EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2017/18
Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization. Policy, Culture, Society
A two-day international conference organized and hosted by the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies, in cooperation with the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, sponsored by the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS) Conference Grant Programme in European Jewish Studies (Kyiv, October 15-16, 2017)
Organisers: Dr. Serhiy Hirik, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy; Dr. Brendan McGeever, Birkbeck, University of London.
Author of Report: Serhiy Hirik.
This conference was of significant importance both for the scholarly community and wider society. Stereotypes about the activity of Jewish politicians during the revolutionary period continue to circulate in contemporary public discourse in Eastern and Central Europe. The so-called “decommunization policy” in Ukraine is frequently combined with antisemitic statements by certain Ukrainian journalists and public figures, particularly when concerning the alleged “role of the Jews” in the Russian revolution and early Soviet period. The continuation of these longstanding stereotypes has been further facilitated by a lack of thorough academic publications on this subject by contemporary Ukrainian historians. Most Ukrainian scholars tend to concentrate on the activity of Ukrainian or All-Russian political forces in Ukraine during 1917–1921, and in doing so they almost completely ignore the role of Jewish parties in the revolutionary period. Several works on these topics were written by émigré historians before 1990s, but they were not comprehensive owing to a lack of access to the documents preserved in Ukrainian archival collections. One area where the lack of research continues to facilitate public misconceptions is the topic of anti-Jewish pogroms in 1919. Still, to this day, many Ukrainian academics and influential journalists deny the participation of Ukrainian national forces in these events.
Another area requiring new scholarly attention is the history of Jewish indigenization (“yiddishization”) in the Jewish national districts created in the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and in Crimea. Indeed, the general history of Jewish collective farms has yet to be satisfactorily addressed, as have the activity of Jewish Yiddish-language cultural and educational institutions in Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian scholars, with a few exceptions, tend to research only those subjects closely-related to the history of ‘ethnic Ukrainians’.
More positive has been the attention devoted to the history of Jewish art and literature during the revolutionary and early-Soviet period. Several important publications on the activity of the Jewish Kultur-Lige, for example, have appeared in recent years, as have new translations of Yiddish-language works of Jewish writers in Soviet Ukraine.
Nevertheless, as is clear, the state of the literature in these broad areas is far from satisfactory. In contemporary Ukraine, these topics exist only for the scholars who work on them; they are absent in the history textbooks used in Ukrainian schools and universities. What is more, the research of those Ukrainian scholars who work outside of Kyiv, Lviv, or Kharkiv is almost unknown in these large cities. The lack of academic communication between the Ukrainian regions harms the development of the research on these topics. Although a renewed interest in the history of Jews in 20th century Ukraine has been evident in the Ukrainian mainstream media, the key areas outlined above have not been addressed or discussed.
The purpose of the conference was to organize a scholarly conversation among Ukrainian and foreign scholars on the history of Ukrainian Jews in 1917–1919 and the 1920s. In doing so, it promoted dialogue between Ukrainian historians from different regions as well as between Ukrainian historians on the one hand, and foreign researchers on the other. Additionally, this event was opened up to the Ukrainian media and broader public, thus facilitating a wider and much-needed discussion on the history of Ukrainian Jews within public discourse.
Event programme (Sections and Papers)
The conference was hosted at the National Academy of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Museum, which is located in a building constructed in early 17th century. The conference brought together a group of senior and junior academics from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the United Kingdom, the USA, and several regions of Ukraine. The participants and guests of the conference attended the presentation of the recently published Ukrainian translation of the book “A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainian and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920” by Henry Abramson, one of the key academic texts on this topic.
The conference began with opening words by Dr. Vitaly Chernoivanenko, president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies, Prof. Serhiy Kvit, head of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s Academic Senate and former Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, and Dr. Ariel Borshchevsky, projects director of the Nadav foundation. Vitaly Chernoivanenko also read greetings from the EAJS president Prof. Edward Dąbrowa.
The first panel (moderated by Larysa Yakubova, Institute of History of Ukraine, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) was devoted to Jewish Political Life in Ukraine in (Post)Revolutionary Epoch. It opened with a paper Jews in the Ukrainian People’s Republic’s bodies of power: Hopes, disillusions, and achievements presented by Olga Petrova (Budapest, Hungary), which focused on the participation of Jews in the state bodies of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917–1920 and especially the Ministry of Jewish Affairs. The ensuing discussion focused on sources and the possibility of evaluating the Jewish Sections of the Bolshevik party in the 1920s as a kind of continuation of the Jewish national-personal autonomy which existed in the Ukrainian People’s Republic.
Next, Serhiy Hirik (Kyiv, Ukraine) gave a paper The Jewish Communist Party (Poale Zion): The “exterritorial nation’s” national communism, which focused on the ideological evolution of the Jewish Communist Party (Poale Zion) from the split in the left current of the Ukrainian and Belorusian organizations of Poale Zion in 1919 until the dissolution of the party in 1923. The following discussion focused on a comparison of this party’s ideology with ideological positions of other Ukrainian national communist groups and the participation of former Poale-Zionists in Jewish Sections of the Bolshevik party and the Soviet bodies of power.
The last paper in this session, The Zionist movement in Ukraine: Social base, political groups, activity in the 1920s (based on OGPU archives), was presented by Viktor Husiev (Kyiv). It analyzed newly found documents on the activities of the Zionist organizations in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s from the archives of the Service of Security of Ukraine (documents of the former Soviet secret service). The following discussion focused on the activity of some personalities mentioned by the participant.
The second panel (moderated by Maksym Hon, Rivne State University of Humanities, Rivne, Ukraine) was devoted to Anti-Jewish pogroms and Jewish self-defense detachments. It started with a paper entitled Self-Defense detachments and other Jewish armed groups in 1917–1921, presented by Viktor Dotsenko (Irpin, Ukraine), who discussed the history of creation of Jewish self-defense detachments in Ukraine in 1917–1921 and their role in the fight against pogroms. The discussion focused on the history of the creation of separate self-defense detachments and the social structure of their participants.
The second talk in this session, Tales and stories told by Jewish child victims of pogroms in Ukraine (on the base of the Fishel Shneerson’s records), was given by Elena Solominski (Düsseldorf, Germany). It examined the Fishel Shneerson’s psychiatric practice and, especially, records of tales composed by children who survived pogroms. The following discussion concerned the further fate of children treated by this psychiatrist.
The third paper, presented in by Nataliia Ryndiuk (Kyiv, Ukraine), was entitled Yaakov Leshchinsky: Between Life and Death. It dealt with the book “Between Life and Death: Ten Years in Soviet Russia” (1930, published in Yiddish) by Yaakov Leshchinsky and, especially, the statistical data presented by him as a source on the history of pogroms in Ukraine. The discussion after this talk concerned the relevance of this data to the broader field.
The fourth paper, presented by Dimitri Tolkatsch (Freiburg, Germany), was devoted to Jewish pogroms and the Ukrainian peasants’ national project, 1918–1920. The following discussion concerned the participation of Ukrainian peasant insurgents and regular troops of the Ukrainian Dyrektoriia in pogroms.
The third panel (moderated by Maksym Hon, because Vladyslavv Verstiuk could not attend the conference) was devoted to the phenomenon of Jewish national-personal autonomy in Ukraine in 1917–1920. It opened with a paper The making of Jewish national personal autonomy presented by Börries Kuzmany (Vienna, Austria) who analyzed the process of the creation of the national-personal autonomy in Ukraine after the Second Universal of the Central Rada.
The second talk in this session, Jewish national personal autonomy in Ukraine: A legal analysis, was given by Anastasiia Ivanova (Kyiv, Ukraine), who investigated the legal aspect of the creation and existence of Jewish state bodies created in Ukrainian People’s Republic and their reforming after the law on national-personal autonomy was adopted in January 1918.
The discussion which followed this panel concerned both papers simultaneously because they were devoted to very similar topics. The participants discussed the history of the creation of the draft law on the national personal autonomy in Ukraine and the role of Moshe Zilberfarb as its main author, the practical implementation of this law, its cancellation in July 1918 by the Hetmanate regime and the comparison of the activity of Jewish, Polish, and Russian ministries in the Ukrainian government as bodies of national personal autonomy.
The first day of the conference closed with a presentation of the Ukrainian translation of A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920 by Henry Abramson (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera, 2017; the original text was published in 1999 by Harvard University Press). The participants of the presentation were Leonid Finberg, Tetyana Batanova, Olga Petrova, and Serhiy Hirik. Henry Abramson could not attend the event personally but he gave a speech and answered questions via video conference. The participants discussed the significance of the book for studies on the history of Ukrainian Jews during the revolution.
The fourth panel (moderated by Natalia Shlikhta, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) was devoted to the Social history of Ukrainian Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. It opened with a paper on The “Crimean project” of Jews’ resettlement: Idea, dynamics, and results (the 1920s and 1930s), presented by Grigorii Kondratiuk (Simferopol, Ukraine) who focused his analysis on the history of the creation of Jewish agricultural colonies in Crimea in the 1920s and early 1930s, the construction of dwelling houses, the problems of water supply in Jewish kolkhozy and ethnic conflicts between Jewish kolkhozniks and Crimean Tatar peasants during the first years after the creation of first Jewish settlements in Crimea. The discussion which followed this talk concerned the preservation of buildings in former Jewish kolkhozy as historical monuments and the role of the Joint Distribution Committee in the supply of agricultural machinery to the Jewish settlements in Crimea.
The second talk in this panel was given by Sofia Grachova (Erfurt, Germany) who presented a paper entitled Farming healthy Jews: Eugenics and medicine in Jewish agricultural settlements in Southern Ukraine (the 1920s). It explored the medical aspect of creation of newly founded Jewish agricultural settlements in Southern Ukraine and the idea of making healthy and physically strong Jews by means of their resettlement from shtetles to kolkhozy. The following discussion focused on the reflection of this topic in Jewish medical and non-medical periodicals and representation of this problem in non-Jewish press in the 1920s and 1930s.
The fifth panel (moderated by Serhiy Hirik) was devoted to the Antisemitic propaganda and agitation against antisemitism during the revolutionary events in Ukraine. It begun with a paper Antisemitism in Kyiv in the spring of 1918 presented by Vitaliy Skalskiy (Kyiv, Ukraine) which dealt with manifestations of antisemitism in public discourse in Kyiv in 1918, especially during the period of the Skoropadsky’s Hetmanate. The following discussion concerned the attitude of German military administration toward antisemitic incidents in 1918.
The second talk given by Brendan McGeever (London, UK) was entitled Jewish communists and the Soviet response to antisemitism and dealt with the response of the Soviet government to antisemitism during the period of the Civil War, and in particular, the role of non-Bolshevik Jewish socialists in these campaigns.
The sixth panel (moderated by Artem Kharchenko, the National University of Kharkiv) was devoted to the Local history of Ukrainian Jews during the Revolution. The first paper in this session, Jewish judges and convicted in the activities of the Chernihiv province revolutionary court-martial, 1919–1921, was presented by Iryna Etkina (Chernihiv, Ukraine). It gave a comprehensive analysis of the activity of judges of Jewish origin in the revolutionary court-martial in Chernihiv in 1919-1921 and the social structure of the Jews who were convicted by this court during its existence. The following discussion concerned sources and behavioral strategies that allowed those who were convicted by court-martial to rescue themselves.
The second paper in this session, The Jewish population of Uman during the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917–1921 (on the base of Petro Kurinny’s diary), was given by Ihor Opatsky (Uman, Ukraine). It presented an analysis of the diary by the Ukrainian historian and politician Petro Kurinny as a source on the history of the Uman Jews in 1917–1921.
The third talk in this session, The Jews of Lubny during the Ukrainian Revolution and post-revolutionary epoch, was given by Ihor Koziura (Poltava, Ukraine). It discussed the fate of the Jewish population in Lubny (Poltava province) in 1917–the early 1920s.
The discussions followed Ihor Opatsky’s and Ihor Koziura’s talks especially concerned the pogroms in Uman and Lubny in 1919.
The seventh panel (moderated by Vitaly Chernoivanenko) was devoted to Jewish education from 1917 to the 1930s. It opened with a paper entitled Jewish education in the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–1921), presented by Victoria Khiterer (Millersville, USA), which discussed the creation of Jewish educational institutions in Ukraine during the existence of Central Rada and Dyrektoriia. The following discussion concerned the quantity of Jewish schools and higher educational institutions in the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the role of the Ministry of Jewish Affairs in their creation.
The second paper in this session, The social and political life of Jewish pedtekhnikums’ students (the 1920s and 1930s), was presented by Oleksandr Komarnitsky (Kamianets-Podilsky, Ukraine), who analyzed the official and unofficial political and social activities of students at Jewish pedtekhnikums (colleges of pedagogy) in Soviet Ukraine and the peculiarities of the curricula at these educational institutions. The following discussion concerned the main features of the social activities of students of the pedtekhnikums in comparison with students in other educational institutions. In addition, the discussion addressed the peculiarities of the Jewish pedtekhnikums’ curriculum in Jewish national districts, especially in Stalindorf, in comparison with curriculum of such institutions in areas that were not part of Jewish national districts.
The eighth panel (moderated by Valentyna Piskun, Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) was devoted to Sources on the history of Ukrainian Jews. The first paper in this session, Collecting Jewish archival documents: From the abolishment of the Pale of Settlement to Sovietization, was presented by Iryna Serhieieva (Kyiv, Ukraine). It was devoted to the process of collecting Jewish archival documents, books, and periodicals by Soviet Ukrainian academic institutions in the 1920s and 1930s. She paid particular attention to Iosif Liberberg’s activities as a director of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the creation of the collection of this institution which became the base of the Jewish collection of the present-day Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. The discussion following this paper concerned the fate of the collections of the Jewish Academic Library in Odessa, dissolved in the 1930s, as well as collections of the Jewish Museum in Odessa that existed until 1941. The participants of the conference also discussed the process of collecting Jewish museum collections by similar academic institutions in Soviet Belarus.
The second paper in this session, entitled Sources on Jewish participation in the Ukrainian national movement in Odessa, 1917–1920 (on the base of the Odessa National Scientific Library’s collections), was presented by Tetyana Podkupko (Odessa, Ukraine). It dealt with documents and periodicals from the Odessa National Scientific Library that may be used as a source for the history of the Jewish participation in Ukrainian political organizations during the revolutionary years. The following discussion concerned the possible fate of Jewish manuscripts and archival documents stolen from the Odessa libraries during the Second World War.
The last paper, presented by Tetyana Batanova (Kyiv, Ukraine), was entitled A revolutionary satire: The autobiographical novel Benyamin the Fourth’s Travels by Der Tunkeler (Yosef Tunkel) as a historical source. The following discussion concerned the possible influences of Russian satirists of the early 20th century on Yosef Tunkel.
The ninth panel (moderated by Taissa Sydorchuk, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) was devoted to the history Jewish art during the revolution. It was opened by a paper Rejected by 1917: Mane-Katz and Isaac Frenel. The Ukrainian Jewish painters between France and Eretz Israel presented by Alek D. Epstein (Jerusalem, Israel). The author described the key works of these two artists and the influence of their experience, especially during the revolution, on the topics raised in their paintings. The discussion following the paper concerned the reflection of violence in their works, especially the topic of the 1919 pogroms as well as the Holocaust.
The second paper in this session was entitled The foreboding of the apocalypse: The images of synagogues and the theme of collapse of the Jewish world in the art of revolutionary time. It was presented by Eugeny Kotlyar (Kharkiv, Ukraine). The discussion followed this paper concerned the reflection of the topic of pogroms in paintings of the Jewish authors of the first half of the 20th century.
The last paper of this session was devoted to The Kultur-lige dramatic studio: The creation of modern Jewish theater. It was presented by Iryna Meleshkina (Kyiv, Ukraine). The following discussion concerned the venues where theatre companies mentioned by speaker gave performances.
The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion (moderated by Dimitri Tolkatsch, Freiburg, Germany) and concluding remarks, including the discussion of possible topics of further academic events on the history of Ukrainian Jews.
- The development of working relationships between Ukrainian and foreign researchers on the history of Ukrainian Jews during the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods
- The event established academic contacts between the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and western academic institutions represented by foreign participants
- Antisemitic stereotypes in Ukrainian society were challenged through the publication of interviews with speakers in Ukrainian mainstream media as well as challenging of stereotypes on Ukrainians through the publication of information on the event in Jewish Ukrainian media
- Research on the fate of Ukrainian Jews during the Ukrainian revolution was developed in a broad perspective, with topics ranging from the history of Jewish culture to studies of Jewish political and social life
A printed publication of conference proceedings will follow (edited by Serhiy Hirik) with shortened transcripts of the discussions following the papers in cases when questions and answers allow to understand the paper more deeply.
A series of interviews with conference speakers in the Ukrainian mainstream media will also be published.
Changes to the Original Programme
There were several major changes to the original (printed) conference programme. Firstly, Aleksandr Lokshin (Moscow, Russia) and Vadym Stetsiuk (Kamianets-Podilsky, Ukraine) were unable to attend the event. Their talks were cancelled. One of the organizers of the conference, Brendan McGeever, was unable to visit Kyiv, and instead he presented his paper via Skype. Sofia Grachova has changed the language of her talk. She presented her paper in Ukrainian.
On October 17, a guided tour through old Jewish quarters of Podil was organized for the conference participants as an addition to the printed programme.
1) UAJS website:
http://uajs.org.ua/en/node/131 (English, news)
http://uajs.org.ua/uk/node/131 (Ukrainian, news)
http://uajs.org.ua/en/node/128 (English, announcement)
http://uajs.org.ua/uk/node/128 (Ukrainian, announcement)
2) National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s website:
https://www.facebook.com/pg/ukrainianjewishstudies/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1578292518860760 (album with the photos from the event)
4) historians.in.ua website:
5) The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (Vaad) of Ukraine website:
6) Euro-Asian Jewish Congress website:
7) Times of Israel:
https://www.timesofisrael.com/100-years-on-international-conferences-debate-jewish-role-in-russian-revolution/ (author did not visit the conference and presented information on it incorrectly; as for this article, the problem of Symon Petliura’s responsibility for the 1919 pogroms was one of the central topics of the event, but, in fact, it was discussed only during the second panel and was not the central topic even within it)
8) Hromadske radio, interview with Viktor Husiev, one of the conference speakers:
https://hromadskeradio.org/sites/default/files/hr-zustrichi-2017-10-29-gusev.mp3 (audio, in Ukrainian)
Interview with another conference speaker Vitaliy Skalskiy was also recorded and will be broadcasted soon.
9) The conference was mentioned in the interview with Vitaly Chernoivanenko on development of Jewish Studies in Ukraine published in bimonthly English-language journal The Odessa Review (Issue 11, October–November 2017).
10) The mailing list of the MA in Jewish Studies Program at the National University of Kyiv–Mohyla Academy and the UAJS (663 email addresses).
11) The videos of the selected presentations were uploaded on the UAJS YouTube channel:
Iryna Etkina: I am very delighted with the organization of the International conference “Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization. Policy, Culture, and Society.” The organization committee managed to gather very good experts who not only gave their presentations but also shared opinions and asked challenging questions. The highly topical program, reasonably composed panels and competent moderators contributed much to the conference. The participants also had an opportunity to network during the breaks. Another advantage of the conference was the possibility to purchase professional literature at the very reasonable prices. The logistic support was excellent: comfortable hotel at the downtown and not far from the conference venue, tasteful lunches and “themed” kosher Jewish restaurant created perfect conditions for all non-resident conference participants. The fascinating guided tour around the Jewish Podil neighborhood became a pleasant supplement to the event. The conference of such a high level encourages further research on Jewish Studies.
Sofia Grachova: I took part as a presenter at a panel titled “The Social History of Ukrainian Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.” This proved to be an enriching intellectual experience, in a no small part thanks to the thoughtful panel organization. My presentation was about healthcare and eugenics in the Jewish agricultural settlements in Southern Ukraine in the 1920s, while the first presenter on my panel discussed the history of Jewish agricultural settlements in Crimea. Our two presentations complemented each other perfectly and generated a lively discussion, evidence of the care that the organizers put into the overall intellectual goals of the conference. Besides the informative panels, the conference enabled the participants to exchange ideas and establish contacts, which is especially valuable for the scattered community of Ukrainian scholars of Jewish Studies. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this productive endeavor.
Olga Petrova: The conference “Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization” was an excellent opportunity for me to both share what I had been working on with regard to my research topic and to learn about the findings from the colleagues who specialize in chronologically or thematically similar field. What was particularly of significant value is the scope of the conference and how broad and well-structured the discussion about the Ukrainian Jewry in the post-revolutionary years was, with topics ranging from politics and government to education and art. It often happens that the questions of politics and war dominate within the topic of the Revolution of 1917–1921, that is why it was especially beneficial to get to know and understand more about other aspects of Jewish life in this period. I personally feel that because of listening to the presentations, which did not seemingly have a direct correlation with my topic of interest, I was enlightened on some other aspects of my own topic or received information that now helps me understand my own topic better. Moreover, based on the informal conversations I had, I believe it is true for other conference participants as well. I also find it very helpful how organizers of the conference were able to combine topics that had a very general focus with those that were in fact examples of micro-history, looking at the very same events and problems, but almost like through a microscopic lens. In addition to all this, I would like to remark on the international character of the conference, with researchers from Austria, the UK, the United States, Israel, etc. joining in. Overall, it was a very enriching experience, inspiring to continue working in the direction of the maximally unbiased understanding of this complex period.
Dimitri Tolkatsch: In the international Jewish Studies community, Ukrainian scholars have traditionally played a minor role. A wonderful exemption from this rule has been the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies that has set out to change this deficit. The conference “Ukrainian Jews: Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Modernization” is just another example of their impressive work in this direction. The organisers selected participants from very different countries and research fields and with various academic backgrounds. Therefore, the topics reached from literature and culture through party politics up to regional and local studies. While for Ukrainian scholars, it must have been refreshing to discuss their research with Western or Western based scholars, for me, as a scholar coming from the German academic tradition, it was an immense enrichment for my academic work to get in touch with Ukrainian scholars, particularly in the field of local history. A new set of source material that I could not have heard was presented at the conference. Particularly helpful was that the organisers took care of the participants’ travel and accommodation. Finally, the guided tour through the formerly Jewish neighbourhood of Podil they offered us after the conference made our stay in Kyiv perfect.
Börries Kuzmani: I decided to join the UAJS conference this year because parts of my larger research project on non-territorial autonomy relate to the Ukrainian People’s Republic and its national minorities. As the UNR was the first country to implement non-territorial legislation (it was actually the Jewish minister Moyshe Zilberfarb who drafted the text of the law), it was obvious that I should discuss this topic with colleagues in Kyiv. I was particularly pleased to see that there was entire conference section dedicated to the UNR’s national-personal autonomy law. Unfortunately, the speaker from Moscow could not join our panel. I think it was a very good idea to include the presentation of Henry Abramson’s book (Ukrainian translation) into the conference because it is a very important book in the field. Overall, the conference was well organised, the discussions were good and, as always, the common dinner was very important for me, in particular as a non-native speaker, in order to get in closer touch with the other participants. I also appreciated the guided tour through Jewish Podil that Oleksandra Uralova gave us on the last day.