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H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Judaic@h-net.msu.edu
Henry Abramson. A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in
Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
Press, 1999. Distributed by Harvard University Press for the
Research Institute and Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University.
pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-916458-88-1; $18.95 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed for H-Judaic by Joshua Rubenstein firstname.lastname@example.org,
Regional Director, Amnesty International USA and an Associate of the
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.
numerous parts of the country, nationalist movements emerged which tried
to establish independent governments in the wake of the empire's
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
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
Polish rule that left hundreds of thousands of Jews dead because they
perceived as agents of Polish economic domination. This was only
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
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
period of unparalleled political turmoil, collapsing into "a state
complete anarchy, in which no party ever exercised complete control over
the nation." From the time of the czar's abdication until
"Kyiv had ten different governments." The town of Proskuriv
even greater turmoil; sixteen governments played political leap-frog in
the period between February 1917 and January 1921, when the Bolsheviks
It was during these years, particularly from 1918 to 1920, that a series
of vicious pogroms were carried out by various military units and
gangs, overwhelming Jewish towns and villages, killing tens of
and further poisoning Ukrainian-Jewish relations. But this
not at the center of Abramson's book. His aim instead is to
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
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
a degree of autonomy from the Provisional Government that had come to
power after the czar's abdication. Then, after the Bolshevik
they declared full independence. At the same time, Ukrainian
worked with several Jewish political parties in an attempt to create a
society in which Ukrainians and Jews could live together. Under
banner of Autonomism, Ukrainian intellectuals like Mykhailo Hrushevs'kyi
championed the idea of "harmonious cooperation with national
especially Jews." This meant the "recognition of
nationality rights as
well as personal rights," a move designed to reassure Jews and
as individuals and as distinct communities, they would have a secure
in an independent Ukraine.
For a time, the Central Rada took concrete and useful intiatives.
Ministry of Jewish Affairs was established, a step no other government
taken before. Headed by the socialist activist Moshe Zilberfarb,
ministry tried to nurture a more coherent infrastructure for the Jewish
community and respond to individual appeals for assistance. The
Rada also authorized the revitalization of the kehiles, or local units
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
the Ukrainian military declared martial law and "issued a decree
all inhabitants who had not been registered before January 1,
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
it "does not seem that the ministry had a tremendous impact on the
of ordinary Jews in Ukraine." Yiddish was made an official
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
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
feelings about supporting Ukrainian independence.
Most did not even regard themselves as Ukrainian Jews; they saw
as Russian Jews, a self-identification that Abramson is right to
emphasize. In addition, as a vulnerable minority, the Jews looked
broader majority power - the Russians - to protect their minority rights
and status in a multinational state. The very first decree of
Kerensky's Provisional Government was to abolish the Pale of Settlement,
where most Jews had been confined, and grant them equal rights under
Jews with a secular education were also more attracted to Russian
and culture than to Ukrainian culture. Finally, Jews associated
peasants with anti-Semitism.
Such attitudes, however, aggravated their position in Ukraine,
when the Russian Civil War brought the Ukrainian independence movement
into conflict with the Bolsheviks. The Jews were universally
pro-Bolshevik, making them natural targets for anti-Semites and extreme
Ukrainian nationalists. Ukrainian political leaders either
attacks or failed to do enough to stop them. Even the most
Ukrainian of that time, Symon Petliura, who became head of the
government (called the Directory) and commander of the army in early
has long been the center of controversy over his own role in the
Abramson handles Petliura's career with balance and caution. In
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
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
crime after his attorney turned the trial into a full-scale indictment
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
and accusation have long linked to Petliura. (For a full-scale
of this controversy, see the articles in _Jewish Social Studies_, 31:3
 by two scholars -- Taras Hunczak and Zosa Szjakowski -- with
diametrically opposite opinions.) At the same time, Abramson
view that Petliura's hands were tied, and that if he had "chastised
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
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
act decisively against the pogroms did not save Ukraine.
As Abramson concludes, the attempted rapprochement between Ukrainians
Jews could not bridge "the chasm that separated the Ukrainian
leadership from the peasants." Assailed as pro-Bolshevik,
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
Abramson accuses Jewish leaders of proving "incapable of taking
steps to control the burgeoning pogrom wave." Here he is too
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
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
war in Ukraine remain difficult for Ukrainians and Jews to understand.
Prayer for the Government_ makes us wonder if events could have turned
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
service to scholarship and to memory.
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