Kiev Is Full of Hope — Yes, Even for Jews

Did Putin Inadvertently Do Ukraine a Favor?

Better Than Ever: A woman walks through Independence Square on May 22, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.
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Better Than Ever: A woman walks through Independence Square on May 22, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.

By David E. Fishman

Published June 29, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.

On a recent Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Kiev, I noticed a few peculiarities — due certainly to the undeclared state of war between Russia and Ukraine for the past three months. The check-in agent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport called security to report that an American named Fishman was flying to Kiev, and asked if security wanted to question me. (The answer was, thankfully, “No.”) By contrast, passport control at Kiev’s Boryspol airport greeted me with a broad smile and a “Welcome to Ukraine.” Other male passengers, who were carrying Russian passports, were given a very different reception: Passport control handed them over to Ukrainian soldiers, who escorted them to private rooms for questioning. A reminder that a war was going on.

This was not my first visit to either city. I direct a program for the Jewish Theological Seminary that is based at Russian State University for the Humanities, and our program has a coordinator in the Ukrainian capital. But this was my first trip since February, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, and March, when Russia annexed Crimea and began destabilizing eastern Ukraine. It felt like I was visiting two entirely new countries.

In Russia’s case, it is an old-new country (with apologies to Theodor Herzl), a trimmed-down, toned-down version of the USSR. The average citizen, who gathers his or her news exclusively from state-run television, is proud that Russia is strong again, that it can overwhelm adversaries and defy the West. And the professors

I talked to at RSUH, none of whom is your average Russian citizen, fell into two categories: There were those colleagues who toed the official line (“What happened in Kiev was an American-sponsored junta”; “Ukraine is not really a country, it’s part of Russia”). This was jolting, because the same professors had been virulently anti-Putin just a year or two ago. I concluded that while they probably didn’t believe what they were saying, they couldn’t afford the luxury of speaking otherwise, because it would harm their careers. Those who have decided to block out public affairs from their consciousness and to focus on their jobs and families were a second type of colleague. People in that group are also talking about emigrating or — if they are Jewish — making aliyah. It was all quite familiar from Soviet times, and quite depressing.

Kiev, on the other hand, is a city reborn. I hadn’t expected life to be so normal and vibrant: Cafes were full, students were finishing up the school year — and there was no sign of armed men on the streets. The fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk seemed to be far away. In Kiev, everything is charged with energy, hope and worry. People are optimistic that the government, economy and society will be reformed along Western lines in the aftermath of the revolution and the election of a new president. Their fear is that their country is at the mercy of Putin’s designs.

I went to Kiev to attend the forum “Ukraine: Thinking Together,” organized by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. The event was a gathering of American, European and Ukrainian intellectuals — in part to analyze the state of affairs, and in part to express solidarity with the struggling Ukrainian nation.

As is often the case at such conclaves, a high proportion of the participants were Jewish: the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and the former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner; the American political analysts Paul Berman and Carl Gershman; the Russian dissident journalist Alexander Podrabinek; the Ukrainian artist Alexander Roitburd, and so on. But amid the audience of some 400 people, nearly all of them Ukrainian, I was one of two attendees who wore a yarmulke. (The other was the journalist Konstanty Gebert from Warsaw.) The reaction to my presence, as I mingled at the coffee breaks and receptions, was interesting: I got a lot of unsolicited smiles from total strangers. A few of them came over to greet me, and said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” They were visibly grateful that the Jewish people, as represented by yours truly, were in solidarity with Ukraine.

I said “Thank you,” and didn’t have the heart to tell them that most American Jews who wear yarmulkes (and many others who don’t) are not in solidarity with either Ukraine or Russia. They wish a plague on both the Ukrainian and Russian houses, and are very happy that most Ukrainian Jews left for Israel back in the 1990s and now live far away from this conflict (though they are in the midst of another one).

Putin has inadvertently done a great favor to the people of this country. He has united and consolidated Ukrainian society. People who had been skeptical or antagonistic toward the Maidan movement, and toward the toppling of Yanukovych, were nonetheless incensed by Putin’s subsequent aggression against Crimea and the East. They rallied behind the new regime in Kiev once it became clear that the survival of a sovereign and independent country was at stake. These former skeptics and opponents — and the majority of Ukrainian Jews were in that category — are now pro-Maidan. In the recent presidential elections they voted for Petro Poroshenko, in part because he was like them, a man who had switched sides. Poroshenko served as a minister in Yanukovych’s Cabinet until 2012, but later played a prominent role in the Maidan protests.

The Russian propaganda line that the revolution was the work of fascists and anti-Semites offends Ukrainians. While this was a useful rallying cry in Russia, in Ukraine it had an opposite effect. Ukrainians are determined to show the world, and to show themselves, that they are not as they are portrayed on Russian television. Voices calling for tolerance, pluralism, multiethnicity, and multilingualism now dominate public discourse. While some of this talk is instrumental — to curry favor with residents of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine so that they do not support separatism, and to garner support from Europe and the United States — more and more, people are internalizing their own words about pluralism and mutual respect. The largest placard in Maidan square reads, “We love Russians, we despise Putin.” On the ground beneath it, candles are arranged to spell “There is no fascism here.”

Before the election, Poroshenko made a campaign stop in Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The purpose of his trip wasn’t to court the “Jewish vote” back home (which is minuscule) or to seek Jewish campaign contributions (as a billionaire businessman, he didn’t need to worry about money). Poroshenko wanted to express his solidarity with Jews and the Jewish state, in full view of the Ukrainian electorate, and give the lie to the charges of fascism and anti-Semitism. Even if it cost him votes.

On Passover this year, Bishop Simeon of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Dnepropetrovsk visited the city’s Jewish community center, where he greeted chief rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky and wished Jews a happy Passover. While Bishop Simeon has served in this ecclesiastical position for five years, it was his very first visit to the JCC. Such a public display of friendship toward the Jewish community would not have taken place before the revolution. Need one mention that 100 years ago, Orthodox priests would have expressed very different “views” about Jews during the Passover and Easter season?

Jews are now considered the most loyal, patriotic ethnic minority in the country (second only to the Crimean Tatars). The Ukrainian opinion-making elite was impressed by the full-page advertisement that Jewish leaders published in The New York Times in the form of a letter to Vladimir Putin, telling him that they did not need or want his “protection.” Most Ukrainians know that a Jewish squadron fought in the revolution (led by Natan Khazin, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces), and that three Jews were among the “heavenly hundred” — the fighters, demonstrators and innocent bystanders whom Yanukovych’s snipers shot dead. For the first time in Ukrainian history, the country has national heroes and martyrs who are Jewish.

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