93 years ago, on May 30, 1926, Paris bade farewell to Symon Petliura on its knees. Five days after his death, Chief Otaman and the President of the Ukrainian National Republic was buried at the Paris Montparnasse Cemetery. A judicial investigation into his killer was one of the highest profile criminal processes at the beginning of the XX century.
When in Paris on Tuesday, May 25, 1926, on Rue Racine a murder took place the assassin didn’t escape to the surprise of the scared passers-by, he stood still, shouting nonsense. On the asphalt, a handsome man in a white plaid shirt was dying in the pool of his own blood. Scared passers-by were fussing around him. They immediately started shouting, so in a few minutes a policeman would run here – he was only a few blocks from here when seven shots were fired. The injured will be taken to the Charité Hospital that is some thousand meters away from the place of the bloody events. However, the victim will die from the stomach and chest wounds, he will never regain consciousness. The news will quickly spread all over Paris. Evening newspapers will be filled with headlines that around 14.10 – 14.15 near Saint-Michel Boulevard, Ukrainian otaman and the President of the Ukrainian National Republic Symon Petliura was assassinated on his way out of the Chez Chartier restaurant, his family and the whole Ukrainian community are in mourning.
The assassin Sholom Schwartzbard was captured at the murder scene – he wasn’t even going to flee. In one of his pockets was found a photo of Petliura, taken from an encyclopedic dictionary, which was found later in his apartment. According to Schwartzbard, he met Petliura on the street one day, after it, he was watching Petliura for several months, found out where he lives and where he goes. He decided to kill him because several months ago he’d heard on the street a conversation between two Russian officers about the pogroms in Ukraine. So, he decided that Petliura was guilty. Since then, he dreamed of vengeance. From the first day of his detention, he asked to contact a lawyer, Henri Torres, despite his almost celebrity status, he gladly contacted Schwartzbard, even though the case seemed to be already lost. No wonder, after all, the murder happened in broad daylight, on the street with a bunch of witnesses, the killer was obvious. The reason for Torres to take part in this trial is still a mystery. Whether it was scandalous reputation, in pursuit of which the lawyer often agreed to defend anarchists, since he was a communist himself, or it was his ties with the embassy of Soviet Russia in France, where he was an informal legal counsel. Later, during an investigation that will last for more than a year and a half, Torres even goes to Russia, where he receives all-round assistance from the party leadership and all the documents of bloody revolutionary years he needs. Today, after partial unsealing of NKVD files, we can say that it was the party that paid for the services of one of France’s most famous lawyers, as well as it sent orders on where to guide the discussion.
The police described Solomon as follows: The Schwartzbard was short – 1.63 meters, blond, with a mustache, he had a small straight nose, small deep-set eyes on a dry face with flaring cheekbones, thin build. According to the police investigation, he was known as a quiet person not connected to any criminal case. However, during court hearings, there were facts about his problems with the law in Austria.
There is evidence that before his arrival in France, he had already been convicted in Vienna when he was 22 years old, in 1908 – 1909. He spent four months in jail for burglary. Then he goes to France to his brother Samuel, where he has been living lately. During the First World War, he joins the Foreign Legion of the French Army. During the service he was wounded, so he received an award. In 1917 he returned to Russia and served in the Red Guard, which consisted of voluntary paramilitary units that were armed directly by Russia. Subsequently, the Red Guard was disbanded in the spring of 1918, but the personnel of these formations joined the regular Red Army. Schwartzbard served aboard the “Melbourne” for some time. The captain noted that Schwartzbard was engaged in dubious agitation there. Unfortunately, during the hearings, the information on Schwartzbard’s involvement in anarchist formations in 1917-1918, provided by a man who had professional military experience in the French Legion wasn’t taken into account. Well, the killer himself answering the question whether he was an anarchist answered affirmatively and admitted that he was serving in the Red Guard. The hearings also ignore the question of the very organization of the murder.
Petliura was 47 at the time of the assassination. He was of average height – 1.71 meters, had blond hair and attractive appearance. He was an energetic man. He is described as a good, wise leader that made just decisions. Hardly one could accuse him of dictatorship or usurpation of power. The military and ministers of his government emphasize his courage and the ability to think logically. Petliura was patriot, publicist, and writer, he was always on the side of the offended and protected the minorities. The Ukrainian military, defending the assassinated, asserted that the pogroms took place spontaneously in spite of hundreds of decrees by the chief otaman, who forbade any arbitrariness. Even his rivals recognized Petliura as just and kind person worthy of respect. The charismatic, powerful figure of Petliura attracted the hearts of ordinary soldiers – after seeing him, hearing his speeches, they were loyal supporters of the otaman forever. Despite all the accusations of anti-Semitism, Petliura personally favored the Jews, entrusted them with positions in the ministries, including the military ones in the ranks of his army. It should be noted that during the reign of Petliura, the world’s only Ministry of Jewish Affairs, headed by Moses Zilberfarb, was taking care of the Jewish population. To help Jewish families affected by pogroms, the government paid 20 million hryvnias in compensation.
Another famous lawyer Cesare Campinchi became the defender of Petliura’s family. However, he will appear in the case only two months prior to the hearing. It was him, who during the hearing pointed out that the murdered wasn’t a killer anti-Semite, but the leader of the Ukrainian state.
The courtroom discussed the method of murder. Schwartzbard assured that he followed Petliura to the restaurant, ran to the post office to send his wife a telegram, then returned and waited until the victim came out. Having seen Petliura on the street, he called him by name, after that he turned and exclaimed, “Defend, bastard!” Then shot five times in the victim. In fact, there were seven shots, five of which hit the target. The medical examiner noted that all five shots were made in close contact with the victim that was falling or lying since the body had traces of burns. The details of the telegram story are also very strange. It was sent to the wife of Schwartzbard, who lived with him in Paris. Moreover, it was possible to find out that it was sent at 14.35, the date and time indicated on the stamp from the post office at the Hôtel de Ville that is almost one and a half kilometers away. Walking in an average pace you could reach the restaurant in 20 minutes, at the same time, there was another post office behind the corner, just three minutes walk distance. Furthermore, at this time, it is obvious that the crime scene was already a police officer who arrested the murderer. In a telegram, Schwartzbard explained to his wife the motives of such a bloody act. It was the judge who drew attention to the misunderstanding with the place of dispatch and admitted that even if you accept the mistake of the postal worker as a version, it was still illogical to run so far, since at that time the victim could have finished a lunch and leave the restaurant, so the question of the contradictions in the time and place of dispatch remains open. The court was satisfied with Schwartzbard’s explanation that the postman gave a wrong time of sending. These contradictions cast a shadow over the very crime and allow assuming that Schwartzbard had at least one accomplice.
The courtroomThe case was under in the spotlight and covered by the world press – it was high-profile and emblematic. The trial had lasted for only eight days, although the case itself contained more than 3,000 pages, a phenomenal number of witnesses were summoned – as many as 184 people. Almost bypassing all the facts, lawyer Torres managed to put an incredible emotional tension, which resonated in the society. He was talking about pogroms, provoking the society with talks about the atrocities committed by Ukrainians. Only at the court Schwartzbard for the first time said that allegedly 15 members of his family were killed during the pogroms. The information remained unproven by historians because documentary evidence of this fact could not be found. This way, speaking about Ukrainian nationalism, instead of considering the facts of the assassination itself, the trial turns into an absurd act. It almost becomes the trial against Ukraine in front of entire Europe, thanks to the wide coverage of the process on the front pages of the newspapers.
Generals and friends of Petliura during the hearings repeatedly stated that Schwartzbard was a Bolshevik and agent of the Kremlin, unfortunately, they failed to provide evidence. Some Volodin was suspected of complicity, however, he fleed from Paris, as soon as he found out that police wants to talk to him. From then on his fate is unknown. Only in 1954, a former NKVD agent Peter Deriabin spoke out from the rostrum of the US Congress and said that Schwartzbard was a Soviet agent and killed Petliura at the request of Moscow.
Despite all the facts of the case, lawyer Torres with his emotional speeches and theatrical behavior managed to convince the jury, who at that time made a decision without the participation of judges. It was much easier to surprise and convince ordinary citizens that Schwartzbard was a vigilante, who took his revenge than to make professional judges believe in it. Although details of the assassination indicate cold math, the investigators noted the pleasure with which the killer described details on the day of the murder.
The verdict was also influenced by the pressure from the pro-communist media on society. They purposely distorted the image of Symon Petliura and the Ukrainians as a whole, portraying them as bloodthirsty monsters, making exceptionally hyperbolic and emotional statements.
Whatever it was, it took the jury only eight minutes to give verdict on Schwartzbard’s innocence. It was also taken into account that the killer was entitled to one amnesty since he was a former legionnaire. In the modern world, such a sentence would be unacceptable, for any crime involves punishment. The absurdity was also in the fact that, according to the verdict, Petliura’s widows, Olha Petliura had to pay a fine of 1 franc for the work of the communal services that had washed away the blood of her husband from the asphalt.
The funeral of Chief otaman took place on May 30, 1926. It was attended by thousands of people and friends, spokesmen for different diplomatic missions. “During the last prayer everyone who were present both in the church and on the street, devoutly kneeled,” wrote the Ukrainian weekly newspaper Tryzub.
By Inna Vlasiuk
Photos by Inna Vlasiuk and from the library named after Symon Petliura
I express my sincere gratitude for the help in writing the article to the Ukrainian library named after Symon Petliura in Paris and personally to the director and historian, Ms. Yaroslava Yosypyshyn.
I also express my sincere gratitude for the study of the case materials and the study of the original documents of the investigation to the secretary general of the Association of Ukrainian Students in France, the student of the Panthéon Assas University, member of the Canada-Ukraine 2018 Parliamentary Program (CUPP) Andrii Sonsiadyk.