Russian-Israelis explain their perspectives on Ukraine war

Thousands of Russian- and Ukrainian-Israelis now live in Jerusalem. For them, the war between Russia and Ukraine is much more than a media report on what is happening over there. 

 PROTESTERS MAKE their feelings against the Russian invasion known outside City Hall, Feb. 28.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PROTESTERS MAKE their feelings against the Russian invasion known outside City Hall, Feb. 28.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

On Saturday night, the owner of Putin Pub in the city center, set up more than 20 years ago by olim from the former Soviet Union, decided it was inappropriate to continue using the name of the Russian president who attacked Ukraine, taking down the pub’s sign. An alternative name for the very popular drinking establishment still has not been adopted, and customers are invited to send suggestions.

Thousands of Russian- and Ukrainian-Israelis now live in Jerusalem – those who immigrated as children with their parents and others who had already reached adulthood upon arriving. For them, the war between Russia and Ukraine is much more than a media report on what is happening over there. For many of them, it hits very close to home, especially for those who still have family or friends in those areas.

Two such people, Shalom Boguslavsky and Jenia Frumin, are plugged in around the clock to what is happening in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv, thanks to the many connections they have there. Throughout all of last week, Boguslavsky has tried to be cautious of fake news, to understand what stands behind each side’s reports and to bring to his Israeli friends and followers a picture as complete as possible.

The two report on Facebook and Twitter 24/7, and earlier this week, Boguslavsky was even invited to Channel 14’s studio to give his expert opinion.

But the crisis in Europe has also impacted other Jerusalemites, such as Palestinians from the east side who study in Ukraine – there are many. Earlier this week, there was a report about more than 10 such medical students who have been stuck at the border crossing between Ukraine and Poland for three days due to their lack of Israeli passports. These students have a blue ID card, but are not considered Israeli citizens.

 Shalom Boguslavsky, Jenia Frumin (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Shalom Boguslavsky, Jenia Frumin (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Until Sunday morning and according to what they said to local Arab networks, the Foreign Ministry is currently only assisting in the evacuation of Israeli citizens from Ukraine. Twenty other students from east Jerusalem who failed to leave the country went back to Kyiv.

“We left on Thursday and drove about 20 hours by car, even though it was dangerous,” recounted Ahmed Nimer, a medical student in Kyiv, from the Ukraine-Poland border. “We have been on the border with Poland for three days without food, water and blankets. We sleep on the streets. We contacted the Israeli ambassador, asked to be picked up by bus, but there was no such option and we are still stuck.”

Muhammad Khatib, a fourth-year medical student in Kyiv, heard the Israeli Embassy’s warnings on Ukraine and returned to Israel on February 14. According to him, the atmosphere in the city was routine in the days before the war. “The students from east Jerusalem who were with me did not believe anything would happen and decided to stay there. The atmosphere, sadly, deceived them. It was just the quiet before the storm.”

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) tried to bridge the gap between them and the Israeli Embassy in order to get them into Poland as soon as possible. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said they were making every effort to help them move quickly to Poland.

BUT BACK to Boguslavsky, whose voice belies his lack of sleep. He says it seems the major aim is to explain to Israelis the background of each side in this conflict.

Born in Siberia, Boguslavsky made aliyah and became an expert tour guide in Israel and in Ukraine, over the years becoming a specialist in that region. “I am not just interested in the story of a building there and a square here, but also in the profound state of mind of the people of that country, of their daily life and history. I am of Russian origin but my wife is from Ukraine, and through her I became interested in that country and its people.”

Through Facebook and Twitter, Boguslavsky regularly informs his followers what’s happening behind the scenes and tries to create some order between fake news and real information. He has become a very reliable source of information for residents and those outside the city too, holding an event on the matter at the city center's Bessarabia Pub on Tuesday.

“Most Israelis, and not only them, are convinced Ukraine has always been part of Russia, that they are in fact the same people and same culture. And that is the first thing I try to clarify. So yes, there are a lot of similarities between the two, but they are not the same people. Ukraine, which was in some ways the cradle of Russia, is a separate country,” says Boguslavsky.

“But the major issue at stake now that there is a war there,” he continues, “is to explain why [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is acting that way and, moreover, why the Russians are thinking like him in many ways.

“For Putin, for the Russians, Russia is first of all and still is an empire. That’s the way of thinking for these people, that’s how it was and how it still is. Ukraine is part of the Russian empire in their eyes, and while they didn’t like to have to renounce the Baltic countries or Georgia, it’s nothing compared with Ukraine – this is part of the soul of the empire. 

"Putin represents exactly this state of mind. That’s what most of the world outside of Russia, including here in Israel, does not understand.”

Here is an example of a report Boguslavsky published on Facebook: 

“Yesterday, I still did not believe that Russia would put its forces in the center of cities, it actually seems to me like madness even today, but it seems that is where it is going. This night has been the hardest since the outbreak of the war. It may be that tomorrow morning what is written here will no longer be relevant at all, because there is talk of a massive push into Kyiv tonight. 

“Kharkiv has been bombed constantly since noon, Russian forces, which have suffered serious casualties around the city, are firing incessantly, and there is a lot of damage to civilian targets and victims from the civilian population. The gas pipeline in the city blew up and caught fire. At night the shooting calmed down a bit.

“Attacks and fighting around bases and military targets are continuing all day and all night throughout central and western Ukraine (in Vinnytsia, you can hear them exchanging fire tonight). Authorities are calling for the demolition and dismantling of street signs and roads to undermine the Russians’ ability to navigate. A great number of captives being filmed indicate that some Russian soldiers had no idea where they were and in what direction they were moving.”

His reports have drawn the attention of many who are desperately seeking reliable reports – something Boguslavsky manages to provide almost all the time, due to his many contacts in Ukraine, and his knowledge of the language and culture.

The most successful video thus far is of a windshield camera in a private car stopping next to a Russian tank stuck on the side of the road, having run out of fuel. Its Ukrainian driver exchanges jokes with the Russian soldiers (offering to drag them back to Russia), not knowing in which direction they are moving. 

To the question why this conflict erupted so suddenly, Boguslavsky first laughs, then responds, “This is exactly what I try at first to clarify to the Israelis. This is not a sudden war. Russia has been at war with Ukraine since 2014, which means we already have behind us eight years of war – a war that most of the countries in Europe, and also here, have not been so aware of, apparently.”

Within 24 hours things began to sound different, as the Ukrainians and their now world-famous president, Volodymyr Zelensky, reacted and sent videos and live messages to the world that showed off their strong resilience. Boguslavsky was among the first to bring it to the attention of his followers and some television networks.

“The pictures on the networks sometimes look like a script: Members of parliament without shoes and former prime minister [Volodymyr] Groysman shoots a video of himself explaining how effective Molotov cocktails are; former president [Petro] Poroshenko, who returned to Ukraine in December to stand trial for treason for his involvement in trade with separatist forces, is today a territorial guard; and former prime minister [Yulia] Tymoshenko, the ‘Princess of Gas’ and once the great and unfulfilled hope of the pro-Western camp, was photographed with her friends and comrades armed. Athletes who returned a week ago from the Winter Olympics [joined]... the Territorial Defense Forces.”

Boguslavsky, like many Jerusalemites originally from Russia, stands clearly with Ukraine. “I don’t think Russia will totally take back Ukraine. We are all seeing how the Ukrainians are fighting back and even getting quite a few results. And I know that the Russians are fierce and strong, but they are not stronger than the Ukrainians, they simply have many more weapons and much greater firepower, so it means that if this war goes on too long, at a certain point they will overcome, despite the courage of the Ukrainians.

"On a personal note, for me, this also means that if the Russians remain in Ukraine as their old-new masters, I will not go there anymore – that’s clear to me.”

BUT BOGUSLAVSKY is not alone in this endeavor. Separately, but still with a sort of natural coordination, another Jerusalemite of Russian origin, Jenia Frumin, is also providing a wider outlook through his commentaries on the conflict. 

Frumin says that the high involvement of Israelis from the former Soviet Union in the conflict comes from them being profoundly tied to their origins. It does not mean they have had an unsuccessful absorption in Israel, “it’s just part of their emotional identity.”

Frumin is a senior tour guide at the Museum of Islamic Art and a graduate student of Middle East studies, specializing in the role and influence of Russia in that region. But his interest in the war and what is happening in Ukraine now stems from his personal family connection.

“I was born in Moscow and immigrated with my parents in the ’90s when I was six. But my father is from Ukraine and I still have a family there. That’s the context for me.”

Frumin went to the protest held last week in Tel Aviv and explained that it was there, and not for example in Jerusalem, for technical reasons: “First of all, I was impressed by the large number of participants. I think they were about 5,000 or more. But there was a point demonstrating in Tel Aviv, since we marched toward the Russian Embassy – there is no official representative body of Russia in Jerusalem.”

 Demonstrators carry placards and flags during a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Feb. 24, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Demonstrators carry placards and flags during a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Feb. 24, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Frumin, like Boguslavsky, is trying to find out what is actually taking place on the ground in Ukraine amid a sea of news coming from everywhere. He admits that, despite all the caution he took, he has fallen for false information here and there – which is rapidly corrected. But, he adds, there is an advantage for those who master the language and therefore the local culture.

This is what he wrote on Sunday on his Facebook page:

“Today, a ‘referendum’ is being held in Belarus on amendments to the constitution that will make [president] Alexander Lukashenko’s rule an absolute dictatorship that does not depend at all on the decisions of anybody elected by the public, even on paper. The referendum will of course be approved by a large majority... and will allow Lukashenko to give Russia the ability to place nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory...

“In Belarus there is a total ban on demonstrations, and the opposition is calling on the public to [make their way] to the polls to demonstrate against the war... It seems that in many places the police themselves are quite confused and do not really understand what they have to do, especially when the protesters are in many cases families with children, and the ‘demonstrations’ are held at entrances to schools and kindergartens where polling stations are. In recent hours, the protests have become increasingly large gatherings. For the first time in a year-and-a-half in Belarusian cities, protests have begun.

“These images join other indications that the Lukashenko regime is the weakest link in the Russian formation. Today, a video was released by Lt.-Col. (res.) Valery Sakhashchik [of the airborne assault brigade]... appealing directly to the soldiers of Belarus’s armed forces and calling on them to avoid, in any way possible, participation in the aggression against Ukraine.

“It speaks of the fact that the citizens of Russia are victims of the propaganda of their government, which lies to them and deceives them, which made them think that the Ukrainians will accept the invaders with bread and salt [a greeting ceremony in Slavic and other cultures]. Any war in Ukraine will be no less bad than the war in Chechnya and will constitute aggression against a democratic government, which of course has no Nazis and drug addicts, in the words of the Russian government. 

“Beyond explanations that there is no reason to fight against Ukraine and that what the Russians are doing is an unjustified war of aggression, he addresses their dignity as warriors and soldiers defending the homeland, saying that war in Ukraine would be a disgrace and a stain on [Belarus’s] personal and national dignity... He also calls on officers to refuse orders, and to senior officers, some of whom served under him, to call for action to thwart the possible provisions for assault, even at the cost of dismissal, because honor is more important.

“All these things indicate that the tightening of Western sanctions in the direction of Belarus, which has no currency, gas or oil reserves, and in which the public abhorrence of a dictator is very prominent [and encouraging]. Lukashenko is perceived as Putin’s puppet, they’re less afraid of him, and the Belarusians greatly identify with the Ukrainians (a lot of Belarusian opposition figures live in Ukraine).

“Belarusian and Ukrainian artists are calling on Belarusian citizens to protest, to refrain from fighting at all costs, not to send their children to a lost and murderous war... At the same time, the demonstrations in Russia today against the war are attracting thousands of people, who ‘won the prize’ of violent police treatment. The total number of detainees in Russia among the protesters has already passed 4,000, but people keep coming.

“Opponents of the regime in Russia, cultural figures and exiled figures, such as former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who lives in Europe, are also calling for demonstrations. The mass protests in the West (over 100,000 people in Berlin today) strengthen the opponents. The regime seems to have miscalculated the level of fear, especially of the young people...

“On the southern front, there are many images of Russian vessel convoys that were destroyed by artillery and rocket fire. Perhaps, that is why Putin has ordered a rise in the level of nuclear readiness, as another threatening signal to the West... 

“Meanwhile, within the Russian financial elite there is clearly chaos. The director of the corporate security center of the Gazprombank (one of the arms of the giant gas corporation) committed suicide today by shooting himself in his office. Two of the country’s greatest oligarchs, Mikhail Friedman, who is Jewish, born and raised in Lviv, and Oleg Deripaska, have called for an end to the war and for an immediate start to negotiations.”

BOTH BOGUSLAVSKY and Frumin live in Jerusalem, a city in which the number of ex-Russians and Ukrainians is relatively low. Hence, adds Frumin, there is relatively low interest in this conflict, compared to the active protests happening in the center of the country.

“Most of the ex-Russians and ex-Ukrainians have moved to Bat Yam, Rishon Lezion, Netanya and Tel Aviv, of course. In Jerusalem, we have mostly seniors, those who arrived back in the ’70s or ’90s; those who have arrived after have relatives both in Russia and in Ukraine.”

One more interesting aspect of the local reaction among Russian- and Ukrainian-Israelis is the fact that most of those originally from Russia are standing by Ukraine in this war.

Asked if this is a result of having become full-fledged Israelis, Frumin provides another possibility. “We have to remember that when they arrived in Israel, Ukraine was still a part of Russia, of the Soviet Union. Only those who have arrived in the past few years know a different reality. 

"And of course, these are people who have already experienced life in a democracy, something Russia is definitely not.”