A historian and compiler of a scholarly collection explains how the Jews joined the Ukrainian Revolution

The historian Serhiy Hirik discusses a collection of articles entitled The Jews of Ukraine: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization.

Serhiy Hirik: This book is based on papers that were presented at the conference “The Jews of Ukraine: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization; Politics, Culture, Society,” which took place on 14–15 October 2017 at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Scholars from eight countries attended. Not all the papers were included in this conference proceedings. This is not the typical collection of conference papers that are often published by Ukrainian universities. After the conference ended, we asked the authors to prepare articles based on their papers, ranging from ten to twenty pages, including questions and comments that were made during the discussions. This was possible to do as all the presentations were recorded on video

We put this request to those authors who fit the collection thematically, as well as those whose papers were the most interesting and sparked the liveliest discussions. We aimed for the book to feature articles on political history, social history, the history of culture, educational institutions, and the history of Jewish art.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk a bit about this for the benefit of those who did not deliver papers at the conference and cannot imagine what a typical conference proceeding is like. The texts were selected, and you invited authors to be part of this collection. And this is contrary to what other practice—accepting the texts of everyone who delivered papers?  

Serhiy Hirik:  Yes. And not just those who delivered papers. Often, conference proceedings include the texts of so-called “absentee presenters.”  Thus, a collection may be published which contains several hundred short presentations that are three to four pages in length; such collections are rarely designed around a thematic principle. In Soviet times, multivolume, collective monographs were dubbed “mass graves.” These texts become lost; no one but the authors will be reading them. And those who have author’s copies simply put them on the shelf and never mention them again.

Iryna Slavinska:  And they add them to their bibliographies.

Serhiy Hirik:  Yes, certainly.

Iryna Slavinska:  I remember from my graduate student days that you could place an article in a scholarly collection only for money. Money was paid for the number of printed characters or pages in an article. Was this collection also financed by crowdfunding?

Serhiy Hirik:  No way. The principled position of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies is that we seek grants for the publication of any books and our journal Judaica Ukrainica. In fact, part of the funds that we received from the conference sponsor, the European Association for Jewish Studies, was used for this collection. When we were preparing the grant application to this organization, we specified that conference proceedings would be published.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s continue getting to know this collection. When this book was being prepared, was there additional work done on the texts? You already mentioned that questions that were asked at the conference were taken into account. Did you work from the manuscripts of those amended texts that you had already received, or did the authors do additional writing based on your corrections?

Serhiy Hirik:  The authors amended the texts several times based on our corrections. Once we received them, we first did scholarly editing. Although this book is not a refereed journal, we asked specialists in those topics that are featured in the book to look through them and provide their comments. After this, we sent these edited texts to the authors, along with the comments. Then we read them again. And after the typesetting, we sent them to the authors again.

Plus, we had to do a lot of work on the scholarly apparatus, the reference system. Even though we had asked the authors to format their footnotes, not according to the state standard, but a somewhat simplified version of the Ukrainian variant for Ukraine and for Russian-language texts, and for English-language texts according to The Chicago Manual of Style, not everyone followed them. Some used the standard that is widespread in Ukraine, whereby citations are placed within parentheses. Later we had to create a common denominator so that the contents of the book would look more or less uniform and visually acceptable to the reader.

Iryna Slavinska:  Within a single country there exist several different formatting standards, at least as regards bibliographies. Among our listeners, this experience may be applied by those who have done graduate studies or generally in the scholarly sphere. As an M.A. student, I encountered changes in the standards for citing literature. It turned out that half of all scholarly work was formatted according to the old rules, and then you take yourself in hand, and you change the parentheses in a hundred pages to other things. Where there is similar work on texts at the hands of editors, one can even speak about a kind of curatorial work. Like an umbrella, a certain statement can unify everything with which you worked and what you corrected. What was the common concept behind the corrections that you made?

Serhiy Hirik:  I treated these texts quite considerately and properly. And I did not intrude in places where there were no factual errors. In some places, there were errors in the very footnotes, when authors, citing a text, incorrectly referenced the book that they were citing. And I had to find the original work and verify it, just in case.

Iryna Slavinska: These corrections are rather cosmetic ones, in the good sense of the word.

Serhiy Hirik:  Some works had to be rejected because from some authors we did not receive texts written on the proper level.

Iryna Slavinska:  In addition to scholarly articles, this book includes illustrations. There is a very interesting poster on the cover. What is this image?

Serhiy Hirik:  This is an advertising poster that was painted by the Russian-Jewish-Ukrainian artist Solomon Yudovin, for Folkspartey, or the Jewish People’s Party, in early 1918, before the elections to the Ukrainian Constituent Assembly. This copy, which we reproduced, is held in the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. We obtained permission from them to reproduce it on the book cover.

Iryna Slavinska:  There is a number four. Is this a date?

Serhiy Hirik:  No, the four is a number on a ballot.

Iryna Slavinska:  That’s how it is drawn to this day. “Your candidate is number X on the list.” Let’s outline the topics of these articles. From the titles, I see that art is one of the topics.

Serhiy Hirik:  The book contains two art history articles and one that may be provisionally called literary history, although it is on the cusp of literary criticism and Source Studies. The art history ones are texts by the Israeli researcher Alek Epstein, which are devoted to the work of [Emmanuel] Mane-Katz and Yitzhak Frenkel, who later became Frenel, and the second one is an article by the Kyiv-based researcher Iryna Meleshkina, who works at the Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema of Ukraine. Her text is about the founding of the Kultur-lige’s theater studio.

Iryna Slavinska:  The rest is history?

Serhiy Hirik:  The history of education, social history, and political history.

Iryna Slavinska:  Were you surprised to see how few or how many researchers are studying the Revolution and post-revolutionary modernization in the context of Jewish life in Ukraine?

Serhiy Hirik:  If this book had been done ten years ago, I would have had to pay attention to this. Right now, the topic has become more popular, new researchers are working on it; I see progress in this. In fact, we did not have to invite unmistakably weak presenters. We rejected nearly a third because they did not fit the profile of the conference. There were reasons why we did this. Because, thanks to the grant, we covered the participants’ travel and accommodation expenses. We had no need to invite weak participants.

Iryna Slavinska:  The topic of the revolution was determined by the “magic of the anniversary’’—the centenary of the 1917 Revolution?

Serhiy Hirik:  Yes. This was the first conference held by the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies, precisely because the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution and the beginning of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921 fell that year. That’s why we decided to make this conference a “revolutionary” one. For example, in 2018 we held an Israel Studies conference because the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel was being marked. From now on we will be pegging conferences to anniversary dates.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk about the most interesting key points that are explored in the book. You were involved in editing and arranging the book, you read every single article. A question arises in the context of the conversation about the centenary of the Ukrainian Revolution and inter-ethnic relations, and what is often labeled “Ukrainian anti-Semitism.” In fact, the events of the Revolution and its various figures are often associated with a very negative attitude to Jews. Did you work on this topic at the conference, and is it present in this book?

Serhiy Hirik:  To be sure, in talking about the Jews of Ukraine during the period of the Revolution of 1917–1921, it is impossible to avoid the topic of anti-Semitism and the Jewish pogroms. And this topic is present in several texts at the beginning of the collection and even in the art history section. Alek Epstein’s article mentions the pogroms and its reflection in works of art. This topic is also featured in texts about political history; it is mentioned in particular in the article by Olga Petrova, an independent scholar from Budapest and graduate of Central European University. Her article explores the participation of Jews in the government bodies of the UNR  [Ukrainian National Republic]. When she writes about the activities of the Ministry of Jewish Affairs of the UNR, she touches directly on the pogroms. The article by Dmytro Tolkach, a researcher from Freiburg who is originally from Kyiv, is exclusively about the pogroms. And the article by Vitaliy Skalsky, from the National Academy of Sciences, is devoted to early anti-Semitism until the outbreak of the pogroms in 1919.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we sum up this research and, generally, the data commanded by your colleagues, can one say that in the subject of the Ukrainian Revolution there is such a thing as interaction between the movements of political activists of Ukrainian and Jewish background?

Serhiy Hirik:  Of course. This interaction had many dimensions. First of all, there was interaction among government bodies, when representatives of Jewish political parties participated as delegates of their parties in the government bodies of the UNR, and in the abolition of the law on national personal autonomy in the government of the Ukrainian state. After the establishment of the Soviet government, special Jewish sections of the CP(B)U [Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine] were created, where former members of Jewish parties who had gone over to the Bolsheviks cooperated with former members of Ukrainian parties and those Ukrainian Bolsheviks who had joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party(B) even before the creation of the CP(B)U.

Moreover, activists of Jewish background were members of Ukrainian parties. For example, in the Borotbist Party, which was the subject of my dissertation, the Jew Naum Kaliuzhny was a member of the CC [Central Committee] and head of the Poltava oblast committee. Later, one of the grassroots activists of this party was the famous Ukrainian literary critic of Jewish background Volodymyr Koriak.

Iryna Slavinska:  Where did the myth of Jews being exclusively Bolsheviks come from, and what is it based on?

Serhiy Hirik:  First of all, the very emergence of Jews on the political scene in 1917 and the participation of Jews in government bodies, which was unrealistic in the conditions of the empire, sparked dissatisfaction among the upper strata of society, especially among the representatives of right-wing circles in Kyiv, which had been influential before the Revolution. They were concentrated in Russian right-wing parties on the territory of Ukraine in the Union of the Russian People and the Party of Russian Nationalists. And these ideas about the Jews being especially active in the Bolshevik movement were vigorously disseminated in the Black Hundreds press, particularly in the newspaper Kievlianin, in articles written by Vasily Shulgin and his wife.

But these ideas also found support among the lower levels of society. In fact, before the Revolution, a Ukrainian peasant never encountered the phenomenon of a Jew representing the authorities. And in the Bolshevik Party, following the establishment of Soviet power, he saw the Jew participating on par with a non-Jew. That a Jew, whom the Ukrainian peasant regarded as being lower than himself, ended up above him and was coming as a representative of the government was the very thing that overturned this picture of the world of relations between the authorities and subjects in the eyes of the crowd. This certainly sparked dissatisfaction and the notion of “Judeo-Communism.”

And this was actively maintained in anti-Bolshevik agitation, among a segment of the Ukrainian insurgents who formally declared their allegiance to the UNR, as well as in White Guardist agitation. At that point, anti-Bolshevik caricatures with anti-Semitic content appear in the press in 1920, during the attack on Warsaw. The image of Judeo-Communism is peddled in Poland, and the very term emerges. It was actively disseminated after that throughout the world, especially after the victory of the Bolsheviks, when the White Guardists ended up in the West and began popularizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, translating it into various Western languages. This idea thus begins to be disseminated in the European milieu as well.

Iryna Slavinska:  I remember an anti-pogrom article from the period of the Revolution, in which the author—he would be called a “columnist” today—cautioning his fellow citizens against pogroms, says that if you are indignant about the crimes of the Bolshevik government, you have to go and beat the Bolsheviks. Such a quote—is it very fragmentary or was such anti-Semitism reflected as a problem within Ukrainian political movements?

Serhiy Hirik:  It was reflected as a problem. But above all in the top ranks. Specifically, in this book, in an article by the young Uman-based historian Ihor Opatsky, one can see how subsequently the distinguished archaeologist Petro Korinny, who lived in Uman and witnessed several anti-Jewish pogroms, reacted to this. He tried to explain to himself what was happening and how hatred of the Bolsheviks resulted in pogroms targeting the anti-Bolshevik Jewish population in Uman.

As regards the top ranks of the UNR government, the newspaper Ukraina of the Kamianets period, for example, published articles condemning the pogroms. But we cannot claim that this press was sufficiently disseminated widely. And as a rule, pogroms did not take place where a headquarters was based. They were often carried out by the troops of the Directory as soon as they ended up more or less far away from the command. The thesis that the Jewish masses were isolated from the Bolsheviks played a significant role. It is interesting that the authors of these articles were frequently Jewish officials in the UNR writing under Ukrainian pseudonyms. In the newspaper Ukraina, such articles were written by Solomon Goldelman under the pseudonym of “Zolotarenko.” Olga Petrova has written about this elsewhere.

Iryna Slavinska:  Can one gain an awareness of the Ukrainian Revolution as a multicultural phenomenon from the book that we are discussing?

Serhiy Hirik:  We tried to do this, to show it precisely this way. We tried to expand the Revolution in time. That is why this “Post-Revolutionary Modernization” figures in part of the subtitle. That is how we continued the thematic spectrum of the collection throughout the entire post-revolutionary decade, all of the 1920s, as a result of which research on Jewish educational institutions in Soviet Ukraine, the formation of the system of Jewish higher professional education, and the creation of Jewish collective farms is presented there.

Actually, all those social transformations that took place in the process of revolution and throughout the decade affected not just ethnic Ukrainians and Russians but also Poles, Jews, and Germans who lived on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR, especially in the period before 1938, which was marked by the policy of indigenization, which was not limited to Ukrainization, but also included the Yiddishization of the Jewish masses and the founding of Polish and German educational institutions. This was a multi-vectored process aimed at the development—in the words of Stalin—of what was “national in form but socialist in content.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Until it was cut short and crushed in the meat-grinder of repressions.

Serhiy Hirik:  Yes, during the period of the Great Terror. The entire policy of indigenization was terminated, all national districts and village soviets were liquidated, and Jewish collective farms ceased to exist as such.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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