A floral memorial wall for Ukrainian civilians killed during the Russian invasion on April 24, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. Leon Neal/Getty Images.
In his chilling address on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin denied the very existence of a Ukrainian nation. The fact that there is a country called Ukraine, with a capital, a government, and ambassadors is, in his view, a tragic mistake, artificially dividing a single Russian people with arbitrary borders. The culprit, Putin explained, was Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet founding father who granted the USSR’s constituent republics the right to secede, among other elements of self-determination, and thereby sowed the seeds of the union’s downfall. “Why was it necessary to appease the nationalists?” Putin fumed. The question is rhetorical—Putin is no doubt well-versed in Lenin’s writings on the question of Russia’s “national minorities.” But he is likely unaware of the role played by another revolutionary political theorist and public intellectual in the development of Lenin’s perspective on nationalism: the novelist, journalist, and Zionist visionary Vladimir Jabotinsky.
As a native of Odessa, Jabotinsky needed no convincing that Ukrainians were a distinct nation. As a Jew, he knew firsthand the resources the Russian state devoted to the repression of the empire’s ethnic minorities. And he understood that if the tsars were able to subdue Ukrainian nationalism, no other nation would stand a chance. In 1911, an exchange between Jabotinsky and the prominent Russian intellectual Peter Struve, published in the magazine Russian Life, forced this issue to the surface of public conversation in Russia.
Lenin’s own personal notebooks show that the Struve-Jabotinsky debate was among his first readings on what was then called the nationalities question. That debate began when Jabotinsky authored a series of essays in 1909 demanding that Russian intellectuals stop trying to sweep Ukrainian nationalism under the rug. “Mr. Jabotinsky can celebrate,” one Russian politician conceded, “he has lured the bear out of his lair.”
Much of Jabotinsky’s thought remains relevant today, but the applicability of his work on nationalism is especially striking. In order to understand the current crisis in Europe, we must summon Jabotinsky as a guide. But first we need to know something about the Ukraine into which he was born.
After revolting against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648, Cossacks secured for themselves an autonomous state in what is now central Ukraine. But a series of military defeats in the next few years led the Cossacks to turn to the tsar of Muscovy—what later became Russia—for help. The decision would inaugurate a vicious cycle. “Every time the Cossacks switched sides in the ongoing Muscovite-Polish war for control of Ukraine, they lost additional elements of their sovereignty,” notes the historian Serhii Plokhy. In 1667, Poland and Muscovy agreed to divide Ukraine in two. The eastern half, ruled by the tsar, was brought under increasingly direct control, especially as Kyiv thrived and its schools became feeder institutions for Russian churches and government bureaucracies.
A little over a century later, Austria succeeded Poland as Russia’s western imperial neighbor and permitted in its half of Ukraine a certain amount of nationalist agitation as a counterweight to Polish nationalism. Thus a fair amount of the development of Ukrainian nationalism took place not in the Russian sphere but outside it. The 19th century saw heavy-handed attempts at Russification and suppression of Ukrainian-language publications and institutions, and the early 20th brought the fall of the tsar and ultimate triumph of the Bolsheviks. That new version of the Russian empire stood until 1991, when Ukraine voted to exit the Soviet Union, triggering its dissolution.
One constant feature of these few hundred years of Ukrainian history were attacks against the Jews by various armies, usually while rebelling against one empire or another. To these were added, in the 19th century, the anti-Jewish riots known as pogroms. In Ukraine, it was as if anti-Semitic violence was one of the four seasons. The 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova awakened the world to the treatment of Jews in Europe and sharpened Jabotinsky’s focus on Zionism and Jewish self-defense, in part because of the fear that such pogroms were becoming Ukraine’s newest export, a borderless threat to Jewish life.
Given this history, and Jabotinsky’s commitment to Jewish safety, it comes as a surprise that he would devote time and effort to furthering Ukrainian nationalism. But to Jabotinsky, writing in 1911, it was obvious that the future of the Jews rested on the success of the Ukrainians.
The question of whether Russian Jewry is fated to assimilate or to develop as a separate nationality depends mainly on the answer to the following momentous question: in which direction is Russia developing—toward a nation-state or toward a “state of nationalities”? In a unilingual state, an ethnic minority, particularly a dispersed one, will inevitably assimilate sooner or later, but its fate would be completely different in a country where several nationalities and languages were allowed to develop freely. (Here and elsewhere, translations are from Israel Kleiner, From Nationalism to Universalism: Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question.)
Whether Russia would become this kind of state—one in which Jews could escape catastrophic assimilation—entirely depended on the fate of Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainians were the only organized minority large enough to resist tsarist suppression, and could thereby force an adjustment in its policy toward minorities in general.
Jabotinsky’s life in the empire convinced him that the nationalism question would have to be confronted one way or the other; its inevitability, he believed, obligated the empire’s intellectuals to prepare accordingly.
Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880. His father’s death when he was six left the family in poverty. That hardscrabble upbringing did nothing to diminish his love of his hometown. “I never saw a city as light-natured as she, and I do not say that as an old man who believes that the sun has vanished from the horizon because it does not warm him as it did before,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I spent the best days of my youth in Rome. I also lived in Vienna when I was young, and I can compare the spiritual climate with the same yardstick. No city could match Odessa.” Jabotinsky was clearly one of those Odessans who, in his words, consumed “the eternal freshness for which every morning is a miracle.” But his city of miraculous days could not forever keep history’s dark nights at bay. In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II promised the empire’s subjects a full-scale constitutional reform in the face of unrelenting strikes and protests. Supporters of the monarchy blamed the Jews for the revolution, and pogroms broke out in Kyiv. Russian nationalists helped incite and organize the violence, which ultimately left hundreds of Jews dead as it spread to other cities—including Odessa.
Ukraine in those years was beginning a nationalist reawakening of its own, with the formation of Ukrainian political parties and the lifting of restrictions on Ukrainian publications. Ukrainian-language newspapers and journals sprang up, and Ukrainian parliamentary caucuses followed. It was on the language issue that Russian chauvinists had already inadvertently recognized the existence of a distinct Ukrainian nation within the empire’s borders, according to Jabotinsky. In January 1911, he observed the behavior of the right-wing nationalists in the Duma, imperial Russia’s short-lived parliament:
When there was a debate on the issue of what languages to use in the schools of other peoples, for a laugh they even voted for the shaitans and for the “Kazan Greeks,” [two made-up groups.] They did not even vote against the Hebrew language, obviously aiming to make the whole bill detestable and unacceptable to the authorities. As soon as the discussion turned to the Ukrainian language, however, they abandoned their buffoonery and cunning calculations and simply voted against, because they sensed that this was the most dangerous spot, the decisive step; there could be no more joking or insidious reasoning.
In other words, the more minority languages they included, the harder it would be to pass the bill. But even acknowledging the Ukrainian language in official Duma debate was playing with fire. That is not how you treat something imaginary or insubstantial.
Jabotinsky drove home this point with an essay that would become the crown jewel of his writings on Ukrainian nationalism. “The Lesson of the Shevchenko Anniversary” was published in 1911, 50 years after the death of the celebrated Ukrainian poet, essayist, and artist Taras Shevchenko. Born a serf in a village outside of Kyiv, Shevchenko demonstrated a talent for painting that caught the attention of several artists in St. Petersburg, who banded together to purchase his freedom in 1838. Art won him his freedom, but poetry soon provided him immortality. In 1840, Shevchenko published a book of poems, Kobzar (“Bard”), in St. Petersburg—written in Ukrainian. He became a national hero to his fellow Ukrainians and embraced the role. He would eventually be regarded as he is today: a founding prophet of Ukraine, a Ukrainian Theodor Herzl and Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik rolled into one.
In 1847, Shevchenko was arrested and exiled by Russian authorities for his nationalist advocacy. Just before his arrest, he wrote a new preface to an updated edition of Kobzar. The essay shows why Shevchenko was such a threat to Russian nationalists—and why he was crucial to Jabotinsky’s argument.
“A great sorrow has enveloped my soul,” Shevchenko begins. “I hear and sometimes I read: the Poles are printing and the Czechs and the Serbs and the Bulgarians and the Montenegrins and the Russians—all are printing. But from us not a peep, as if we were all dumb.” Shevchenko chastised his fellow Ukrainians for allowing the Russians to intimidate them into putting down their pens rather than write in their mother tongue. “Do not pay attention to the Russians. Let them write as they like, and let us write as we like. They are a people with a language, and so are we.” Nor should they be satisfied with the recognition of Ukrainian-born writers who composed their work in Russian, such as Nikolai Gogol. Those who left their roots behind when mainstream success beckoned “have exchanged their own good mother for a useless drunkard.” Nevertheless, he implored readers, “do not despair, and work wisely in the name of Ukraine, our ill-fated mother.”
In his essay on the Shevchenko anniversary, Jabotinsky chastised those who marked the occasion while ignoring or dismissing the writer’s message.
What is Shevchenko? One of two things. Either look at him as a curious freak of nature like a handless painter, a one-legged acrobat, or a rare antediluvian exhibit in an archaeological museum; or view him as a vivid expression of the national and cultural vitality of the Ukrainian people. In the latter case, we need to open our eyes more widely and take a close look at the conclusions that follow.
Shevchenko didn’t merely write great poetry; he wrote great Ukrainian poetry. His choice of a language that in his day had a scant literary tradition wasn’t a mere quirk or novelty. In any other language his work would be lifeless. As Jabotinksy noted, this isn’t a mere hypothetical:
I remembered that Shevchenko had written something also in Russian. Authors contributing to the newspaper Kievlianin consider it his great merit and rebuke the current [Ukrainian nationalists]: see, he is not like you—he did not shy away from the “all-Russian language”! Suppose this is indeed true. However, it turns out that the “all-Russian language” strangely shied away from the Ukrainian poet, and he could not produce anything decent in that language.
Those who sought to universalize Shevchenko as an “all-Russian” poet—that is, one who wrote not only in Ukrainian but in the imperial lingua franca—demeaned his legacy. Again, Jabotinsky argued, it was the Russian chauvinists who understood that honoring Shevchenko meant honoring what he represented for the Ukrainian nation, “as they raised a row about separatism, treason, and the approaching end of the world on the eve of his anniversary.”
Ukrainian anti-Semitism occasionally reared its head in Shevchenko’s works as well, but Jabotinsky was soon vindicated in his embrace of the poet. In the Stalinist 1930s, Jews were able to publish in Yiddish if the material itself was in the interest of the Soviet Union and its constituent republics, including Ukraine. (Similarly, the Kremlin stopped suppressing Shevchenko and attempted to appropriate him instead.) The great Soviet Yiddish poet David Hofshteyn thus spent this period translating Shevchenko into Yiddish in a deeply subversive act of preserving Jewish memory at a time when it was forbidden to do so overtly. “As Jewish culture became increasingly thin, Ukraine and Ukrainian history were the last vestiges of Jewish identity,” wrote Amelia Glaser, a scholar of the Ukrainian-Jewish literary interplay, in 2017. “This was not in spite of the tumultuous relationship with Ukrainians, but because of it. For all of its stereotypes, Ukrainian cultural memory included Jews, and in an environment where the idea of ethnic solidarity could only safely be conveyed through the looking glass of multinationalism, this would have to stand in for Jewish cultural tradition.”
Surely Jews can understand that Shevchenko in Russian wouldn’t be Shevchenko, just like Sholem Aleichem in German wouldn’t be Sholem Aleichem, and Bialik in Russian wouldn’t be Bialik. And that an offer of acceptance by Europe or the international community isn’t worth trading a cultural birthright for a bowl of universalist pottage.
This is the relationship between the Jewish people and the Ukrainian nation in all its complexity. And what might Jabotinsky say about the year 2022, in which the Jewish president of Ukraine calls on the state of Israel to mediate the bloody war that Russia has launched to claw Kyiv back into its clutches, only to find the Ukrainians standing their ground? Probably: “I told you so.”