The freezing wind cut through my thin leather jacket and tattered Yankees cap as I ducked my head low between my shoulders and hugged my arms for warmth. My sneakers crunched Kiev’s December snow as I made my way through the Ukrainian capital, intent on reaching the city’s central square, known as the Maidan. Ahead of me a line of minibuses stretched perpendicular to the street, blocking off access. I continued my slow march through the frigid conditions, placing one numb foot in front of the other, intent only on skirting the blockade when an armored member of the Berkut, Ukraine’s riot police, yelled something in unintelligible Russian and motioned for me to head back.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered as I turned away, searching for a clear path between my hotel and the site of Ukraine’s second popular revolt in less than a decade.
At the time I was the Diaspora correspondent for The Jerusalem Post
with a beat that encompassed Jewish communal, religious and political life on several continents. I had been lured – or more accurately, had lured myself – to this former Soviet republic’s capital by the promise of a story involving antisemitism, neo-Nazis, and a violent revolution that had many of the country’s approximately 70,000 Jews in the grips of existential fear. I would soon learn that things were rarely that simple.
I found myself walking down Khreshchatyk Street – a wide boulevard that serves as downtown Kiev’s main shopping district – until I came across another set of barricades. Rather than being made of buses and backed by masked and armed police, however, this barrier belonged to the protesters, hundreds of thousands of whom were out in the streets demonstrating against their deeply corrupt government. This barricade was a slapdash affair put together from aluminum siding, park benches, wooden beams, bags of snow and any other detritus that its builders had been able to scrounge within the confines of the territory they had staked out.
Before entering the Maidan proper, however, I was determined to enter the beast’s lair, as I grandiosely thought of it at the time: the Kiev city council building, which had recently been taken by fighters loyal to the far-right nationalist Svoboda party and turned into a makeshift protest headquarters.
It was primarily my interest in Svoboda that had brought me to Kiev. How, I wondered, was the local Jewish community faring during a revolution in which neo-Nazis were playing such a prominent role? They certainly weren’t the majority in any sense, but they were a highly visible presence on the streets.
Blocking the doors of the imposing Soviet-era municipal building were several masked men wearing Svoboda armbands and orange construction helmets, one of which was emblazoned with the Wolfsangel, a Germanic symbol popular among neo-Nazis. I joined a line of protesters and we moved forward, as one by one the helmeted nationalists allowed us through the wooden and glass doors into the building’s lobby.
Barely breathing as I walked past Svoboda propaganda plastered across the foyer’s walls, I made my way through the crowd and up a grand marble stairway to the second floor, where helmeted men were rolling up fire hoses on the slick tiles next to the windows overlooking the street below.
At one in the morning, only hours before my arrival from Tel Aviv, the police had stormed the barricades and attempted to enter the building only to be driven back by protesters firing high-pressure jets of water. Perversely, I was distressed that I had missed the fighting mingled with relief that I had not been present when the fighting had broken out.
Entering the building’s two-story main chamber, my heart pounded as I gazed at the Svoboda banners hanging limply from the gallery, the yellow hand against a blue field flashing its eternal victory sign burning deeply into my soul.
Standing in the center of the grand plenum chamber of Kiev’s Stalinist Gothic city council building, with young men in combat boots and army helmets jostling around me, I felt intensely alone. Alongside the Svoboda flags were suspended the black and red standard of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an extreme nationalist militia which had carried out an infamous “campaign of ethnic cleansing of Poles, Jews, and other minorities” during the Second World War.
Protesters sleeping on floor mats filled much of the floor space around the edge of the hall, many with gas masks and helmets kept on the cold marble within easy reach. Several men draped in Ukraine’s blue and yellow flags slept upright in velvet upholstered wooden chairs in the center of the room, while a party leader standing on a stage at one end of the room harangued the mob over a public address system.
Unnerved by my surroundings, I struck up a conversation with a young man, a linguist by trade, who sought to reassure me that despite the fears of many in the Jewish community, there is no real danger of an outbreak of antisemitism, even with the active participation of Svoboda in the protests.
“I’ve been teased and called a Jew by friends for standing up against antisemitism, and I support Svoboda here,” he said, adding that the opposition must be supported as an alternative to an inept and corrupt ruling elite. It wasn’t very comforting.
Turning to leave, I saw a number of items sporting the Svoboda logo on a small table near the stage, manned by a diminutive and elderly woman with a doughy face and red knit cap. When she looked away I quickly pocketed a small flag and made my way back down the stairs and into the street. Suddenly, I was able to breathe again.
I had hooked up with a local television crew inside, and they took me through the barricades and into a building housing the revolutionaries’ press center, where I was issued my press credentials. Thus armed with as much protection as a small piece of paper issued by anti-government forces could provide, I set out to meet with a representative of the Jewish community.
As I made my way back out of the Maidan and away from the hub of the conflict, the streets became progressively calmer and quieter. I was trying to find the address of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee (UJC), an advocacy group funded by Aleksandr Feldman, a Jewish oligarch and Member of Parliament who had been outspoken in his criticism of the protesters.
Only meters from the UJC’s offices, I stopped, transfixed by a swastika scrawled outside a small restaurant. “This can’t be real,” I thought. By that time, frozen both in spirit and in body, I had wrapped myself up as tightly as possible, my face hidden between the upturned collar of my jacket and the lowered brim of my hat, making me unidentifiable at a glance. I had forgotten that I was carrying the Svoboda flag. Glancing up as I entered, the secretary took one look at me and began to scream.
She wasn’t the only one who would experience terror as the protests continued. Over the course of the revolution, several members of the local community were violently attacked, as the capital’s Jews hunkered down to wait out the storm.
In the end, after government forces massacred dozens of protesters, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, prompting a harsh military response from the Kremlin, which invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Shortly thereafter, Moscow-backed separatists declared independence in the country’s Russophone Donbas region, setting in motion a massive wave of refugees who swept across Ukraine. Local Jewish communities in the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk were caught up in the migration, their members scattering leaving community leaders struggling to pick up the pieces.
I was far from the only journalist who covered the protests and subsequent war from a Jewish perspective, but as the conflict dragged on and increasing numbers of Jews were displaced, the number of my colleagues continuing to travel to Ukraine rapidly decreased. I, however, felt compelled to continue covering the conflict, seeing my mother and grandparents in the miserable refugees who had lost everything to a war in which both sides used the specter of antisemitism as a propaganda weapon, but really could not care less about the Jews.
Two trends quickly emerged. The first was the use of antisemitic leitmotifs in Russia’s hybrid-war strategy, in which the Kremlin used the threat of Ukrainian action against the Jews as a justification for its revanchism. Jews and other national minorities, the propaganda line went, were in danger from the xenophobia of Ukraine’s newly installed “fascist junta.” Of course, this was pure agitprop, but that didn’t stop Russia’s state-controlled media from unleashing a torrent of fake news asserting that Ukraine’s Jews were being harassed and displaced by a hostile administration.
Ironically, the biggest displacement of Jewish life was caused by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, purportedly to protect Jews, ethnic Russians and other minorities.
The second trend was an intensification of Ukrainian nationalism in the face of Moscow’s land grab. Reacting to outside aggression, the Ukrainian government began constructing an alternate national historiography honoring those who fought against the Soviet Union, rehabilitating virulently racist Nazi collaborators such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych. Meanwhile, the blatant hate mongering of contemporary far-right militias fighting the Russians was tolerated, as senior administration officials forged ties with vigilantes and militants who would eventually turn violent against members of their country’s Roma and LGBT communities.
It was during a visit to the city of Dnipropetrovsk (now called Dnipro) in September 2014 that I decided to write a book.
I had just interviewed Andrei Frumkin, an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) from Donetsk. As the war intensified, Andrei and his sister began considering aliyah, but decided to remain in Ukraine out of concern for their mother, who was all but immobile due to illness and age.
While he had initially vacillated, Andrei’s subsequent experience with the shelling convinced him that flight was his only option. Walking down the street one day, he heard the whine of incoming shells and threw himself to the sidewalk. As he hugged the ground, the rough pavement pressed against his body, he saw a woman struck by shrapnel. He was scuttling over to offer assistance when she suddenly stood up, one of her arms severed completely, and walked off, evidently in shock. After that, he told me, “It became impossible to be in the city anymore.”
He made arrangements to leave, hiring an ambulance to transport his mother through the lines into government-controlled territory. Arriving at a checkpoint controlled by the separatists, he was initially refused passage but was eventually allowed to continue his journey, only to find himself caught in the crossfire. Arriving later in Dnipropetrovsk, Andrei descended and looked at the ambulance. There were six bullet holes in the side.
The next evening, going through my notes, I realized that I had significantly more material than I could possibly fit into a news dispatch. I had a great deal of sympathy for my interview subjects, stemming from my own family history. Both of my grandparents had fled to the Soviet Union following the German invasion of Poland. There my grandfather survived on the margins as an economic criminal, dealing in boots and other small items on the black market. My grandmother wasn’t as lucky. She was pressed into hard labor by the communists, forced to work long hours in an asbestos mine. After the war, they both ended up in a Displaced Persons camp in Ulm, Germany, where they met, married and had my mother. She was born a refugee.
I also knew, from personal experience, how terrifying huddling in a shelter with one’s family during a bombardment could be. Several months earlier, Hamas had kidnapped and brutally murdered three yeshiva students in the Etzion settlement bloc. In response, the Israeli military had initiated a wide-ranging crackdown on the terrorist organization. Refusing to sit still while its operations in the West Bank were dismantled, Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip began firing rocket barrages into Israel, forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including my family, to take refuge in shelters. It became a familiar, if always terrifying, ritual. The siren would go off, we would grab the children and huddle in our mamad, the concrete and steel reinforced safe room built into every Israeli apartment since the Gulf War.
Given my affinity for the topic and the large amount of material I was collecting, I thought it might be a good idea to write a book chronicling the travails of Ukraine’s Jews. From now on I would collect as many testimonies as possible when reporting, and in the course of time, maybe something would come of it. My decision made, I realized that it was getting late and that I ought to turn in. That night I dreamed that I was on the sidewalk with Andrei Frumkin watching people get blown to bits. I woke up screaming, my body drenched with sweat.
In his seminal novel Babi Yar, Ukrainian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov described the reasons which impelled him to risk his life and freedom to write truthfully in the face of Communist censorship. I think that his words, printed during the height of the Cold War, ring true today in our age of hybrid conflict, and perfectly capture my own emotions, all these decades later.
“I did not write this book simply to recall the past,” Kuznetsov wrote of the German occupation of Kiev. “I am writing today…because the same sort of thing is happening now; and there is no guarantee whatever that even more sinister events will not occur tomorrow. Not the slightest guarantee… The world has learned nothing. It has become only a more gloomy place. It is crammed with misguided puppets and unthinking blockheads who, with the light of fanatical conviction in their eyes, are ready to shoot at any target their leaders may command, and trample underfoot any country they are sent to; and it is frightful to think of the weapons they have in their hands today. If you tell them out loud, to their faces, that they are being deceived and that they are no more than cannon fodder and tools in the hands of scoundrels, they won’t listen. They will say it is only a malicious slander. And if you produce facts, they just won’t believe you. They will say: ‘Such things never happened.’”
But it did happen. And it is still happening. Caught between the torments of the dead, who have been denied the minimal dignity of accurate remembrance, and the suffering of the living, cursed with the burden of exile, there was simply no way that I could turn away and remain sane. And so I write.
The above was adapted from Sam Sokol’s book
, Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews. (New York: Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, 2019)
From a fascist junta to a Jewish president
Ukraine has come a long way since the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and an interim government (which included several members of the far-right, antisemitic Svoboda Party) took over running the country. On April 21, Ukrainians streamed to the polls to vote for their second post-Maidan president, choosing Jewish comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky.
A political neophyte, Zelensky was well known to Ukrainians for playing accidental President Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko on the hit satire “Servant of the People.” Zelensky’s election makes Ukraine the first state outside of Israel to have both a Jewish president and Jewish prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman was chosen as prime minister in 2016). However, aside from some anxiety among some sectors of the Jewish community that Zelensky’s ascension could provoke antisemitism, most of the community doesn’t particularly see it as a significant development.
Certainly, the election showed that Ukraine has made great strides since the pogroms of the 20th century, and that Russian propaganda painting Ukraine as a fascist state is unfounded. But there is little hope in Ukraine’s Jewish community that Zelensky will govern as a Jew or take their concerns into special account.
There are already indications that he will likely soft-peddle the more offensive aspects of Ukraine’s historical memory policy, which has seen widespread efforts to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators, and there is a decent chance that he will work to cut Kiev’s ties to militant nationalist groups such as Azov and the National Corps. But such moves have little, if anything, to do with his ethnic and religious background.
Still, given how voters repudiated incumbent Petro Poroshenko and his penchant for waving the flag and engaging in nationalist excesses, many Ukrainians are will likely be happy to see a more moderate leader chart their nation’s course, whatever his religion.