Convenient Murder

4 July 2011, 14:50

Symon Petrliura, head of the Directory and UNR, Ukrainian People’s Republic, government in exile, was shot in Paris 85 years ago. The court which heard the case later acquitted the murderer, Sholom Schwartzbard. From the very first days of the investigation the Ukrainian community insisted that the crime had been organized and facilitated by the Bolshevik government. However, it failed to convince the judge and jury.

Since then neither French politicians, nor the French public, have ever returned to this controversial case. The Ukrainian Week discussed why this is the case with Raymond Clarinard, deputy editor in chief of a popular French weekly, Courrier International, and author of a trilogy about the 1918–1950 events in Ukraine written under the pseudonym Roman Rijka: Les sept trains de l'impératrice, Les champs cannibales and L'Empire des mille mots.

The Dreyfus complex

U.W.: Symon Petliura was shot dead in broad daylight in Paris on 25 May 1926. The right-wing press then argued persuasively that it looked like a possible special operation by the Russian intelligence service. However, both the court and the public accepted the murderer’s version that he was acting alone, driven by a desire to exact revenge for Jewish pogroms. Why did the French elite back then ignore facts that proved he had an accomplice, and why do they continue to do so now?

-Let me begin by saying that to many French intellectuals today, the Petliura case does not exist. Few people know who he was and an even smaller number understand who he really was. And only a handful are aware that the head of the Directory and the UNR died in Paris and is buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse. Even those who generally take an interest in Eastern Europe are not knowledgeable on this topic. Thus, various groups that seek to exert influence have a lot of room for interference.

Mind you, this case was already a problem in 1926. In 1918–1919, the French extended very tentative support to the Ukrainian liberation struggle and then quickly pulled its troops out of Odesa, leaving Ukraine in a catastrophic situation. And then the leader of the country which had fought, but failed to win the right to existence, was killed, and in the center of Paris at that. He was a cultured and well-educated man. France was at a loss and an investigation was opened. Ukrainians justly demanded that the murderer be punished and pointed out that the assassination was ordered by Bolshevik Moscow. Meanwhile, France was in turmoil over the sharp opposition between the right and the left. Memories of the inglorious attempt to influence events in Russia were too fresh. Meanwhile, Petliura was perceived only in the context of the revolution and Civil War in Russia.

U.W.: Nestor Makhno also chose France as his destination. In general, all leaders of the warring armies which fought on Ukrainian territory ended up there. Even Christian Rakovsky, Bolshevik army commander in Ukraine in 1918–1919, became the Soviet ambassador in Paris precisely at this time.

-Right, this was the initial reflex of the vanquished. This mirage – France’s reputation as the motherland of the Declaration of Human Rights – attracted many people. But things were very complicated, even back then. In order to understand the views of the French today, add the events of the 1940s, the Holocaust, the origin of the murderer and crimes attributed to Petliura.

He was accused unjustly. However, it appeared after the Second World War that this murder could not be dealt with in a calm fashion. On the one hand, the image of a wronged, helpless minority that dared to strike back was an obstacle every time the issue was raised. On the other hand, both Western Europe in general and France in particular were shocked at the mass destruction of Jews. Let us not forget the immense influence communists and ideologically likeminded French intellectuals had inside the country. Therefore, the Petliura case was even less likely to be subjected to an unbiased historical and documentary review after 1945. No one wanted to learn what kind of person he was and why he died. Simplification became the pattern.

Let me tell you about what once happened to me in a publishing house. I mentioned that I was soon going to marry a Ukrainian. One of the workers instantly remarked: “When my brother and I were naughty, our grandmother rebuked us by calling us ‘Petliuras.’” This is a good generalization of the French’s attitude to the Petliura case: it would be better if it did not exist.

U.W.: Can it be conjectured that the acquittal of the assassin was, in a sense, society’s reaction to the Dreyfus affair? The case against this French officer of Jewish origin caused heated debates in the late 19th century. Could it be that in the Schwartzbard case the French wanted to prove to themselves that they had changed and freed themselves of xenophobia?

-I believe you are right. Evidently, there was, let’s put it this way, the Dreyfus complex. Moreover, a murderer of Jewish origin struck out against a leader of nationalists from a country which was virtually unknown in France and which complicated its relations with Russia. At the time, Paris had still to make up its mind about how to treat the Bolsheviks. All Western countries de facto recognized the victory of the Red forces but lacked a clear strategy regarding the Bolsheviks. Great Britain, France and the USA said to themselves: It is best to accept the fact that the tsar will never return and we should establish economic relations with the new government. That is to say, there was, on the one hand, this Dreyfus complex primarily in the intelligentsia circles, while on the other, the influence of the Jewish community was rising in the left intellectual circles. The French communists, who did not want Petliura and his cause to be spoken and thought about too much, were also doing their thing. To them, anyone who rose against the Red government was an enemy worthy of elimination. The communists did not want to see the Petliura case turn into a podium for French Ukrainians and a chance for them to be heard.

The logic of “Red revenge”

U.W.: When you were writing your novels, you studied historical documents of the 1920s. How big an influence did the Comintern have on French political and intellectual circles? How would you explain the fact that a number of noted French people, who did not personally know either the victim or the assassin, had never travelled to Ukraine and could not, legally, have been eyewitnesses of the pogroms registered as witnesses for the defense at the Schwartzbard trial? 

-I don’t have any cast-iron proof. In my opinion, the Petliura case fits the logic of “Red revenge.” Starting, I believe, from 1923–1924, when the Bolsheviks really took power into their hands, there was a clear political will to physically destroy anyone who could form organized opposition: from the UNR leadership and anarchists to White Guard generals and social revolutionaries. They were also on the wanted list. This “Red revenge,” the way I see it, came to an end after the Second World War when Stalin, taking advantage of the fact that half of Europe and half of Germany were occupied, had succeeded in nailing many of his opponents, particularly those White Guard generals who had mistakenly joined the German army and those who had fled from him in the 1920s and ended up in Italy, France and Yugoslavia back in the 1930s. The Allies handed these people over to Stalin after the war, even though from an ideological standpoint they had fought against Bolshevism rather than for Fascism.

Therefore, it is evident that despite what we have been told for many years the Petliura assassination is not an individual phenomenon. Even assuming that the assassin acted independently, as soon as the Bolsheviks would have learned about his plan (which he never concealed), they would have done everything to help him because it was well within their interest to do so.
Petliura was gone and the Ukrainian movement abroad was decapitated. We do not know how things would have evolved had he lived for another 20-30 years. Perhaps there would not have been such a deep rift in the nation. Thus, it stands to reason that the assassination orders came from Moscow.

Another reason this murder is so problematic for the French political and judicial system is that Bolshevik agents were not normally caught after special operations. For example, Stalin’s agents did a very professional job in stealing White Guard Gen. Yevgeny Miller in 1937. There were also other cases. Another White Guard general, Alexander Kutepov, was kidnapped and secretly transported from Paris to Moscow where he was executed. Schwartzbard was, in contrast, arrested at the scene of the crime.

U.W.: One-time KGB officer Petr Deriabin, who defected to the Americans in 1954, said that the Petliura assassination was carried out by the Soviet Chief Intelligence Directorate. He testified about it in the US Congress.

-You have to keep in mind that the time of the cold-war produced a number of adventurists and mercenaries, as well as mythomaniacs. We may never learn who Schwartzbard really was. Was he a “dormant agent” of the Bolsheviks or a person who hoped to run away from himself, his past and cooperation with the Reds? An anarchist or a religious mystic, an image he tried to sell to the investigators? Incidentally, you can be a mythomaniac, adventurist and mercenary at the same time.

U.W.: Let us go back to the French perception of the Ukrainian liberation struggle. There was the first revolution in 1917-18 and then the UPA, Ukrainian Insurgent Army, each followed by a wave of emigration to France. Why were these people almost never heard?

-It is even more difficult with the UPA. The Petliura case at least involves a person who fought for his cause, together with tens of thousands of people. The army of the UNR had, at different times, 30,000 to 100,000 men. The struggle was personified. Now it is much harder to speak about Stepan Bandera in France today. When he lived it was the period of the Holocaust and soviet propaganda, which did a lot to present every Ukrainian who fought against the Red Army; but primarily against the Hitlerites, Hungarians and Romanians, as a murderer of Jews. Thus, it is even more problematic to speak about the Ukrainian armed struggle of 1939-56.

U.W.: But you write about the UPA in your most recent novel…

-True. I made use of a parallel world which I invented to tell this historical truth. The action takes place in a different dimension. According to my concept, Western Europe and Eastern Europe live with a time difference of 40-80 years. This is an artistic portrayal of the delusion of grandeur which the former has nurtured for a long time with regard to the latter. It involves all Eastern Europeans, not just Russians or Ukrainians. And that is not disguised. They treat third-world countries with more care because of the complex colonial past, while Eastern Europe can be openly scorned. The other plot line is indeed a statement that the problems have not been solved yet. If all of these events were happening now, they would again be viewed in a simplistic and absurd way. France would continue to be at a loss – perhaps, like other European countries – over what to do with Ukraine.


Kyiv refused to honor the memory of Symon Petliura.

Petliura was buried 85 years ago, on May 30, 1926, at Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. The local Ukrainian community gathers every year at his grave on the day of his death for a memorial service.

After Ukraine regained independence in 1991, Ukrainian diplomats – first primarily military attaches and later also ambassadors – started coming to Petliura’s burial place. Sometimes they laid flowers or mourning wreaths on behalf of the Ukrainian government.

This year Kyiv ignored the date. “There were no diplomats or flowers,” says Yaroslava Yosypyshyn, head of the Symon Petliura Library in Paris. “This may even be for the better,” say local diaspora representatives. “Now there is no careerist insincerity which was obvious at times. Now it is clear who is who and who sides with whom.”

On 29 May, the mourning service at the cemetery was jointly administered by Orthodox Bishop Borys Haynevskyj, Bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in France Michel Hrynchyshyn and Priest of the Saint Simon Ukrainian Autocephalous Church in Paris Serhiy Herasymenko.

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