Two Viktors and Ukraine’s Soil

Published December 03, 2004, issue of December 03, 2004.
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Watching the whirlwind that threatened to engulf Ukraine in the wake of last week’s tainted presidential runoff, few Americans would deny feeling some measure of cosmic dread. Right there, before our eyes, in that nation of 48 million along the Black Sea, the fate of the world’s march toward democracy might be unfolding. No one can be unmoved by the sight of tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians braving the snow to rally in front of their parliament and demand that the people’s will be honored. No one can be untroubled by the prospect of nearby Russia, under the growing autocracy of Vladimir Putin, stepping in to reclaim its tattered legacy of empire.

For Jewish Americans the feeling is at once more personal and more ambivalent. We have a long history in Ukraine, much of it painful. The blood of our ancestors colors its soil. We watch the current turmoil with deep trepidation, not only for democracy but also for our brothers and sisters who still live there — at perhaps a half-million strong, the world’s fifth largest Jewish community.

Ukraine is, as much as any place in Europe, the heart of what we call the Old Country. Nine-tenths of us trace our roots to the expanse of the long-forgotten Polish empire that stretched north from the Black Sea through Belarus and Lithuania to the North Sea. Places with names like Chernowitz, Kamenetz, Lutsk and Dubno are imprinted in our genes and on our driver’s licenses. We were there far longer than we have been in America. It was there that the greatest flowering of modern Jewish culture took place, from the Hasidic teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev to the poetry of Hayim Nahman Bialik and the timeless stories of Sholem Aleichem.

And yet, no place more closely embodies the ambivalence that we feel when we look back. Jews are the one great American immigrant group that never harbored any impulse to return. Most of us never even knew we had come from a place called Ukraine; we called ourselves Russian Jews, after the empire that ruled Ukraine through 200 years of tsarist and Soviet tyranny, or Polish Jews, after the medieval kingdom that ruled for 300 years before that. When Ukraine did struggle from time to time to emerge from history’s shadows, it was to our ancestors’ grief. Ukraine’s two national heroes, the leaders of its great uprisings – Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1648 and Simon Petlura in 1918 – are remembered as two of Jewish history’s greatest villains; their armies each slaughtered more blameless Jews than any in history before or since, save only Hitler’s. For all the hubbub about the 23 Jews who came to America 350 years ago, many more — 10,000 times more — spent the 1650s trying to dodge Khmelnitsky’s Cossack butchers.

Few observers believe that the violent Jew-hatred that stained Ukraine for centuries has simply disappeared. Anti-Jewish violence — none of it state-sponsored — has broken out more than once in the 13 years since Ukraine gained independence. If Ukrainians cannot solve their problems peacefully, if they cannot end the current presidential standoff in a civil manner, if they cannot head off the threatened economic crisis that is looming as a result, history suggests that Jews could again be singled out. In no other country do so many Jews face such a political and economic tinderbox — and this in a society that has never been asked to account for its legacy of bigotry.

Both rival candidates, the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Western challenger Viktor Yanushchenko, have gathered forces around them that include some vocal antisemites. Concern is not focused only or even mainly on Yanukovych, heir to the corrupt and autocratic regime of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. Indeed, Yanukovych and Kuchma have allied themselves over the last decade with some of Ukraine’s top Jewish communal and business leaders. Resentment of Kuchma-era cronyism underlies much of the anger driving Yanushchenko’s populist coalition. Though the wonkish democrat has captured the West’s imagination, some of his allies are worrying. We hope the civility of the leaders will carry down to their followers.

Every American, Jews not least, yearns for a triumph of democracy in Ukraine. Our hearts are with the demonstrators standing in the cold, holding out for freedom as others have done in Georgia and Poland and elsewhere. Their courage and determination are an inspiration to democrats everywhere. At the same time, our heads are with the negotiators from Poland and the European Union who are working to bring about a peaceful resolution to the standoff. Washington, for its part, is right to watch the situation closely — and right, too, to hold its fire and let others take the lead for now. Our country may yet have a role to play.

The stealing of elections is repugnant. The only thing worse is chaos.






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