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If you still believe Vladimir Putin’s propaganda that he’s trying to de-Nazify Ukraine, you should talk to Ukrainian Jews. They don’t buy a word of it.
After facing deadly pogroms during the tsarist era and the Bolshevik Revolution, mass murder during the Holocaust and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and repression under the Soviet regime, Ukrainian Jews say they’ve experienced a renaissance since the collapse of the USSR. Synagogues, Jewish schools and community organizations have popped up around the country. And perhaps most stunningly, Ukrainians overwhelmingly backed Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the 2019 election to do something Soviet Jews would have thought impossible: become a Jewish president.
“Putin’s claims of de-Nazifying Ukraine is the most ludicrous and craziest thing — the ‘Nazification’ of Ukraine was created by Russian propaganda,” said Yaakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine. “Nobody asked him to save us. When you claim you’re saving people who don’t want to be saved, that’s a dangerous thing.”
Indeed, many Ukrainian Jews have become a living embodiment of exactly the burgeoning Ukrainian nationhood that Putin is determined to deny.
Back in the USSR
In the Soviet Union, where atheism was government policy and religious practices outlawed, Judaism was considered an ethnicity and a nationality, rather than a religion. And Jews living in the USSR were discriminated against from the day they were born.
Every Soviet child’s birth certificate listed their parents’ ethnicity, differentiating between the people of the various Soviet Republics — Russians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and so on — and Jews.
Being labeled “Jewish” on your official documentation separated you from other Soviets socially, creating barriers between neighbors, classmates and colleagues. It restricted opportunities, with Jewish students prevented from studying at top universities and shunned by employers (official and unofficial quotas were in place to limit the number of Jews in various institutions and occupations). People with Jewish ethnicity were also restricted from traveling abroad.
“They would open and close our passports, and not allow us into places,” said Sasha, a 38-year-old Jewish woman who was born in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa before moving to Sydney in 1993 (she asked for her surname not to be used). “My mom’s university exam involved zero questions — the examiners opened her passport, closed it and said she failed.”
Through much of the 20th century, being Ukrainian and being Jewish were mutually exclusive.
At the age of 16, all Soviets were issued domestic passports; a notorious “Pyatyy punkt,” or “fifth line,” listed their nationality or ethnicity. Those with two Jewish parents had no choice, and were Jewish by default. But anyone with parents of two different ethnicities — Ukrainian and Jewish, for instance — were forced to pick one to list on their “Pyatyy punkt.”
Given the choice, those who were pragmatic about their education and career prospects and hoped to avoid some of the institutionalized anti-Semitism, opted to be labeled Ukrainian rather than Jewish. This might have saved them from some of the state-based discrimination, but in the Soviet Union, once a Jew, always a Jew.
This organized, state-sponsored discrimination and separation had a lasting impact on the psyche of Jews in the ex-Soviet republics: a Jewish person may have been born in Ukraine, but no one, least of all themselves, would call them Ukrainian.
“Jews were second-class citizens in the Soviet Union,” said Mihail Miller, a 72-year-old former academic who is now a government adviser in the west Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. (Miller asked for a pseudonym as he was not authorized to speak to the media.)
“In Soviet times, we Jews were Soviets, but we were different,” Miller said. “There was a state policy of anti-Semitism — I felt it personally, and often.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Ukraine’s Jews fled to Israel, the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia. Many of us would be called “Ukrainian” immigrants in our adopted homelands, though we were never Ukrainian in Ukraine.
Those of us who left still carry the wounds of Soviet-era anti-Semitism. We remember our first day of school, when the teacher read the roll and sneered at our Jewish surnames. We recall getting straight As, but being mysteriously rejected from university and denied jobs. We still dwell on the insults thrown our way, the punches and bruises, the exclusion.
My grandmother Freyda, a doctor, was forced to work for free at the furthest hospital in town for years before getting a paying job, because Jewish physicians were being purged in Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot.” My grandpa Fima, a senior lieutenant shot in the head fighting Nazis during World War II, was ejected from hospital before he had recovered because he punched a major for claiming Jews were avoiding the frontlines. His wife Bronya, pregnant with her second child, was conspiratorially advised to leave Fima, the “zhyd” — a slur for Jews that was still being thrown my way in my kindergarten playground in the late 80s and early 90s — because she could pass for a Ukrainian and he looked obviously Jewish.
But those Jews who stayed behind after Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 say their lives today would be alien to those who left three decades ago, like my family did.
“In Ukraine now, it’s completely different — you wouldn’t recognize it,” said Miller, from Chernivtsi, who stayed in Ukraine when most of his Jewish friends and family members left because his wife was too sick to immigrate. “There’s still anti-Semitism on an individual level — maybe someone might call me a zhyd,” he admitted. “But no one will say, ‘I won’t give you a job because you’re a zhyd.”
While Ukrainian national identity has been evolving since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that process accelerated after the Maidan Uprising of 2013-2014, when Ukrainians forced President Viktor Yanukovych out of office after he refused to sign the EU association agreement designed to move the country toward the EU and away from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
In response to Ukrainians’ popular uprising, Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“There was a paradigm shift in 2014,” Rabbi Bleich said. “The identity of Ukrainian Jews definitely changed at that time, thanks to Putin. He completely misread Ukrainians. I think it will be his undoing — he doesn’t understand what Ukrainians are all about.”
Prior to 2014, Bleich said, almost all Ukrainian Jews spoke Russian rather than Ukrainian as their primary language, in part because being Russian was considered superior to being Ukrainian during the Soviet period. After Maidan, many switched to speaking Ukrainian on principle.
“Jews never spoke Ukrainian. They knew it, but it was never their regular language of communication until 2014,” Bleich said. “In the Soviet mindset and because of brainwashing by Soviet propaganda, everyone wanted to be Russian. But in 2014 was the point when we wanted to identify as Ukrainian Jews, not as Russian Jews. There’s a new generation now, and all Ukrainians want to be Ukrainian. It took generational change for Ukrainian Jews to see themselves in a different light.”
Bleich is U.S.-born but has lived in Ukraine for over three decades. “In 2014 after Putin invaded, the first thing I wanted to do was get a Ukrainian passport … for the statement of it,” he said. “Ukraine is a symbol of what can be done in a former Soviet country that’s fighting for Western ideals and freedoms.”
With a birth certificate and passport that listed my nationality as “Jewish,” and carrying the memories of the pervasive “otherness” I experienced during my Soviet childhood, I too never felt Ukrainian, despite being the third generation of my family to be born in the country — until 2014.
I mentioned my own transformation to Julia Hrytsku-Andriesh, a 36-year-old of Romanian nationality who was born and raised in Chernivtsi, where she currently works in the Ukrainian resistance.
“Everyone has had this conversion,” Hrytsku-Andriesh told me. “Before 2014 I would say I’m Romanian. But everyone is Ukrainian now … Jewish, Romanian, whatever you are, you are Ukrainian.” She added: “Yesterday in our office we ate salami with matzah,” referring to the unleavened bread eaten by Jews on passover. “Everyone is together.”
Servant of the people
Perhaps the best exhibit of Ukraine’s turnaround since its Soviet-era anti-Semitism — and the clearest repudiation of Putin’s claim to be de-Nazifying Ukraine — is Zelenskyy’s landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election, when he garnered over 73 percent of the vote in a runoff against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
A Russian-speaking Jew whose grandfather fought the Nazis and several members of whose family perished in the Holocaust, Zelenskyy was an out-of-left-field presidential candidate. Aged just 41 and with zero political experience, he made no public speeches, held no rallies, gave no press conferences. He ran without the backing of any party, campaigning as a disrupter promising to end politics as usual.
Zelenskyy was born in Kryvyi Rih, a city in Ukraine’s iron-ore mining region, and graduated from the Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree. While at university, he joined a comedy troupe and began working as a satirist and actor, appearing in sketch shows, on television and in films, before winning Ukraine’s version of “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006, becoming the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian release of the films, and making fun of his on-screen ubiquitousness.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Zelenskyy’s political success in Ukraine, however, is the fact his Jewish background wasn’t weaponized. Opponents went after his links with controversial (and U.S. sanctioned) oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and honed in on allegations that his production company earned money from Russia via a Cypriot company, contradicting his assertions that he had closed his business ventures in Russia.
And yet, despite what was a dirty campaign, Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage barely rated a mention.
“You have to understand that Ukraine has European values now,” said Tatiana Abovich, a 34-year-old director of the Hillel Jewish student organization in Kyiv. “We have a different approach to who is in the driver’s seat. If someone does their job well, no one cares what his roots are … nowhere in the media, no one in civil society, talked about Zelenskyy being Jewish, or his aides being Jewish.”
Hrytsku-Andriesh agreed: “Our president is Jewish, and we don’t care. We love him so much. And then people say we’re Nazis — Nazis, and our president is Jewish?”
Prior to Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine in February this year, in which he sought to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government, Zelenskyy’s approval ratings had plummeted. Ukrainians, who had hoped for serious change, had grown tired waiting for it. In December 2021, only 31 percent approved of Zelenskyy’s performance, with 24 percent saying they would vote for him if an election took place in the near future.
The irony: If Putin had just waited a couple of years, Ukrainians may have given Zelenskyy the boot themselves in the 2024 presidential election.
But over two months of war, Zelenskyy has proven himself an unparalleled wartime leader.
Despite heavy civilian casualties, the merciless bombardment of their cities and the death, rape and destruction wreaked by Russian forces, Ukrainians, following the example set by the president, are refusing to give up in the face of aggression from their much larger neighbor.
“I didn’t vote for Zelenskyy in 2019. I didn’t think that was the right course for Ukraine,” said Abovich. “I personally, not as a Jew, but as a person, didn’t think he was the right person for the job.” But despite the fact he was not her first choice three years ago, “today, it’s clear that Ukraine’s success is because Zelenskyy is president.”
By March 1, Zelenskyy’s approval rating had tripled to 93 percent.
Fascists or freedom fighters
In justifying his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has cited the need to de-Nazify the country, purging it of the Azov Regiment, an army unit linked to right-wing extremism, and “Banderovtsy,” the followers of Stepan Bandera, a nationalist leader who waged a violent campaign for Ukrainian independence in the 1930s and 1940s.
But while both the Azov forces and Bandera have been linked to fascism and anti-Semitic ideology, the reality is more nuanced than Putin’s propaganda machine makes it out to be.
The Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 when Kremlin-backed separatists began seizing territory across Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and Russia-annexed Crimea, started out as a volunteer paramilitary unit borne out of the extremist Patriot of Ukraine and neo-Nazi Social National Assembly groups. Both were known to be violently xenophobic.
After Russian separatist forces took Mariupol in 2014, the Azov fighters recaptured the strategic port city. In November of that year, the volunteer unit was officially integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard, changing its name to the Azov Regiment and undergoing a clean-up, with some of its more extremist members splintering from the group. In 2015, an Azov spokesman said around 10 to 20 percent of the group’s 900 members were Nazis.
According to current estimates, there are around 3,000 members of Azov, with the regiment among the forces currently holding on in besieged Mariupol, holed up in the Azovstal steel plant.
Do the Azovs bother Rabbi Bleich, particularly if they are hardened by the war and armed to the teeth?
“I don’t buy into his stuff,” Bleich said. “If it was not for the Russian propaganda, I would not even know the neo-Nazis in the Azov group exist, they are such a minority of a minority. We should keep our eyes open, of course, but having said that, when ultra-nationalist right-wing parties run for parliament in Ukraine, they can’t even get a seat.”
And, Bleich added, “if Putin is coming to save the Russian-speaking population from Nazis, why is he bombing Mariupol, which is Russian-speaking? Why is he bombing Kharkiv? He bombed Kharkiv building by building, house by house. People are getting killed anywhere they go. That’s not a war against an army or a government. That’s a war against the people of Ukraine.”
What about Bandera, the ultra-nationalist who fought and killed thousands of Poles, Soviets and Jews in his quest for an independent Ukraine? Bandera’s nationalists initially collaborated with Nazi Germany, before he ran afoul of Adolf Hitler by declaring an independent Ukrainian government in 1941, and was arrested, then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Some Ukrainians fighting Russian forces today have dubbed Molotov Cocktails “Bandera Smoothies,” and view him as a symbol of freedom and independence. It doesn’t hurt the narrative that after the Nazis released him from Sachsenhausen, Bandera was killed by Soviet agents, who poisoned him with cyanide in Munich in 1959 — becoming a victim of Russia’s notorious political poisoning program.
“Bandera is a question and problem — one man’s hero is another’s murderer,” said Bleich. “He and his people did participate in pogroms; the killings of Jews and Poles. However, I am 1 million percent sure that the Soviets propagandized against him and put much more to him than he was.” Those Ukrainians who revere him, “do not respect or idealize Bandera for killing Jews, but rather for having fought for independence for Ukraine,” the rabbi added.
Is Bleich concerned that once the Russian forces disappear, radicalized Ukrainians may decide they want a Ukraine for Ukrainians, as Bandera argued and killed for?
“Definitely not,” Bleich said. Since Bandera’s time, “Ukraine has changed. The more a country develops democracy and democratic values and ideals, the more people begin to respect each other. Democracy forces us to respect another opinion. Democracy is the right for all to be equal but also all to be different. Democracy has strong inherent power that allows societies to change. Look at Germany. It used to be crazy fascist and anti-Semitic, and they were able to build a very strong democracy.”
Abovich, from the Hillel Jewish students’ group, had a similar take.
“We don’t have Banderovtsy, if you think Banderovtsy are people who take up arms and go kill civilians,” Abovich said. “The way the term ‘Banderovtsy’ is being used and turned around and weaponized — we don’t have this in Ukraine.
“I worked as a director of Hillel, a student Jewish organization. I was on TV, and I was open, and not once did I feel some sort of anti-Semitism. Never. Not once,” she added. “People talk about a lot of ironies. And now the irony has become a tragedy. It’s not just that someone invented the word de-Nazification and tried to do something about it. It’s that Ukraine doesn’t have Nazis, the way Russia is showing itself as Nazis.”