'It was worth living in this country to experience Maidan'
Wearing a kasket cap instead of a kippah in public is a typical Jewish look – this young man could pass as a teacher of national-religious yeshiva, and yet – he is one of the key people in a complex defense system of Maidan and the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street. For understandable reasons, he has asked to remain anonymous in the interview, but remained candid in all other aspects.- So, how did you end up THERE? What does Maidan mean to you, especially as a Jew? - Like most citizens, I came out to Maidan not “for” something, but rather “against” – society, in general, readily consolidates around protest slogans. Before, I did not feel special sentiments towards the government, but the deaths of people crossed the Rubicon. This is what led to the realization that … it’s time to go on Hrushevskoho. I was initially disappointed by what I saw – everything was so disorganized – there was a lack of leadership, a coherent strategy, etc.. Then, unexpectedly, I started partly controlling the course of this protest, even though I did not consider it “my war” in the beginning. I organized defense, barricade construction, and later, at the request of others, I began commanding one of the units. -So you didn’t even come to Hrushevskoho from Maidan? - I have been on Maidan several times and heard the politicians’ incoherent speeches, opposition leaders’ irresponsible statements, while understanding that all these people can cause havoc. Which is what ended up happening, when, after 7 hours of discussions, this trio came out on the stage and started to test the waters for compromise. The people told them to get lost and started moving in the direction of Hrushevskoho, getting ready to go on the offensive, without deliberation about military aspects. I served in the Israeli army and have a clear understanding of anti-terrorist operations, I have myself participated in them, and I just understood that a lot of blood would spill in that moment. Counting the number of people on the barricades, I was convinced that the balance of forces was absolutely unacceptable for offensive operations, so I proposed to take a defensive position and strengthen our redoubts. Today, these barricades look, as they should. The final assurance that I was where I should be came after the storming of Ukrainian House, where I, using the words of “Pirkei Avot”, strived to be a man in a place where there are no men. 1500 people tried to seize the building where there were 200 army soldiers, mostly cadets. If they reached these guys – blood would spill on the other side. We started negotiations that ended with the release of Ukrainian House, without a single shot or victim. - Except for you, are there other Jews in the Maidan self-defense? - Just in my unit, there are 4 Israelis with combat experience, who, like me, came to Maidan because of a desire to avoid unnessecary casualties. I would name our whole group “blue helmets”, analogous to UN Peacekeepers. The atmosphere on Maidan is fairly tense, many people want revenge for the dead, and even more are tired of opposition’s inaction – all of these hotheads are full of illusions regarding real battles and, thus, do not realize the possible consequences. They also do not think about the fact that there are also people on the other side of the barricades, so our actions must not discredit a Maidan “with a human face”. - Have you encountered anti-Semitism, or even just certain condescending attitude, about the fact that you’re Jewish, but also standing with them? I’m talking about the dichotomy: there is a “we” – Ukrainians, and a “they” – Jews, a portion of which are our companions and even friends. Our Ukrainian neighbors also ask themselves the question “is this a Jewish matter?”. - There isn’t even a shadow of such sentiments. I’ve been talking to the “Right Sector”, UNA-UNSO activists since the first days – the same people that I was unlikely to find common ground during the peacetime. Moreover, I position myself exclusively as a Jew, and a religious one. Under my command, there are dozens of resistance fighters – Georgians, Azerbaijani, Armenians, Russians – who don’t even try to speak Ukrainian – and we have never shown any intolerance towards each other. All of them show pronounced respect for my faith – they know what I eat, what I don’t eat, etc., and it does not cause any negative responses. - How much do you and your friends perceive Maidan as a Ukrainian nationalist revolution? Since there are no doubts that this is a nationalist revolution, there is a reason we hear a constant chorus of “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to her heroes!”, the national anthem is sung every half hour ... - The flag and the anthem aren’t party symbols, but public ones, and piety to them is simply necessary. When the anthem sounds in United States, people stand up and nobody perceives its words as a nationalist manifestation. I don’t idealize the protest movement and don’t know if there is really a birth of a new nation on Maidan, but I’m very impressed by some of the processes. For more than 20 years, by all the trappings, Ukrainian statehood presented a rather artificial entity – people did not feel pride in their country. They were cultivated by the old stereotype of “my house is on the edge” (meaning that most things were none of their business); Ukrainians represented themselves as a nation of people who do not care about anything. Nobody expected that, 9 years after the Orange revolution and consequent complete disappointment, people would find the strength to rise once again. On the march of millions, in which I participated, dozens of Jews walked together with “Freedom” party supporters, shouting unpleasant for me slogans. There is little doubt that there is a heavy dose of the spirit of freedom and unity on Maidan. One just needs to walk along the barricades – we haven’t seen this kind of responsibility in a while. In the past I have witnessed how people simply passed by someone who fell on the street. Now suddenly there is civil consciousness – people work all day and stand on Maidan at night, leaving just few hours for sleep. - How diverse is Maidan? How do “Right Sector” and liberals, “Common Cause” and “Freedom” party, and such get along with each other? Is there any loss of control? Or is it a self-developing organism onto which neither the government, nor the opposition has influence? - All of these factions are not the majority, together making up 40% of the protesters. The tendency to not choose a faction is rising, as people are coming just because they feel it is their duty. Moreover, Maidan is a fully manageable organism with a resistance headquarters, whose decisions are carried out by all factions. Other than one incident between “Freedom” party and “Common Cause” (we call them SS), the status quo is maintained... - SS? Is this just an acronym, no more? - No more. There is no Nazi symbolist on Maidan – in none of the factions. - Many of my Jewish acquaintances call to “let the revolution win” and then, they say, everything will form itself – democracy will shove extremists to the periphery of the political process. Do you not think this is a simplification? Usually we actually see the opposite – the well-organized and disciplined radical minority dictates their terms to “spineless liberals”. - Well-organized extremists are a myth. The people that I command are much better organized than radicals. We react much quicker and more effective. There are 30 people under my direct supervision, but I can mobilize up to 300. Neither the OUN, nor the “Right Sector” can indulge themselves in such luxuries. - Draw us the big picture social portrait of a Maidan “defender”. - This is a very mixed bunch – from Azerbaijani salesmen from Privoz market to middle managers from Kyiv. The average age of our men is 27-30 years. There is a roughly equal amount of natives from western, central, and southern regions of Ukraine. The majority does not visibly express any political affiliations. The inhabitants of western regions have more reverence for nationalist liberation movements – this is a family tradition. For these people, the radicals are not associated with model behavior. Tiahnybok and the “Freedom” party, for example, are not that popular in what should be their own support base. In any way, I don’t see obvious leanings to the right. Popular right-wing slogans have begun changing to completely moderate calls towards solidarity and responsibility for the situation. Avoid mayhem, develop self-governance, and do not provide an opportunity to be accused of vandalism. - This is admirable. So who was throwing the Molotov cocktails, then? - Almost everyone – people could not react in a different way to bullets and stun grenades. I’m more than sure that any kind of military action by the government, which prevented casualties – would not cause a similar reaction. Molotov cocktails were the lightest reaction that could have happened there. - Do the people that stand on Maidan understand that a real victory is impossible without the support of the South and the East? Or it is more of a mentality that whoever is not with us, is then against us? - Despite the complexity of the situation, people do not want the split of Ukraine. In two months, peaceful Maidan did not lead to real changes, and only the events on Hrushevskoho, with the tossing of Molotov cocktails and tire burning, produced a reaction from the government. Because of this, we are continuing the confrontation to force the president to make concessions. In other words, we are tightening the noose around the government’s neck, understanding that it is necessary to negotiate. - I’m not talking about the government, for which few people today feel any sympathy, but about the people. The simple people on the other side of the barricades. - There is a mechanism of intimidation at work in the east of the country, exploitations of fears towards “Bandera state”; they are playing the nationalist, and also the Jewish, card. Everybody has already forgotten about the anti-Semitism on the website of “Berkut”, but the government is continuing to formulate a negative image of Maidan, accusing it of fascism and other sins. (Our conversation is interrupted by a call from an owner of a fashion boutique in the center of the city who is thankful to my counterparts for destroying the barricades in front of his store – otherwise, the business would have completely stalled). I want to see Maidan “with a human face”, acceptable to opponents and therefore, I don’t plan to burn any bridges. Of course, we need unification and understanding that this isn’t about political games, but about a more successful future for all of Ukraine. - Are you not upset that the majority of the Jewish society feels, if not full hostility, then skepticism towards Maidan? This isn’t about a Ukraine phobia – 80% of Jews live in regions where Maidan is, softly put, unpopular. Do you have any wishes to bridge these sides, begin dialogue – not with the government, and not even with the general public, but inside the community? - It is very upsetting, unbearable. I’ve already been nudged with statements, such as, maybe we should greet you with “Heil”? This is a complete misunderstanding of the people’s position. I believe that the presence of Jews on Maidan is not only sanctification in the name of the Creator, but also the dialogue of Jews with the future government. This is what will allow Jews to live and work in this country tomorrow. This is significant counterargument to those who yell that this is a ”non-Jewish cause”. With God’s help, when I will be able to show my face, nobody will say that Jewish people sat this one out. Every day on Maidan, the Almighty gifts me some kind of miracle. This one night, we detained an athletic man – he said he was looking for the pharmacy. We thought he was a “titushka”, a provocateur. I approached him to ask what’s the matter. He complains of severe cramps (kidney stones), and says that he needs an injection right away. I personally escort him to the hospital in the Ukrainian House, where they inject him and he feels better. However, sometimes there are real provocations. For example, the arson attack on hotel “Dnepr”. Luckily, we were able to quickly put the fire out using bags full of snow; emergency workers arrived in 50 minutes, when the fire was almost extinguished. - What new things did you realize about yourself, the people, and the country after two months on Maidan? - I was slightly scared of the ability to lead hundreds of people in emergency situations, as I did not have this kind of experience in my civil life. Regarding the atmosphere – I remember during my first day on Hrushevskoho, I came up to the barricades, and suddenly a stranger offered me something with the words: “For the throat”. It was a candy for a cold. At a different time, I was standing near Ukrainian House and I saw a strange group of people. I came up to them and asked them who they are and where they are from. One of them says, sorry, we’re praying here – for the people, for the world ... This is great. It was worth living in this country to experience Maidan. It was worth it. The lack of barbarism amazes me, since 12000 fighters that stand on Maidan and Hrushevskoho could have turned everything in the 10-kilometer radius into dust. A football match that ends “incorrectly” causes more damages in European cities. There is simply no desire for vandalism and the fact that these people are not smashing stalls is evidence of the nation’s health, it is evidence that the situation is not as hopeless as it looked half a year ago. This responsibility is very valuable. In any other places in the world, similar events would lead to tragic consequences – look at Bosnia. If the people haven’t lost their human side after all of this, it means that we grew and we have a future.
Michael Gold, especially for “Hadashot”, conducted the interview. Translated by Natalia Shyrba