I was in Paris the first time in 1966. In the half century since, I’ve been there at least a dozen times, but had never visited the grave of Symon Petliura. A journalist, politician and military leader, Petliura was one of the most consequential Ukrainians of the 20th century or any other era; that’s why the Soviets orchestrated his assassination in the center of Paris 90 years ago on May 26.
Petliura (1879-1926) was a 19-year-old seminarian in Poltava when he joined Hromada, a secret society dedicated to Ukrainian self-determination. When his membership was discovered three years later, Petliura was expelled from the seminary even as he continued his activism, having already joined another revolutionary organization. Throughout the next 15 years, using some 120 noms de plume, he worked incessantly as editor and contributor to numerous journals and newspapers, writing thousands of articles, reviews, stories and poems, adding Ukrainian aspirations to the growing ferment in the Russian Empire.
Hounded by the police, Petliura was constantly on the move, living at various times in the Kuban region, Kyiv, Lviv, St. Petersburg and Moscow. When revolution broke out in March 1917, Ukrainians massively moved toward statehood, with Petliura playing a major role – in June, he became minister of military affairs in the Ukrainian Central Rada, which morphed into an independent National Republic in January 1918.
For the next three years, as head of the Ukrainian Army and eventually head of state, Petliura organized combat units, acquired weapons, materiel and the money to pay for them, while conducting military operations, engaging in diplomacy and building government infrastructure. Throughout that time, he was at war with Bolshevik and pro-tsarist White forces, while trying to rein in Ukrainian anarchists and self-styled “otamans,” who had ambitions and armies to pursue them. It proved a losing battle.
In 1920, Petliura, allied with Poland’s Joseph Pilsudski, briefly re-captured Kyiv from the Bolsheviks only to be driven back to Warsaw, where joint Polish-Ukrainian forces defeated the Red Army at the “Miracle on the Vistula,” stopping an advance that threatened to go all the way to Paris and Berlin. Poland was able to defend its newly won independence, but for Ukraine it was too little, too late, and Petliura went into exile, where he continued advocating for Ukraine – until an assassin gunned him down. He was 47 years old.
When we stopped overnight in Paris a few weeks ago on our way to visit our daughter on her junior year abroad at a university a couple of hours away, my wife, Chrystia, noted that we were across the street from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where Symon Petliura is buried next to his wife and daughter, and amongst luminaries like Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco, Camille St. Saens, Susan Sontag, etc. So early the next morning we paid respects: amidst countless monuments of angels, crucifixes, bas reliefs and mini-mausoleums styled as church chapels, we found the bust of Petliura, topped by a dark marble trident.
We returned to the hotel to pick up our bags and an English-language newspaper to read on the train. And wouldn’t you know it? There was a story about the official British investigation into the death of former Russian FSB agent and British citizen Alexander Litvinenko. The report concluded he had been murdered on British soil by Russian agents using radioactive polonium 210 on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For Ukrainians, as Petliura’s grave testifies, that type of crime is not unusual. The grave of Yevhen Konovalets speaks to the same thing. The founder and head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), he was murdered by an NKVD agent in Rotterdam in 1938. In 1957, a KGB assassin killed editor and political activist Lev Rebet in Munich with a spray gun that fired cyanide gas into the target’s face, causing cardiac arrest to make the death look like a heart attack. OUN Leader Stepan Bandera was murdered in similar fashion two years later, also in Munich. And, of course, someone poisoned then-candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign – a crime yet to be solved.
The list of Ukrainian victims of Soviet and now Russian aggression is endless: during the Great Terror of the 1930s, writers, painters, clergy, scholars, politicians, musicians, teachers, ordinary citizens; and untold millions in the Holodomor of 1932-1933.
The Kremlin’s victims, of course, have not only been Ukrainians. Going back centuries, Russia’s rulers routinely arrested and often killed their own people, including many of the most creative. Today, investigative journalists in Russia are particularly vulnerable: Russian American Paul Klebnikov murdered in 2004 and Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 were among the most prominent, but in fact, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists lists several hundred since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The list of regime critics killed is just as long – Boris Nemtsov was ambushed and killed a year ago in the very shadow of the Kremlin.
Russia’s perennial predilection to political mayhem is as mysterious as the taiga and labyrinthine corridors of its prisons and what remains of its network of concentration camps. George Orwell, pondering the torturous phenomenon in “1984” summarizes it in a single word: “Power.” From the dawn of its history as Muscovy to this morning’s news, Russia has used coercion and murder to silence critics and frighten opponents. In the case of Ukraine (and other unfortunate neighbors), the goal has been to extend and maintain Russian control over its “sphere of influence,” regardless of the suffering and hardship. Hence the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn, the deportations from the Baltic states and Crimea, etc. The horror continues: over the past year and a half, Russia and its surrogates have killed thousands in the Donbas and now Syria.
Today, Ukraine is engaged in an existential struggle, as it was when Petliura was still living. No doubt, he would be gratified to see Ukrainians defending their sovereignty, as he did so courageously a century ago, only now with a stronger hand.
The irony for Mr. Putin is that the more Russia does to block Ukraine’s independent course, the more compelling it is for the country to align itself with Europe and cities like Paris, instead of Russia and Moscow up north. And so, Chrystia and I, small players among millions in the game where Petliura had played such an outsized role and paid such a huge price, bowed our heads and moved on.