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The Head of the Jewish Community of Ukraine Speaks Out Against Putin

Soviet dissident and Freedom Prize winner Josef Zissels becomes a Ukrainian Jew

David Mikics
April 29, 2014
Josef Zissels.(Doron Ritter, courtesy of the World Jewish Congress)
Josef Zissels.(Doron Ritter, courtesy of the World Jewish Congress)

In his support of the Maidan Revolution, the Ukrainian Jewish dissident Josef Zissels was out in front of other prominent Jews. Last March, he protested the Jewish Agency’s decision to hold a conference in Kiev, citing the “assault on political and social rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens” under then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine is in turmoil and probably will be for some time. The high-stakes brinksmanship between Kiev and Vladimir Putin’s Russia escalated this month when Putin sliced off a large chunk of sovereign Ukrainian territory, Crimea, while the United States and Europe did little or nothing to stop him. Some have suggested that Crimea is the new Sudetenland and Putin the chief authoritarian menace of the 21st century. Ukraine’s Jewish community, which still numbers more than 100,000, has much to say about Ukraine’s future, and Zissels is its most influential figure. He founded Ukraine’s first post-Soviet Jewish organization in 1988, and since 1991 he has been chair of the Vaad of Ukraine, the confederation of Ukrainian Jewish organizations. He is currently vice president of the World Jewish Congress and, since 2002, chair of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

We met last Friday at YIVO, where Zissels had spoken the previous night at an event, well-attended by Russian-speaking Jews and others, titled “What Now? Jews and the Ukrainian Revolution 2014.” Zissels is busy, affable, and earnest; he has the dignity and pathos of a man who spent six years in Soviet prisons for “slanderous insinuations” against the Soviet state in the 1970s and ’80s. (In 1987 he was offered release from the Gulag if he signed a paper disavowing his political actions, but he refused.) He was a bit late for the interview, since he was detained uptown by a conference with the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine. Our talk was interrupted from time to time by calls from Ukrainian politicians.

I wanted to know whether Zissels’ support for Maidan was still unshaken after recent developments, including the inclusion of Svoboda, which many see as an anti-Semitic party, in the post-Maidan Ukrainian government in Kiev. Zissels believes that his country’s current crisis is about much more than Ukraine. The world order, he thinks, is in more danger than it has been since World War II, as a result of Vladimir Putin’s threats against Russia’s neighbors. Europe, he warns, could be on the brink if the West fails to stand up to Putin’s aggression.

The interview took place in Russian; Professor David Fishman of JTS served as interpreter.

The Kiev government has blockaded Slovyansk, and the separatists have claimed that there have been attacks by the Pravyi Sector (Right Sector) in eastern Ukraine. Russian troops are massed on the border. Is it possible to avoid war?

It’s not a simple question. The question is, what is Russia’s motivation? Russia doesn’t want to occupy Ukraine. Its goal is to control Ukraine. Russia is categorically opposed to Ukraine moving toward the West, especially into NATO and also into the E.U. They think that their security will worsen if Ukraine goes European. Rockets will stand on the border between Ukraine and Russia. They’re worried that Ukraine will become a successful European country, and that could become an example for Russia. They’re worried that Russia itself could collapse if Ukraine were successfully integrated into Europe and the West.

Russia has created instability in eastern Ukraine in order to make Ukraine preoccupied with these problems, rather than occupying itself with integration into Europe. If Russia thinks that what’s going on now is sufficient to prevent Ukraine from moving into the West, they won’t do anything more. If they think that it isn’t enough, then they’ll go further.

Is there anything that the E.U. and the U.S. could have done, but didn’t do, that would have helped to avoid the current situation?

The first thing would have been to take an absolutely firm position against the Russian aggression—though not, of course, to engage in warfare. The economic sanctions should be more effective. Sanctions should affect not only those in Putin’s immediate circle, but all Russians, because 80 percent of the population of Russia supports this revanchist, aggressive activity.

After World War II, a very complicated set of arrangements and agreements was built up to avoid a future war. The nonproliferation of nuclear weapons was based on agreements and guarantees. Putin is turning this all upside down. The Budapest agreement of 1994 in which Ukraine disarmed itself—Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world—was based on guarantees that were supposed to be given both by the U.S. and by Russia. And now countries that want to acquire nuclear weapons are going to say, “How can America convince us not to acquire nuclear weapons?” They’re going to say, “But you [America] didn’t help Ukraine. It gave up its nuclear weapons, and then when it was in danger you didn’t help them.”

What are the feelings of the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine about the recent Russian moves, about the occupation of Crimea and the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine?

There have been precise surveys on this question very recently. The Kiev International Institute of Sociology did a study of the opinions of Ukrainians in the East, that’s where most people are Russian speakers. It’s been highly exaggerated, this idea that they want to go over to Russia. They did over 3,000 interviews, in all eight provinces of the south and east, in 160 different places. It’s an impressive survey, a serious one.

Would you give us some figures?

What worries them in the east most of all is crime, banditry; second is the bad economic conditions. The third-biggest concern is the danger of civil war. Then comes receiving your salary or pension. The language question ranks much lower—only 6 percent are worried about it. What Russia says is a big problem, the right to speak Russian, is in fact not a problem.

Most important is this: Only 11 percent of those easterners questioned approve of the entrance of Russian troops into Ukraine. Only 15 percent want their province to separate from Ukraine and join Russia. Seventy percent don’t want to join Russia. This problem of separatism was created artificially. It does not correspond to what eastern Ukrainians want. To say it does is a provocation. It’s propaganda.

But even though they don’t want to become Russians, it’s clear that the inhabitants of the east have very little confidence or trust in the new Ukrainian regime. It’s absurd, but nonetheless, they don’t even consider the Ukrainian Parliament to be legitimate, even though they elected it, well before these events took place.

Let’s shift to Western Ukraine. On March 26 leading Ukrainian Jews bought a full-page ad in the New York Times—an Open Letter of Ukrainian Jews to President Putin—and your signature is the first one on the letter. The letter asserted that the Maidan forces “include nationalistic groups, but even the most marginal do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior.” How would you address skepticism about these sentences I’ve quoted from your Open Letter, given the anti-Semitic and xenophobic statements of certain groups not only during Maidan but earlier, in the Yushchenko years (2005-2010)? Yushchenko allowed celebrations of the World War II-era Bandera troops, known for their murderous attacks on Poles and Jews, and praise for the Waffen-SS Galicia, which was made up of Nazi-allied Ukrainians. Many American Jews see the Svoboda party, in particular, as having a history of anti-Semitism and xenophobic statements.

Svoboda has a number of activists who have permitted themselves to make anti-Semitic remarks. But the popularity of the Svoboda party is half what it was during the elections [when it won a significant place in Parliament], and it is literally on the threshold for getting into the parliament in the next elections. During the years when Svoboda made those anti-Semitic statements, their popularity was 1.7 percent. Then Svoboda stopped making anti-Semitic comments, and their popularity increased. They should be grateful that they stopped saying these anti-Semitic things, because it made them much more popular. In the 1990s they scared people with their rather harsh statements, and that’s why they were unpopular. Then they became calmer.

The core electorate of Svoboda is only 1.7 percent. Many others voted for them because they believed in their demagoguery. They said they would fight for the Ukrainian language, for the Ukrainian culture, more radically than Yushchenko did it. But in fact, no one saw them do anything.

We’re going to have presidential elections in a month, Bog dast [God willing]. Poroshenko is the most popular candidate; almost half of likely voters say they’ll vote for him. If he could have made a deal with Tymoshenko, the second-most popular candidate, he could have had enough to become president on the first round. How many say they’ll support Svoboda in the presidential election? 1.4 percent. Yarosh, head of the Right Sector: 0.7 percent.

In America we sometimes hear about celebrations in Ukraine of the Bandera forces, the OUN-B, and of the Waffen-SS Galicia. These have been troubling to American Jews.

It’s young people who are attracted by these things, and they don’t know the history, or know it very poorly. When they say Stepan Bandera is their hero, what do they mean? They mean that they consider heroes those who died for the independence of Ukraine. They don’t even know who these people fought against, or what their opinions were! It’s absurd, but that’s the way it is.

But there are changes taking place in the image of war heroes, because a hundred people died at Maidan, and they are the new heroes.

When the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress published on its website the information about the three Jews who were killed at Maidan, on the first day they had 30,000 hits on their website. They never had anything close to that before. Last year they had 300 hits in a day! It’s a very popular topic. One of the three who died, Alexander Scherbanyuk, was from Chernivtsi, which is my home town. The Jewish community called a rabbi and said you have to come and say kaddish at the funeral of this Jew who was killed. In the coffin he wore a vyshyvanka, the traditional Ukrainian peasant shirt, which he liked to wear. He was buried in a Ukrainian peasant shirt and a kippah.

If you’re willing, I’d like hold on to that image of Alexander Scherbanyuk in the Ukrainian peasant shirt and the kippah and take matters in an autobiographical direction. You were born in the 1940s, a terrible decade both for Ukraine and for Ukrainian Jews. What about your own identity as a Ukrainian and a Jew? Did you feel this was a double identity when you were growing up? Is it closer to being a single identity now?

Twenty-five years ago all of us—we Jews who lived in the Soviet Union—had a single identity: Soviet Jews. We didn’t know Jewish history, we didn’t know a Jewish language. We didn’t know Jewish traditions. We knew we were Jews because of anti-Semitism and because of the Soviet state’s anti-Semitism. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we began to move in different directions, together with our now distinct states. We have gone through with Ukraine the whole history of the development of its independence. With the course of time, we [Ukrainian Jews] are more and more separate from Russian Jews, Moldovan Jews, Belorussian Jews. We are living in a time of change of identity. It’s a very interesting effect. And in moments of revolution, moments of great passion like the Orange Revolution of 2004 or this revolution of 2014, these changes take place much more rapidly.

I consider myself a Ukrainian Jew, and it’s one identity. I speak Ukrainian freely [as well as my native Russian]; I know Ukrainian history quite well. I don’t have a problem with this identity. Just like French Jews in France: There’s quite strong anti-Semitism in France, but French Jews have one identity. They’re French Jews. Right now this is my identity: a Ukrainian Jew.

You spent six years in a Soviet Gulag. Does that experience affect your thinking about the current crisis?

Of course. It affects many things, this experience. Prison gives you a precise idea of what you can do and what you can’t do and the boundary between what’s possible to attain and what’s not possible. But I also learned that I’m not afraid to be just one, to be the only one saying something.

The much-discussed question of the flyers on the synagogues in Donetsk. Do you have a sense of who did it?

We need to know who is capable of performing such provocations. Since there’s total chaos there in the East, in Donetsk, it’s not easy to figure out. There’s really no one in charge. There are many different groups fighting, and they are even fighting among themselves, the different separatist groups. It’s hard to figure out who would gain from such flyers. For the Jewish community these flyers didn’t add a lot of anxiety. They were already quite worried because of the general chaos and because armed men are walking around and shooting. There is a very high level of worry and anxiety. The flyers added to the sense of alarm, but not much. Even without these flyers there is going to be more aliyah to Israel from this region.

Twenty-five years ago all of us—we Jews who lived in the Soviet Union—had a single identity: Soviet Jews.

We’ll see in four to six months—you’ll see the aliyah numbers. After Toulouse, in the spring of 2012, in 2013 the aliyah increased by 60 percent. You see the increase in aliyah four to six months later. People have to think about it, they weigh the options. Any instability gives birth to thinking about aliyah. People are very rooted there, in Ukraine, so they think, “Maybe it will pass quickly.” But a few weeks, a few months, pass and it hasn’t gone away and they say, “OK, time to leave.”

It was clear from the very beginning that these flyers were a provocation—that they’re fake. The Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist government, said that this was a provocation done by the Chabad community of Dnipropetrovsk. Or by [Igor] Kolomoisky, the Jewish governor of Dnipropetrovsk, so that he could discredit the Donetsk People’s Republic.

So, who wanted to discredit the Donetsk People’s Republic? That’s who did it. For that you have to understand: What is the Donetsk People’s Republic, and who’s behind it? Is Russia behind the Donetsk People’s Republic? It could be a Russian creation that they lost control over. It could even have been a spontaneous project that someone took control of. It could be a creation of [Rinat] Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine. He’s not pro-Russian; he wants to be somewhere in the middle. He has money in the West. His business is in Russia and Ukraine, his money is in the West. He wants to position himself in between. If he created the Donetsk People’s Republic, then maybe Russia was interested in discrediting his project! The Russians would be killing two birds with one stone: discrediting the Donetsk People’s Republic and at the same time spreading rumors that it was done by the Jewish governor Kolomoisky.

There were previous flyers in Donetsk directed at businessmen, a few days before Pesach: Come register and pay a fee. The flyers for the Jews appeared on Pesach. And by the way, exactly the same kind of flyers about Jews registering were distributed in Slovyansk too. A couple days later, in Donetsk, there were flyers about foreigners: All foreigners in Donetsk must register. And every flyer tells you what room you have to go to in the occupied government building in Donetsk in order to register. So, I send my representative to that room, and he goes in and says, “Hello, I’m a Jew, I want to register” [laughter] and the people there say, “We don’t know anything about this; we didn’t do it.” They wrote an official denial—not by computer, with a pen, and they used an official stamp—saying, “We had nothing to do with this.” And I handed all of this over to the Ukrainian security service, because the flyers had a stamp on them, and the official denial had a stamp on it, and experts can compare them and see if one is fake. And there’s a signature by the People’s Republic governor, on both the flyers and the denial. They look very similar, the stamps, the signature, but only an expert can tell.


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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.