Let me get this out of the way at the beginning: Putin and his oligarchs are a threat to the West and democracy. I do not want to see the return of an imperial Russian empire, whether called Russia or Soviet Union. I applaud the almost universal condemnation of Putin’s attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine. I am thrilled and delighted to see his ‘blitzkrieg’ blunted by a brave, but undermanned, underfunded, and under-supplied Ukrainian Armed Forces. I want Putin to fail, in his grab for Ukraine and in the eyes of the Russian people and the world. I hope we successfully cripple the Russian economy, impoverish Putin and his kleptocracy, permanently impair Russia’s imperial ambitions and move the country closer to being a democratic republic.
Now, having said all that I find myself, as an American Jew, completely surprised by my support of Ukraine. I am only two generations from the murder of family in what is now Russia, Poland, and Romanian during the Holocaust,. Given my biases, I was totally flabbergasted when I found out that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish.
You see, my family history tells me that the Ukrainians, second only to the Germans, were the most enthusiastic about the goals and operations of the Holocaust. There is a reason that you often read about the octogenarian ‘Ukrainian’ prison camp/death camp guard being deported or put on trial. After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, “more than a million Jews living in the Soviet Union were murdered by Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” extermination policies.” (Source: Wikipedia) Most of them were killed in Ukraine because pre-WWII, Soviet Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement, of which Ukraine was the biggest part (Source: Wikipedia). This includes the massacre at Babi Yar and the liquidation of the ghetto in Lvov (now Lviv). Over 100,000 Ukrainians joined various forms of Nazi-organized ‘police forces’ to assist the Nazis in these and other endeavors. As far as the Simon Wiesenthal Center can tell, “Ukraine has never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator.” Hatred of Jews existed in the country before WWII, for sure. Ukrainian and Polish pogroms of 1919 caused more than 100,000 Jewish deaths. But WWII institutionalized and industrialized that hatred.
In parallel, the history of Russia and the Soviet Union (of which Ukraine was part), with its hundreds of pogroms over hundreds of years, led my grandfather (from Galicia, now Romania) to observe that Russians “received their antisemitism through their mothers’ milk.”
So, perhaps you can begin to understand why my first reaction to the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine was, to put it nicely, somewhat ambivalent. Or, as my father commented on the Russia/Poland conflict years ago, “couldn’t happen to a better group of guys.”
The most recent actions in Ukraine, including the split from the Soviet Union, the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan (Euro Square, aka the Revolution of Dignity) protests against the refusal by pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych to sign the EU-Ukraine agreement, the subsequent overthrow of Yanukovych, the move towards the West under President Petro Poroshenko and then the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have provided some glimmers of hope that democracy was taking root in Ukraine.
Finding out that Zelenskyy is Jewish, and that he won the election with 73% of the vote in a field of 39 candidates opened my eyes to the possibility that Ukraine was making an honest effort to distance itself from its past. Finding out that Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman was also Jewish bolstered that view. According to Wikipedia, Ukraine is the second country to have both a Jewish President and Prime Minister (I assume Israel was the first).
Putin and former Russian President Medvedev’s prattle about de-nazification of Ukraine is doubly insulting. Russia has been playing the antisemitism card with Ukraine for a while now. (See Center for European Policy article) It does not appear to be working. Russian efforts to convince the West that Ukraine has no other national identity other than Russian also appears to have been, in a word, ineffective. The New York Times reported that most of the harshest resistance to the Jewish leadership of Ukraine was not from the Orthodox Church, but from secular and religious Jews worried that pogroms would reappear if things went wrong (yes, history is a good teacher).
I don’t believe this has eliminated antisemitism in Ukraine. Hell, we can’t get rid of it in our own country. It is likely not that easy to be a Jew in Ukraine. Certainly, it has not been easy even in the recent past (See Forward – I was never allowed to forget). There is, however, some hope it will get better.
These realities have made my even slight ambivalence disappear. I think we should strongly support Ukraine and Zelenskyy. The corrupt kleptocracy of Russia must be thwarted.
I will strongly support any real democracy against authoritarian plutocrats every time. It helps if the democratic leadership is trying to pull the country into the 21st century instead of relying on the old tropes of the 20th.
See, every once in a while the old dog will learn a new trick.
“I need ammunition, not a ride.”
-Volodymyr Zelenskyy, after being offered an escape route out of Kviv