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The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19

Nokhem Shtif

The Pogroms in Ukraine:The Period of the Volunteer Army1

Nokhem Shtif

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  • 1 The original Yiddish text, Pogromen in Ukrayne: di tsayt fun der frayviliger armey (Berlin: Wostok, (...)

Frontispiece of the original Yiddish edition of Nokhem Shtif, Pogromen in Ukrayne: di tsayt fun der frayviliger armey (Berlin: Wostok, 1923)


1I wrote this book in Kiev in March 1920, right after the Denikin atrocities that left a searing wound in our hearts and souls, even among those individuals and organizations who had been sympathetic to the Volunteer Army and who had hoped that it would be the “Angel of Deliverance” from Russia. They were all deceived, except for that small group of inveterate pessimists and those far-seeing activists who were struggling against that government. For the Jews of Ukraine it was a horrendous pogrom of murder and devastation. The horrors of Ukraine in the year 1919 were unparalleled in the annals of pogroms. The bloody rampage has now subsided, and it is time to take stock.

2At that time, my work had a specific purpose: to inform the world, and Jews in particular, of the destruction of the Jewish communities in Ukraine. As a member of the Editorial Board whose aim it was to collect and analyze documents concerning pogroms in Ukraine, I already had in my hands a quantity of materials on the pogroms committed by the Volunteer Army in 84 Jewish communities. My work rests on those documents. (I will discuss these materials more fully later. I am just summarizing here.) It soon becomes evident that the pogroms were indeed remarkably similar everywhere, when one considers how many took place in dozens of cities and towns. That is why I have avoided describing them individually: it would have meant endlessly repeating the same features. It seemed to me more useful, more informative, to outline the general characteristics of the main aspects, the typical pogrom activities of the Volunteer Army, and to discern a certain pattern from the details (the military character of the pogroms; the tortures; the mass rape of women; the total extermination of communities).

3First I will describe the spectrum of pogroms, from the so-called “quiet pogroms” to the mass slaughters, and how they ebbed and flowed through the years. The pattern was so well established that when I returned to this subject in the Spring of this year with documentation on previously undocumented pogroms in 21 towns (and some more materials on pogroms already known), I did not have to change one thing, and I had nothing important to add. I simply had to enlarge the text under each rubric with additional details of the pogrom, and of course add the place where it occurred in the supplementary list at the end. This convinced me even more that I had correctly grasped the essence of the Denikin pogroms and that my method had been a good one, and my explanation became clearer and more concise. Enough said about the first, descriptive, part of the work.

4The second part, “The Causes of the Pogroms,” takes up two themes. First of all, it became necessary in the process of our effort, to explain exactly what had happened and the origins of those events. Second, we had to confirm such events if they were to be believed. Because it would be difficult for outsiders who had not experienced the horror themselves, and for those who were ignorant of the situation between Russia and Ukraine in general, to believe such atrocities if they were to read of the pogroms themselves, not linked to or entranced by the theory and practice of the Volunteer Army. Therefore we wanted to show that these pogroms were part of their military campaign, an integral part, tightly knitted — as bone to bone and flesh to flesh — to the whole military and political program of the Volunteer Army. Anyone who was familiar with its program would find it easy to believe the horrors of the pogroms, because these pogroms were not a secondary event. They were a link in a chain; that is what I have tried to demonstrate. The war aim of the Volunteer Army, of course, was to drive out the Bolshevik regime, and its social and political program aimed to restore every aspect of the old Russia before the days of the Revolution.

5This was clearly evident in the way that the Denikin regime dealt with the three essential issues facing life in Russia: agriculture, labor, and the national question. These were their answers: The land must be returned to the aristocracy. The labor movement must be crushed. And complete Russification: we mock the national aspirations of the “alien tribes.” In that program, Jews will continue to be second-class citizens, oppressed and subservient. This has been the logic of Reaction in every age and every land. Especially at those critical junctures when its power is in shaky and it is struggling to maintain its power, Reaction adds to this logic that Jews, all Jews without exception, are “enemies of the people” who must be dealt with harshly and severely with all possible means. And as soon as this is proclaimed, there begin, of course, attacks on the helpless, and “the wrath of the people” breaks out again. In Germany the German nationalists are screaming right now for what the Volunteer Army did three years ago in Ukraine.

6For the reactionaries pogroms are a way to prevent Jews from obtaining equal rights, which the hated Revolution granted them. Pogroms are the first step towards reducing them to a state of slavery. That principle, which I propose in the second part of my book, is at the root of the pogroms. In the eyes of reactionaries Jews are creatures without rights. And as soon as anyone dares to give them their rights, they are outraged and they burn to “put the crown back on the head of perverted justice.”

7In the eyes of reactionaries, of course, Jews have no rights. They should not be politically active, and they must not have any Bolsheviks among them, so that no one might accuse them of any “outrages,” because all the Jews are friends, and they are all responsible for each other. That has been the assumption of reactionaries for a long time. And that is the pogrom ideology of the Volunteer Army. It is an old story indeed. Nothing new or novel here, except for the Russian style and the Russian passion for finding things to bring back from the Dark Ages or from the atrocities of 1648 and 1760 in Ukraine.

8The Volunteer Army contained elements of semi-civilized eastern peoples, Ossetians, Chechens, etc. and officers who were fortune-hunters. It had a poor war plan: a front with no objective and a demoralized rear. It had to be a marauding army that lived off plunder. Historical tradition pointed the pillagers against the Jews. The generals and politicians sat back and watched, and they were quietly pleased: it was all for the best that the Army obtain its own supplies, feed itself, and stock up on reserves. And they counted on this criminal mind-set to achieve another aim: to drive out the Bolsheviks and take Russia back. Those were the material conditions that gave rise to the pogroms. But the generals were wrong. The wave of pogroms in the end engulfed them, too, those who had quietly sat by and even encouraged them. The brutal massacres threw the Army into disarray and almost ruined it. The old historical rule came into play: Reaction is always blind and carries with it its own Angel of Death.

9Of course, when I took up this work again, I was able to discuss these larger questions directly without getting mired in more voluminous detail. I believe that we did not need more. It seems to me that the reactionary character of the White Guard and its objectives are totally and completely clear to everyone who has watched the fate of Russia during the last four years. The shameful defeat of the Guard on every front demonstrates it one last time.

10That part of my work, the most significant, was ready in the Spring of 1920. I am very grateful to no other than… V. V. Shulgin, the editor of Kievlyanin, the ideologist and defender of the Volunteer Army. He was extremely useful in helping me grasp the philosophy of the Volunteer Army, especially its program for the Jews and its zeal for pogroms. That outstanding publicist wrote so much on the subject in Kievlyanin that when you read Shulgin it is like reading the Army itself on the subject of the Jews, its theory and practice. Shulgin is certainly the greatest authority when it comes to anything relating to the Volunteer Army. He is its wise and trusted supporter. That was why I knew I could depend on his writings and rely on him, and on him alone. That was sufficient for my work.

  • 2 K. N. Sokolov, Pravlenie generala Denikina: iz vospominanij (Sofia: Rossijsko-Bolgarskoe Knigoizdat (...)

11This Spring I obtained a second reliable testimony. I am referring to K. N. Sokolov’s unusual book, The Regime of General Denikin (Sofia, 1921).2 K. N. Sokolov is a professor, an expert in government law, a minister in Denikin’s regime, which is to say one who was politically active on behalf of the Volunteer Army and who remained true to the White dictatorship and its methods to the very end. Even after its ugly demise, he describes the dictatorship with an openness and a frankness (except on the agrarian debate over “commercial” topics) of which he can be proud. We have here, then, an authentic explanation, a piece of incontrovertible evidence concerning the program and the politics of Denikin’s regime.

12He did not add much to what we can learn from reading Shulgin. But for my work it was important that an authentic participant like K.N. Sokolov confirmed almost everything that I had said earlier about the essential nature of the Volunteer Army, its political theory and practice, and also about the roots and growth of its pogrom activities. I have taken some passages from Sokolov’s book on the principles and practice of the Volunteer Army on the most important issues in Russian life, and some that confirm Shulgin’s writings and my hypotheses. I was pleased that my earlier writing was thus corroborated. I considered V. V. Shulgin and K. N. Sokolov to be such iron-clad witnesses on the fundamental political aims of the Volunteer Army and on the Jewish question, that I did not require any more evidence to bring this work to completion. But in its present form, having analyzed the whole Volunteer system, I have gone beyond my original intention, and I believe it is ready to be presented to a broader audience of readers.

13Here are just a few words on the nature of the documentation that I have used in the first, descriptive, part. It is original material, both because it has never been published before, and because it was collected for a specific purpose according to a certain format. The aim was historical, not political. The Editorial Board mentioned above was not aimed at the short term, but at the perspective of history. Its mission was to collect everything in connection with the pogroms in Ukraine starting in 1917: everything that victims, witnesses, and researchers saw or heard, reported as accurately as possible, official documents of government, institutions, organizations, etc. — all material for a large historical work. The greatest merit of this documentation is that it has absolutely nothing to do with newspaper sensationalism or party politics.

14The material is varied both as to the questions asked and as to its source. On the subject of a pogrom (or more accurately, pogroms) that occurred in the same place, there are often parallel documents assembled by different organizations, along different themes and using different methods. That in itself constitutes a verification of the facts under discussion. Furthermore there was verification within the Editorial Board itself, whose members would often meet with victims and with witnesses who had been compelled to flee in such large numbers to Kiev from many devastated towns, as well as with the correspondents and researchers for the editors. In addition, over the course of working for two years in Ukraine, the Board had accrued enough experience to have developed a feel for the accounts of the witnesses and informants.

15But it must be said that with respect to materials specifically in connection with the Volunteer Army, something stands out that makes them credible even if there were no strict verification: the very fact that huge numbers of reports are extremely similar. When hundreds of people from different places describe the pogroms in almost the exact same way, using the same words (and this cannot be said of accounts of pogroms by Petliura’s men or by bandits), that means that they are to be essentially believed. Either that or this is a case of mass hysteria, or they have all been prompted.

16There is, finally, a quantity of documents: orders, announcements, decrees, etc., from local and central authorities; protocols; reports and memoranda of various organizations that were sympathetic to the Volunteer Army; lists of those who were murdered; reports from doctors who treated the wounded, etc. We thus have accumulated a unique collection of materials that will meet the strictest scholarly standards. If all this documentation were to be published, the world would be shocked. But I think that the little bit of material that I present here in a compressed summary, will be sufficiently convincing.

17There is one great formal drawback to this material: we have only one side. We have heard and seen the oppressed but not the oppressors. That a Jewish commission would seek out the views of the oppressors on their thoughts and actions is almost unimaginable. But I am sure that even if that were possible, we would obtain more that was noteworthy from the psychological point of view, not the historical. The oppressed have reported enough on the events that is historical, objective, and credible.

18We have such rare testimony from V.V. Shulgin and K.N. Sokolov — spokesmen and leaders of the oppressors — on the meaning and purpose of the pogroms, and on the link between those events and the essence and philosophy of the Volunteer Army, that we need look no further.

19Berlin. July 17, 1922


1 The original Yiddish text, Pogromen in Ukrayne: di tsayt fun der frayviliger armey (Berlin: Wostok, 1923) has been digitized in the Steven Spielberg Digitized Yiddish Library on the website of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, which affirms: “National Yiddish Book Center respects the copyright and intellectual property rights in our books. To the best of our knowledge, this book is either in the public domain or it is an orphan work for which no copyright holder can be identified. If you hold an active copyright to this work — or if you know who does — please contact us by phone at 413–256–4900 x153, or by email at” The work is available online at https://
Nota bene: Nokhem Shtif gives the dates of events using the Gregorian calendar adopted by the regime in 1918, sometimes followed by the Julian date.
All footnotes in this section are by the translator unless otherwise stated.

2 K. N. Sokolov, Pravlenie generala Denikina: iz vospominanij (Sofia: Rossijsko-Bolgarskoe Knigoizdat, 1921).

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Légende Frontispiece of the original Yiddish edition of Nokhem Shtif, Pogromen in Ukrayne: di tsayt fun der frayviliger armey (Berlin: Wostok, 1923)
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