Back to article index


Vladimir Jabotinsky

In 1904, Vladimir Jabotinsky, then known as a popular journalist who had only recently publicly declared support for Zionism, published an article in the St Petersburg journal Obrazovanie, in which he described a journey through central Ukraine in a third class carriage shared with Ukrainian peasants:

'"Even though I myself am not a Little Russian or a Slav, I have the urge to shout to the entire Slavic world: 'Why are you allowing [the little Russian language to die]? There is a mischief [being perpetrated] right in front of your very eyes, a loss to Slavic well-being." Every nation and nationality has "the right to remain what it is," he emphasised, "and to be called publicly by its national name."' (4)

(4) Olga Andriewsky: 'Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question, 1904-1914' Harvard Ukrainian Studies, December 1990, Vol. 14, No. 3/4, p.252.

He was already convinced that a Jewish state outside the Russian Empire, preferably in Palestine, was necessary - he had attended the 6th Zionist Conference in Basel in 1903. But in the wake of the 1905 revolution, when - following the most horrific pogrom so far in Ukraine, discussed in an earlier article in this series (5) political agitation in Russia became much easier, Jabotinsky advocated a policy of pressing for 'complete' rights for Jews within Russia and for Russia itself to become a mutinational state. This was the policy he argued for at the Helsingfors Conference of Russian Zionists in 1906 - 'the peak Zionist experience of my youth', as he calls it in his autobiography, The Story of my life:

'the bold demands that I would advocate the next day in my speech at the conference: that there is no dominant nation in Russia, that all her nationalities are nothing but “minorities”—Russians, as well as Poles, Tatars, and ourselves, all have equal status, with all deserving self-government.' (6)

(5) Peter Brooke: 'Solzhenitsyn and the 'Russian Question', Part 18 - The pogroms, part seven - Odessa in 1905', Church and State, No.146, October-December, 2021. Accessible at

(6) Vladimir Jabotinsky: Story of my life, edited by Brian Horowitz and Leonid Katsis, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2016. I have it in a Kindle edition that doesn't give page references.(Kindle loc. 1908). The Hebrew original was published in 1936. The English translation was found in the Jabotinsky archive in Tel Aviv but the translator has not been identified.

Ukraine had an important role to play in Jabotinsky's thinking. If 'Little Russians' (Ukrainians) and 'White (Belo-) Russians' were counted as 'Russians', then the Russians were a majority in the Russian Empire. If they were counted as separate nationalities then, Jabotinsky believed, the 'Russians' ('Great Russians') were just another minority. As he was to say in 1911 (Andriewsky, p.255):

'The resolution of the debate concerning the national character of Russia depends almost entirely on the position that the thirty-million-strong Ukrainian people will assume. If they allow themselves to be Russified - Russia will go one way, if they refuse - it will have to go another.'

In 1907 Jabotinsky wanted to stand for a constituency in Volhynia, Western Ukraine, in the elections for the Second Duma. According to the account by his friend and biographer Joeph Schechtman, he had the support of Ukrainian leaders and after winning the first round of elections, he 'hoped to form an alliance with the Ukrainian peasant deputies against the Polish and Russian landlords in the second round. It immediately became apparent that this would be impossible, however, when all sixty-nine peasant deputies arrived at the provincial electoral college wearing Union of Russian People badges.' (Andriewsky, p.253, fn.15. The Union of Russian People were the anti-semitic monarchist party often referred to as the 'Black Hundreds').

According to his own account (Story of my life, loc 1954): 'In Volhynia, the Black Hundreds won, as well as in the other western districts, so that the Jewish Pale of Settlement contributed to a mighty contingent of inveterate Jew-haters to the Second Duma.'

This illustrates the dilemma of Ukrainian nationalism in the period - the lack of contact there was between the Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia and the peasantry. As we have seen, a connection had been established in Austrian Galicia, initially by means of the Greek Catholic clergy and the 'Prosvita' organisation of reading clubs established as an alternative to the - largely Jewish run - taverns. In Russian Ukraine, the restrictions on the use of the Ukrainian language - the Valuev Circular of 1863 and the Ems Decree of 1876 - were deliberately conceived to prevent such a development taking place, to prevent the intelligentsia from communicating with the peasantry in their own language. Nor was it really in the mentality of the Orthodox Church to think of anything so practical as a network of reading clubs, whether in the Ukrainian peasant language or as a means of promoting Russian. The peasantry was left to its own devices in a raw confrontation with largely foreign (Polish) landlords and largely foreign (Jewish) middlemen.

In the wake of the 1905 revolution, censorship and the restrictions on the language were eased but the advance of the language was still slow. A number of Ukrainian papers were closed down almost immediately:

'As early as 27 January 1907, the tsarist authorities issued a secret circular banning the distribution of Ukrainian-language periodicals among their subscribers by seizing the latest issues at provincial post offices, harassing the subscribers, firing them from government jobs, and blacklisting them. From 1910 onward, the local priests were required to forbid their parishioners to subscribe to the "bad press" or even read Ukrainian newspapers. In 1911, the governor of Kyiv province banned the circulation of Ukrainian periodicals among members of the peasant cooperatives because they were purportedly written in a "newly created, so-called Ukrainian language." The number of Ukrainian intellectuals interested in the new periodicals appears to have been strikingly small - one could identify almost all the Ukrainian leaders by name. There were no journalists of high caliber due to the lack of professional education. Furthermore, the printing houses did not have enough typesetters capable of working with Ukrainian texts.' (7)

(7) Andrii Danylenko: 'The "Doubling of Hallelujah" for the "Bastard Tongue": The Ukrainian Language Question in Russian Ukraine, 1905-1916', Harvard Ukrainian Studies , 2017-2018, Vol. 35, No. 1/4, p.65

The problem was compounded by the lack of an agreed standard Ukrainian literary language and the question to what extent use could be made of the - Polish inflected - standard language that had developed in Galicia.

Jabotinsky had been in Vienna in 1907-8, studying the multinational organisation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was eventually to earn a law degree in 1912 for a thesis - State and nation - on the legal aspects of national autonomy. It was the example of Galicia that he took as definitive proof that the Ukrainians were a nation (Andriewsky, pp.252-3):

'"The independent development of Ukrainian culture is an indisputable fact - and an official one only two steps from here, in Galicia," he subsequently argued in the Odessa press. "Literature, the theatre, and the press aside, instruction in elementary schools and several gymnasiums there is conducted in this language despite all the restrictions and limitations imposed by the Polish nobility who rule the land. At Lviv University, several courses are taught in this language, and now the question of establishing a special Ruthenian university is being discussed. Finally, the courts and the bureaucracy are obliged to conduct hearings in this language in Eastern Galicia." The implications of this for Russia, as far as Jabotinsky was concerned, were clear. "Russia cannot impede all of this, and therefore the question of whether Ukrainian language 'can' or 'should' create a separate culture is superfluous."'