The foundations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were laid eight years ago, during the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14. Who can forget the images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians standing in Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, through that bleak, cold winter, and their nightly stand-offs with black-clad riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades?
The events of Euromaidan, as it is better known in the West, began when students demonstrated against then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision – under heavy pressure from Vladimir Putin – to abandon an agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. But on that occasion, Putin’s strong-arm tactics failed. Yanukovych was forced to flee, Ukrainians elected a pro-European government and the EU agreement was eventually signed. Faced with a choice between Europe and Russia, Ukraine overwhelmingly chose Europe.
Putin’s obsession with winning back Ukraine began as soon as Euromaidan ended. He immediately began preparations to take Crimea and supply guns and heavy weaponry to eastern Ukraine to whip up insurgency in the traditionally pro-Russian former industrial heartlands of the Donbas region. The conflict led to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight in July 2014 by pro-Russian separatist fighters, killing all 298 people on board. The war has continued to rumble on inconclusively ever since, with sporadic outbreaks of violence. Over a million residents of eastern Ukraine were forced to leave their homes, many resettling in Kiev, now itself under fire.
Putin always denied Russian military involvement in Crimea and the Donbas. Just as he denied Russian state involvement in the assassinations and attempted poisonings of his critics. And just as he denied, until a few short days ago, that he was planning military intervention in Ukraine. We long ago learned not to trust Putin, and we know from experience that his actions are unpredictable.
One thing now seems clear: that Putin’s immediate intention is regime change in Ukraine – to install a puppet regime loyal to Russia in a country that he considers has no right to statehood. His justifications for doing so make little sense to most in the West. But since 2014 he has woven a narrative for domestic consumption in Russia in an attempt to rationalise intervention.
Putin always couched Euromaidan in terms of a far-right coup by Ukrainian nationalists. Is this a true reflection of events? Absolutely not. But there is a tiny kernel of truth to it that Putin can exploit to his own ends. Although Euromaidan began as a pro-European student demonstration and attracted Ukrainians of all strata of society, right-wing nationalist parties did play a role in the fighting and the post-Maidan government did follow a policy of glorifying past nationalist leaders, many of whom collaborated with the Nazis. Hence, as Putin’s narrative goes, Ukraine is a country led by far-right extremists in need of ‘denazification’. His focus on Nazi ideology is supremely ironic, given that Ukraine until recently was the only country other than Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister.
Another of Putin’s claims, that Ukraine is perpetrating genocide against its own citizens by targeting Russian speakers, is utter nonsense. Ukraine has always been a bilingual country, with Ukrainian widely spoken in the west and Russian elsewhere. But use of Ukrainian has become more prevalent since 2014 amid a heightened sense of national identity. A series of laws in recent years has designated Ukrainian the country’s official language and attempted to cement its use in most aspects of public life, including education and the media. The language laws provide grist to Putin’s rumour mill, information to manipulate into claims of genocide.
Putin’s ultimate aims are not clear. We don’t yet know if he is planning for a permanent Russian occupation of Ukraine. Nor is Russian success a foregone conclusion. Ukrainians have become used to war in the last eight years and civilians are willing to fight to the death, as they did during Euromaidan.
Many are wondering whether Putin will stop at Ukraine or push on with incursions into the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. My own sense is that the latter is unlikely, and if the war in Ukraine drags on inconclusively for months or years, impossible. Ukraine has been Russia’s bugbear since the events of 2014, and besides, an invasion of the Baltics – EU member states – would unleash a war with Nato on an unimaginable scale.
The West’s attempts to persuade Putin against war have been derisory. Putin has no fear of sanctions, especially of the magnitude agreed so far. The West’s most powerful weapon against Russia is energy sanctions, such as those imposed on Iran: oil and gas exports provide more than a third of Russia’s national budget. But the US, EU and UK are unwilling to take measures that will harm their own economies and their own consumers, hence US restrictions on currency clearing will include carve-outs for energy payments.
Around 70% of Russian gas exports and half its oil exports go to Europe. So far, Germany’s decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia is the most significant of the measures taken by the West, but this is as far as Europe has been willing to go. The UK government is reluctant to force BP to abandon its 20% stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft, which is run by Putin ally Igor Sechin. BP's chief executive Bernard Looney sits on the Rosneft board alongside Sechin, a position that would surely be untenable if the UK took this war seriously.
Amid insufficient coercion from the West, pressure to stop the war must come from inside Russia. Kremlin watchers are clear that this is Putin’s war, not Russia’s war. Protestors have come out onto the streets in many Russian cities – a rare and dangerous move under Putin’s authoritarian regime – evidence that the war does not have broad support among the Russian people. The defection of Russian soldiers combined with dissent among Putin’s inner circle could be the best hope of stifling the war in Ukraine and minimising bloodshed.
So the thing that most of us thought was unthinkable is now a reality. Russian tanks are entering Kiev, missiles are falling on cities across Ukraine, and the government is handing out weapons and giving instructions for making petrol bombs to its citizens in an attempt to defend the country from Russian domination.
For those few Ukrainians with memories long enough to recall the last time foreign tanks rolled into Kiev, the Russian invasion must bring back terrible memories of the summer of 1941 after Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa. The German invasion of the Soviet Union brought to an abrupt end the non-aggression pact between the two great twentieth century dictators Hitler and Stalin. Tens of thousands of people fled Kiev, heading east to safety in the Urals or Central Asia.
Today’s refugees from Kiev and other cities are fleeing to the west in an attempt to escape a war inflicted by the twenty-first century’s great dictator, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has more than a whiff of Joseph Stalin about him. Like Stalin, he views the outside world as a hostile and threatening place and brooks no dissent. Stalin subjected his opponents to show trials, found them guilty on trumped-up charges and had them shot. Putin’s methods are more varied – poison for Alexander Litvinenko, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skripal. Boris Nemtsov was shot while walking across a bridge, Mikhail Khodorkovsky imprisoned for a decade.
Those are not the only similarities between the two dictators. Putin appears to be emulating Stalin in building a personality cult around himself, using propaganda and mass media to create a patriotic image of a heroic leader for the nation to glorify. Stalin, more than any other Soviet leader, was responsible for transforming the Soviet Union from a peasant backwater into a superpower to rival the United States. Today Putin calls the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. If the worst-case scenario is realised, his invasion of Ukraine could represent the first step in an attempt to recreate the Soviet empire. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin’s record after decades of condemnation.
What Putin fears most of all is freedom: a free press, freedom of speech and expression, freedom to choose one’s own leaders or overthrow unpopular leaders. Freedom in Russia could bring about the end of Putin. And freedom in Ukraine has prompted the Ukrainian people to reject Russia in favour of the West. Ukrainians care passionately about their freedom, for it was hard won – in not one, not two, but in three revolutions, all centred on Independence Square in central Kiev, better known as the Maidan.
The Revolution on Granite in 1990 was a student demonstration and hunger strike in open defiance of the Soviet establishment, part of a wave of dissent that helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s emergence as an independent country the following year. One of the students’ demands was the scrapping of a proposed union treaty with Moscow.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians back to the Maidan to protest about a presidential election claimed by the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych that was marred by corruption, fraud and voter intimidation. The events of that winter are best remembered for the grey, pockmarked face of his poisoned opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, who eventually prevailed when the protestors’ demands were met and the election was re-run. Yushchenko believes the assassination attempt was ordered by Moscow when he attempted to steer Ukraine to closer integration with Europe.
But the roots of this week’s Russian invasion can be found in Ukraine’s third Maidan revolution, the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14, better known in the West as Euromaidan. Tempted with carrots and goaded with sticks from Putin, President Yanukovych (yes, the same one, back in power since 2010) turned his back on a long-awaited agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
What started as a peaceful student demonstration ended, three months later, as war. Protestors in motorcycle helmets carrying makeshift shields fought in the streets, using Molotov cocktails and fireworks against riot police armed with water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades and metal truncheons. In the final days of the conflict, the firearms changed to rifles and semi-automatic weapons, taking the lives of more than a hundred protestors. In the end, the Maidan won and Yanukovych fled, making him one of the few world leaders to be overthrown twice.
But Ukraine paid a terrible price for the victory, not only in the lives lost during the conflict, but in the revenge taken by Putin for the country’s pivot away from Russia and towards the West. Within days of Yanukovych’s departure, the Russian president began preparations to annex Crimea. Weeks later, he was stirring up pro-Russian sentiment and providing arms to separatists in the Donbas, fomenting a war that never ended and has killed around 14,000 people, some 3,000 of them civilians.
Part two of this article, on Putin’s goals and the West’s response, will be published on my website tomorrow.
For many in the West, Ukraine is just another far off country in middle Europe that is none of our business. But with the huge build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders in recent months and widespread distrust of Russian president Vladimir Putin, fears of an imminent Russian invasion continue to mount. Putin has already chipped away at the country, taking Crimea in 2014 and fomenting war in the east that continues to simmer and leaves parts of the Donbas region – the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – in the hands of Russian-backed separatist regimes.
The West imposed sanctions in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but apart from some disgruntled rhetoric, remained relatively complacent. Today, European and US leaders are busy holding rounds of talks with Putin and his henchmen – attempting to avert a war by means of diplomacy and dialogue – and preparing harsher sanctions. Several commentators have called to mind Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in the 1930s, as Hitler picked off the Rhineland, Sudetenland and Austria. Doing deals with dictators can have terrible consequences.
Ukraine is a complex and diverse nation with a rich Jewish history and up to 200,000 Jews still living on its territory today. The following 12 facts about Jews in Ukraine are taken from a recent article on aish.com.
1. Jews have lived in Ukraine since ancient times.
Jews have been living in the territory of present-day Ukraine since ancient times. The ancient Greek city of Chersonesos, near present day Sevastopol, Crimea, was home to a Jewish community in Roman times, evidenced by archaeological finds including menorahs, oil lamps depicted with a Torah shrine, and graffiti in Hebrew and Greek. One Hebrew fragment even mentions Jerusalem – the only known instance of this outside ancient Israel. One of the menorahs appears to date from the Hellenistic period, making it one of the earliest known to scholars.
2. The Kingdom of the Khazars is said to have converted to Judaism.
Eastern Ukraine was home to the Khazar empire, a kingdom of Turkic people that arose in south-eastern Russia in the 6th century and extended as far west as Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Some accounts indicate that in the 8th century, the Khazar king converted to Judaism and ordered his followers to do so as well. Many Khazars became Jewish, embracing Jewish holidays and Shabbat and keeping kosher. In the Middle Ages, the great Spanish Jewish sage Judah Halevi (1075-1141) wrote The Kuzari, a philosophical tome that imagined discussions between the Khazar king and a visiting rabbi who had persuaded him to convert. The Kuzari is a robust defence of Judaism against critics from other religions and from indifference.
3. Ukraine was a refuge for Jews in the Middle Ages.
Kiev was home to a substantial Jewish community in the 11th and 12th centuries. One entry point in Kiev’s city walls was known as the “Jewish Gate”. There are also references to a Jewish scholar at the time known as Moshe ben Yaakov of Kiev. The Khazar kingdom fell in the 1200s, when Mongol tribes invaded much of present-day Ukraine and Poland. In order to build back power and wealth, Poland invited new residents to move into its territories from the west, primarily from Germanic lands. The invitation attracted Jews who were fleeing massacres in central Europe in the wake of the Crusades and the Black Death. Jews settled throughout Poland, including in areas that make up part of present-day Ukraine, particularly Volhynia, at the intersection of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. By the 1400s, up to 30,000 Jews were thought to be living in 60 different communities across Ukraine, including in Kiev.
4. Ukrainians blamed Jews for their landlords’ greed.
Much of present-day Ukraine became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The territory at that time was an uneasy mix of many different ethnic groups. Much of the farmland and industry in Ukraine was owned by Catholic Polish nobles. The peasants were a mix of Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians and (particularly in the south) Cossacks. Polish landlords and nobles used a system known as arenda whereby agents – often Jewish – managed the land and businesses and collected taxes on behalf of absent landlords. Many of the arenda were in the alcohol trade: brewing, selling alcohol and managing inns and taverns were often seen as Jewish professions. Local peasants blamed the Jews for the abusive or exploitative practices of the landlords, including raising taxes. This was the cause of much of the antisemitism that became entrenched in Ukrainian culture.
5. The Chmielnicki Massacres
A series of Cossack raids began in 1648, aimed at freeing Cossack communities from the domination of Polish landlords. The leader of these attacks was Bohdan Chmielnicki, who agitated for an independent Ukrainian country. Reflecting Cossack culture, Chmielnicki blamed the Jews for his countrymen’s problems. Between 1648 and 1651, Chmielnicki’s followers murdered about 20,000 Jews, destroyed synagogues and desecrated Torah scrolls. Around half of all Jews living in Ukraine fled. Chmielnicki appealed for military aid from Russia and in 1654 much of Cossack-controlled Ukraine became a client state of Russia. Sporadic pogroms continued through the years, most notably in Uman in 1768.
6. Ukraine became the centre of the Pale of Settlement.
In the late 1700s, Russia gained great swathes of territory, much of it home to large Jewish communities. Russia won Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 as well as three tranches of Polish territory, in 1772, 1793 and 1795, making it home to the largest population of Jews in the world. Jews had long been banned from living in most of Russia, and remained unwelcome guests. Catherine the Great confined Jews to the newly acquired territories, creating the Pale of Settlement (Cherta Osedlosti in Russian and Der Techum Ha’Moyshev in Yiddish). A notable exception was the encouragement of Jews to settle in sparsely populated Crimea.
7. Hasidic Judaism started in Ukraine.
The founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) lived just outside the borders of Ukraine, but his disciple Rabbi Dov Ber – the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772) – was responsible for spreading the ideas of Hasidic Judaism and developing it into a distinct religious movement within Ukraine from his base in Mezeritch – incidentally the home town of my paternal grandfather. Within a generation, Ukraine was home to some of the most important and influential Hasidic masters, including Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. Ukrainian Jewish communities embraced Hasidic Judaism, with its emphasis on rigorous religious practice combined with spirituality and an emphasis on infusing religious observance with joy.
8. Thousands of Jews visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Ukraine every year.
Perhaps the greatest Hasidic rabbi in Ukraine was Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1811), a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who built a large community in the Ukrainian town of Zlapotol in the early 1800s. He taught that Jews should strive to feel close to God at all times, and that feeling happy is best way to appreciate God’s many blessings. He is buried in Uman, 125 miles south of Kiev. The town has become as a major pilgrimage site for tens of thousands of Jews, who congregate there each year at Rosh Hashanah.
9. The term “pogrom” was coined after riots in Ukraine.
Pogroms broke out in 1881, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, as a consequence of Jewish involvement in the murder plot. Although these weren’t the first massacres of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the frequency and intensity of the mob attacks in Ukraine resulted in the phenomenon being given a new name: pogrom, which means “destroy” in Russian. Pogroms continued sporadically until 1905, when some of the most violent antisemitic attacks followed the release of Tsar Nicholas II’s October Manifesto, which guaranteed all Russian subjects basic political rights. Over 800 Jews were murdered in pogroms in Odessa after the manifesto’s publication. A common element of the pogroms was that police and other authorities did nothing to prevent or stop the violence. Later, the chaos that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 sparked hundreds of pogroms in over 1,300 towns and villages, killing approximately 100,000 Jews. The best known of these took place in the Ukrainian town of Proskurov, where three-days of violence from February 15 1919 killed 1,500 Jews.
10. Modern Zionism was born in Ukraine.
Following the pogroms of 1881, a group of Jewish students concluded that the only way Jews could live in safety was in their own land – the land of Israel. In 1882, they formed the first modern Zionist organization, Bilu. The name was an acronym of the Biblical verse Beit Ya’akov Lechu V’nalcha – “The House of Jacob, come let us go'' (Isaiah 2:5). Bilu raised funds to send 14 university students from Kharkiv to the Jewish agricultural cooperative of Rishon Le-Zion. They lacked farming skills and faced continual violence from Arab raiders, but their experiment in farming in the land of Israel showed other Jews in Europe that it could be done.
11. One and a half million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Before the Holocaust, Ukraine had Europe’s largest Jewish population. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Nazi Einsatzgruppen entered towns in Ukraine and elsewhere, rounded up all the Jews, forced them to dig mass graves, then shot them. The largest Nazi mass-killing in Ukraine – and one of the largest single massacres of the entire Holocaust – took place near Kiev on 29-30 September 1941, when 33,771 Jews were killed at the ravine of Babi Yar. Jews were ordered to assemble in the city centre and marched under Nazi guard – and in full view of the populace – to Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev. Over the following two years, over 60,000 more people were murdered at Babi Yar, including Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, and psychiatric patients from a nearby hospital, as well as Jews. Of the approximately 100,000 people murdered at Babi Yar in total, around 60,000 were thought to have been Jewish. After the war, the crimes of the Holocaust were covered up. Babi Yar was largely filled in and only received a memorial 1976. It did not specify that Jews were the primary victims.
12. Ukraine’s president is a Jewish comedian who once played a president on TV.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019, he wasn’t a politician – though he’d played one on TV. Zelensky was the star of a hit television show there called Servant of the People, in which he played an honest president. His fellow countrymen were sick of corruption, and elected the Jewish actor with a landslide 73% of the vote. When Zelensky came to power, he served alongside Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, making Ukraine the only country other than Israel to have a Jewish president and prime minister. Facing 130,000 Russian troops amassed at his borders, President Zelensky has appealed to the example of the Jewish state: “Both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom, and they work equally for the future of our states to become to our liking, and not the future which others want for us. Israel is often an example for Ukraine.”
For the full article, see https://www.aish.com/jw/s/Ukraine-and-the-Jews-12-Facts.html?s=nb&p=n1
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.