This Jewish Ukrainian professor could still be teaching. He chose to go to war instead.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, a Jewish political science professor was handed a machine gun, and set out to the Eastern part of Ukraine to defend the civic values he had spent years imparting to his students.
At 56, Maksym Gon is no young soldier. And while he was drafted into the Ukrainian army, he did not have to go to war. University professors are exempt from service, and he already had his exemption in hand.
But Gon decided to go anyway. In February, during the first week of the conflict, the army put him on a train to Dnepr, and from there a bus to the front in the Donbas region to join the fighting. He looks forward to the day he can return to teaching and scholarship — Gon has authored several books and more than 200 papers. But he’s not leaving, he said, until he’s killed, wounded or the war ends.
Here is his story, as told to Helen Chervitz, the Forward’s correspondent in Kyiv, who — with the permission of Gon’s commanding officer — interviewed him over WhatsApp and email.
Translated from Ukrainian, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you join the army when you could have remained in safety?
For more than a dozen years I had been teaching students what civic duty is. For me, those words mean something. We must defend our right to freedom in the broadest sense of the word. Ukrainians do not want to become an internal colony of the Russian Empire again. We do not want to return to the totalitarian society that modern Russia is.
Also, I believe that those of us who have already turned gray should be the first to go to war and not the boys who are just beginning to live their lives.
What did your family think about your decision to fight?
My wife supported my decision. My daughter on the eve of the invasion flew with her husband to Egypt on vacation, and then ended up as a refugee in Poland.
We didn’t want to worry our daughter, so we were not totally honest with her. We told her that I was volunteering to help the war effort, always on the road, and could rarely be reached. This went on for some time. Eventually, my wife told our daughter the truth. Despite all the fears, my family understands that it was the right thing to do.
But since the day I mobilized, I have had some trouble communicating with them. The aggressors are fighting not only against the military but also against civilians, mercilessly destroying military but also civilian infrastructure.
What was your childhood like? What was it like growing up Jewish in Ukraine?
I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My brother and I were born in the Western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, and graduated from a secondary school in nearby Rivne.
We were raised in the world of books — there was a huge library in our house. Otherwise our childhood was rather typical: school, sports, music classes.
But I had no experience with Judaism. My parents, brought up under the Soviet regime, were both atheists.
Yet, I was conscious of the fact that I’m Jewish. My father explained that to me when I was in high school, while showing me a book about the Nuremberg trials. There was a part describing the execution of Jews in the town of Dubno, not far from Rivne.
I remember my brother reprimanding me when he learned that I was ashamed of my Jewish roots — to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, I would say, was not considered something to be proud of. But I was not guided by the precepts of Judaism and I remain outside the world of religion. My parents didn’t give us a Jewish education, and the Soviet system definitely didn’t.
In truth, my Jewish identity is far from a determining factor in my decisions and actions. I am among those who oppose the aggressor because I want a simple thing: my daughter, relatives, and citizens of Ukraine as a nation to live in a democratic society. We, Jews and not-Jews, are all united in defending our homeland from a terrorist state for the right to have a future as an independent nation.
Have you experienced antisemitism?
When I was younger, during Soviet times, I served in the Russian army, and experienced prejudice because I was Jewish. This sort of prejudice when I was younger has made me not want to reveal that I’m Jewish.
I will tell you a funny story from when I was in the Soviet army. One day I was sitting in a smoking room with another Jew, Sasha Huberman. Two guys from Central Asia come and turn to us and say: “Guys, we heard that there are two Jews serving in our unit. What do Jews look like? Where can they be found?”
What would you like people outside Ukraine to know about the war?
The democratic world needs to know about Russia’s aggression against the sovereign Ukrainian state. It needs to know about Russia’s many war crimes, and how it’s commiting genocide against the people of Ukraine. I could go on, but Europeans and Americans must understand that Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to restore the Soviet empire, and revive a terrorist state that would threaten everyone.
Are you well outfitted and supplied?
I received a military uniform and a machine gun on the day of mobilization. There was some delay before I received a helmet, body armor, and a first aid kit.
Have you lost friends during the war?
Fortunately, not. But two of them are seriously wounded.
How long are you going to be at the front?
Hopefully until the end of the war. Leaving the front before that means being wounded or killed. But I still have plans for the postwar future. I plan to go back to Rivne University, where I headed the political science department and most recently taught in the Department of World History.
I strongly believe that I still have a lot to say to the youth. I also want to write a book about what I have seen in the war and share my experiences.
How do you feel about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy? What does it mean to you that he’s Jewish?
By and large, nothing. I did not like his populist slogans during the presidential campaign. I didn’t vote for him. But his win signified that Ukrainian society had achieved a level of democracy where it could support any candidate, regardless of his origin or religion.
Zelenskyy has tremendous support now. We will see how his political career proceeds. The image of the Jews in modern Ukraine will largely depend on this.
Have you ever thought about leaving the front?
To be honest, yes. Both the physical and psychological fatigue have taken their toll. The scale of artillery and rocket attacks has not yet significantly decreased in the Donbas, and the prospect of dying or becoming disabled is scary.
However, were I to leave, someone else would have to take my place. It will not be easy for him either, and his relatives will be waiting for him at home as mine do. That’s why I’m not leaving the front lines.
What would you say to young people who have avoided the draft?
In my observation, the average age of soldiers in the Ukrainian army is between 35 and 40, though many young people fight as well. Of course there are those in Ukraine who hide and evade the draft.
I would appeal to their consciences. Sooner or later they will have to ask themselves why they didn’t join the army and failed to protect the 350 Ukrainian children who have already died in this war, and others who have had to endure the horrors of occupation, bombing and shelling. Evading the draft is a moral question, and not an acceptable choice for the vast majority of the youth of Ukraine.
What have you learned from your time at the front?
I know the meaning of human life. I also know — though it would seem unlikely for someone in my profession — how to sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground, and many other skills you learn in the military.
This war has also taught all of us in the army, and Ukrainians citizens in general, that independence is not just a word from the dictionary. Independence is essential for Ukrainians, with its numerous ethnic groups and different faiths, to belong to their communities. That includes, of course, Jews.