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I. The Situation of the Jews in Ukraine
Before the Arrival of Denikin’s Volunteer Army

Anarchy and Pogroms

Since the Ukrainian nationalist movement began to campaign openly for an independent state (samostinost) at the end of 1917, but mainly since December 1918, when the Directorate3 — Vynnychenko,4 Petliura,5 Shvets,6 Andriievskyi,7 and Makarenko8 — organized the revolt against Hetman Skoropadskyi,9 the land has not ceased to be a field for military operations. The bloody battle for power has not abated. The land seethes and sinks into anarchy and decay. Before that time, before the Denikin era, the land had gone through three regimes: the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic with the Central Rada and with the General-Secretariat, at the end of 1917; the brief Bolshevik regime, Pyatakov’s government,10 January–February 1918; fictional independence with the restored Central Rada, actually under German occupation, March–April 1918; the Hetmanate, a similar fiction under German rule, May–December 1918; the Ukrainian Directorate, end of December 1918–February 1919; the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, the Bolsheviks in power, February–August 1919.

General Denikin and staff (1916). Photographer unknown. Library of Congress, digital ID ggbain.29429. Wikimedia,

But as different as these regimes were, they still shared some characteristics: 1) The land was fragmented under all the regimes, like a political chessboard of various powers. 2) The regimes were military, under constant mobilization. 3) The regimes were very weak.11

None of the regimes that considered themselves central or national ever actually controlled all of Ukraine. In various border areas, and even in the middle of the territory of a regime, that regime often competed with other “authorities” that “captured” and controlled their own provinces, districts, and counties, and considered themselves a government. This situation was especially notable before the second Soviet regime (February–August 1919). Parallel to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (the Kiev regime) there existed at various times and in various combinations, Petliura’s Republic in parts of the provinces Volhynia and Podolia, Makhno’s and Grigoriev’s governments; not to mention territories that smaller partisan military units and criminal gangs had seized, led by the Atamans Zelenyi,12 Sokolovsky, Angel,13 Tiutiunik,14 Struk,15 and others, who waged war under various flags or under no flag at all, primarily to plunder and “go wild” without interference.

This political chessboard of an assortment of “authorities” battling for control over territory meant that each regime had to be above all a military organization capable of attracting Ukrainians and to maintain its power by waging war against its enemies on all fronts. Under such conditions it was impossible for a central government to really practice statecraft, to organize the economy and civil life. And the longer these military operations continued, the worse was the devastation of the land, exponentially.

Add to this situation the real weakness of the regimes. Not one of them, because of their short duration and other organic reasons, managed to take root and dominate the land. Not one managed to accomplish anything substantial for the people, while at the same time they demanded their manpower and their last bit of money. Not one of them was rooted in the way of life and political traditions of the population. That was why they all had to rely almost purely on military power and punitive expeditions. That was why each regime did not really govern except in the larger centers where it had its military power and garrisons, and only when that military was not in retreat. This was true even within its own territory, or better said, on territory that no other authority was claiming for itself.

Smaller towns and villages were left vulnerable. Every village that had been armed from head to toe in the World War was on a war-footing against every authority, resisted every government discipline, and readily helped every new power overthrow the last. The same villages provided the Directorate with an army to overthrow the Hetman and the Germans; helped the Bolsheviks against the Directorate; supplied Petliura with units and partisans against the Soviet authorities; and were a constant source of adventurists and criminal gangs. Through all these regimes, Ukraine gave the impression of a patchwork of republics and dictatorships, or better said, of innumerable military fronts. Three main movements were involved on these fronts in various entanglements: Ukrainian nationalism (samostiniks), Soviet Communism, and Anarchist banditry. Across the length and breadth of the whole country, from north to south, from west to east and back, regular military troops were constantly on the march and armed gangs were on the move, overrunning helpless towns and villages like a torrential flood with artillery fire and the most savage atrocities, shredding the last vestiges of a peaceable culture and a normal way of life.

It was a landscape of decay and ruination, with depressed and hungry towns that flocked like sheep to any pastor with a gun and lawless villages that no regime could subdue. It was not difficult to foresee that under such bloody circumstances, the Jews, unarmed observers standing by, would be passive victims, in particular within the Ukrainian tradition of pogroms. But the events that took place were far worse than anything that had been imagined. The war of the Directorate against the Hetmanate, and then against the Bolsheviks, which followed soon after, brought with it military pogroms in Ovruch, Korosten, Zhitomir, Proskurov, and Felshtin that made the pogroms in Ukraine of the previous fifty years pale by comparison, judging by the number of people murdered, and by their cruelty and savagery.

Ovruch Pogrom (February 1919). Photographer unkonown. Wikimedia,

The situation grew even worse during the period of the Soviet regime. Petliura’s military campaign, and in addition the brutal guerilla war waged against the Soviets by various gangs, plus the involvement of local hooligans and bandits — all contributed to a state of permanent pogrom in Ukraine.

Petliura’s detachments, Makhno’s, Grigoriev’s, and other units exterminated hundreds of Jewish communities and settlements. Many little towns were completely wiped out, or the few remaining Jewish survivors fled. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in the most barbaric way. Even more were wounded, and many were permanently crippled. A large proportion of Jews in Ukraine have been reduced to begging, depending on the help of the Committee.16 Even worse than the economic ruin was the feeling of bleak despair. Helpless communities, like peaceful islands amid a sea of armed military people, lived in constant fear of death or losing their last few possessions. A little Jewish town that had been plundered and battered ten times was constantly aware that the murderer’s axe might strike any day, any time.

The Economic Pogrom

The pogroms, of course, destroyed the economic well-being of many Jews in Ukraine, but there were other factors, too, that had undermined it. Industry came to an end during this civil war, following four years of World War. The country went from well-developed commerce to a primitive economy, bartering a shirt for forty pounds of potatoes, and business turned into speculation. Some became rich at the expense of hundreds of thousands of ruined people. The country, which had been closely connected commercially to Russia and to the world, suddenly became isolated. It broke down into fragmented, parceled, territories all at war with each other. And they all degenerated side by side, with no trains, no industry, no commerce. On the roads Jews were again vulnerable to the mortal dangers of medieval highways. The towns became parasites. They lost their economic function, and the villages settled scores with the cities. Such conditions were disastrous for Jews, many of whom were businessmen, tradesmen, craftsmen, and managers, who needed a developed system of trade as much as air to breathe; a vibrant exchange with distant markets; flexible credit; etc. — the whole mechanism of a free and undisturbed capitalist system.

In addition, the Soviet agenda — the prohibition of commerce, the nationalization of the vast majority of industrial enterprises, the requisitions, the taxes — the whole economic war against the bourgeoisie, also helped ruin Jewish residents who lived mostly from trade and industry. In a little Jewish town the “bourgeois” was the owner of a little seltzer-water factory who owned his own little house, or the little shopkeeper, etc. The huge masses of Jews who lost their regular jobs and could not manage to adapt to Soviet rule had to live off the wind, resorting to smalltime speculation that was very dangerous, or to selling off their household goods, or to living off the kindness of their children who could find jobs under the Soviets.

Hopes for the Volunteer Army

It was therefore inevitable that when the Volunteer Army took over Ukraine in August 1919, the vast majority of Jews, more than other segments of the population, would welcome with joy and devotion any new regime that might restore safety and a peaceful existence. Who else had felt so deceived by all the previous regimes? Who else had suffered so many murders, massacres, and mortal fear? Who else was as much economically and emotionally depressed? And who else had longed, as much as the vast majority of Jews, for “law and order?” In retrospect it is difficult now to grasp, but in fact at the time when the Volunteer Army was starting to take over Ukraine, a large number of Jews looked upon it as though it were the Angel of Deliverance. And it is certainly true that among the Jewish delegations that went to receive the Army with bread and salt, this was not hypocrisy or just a despondent people asking meekly for mercy from the new authorities, but also a sincere enthusiasm for an authority that would bring “law and order.” They believed and they hoped, and they were ready to help and serve the Volunteer Army as best they could.

The political friends of the Volunteer Army among the bourgeoisie at home and abroad ceaselessly proclaimed that it would be a regime that established “law and order,” and that it would support a Constituent Assembly, a democracy, proper and rightful, with the working class and with Jews. At a time when cities and towns in Ukraine were isolated and disconnected from each other, and each Jewish community was practically a government unto itself, and there was very little news was available, and nothing from the other side of the front, under such circumstances the Jews had almost no information about the “excesses” and massacres that the Volunteer Army had already committed in June and July of 1919.

Even the Bolshevik press, which warned that this would be a Monarchist — Black Hundreds regime, made no special mention of pogroms committed against Jews. Almost every city and every town had to learn the bitter truth only by living through it. They learned it too late, but until then a large proportion of Jews had hoped and wished that an army that could “liberate Russia,” and that stood for a united nation and a Constituent Assembly — according to Admiral Kolchak’s declaration — and that had shown such energy during the war — such an army would be strong enough to establish a government and put an end to civil war, and was possessed of enough statecraft to protect the peaceful communities, or at the least, not perpetrate pogroms itself.

What else could a community like Bohuslav (Kiev province), have expected, where the pogrom went as follows: “On April 4, 1919, the partisans drove out the Bolsheviks and came into town. They pillaged and robbed all the Jews. They murdered twenty and wounded about fifty. Then our town became an encampment and suffered heavy artillery almost every day. On May 12 the Bolsheviks retreated. The partisans attacked again and murdered several more Jews, again robbed everyone, pillaging clothes and housewares. Finally on May 13 they set fire to Jewish houses and shops. They burned down fifty homes, 100 shops and stores, and seven houses of worship.” The very same account could have been reported by dozens and dozens of Jewish communities. Just change the name of the perpetrators to: Petliura’s Cossacks,17 Grigoriev’s army, Struk’s bandits, etc. The Jews soon realized that black days were facing them, and that the hoped-for Volunteer Army was surpassing the worst pogroms in the history of Ukraine.

3 Provisional committee organized by the Ukrainian National Union to overthrow Pavlo Skoropadskyi’s Hetmanate.

4 Volodymyr Vynnychenko: member of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Party and first Prime Minister under the General Secretariat, then member of the Directorate.

5 Symon Petliura: Supreme Commander of the army of the Ukrainian National Republic that was established in 1917 and chairman of the Directorate formed in 1918.

6 Fedir Shvets: Geology professor, elected to the Central Committee of the Peasants’ Union and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, then the Directorate.

7 Opanas Andriievskyi: representative of the militaristic Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Independentists in the Directorate.

8 Andrii Makarenko: representative of the Railway Workers’ Union in the Directorate.

9 Pavlo Skoropadskyi: General in the Russian Army, then the Ukrainian National Army, who in 1918 overthrew the provisional government and declared himself hetman. Was himself overthrown by the Directorate under Petliura.

10 Yuriy Pyatakov: a founder and leader of the Ukrainian Communist (Bolshevik) Party.

11 There was one exception. In this aspect the German occupation was stronger and better organized, but not totally [note by the author].

12 Danylo Terpilo.

13 Yevgeni Petrovych.

14 Yurii Tiutiunik.

15 Ilya Timofeyevich Struk [note by the author].

16 The All-Ukrainian Relief Committee for the Victims of Pogroms.

17 Don Cossacks and Kuban Cossacks.