Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti—Independence Square—is a 20-minute walk from where I lived a decade ago. I was a graduate student, researching the historical interaction between the region’s subcultures—especially Jews, Russians, and Ukrainians. I arrived expecting, from my readings on 19th- and even 20th-century Ukraine, these groups to be isolated from one another, and yet their circles, in an independent and rapidly modernizing Ukraine, overlapped.
It was a country where the late actor Bogdan Stupka could move audiences by playing Tevye the Dairyman—in Ukrainian. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution—triggered by protests against a fraudulent election “won” by Viktor Yanukovych—my Ukrainian friends demonstrated alongside Boris Naumovich, an octogenarian veteran of the Red Army with whom I practiced speaking Yiddish. Now, a decade later, an equally diverse coalition has turned out for the past three months again to protest Yanukovych, who over the weekend was ousted from the presidency he took over in 2010, and who appears to have fled to the Crimea.
In independent Ukraine the region’s historically disparate ethnic narratives have converged to allow for a cosmopolitan coexistence. But conflicts on Ukrainian squares have historically reopened divides among the country’s ethnic minorities. In 1881, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries led to the first major outbreak of pogroms against Jews. The failed 1905 revolution led to another wave of attacks. Literary accounts of the 1918-21 Ukrainian civil war describe the escalation from revolutionary protests to anti-Semitic violence. A voice from a chaotic crowd in Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard, set in Kiev in 1918, comes to mind: “We should go to the bazaar and beat up some Jews.”
It appears that those aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin are happy to stir up those old enmities. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has angrily called the leaders of the Ukrainian Maidan movement “armed extremists” and accused them of committing pogroms against the police. Over the weekend, Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, of Kiev’s Chabad synagogue, urged Jews to leave the city and has even reached out to Israel’s Soviet-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, asking for support in the event of anti-Semitic attacks.
It would be convenient for Vladimir Putin if the protesters who have been in Kiev’s Maidan and on city squares across Ukraine all winter could be universally characterized as right-wing, anti-Semitic, ethnic supremacists—and, more to the point, if antagonism toward the country’s Jews could be shown to predominate in the country’s west, positioning Russia as the guarantor of their safety in the East. Make no mistake: It is indeed true that portraits of the Ukrainian nationalist hero Stepan Bandera hang near the Kiev barricades, and that some nationalists have been involved in the current revolution. It is also true that over the weekend a synagogue in eastern Ukraine was hit by fire bombs. But some reports suggest that much of the street violence that has occurred has been initiated by so-called Titushki—thugs hired to turn a peaceful protest violent—and that many of the deaths last Thursday were at the hands of snipers who shot at unarmed protesters. Last week’s escalation of violence helped Russia to justify making official announcements calling on the leaders of the “square” to “end the bloodshed on their end.”
The scene that activists in both the West and the East of Ukraine describe involves diversity without ethnic violence. The Maidan demonstrators have been protesting not only Yanukovych, but also those who would like to see the country divided in two, which would both drastically weaken Ukraine and bolster a Russian imperial presence in the region. The Russian political theorist Aleksandr Dugin has suggested, “Moscow should get actively involved in the reorganization of the Ukrainian space in accordance with the only logical and natural geopolitical model.” Both the governor of the eastern Kharkiv region, Mikhail Dobkin, as well as the mayor of the city of Kharkiv, Gennadyi Kernes, are of Jewish origin, and both have joined Russian proponents of a division of Ukraine into eastern and western segments. Some Internet trolls have made anti-Semitic slurs, but the leaders of the Maidan movement have not.
A great number of protest organizers across Ukraine are Jewish intellectuals: artists, teachers, and academics among others, of varying ages. On Monday, Vadym Rabynovych, the president of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress and owner of the TV channel Jewish News 1, issued a statement characterizing the protesters’ relationship to the Jewish community as “tolerant and peaceful” and suggesting that claims to the contrary are merely provocations. Many prominent Jews have come out in support of the Maidan movement, among them the oligarch Victor Pinchuk, the journalist Vitaly Portnikov, and the artist Alexander Roitburd. My friend and colleague Anatoliy Kerzhner wrote to me of the pointed inclusion of Jewish events on the Maidan platform: Rabbi Hillel Cohen of one of the city’s Orthodox synagogues offered a prayer for peace, the Pushkin Klezmer Band performed Yiddish songs, and scholars lectured about Ukrainian Jewish history.
Some Ukrainian-born Jews who have emigrated to Israel and served in its army have returned to Kiev in order to help the cause by putting their military experience into practice. “Either ethnicity is not important to this struggle yet, or it is not important in general,” my friend Yury Yakubov, a 30-year-old designer from Kharkiv, told me. Moreover, a number of Ukrainian immigrants in Israel have voiced their support of the Maidan. A 10-minute YouTube video shows a string of candid speeches in Russian and Ukrainian by Ukrainian-Israelis in support of Ukraine’s ability to join the European Union as an independent nation. Another video pairs a Ukrainian rap song celebrating independence with images of Ukrainian Israelis holding signs in support of the Maidan.
Now that Yanukovych has left, what is at stake is the preservation not of an imagined Ukrainian ethnic sovereignty, but of a richly multiethnic territory—a country that has over the past two decades worked to knit itself into existence and to acknowledge the complexities and antagonisms of the past. It is a country that encompasses multiple histories—among them Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, Soviet, Hapsburg, and Ottoman. It is a country where you can board a train in Kiev at night and wake up in formerly Hapsburg Chernivtsi, or in Catherine the Great’s Odessa, or in industrial Kharkiv. When Lavrov attempts to resurrect a history of pogroms with his comments about the Maidan he is effectively admitting that he still views Ukraine in 19th-century terms, as a satellite of Russia, which relegated its minorities to the outskirts of the empire, and where diversity was a liability.
Ukraine is still a new country, but its citizens, and particularly its young citizens, see the country’s diversity as one of its great assets. “Look, there is nowhere else we can go,” Yakubov said to me over Skype from Kharkiv last week, just after what has come to be known as “Bloody Thursday.” “So we have to fight for this.”
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