Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Stories of Khmelnytsky

A fascinating new book just published by Stanford University Press tackles the controversial legacy of a man in the shadows of history—Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century.

Stories of Khmelnytsky, sponsored in part by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, features provocative essays by distinguished scholars from throughout North America, Europe, and Israel.

Edited and introduced by Amelia Glaser, associate professor of Russian and comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, the book’s twelve engaging chapters explore the highly contested memory of the man.

In brief, Khmelnytsky led a successful revolt against Polish rule in 1648, a bloody revolt that included the destruction of Jewish communities. The revolt was a major trauma in the collective memory of the Jewish people. A trauma recounted in centuries of highly evocative Jewish writings.

The revolt established Ukrainian independence and the Cossacks as key players in the geopolitics of the day. And for this Khmelnytsky was hailed as a national hero.

However, for many Ukrainians Khmelnytsky’s legacy is tarnished by his subsequent treaty with Moscow, which ultimately condemned Ukraine to centuries of Russian rule.

The book carefully addresses, without attempting to resolve, the fundamental questions Khmelnytsky’s image provokes. How can drastically different mythologies surround this one figure?

What do the competing versions of memory and history around Khmelnytsky mean for our understanding of the past, present, and future of the nations of Eastern Europe?

Khmelnytsky, viewed as hero or villain, bolstered national solidarity not only among Ukrainians. His 1648 revolt offered the seeds of a founding myth for other nations.

The book offers a surprising account of the little known positive images of the Ukrainian Cossack struggle for independence among some early Jewish radical Zionists.

Israel Bartal, professor of Jewish History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, outlines how the Cossack warrior served as a model for the new Jewish pioneer building a new homeland in early 20th century Palestine.

Bartal traces how the frightening enemy of the Jews in 17th century Ukraine had been transformed by some Jewish writers into an ideal example of heroism, simple rural life, and unlimited national commitment.

Taras Koznarsky, associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto, takes up in his essay the additional multiple identities of Khmelnytsky.

Khmelnytsky was seen as a hero, adventurer, statesman, politician, vehicle of divine grace, focus of collective imagination, and central to Ukrainian historical memory.

And he also inspired some lavish costume drama films, films that reflected the national and political imperatives of their sponsors.

Amid the swirl of contradictory legends, perhaps the last word can be given to Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, professor emerita and former chair of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In her astute afterword in the book, Professor Kornblatt wisely notes that this volume on Khmelnytsky drives home the fact that history itself is not made up of facts, but of stories.

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!


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