Courtesy Boris Zakharov
Boris Zakharov (left) at the frontline near Izium, in the Kharkiv region, in late May, with Boris Redin, a volunteer (right), and Leonid Onishchenko, a member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (center)Courtesy Boris Zakharov
Navigate to Community section

‘There Is Always Room in Life for a Valorous Deed’

As war rages in Ukraine, Boris Zakharov and a network of human-rights activists stretching from Kyiv to Brooklyn are organizing rescue missions

by
Boris Fishman
June 02, 2022
Courtesy Boris Zakharov
Boris Zakharov (left) at the frontline near Izium, in the Kharkiv region, in late May, with Boris Redin, a volunteer (right), and Leonid Onishchenko, a member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (center)Courtesy Boris Zakharov

On March 2, a 52-year-old Ukrainian woman named Galina S. decided to try to drive out of Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv, with her 9-year-old son, Vanya. Hostomel had been occupied since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but Galina declined to follow her stepdaughter Anya Kozmenko out of town the night of the invasion. “I don’t think she could imagine what was going to happen,” Kozmenko said. Along with Kozmenko’s father, Grigoriy Z., also 52, Galina and Vanya spent the next week shivering at home without water, heat, or electricity. On March 2, Galina decided she had to try to leave. (The families’ surnames have been withheld for reasons of privacy.)

At first, “my father disagreed,” Kozmenko told me, but eventually Grigoriy relented. He decided to remain behind on the assumption that women and children stood a better chance of escaping Russian occupation than combat-age males. Galina’s red Citroën C2 had barely turned onto a neighboring street when a Russian infantry vehicle opened fire from behind. She was killed instantly.

Grigoriy heard the shots through his windows. It was too dangerous for him to go outside, so he called his daughter, frantic. Kozmenko had no news until she received a phone call from a woman who lived near the attack. Her husband and brother had crawled out to the car. Vanya’s body was shredded by glass fragments—one of his fingers had been sliced open to the bone—but he was alive. The men carried Vanya to their apartment. The next day, when Russian forces began breaking into local apartments in search of combat-age males, they moved him to a bunker nearby.

It was then that Kozmenko called Boris Zakharov, a former colleague at the Ukrainian-Helsinki Human Rights Union, where Zakharov headed the advocacy center from 2014 to 2018 and Kozmenko still worked as a lawyer. Zakharov called the person in charge of evacuation for the region. “I put them all on their ears,” Zakharov said, an expression in Russian that means roughly to turn a place upside down. “They started planning a rescue operation for Vanya.”

Not many human-rights advocates in corrupt countries with a history of abuse by law enforcement have the kinds of relationships with local military commanders that allow the former to put the latter “on their ears” in requesting a highly dangerous rescue mission. But Boris Zakharov, whose wispy beard, clipped bangs, and curly-haired mullet invoke a cross between Matisyahu and Travis Tritt, is not a typical human-rights advocate.

Zakharov was born in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, the son of Yevgeny Zakharov, a Soviet dissident who formed the first human-rights organization in independent Ukraine. In his early twenties, Zakharov turned to the same work as his father. “I almost didn’t have a choice,” he said. As the host of a hard-charging program on national television, Zakharov brought attention to abuses by the security services and the mistreatment of inmates in Ukrainian prisons. In one case, having to do with a serial domestic abuser who had managed to pay off the local police and judiciary, Zakharov’s investigation prompted the intervention of the national deputy minister of Internal Affairs.

Boris Zakharov with three of his five children—Miriam, now 15; David, now 12; and Amir, now 2—in Odesa last year

Boris Zakharov with three of his five children—Miriam, now 15; David, now 12; and Amir, now 2—in Odesa last yearCourtesy Boris Zakharov

“I developed a good relationship with Internal Affairs,” Zakharov told me, but the security services were unhappy with him. According to Zakharov, before the war, the Ukrainian security services, often working with their Russian counterparts—“their fathers and grandfathers all learned their methods in the same places,” he said—collected substantial bounties for returning dissidents who had found safety in Ukraine, which was relatively open compared to their authoritarian homelands. After Zakharov helped one legitimate Azeri dissident find such refuge, “they tried to set me up,” he said. According to him, an assistant to a parliament deputy invited him to a meeting, ostensibly to get his help with another Azeri dissident, in exchange for payment. “I said I don’t do things for pay,” Zakharov said. “And it didn’t take long to figure out that the assistant was in Ukrainian security, and this ‘dissident’ was actually a Russian agent.”

The risks Zakharov has taken and the far-reaching network of partners and resources that he has developed in two decades as an activist have earned him the begrudging respect of Ukrainian law enforcement. “This was why I was able to call the commander in Hostomel,” Zakharov told me. “Everyone knows me, and I know everyone. I have never used these contacts for personal gain.”

This was possible thanks also to the evolution of the rule of law in Ukraine, certainly as compared to its neighbor to the east. But Zakharov, a Jewish citizen of a nation that has not been kind to its Jews, and someone whose first language was Russian, has evolved too. “I have come to feel a great deal of love and respect for the Ukrainian people,” he said. “Ukraine is like a young person. We are sufficiently emancipated to reject autocracy, but we’re not mature enough to be self-sufficient. Our government is corrupt and our institutions are weak, but when it comes to people organizing themselves, we have plenty of will to say no to attacks on our freedom—that’s why we’re resisting so capably now.”

After Russia invaded, Zakharov was eligible to leave the country despite being of combat age because he was the father of three or more children. (He and his wife Marina, a jazz musician, have five, three girls and two boys ranging from ages 2 to 19.) After evacuating his family to safety, however, he returned to Kyiv to join Ukraine’s territorial defense. But then, he said, “I got a call from Inna.”

He was referring to Inna Fershteyn, a childhood friend from Kharkiv, whose parents, also dissidents, had been close with Zakharov’s. Three decades ago, their paths diverged. “Inna’s family immigrated to the States, and we remained behind,” Zakharov said.

Everyone knows me, and I know everyone. I have never used these contacts for personal gain.

It was Fershteyn who introduced me to Zakharov, as she knew I was trying to understand what was happening in Ukraine. I was born in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, when it was still part of the USSR, but the real reason for my interest was my connection to an older Ukrainian woman who, in the process of looking after my grandfather for more than a decade, had become a dear person to me and my family. In 2014, I followed Oksana to Ivano-Frankivsk, her hometown in western Ukraine, and there acquired the kind of adopted ex-Soviet home that Belarus, on account of its repression and stasis, never managed to be for me. In Ukraine, I found a country as flawed, corrupt, and struggling as its people were generally welcoming, down-to-earth, and mostly concerned with making a better life for the next generation. After much travel to Russia, it was a relief to encounter none of its insecurity complexes and self-aggrandizement. As the war dragged on, Zakharov and I began to speak almost daily. His willingness to open up, without airs or cynicism, to a disembodied voice across the Atlantic felt emblematic of my travels in his country.

Inna Fershteyn is an estate attorney in Brooklyn who believes she is called by her Jewish faith to help those in need. As she says, “There is always room in life for a valorous deed.” She had called Zakharov to ask how she could help those affected by the war. Zakharov told her that hospitals were falling dangerously short on key medicines. Fershteyn began to spread word throughout south Brooklyn, where hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviets live, and reached out to a local pharmacy to ask its owner to serve as a collection point for donations. Within a week, $15,000 had come in, and a dozen boxes of antibiotics, wound dressings, and pain medication went off to Ukraine.

Over the following weeks, the childhood friends became partners in a cross-continental enterprise to help Ukraine. It was bureaucratically cumbersome to ship medicine from the States, so Fershteyn shifted to fundraising, and Zakharov became a humanitarian commuter, driving to Poland to purchase medications and military equipment and delivering them where they were needed in Ukraine. After just a month, with the help of several colleagues, they were feeding and providing financial assistance to nearly a hundred people in Kyiv and its suburbs; supplying medical equipment to hospitals in several cities; and evacuating people in need using vehicles they had purchased. Between these missions, Zakharov tried to help people like Anya Kozmenko.

Working in haste, Fershteyn, Zakharov, and their colleagues formed a group that took on a name as elemental as the work it was doing: World Help Ukraine. Soon, its Facebook page was brimming with posts like “Does anyone knows if volunteer can pick up 1 bulletproof vest from someone in a Kiev?” [sic] It was a round-the-clock effort. “For a month, I woke up at 6 a.m. and never got out of my pajamas,” Sasha Krasny, a nonprofit consultant who has worked with World Help Ukraine, told me. “My kids have been raising themselves.” In their effort to defend Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression, its members, most of them from Ukraine, communicated with each other in the language of their Soviet childhoods, the same language that so many Ukrainians continued to use: Russian.

World Help Ukraine was only one of several such groups in south Brooklyn. The members of these groups share a powerful, idiosyncratic bond: Many are Jews who fled the Soviet Union because they were mistreated by Ukrainians. As such, they constitute perhaps history’s first example of a persecuted minority undergoing substantial sacrifice to aid the people by whom they were once persecuted. In an equally powerful irony, their Ukrainian Jewish colleagues often have very different feelings about being Jewish in Ukraine.

With Volodymyr Chistilin, a Ukrainian journalist and civil-society activist, in the Church of St. John the Theologian in Kharkiv in April. Zakharov's patch, worn by Israeil volunteers in Ukraine, shows the Ukrainian coat of arms inside a Star of David, and says, in Hebrew, 'Ukraine'

With Volodymyr Chistilin, a Ukrainian journalist and civil-society activist, in the Church of St. John the Theologian in Kharkiv in April. Zakharov’s patch, worn by Israeil volunteers in Ukraine, shows the Ukrainian coat of arms inside a Star of David, and says, in Hebrew, ‘Ukraine’Courtesy Boris Zakharov

“I can’t not help,” Fershteyn said. “But I feel uneasy as I do it. Ukraine did not love us.” When Fershteyn’s parents had tried to enroll her in a specialized music school in Kharkiv, they were told that a child with this last name would not be accepted. (Fershteyn is now helping to support a teacher from this school.) “Would the Ukrainians do the same for us Jews if the tables were turned?” she said. “I’m not sure.” She mentioned that Ukraine had voted against Israel on nearly 40 occasions in recent years at the United Nations, and she referred me to an impassioned open letter that a fellow ex-Soviet Jew who has been helping Ukrainians wrote to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish. Zelensky had just excoriated the Israeli Knesset for insufficient assistance and its neutral stance on the conflict, comparing the current plight of Ukraine to the Holocaust. The letter read, in part:

You feel that we owe you because you are Jewish ...
I guess we won’t mention that your children are not only not-Jewish, but have, with your permission, been baptized …
We’ll help ... not because you are a Jew, but because WE are Jews.

The relationship of Ukraine and its Jewry is long and grim. Some of the most significant movements in Jewish life, including Hasidism and Zionism, trace their origins to the country. It was also a place of routine slaughter of Jews. I grew up in Soviet Minsk on a street named for Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who led a 1648 uprising against Polish domination, murdering between 15,000 and 30,000 Jews in the process. When I visited Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine in 2014, I did not see a single commemoration of the fact that before the Holocaust, the town had a Jewish population of between 25,000 and 40,000 (65% of the city’s population, by some estimates), of whom 100 survived. (Oksana’s daughter lives in a town 150 miles away, named Khmelnytsky.)

Was this antisemitism or the oversight of people who still thought of what happened in the Soviet way, that is, as a collective loss without particularized suffering? (The Soviet Union punished commemorative singling out of victim groups during WWII.) Vladimir Putin’s reason for invasion—the de-Nazification of Ukraine—was patently absurd, but so was the claim that it was invalid just because Ukraine’s president was Jewish. “There were Ukrainians shooting at Jews at Babiy Yar,” where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered in 1941, Fershteyn said, referring to the welcome German invaders received from some western Ukrainians, who were less concerned with slaughter of Jews than with assistance in undermining the Soviet occupation.

Zakharov is stranded between people like Fershteyn and those her group is helping. Despite his roots in one Russian-speaking city (Kharkiv) and residence near another (Kyiv), he has learned Ukrainian, in his country an act with more than the usual national overtones. I asked him whether his confederates in New York had failed to see a change in his country—whether in emigrating from a “backward” country to a more modern one, history had actually stopped for them, at least on the question of Ukraine’s relationship to its Jews. Was what I had seen, or not seen, in Ivano-Frankivsk merely a holdover of the same Soviet mentality that led Zelensky to refer to the suffering of his ancestors at the hands of the Nazis as “the war” rather than “the Holocaust”? If Ukraine had changed, shouldn’t I have seen more plaques in Ivano-Frankivsk?

“I grew up in a working-class part of Kharkiv,” he said. “This Georgian kid and I, we used to get beaten up all the time. But Ukraine has changed a great deal. Antisemitism stopped being popular. It’s just my impression, but after Jews emigrated en masse, there was less color in life. And Jews gained a positive association because their identities became vehicles for emigration.” In other words, the reason may have been mercenary, but people wanted to be related to Jews.

“Today, we have some of the lowest levels of antisemitism in Europe,” he said, citing research by the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine. “It’s not a daily reality for me, remotely. Ukrainians are a passionate people, but these days, in my experience, they avoid the extremities. We’re all stomping our feet around the center.” He insisted that the Azov Battalion—once the offspring of two fascist political parties and now a paramilitary unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces that held back, Thermopylae-like, vastly superior Russian forces in Mariupol for nearly three months—has changed. “There are Jews serving in the Azov Battalion today, shoulder to shoulder. Part of it is that we have a common enemy. But it’s also that Ukrainians have changed themselves from the inside.”

There are Jews serving in the Azov Battalion today, shoulder to shoulder. Part of it is that we have a common enemy. But it’s also that Ukrainians have changed themselves from the inside.

Moments of crisis have been pivotal in that evolution, he argued. “It’s development in peacetime that’s difficult. The habit for paternalism takes over, the denial of personal responsibility, the idea that government should solve our problems. But progress comes in waves. It happened after 2004,” when the Orange Revolution denied Viktor Yanukovych the presidency after a rigged election, “and again in 2014. I hope it will happen again after this war.”

When speaking about his childhood friendship with Inna Fershteyn, Zakharov had used the word “unfortunately” to refer to the fact that his family remained in Ukraine while Fershteyn’s parents managed to leave. But it was hard to imagine him wanting to be elsewhere.

On March 4, Zakharov received disappointing news: The commander in Hostomel “had called his people in the field, the people with Vanya in the cellar, even the Russians,” Zakharov said. “They decided they couldn’t do it. The place was encircled.” On March 7, the Russians murdered Hostomel’s mayor, Yuriy Prylypko, mined his body, and left it in the street. Only the intervention of a Russian soldier prevented the death of a Ukrainian priest who was intending to retrieve the body for burial.

There were about 150 people sheltering in the bunker with Vanya. “They took care of him as best as they could,” Kozmenko said. “Bandages, iodine. I spoke to him once a day. There was no power, so you turned on your phone once a day, for two minutes. ‘Vanya? Da. Alive? Alive. I love you. I love you.’ And then you had to hang up.” In the bunker, Vanya was surrounded by unfamiliar people trying and failing to keep private the business of humanity in confined quarters without the relief of utilities: “Grown men defecating right next to him, smoking right next to him,” Kozmenko said, her voice trailing off.

Nearly a week passed this way. On March 9, Grigoriy Z. managed to reach the bunker and reunite with his son. The next day, Russian forces arrived at the bunker and forced all combat-age men to ground level. “They destroyed everyone’s phones,” Kozmenko said. “And they shot all around the men, like a mock execution. Vanya stayed in the bunker, but he was hysterical, because he thought that now they were killing his father.” One of the soldiers nearly broke Grigoriy’s hand with the butt of his weapon. In the end, Grigoriy and Vanya managed to leave the bunker, and Hostomel, thanks only to a humanitarian corridor authorized by the Russians.

The same corridor made possible the escape from Hostomel of another family known to Zakharov: Viacheslav Bodnar, a 56-year-old graphic designer who had done work for the Ukrainian-Helsinki Human Rights Union; Bodnar’s wife, Inna; and his 84-year-old mother, Alisa Ivanovna. As Alisa Ivanovna couldn’t walk—at various points, Bodnar used a pallet, a steel window grate, and a decommissioned chest freezer to haul her to the evacuation point—Bodnar sent out a distress call on social media. It reached Zakharov the morning after the Bodnars had managed to reach Kyiv.

From left: Boris Redin, the volunteer; Zakharov; Bruce (no last name available), a 72-year-old Canadian volunteer; and the French photojournalist Jérôme Barbosa, in late May in Kharkiv's Liberty Square, which housed the Kharkiv regional administration and was significantly damaged early in the war by Russian rockets, one of which is still visible to the right of Barbosa. The banner says 'Everything for Victory' in Ukrainian

From left: Boris Redin, the volunteer; Zakharov; Bruce (no last name available), a 72-year-old Canadian volunteer; and the French photojournalist Jérôme Barbosa, in late May in Kharkiv’s Liberty Square, which housed the Kharkiv regional administration and was significantly damaged early in the war by Russian rockets, one of which is still visible to the right of Barbosa. The banner says ‘Everything for Victory’ in UkrainianCourtesy Boris Zakharov

Zakharov dialed S., a driver. About a month before the war, Zakharov, who did not own a car and took taxis into Kyiv for meetings, had ended up in S.’s taxi. S. shared that he was from Popasna, a small city of 20,000 in eastern Ukraine that had exchanged control several times in 2014, when Ukrainian forces battled pro-Russian separatists for the Donbas region, which the separatists, with Russia’s covert backing, attempted to take over after Russia annexed Crimea the same year. (It is now an epicenter of the fight for the Donbas.) One day during the 2014 fighting, S.’s father had gone out for bread. While he waited in line—Popasna experienced severe food shortages as a result of the conflict—a shell launched by the separatists slammed into the queue, killing him. Before Zakharov got out of S.’s taxi after that first ride, he asked S. to contact the Ukrainian-Helsinki Human Rights Union for help investigating the killing, which the separatists blamed on Ukrainian forces.

S. did not call Zakharov until several days after Russia’s invasion. “He felt unwell morally,” Zakharov said. “He was looking for a mission. The territorial defense didn’t need him because in Kyiv, they were over-subscribed with people with combat experience. He needed to be useful.”

Zakharov asked me not to share S.’s full name because now, in early April, S. was back in Popasna, which was under what Zakharov called “operational encirclement”—one road out remained under Ukrainian control, but it was under constant attack. S. had gone there because his elderly mother continued to live in Popasna, but he had failed to persuade her to leave. So he spirited out those who dared to try, driving back in as soon as he deposited them closer to safety. As a previous resident, S. was on the local conscription rolls, and the Russian military had already called on his mother to demand his whereabouts for mobilization. If he was discovered, he would be killed.

“You have to understand, this man was not some kind of Ukrainian patriot,” Zakharov said. “He’s a Russian-speaking person from eastern Ukraine. He used to work in Russia itself. Before the war, it didn’t matter to him, freedom or no freedom, Maidan or no Maidan, Russia in charge or Ukraine. He’s a simple person, a driver. Life pulled him into this story. Here, even if you’re not interested in politics, politics will become interested in you.”

Our government is corrupt and our institutions are weak, but when it comes to people organizing themselves, we have plenty of will to say no to attacks on our freedom—that’s why we’re resisting so capably now.

On the way to the Kyiv apartment where the Bodnars had managed to find temporary lodging—and their first showers in two weeks—S. and Zakharov stalled at a checkpoint with a lengthy line. To put it modestly, Kyiv is not a grid; on a visit once, I retraced the same kilometer four times on my way from the metro before I found the address on the scrap of paper in my hand. But as a taxi driver, S. had come to know the city closely. He wheeled out of line and drove down side alleys and the wide walkways that border the massive apartment buildings common in this part of the world until they emerged on the other side of the checkpoint.

Zakharov himself carried Bodnar’s elderly mother into S.’s vehicle. At a gas station where a column of evacuation vehicles organized by Zakharov awaited the Bodnars, Zakharov and S. helped them transfer their possessions and wished them an uneventful journey to the relative safety of Lviv, in western Ukraine. Zakharov and S. were returning to Kyiv.

“It was easy to help someone like Bodnar,” Zakharov told me with characteristic serenity. “Getting people out of the occupied areas is the hard part.”

On April 16, Zakharov drove to Poland to pick up a shipment of protective military equipment and medicines funded by World Help Ukraine. He was accompanied by a man named Gerd, a German volunteer from Düsseldorf who works at an oil refinery. “To him, all this is a monstrous injustice,” Zakharov told me. “He was putting up refugees in hotels and feeding them out of his own pocket.” After Gerd, who is not Jewish, reached out to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the umbrella organization of German Jewry, he was connected to Zakharov. Gerd convinced his employers to send gas masks and chemical protective suits, then decided to help Zakharov by driving. Gerd was attempting to rectify a more recent sin than the Holocaust. In his view, Germany’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel had encouraged Putin by sacrificing morals to business interests even after the annexation of Crimea; in his opinion, Olaf Scholz, the current chancellor, was no different.

Zakharov’s ultimate destination was his hometown of Kharkiv, on the opposite end of Ukraine, only 25 miles from the Russian border. “It is rainy and bomby in Kharkiv today,” he wrote me in English on WhatsApp as he and Gerd approached the city on Easter Sunday. Up ahead of them was a vast, bone-colored mushroom cloud caused by explosions in the city center. Zakharov hadn’t told his family where he was going.

In recent days, Russian forces had focused on shelling the residential neighborhood of Saltivka, in northeastern Kharkiv. Citing the neologism of a colleague, Zakharov refers to this as “urbicide”—a variation on genocide through the destruction of urban infrastructure and mass random terror against civilians. “It’s a bedroom community,” he said. “Nothing but schools, hospitals, and those old Brezhnev-era concrete-panel apartment buildings.”

“I’ve never seen such resistance in my life,” Zakharov told me on the phone, after returning home. “If the water main is disrupted, the firefighters, the service workers, the volunteers to clean debris are there in minutes. They just show up out of nowhere. People are even planting flowers under bombardment. People have become very close. We never had this before. The various groups in town never agreed on anything.”

In security-camera footage from Kharkiv he shared with me, a stylishly dressed woman walks down what looks like the courtyard of one such complex, a grocery bag in each hand. As a shell explodes, and several other pedestrians in the frame scatter for cover, she continues walking with straight-backed defiance. In a moment, two shells explode on either side of her, and she crumples to the ground. Then she rises, grocery bags still in hand, and continues walking.

Here, even if you’re not interested in politics, politics will become interested in you.

“It was a very spiritual visit,” Zakharov said. “It has never been such a dear city to me.”

Zakharov returned to Kharkiv to deliver humanitarian supplies in late May. His visit coincided with Russian shelling that killed nine people, including a five-month-old boy. From there, he went to the front line in Donbas to deliver a drone. I asked him how Ukrainian troops were faring.

“They are well provided for,” he said. “Half the country is fighting and the other half is working to get them what they need. There’s an enormous horizontal web of support. Our government is weak, so from a distance, all this grassroots initiative looks like chaos to someone like Putin. He thought he could come in and take it in three days. Well, we loaded our guns and went off to fight. Businessmen, intellectuals, IT people, musicians. My friend was a bassoonist. Now he operates a rocket launcher.”

Will was high, and so was morale, Zakharov said. There was only one thing Ukrainian troops lacked: the weapons to win.

Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo and A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.