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My Hunt for the Cossacks in Ukraine

For no particular reason, I find myself attending a service in a Budapest church that is rumored to be associated with the far-right Jobbik party. There’s no cross in this church, only flags, and quite many of them, depicting Hungary in various historical stages. Some of the flags contain the so-called Árpád stripes, which opponents resent because they were used by the Nazi regime during World War II.

At the end of the service, the people stand on their feet, fervently singing the national anthems of Hungary. The pastor, Dr. Peter Balla, shares with me his frustration at the “Jews” who two weeks ago demonstrated a couple of hundred meters away, near a monument that is being erected by the present government of Hungary.

The monument is said to portray Hungarians during World War II as the angel Gabriel, conveniently ignoring the fact that Hungary collaborated with the Nazis at the time, causing the Jews here to feel offended. But Balla is offended by them.

“The Jews,” he says to me, “used loudspeakers when we were holding a service at the church.” No Jew should be allowed to demonstrate, obviously, when a Christian is praying.

This kind of talk about Jews reminds me of Europe’s darkest moments. I try to learn more from the professor but once I tell him that I’m from New York, he guards his tongue. “It is not true that the Jobbik party is anti-Semitic,” he says to me.

I want to understand this new rise in European anti-Semitism, but I can see that this pastor is not going to offer much help. I wonder where on this planet I should go to in order to stare this phenomenon straight in the eye. Next time, I swear to myself, I won’t mention the words “New York.”

I decide to go to Ukraine, but Ukraine is a huge country and I don’t know where I should go. I settle for Lviv. Lviv, so say the mavens on the websites I’ve consulted, are where the Cossacks come from.

I know Cossacks. Every Jewish kid of European heritage knows of the Cossacks. The Cossacks, we learned when we were little kids, used to tear apart Jewish mothers’ bellies and put live cats inside their wombs. And the Cossacks, I learn from the Web, are back. Not all of them call themselves Cossacks, of course. Some, for example, call themselves Banderas while others are Right Sector nationalists.

I soon find myself in a Russian Railways train that goes from Budapest to Lviv. In my sleeping compartment, I meet my roommate for the ride, a professor of music who takes out his violin and starts playing.

Doesn’t look like I’ll be sleeping much tonight.

But then, the professor stops playing and starts talking.

“First time that ‘Ukraine’ is mentioned in the history books was in the ninth or 10th century — but Ukraine was not the official name at that time. Ukraine was initially called Kyjivsjka Rusj,” he tells me. “I was born in Lviv and I studied history from Soviet teachers. In school they taught us many lies and sometimes the lies get stuck in my brain. To this day I confuse dates and names. Ukraine, you have to know, existed before Russia but the Russians never taught this to us.”

He speaks softly, so that the conductor won’t hear him. “He is Russian,” he whispers. I wonder what he’s afraid of. Does he think, perhaps, that the conductor is a Jewish devil? I try to ask him about Jews, just in case, but he has no clue what I’m taking about.

He goes back to his violin. I try falling asleep but I wake up every few minutes. Eventually, I get off my bed and sit down in the only seat in the compartment. For hours I stare at the darkness outside and when the sun rises, the images that reflect back into my eyes seem otherworldly. What I see is a landscape of green: mountains after mountains, valleys after valleys, all covered in green. I have never seen a sight like this. “Am I in heaven?” I ask my professor. “No,” he says. “You are in the Carpathian Mountains.” I want to jump off the train right now, but I remind myself that I am on a mission to stare into the eyes of fascists.

The train moves on, and finally it reaches Lviv.

My first task in Lviv is to change money. Which in my case is a great thing because moneychangers, as everybody who ever studied anti-Semitism will corroborate, are Jews. But the moneychanger at Lviv’s train station is a young lady more beautiful than Venus, and she doesn’t speak one word in Yiddish or Hebrew. I hand her my passport and she starts filling out documents. Only after I sign three separate documents does she exchange my Euros for Ukrainian hryvnias.

I head over to Lviv’s tourist information office. A young lady stands behind the counter and she is — sorry for being politically incorrect here — even more beautiful that the moneychanger. I never imagined Cossacks to look so beautiful.

“What do you think of Putin?” I ask the lady, trying to strike up a friendly conversation.

She looks around, as if trying to verify that she’s safe.

“I can’t talk,” she blurts out.

I try to get her to talk to me anyway. “Imagine President Putin just entered this room,” I tell her, “and asked you for a date. Would you go out with him?”

She stares at me in disbelief, but her lips don’t move. She gives me a few maps of the city and we proceed to chat about non-political issues. She is a great lady, this Marta, and when she hears my heavenly Carpathian story she finally opens her mouth and tells me that she could direct me to a nice place there, if I really want.

I do, but not today.

I go out and check for a Starbucks. After a night of little sleep I need a few shots of caffeine. Horrifyingly, my eyes can’t spot even one lonely Starbucks. Instead I see endless coffee establishments, all seemingly local.

Lviv’s coffee costs a fraction of a Starbucks in America and I take a sip of the hot black waters.

A sip. Followed by another sip. And then another. And then I buy another cup. And another.

I don’t know how to say this, but I’ve just discovered an amazing scientific fact: Fascist coffee is the best coffee made by humans.

Between the sips I suddenly spot the lady from the tourism office. She has just come here to sip some coffee. “Putin,” she now says to me, “is the worst man there is.”

“Why didn’t you say this when I first asked you?”

“I can’t say this in the office,” she replies.

I walk the ancient streets of Lviv where I encounter some sophisticated street art on the walls depicting a man wearing a Hitler’s mustache, next to a swastika sign.

I approach the images and note that the man portrayed here is Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. A question pops in my head: Could it be that this swastika here is meant to present fascism in a bad light?

“Oil from Jerusalem!” I hear a voice calling, away from the swastikas. I walk toward the voice, which is coming from a place known here as Mary’s Statue at Mickevich Square, where a priest is leading a prayer.

The priest tells me that “in 1917 the Mother of God said in Fatima, Portugal, to pray for the peace of Russia, that Russia may come back to God.”

“Is Putin bad?” I ask.

The priest doesn’t want to answer. First he wants to know who I am. I assure him that I’m not Russian, at which point he tells me that Putin is doing the work of the devil.

I keep on walking but am soon stopped by a long procession of people, headed by priests and nuns holding statues of the Holy Mother and Holy Son, who are parading the streets of Lviv, begging God to implant peace in the heart of the Russians.

I bypass the praying crowd and walk hours in search of fascists but all I find out is this: Lviv is made of beautiful ladies, delicious coffee, parading prayer sayers, and multitudes of people who are scared of the Russians.

I go to eat at a local restaurant where a German journalist is conversing with a young lady. I eavesdrop on the conversation. “English is a very simple language,” he teaches her in perfect German.

I butt in, as if this is my business, and talk with them. The lady tells me that she is working for a German foundation. The German government, she tells me, is investing millions of euros in Ukraine. What for, I ask. She says she wouldn’t mind telling me, but she’s on her way to Kiev — that’s where the famous Maidan is, the square where the revolt against Yanukovych’s government started. A thought comes to me: Perhaps the fascists are there.

I take another train, and I reach Maidan a day later.

The fashionable square and nearby streets are packed with tents of every size, burned-out army vehicles, and men dressed in camouflage. No one, as far as I can tell, is a real soldier. A number of them carry baseball sticks, in case some “separatists” — people who would like Ukraine, or part of it, to join Russia — show up.

“Can you tell who’s a separatist?” I ask one of them.


“How can you tell?”

“Separatists have a Russian accent.”

Past him, I see some older Ukrainians in a tent, drinking coffee.

“Where are you from?” one asks.

I’m not going to say New York, again, and so I say “Germany.”

Bad choice. He gives me a speech: “When Yanukovych’s government killed the people here, Yanukovych was sitting with Angela Merkel in Germany, drinking coffee with her.”

“Are you amember of any party?” I ask.

“Right Sector. All my friends here, too.”

Right Sector. Oh, yes, these are the real Cossacks.

Strangely though, these nationalists — who according to media reports are fighting against the establishment of Russian as an official language in Ukraine — speak interchangeably in Russian and Ukrainian.

I take a closer look at them.

Their busiest activities are: drinking coffee, smoking, kissing and then drinking some other stuff. They also sell rolls of toilet paper with the image of Yanukovych sticking his tongue out on each sheet.

I check my surroundings and notice that besides the fake soldiers there’s no sign of government here: no police, no army, just funny toilet paper.

I walk over to my hotel, the Khreschatyk, which is right next to the trade union building that was set on fire during the earlier stages of the revolution. There are splashes of pink circles on the deserted, blackened trade union building, but my hotel is beautiful. As I enter the lobby, the word “mafia” comes to my mind. On one side of the lobby there’s an “Apple Store,” with a huge and “authentic” Apple logo. Here they sell, for example, discreet mobile phone recorders, but not a single Apple product. Across the lobby is a huge, heavily guarded hall packed with 20-year-olds playing poker. The players look as though they’re children of oligarchs who have nothing better to do with their time. And then there’s another establishment in this building, a nightclub where, I’m told, I could get myself a prostitute for $1,000 a night.

I go out and meet a young Ukrainian lady who works for a German and EU-sponsored Ukrainian NGO that is attempting to introduce “green living” to Ukrainians through a bicycling program. Kiev should look like Hamburg, she says, and everybody should be biking here. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand. Unlike Hamburg, Kiev has many steep roads and biking wouldn’t be easy. Not to mention the enormous cost that this will incur.

Why? The only reasonable explanation that I can come up with is this: Powerful Europeans want to create a new human species, a European man and woman who look the same, think the same, feel the same, and eat the same. This new species will worship the environment, be healthy, support gay marriage, support Palestine, stop smoking, fight climate change and bike forever.

I share this with the lady and she seems offended.

I bid her goodbye and resume my search for Fascists, talking to everybody who has a mouth and a pair of ears. Yet, the word “Jew” never emerges from their lips.

Am I missing something here?

To find out, I go to the Jewish community center in Kiev and talk to one of the community’s chief leaders. To protect himself from potential foreign elements, the man tells me, he prefers to speak anonymously: “It is a lie to say that the Right Sector is anti-Semitic. The anti-Semites are the Russians, who try to recruit Ukrainians to hurt Jews so that they could later on say that the ‘Ukrainian fascists’ did some horrible things.”

“Who are the foreign elements you are afraid of?”

The Russians, he tells me, might eventually invade Ukraine and they will take revenge on him for talking to me.

A representative of a German institution, which funds Kiev to the tune of millions of euros yearly, turns sour after I ask him one simple question: What would be different in Kiev today had the millions upon millions in German funding never existed? “This kind of questioning is not journalism,” he yells at me. “Who are you working for?”

Dual Loyalties: Nathan Chazin wears a Star of David and the uniform of the Right Sector. Image by Isi Tenenbom

But not all people refuse to go on record: For example, Natan Chazin, who wears the uniform of the Right Sector. Natan, who is presently commanding a Right Sector battalion in the eastern part of Ukraine, has added a Star of David image onto the black-and-red insignia. He tells me he was captured by separatists in the east and for 24 hours he was not given anything to eat or drink.

“How did you get out?”

“I prayed to God and he saved me from them.”

Of his battles in the east, he tells me: “We are having a civil war, and in this civil war there are hundreds of spies from Russia who are managing this war. We just captured a few separatists and they told us how they were getting commands from Moscow and how they were getting motivated by Moscow.”

“How?” I ask.

“The Russians paid them thousands of U.S. dollars.”

Chazin lived in Israel as well, and even served in the IDF, but he says he loves Ukraine. “Ukrainians,” he tells me, “are sophisticated people but without discipline. They are people who wait for the Messiah to help and save them, instead of taking matters into their own hands and changing their lives on their own.”

“Which is your nation?” I ask. “Ukraine or Israel?”

“Ukraine is my home, not my nation. I’m Jewish, sadly.”

“Will you marry a Jewish girl?” I ask.

He bursts into laughter. “That mistake I already made,” he says.

As evening comes I go to the main synagogue, which is packed with worshippers. When Chazin enters, young Jews rush to hug him.

Outside in a park I meet Oksana and Natally, both students. I show them Chazin’s picture and ask if they recognize him.

“Right Sector,” both of them say.

I point at the Star of David and ask, “What does this star mean?”

“A six-pointed star.”

“What is it?”

Oksana checks in Google; neither of them has ever heard of the Star of David.

My search for the horrible Cossack fascists seems to yield nothing. Could it be that the rabbi is right and that the story of Ukrainian fascism is nothing but a malicious invention of Russia under Putin?

From here, I go to a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains. This I know for sure — even a blind man will be able to find fascists there. I get off at the Slavsko train stop where, I have been assured, a representative of the hotel will be waiting to pick me up.

Paved With Good Intentions: The author finds that the roads in the east could use a bit of attention. Image by Isi Tenenbom

And indeed he’s here. Or, more exactly, three men are here: a very handsome man in a red jacket, a tough-looking soldier carrying a huge gun, and an interpreter.

They are Banderas, named after the all-time legendary Ukrainian fascist, Stepan Bandera.

I take a closer look at the man in red, who seems to be the leader of the group, and ask him, “Are you an oligarch?”

He bends down, lays his hand just above the ground and says: “Small oligarch.”

We walk to our pick-up car. Or, better said, a van. Well, not exactly that either. You need some really good military training just to get into this camouflage-painted hell of a van. It is, by all appearances, a military vehicle.

“What vehicle is this?” I ask.

“A NATO tank,” one replies.

I laugh. There might be no law and order in Ukraine, but “NATO” is here.

It is now time, as it is in any ordered society, for us to be introduced to each other properly.Bandera/Right Sector style, that is.

I say, “Slawa Ukraini,” loosely translated as blessed be Ukraine, and they respond, “Geroyam slawa,” or blessed be the heroes.

This ceremony done, the NATO tank rides the Carpathian roads, which require a master driver to maneuver them. The scenery is a green paradise, but the roads are a totally different story. I have never seen anything like this: potholes everywhere I look.

While we are riding, the man in red introduces himself to me. He is Volodymyr and he is the owner of the Vezha Vedmezha hotel in Volosyanka, which is near Slavsko. Sergiy, a friend of Volodymyr, is serving as interpreter today, and then we have the soldier.

The hotel looks more like a castle — proudly built by Volodymyr, the NATO tank owner.

I enter my multi-level suite, and it strikes me that this castle was probably designed for Russian oligarchs. I am taking in my surroundings when Volodymyr informs me it’s time to get going.

“To do what?” I ask.

“Well, how about shooting with some lovely guns?”

We go to Volodymyr’s shooting range, decorated with the flags of both Ukraine and the Right Sector. I get a nice uniform, guns, plenty of bullets — and I shoot. I yell “Putin” and my bullet falls on number nine — almost a perfect shot.

I came all the way to this country to find fascists and here I am shooting bullets while dressed like a modern-day Cossack.

Along the way, Sergiy, the interpreter, tells me that he’s Jewish. “How about Volodymyr?” I ask him. “Volodymyr’s great grandfather was Jewish,” he tells me.

Volodymyr is also a faithful Christian, and in a few minutes, he tells me, he’s going to church.

I ask if I could join him. He is happy to oblige and we drive to the church in a Russian off-road vehicle that he calls a “Russian Mercedes.”

“Tell me,” I ask the guys, “when were these roads last fixed, before Stalin or after?”

Nobody knows.

We reach the church. The words “Freedom or Death” greet us at the entrance, plus one big Right Sector flag. Inside, men stand on one side, women on the other, reminding me of an Orthodox synagogue in New York.

When the service ends, worshippers ask Volodymyr to help them against outsiders who frequent the area and uproot its trees for their lumber business. There is a governmental agency, called Lviv Forest, which was put in place to stop the theft of forest trees; but the problem is that this very agency protects the thieves, not the trees.

Volodymyr listens to the people, and I can see the pain on his face. He loves them and he wants to help them, but how do you fight a corrupt government? Maybe that’s why he has his NATO tank.

Here’s an old lady and her even older mama, and Volodymyr gives them a nice bottle of alcohol with a cross on it, plus a box of chocolates.

Would I like to see how people live here? Volodymyr asks me. “I would love to,” I say.

We drive in the Russian Mercedes to a simple house among the trees, where Olyshka serves us lunch. What a lunch! She and her family, I learn, live from the land and the animals roaming on it. They have cows, pigs, chickens and a field where fruits and vegetables grow. Would I like some milk? she asks me. Fresh means unpasteurized, which is poured into a cup by Olyahka straight from the “manufacturer,” her cow. Oh, Lordy Lord, what a taste! Pure heaven. Olyshka also gives me sour cream. Wait, no! This sour cream is anything but sour. It is sweeter than any ice cream I ever tried.

Then, between a sip of milk and a lick of cream, the thought dawns on me: These sweet people are supposedly the horrible Cossacks of Ukraine. I don’t know if I should laugh at the face of the arrogant West or cry before the image of these wonderful Ukrainians. There’s something sweet about them, the simplicity of their love and of their generosity. Maybe this is the beauty that so appeals to me, and maybe that’s what the West and Russia want to eradicate.

Raped by Russia and ridiculed by the bike-lane builders of the West, Ukrainians have nowhere else to go to but to the Holy Mother and Her Son. Does this make them fascists?

On the following morning Volodymyr takes me to the train station, accompanying me on my way out. “Slawa Ukraini,” he says unto me, as I mount the train. “Geroyam slawa,” I respond. The train conductor, an obvious Putin supporter, raises his voice at me. “Adolf Hitler!” he calls me and then adds: “Jew!”

Yes, whoever said that there were no racists in Ukraine?

Back in Hungary I go to see the demonstration around the questionable monument. About 40 special unit police, equipped with pistols and video cameras, are taking photos, sometimes close-up, of government opponents.

Fascists, real fascists, are here, and they are proud members of the EU.

Tuvia Tenenbom is the author of “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.” He is currently working on his second book, “Along Among Jews.”


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