Ukrainian Election 1917 Jewish Voter’s Guide

Updated: Jun 12, 2020


Pictured: Kyiv City Teacher's House. The building was the meeting location of the Central Rada from March 17, 1917 to April 29, 1918.


Election news has been dominating headlines. The American presidential election season is well underway, the UK just finished up an election which seems to have settled some major questions, and Israel is hoping that the third time will be the charm. So what better time is there to look at where Jews fit into the electoral politics of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic?


The UNR was formed after the February Revolution of 1917 ended the Russian Empire. At first, the Central Rada under Mykhailo Hrushevsky only sought to make Ukraine an autonomous region within the Russian Republic. However, the Communist October Revolution later that year pushed the Rada to proclaim full Independence. Even within the short period of time the UNR existed, there were two different coups. The first was when the Rada was overthrown by Hetman Pavlo Skorpadsky with the aid of the Germans in April 1918. The second was that November to reinstate the Rada and form the Directorate. In January 1919, the UNR united with the West Ukrainian National Republic, which formed in the Ukrainian lands of the also destroyed Austrian Empire. Throughout this period, the UNR fought against the Russian monarchist White Army, the Communist Red Army, and the Polish army (though also allying with them, the Polish-Ukraine war was complicated). Throughout all of this, the Jewish political parties largely did not change, though their influence declined with time as the war was gradually lost. The end came in 1921, when the Red Army finally crushed the UNR and replaced it with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.


So, if you were a Jew living in the UNR, who were your options to support and why?

The first thing to keep in mind is that Jewish politics in late 19th and early 20th century Ukraine was almost entirely leftist and secular. It was deeply tied into the socialist and revolutionary movements that had been building in the Russian Empire for decades. Some had taken part in the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 which briefly turned the Empire into a Constitutional Monarchy until it was brutally repressed by Nicholas II. Instead, the central question a politically active Ukrainian Jew had to ask themselves was what place Jews had in society. From there, there were five options:


1) Jews should assimilate with the wider society and pursue their interests not as Jews, but as members of the working class. (Socialism, Communism, and Anarchism)

2) Jews should work alongside the rest of the proletariat, but still place their Jewish identity and promotion of Jewish culture at a central place in that movement. (Bundism)

3) Jews should recognize themselves as a nation in need of their own independent state in their ancestral home of Palestine. (Zionism)

4) Jews should recognize themselves as a nation in need of their own independent state, but somewhere other than Palestine. (Territorialist Zionism)

5) Jews should recognize themselves as a nation, but only seek autonomy within the states they already live. (Autonomism)


There was a very long list of parties that represented these strains of thought, but only three were represented in the Central Rada and its successor bodies in the Ukrainian National Republic. These were the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party (Fareynikte), and the Jewish Social Democratic Labour Party (Poale Zion). The Bund represented option 2, Poale Zion number 3, and Fareynikte was a combination of 4 and 5. Together they held 35 out of the 822 seats in the Rada in 1917.


Within the executive branch of the government, Jewish interests were represented by the Ministry of Jewish Affairs. The Ministry was often in conflict with the rest of the government. The most grievous problem on the table was the frequent pogroms committed by soldiers loyal to the UNR. The UNR military, especially in the south and east of the country compared to the most more disciplined units from the west, was more of a collection of warlords with their own interests than an organized army. When those interests included directing their soldiers to do violence against Jews, or allowing it to happen, the government usually, though certainly not always, took the side of the warlords. Officially, the Jews of the UNR had more rights and representation than in any other country in Europe. Unofficially, rampant warlordism made it one of the most dangerous.


Looking at option one of the list of ideologies, it was possible for Jews to join some of the leftist parties which were mostly for ethnic Ukrainians. Arnold Margolin was a prime example. He was a Supreme Court Justice and Senator before becoming one of the country’s most important diplomats. He served as both the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to the UK, with his most noteworthy work being his participation at the Paris Peace Conference and attempt to join the League of Nations. He was a member of the Ukrainian Party of Socialists-Federalists.


Others who picked the first option could have joined the multi-ethnic Bolshevik or, more often, Menshevik factions of the Communist Party. However, the UNR existed explicitly as a rejection of the October Revolution and was at war with them, so they were excluded practically by definition. There was also Jewish support for the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Revolutionary-Borotbists (Communists), a variation of Communism that was more focused on Ukrainian self-rule compared to the Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Borotbists were open to cooperation with the Bund and Poale Zion. Then there was the Free Territory. In the far southeast of the country, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine formed an anarchist polity with a large amount of Jewish participation. But, that was outside of the UNR.


The non-leftist Jewish movements of the time did not have representation in the initial Central Rada, but did operate within Jewish communal politics. The Zionist party, meaning more general Zionist and some religious Zionists rather than the Marxist/Zionist fusionism of Paole Zion, was the largest. Larger than any of the socialist parties in communal elections. There was also the religious Akhdut party, which tied itself to the Zionists within the Ministry of Jewish Affairs and other bodies for the purposes of representation. Representation was always a problem. Within those Jewish bodies, the three leftist parties and fourth, smaller, Autonomist, party called the Folkspartay, functioned as a socialist bloc. While the general Zionists were the largest party, and carried the weight of having to represent Akhdut within the Ministry as well, it still only had the same number of votes as each of the other four. The reasons for their exclusion are clear, though. The socialist parties, who were more engaged with local secular politics, gave their support to the Ukrainians more quickly and had the advantage of being seen as more reliable because of that. The Zionists were too preoccupied with preparing the settle in Eretz Israel to be as tuned in to Ukrainian politics. On the flip side of that, Akhdut mostly just saw to take care of their own communities as they were. I intend to look more at the internal Jewish political bodies in the future, but for my purposes here I am focusing on the Central Rada.


Meanwhile, the right-wing Revisionist Zionist leader, and Odesa native, Ze’ev Jabotinsky was still active in Ukraine at this time, had followers in his self-defense organizations there and made deals with the UNR on his own, but he did not translate that into electoral politics. The Orthodox Aguda Israel party, which was strong in interwar Poland, including Galicia after it became a part of the Second Republic, did not have representation.


Now to put the spotlight back on the three socialist bloc parties which did operate more freely in the Ukrainian National Republic.


The General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, more simply called the Bund, was a Jewish socialist party that began in Vilnius. Related organizations would later be formed throughout the rest of Europe and North America. Bund is the Yiddish word for Union and it operated as a broad alliance of labor unions. The Bund began in Vilnius in 1897. They were committed to Marxism and saw themselves as part of the same struggle as the rest of the working class in the Russian Empire, but came into conflict with other socialist groups over national issues. Vladimir Lenin was pointedly critical of Bundists for their sense of national particularism. In the pre-revolutionary period, this conflict encouraged the Bund to prioritize supporting cultural programs. There were countless Yiddish-language theaters, newspapers, publishing houses, etc. which were connected to the Bund either directly or by its supporters.


The most important Bundist in Ukraine was David Petrovsky. Petrovsky fled the Empire after the failure of the 1905 Revolution and eventually found his way to America, where he was an activist for the Jewish Socialist Federation and an editor for the Daily Forward. He returned after the February Revolution and became a member of the Central Rada and mayor of his hometown of Berdychiv. Berdychiv had a higher percentage of Jews than any other city in Ukraine. As mayor, he was able to prevent two pogroms that threatened the city during the course of the Civil War.


Next is the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party, which took on the shorter name Fareynikte, or “United.” Fareynikte was a merger of two different political movements, the Territorialists and the Autonomists. Territorialism was created from a split in the Zionist movement which happened in 1903 in response to the Kishinev Pogrom. After several massacres of the Jews of Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova) by Russian Orthodox Christians, a section of the Zionist movement decided that relocation had to begin immediately in order to save lives, and holding out for Palestine was unnecessary. Uganda was the most famous alternative option presented by Zionist founder Theodore Herzl, but others included Argentina, Alaska, and Upstate New York. Autonomism was the belief that the Jewish nation should have political and cultural autonomy in the countries where they already live. It was a common solution for the time. This was essentially how the Austro-Hungarian Empire handled its many ethnic groups and the UNR began as an autonomist government rather than an independence one.


Fareynikte was led by Moishe Zilberfarb. He was a native of Rivne in Western Ukraine and had his political start as the founder of the Vozrozhdenie, or Renaissance, movement. It was connected to the Yiddish diaspora nationalism and non-Marxist socialism of Chaim Zhitlowsky, who was one of the major participants in the 1908 Czernowitz Conference for the Yiddish Language. Zilberfarb’s highest position in the UNR government was as the Minister of Jewish Affairs, which he held only briefly before stepping down to become rector of the Jewish National University. He was also head of the Kultur-lige. The Kultur-lige was formally a part of the Jewish Ministry, but heavily tied to Fareynikte. It ran government-funded Jewish schools throughout Ukraine as well as cultural and professional organizations. Fareynikte did similar work on its own and its main party newspaper was Naye Tsayt, or New Time.


Finally, there was the Jewish Social Democratic Labour Party (Poale Zion). Poale Zion was a left-wing Zionist Party. Translated as the “Workers of Zion,” it was a part of the international Labor Zionist movement. It advocated a merger of the more liberal nationalist ideas of the Zionism which crystallized around Theodore Herzl, with Marxist Socialism. Zionism on its own said that the Jews are their own national group that needed their own State, preferably in their historic homeland of Palestine. Jews, the argument goes, can never be truly secure while they are still just guests in other people’s countries. The Zionism of Theodore Herzl was already moderately left-wing, and many of his predecessors like Moses Hess were socialist, but Poale Zion wanted more emphasis on that aspect of it.


The Ukrainian branch of the party was founded in Poltava in 1906 by Ber Borochov. The Borochovian version of Zionism said that Jews would return to the historic homeland in Palestine, but when they got there they would join with the Palestinian Arab working class in the common struggle against capitalism. Ukrainian Poale Zion favored Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish people. So, they organized many of the same sorts of cultural activities as the Bund and Fareynikte, but were more likely to operate them in Hebrew. Though, in another factor that made them stand out from other Zionists, they were much more accommodating towards Yiddish and operated Yiddish-language programs as well.


As Borochov reached the end of his life in 1917, he began to become more moderate with his socialism. His party became more split on different ideological issues and nobody else could really stand in his shoes. The closest to someone doing so was Abraham Revusky. Revusky was from Smila, a town near Cherkasy, which is south of Kyiv. He became a Zionist activist in the 1910s and a leader in the Odessa community at the beginning of the Civil War. He was a Minister of Jewish Affairs in 1918. As the UNR was on the verge of collapse, he immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine and became co-founder of the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor union.


The three parties had different fates after their government was destroyed.


The Ukrainian branch of the Bund was absorbed, with varying degrees of resistance, into the Communist Party. This had already happened to the Bund in Russia. The former Bundists, along with some Mensheviks, formed a major part of the Jewish Section of the Communist Party. They oversaw state support for Yiddish culture in the 1920s, but were mostly killed in the purges of the 1930s. David Petrovsky had several high-level positions in the Soviet government, then was executed as a “counterrevolutionary” in 1937. The final nail in the coffin of Soviet Bundism was the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12th, 1952. This was a part of the late-Stalinist campaign against “rootless cosmopolitanism,” which cemented antisemitism as a part of Soviet Communism. Bundism continues to exist in various forms in Western Europe and North America, where it played a major role in the Labor Movement, through groups like the Workmen’s Circle. Bernie Sanders has never explicitly identified with the Bund, but was clearly influenced by it.


Farneykite went into a few different directions. Most directly, the left wing of the party broke away and merged with the Bund in 1919. From there, its former members followed the same process of absorption into the Communist Party and eventual repression. Territorialism as an idea quickly lost steam after the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1920. Soviet Autonomists were responsible for the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East in 1928, centered on the city of Birobidzhan. But, it was mostly just a settlement plan to build up the border with China and had limited success as a Jewish homeland. Moishe Zilberfarb continued the work of autonomism in Warsaw as the head of the ORT, an education organization that is still very active.


In a similar pattern to the others, the left-wing of Poale Zion was eventually absorbed by the Communists. Though, it was allowed to exist for a couple years longer. Their other branches outside of the Soviet Union proved to be much more successful. In Israel, they went through a few phases and mergers and until it became part of the lineage of the modern Labor, Meretz, and Hadash parties. Labour Zionism in general had a virtual monopoly on the country’s politics until the 1970s. Many of the early generations of leaders had their start in Poale Zion, including David ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin.


In the grand scheme of things, the three parties representing Jewish interests in the government of the Ukrainian National Republic were not all that different from each other. Fareynikte put more emphasis on Jewish cultural autonomy than socialism while the Bund leaned more towards socialism, but both parties had both elements. Poale Zion was those things plus also wanting to help settle Palestine. They all represented a narrow portion of the population who lived in major cities, took part in the underdeveloped industrial economy, and mostly rejected the traditional religious values which most other Jews held. The overwhelming majority of Jews in Ukraine would have been Orthodox and would not have had their views represented at all. This likely had to do with the UNR itself being revolutionary. Even within the Jewish-specific political bodies, electoral politics was seen as being of very low priority compared to just surviving the war and voter turnout was extremely low. The Second Polish Republic was more stable and lasted much longer than the few short years of Ukrainian independence. As a result, the more conservative and inherently less reactive elements of Polish Jewry were able to politically mobilize, including through political parties.


In the end, all three were doomed in Ukraine, crushed by the totalitarian centralization of the Bolsheviks. Which was a process that elements of all of them took part in willingly until it was too late to fix their mistakes. That could be the lesson here: be on guard for totalitarianism, even when it is wrapped in language that you find attractive. But those decisions would not have been made if the UNR was able to protect itself from the Red Army, and the main weakness of the UNR was its inability to control its military. The pogroms undermined support for the UNR among the Jewish community, and the government allowed them to happen to maintain the support of the warlords. The warlords who failed to protect the county, in large part exactly because of their poor discipline. So that would be the other lesson from the non-Jewish side of the story. Accepting the existence of uncontrolled xenophobic groups may be seen as justifiable if they are useful, but that will ultimately backfire, leaving only pain behind. No ends left to justify the means.

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