Symon V. Petljura. Begründer der modernen Ukraine

Mark, Rudolf A.
Paderborn 2023: Brill / Schöningh
Anzahl Seiten
348 S.
€ 39,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christopher Gilley, Wiener Holocaust Library, London

Historical biographies range from histories of “great men” to micro-historical studies of individuals whose lives reveal at the human level the themes of the era they lived in. As the subtitle of Rudolf Mark’s study of Symon Petliura suggests, this work falls more into the first category. Indeed, its subject makes this almost unavoidable: Petliura was the military and then political leader of the Directory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) during the civil wars of 1918–1922, and his name became synonymous with the struggle for an independent, non-Bolshevik Ukrainian state.

Mark’s monograph is a reworked and expanded version of his doctoral thesis, published in 1988, which concentrated on Petliura’s leadership of the UNR.1 Unusually for the time, Mark used UNR governmental documents, held in the Józef Piłsudski Institute in New York. For the revised work, he does not seem to have personally conducted research in the Soviet archives opened since 1991. Mark has, however, put to good use the recent German-, Ukrainian, -and English-language literature and published documentary collections made possible by the era of archival openness.

The decision to devote more space to Petliura’s youth and political activity before the First World War is justified. This section highlights several themes picked up in the revolutionary period: Petliura’s rivalry with fellow Social Democrat Volodymyr Vynnychenko; the tension between nationalism and socialism in Ukrainian political thought; the reluctance to embrace separatism, and the differences between political culture in Russian- and Austrian-ruled Ukraine. Petliura’s early life recalls many experiences of other members of his generation, including his coming into contact with revolutionary ideas as a seminarian, the experience of exile and the transformative effect of serving in the Great War (albeit, in Petliura’s case, not on the frontlines).

The years 1917–1918, before Petliura became the central figure of the Ukrainian movement, also receive more attention in the new monograph, while in chapters on the period 1919–1920 Mark has removed the long quotations from documents that appear in his doctorate to give space for the conclusions based on the recent literature. Overall, Mark delivers a nuanced political and military narrative that counters many of the myths of national revival. He stresses, for example, that the Ukrainisation of military units was an expression less of national feeling than the desire to return home and take advantage of the new socio-economic conditions in the village; he underlines that the declaration of Ukrainian independence arose from contingent political developments rather than ideological commitment. Mark’s close study of UNR documents means that the book is particularly effective in examining internal government discussions and the UNR’s relations with the various foreign powers interested in Ukraine.

The account also clearly brings out the challenges that led to the UNR’s defeat. The UNR government was riven by splits between those with different political doctrines, opposing orientations between external allies (the Entente, Whites, Bolsheviks, and Poles) and the dissimilar political traditions of Romanov and Habsburg Ukraine. Although Petliura hoped to turn to the Entente, Ukrainian independence never won the support of the Western powers: despite the UNR being locked in an existential struggle with the Bolsheviks, the Entente dismissed it as a Bolshevik state. The UNR did not receive the same level of backing and equipment as General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, and the UNR’s own efforts to transport the necessary materiel through Europe faced numerous hinderances. The UNR could not create a reliable army; Petliura never had control over commanders on the ground. Mark makes clear that the peasants who made up the UNR’s armies had little loyalty to the state due to their lack of national consciousness. They were more interested in the land question, the importance of which the UNR had failed to appreciate.

The monograph’s emphasis on Petliura and the UNR, however, means that these last aspects are underexplored. The monograph contains very little about the experiences, activities, and desires of normal peasants and workers in Ukraine during the revolutionary period. This puts it in the tradition of classic accounts of the revolution such as that of John S. Reshetar.2 Petliura and other members of the nationally conscious Ukrainian intelligentsia certainly played a very important role in driving the revolution in Ukraine. However, their activity was but one strand of the rich tapestry of events in Ukraine at that time. This weakness is a product of the fact that the monograph is structured around the biography of the leading figure of Ukrainian politics at the time. Arguably it reveals the limitations on historical understanding of viewing history through the lives of “great men.” Indeed, the focus on the UNR’s activity perhaps fails to capture the sheer level of chaos in Ukraine at the time by giving a false impression of orderly governmental decision making.

Mark gives a positive picture of Petliura, stressing his leadership qualities and ability to inspire. The author acknowledges Petliura’s inability to create an effective regular army, although he also stresses that this was the product of wider problems of Ukrainian state building. Mark credits Petliura’s optimism to maintaining the UNR in its last years. This favourable depiction is reflected in Mark’s treatment of Petliura’s response to the pogroms perpetrated by UNR troops. He portrays Petliura as a decisive and effective opponent of the violence. My own view is that Petliura, despite not being an antisemite and wanting to give Jews an autonomous place in an independent Ukraine, was – like many others in the UNR – willing to accept that Jews had brought the violence upon themselves by failing to show sufficient support for the Ukrainian cause. Such views – among other reasons – inhibited the UNR’s attempts to combat the pogroms.3

Mark states that he avoided a historiographical discussion because he wanted to aim the book at a wider readership. This is a pity, as such a discussion would have been interesting, especially given the lack of writing in English and German on the revolutionary period. Above all it would have been fascinating to hear how Mark sees the changes in historiography between the publication of his original thesis and the current volume, above all how the opening of the Soviet archives has transformed our understanding of the period.

Astonishingly, given the importance of the period, no work of synthesis on the revolutionary era in Ukraine has been written in any West European language since the opening of the Soviet archives. Mark’s monograph, with its focus on Petliura and the UNR, provides an excellent introduction to and overview of the political and military developments. Hopefully future studies will add to this state-based narrative an examination of the kaleidoscope of revolution and civil war in the Ukrainian provinces, especially as it was experienced by peasants, workers, non-Ukrainians, women, and others.4

1 Rudolf A. Mark, Symon Petljura und die UNR. Vom Sturz des Hetmans Skoropadśkyj bis zum Exil in Polen, in: Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte 40 (1988), pp. 7–228.
2 John S. Reshetar, Jr., The Ukrainian Revolution, Princeton, New Jersey 1952.
3 Christopher Gilley, Beat the Jews, Save … Ukraine. Antisemitic Violence and Ukrainian State-Building Projects, 1918-1920, in: Quest. Studies in Contemporary Jewish History, 2019, No. 15, (14.04.2024). See also Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe. The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust, New York 2021, pp. 93–164.
4 For a masterful chapter-length synthesis, see Georgiy Kasianov, Die Ukraine zwischen Revolution, Selbständigkeit und Fremdherrschaft, in Wolfram Dornik et al. (eds.), Die Ukraine zwischen Selbstbestimmung und Fremdherrschaft 1917–22, Graz 2011, pp. 131–180.

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