of a night haze,
Why you brought Petliura here?
He can’t sleep because of blood,
He asks in a night window,
— Give me a rope!”

And the “Jewish encyclopedia”, in a biographic article about Petliura, loses academic restraint and directly calls his army “a gang of murderers and robbers”.

Symon Petliura (in the center)

The famous Soviet historian Nikolay Poletika, who lived in Ukraine in the 1920’s, remembers Petliura’s pogroms: “Sophisticated methods of torture were applied to Jews. Old men and children were cut in pieces. Thousands if not tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, many more than once, including girls aged 12-13 years, and old women of 50-70 years. Before being murdered the victims were subjected to awful torture: many corpses were found without hands and feet, some had a left hand and right foot missing, others with a right hand and left foot missing. The genitals of the victim were cut off, eyes were gouged out, noses were cut off. The synagogues and houses in which Jews looked for shelter were burned or blown up by a grenade”.

“It is necessary to add mockeries to this: before death the victim was forced to sing and dance in front of the torturers, to mock their own people and praise their torturers. Before being killed they had to dig their own grave. Wives, sisters, and daughters were raped in front of their men, and children were forced to hang their fathers,” wrote the historian.

Pantheon of Ukrainian nationalists

Symon Petliura is today a prominent figure in the Ukrainian pantheon of national heroes. Recently a monument to him was unveiled in Vinnytsia. However, his image is lost against the background of other historical characters, such as Bandera and Shukhevych.

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As the President of the Center for System Analysis and Forecasting Rostislav Ishchenko stated during a conversation with RT, modern Ukrainian nationalism has a purely Galician origin and spreads due to the efforts of natives of Galicia. Therefore, Galicians impose their heroes on Ukraine.

“And such a person as Petliura, who, it seems, fits well into their historical and political concepts, doesn’t quite satisfy them, because Petliura is a native of the East [of Ukraine – ed], and for them residents of eastern Ukraine are incomplete people, even if they are nationalists,” noted Ishchenko.

The Director of the Ukrainian Branch of the Institute of CIS Denis Denisov considers that Petliura is less mythologized by Ukrainian inhabitants than Bandera is, because Petliura’s role in the Civil war is ambiguous.

“But nevertheless, as we know, representatives of the Ukrainian government try to make a latter-day Ukrainian hero also from him. Although if to take this person’s biography and evaluate his place and role, only at a big stretch is it possible to say that he at least to some extent positively influenced the development of territories that are a part of Ukraine today,” said the expert in an interview to RT.

In fact, by knowing his biography it is possible to draw analogies to the present so-called voluntary battalions, considers Denisov.

“100 years ago he actually was the leader of one of such structures. As now we will speak about the 100-year anniversary of those events, of course, for Ukrainian propagandists it is necessary to find some characters who could be represented as fighters for independence,” concluded Denisov.

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