The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew

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This book is the first to explore the Jewish contribution to, and integration with, Ukrainian culture. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern focuses on five writers and poets of Jewish descent whose literary activities span the 1880s to the 1990s. Unlike their East European contemporaries who disparaged the culture of Ukraine as second-rate, stateless, and colonial, these individuals embraced the Russian- and Soviet-dominated Ukrainian community, incorporating their Jewish concerns in their Ukrainian-language writings.

The author argues that the marginality of these literati as Jews fuelled their sympathy toward Ukrainians and their national cause. Providing extensive historical background, biographical detail, and analysis of each writer’s poetry and prose, Petrovsky-Shtern shows how a Ukrainian-Jewish literary tradition emerged. Along the way, he challenges assumptions about modern Jewish acculturation and Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Jewish Identities

"A scintilliating, informative, and novel book...The Anti-Imperial Choice deserves a broad readership among historians, literary specialists, indeed anyone interested in culture, identity, and modernity in the context of Eastern Europe."--Theodore R. Weeks, Journal of Jewish Identities

— Theodore R. Weeks

Glenn Dynner
"Petrovsky is a real rarity among scholars: he is fully at home in both East European and Jewish literature, and he exhibits an intimate knowledge of both Ukrainian and Jewish histories."—Glenn Dynner, author of Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society
Timothy Snyder
"A work of original and impressive scholarship."—Timothy Snyder, Yale University
Journal of Jewish Identities - Theodore R. Weeks
"A scintilliating, informative, and novel book...The Anti-Imperial Choice deserves a broad readership among historians, literary specialists, indeed anyone interested in culture, identity, and modernity in the context of Eastern Europe."—Theodore R. Weeks, Journal of Jewish Identities
American Historical Review - Amelia Glaser
"This book is an important contribution not only to the history of Jews in Ukriane but also to broader discussions of the role of language in a writer's construction of his or her national identity."—Amelia Glaser, American Historical Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300137316
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern teaches Jewish history in the History Department and the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies, Northwestern University. He publishes frequently in the areas of East European history and culture and Jewish studies. He lives in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

The Anti-Imperial Choice

The Making of the Ukrainian Jew
By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13731-6

Chapter One

A Prayer for Ukraine The Improbable Identity of Hryts'ko Kernerenko

The East European intelligentsia was indifferent to Ukrainian cultural endeavors at the time the descendant of an affluent Jewish family, Grigorii Kerner, made up his mind to identify with the Ukrainian national strivings, dedicate himself to Ukrainian poetry, and adopt the pen name Hryts'ko Kernerenko. His actions seem to make no sense. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Ukrainian books and primers appeared in print for the first time in the modern era, Taras Shevchenko was allowed back into the capital, and a couple of Ukrainian periodicals, such as Osnova (1861-62) and Chernyhovs'kyi lystok (1861-63), were authorized, albeit in the imperial Russian language. This brief political thaw was followed by an almost total ban on things Ukrainian. The 1863 Valuev decree and 1876 Ems edict uprooted the timid Ukrainian populism by dramatically limiting the legally endorsed culture of Little Russia, as Ukraine was then officially named. The authorities endorsed Ukrainian discourse grudgingly but only if it contained no hint of the nationalist strivings of Jena romantics, let alone of the revolutionary enthusiasm of Sturmund Drang. The notorious claim that the Ukrainian language "has not, does not, and cannot exist" defined and exhausted the situation of Ukrainian culture in tsarist Russia.

For Ukrainian writers who sought publishers within the borders of the Russian Empire, moderate Ukrainian populism of a vaudevillian character or bucolic lyricism became the only relatively innocuous form of expression available. At the same time, Austrian-published Ukrainian books and periodicals were forbidden in Russia, translations from Western European languages were put under a total ban, and the Ukrainian theater repertoire was altogether eliminated. Afraid that Ukrainian publications would sooner or later trigger separatist tendencies detrimental to the integrity of the empire, the authorities also uprooted Ukrainian from education, liturgy, and the press.

Some changes took place under the brief term of Minister of the Interior Loris-Melikov toward the end of the reign of Alexander II (1856-81). Whatever was allowed to be published in the Malorosskii (Little Russian) dialect, as Russian authorities condescendingly dubbed Ukrainian, had necessarily to be transcribed in iaryzhka, in which the characteristic Ukrainian vowels were substituted by Russian equivalents to make the language font look similar to Russian. Ukrainian scholarship, such as ethnography, was endorsed only if it was in the Russian language. The suppressed literature was sublimated into collecting Ukrainian folklore, predominantly folk songs and ballads or imitations thereof.

The authorities expediently stifled any attempt of the Ukrainian-minded intellectuals to display in public their innocent folklore sympathies. For example, when several national-minded women reacted against the anti-Ukrainian stance of the authorities by appearing in the streets of Kiev donned in Ukrainian attire, the governor general of Kiev immediately responded by publicly allowing city prostitutes to wear the national dress. In this context, the Russian authorities considered suspicious-and the liberal-minded Russian intelligentsia ridiculous- any attempts to promote Ukrainian literature. Ukrainian was stigmatized as a lingua peccata: even the Bible could not be translated into Ukrainian or used by village parish priests. To paraphrase a medieval rabbinic metaphor, the Ukrainian language was a devaluated currency with no apparent signs of recovery. What, then, were Grigorii Kerner's reasons for investing in it?

Nor were Ukrainian-Jewish relations stimulating any mutual rapprochement. An unexpected manifestation of what could be called one of the first stages of the Ukrainian-Jewish cultural encounter ended abruptly and ugly. Although in 1859 such Ukrainian figures as Taras Shevchenko and Panteleimon Kulish had denounced the notorious antisemitic publication in the Russian journal Illustratsiia, in 1861-62 the Ukrainian press canonized the image of the Jew as an enemy alien of the Ukrainian people, in full accordance with the populist stereotype of the Jews as petty bourgeoisie. Leading Ukrainian writers presented Jews as selfish innkeepers and leaseholders. Jews were represented as humiliating the poor, insatiable capitalist entrepreneurs sucking blood of the Ukrainian urban hired workers, greedy exploiters of the voiceless Ukrainian peasants. The activities of Jewish army purveyors were seen as having ruined the army and local economy, and rapacious Jewish stock-exchange adventurers, Jewish nouveau riches, and landowners were unscrupulously taking over holy Ukrainian lands.

Due to Kostomarov's contribution, the myth of the seventeenth-century Jews who leased Eastern Orthodox churches firmly embedded itself in the imperial antisemitic discourse. In 1875, Panas Myrnyi portrayed a quintessential Ukrainian village in which a Jew (and a German) mistreat and rob the Ukrainians, former serfs. In the 1870s and 1880s, Ukrainian publications in Austrian Galicia (subjected to a more lenient Austrian censorship) expressed even less sympathy for the Jewish cause. The arguments of enlightened Jewish polemicists for the abolition of the Pale of Settlement and the emancipation of Russian Jews, inundating the Russian-Jewish press at the time, seem to have not resonated among Ukrainian public figures. The initial reports of the Vienna-based journal Hromada on the 1881 pogroms in Ukraine, unique in their moderate sympathy toward the Jewish victims, perhaps conveyed Mykhailo Drahomanov's solitary viewpoint rather than the feelings of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, which was quantitatively insignificant and bereft of its own media in the Russian Empire.

In the literary circles the climate was far from benevolent to the idea of Ukrainian-Jewish rapprochement. In the late 1850s, Panteleimon Kulish was an ardent adept of the Ukrainian-Jewish encounter: he wholeheartedly supported and publicly praised the literary endeavors of Kesar Bilylovs'kyi, a Jew who entirely sacrificed his Jewishness for the sake of his newly adopted identity of a Ukrainian poet; yet later Kulish claimed that a Jew cannot become a Ukrainian any more than a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, a sudden switch that naturally caused Bilylovs'kyi's consternation, bitterness, and distress. In the 1880s, the philosemitism of Ivan Franko and Lesia Ukrainka, who at the beginning of the twentieth century challenged the inherited bias of Ukrainian anti-Jewish attitudes, had not yet become part of the new Ukrainian sensibilities. And there was no Volodymyr Vynnychenko to create the complex, predominantly positive Jewish characters that appeared in his plays and prose in the 1910s and after. To say that Grigorii Kerner emerged as the Ukrainian poet Hryts'ko Kernerenko from a welcoming milieu that fostered a Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue is to misunderstand completely his bold, independent, and apparently lonely deed.

Kerner was no less a curious figure among those Jewish intellectuals who, from Osip Rabinovich in Odessa to Arnold Margolin in Khar'kov, routinely associated with and integrated into the Russian imperial milieu. To the enlightened Jews seeking integration into the general society and arguing against any ghettoized Yiddish-based and shtetl-shaped Jewish mentality, Russian was an imperial language, the language of power and protection-therefore, a praiseworthy language, a lingua laudata. This is not surprising, given that in the new burgeoning urban centers of Ukraine, such as Khar'kov, Ekaterinoslav, and Odessa, Russian was the spoken language of the overwhelming majority, Jews included, whereas Ukrainian was unheard of. Ievhen Chykalenko poignantly noticed that in the 1900s there were only five families in Kiev that spoke Ukrainian at home, and his bitter remark does not seem an exaggeration.

In the hierarchy of Jewish linguistic preferences, German-the language of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment-and later Russian occupied the first and foremost positions, followed by Hebrew and Yiddish, the last being the least important. Ukrainian was simply not in the Jewish linguistic repertoire, despite the fact that Ukrainian words and colloquial expressions were prominently present in both spoken and written Yiddish; they were well familiar to Jews. Furthermore, for the Jews, Russian was not only the official language of the empire but also the language of high culture, university education, and public discourse, whereas Ukrainian was at best the language of the peasantry. For an urban dwelling, petty-bourgeois German- or Russian-oriented Jew, the Ukrainian language signified nothing but a marketplace babble of no cultural value. Jews considered Shevchenko talented, albeit rough and uncombed. To use David Roskies's metaphor, in the shtetl-based Jewish linguistic imagination, Russian functioned as a High Goyish and Ukrainian as a Low Goyish dialect, with goyish referring to the non-Jewish or gentile.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, East European Yiddish writers, above all Mendele Moykher Sforim, included in their prose narratives many colorful, albeit episodic, Ukrainian characters and even brief dialogues in Ukrainian. Later in the 1900s, Isaac Leybush Peretz and Sholem Aleichem traced humorous parallels between the Ukrainians and the Jews in their short stories. Ukraine-born Ze'ev Jabotinsky's arduous defense of the Ukrainian language and culture, articulated in his impeccable Russian, was another important episode of the Jewish-Ukrainian cultural rapprochement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Yet Ukrainian-Jewish literary interaction did not yet signify the integration of Jewish intellectuals into the Ukrainian milieu. And in the 1880s, it was simply inconceivable for a Jew-as well as for an acculturated urban dweller with a university degree-to be willing to associate with, or acculturate into, the Ukrainian language and culture. A colonial nonentity in the family of East European languages, Ukrainian could not be a decent means in which to express oneself. There seemed to be no reason for a Jew, who perhaps occupied the lowest rank in the imaginary Russian imperial hierarchy, to identify with those mute, rustic, uncultivated peasants, the Ukrainians, bereft of their own voice and tongue. But Grigorii Kerner, alias Hryt'sko Kernerenko, thought otherwise.


Biographical data on Kerner is insufficient for a coherent narrative. What is known about him raises more questions than provides answers. Ihor Kachurovs'kyi's short yet very informative essay on Kerner's life and a brief note included in Kerner's file at the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Literature manuscript collection, in Kyiv, with some variation, simply follow the succinct introduction to Kernerenko's poetry from the 1908 anthology The Ukrainian Muse.

From these sources we learn that Hryts'ko Kernerenko was born Grigorii Borisovich Kerner in 1863 in Huliai-pole, Ekaterinoslav Province. Perhaps his Ukrainian neighbors called him Hryhorii Borysovych, while in the synagogue he was addressed as Hirsh ben Borukh. He graduated from Simferopol high school, a modern Russian educational institution opened to Jews. The notorious numerus clausus introduced and enforced in the Russian Empire in the early 1880s, however, dramatically limited further educational opportunities for Jews, making university education very problematic for Kerner, who, instead of a Russian university, chose the agronomy department of a polytechnic college in Munich. Kerner's choice, however, was not an uncommon one for heirs of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie who also preferred Central European higher educational establishments. Suffice it to mention such prominent twentieth-century Ukrainian thinkers as Dmytro Dontsov, who studied in Vienna, and V'iacheslav Lypyns'kyi, who studied in Geneva. Brief notes that follow Kerner's early verse indicate that in 1883 he traveled through Europe and visited Austria and Italy. The few available sources lead us to believe that upon finishing his studies abroad, Kernerenko returned to Huliai-pole and became a manager of his own estate.

Kerner's family was not atypical for the Jewish nouveaux riches that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s. Like the Guenzburgs and the Brodskys, Kerner's grandfather was involved in the century-old propinacja business (distilling and selling liquor), had amassed capital, and by the time of the liberal reforms of Alexander II was able to invest his entrepreneurial skills into the bourgeoning south Russian industry. In the 1870s, together with the merchant A. A. Ostrovs'kyi, he built a comparatively large liquor plant that employed thirty-two workers and earned 32,000 rubles annually. In 1892, Kerner established his family company, Kerner B. S. and Sons, and built the second machine-building factory in Huliai-pole (the first belonged to a certain Krieger). By the end of the century there were seventy workers at Kerner's factory, which generated revenues of 65,000 rubles and was marketed through the local Kerner-owned trading house. In 1901, together with other wealthy merchants and industrialists, the Kerners sponsored Mutual Credit Bank, a formidable edifice built in the center of the town. Later under the Soviets, the building hosted the Jewish Colonization Society (Agro-Joint), which supported Jewish agricultural settlements in southern Ukraine.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Huliai-pole, situated in the center of a triangle formed by the three cities Ekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovs'k), Iuzovo (Donets'k), and Melitopol, was a nicely planned town. In 1898, it boasted seventy-six plants, factories, and artisan shops, and some twenty stores. By 1914, it had 16,150 inhabitants, of them 1,173 Jews, three churches, one synagogue, five primary schools, one parish school, one workers' school, one German and two Jewish schools, a library, a theater, and a cinema. The Kerners significantly contributed to the town's economic blossom.

Anatol Hak (pseud.; real name-Ivan Antypenko), a Ukrainian writer, literary critic, and journalist born in 1893 in Huliai-pole personally knew the Kerners and provided elucidating insights into Kerner's life. Among other things, Hak notes that Kerner's family comprised a father and his three sons. The family owned an agricultural machinery plant, a mill, a large store, and about five hundred hectares of land outside Huliai-pole, which they leased to German colonists. Here is Hak:

As to the rich dwellers of Huliai-pole, who shared pro-Ukrainian sympathies, it is worthwhile to mention the poet Hryts'ko Kernerenko. Unfortunately, there is not a word about him in the Ukrainian Encyclopedia. A member of a rich Jewish family (his real name is Kerner), Kernerenko, who got his higher education degree in Munich and Kharkiv, composed genuine Ukrainian poetry, and also translated into Ukrainian the poetry of Heine, Pushkin, etc. In 1909, he published in Huliai-pole a collection of his poetry Menty natkhnennia [Moments of Inspiration]. Yet it is obvious that his nationality and social position prevented Kernerenko from having firm contacts with Huliai-pole's intelligentsia, let alone with the peasants. However, when my relatively "Ukrainian" moustache began bristling, I found my way to Kernerenko: I used to go to him for Ukrainian books. Hryhorii Borysovych [Kernerenko] treated me benevolently. Besides the books he gave me to read, I remember him giving me the address of the [Kiev] bookstore Ukrainskaia starina [Ukrainian Antiquities], from which I eventually began ordering Ukrainian books.

Hak's insights are illuminating in different ways. They suggest that Kernerenko belonged to the well-to-do of Huliai-pole; that he was known to be a lonely Jewish Ukrainophile at odds with his bourgeois Jewish, Russified Cossack, and intellectual Ukrainian milieu; that he had a collection of Ukrainian books; and that he seems to have inspired and encouraged those interested in things Ukrainian. Unfortunately, except for a brief reference to the post-1917 turmoil, when Kerner was made to pay ransom to local anarchists, Hak does not provide any details on Kerner's later years.


Excerpted from The Anti-Imperial Choice by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Politics of Names and Places: A Note on Transliteration....................xiii
List of Abbreviations....................xv
CHAPTER 1. A Prayer for Ukraine: The Improbable Identity of Hryts'ko Kernerenko....................24
CHAPTER 2. Between Two Fires: The National-Communist Utopia of Ivan Kulyk....................62
CHAPTER 3. Writing the Body: The Passion and Freedom of Raisa Troianker....................111
CHAPTER 4. Being for the Victims: Leonid Pervomais'kyi's Ethical Responses to Violence....................165
CHAPTER 5. A Messiah from Czernowitz: The Language and Faith of Moisei Fishbein....................228
Selected Bibliography....................323
Illustrations follow p. 164
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