Kiev, Kiev Gubernia, Ukraine: A Brief History

Kiev Gubernia, Ukraine

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A Brief History

pre-twentieth century

The prevailing view is that Kiev was founded in the ninth century, though there are some who believe that Kiev was already a commercial center in the fifth century (it is more likely that it was a small settlement), lying along the trade route between Europe and Central Asia. There was already a Jewish community, Khazars and Byzantine Jews among them, in Kiev during the ninth century.

Kiev was a vassal state of the Khazars, paying tribute until the Vikings took the city in the ninth century. It was under Viking control that Kiev became the capital of the Rus', which was the first East Slavic state. The Mongol invasion in 1240 resulted in the destruction of Kiev, from which it did not attain its previous power for centuries. Kiev only regained its influence as a result of the nineteenth century industrial revolution.

Throughout the fourteenth century there was a series of wars that led to Kiev changing hands multiple times. A Lithuanian army defeated a Slavic force in the 1320's and gained control of Kiev. However, the Tatars laid claim to the city and the Lithuanian prince who ruled Kiev ended up paying tribute to the Golden Horde (the Mongols). The 1362 Battle of Blue Waters returned Kiev to the Lithuanians.

It wasn't until 1482 that the city was again assaulted –sacked and burned– by the Crimean Tatars. The year 1569 saw Kiev falling under the authority of the Kingdom of Poland, half of the Polish-Lithuanian Commmonwealth. Russian soldiers ruled Kiev beginning in 1654; the city became part of Tsarist Russia in 1667 and had some degree of self-rule. The military and Russian Orthodox Church dominated city life throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Throughout the centuries, Jews were periodically expelled from and readmitted to Kiev. In the fifteenth century the Grand Duchy expelled Jews from the city but they were soon allowed back in. In the early seventeenth century, Christian merchants, seeing an opportunity to rid themselves of competition, convinced the authorities to expel the Jews from Kiev; the expulsion lasted for almost two-hundred years.

When Tsarist Russia annexed the Ukraine, the Russians found themselves saddled with a large population of Jews; the Tsar restricted them to the Pale of Settlement. Kiev was inside the Pale and Jews were initially allowed to live in the city. In 1795, the Jewish community consisted of a mere one-hundred souls; less than a decade later the population grew seven-fold. Following the usual pattern, in 1827 Christian merchants succeeded in having the Jews expelled from Kiev. And, again, a quarter century later, on the ascension of Alexander II, certain Jews were allowed back into Kiev.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Kiev was graced with 32,000 Jews – 13% of the Kievan population. Trade and crafts were how they contributed to the economic life of the city. Jews, driven by ambition, were among the wealthiest industrialists and merchants of the city, played a central role in municipal and Jewish life,and were significant philanthropists. A Jewish middle class– lawyers, doctors, and engineers– developed as a result of Jews being permitted to attend university. It appeared that Russia was leaving the Middle Ages behind.

blood libel

On 12 March 1911 a young Ukrainian boy, Andrei Yushchinsky, was on his way to school, but he never arrived. His mutilated body was found eight days later near the Zaitsev brick factory. Testimony developed that a Jew had kidnapped Andrei. Menahem Mendel Beilis was a supervisor at the Zaitsev brick factory and he was arrested for the crime in July 1911.

Beiles spent two years in jail waiting for the trial to begin. During this time, the Russian Press stirred up anti-semitism, accusing Jews of blood libel and ritual murder.

There were enlightened Russians, e.g., Maxim Gorky, who attacked the false accusations being made against Jews. Nikolay Krasovsky, a Kiev police investigator, conducted the investigation of the crime. Despite pressure from those who wanted to ensure Beilis was found guilty, Kasovsky proved that the real killers were professional criminals who knew Andrei.

However, the trial began on 25 September 1913 and lasted a month. There were surprises throughout the trial, which was reminiscent of a "Perry Mason" episode.The prosecution produced witnesses who claimed that this was a ritual murder. Professor Sikorsky claimed that the thirteen wounds on the body was consistent with the importance of the number thirteen in "Jewish ritual." Except that the body had fourteen wounds! A Catholic Priest, who claimed to be an expert on Judaic rituals, and who was known to be anti-semitic, was ignorant of simple Talmudic concepts. Professor Glagolev, a philosopher and an Orthodox Christian, at Kiev Theological Seminary, testified that the Law of Moses forbade the spilling of blood and forbade using blood in food. Beilis had an excellent alibi, that he was at work (ironically, on the sabbath) when the crime occurred; his alibi was confirmed by his Gentile co-workers. Despite the prosecutor making anti-semitic remarks in his closing address, the jury, consisting, in part, of the notorious Black Hundred and not including anyone from the intelligentsia, found Beilis innocent. (See Beilis Trial.)

twentieth century

The twentieth century was such a nightmare, it deserves its own paragraph. World War I, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1919-1921 Civil War, pogroms, and the Polish-Soviet War were the openning acts of this dark and barbaric century. The Ukrainians attempted to become independent of the Russians, with Kiev as their capital; it did not work out. The Ukraine became one of the Soviet Socialist Republics, with Kiev as its capital. Stalin's dispute with the kulaks over collectivation resulted in the Great Famine of the early 1930's. The famine was followed by the Stalinist Purges of the late 1930's and the resulting destruction of the intellectual elite.

During the civil war, large numbers of Jews fled to Kiev in a futile attempt to escape the chaos and violence of the war and the pogroms that the war gave birth to. Futile, because Kiev experienced some of the worst pogroms of the civil war. Once the Soviets consolidated their power, the Soviets began to attack Judaism and Zionism; synagogues could no longer be used for religious purposes, Judaism itself was actually put on trial, as were Zionists. Yiddish and Jewish culture, however, were encouraged, probably because Jews had supported the revolution.

Kiev became a center of Jewish culture where a Jewish theater was located. Many Yiddish books, newspapers, and journals were printed in> Kiev. Well-known Yiddish writers were Kievan: Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkes Kahanovitsh), Perets Markish, and Dovid Hofshteyn (see Jewish Kiev). This period of cultural enrichment was very short. Many Jewish writers and intellectuals were murdered in the Stalinist Purges. Jewish cultural life was severly constrained; it would soon be decimated.

Hitler double-crossed Stalin when he invaded Russia in June 1941. By mid- September, the Nazis had overrun much of the Ukraine and captured Kiev. More than one-half million Soviet troops were killed or captured during the battle for Kiev; few prisoners survived the war. The damage to the city was considerable. Soviet NKVD officers blew up buildings that were occupied by German troops. The Nazis took revenge on Kievan Jews at Babi Yar Ravine, where more than 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children were brutally murdered in two days; it was the eve of Yom Kippur.


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