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Are Jews in Ukraine Under Threat?

Racist nationalists are not determining the direction of the Maidan movement

Amelia Glaser
March 01, 2014

The amount of recent discussion about Ukraine’s ethnic minorities among bloggers and academics may seem surprising, given the larger political issues at stake—like who will lead the country, and whether Ukraine is at risk of division. I have waded into this conversation, arguing that the concept of “pogroms” is being manipulated in discussions of the Maidan movement. Adam Weinstein, while hopeful about the Maidan, undercuts his optimism with the rather hyperbolic statement that “No side is especially friendly to Jews or any other religious, ethnic, or sexual minority, because this is Ukraine.” In a recent interview, the historian Alexei Miller has disturbingly linked the protesters to fascists, claiming that “people who are ready to die are also ready to kill.”

Ironically, as Putin’s government actively discriminates against gays and lesbians, some Kremlin-aligned onlookers evoke historical ethnic tension in Ukraine as a way of undermining the uprising that ousted Yanukovych. What is the impetus for this concern with Ukraine’s minorities? This discussion may be, in part, a proxy for an implied concern about Ukraine’s Russian, and Russian-speaking, population.

Besides Ukrainians, the country is home to multiple ethnic groups including, among others, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Poles, Romanians, Germans, and of course, Russians. Relations between these groups played a role throughout previous epochs of Ukrainian history, from the 17th Century Khmelnytsky uprising to the Ukrainian Civil War of 1918-21. Those who support the future of a diverse Ukraine have good reason to place the safety of the country’s minorities at the forefront of their agenda. The participation in the current uprising of the “Pravyi sektor” (Right Sector) and “Svoboda” (Freedom) parties, which have historically aligned themselves with other neofascist groups in Europe, has understandably raised concern internationally, especially among Jews.

However, an issue that will affect far more people in Ukraine is the language question. In one of its first acts after Yanukovych’s ouster, interim parliament overturned a 2012 language law that granted regions the right to have more than one official language. The decision was an act of further separation from Russia, culturally and politically. This hasty reversal came as a shock and may be the revolution’s first blunder. To the credit of the Ukrainian people, there were immediate protests. In Lviv, a stronghold of Ukrainian national sentiments and Ukrainian language activism, residents came out en masse for a day of “Russian language” in solidarity for their Russian speaking compatriots to the East. The angry response to the parliament’s gesture demonstrated the importance of resisting any attempts to criminalize the Russian language.

Racist nationalists are not determining the direction of the Maidan movement. Despite strong differences of opinion among their constituencies, the leaders of the Maidan movement have displayed admirable pragmatism. The new Ukrainian government, including members of “Right Sector” and “Freedom,” has resisted immediate confrontation in Crimea, where pro-Russian and pro-separatist sentiments are mounting. One contender for Ukraine’s next president is Vitaly Klitschko, the former boxing champion whom right-wing bloggers have long attempted to prove is Jewish.

Those who cite historical animosity between Jews and Cossacks as evidence against the interim government are ignoring the complexities of history. Yes, Jewish blood has been spilled over the centuries in Ukraine. There is a long history of complex interaction, including violence, but also cultural cross-fertilization between Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians (not to mention Poles, Tatars, Romanians, and others) in the region. The Odessa Jewish writer Isaac Babel illustrated this in his Red Cavalry tales, set in the fractured Ukrainian territories of 1920. His Jewish protagonist, Liutov, stops before the grave of Rebbe Azriil, “Killed by Bogdan Khmelytsky’s Cossacks.” But in another story Liutov halts together with his Ukrainian comrades in arms, as an old singer tells them of the heroic Cossacks. “We listened to the song in silence, then unfurled our banners and to the sounds of a roaring march tore into Berestechko.” Ironic as the combination of these passages seems, Babel recognized that Ukraine could accommodate multiple historical narratives. And yes, the new Ukraine, which will hopefully be free to determine its own fate independent of economic and political pressure from Moscow, will have to accommodate its Russian population as well.

Amelia Glaser is associate professor of Russian and Comparative Literature and director of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands. She is a contributor to the most recent issue of Polin, which was devoted to Jewish-Ukrainian relations.

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