KIEV - On May 25, 1926, Symon Petliura was shot to death while walking down a street in Paris. He was then president-in-exile of the Ukrainian republic that had briefly existed as an independent state before the Soviet Union overran it in 1919. His assassin was Sholom Schwartzbard, a Jewish poet and revolutionary.
"I killed a mass murderer," Schwartzbard told the police after his arrest, noting that over 400 brutal pogroms had killed thousands of Ukrainian Jews during just a few months of Petliura's brief reign.
But if Petliura still holds a special place in Jewish history as one of the modern era's greatest persecutors of Jews, many Ukrainians view him as a hero, the man who raised the battle of Ukrainian nationalism against the Communists. Many also claim that he opposed the pogroms. Last month, therefore, the Kiev city council voted to rename one of the Ukrainian capital's main streets, Comintern St., for Petliura.
The move is only one of many aimed at honoring Petliura on the 130th anniversary of his birth. Hagiographic biographies are on sale at booths throughout Kiev; youth groups are holding rallies and marches in his memory; several cities are erecting statues in his honor.
Nor is the Petliura craze unique: Ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko took office, he has spearheaded a controversial campaign to deepen his countrymen's national identity, including by glorifying Ukrainian heroes. It is just too bad that most of these heroes were also murderous anti-Semites - among them Bogdan Chmielnicki, hero of the 17th-century Cossack revolt, whose followers slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews.
Another is the anti-Bolshevik officer Roman Shukhevych, whom Yushchenko declared a "hero of Ukraine" two years ago. Shukhevych collaborated with the Nazis and was responsible for multiple mass murders of Ukrainian Jews.
The Israeli embassy has not commented on the Petliura celebrations, and the Ukrainian Jewish community is already inured to such events. "Instead of dealing with the country's serious situation, Yushchenko focuses on the past," said one senior community official, who asked not to be named. "He sees himself as a savior, the reviver of the Ukrainian nation, and grants hero status to murderers of Jews. What arouses consternation is that this is happening under a pro-Western president, whose election generated such great hopes."
To Yushchenko's right are several nationalist parties that are even more extreme. Their leaders make blatantly anti-Semitic statements without fear, and vie with each other over who can sound the more nationalist and populist. A few weeks ago, for instance, the Svoboda party sued Kiev's Jewish deputy mayor, Yevgeny Chervonenko, for humiliating the Ukrainian nation because he said in a television interview that he "enjoys riding Ukraine" - the reference being to his horse, which he named Ukraine.
All this is occurring at a time of economic crisis - international observers consider Ukraine the country most likely to collapse due to the current global crisis - and governmental paralysis: Over the past half year, Ukraine's finance, defense, foreign and transportation ministers have all resigned, and have yet to be replaced. Though many Ukrainians sympathize with Yushchenko's national identity campaign, the twin crises have brought his popularity to an all-time low, and he is considered to have no chance of winning another term.
As for Schwartzbard, who died in 1938 after being acquitted of murder in France, his remains were transferred to Israel in 1967, at his request, and he was reburied with a state funeral. And a few years ago, Be'er Sheva named a street in his honor.