Putin's Phantom Pogroms
Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and his government have been deft at using the history of Ukrainian anti-Semitism to their advantage. At his first news conference after moving his troops into Crimea, Mr. Putin described right-wing fanatics in Kiev wearing armbands with swastikalike symbols, warning that, in upcoming elections, “like a Jack-in-the-box, some nationalist-type or semifascist element ... or some kind of anti-Semite could pop out.”
His foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, has repeatedly tried to discredit the revolution that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president last month by calling it a “pogrom.” The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, likened the demonstrators to the Ukrainian fascists who collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II.
This is more than merely a cynical ploy. In invoking Ukraine’s history of anti-Semitism, Mr. Putin and his deputies are not so much trying to appeal to the at least 70,000 Jews there today as to the millions of Russian speakers (many Jews among them) who have watched with ambivalence the toppling of statues of Lenin — still a symbol for older Ukrainians of the triumph of communist internationalism over Nazism. They are also proposing a high-stakes bet: If the true fascist nature of Ukraine’s new leaders emerges, naïve Westerners, including President Obama, will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
For many American Jews, the familiar narrative about Ukraine is that the lucky ones got out. The instability following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to the first major wave of anti-Jewish pogroms. “Fiddler on the Roof,” set in 1905 and based on stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, born in what is today Ukraine, ends in the wake of a pogrom with Tevye leaving for the United States.
Deeper in Jewish collective memory is Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossack commander, or hetman, who led an uprising against the Polish magnates in 1648 that included a massacre of Jews, who had economic and social ties to the Polish overlords.
The 20th century was especially horrific for Jews living in the Ukrainian territories. The Russian Civil War of 1918-21 brought the worst pogroms, killing tens of thousands of Jews.
During World War II, around 1.5 million Jews were murdered on the territory that is now Ukraine. Some of these died at the hands of ethnic Ukrainians: When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the ultranationalist leader Stepan Bandera saw an opportunity to carve out an independent Ukraine; in the process, his forces killed Poles and Jews. (The Soviets were hardly popular, given the deaths of about three million Ukrainians in 1932-33 during Stalin’s program of collectivization.)
When Mr. Putin or his supporters compare the protesters in Kiev to followers of Bandera, they are implicitly raising a question of comparative genocide. So far, thankfully, the people of Ukraine haven’t taken the bait.
Despite an anguished history, the past decade has been a time of significant rapprochement between Ukrainian Jews and their countrymen, particularly among cultural and intellectual figures.
The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy has partnered with the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine to create a Jewish Studies degree program. Outside Ukraine, organizations like the Canada-based Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter Initiative have encouraged dialogue. Scholars of Ukrainian literature, like Myroslav Shkandrij of the University of Manitoba, and of Jewish history like Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern of Northwestern University, have helped to complicate the narrative of animosity, recalling Ukrainian writers’ varied portrayals of Jews as well as Jews who wrote in Ukrainian.
This progress may be slow and incremental, but its fruits were vivid this winter, as Ukrainians of all backgrounds protested a corrupt president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, and his ties to Mr. Putin’s Russia. Representatives of numerous ethnicities were present, and died, on Kiev’s Independence Square.
One of Ukraine’s most influential Jewish figures, the American-born rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich of Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, said of the allegations of anti-Semitism that “the Russians are blowing this way, way out of proportion.” Rabbi Bleich, who is also a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, is helping to raise funds to finance security for synagogues and mosques.
Far from being controlled by neo-Nazis, the new government includes several members of ethnic minorities, including Russians. The new government has an Armenian minister of internal affairs and a Jewish deputy prime minister. To be sure, Jewish leaders are present on both the pro-Western and pro-Yanukovych sides.
Kharkiv, an ethnically diverse but mostly Russian-speaking region in the east, has become a locus of conflict. Throughout the winter, pro-Western protesters gathered in the city’s square, until Mr. Yanukovych fled Kiev. The following week, on March 1, pro-Russian demonstrators suddenly emerged, bearing Russian flags and wearing orange-and-black St. George ribbons — a symbol of Russian military pride.
My friend Yury Yakubov, a Jewish activist in Kharkiv’s anti-Yanukovych movement, summed up his frustration with the sudden pro-Russian demonstrations in a darkly humorous post on Facebook. “I have high hopes for Purim,” he wrote, promising that “we’ll drink until we can’t tell the difference” between Kiev’s Independence Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum in the Kremlin. (A Purim tradition involves inebriation to the point that one can’t tell the difference between Haman, the antagonist of the Esther story, and the heroic Mordechai.)
Mr. Putin may be betting on the fascists and anti-Semites, but those who support a democratic Ukraine see the opportunity for democracy in a diverse society. In an open letter of March 4, a group of Ukrainian Jewish leaders wrote to Mr. Putin, “The Jews of Ukraine, as all ethnic groups, are not absolutely unified in their opinion toward what is happening in the country. But we live in a democratic country and can afford a difference of opinion.”
An emerging progressive left wing, driven by students, has countered the right-wing involvement in the new government by agitating for educational and economic reform. Slowly, activists like these are changing the narrative about what it means to be Ukrainian. Those of us watching from afar must be willing to do the same.