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Jews, Israel Take Center Stage in Ukraine’s Surreal Presidential Contest

With a Jewish comedian favored to win this weekend’s first round of elections, Tablet reflects on 20 years of progress with the current head of Ukraine’s Jewish community, Boris Lozhkin

Vladislav Davidzon
March 29, 2019
Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends the rehearsal of his comedy show, 'Liga Smeha' (League of Laughter) on March 19, 2019, in Kiev, Ukraine.Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends the rehearsal of his comedy show, 'Liga Smeha' (League of Laughter) on March 19, 2019, in Kiev, Ukraine.Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

On Sunday, the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections will take place, pitting almost 40 registered candidates against one another. Polling shows that only nine percent of the population identify themselves as happy with the direction of the country. In the final weeks, the race has narrowed to three candidates, one of whom will not make it to the second round runoff on April 22: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister and political prisoner Yulia Tymoshenko, and the comic television actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy. As of press time, Poroshenko seems like the odd man out.

Ukraine’s Jewish population numbers 250,000, making it one of the largest in Europe, and can appear to wield both practical and symbolic influence far beyond its numbers. At the end of January, Poroshenko took a break from an increasingly frenetic election campaign to pay a visit to Jerusalem in order to sign a long-awaited free trade accord, seven years in the making, which is expected to raise annual trade between the two nations above the symbolic billion-dollar threshold. The speech that followed the deal’s signing reiterated a now popular Ukrainian trope: Surrounded by powerful enemies after centuries without any concrete experience of self governance, Ukrainians should emulate the Israeli experiment.

But Poroshenko isn’t the only candidate playing the Jewish card: Zelenskiy, the current front-runner, is a 41-year-old Jewish comedian whose primary suitability for the job is his experience playing a school teacher who becomes president of Ukraine due to a surreal turn of fate. If Zelenskiy actually does become president of Ukraine, which now seems entirely possible, it will be one of the more spectacularly consequential cases of life imitating art.

The show that served as the platform for Zelenskiy’s political rise, Servant of the People (now also the name of the candidate’s political party), was a hit on a station owned by Igor Kolomoisky, a wickedly funny Jewish oligarch who is also caricatured on the show—and who may or may not be backing the young comedian for the sake of revenge against the president. Kolomoisky, who is living in Israel for the duration of the election, is in the midst of a dispute with the government over a billion-dollar-size hole in the balance sheet of his since-nationalized Privatbank, which he is alleged to have used as a private piggy bank. Yet after five years of war, a 70-percent depreciation of the currency, and widespread exasperation with the pace of reforms, Ukraine’s young activists have taken to clustering around Zelenskiy, who has run a sophisticated media-driven campaign heavy on stand-up comedy.

Zelenskiy, who seems to have begun his political life as a “technical” candidate designed to siphon off some percentage of Poroshenko’s voters but has unexpectedly become the front-runner, and the populist Tymoshenko have refrained from attacking one another, in a sort of conspicuous nonaggression pact. Meanwhile, Kolomoisky has had to publicly deny continuing allegations, almost universally believed by Ukrainian voters, that he has been bankrolling both Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko.

For her own part, Tymoshenko has been accused of hiding her own Jewish roots. She has also had issues of a comic nature with a “clone” candidate whose name is almost identical to her own and whose purpose seems to be to siphon off her votes—a technique premised on the idea that her older constituents have poor eyesight and might be easily confused on election day.

Whatever his flaws, and irrespective of his chances at re-election, Poroshenko will likely be remembered by the history books as the president who was most attentive to the work of honoring Holocaust memory since Ukraine gained its independence from Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, held in 2016, was an international event conducted by Poroshenko and his administration with immense tact and generosity. Poroshenko has also been personally comfortable with Jewish aides, including both of his chiefs of staff and the country’s current prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman.

The surrealism of the current election campaign aside, the Jewish community of Ukraine lives an undeniably normal life. It is a community with thriving institutions living in what, according to numerous polls, is likely the least anti-Semitic nation in the post-Soviet world. Aside from the sitting Jewish prime minister and both the former and current heads of the presidential administration, three out of five of the nation’s wealthiest oligarchs are Jewish, as are about three dozen of the 420-plus members of the Ukrainian parliament.

In its own elections, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine has already chosen Boris Lozhkin as its president. Lozhkin, who was also elected to one the vice presidencies of the World Jewish Congress, is a prominent investor and former media owner who divested his media holdings the year before the Maidan revolution.

A dynamic and youthful man in his late 40s, filling a position usually reserved for much older and less energetic personalities, Lozhkin met with me recently in his Kiev office, which is filled with the contemporary art that he collects. Slim and tall, with a disarming smile, he seems like a good person to call if one is to find oneself in a difficult situation, which is what President Poroshenko did when he put Lozhkin in charge of the presidential administration in the summer of 2014 at the moment when the war with Russia was raging. By the end of that year it looked as if the invasion of the country by uniformed units of the Russian army might cause the collapse of the state by Christmastime.

Lozhkin detailed his role in staving off disaster in his memoir, The Fourth Republic, focusing on his ability to unite a large part of the country in its time of need. He is, he told me, “by nature a person who knows how to unify and moderate rather than divide people.” Which is a hard trick to pull off, particularly when it comes to the nation’s Jewish community: “Though it is not humble to speak about one self,” he added, “it is true that I am one of the rare people here who had no conflicts with any other Jewish organizations or Jewish leaders.”

Lozhkin was not the head of the presidential administration when Ukraine voted against Israel in the U.N. Security Council in 2016, and he told Tablet that he disagrees with that vote. He also gently corrected me when I inquired if he had previously been discreet about his Jewish identity during his time at the presidential administration. “No, I was never not open about it,” he said. He conceded, however, that while he was proudly and openly Jewish, he “was just not very open about being a Jewish activist, as at the time I was totally focused on my work.”

One of Lozhkin’s primary ambitions for his tenure in the role is to drastically expand the teaching of the Holocaust in the Ukrainian school curriculum. His flagship project, the “Righteous of My City” initiative, is working to rename city streets and parks all across the country in honor of the 2,619 Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations who are currently recognized by Yad Vashem. There are likely also thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of still unrecognized individuals who deserve this designation, he told me, and who have yet to be documented and verified. In the meantime, he added, recognizing the actions of particular individuals from a given town or village who saved Jews would be a powerful pedagogical tool for creating a concrete local connection to the Holocaust for Ukrainian schoolchildren.

“Our idea is focused on local initiatives that would ensure that the local authorities would initiate remembrance projects on the local level,” he said. “To explain that horrors took place right here, right in this very town, where there was torture, and there were shootings, but there were also Ukrainian heroes who saved Jews. Let us remember them in order to be able to say that we will never repeat these horrors because we have taught these lessons to our children.”

The hope within Ukraine’s Jewish community is that Lozhkin’s efforts will bear fruit, and that Poroshenko’s presidency won’t be remembered as a golden age. While several prominent observers and monitoring groups report that no physical acts of anti-Semitic violence have taken place in recent years, the chaos and relative permissiveness of Ukraine, as well as the distractedness of the overwhelmed police forces in the midst of a war, have allowed Ukraine to become a hotbed of foreign neo-Nazi and white nationalist activity. Both Russian and Ukrainian intelligence agencies have thoroughly infiltrated these groups, with the goal of Russian agents being to whip them up in order to create trouble and embarrass Ukraine, while Ukrainian agents concentrate on tracking their internal dynamics in order to head off violence.

The problem is hardly dire—yet. According to Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council, “Far-right sentiments exist in Ukraine, but these ultranationalist groupings attract little public support. As the presidential election approaches, recent polls show that the combined vote of far-right presidential candidates amounts to around 4 percent.” At this moment, it does not seem likely that far-right groups will play much of a role in mainstream Ukrainian life, aside from graffiti-writing and occasional acts of violence.

The transformation wrought in Ukraine by the Maidan revolution has been an exhilarating roller coaster that has not bypassed Ukrainian Jewry, which is now in the midst of an exciting period of cultural revival paralleling that of the wider Ukrainian society, which is still just beginning to rediscover its own past and imagine an independent future. Whether this post-Soviet country will choose to elect an openly Jewish president, or a part-Jewish president, or continue with its current philo-Semitic president, the future of Ukraine’s Jews would appear to be brighter than anyone might reasonably have imagined.


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Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.