Copyright 1999, H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

H-Net Review.jpg (37078 bytes)

H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Judaic@h-net.msu.edu (November, 1999)

Henry Abramson. A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in
Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University
Press, 1999.  Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian
Research Institute and Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University. 255
pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-916458-88-1;  $18.95 (paper), ISBN
0-916458-87-3.

Reviewed for H-Judaic by Joshua Rubenstein jrubenst@aiusa.org, Northeast
Regional Director, Amnesty International USA and an Associate of the Davis
Center for Russian Studies, Harvard University

Following Czar Nicholas II's abdication in February 1917, the Russian
Empire endured several years of revolutionary conflict and civil war.  In
numerous parts of the country, nationalist movements emerged which tried
to establish independent governments in the wake of the empire's collapse.
The Baltic states, for example, gained their independence, which lasted
for two decades until the Nazi-Soviet pact led to their forceful
incorporation into Stalin's Soviet Union.  In Georgia, a Menshevik
government enjoyed a short-lived existence before succumbing to pressure
from Moscow in 1921.

As Henry Abramson, Assistant Professor at Florida Atlantic University,
recalls in his book _A Prayer for the Government, Ukrainians and Jews in
Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920_, the political and military struggles in
Ukraine were among the most complex during those years.  As many as 3.5
million Jews lived there, constituting about 8% of the population.
Relations between Jews and the bulk of the Ukrainian population, most of
whom were peasants, had often been tense.  As far back as 1648, the
Ukrainian peasant leader Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyi had led a rebellion against
Polish rule that left hundreds of thousands of Jews dead because they were
perceived as agents of Polish economic domination.  This was only the
first of several notorious pogroms.

For the Jews, in particular, World War I and the ensuing years of civil
war turned into an extended nightmare.  German and Austrian authorities
were hostile to Jews during their occupation of large parts of Ukraine.
The Russian Imperial Army also dealt harshly with them, expelling a half
million from their homes in 1915.

But the worst was yet to come.  For several years, Ukraine endured a
period of unparalleled political turmoil, collapsing into "a state of
complete anarchy, in which no party ever exercised complete control over
the nation."  From the time of the czar's abdication until February 1919,
"Kyiv had ten different governments." The town of Proskuriv experienced
even greater turmoil; sixteen governments played political leap-frog in
the period between February 1917 and January 1921, when the Bolsheviks
took control.

It was during these years, particularly from 1918 to 1920, that a series
of vicious pogroms were carried out by various military units and peasant
gangs, overwhelming Jewish towns and villages, killing tens of thousands,
and further poisoning Ukrainian-Jewish relations.  But this violence is
not at the center of Abramson's book.  His aim instead is to illuminate an
often overlooked, brief, and ultimately doomed experiment in political
rapprochement when a small group of idealistic Ukrainian nationalists
tried to establish a government of their own -- the Central Rada -- in the
midst of the region's chaos.

The Central Rada lasted from March 1917 until April 1918, when a German
puppet state began its own brief existence.  At first, its leaders sought
a degree of autonomy from the Provisional Government that had come to
power after the czar's abdication.  Then, after the Bolshevik takeover,
they declared full independence.  At the same time, Ukrainian leaders
worked with several Jewish political parties in an attempt to create a
society in which Ukrainians and Jews could live together.  Under the
banner of Autonomism, Ukrainian intellectuals like Mykhailo Hrushevs'kyi
championed the idea of "harmonious cooperation with national minorities,
especially Jews."  This meant the "recognition of nationality rights as
well as personal rights," a move designed to reassure Jews and others that
as individuals and as distinct communities, they would have a secure place
in an independent Ukraine.

For a time, the Central Rada took concrete and useful intiatives.  A
Ministry of Jewish Affairs was established, a step no other government had
taken before.  Headed by the socialist activist Moshe Zilberfarb, the
ministry tried to nurture a more coherent infrastructure for the Jewish
community and respond to individual appeals for assistance.  The Central
Rada also authorized the revitalization of the kehiles, or local units of
Jewish self-government, which Czar Nicholas I had virtually banned in
1844.  But Abramson can cite only one concrete and consequential
achievement of the ministry: in response to the Bolshevik advance on Kyiv,
the Ukrainian military declared martial law and "issued a decree expelling
all inhabitants who had not been registered before January 1, 1915."  This
would have affected nearly three out of every four Jews in the city.
Happily, Zilberfarb was able to persuade the military to rescind this
decree.  Nonetheless, during its brief existence, as Abramson sadly notes,
it "does not seem that the ministry had a tremendous impact on the lives
of ordinary Jews in Ukraine."  Yiddish was made an official language; this
was a thoughtful gesture, but the Central Rada was not in a position to
give substance to this status.  According to Abramson, Yiddish-only
speakers could not converse with government officials and the telephone
service had no Yiddish-speaking operators.  Callers were asked to speak in
Russian or Ukrainian.

The good intentions of political leaders could not outweigh the terrible
conditions inside the country.  World War I had introduced an
unprecedented level of violence and dislocation, leaving a desperate and
impoverished population that was more likely to follow leaders of more
extreme political views.  And among the Jews themselves, there were mixed
feelings about supporting Ukrainian independence.

Most did not even regard themselves as Ukrainian Jews; they saw themselves
as Russian Jews, a self-identification that Abramson is right to
emphasize.  In addition, as a vulnerable minority, the Jews looked to the
broader majority power - the Russians - to protect their minority rights
and status in a multinational state.  The very first decree of Alexander
Kerensky's Provisional Government was to abolish the Pale of Settlement,
where most Jews had been confined, and grant them equal rights under law.
Jews with a secular education were also more attracted to Russian language
and culture than to Ukrainian culture.  Finally, Jews associated Ukrainian
peasants with anti-Semitism.

Such attitudes, however, aggravated their position in Ukraine, especially
when the Russian Civil War brought the Ukrainian independence movement
into conflict with the Bolsheviks.  The Jews were universally perceived as
pro-Bolshevik, making them natural targets for anti-Semites and extreme
Ukrainian nationalists.  Ukrainian political leaders either encouraged the
attacks or failed to do enough to stop them.  Even the most prominent
Ukrainian of that time, Symon Petliura, who became head of the independent
government (called the Directory) and commander of the army in early 1919,
has long been the center of controversy over his own role in the pogroms.

Abramson handles Petliura's career with balance and caution.  In Jewish
eyes, Petliura has been held responsible for many of the most vicious
pogroms.  His subsequent assassination in Paris in 1926 by Simon
Schwartzbard, a Ukrainian Jew who had fifteen relatives perish in pogroms,
remains a watershed event.  For many Ukrainians, the assassination
elevated Petliura to the status of a martyr and reinforced tensions
between Ukrainians and Jews.  Schwartzbard, moreover, was acquitted of the
crime after his attorney turned the trial into a full-scale indictment of
Petliura and his complicity in the violence.

After a close review of the documentary record, Abramson rejects the
accusation that Petliura was the architect of the pogroms or that he
initiated the infamous attacks in Proskurov (where 1,500 Jews were
slaughtered) by his subordinate Semesenko in 1919, an incident that rumor
and accusation have long linked to Petliura.  (For a full-scale discussion
of this controversy, see the articles in _Jewish Social Studies_, 31:3
[1969] by two scholars -- Taras Hunczak and Zosa Szjakowski -- with
diametrically opposite opinions.)  At the same time, Abramson accepts the
view that Petliura's hands were tied, and that if he had "chastised his
troops adequately," he would have lost the loyalty of his already
disintegrating army at a time when the Red Army was able to field many
more soldiers.  Petliura was desperate to preserve Ukrainian independence.
As Abramson implies, he could not hope to do this and protect Jews in
far-flung towns and villages.  In the end, though, Petliura's failure to
act decisively against the pogroms did not save Ukraine.

As Abramson concludes, the attempted rapprochement between Ukrainians and
Jews could not bridge "the chasm that separated the Ukrainian political
leadership from the peasants."  Assailed as pro-Bolshevik, suspicious of
Ukrainian claims for independence, and trapped in a civil war in which
political authorities had little ability to control their own troops or
population, the Jews were too vulnerable and easy a target.  At one point
Abramson accuses Jewish leaders of proving "incapable of taking concrete
steps to control the burgeoning pogrom wave."  Here he is too harsh.  The
Jews had no means to defend isolated towns, no allies to call on, and no
nearby government with the will or the power to intervene.  Neither the
Central Rada of Hrushevs'kyi in 1917 or the Directory government of
Petliura in 1919 ever amounted to a viable state.

This is not easy history to explore.  The years of revolution and civil
war in Ukraine remain difficult for Ukrainians and Jews to understand. _A
Prayer for the Government_ makes us wonder if events could have turned out
differently. The severe shifts in political authority, continuous
violence, and lingering resentments between Ukrainians and Jews make it
imperative for any historian to approach the material with clear-headed
and sober judgment.  Abramson reaches this standard, providing a distinct
service to scholarship and to memory.

     Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net and JSN, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is
     given to the author and H-Judaic.  For other permission, please
     contact the JSN.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 12/01/00
Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk
S D Stein

Reviews Index Page
Holocaust Index Page
Genocide Index Page
ESS Home Page