Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadia Savchenko and soldier-turned-member of parliament has spent the last six months alienating most everyone in Ukrainian politics, a process which has culminated with several instances of her making televised anti-Semitic commentary. She has been roundly denounced for her statements by leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Savchenko, who was captured by Russian led Ukrainian separatists in the intense early fighting in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, was transported over the Russian border (which as illegal by international law of war) where she was made to stand trial in a politicized kangaroo court for the absurd crime of having illegally entered Russian territory. For her principled and stoic stand against Russia in the midst of her political trial, Savchenko became a national symbol of resistance against Moscow, with thousands of Ukrainians, at home and in the diaspora, working on the campaign to release her, including myself (I worked on behalf of her release in 2014-15 and translated some of her prison writings into English.)
During the trial, populist Batkivshchyna party leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko had put Savchenko at the top of her party list for the 2014 elections. She was also made a member of Ukraine’s PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) mission which also ostensibly offered her diplomatic immunity against the Russian trial. The only woman member of the Ukrainian expeditionary force in Iraq, she has an undeniably fierce personality—and by many accounts a troubled one. Having proved to be nonbreakable stoic during the trial, a prisoner swap was quickly arranged in exchange for two Russian GRU intelligence agents who had been captured by the Ukrainian army. Her triumphant release in May of 2016, during which she flew to Kyiv on the president’s personal plane inaugurated a moment where it looked like she was the most popular politician in the country.
Since her release almost a year ago, Savchenko has proceeded to prove herself to be an erratic maverick while causing a great deal of trouble for the Ukrainian state. This included her freelance negotiating with the separatists on secret and unsanctioned trips over the battlefield demarcation line during which she negotiated prisoner swaps outside of the officially sanctioned chain of command (thus argued critics, increasing risks for others held prisoner). There was friction with the Crimean Tatar community after she made comments intimating that annexed Crimea was negotiable if it meant an end to the conflict with Russia.
In December, Tymoshenko had had enough of the insubordination and formally kicked her out of the political party that had provided her with her seat in parliament. By January of this year she had been voted out of the Ukrainian Parliaments Defense and Security committee on suspicions of her being a threat to national security.
Last week while Savchenko was doing a televised interview a woman calling in demanded to know “why nobody in power was speaking about the Jewish yoke over Ukraine.” Savchenko answered the question with a rant that began with the phrase, “If the people are speaking about it that means they are right,” and concluded minute-worth of garbled, unintelligible nonsense: “Yes, the people in power, we do have to look at who really has Ukrainian blood and to talk about it. You can talk about it and think what must be done about it? We must think and act.”
In a follow up interview that took place in Kyiv on Monday, Savchenko was challenged about her statements on live television by Dmitry Gordon, a renowned Ukrainian television journalist. Towards the end of a half hour long interview, Gordon, who is himself Jewish, asked Savchenko “So, you do not like Jews?’
“I have nothing against Jews,” she said. “I am against the ‘Zhidi,’” using an ethnic slur for Jews.
Savchenko then continued to explain her thinking “that there are no bad people, there are bad people in every nation. There are Russians, and there are “katsaps” (Ukrainian slang for Russians), there are Poles, and there are lakhs (a historically racist term for Polish people).” Savchenko also argued that Ukraine can not reasonably be considered an anti-Semitic country, as “when Jews who are 2 percent of the population occupy 80 percent of power.”
Gordon continued to press her on whom she meant by “Jews in power” and Savchenko began pointing out that she had not done a DNA test and could only rely on family names. Savchenko answered the journalist’s question: “[Prime Minister] Groysman, [President Petro] Poroshenko is actually Waltzman and [Former PM Yulia] Tymoshenko, whose maiden name [is] Jewish, plus deputies such as Bereza, Logvinsky. The authorities are not Ukrainian by blood because they are not concerned with the Ukrainian people,” she argued.
While Groysman, Longvinski and Bereza are all proudly and openly Jewish (I interviewed Bereza when he was first elected to parliament for Tablet), neither the president nor Tymoshenko are, and accusations of them being Jewish are typically fielded by their Anti-semitic opponents in Ukrainian politics.
It is, of course, always an extraordinarily disappointing to see a national heroine succumb to the toxin of racism and anti-Semitism.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian 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.