Petliura was born in Poltava. He was co-founder (1905) of the Ukrainian Labor Party and editor (1905-1909) of Slovo (Word) and Ukrainskaya Zhyzn (Ukrainian Life). During World War I Petlyura served in the Tsarist Russian army. After the 1917 February Revolution he was a member of the Central Rada parliament) which in June of 1917 proclaimed Ukraine an autonomous (a de factorepublic. In July he became minister of military affairs. Soon afterward, the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) occupied Ukraine and installed a puppet government, thereby ending the brief rule of the Autonomous Council.
In November of 1918, after the start of withdrawal of German and Austrian-Hungarian occupation forces from Ukraine, Petlyura became one of the five members of the new government, the Directorate of the Rada, and again within it took up the post of Holovnyi ataman (chief war leader). In January1919, following the start of the war between the Soviet Russia and Ukraine, he became the leading figure within the Directorate. In the Russian Civil War, he fought against Bolsheviks, Denikin, the Germans, Ukrainians under Pavlo Skoropadsky, and the Poles. In late 1918 Ukraine was occupied by White Russian forces, but in autumn 1919 most of the Whites were defeated by the Soviets, who became the dominant force in Ukraine.
At the end of 1919, Petliura withdrew to Poland, which recognized him as the legal government of Ukraine. In March 1920, as head of the Ukrainian People's Republic, he signed an alliance in Lublin with the Polish government, agreeing to a border on the River Zbruch and recognizing Poland's right to Lviv and Galicia in exchange for Polish help in overthrowing the communist regime. In 1920, Polish forces, reinforced by Petliura's remaining troops (some 2 divisions), attacked Kyiv in a turning point of the Polish-Bolshevik war (1919-1921). Following temporary successes, Piłsudski's and Petliura's forces were pushed back to the Vistula River and the Polish capital, Warsaw. The Polish Army managed to defeat the Soviet Russians, but were unable to secure independence for Ukraine, which after the Peace of Riga was divided between Poland and Russia, the latter taking the lion's share. Petliura directed the Ukrainian government-in-exile from Tarnów and, later, Warsaw.
In 1923, with the Soviet Union increasingly pressuring the Polish government to hand over Petliura, he fled first to Budapest, then Vienna and Geneva, and eventually settled in Paris in late 1924.
During the rule of Petliura, a series of mass were perpetrated against the Jews of Ukraine. Estimates of the number of civilian Jews murdered range from 35,000 to 100,000; up to 40% of these victims may have been killed by forces loyal to Petliura (others being killed by independent warlords, Denikin's White forces, and Bolsheviks). At the time, Ukraine was a major Jewish population centre, and during the Russian Civil War, an estimated 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were killed in the atrocities throughout the former Russian Empire; the number of Jewish orphans exceeded 300,000.
Some historians have claimed that Petliura did nothing to stop the pogroms, but some have claimed that he himself was not an anti-Semite and he tried to stop them by introducing capital punishment for the crime of pogromming. The controversy over Petliura's role has continued to this day.
On May 25, 1926, while window shopping along a Paris boulevard, he was approached by a man who asked in Ukrainian, "Are you Mr. Petliura?" When he responded in the affirmative, the man, a Ukrainian-born Jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard, shouted (according to his later deposition) "Defend yourself, you bandit!" Petliura raised his cane and Schwartzbard pulled out a gun, shooting him three times, while exclaiming "This, for the pogroms; this for the massacres, this for the victims." When police rushed to him to make their arrest, he reportedly calmly handed over his weapon, saying, "You can arrest me, I've killed a murderer."
Schwartzbald's parents were among fifteen members of his family murdered in the pogroms. The core of his defence was—as presented by noted barrister Henri Torrès—that he was avenging the deaths of victims of the pogroms. This premise found favour with the French jury, who acquitted him.
Petliura is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, France.