Jewish self-defense unit during the Russian Civil War, Odessa, 1918. This unit was better organized and had a larger arsenal than most such groups, most of whom did not have uniforms or machine guns. (YIVO)

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Russian Civil War

With the retreat of the German occupying forces at the end of World War I in November 1918, much of the former Russian Empire was plunged into the chaos of another war as several forces sought to consolidate control over its various territories. A good part of the western region, well behind the German front lines, managed to assert demands for local authority, resulting in the recognition of several independent states during the interwar period, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. To the east, however, military and paramilitary forces clashed in a civil war that lasted two years.

The major combatants of the Russian Civil War included five fighting groups: the Red Army, representing the military might of the emerging Soviet regime; the so-called White Army, which fought for a return to a Russian federation either in the form of a reconstituted monarchy or as a revival of the short-lived Provisional Government; Ukrainian forces that attempted to establish sovereignty in the southwest region of the former empire; anarchists under regional commanders such as Nestor Makhno; and a host of smaller forces under local warlords, freely associating with one cause or another as opportunities afforded themselves.

Pogroms. Sites of major pogroms in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, 1918–1921.

Early in the Civil War, attacks on minority populations such as Poles, Mennonites, and especially Jews became a prominent feature of the turmoil. The scope and violence of these assaults dwarfed the pogrom waves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and with an estimated 50,000 Jews killed, these pogroms represented a greater degree of devastation than even the seventeenth-century rebellion under Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi (known as gzeyres takh vetat). Ukrainian forces, nominally under the control of Symon Petliura, perpetrated approximately 40 percent of the recorded pogroms. Although Petliura never ordered his forces to engage in such activity and eventually exhorted his troops to refrain from the violence, his initial reaction to the attacks in early 1919 was characterized by relative inaction.

Jews widely regarded Petliura as the person principally responsible for the pogroms; his 1926 assassination in Paris by a Bessarabian Jew seeking vengeance made world headlines. Approximately 25 percent of the pogroms were perpetrated by “independents”—local hooligans and gang leaders who took advantage of the anarchy to despoil local minority populations. The White Army is associated with 17 percent of the attacks, and was generally responsible for the most active propaganda campaign against Jews, whom they openly associated with communism. The Red Army, under the direction of Leon Trotsky, was specifically charged not to attack Jewish populations, and indeed Soviet troops are blamed for only 9 percent of the pogroms. Furthermore, statistical evidence indicates that pogroms perpetrated by Red Army troops were milder in nature: whereas an average of 38 people were murdered in every Ukrainian pogrom, and 25 people per White Army pogrom, only 7 people were killed in the typical Red Army pogrom.

The majority of the anti-Jewish pogroms took place west of the Dnieper River in Ukraine; these peaked in 1919. Violence reached virtually every Jewish settlement, and several were attacked repeatedly. A vicious massacre of Jews in Proskurov (later ironically renamed Khmel’nyts’kyi), which occurred in February 1919, was widely regarded as emblematic of these violent times.

“Peace and Freedom in Sovedepiia.” Russian poster. This propaganda poster published by White Russian forces depicts Leon Trotsky as a bloodthirsty satanic figure and Chinese Red Army soldiers executing people against the wall of the Kremlin under a “decree” signed by Trotsky. Sovdepiia was a derogatory name used by anti-Bolsheviks for the Soviet Union. (Manuscript and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Ironically, violence against Jews created a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, as Jewish communities increasingly perceived the Red Army as their defender. Many Jews who had initially been attracted to Ukrainian activists and their experiment in statehood, first under the Central Rada and later under Petliura’s Directory, became alienated from the movement due to the brutality; hence, they openly switched allegiances to the Soviet regime. Despite basic ideological incompatibilities between atheistic communism and traditional Jewish piety, many Jews rushed to join the Soviet forces, so much so that a special commission was established to deal with the large numbers of Jews who wished to mobilize against the Ukrainian and White pogromists. This phenomenon further fueled the charge that Jews were Communist sympathizers, provoking yet more violence against them.

Despite the dramatic surge of support among Jews for the Red Army, the issue of ways for Soviet forces to confront the violence became a matter of heated debate. While most Jewish socialist parties argued that the uniform integration of Jews into the Red Army illustrated the egalitarian nature of Communist doctrine, several military leaders, including Leon Trotsky, favored the creation of specifically Jewish units to deal with the unique nature of the threat from pogroms. The subject became a prominent theme in Russian literature and the arts, as illustrated by Isaac Babel’s Konarmiia (Red Cavalry; 1926) and Aleksandr Askoldov’s banned film Komisar (produced in 1967; finally released under glasnost policies in 1988).

The Civil War formally ended in 1920, although smaller conflicts continued for some time. During the interwar years, Elias Tcherikower of the YIVO Institute researched and documented data on the violence against Jews, producing two major monographs about the period. The overwhelming impact of the pogroms on Jewish consciousness, however, was inevitably diminished by the catastrophe of the Holocaust two decades later.

Suggested Reading

Henry Abramson, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); I. M. Cherikover (Elias Tcherikower), Antisemitizm un pogromen in Ukraine, 1917–1918: Tsu der geshikhte fun ukrainish-yidishe batsiungen (Berlin, 1923); I. M. Cherikover, Di ukrainer pogromen in yor 1919 (New York, 1965).