Our story starts and finishes with a murder. On May 26th, 1926, on a busy Parisian street, a middle-aged Ukrainian man is gunned down by a young Jewish watchmaker. The story quickly becomes a sensation and the trial, held the following year, becomes international news. The reason was simple: our murder victim, Symon Petliura, happened to be one of the most prominent Ukrainian nationalist leaders in exile, and the implications of his assassination—including revenge, anti-Semitism and rampant nationalism—had far-reaching relevance for inter-war Europe.
The circumstances and motive of this murder are tightly bound to one of the most tragic episodes in modern European history—the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-1921. Occurring simultaneously with events in Petrograd and Moscow, the collapse of Russian imperial order in Ukraine reignited ancient tensions. Various ethnic groups in the region attempted to achieve the nationalist goal of self-determination, often with competing claims to the same land. Although not the sole reason behind the failure of the Ukrainian independence movement, these competing nationalisms were to play a major part in the inability of Ukraine to emerge as its own state, and subsequently on the outcome of the Russian Civil War.
Following the First World War, the idea of nationalism became synonymous with that of self-determination—the belief that a group of people is entitled to their own state. This doctrine, however, became blurred in Ukraine, where centuries of foreign rule had by 1917 provided an ethnically diverse territory. Aside from Ukrainians, significant Polish, Russian and Jewish minorities called the region home—each with their own preconceived notions of ‘Ukraine’. Further complicating matters, even some Ukrainians were opposed to independence!
Competing nationalisms, both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, derailed the independence movement in three significant ways.
Firstly, among both Ukrainian intellectual and popular circles, there was considerable debate about the very nature of independence. Voices in the Ukrainian parliament—the Ukrainian People’s Republic—wanted to remain in federation with Russia. Others—such as Petliura, who headed the government, and the anarchist Nestor Makhno, wanted complete independence with or without borders. The indecision spawned radical opposition and competing nationalisms. In June, 1917, a handful of military officers rebelled against the parliament. The attempted insurrection was crushed immediately, but the damage was already done. The democratic parliament lost popular support, with people looking elsewhere—to the Bolsheviks, for example—for political fulfilment.
Secondly, Russian and Polish nationalists in Ukraine were fundamental in shifting popular opinion abroad. This was aided by very little awareness in the West of a separate Ukrainian identity. At the Paris Peace Talks in 1919, representatives of the urban Polish minority in Ukraine discredited the independence movement to the Allies. Considering the alliance between Petliura’s Ukrainian government and Germany, the Poles successfully argued that Ukrainian nationalism was nothing but German puppetry. The result was the occupation, and disappearance, of an independent Ukrainian state. The multiple treaties signed between Poland, the Allies and Bolshevik Russia literally wiped free Ukraine from the map—once again sidelining it to the status of a Russian province.
Thirdly—and most obviously—competing nationalisms spawned interior conflict and bloody violence. In the four year revolutionary period, Kyiv was occupied sixteen times by various armies, while nearly every ethnic group in the territory took up arms against each other. The region itself was invaded three times by Bolshevik Russia. Against this backdrop were a multitude of innocent victims. The 1919 Proskuriv pogrom, contentiously initiated by Petliura’s men, killed thousands of Jews—including the family of our watchmaker-cum-assassin. The result was profound. Infighting amongst Ukrainian nationalist groups destroyed both the military capability of these armies as well as any coherence in the movement. Likewise, such infighting proved advantageous for the Bolsheviks, whose centralized, disciplined force outmatched that of the various other nationalisms.
Nationalisms and the Russian Civil War
The question of Ukrainian independence provides one of the big ‘What if?’ questions of the 20th century: had an independent Ukraine emerged as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia, how could history have been different? This speculation hinges on two key factors: possession and demand. Ukraine was an attractive target. Aside from its vast agricultural benefits, the Donets Basin in the East had a rich supply of coal. Importantly, Ukraine possessed all the raw materials the budding Soviet Republic lacked. The Soviet conquest of Ukraine in 1921 provided the Bolsheviks with all the materials they needed in their struggle against the Whites and the Poles: a fact commemorated in propaganda. Competitive nationalisms ensured that no strong, central power emerged in Kyiv to rival that in Moscow. Subsequently, the Soviets did not have to fight a firmly united Ukrainian front, as they did in the disastrous Polish campaign of 1920. Had a unified, independent Ukraine emerged, Bolshevik power may have been stunted through a significant absence of resources and through the creation of a strong Ukrainian front.
Petliura’s Ukrainian government represents one of the great missed opportunities of the 20th century. At a time when the Bolsheviks were establishing forced labour camps and requisitioning grain, his government was abolishing capital punishment. Five years after the cessation of conflict, the underlying tensions of the Ukrainian Revolution re-emerged violently on a Parisian street. His murder at the hands of a Jew signified the last, tragic facet of the multi-ethnic, multi-national conflict which was the Ukrainian Revolution. Had there been unity amongst Ukrainian nationalists and the various ethnicities of Ukraine—had they recognised the threat Soviet communism presented to the region—perhaps the history of Eastern Europe—and indeed the world—could have been different, and Petliura may not have met his end on the rue Racine.