When last September “far right” Ukrainian groups swarmed Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, and toppled the ginormous Lenin statue on central city square, Chabad reported that local Jews “watch and wait”. Wait for what, an airlift?
In the 1880s the largest Jewish community in the world was in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement with what is now Western Ukraine being the region with the highest density of Jewish population — up to 20%. After more than a century of (and your Ukrainian nationalist friends will be able to fill you in on some of the detail) pogroms, segregation, breakdown of Jewish communal life and abolition of the Pale that followed the 1917 revolution, the Holocaust, official and unofficial Soviet anti-Semitism and the chaos that followed the USSR breakdown, Jewish communities in Ukraine are all but gone. According to JDC 300,000-350,000 Jews were left in all of Ukraine as of February 2014, albeit the number is up for dispute because of the sky-high intermarriage rate. The map of Ukrianian Jewish population looks very much like an ethno-linguistic map of the country. Jews continued living in urban areas, primarily in the South-East, the capital of Kiev and, to much lesser extent, the city of Lviv.
The South-East is claimed for Novorossiya, so all Jewish communities there are potentially in the line of fire. At the moment the hostilities between the Russian-led separatists and Ukrainian forces are down. Yet both sides are said to be rearming and regrouping, so expect the next round of fighting to commence in… April? The fighting might be a bit complicated this time around due to a feud between President Petro Poroshenko and the former Dnepropetrovsk governor Igor Kolomoisky — the latter “does not rule out” an anti-Kiev insurgency in his city.
Kiev, home to the largest Jewish community in Ukraine, is, like many other Ukrainian urban centers, going through reshuffling of police forces. When on October 31, 2014 interior minister Arsen Avakov appointed Vadim Troyan the chief of regional police in the capital:
[t]he Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) has objected to Troyan’s appointment, describing him as a leading member of the Patriot of Ukraine organization, which some have described as neo-Nazi. Patriot of Ukraine is linked with the Social-National Assembly of Ukraine and has displayed symbols reminiscent of those used by the Nazis on its banners and other materials.
Troyan, who ran for parliament on the ticket of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, is described on that party’s website as a member of the organization.
KHPG says Patriot of Ukraine espouses “xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideas” and engages in violence. It based its opposition to Troyan’s appointment on allegations by anti-Semitism researcher Viacheslav Likhachev, who is connected to the local Jewish community.
Both KHPG and Likhachev have admitted that there is no specific evidence pointing to anti-Semitic views on the part of Troyan, but both believe his links to the group make his holding such a sensitive position worrisome.
For some reason the last sentence is not very reassuring.
Tiny Jewish communities remain scattered through western Ukraine, the most numerous one is in Lviv. Throughout the 1930’s Jews comprised over 30% of the city’s population, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was flooded with Polish Jews, many of whom were immediately deported by the Bolsheviks. When the Soviet Army hastily retreated in 1941, about 10,000 managed to escape with them*, the rest were attacked in the pogroms, known as Petlura Days, that immediately followed the invasion, and perished in the Holocaust. After the war some Soviet Jews returned to the city; a year ago 11,000 resided at this once important Jewish cultural center.
In happier times of Ukrainian neutrality unpleasant things were said about the city in mainstream media in the West. For instance:
The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned a statement by the mayor of Lviv, Ukraine, in which he said that in his city “there has never been anti-Semitism and there will never be.”
Efraim Zuroff, Israel director for the Wiesenthal Center, told JTA on Monday that Mayor Andriy Sadovyi’s statement was “a hopeless attempt to cover up very strong manifestations of anti-Semitism.” Sadovyi made the statement Sunday at a news conference.
Zuroff noted a restaurant in Lviv that encourages patrons to dress up like haredi Orthodox Jews and haggle over prices. Another restaurant celebrates the legacy of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators led by Stefan Bandera who participated in the murder of thousands of Jews in 1941.
The Lviv municipality on June 30 is set to award a prize named for Bandera to individuals who “helped develop Ukrainian statehood.” Many Ukrainians view Bandera and his troops as anti-Soviet freedom fighters.
Nowadays Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi scolds the French on anti-Semitism. You see, France has a “larger” problem than Ukraine. Not exactly a high bar, and not true to begin with.
The monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv was erected on the anniversary of creation of Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 2007. Appropriately brown in color, the sculpture is made in best traditions of socialist realism. Tourists and residents of this eastern Galicia town can flock downtown to admire the romanticized Nazi of Stalinist proportions — the arches of the architectural ensemble reach 100 feet in the air. As you can see, western Ukrainians know what to build in place of their Lenins.
Ukrainian nationalists like to point out that so far there had been no verified anti-Jewish pogroms in their country, and that Jews serve in the current government. Just who Ukrainian nationalists are is no secret. For a source of anti-Semitic sentiment during the Miadan riots one can look at this entry at Gates of Vienna. Maidan alumnus (he was the coordinator of “self-defense” units) and co-funder of what was once called Socialist-Nationalist Party of Ukraine Andrey Parubiy has an impressive “far right” resume that includes translating of Goebbels into Ukrainian. He is now a Rada member on Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front ticket. Either Parubiy is going “mainstream” or “mainstream” is going Parubiy.
On the subject of Jews in Ukrainian governments, it’s worth remembering what happened during the pogroms in the 1918-1922 Civil War. Back then Jews served in the very Ukrainian governments that were perpetrating and/or ignoring the pogroms and were more than ready to vouch for their comrades.
Some Eurointegrationist Jewish intelligentsia made an alliance with nationalists calculating that as long as the promise of the entry into EU is dangled as a carrot in front of Ukrainian people, everyone can get along. But the European dream will remain a dream simply because a country as large, as desolate and as corrupt (and as Soviet mentality-wise) cannot be admitted into EU. Then what?
The most prominent Ukrainian Jew who, until a few days ago was on the side of this current government, is the above-mentioned Igor Kolomoisky. Ask the European Council of Jewish Communities what kind of Jew he is. When in 2010 the oligarch decided to make himself the head of the organization, three members resigned calling his ascension “hostile takeover” eastern European style.
Kolomoisky is a populist demagogue, a proud self-proclaimed “Jidobandera”, who owns a of a large share of Ukraine’s mass media. He is said to be one of the financiers of the Kiev riots and sugar daddy of Ukrainian National Guard as well as paramilitary units that until recently were patrolling the streets of Odessa. He is widely believed to be behind Odessa massacre a year ago. This former governor of one of Ukraine’s richest regions and helped keep the south-east in line since Maidan victory. He is a chief benefactor of the IMF (umm, US taxpayer) Ukraine bailout, but was fired in a feud with Poroshenko over the ownership of a utility company.With majority of Jews being Russian speakers who live in Party of Regions strongholds, one can find more than a fair share of prominent Party of Regions Jews. For instance, in the last decade Kharkov was run by the Jewish governor and mayor Gennady Kernes and Mikhail Dobkin. Last year Maidan-minded Kharkovites were circulating a video about Kernes’s criminality and corruption that was also oddly fixated on his ethnic origin. On the issue of corruption the video didn’t exactly reflect the opinion of ordinary Kharkovites who agree that while Kernes is, like all other Ukrainian leaders, a thief, still, “he did so much for the city”.
A short survey of prominent Ukrainian Jews leaves an impression that perhaps Ukraine is left with the Jews it deserved. Or maybe it got the leadership it deserved, and as it always happens, upwardly mobile Jews are terribly conspicuous. When the situation will become impossible they will walk into their private helicopters and head for Cyprus. It is the ordinary Jews living in Vinnitsa and Odessa who are in danger of being turned into scapegoats for their country’s failings.
Right now the pro-Russian and nationalist sides in Ukraine are most concerned with fighting each other. However, this will not last forever, and Slavic brothers will kiss and make up, like they always have. In the meantime, the country is in a multi-party civil war vortex, just like 1918, and anti-Semitism is on the rise across the board.
If I were a Jew in Russia, I’d leave too. Putin likes to sell himself as a protector of minorities, but I wouldn’t count too much on his protection. Yes, he grew up among Leningrad intelligentsia, many of them Jewish, and is not an anti-Semite. But he stays in power by pandering to anti-Semitets, most notably to those in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia will see some tough times in coming years, so things are not looking good.
*My last entry was about the Soviet Jewish crooner Iosif Kobzon. Kobzon’s biographers like to explain his loyalties by the fact that he was born in Russian-speaking Donetsk region of Ukraine. Equally important, I think, is his lesser known his Lviv connection. Kobzon’s parents moved to Lviv shortly before the war and managed to escape as soon as it started. The singer narrowly cheated death at the hands of Wermacht and their Ukrainian henchmen.