Mykhailo Hrushevskyi: “After a nightmare” (the Beilis trial)

[Editor’s note: In 1913, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi wrote an article in Lviv’s Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk in the aftermath of the trial of Mendel Beilis. Beilis, a Jew, had been accused of ritual murder in Kyiv and was subsequently acquitted by a jury comprised of Ukrainians. Hrushevskyi’s article, which is reprinted below, touches on a number of important subjects, including the judicial and political situation of that era. Hrushevskyi was considered one of the most important figures in the Ukrainian national revival of the twentieth century.  An academician, historian, statesman, and politician, he was head of Ukraine’s Central Rada in 1917-1918].

For some 1.5 months, Kyiv found itself in the focus of attention of the entire world. Dispatched by the key press outlets of large world nations, correspondents flocked here to record in minute detail the events that were taking place. Endless telegrams flew from Kyiv to the world cultural centers. Meanwhile, both cultured and semi-cultured Frenchmen, Germans, and Britons would open their newspapers and, first and foremost, look for news from our capital, whose name they hardly knew even how to pronounce prior to that. Kyiv newspapers were impossible to buy. Their print runs shot up threefold to fourfold, reaching numbers that were unprecedented and inconceivable for the “provincial press.”

The “glory” was great, but this is the kind of glory that becomes a heavy burden for the glorified one. The “happy” ending cannot erase from memory everything we have gone through during this horrible month. The honour it has brought to Kyiv is dubious and undeserved… Those who opened this terrible “Beilis case” and prosecuted it are figures far removed from the true local element and disengaged from the people and the land. They are parasites feeding on the morbid process of oppressing local life and everything that is strong healthy and healthy in it. It is a disgusting boil that grew and eventually burst, exposing all the filth that had been accumulating in local life, desiccating and debilitating it.

We have seen the awful image of the “system” now ruling over us and our land and that of the cordial, unbreakable bond that its representatives formed with the worst of local scum ejected by local life under the pressure of these abnormal circumstances. Eventually, it became indiscernible where all kinds of riffraff were fulfilling their assignments by spreading blood libel and fueling hatred through fanatic fables and where, on the contrary, the guardians of justice and law were using all the rights and authority invested in them to lend an appearance of actuality to the figments of a fevered, sick imagination of those parasites of oppression and darkness.

Progressive local elements had to strain every nerve to block this onslaught of bloody nightmares and stand up against the massive cloud of medieval ignorance injected among modern people. Their effort is praiseworthy, but the results?

The outcome of these efforts should become an object of consideration not only for our public but also for Russian liberal circles concerned with centralist competition, which, following the interests of a single state culture and ethnicity, cast, naturally, disapproving glances at any efforts to revive and rehabilitate local life when they do not fit within the limits of liberal Russian centralism, transcend Great Russian state culture, and divert people from exclusive service to it.

Let us put it straightforwardly: the guilt for the utter ignorance in which the low strata of local people are wandering blindly rests not only with Black Hundred elements but also with the glorious carriers of “universal” Great Russian culture who knew only how to look down, in cold disdain, from the soaring heights of this universality at the “petty and narrow” efforts of the Ukrainian public to revive Ukrainian culture and elevate the local culture of the broad masses. They even stalled these endeavors in every way—from murderous silence to more active manifestations of their hostile sentiments. We cannot expect the carriers and servants of official Russification to come to their senses. Will the adherents of “gradual” Russification come to their senses after all the things we have gone through and in the light of what awaits us ahead?

I do not know whether the massive file compiled in this horrible case contains an adequate assessment of one incredibly telling detail, namely a complete lack of any tradition of blood libel among the Ukrainian people in the Ukrainian land, where millions of Mendel Beilis’s fellowmen of the same ethnicity and faith have lived for a millennium. Centuries have forged an unbreakable bond between the Jews and this land, which became their second motherland, and these people among whom generations of Jews were born and died. The collision—not so much of cultures or racial traits as of class and economic elements—and the short-sighted, primitive anti-Semitism which the true exploiters and tormentors so skillfully utilized to divert the attention of the exploited masses both caused multiple bloody storms on the part of Ukrainian people.

The history of Jews in Ukraine knows bloody massacres in which many Jews were killed. (However, their numbers are exaggerated in the tradition.) We also find various deserved and undeserved accusations leveled against them. But the blood libel—this cannibalistic legend about Jews consuming Christian blood, which was sent to us from its true provenance, the medieval Catholic West—has never been accepted by our Ukraine. We actually do not have a single blood libel court case, especially from that Ukraine, which was vibrant and had more freedom, being able to more directly reflect the views and sentiments of its people in its life. Evidently, this bloody legend did not fit the views that the local people held of Jews and had no place in their relations.

Now, when popular life is enfettered hand and foot and the access of popular masses to the Ukrainian intelligentsia is blocked, while all kinds of channels are opened for various Black Hundred influences—this is when the blood canard has been circulated. Vigorous two-year long efforts to disseminate it could not have failed to bear fruit. In deep anxiety, the progressive people of entire Russia and the entire world stood still together with us facing a mystery: how would a handful of simple Ukrainian peasants, the jury in the Beilis trial, treat this cursed figment of medieval darkness warmed up by the servants of tribal and racial hatred? How would they cut through the centuries-old intricate cobweb of sick imagination and inhuman malice spread before them by all those specialists in ritual legend sent to testify in front of them in court?

Here is another telling aspect of this case. It was said this was such a complex centuries-old issue in which theologians and Hebrew scholars, landlords and kings, church saints and worldly philosophers had their say, and now it was put before a handful of ignorant, mediocre, unintelligent peasants and townsmen plucked out of the dark mass by a whim of fate. And nowhere did we encounter the question of whether, regardless of their development or intelligence, these Ukrainian peasants were able to understand, in the first place, that Russian officialese in which both parties would argue their cases. How understandable and accessible would this Russian form be as various participants would speak before the jury, clothing in this form their talent, wit, anger, sincerity or deceit, wile and cunning? One of the issues of the current Ukrainian platform—the language of court and government—rose menacingly before everybody’s eyes. Did it teach others to treat it seriously?

Eventually, the Ukrainian peasants got out of their predicament quite well, even though not triumphantly, as the optimists of the current wave present it. A Kadet deputy thus described the jury’s verdict: “The disturbed conscience cannot accuse the innocent, while the dark mind was confused by the mistakes and untruthfulness of the investigation.” Confused indeed. Turning a blind eye to various wicked details to which the jury was coaxed to give affirmative statements, the optimists are praising the acquittal of the poor Beilis and singing paeans to the “people’s soul” and “people’s conscience” which have saved the face of Russian justice, the Russian state, “Russian national culture,” and so on and so forth.

Suppose it is true; let it be so! But what did it mean to await a decision on such a complex issue from this gray sphinx for which current Russification has blocked every path to education, diversion, and awareness? To await from it a verdict on Russian justice, Russian statehood, “Russian civilization,” or, indeed, “Russian national culture,” which its official and unofficial flag-bearers flaunted before stateless ethnic groups? The Beilis case and the accusation that the Jews use Christian blood and engage in cannibalism are just a small detail, not a matter of how much it hurts the humanistic and cultural sensibilities of a modern intellectual. Let us suppose that this trial will bury it. (Even though the appeals to and praise of the Black Hundreds should not, perhaps, be ignored so easily!) But isn’t it an indicator of just this: which issues, in one form or another, sooner or later, may be judged by a random group or the entire mass of Ukrainian peasants for whom official Russification measures and the unofficial pressure from unofficial zealots promoting the exclusiveness of state culture have cut off access to the only thing that can bring light, clarity, and intelligence to these ignorant masses, namely Ukrainian culture? Or shall we again, given a new occasion, pin our hopes on “people’s instinct,” “people’s soul,” “people’s conscience,” and all kinds of other mystical super-rational solutions to issues on which so much will depend—not only the honour and reputation, but also the very political, civic, or cultural existence of millions of Jews and an even greater number of “indigenous people”? These are the people over whom various things are hanging, perhaps even more serious than the medieval canard of ritual blood consumption.

The horrible Beilis case can—and should—speak volumes to a cold head and a healthy mind!

[This piece was written after the conclusion of the trial on October 29 (O.S.). The other day, I read Dr. Yefremov’s article in the October 30 (O.S.) issue of Rada where he expressed some thoughts analogous to mine. I would like to state that, having no occasion to discuss this trial among ourselves, we felt so alike about certain moments and, writing on the same day, expressed thoughts similar in some regards. I believe that there are more people out there that have perceived this moment likewise.]

Originally published in Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk, 1913, Vol. 64, Book 11, pp. 268-271.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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