Pytka on Astashkevich, 'Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917 to 1921'

Irina Astashkevich
Meghann Pytka

Irina Astashkevich. Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917 to 1921. Jews of Russia & Eastern Europe and Their Legacy Series. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018. 170 pp. $89.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61811-616-1; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61811-999-5.

Reviewed by Meghann Pytka (Northwestern University) Published on H-Poland (January, 2020) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

Genocidal Violence/Gendered Violence: Pogroms and the Ukrainian War of Independence, 1917-21

Whether in the midst of the Khmelnytsky Uprising or during the Holocaust, sexual violence has long attended interethnic violence in the territory that we now call Ukraine. As Irina Astashkevich’s new book shows, this violence also marked the ill-fated Ukrainian War of Independence, referred to by Astashkevich as the Ukrainian Civil War. The aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution was particularly violent in Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists, Bolsheviks, tsarist sympathizers, Central forces, and the Polish Second Republic all fought for mastery of that land. Audience and victim to this bellicosity were the Jews. The region sustained well over one thousand incidents of anti-Jewish violence during the war; and tens of thousands of Jewish civilians died. With Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917 to 1921, Astashkevich offers a new line of inquiry to already extant scholarship on the history of antisemitism during the Ukrainian War of Independence. By reading survivors’ accounts alongside theories of genocidal rape, Astashkevich opens a new, gendered chapter in the study of anti-Jewish violence. She makes a case that the pogroms of the Ukrainian War of Independence should be treated as part of an emerging global pattern: gendered violence as a tool of twentieth-century genocide. Consequently, Astashkevich is interested in the ways the perpetrators deployed pogrom scripts and sexual spectacle to bring about the “social death” of Ukraine’s Jewish community. She also is invested in meaning-making and the ways survivors came to understand the violence.  

Astashkevich’s main arguments are often multivalent and implicit. The pogroms associated with the Ukrainian War of Independence deserve scholarly attention in their own right. They should be subsumed neither by the 1905 pogroms nor the Holocaust. They are an inflection point, wherein, according to Astashkevich, rape became an essential component of anti-Jewish, genocidal violence in the twentieth century. The regional chaos prompted by the Ukrainian War of Independence led to a need for order among the Gentile population. Jewish “otherness” provided one such organizing principle. For the ragtag Ukrainian National Army, whose loyalties, personnel, and objectives continuously changed, pogroms served to foster a sense of social cohesion and structure, with Jews as the rightful losers. Yet as Astashkevich’s study shows, pogrom violence was not enough to inspire group solidarity. Whether it be the Ukrainian National Army, the Whites, or the Cossacks, more extreme performances of violence were required—performances that did more than shore up ethnic hierarchies. “Carnivalesque” displays that bolstered retrograde sexual hierarchies also became necessary. Therefore, in the “pogrom universe” into which Ukraine caved, “mass rape became the most characteristic trait of the pogroms in 1919” (pp. 36-37).

Amid the movement of armed men, the mass rape of Jewish women was both intentionally cruel and utterly modern. The sexual violence considered by Astashkevich was rarely a discrete horror, both in terms of secrecy and scale. Mass rape was brutal and public. Its spectacle forged a sense of solidarity and mastery among its perpetrators and a feeling of debasement among its targets. Mass rape, Astashkevich explains, violated the bodies of its victims, as well as their interiority. It humiliated onlookers as well as survivors, leaving community trauma in its wake. Given the public spectacle of the mass rape associated with the pogroms, Astashkevich argues that sexualized, genocidal violence worked in a Foucauldian manner as a “regulatory force” (p. 52). Modern eyes publicly gazed upon the brutalized bodies of their loved ones and understood the messages of domination and abjectness being transmitted. In such a way, the Jews of Ukraine felt the pangs of “social death,” long before corporal death visited them in the ensuing decades.

While mass rape may have been a fortifying experience for its perpetrators, Foucauldian power dynamics were not often at the forefront of their minds. Many armed men, whether Ukrainian nationalists or tsarist sympathizers or Cossacks, attacked Jewish communities for sport. And each successive attack tended to ratchet the violence. In this turmoil, Astashkevich identifies two waves of pogroms. The initial wave of violence, which took place in the first half of 1919, was largely conducted by the Ukrainian National Army and area bandits, in other words, by the “locals.” The next wave came later that year, and was chiefly perpetrated by the White Army and Cossacks, that is, by non-natives of Ukraine. While the outcomes of these attacks were essentially the same for their Jewish victims, the meanings attached to these sprees varied for the perpetrators. Sportsmanlike comradery, morale building, and blame shifting functioned as the major impetuses for the local assailants. Meanwhile, for the non-local pogromschiki, antisemitism, plunder, and sadistic entertainment were the articulated motives. Regardless of the reasons, Ukraine’s Jews cyclically endured waves of violence that often damaged the community’s life “beyond repair” (p. 76).

In the aftermath of the pogroms, Ukraine’s Jews were left to deal with the consequences. In the early days, physical traumas were the most pressing. Wounds, pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections required attention. But, as these somatic emergencies resolved, psychic pain took hold. Astashkevich argues that Jewish survivors made sense of the mass rape in highly gendered ways. Shame and silence, Astashkevich asserts, were the main tacks taken by survivors. Yet the reasons for these feelings of indignity were rooted in traditionalist, gendered logic. “Traditional gender codes,” Astashkevich contends, place value on “untainted female bod[ies]” and masculine protection (pp. 80-81). Mass rape upends this social order. According to this logic, women’s raped bodies are rendered dirty, and the men who had failed to protect them become emasculated. The whole community is shamed. This gendered understanding of mass rape, Astashkevich argues, transformed itself into a “gendered narrative” of rape that asserted itself after the war. Nevertheless, Astashkevich maintains, silence and dissemblance were the primary tools for dealing with the trauma. These guarded rape narratives became further submerged as the Ukrainian Jewish communities disintegrated following the implementation of Soviet power. Provincial Jews moved to Kiev or abroad, and as they traveled physically and temporally, the mass rape of the pogroms became further hidden, if not exactly forgotten.

Astashkevich’s study opens new and urgent lines of thinking in the historiography of interethnic violence in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. By grappling with the ways sexual violence co-constituted antisemitic violence during the Ukrainian War of Independence, Astashkevich gestures toward the ways mass rape and sexual violence have been foundational to the trauma of the region and to the generational trauma of Ukraine’s far-flung Jews. Her book is one of the most theoretically inflected pieces of feminist scholarship to deal with the Ukrainian War of Independence. Because of that, Astashkevich helps us to understand the modernizing forces that worked to bring mass rape into relationship with genocidal violence. This stimulating monograph the deserves attention of anyone interested in Jewish history, antisemitism, sexual violence, Ukrainian history, gender history, and the history of atrocity.

Citation: Meghann Pytka. Review of Astashkevich, Irina, Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917 to 1921. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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