Ukraine and My Jewish Problem (and Ours)

Ukraine and My Jewish Problem (and Ours)

Two-thirds of a lifetime ago, in the summer of 1975, I visited Ukraine, or, as it was then called, the Ukraine, when it was a Soviet Socialist Republic.  (Why Ukraine lost its article upon independence has never been clear to me.)  I was on a Soviet Intourist tour. We spent several days in Kiev, and a day in Kharkov and Poltava.

What do I remember of Ukraine?  Kiev had wide and majestic streets, with very few cars.  It was raining cats and dogs in Kharkov. In Poltava we saw monuments to the battle of Poltava, which saw the ambitions of Charles XII of Sweden come a cropper at the hands of the forces of Peter the Great back in 1709.   Everywhere we saw monuments to the Great Patriotic War (that is, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union) and statues of Taras Svenchenko, the great 19thcentury Ukrainian writer that nobody outside of Ukraine has ever heard of.  (The greatest 19th century Ukrainian writer, Nikolai Gogol, had the misfortune to write in Russian.)

In Kiev, I was very impressed by the Dnieper, a river wider and more majestic than the Hudson.  Every night in the hotel we had chicken Kiev and the house band was always playing Zigeunerweisen.  Although we asked, the Intourist guides did not take us to Babi Yar.  And everywhere we went, on the streets and in the parks, people would come up to me, with (I suppose) my characteristic Jewish features—curly brown hair, a pale and unhealthy pallor, and a general luftmensch-like air about me—and ask, “are you Jewish?,” “du redst Yiddish?”
And if we were to ask the same question of Ukraine, the answer would be: “not very much, just barely.” The current Jewish population of Ukraine has been estimated from about 80,000 to 200,000. This is down from 2.7 million Jews who lived in Ukraine in 1941, the 840,000 who lived there in 1959, and the almost half million who still lived in Ukraine in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of whom migrated to Israel and the United States as “Russian Jews.”
How would this current conflict be different if 10 to 15% of Ukraine’s population was still Jewish?  Of course, no one can say, though it’s plausible to assume that Jews would be blamed for causing the problems.  This is still going on today, though in muted ways.  Both sides have elements that blame the problem on Jews, and both sides have elements that blame the problem on fascists and anti-Semites.  Almost all of the organized Jewish groups in Ukraine have supported the demonstrations and the overthrow of the Yanukovich government; and if I were in Ukraine, I certainly would have gone into the streets to rid the country of the kleptocrats, albeit warily.
I am suspicious of much I have read about the troubles in Ukraine. It’s never been clear to me why joining the EU, with the austerity conditions that would almost certainly be imposed on Ukraine and its basket case of an economy was desirable in the first place. And I distrust those who see the disturbances the work of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists, because the demonstrations clearly have a wider base of support.  I don’t like Putin, but he isn’t Stalin, or even Brezhnev, and he is popular in Russia today because many Russians think that Russia needs an autocratic ruler to keep the country strong and to keep the West from taking over; and after the chaos of the Yeltsin years, who can say this is wrong, or at least not a plausible position?

In Russia today, the new scapegoats are the LGBTQ community and Central Asians, depriving Jews of this traditional function. Worldwide, gays seem to have replaced Jews as the most hated and persecuted minority.

And so, where are we?  Whenever I read about the Ukraine, it’s hard not to think about it as my homeland, the place where my ancestors came from.  For Ashkenazic Jews, our true homeland are the western expanses of the former Russian empire (along with some Habsburg and Prussian bits thrown in), and this is more distant, further away, and more unimaginable than Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.  And the Zionization of  Jewish consciousness over the last 60 years has increased the gulf. (I admire the ways in which the Hasids, Lubavitchers, Satmars, etc., with their Yiddish-speaking communities named after their places of origin in Eastern Europe have kept the ties alive, but their ways are not mine.)
I hope Ukraine manages to find a way to a vibrant multi-ethnic and multi-religious society that protects the rights of all to their ethnic identities.  I hope the Crimea doesn’t develop into another unrecognized statelet formed from the detritus of the Soviet Union. (Along with Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Pridnestrovie, South Ossetia and Chechnya.) I hope the Ukrainians realize the inherent incompatibility with strong nationalism and ethnic pluralism, and work to find a balance. I hope that the Ukrainians and Russians realize they are fated, like Israelis and Palestinians, to be quarreling neighbors forever, and learn how to quarrel peacefully.

And part of me is glad that there aren’t too many Jews in Ukraine.  If there were more, they would be more of a problem, more in the crosshairs of both sides, with more calls for Jews to declare their allegiances.  It is easy, when writing about Israel, to focus on its current problems (I know I do), and it is easy to forget why Israel and the Zionist movement was so potent and powerful: because millions of Jews felt there was no home for them in an era of rising nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, in Central and Eastern Europe — and they were right.

I liked my time in Ukraine, and I admire what Ukrainians have done in the past few weeks.They have the right to live with democracy, in dignity.  No place in Europe had a more horrific 20th century, starved by Stalin, butchered by Hitler, the sanguinary center of what Timothy Snyder has called “the bloodlands.”  And maybe it’s incredibly parochial of me, but when I think of Ukraine, my first thought are to the Ukrainian Jews who were slaughtered by Hitler and murdered by Stalin, and I am glad that most of the Jews who can trace their roots to Ukraine are living elsewhere.           

By | 2014-02-28T20:01:00-05:00 February 28th, 2014|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Ralph Seliger March 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    My reflections on Ukraine and Ukrainians are even more sour. Although I have no problem patronizing the Veselka Ukrainian restaurant on the Lower East Side, and don’t wish them ill, I can’t shake the fact (confirmed in a memoir published a few years ago) that my maternal grandparents were murdered by Ukrainians during World War II:

    Before I knew what exactly had happened to my grandparents, I had an unpleasant exchange with a Ukrainian university student (maybe half a dozen years ago) who denied that Jews suffered any more than Ukrainians during WW 2. I was too reserved and polite to mention Ukrainian antisemitism and their collaboration with the Nazis.

  2. Kenedal March 15, 2014 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Well if the Ukranians have the right of Ethnic Majority self determination even by taking tothe streets rather than voting?? (Woodrow Wilson,Treaty of Versailles), so do the ethnic Russian Crimeans, the majority, have the right to choose their affiliation (as have we Jews ) Or is this really about old cold war distinctions-our side good,them always bad?

  3. Ralph Seliger March 15, 2014 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    I think it’s legitimate for Crimea, which is majority Russian and was a part of Russia until whimsically gifted to Ukraine in 1954, to return to Russia. But I don’t think that Putin should do anything further to dismember or threaten Ukraine.

    I would hope that Ukraine tries to fix its damaged economic and political relations with Russia, while also striving for good relations with the West. Russia and Putin need to be dealt with respectfully and diplomatically, so that the crisis is defused. Prof. Steven Cohen’s view (written recently in The Nation — where his wife is editor) is correct that Ukraine is a natural sphere of influence for Russia.

  4. […] I’ve indicated in a comment at Peter Eisenstadt’s recent post, my feelings about Ukraine are profoundly mixed and […]

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