This week marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Seeing satellite images of a long line of Russian tanks heading towards Kyiv on that awful morning, few believed that the war would last more than a handful of days; weeks at most.
I wrote at the time that Russian president Vladimir Putin had a whiff of Joseph Stalin about him, as he stepped up his attempts to recreate Stalin’s Soviet empire by taking control of Ukraine. Now that whiff has become more of a stench. The death of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, on 16 February makes the parallels between the two dictators starker than ever.
Like Stalin, Putin 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. Today, anyone who publicly opposes Putin’s regime, who attempts to tell the truth, expose the corruption, is a grave threat. Putin’s methods of silencing opponents are more varied – imprisonment, poison, shooting, defenestration, a plane falling from the sky.
Again like Stalin, Putin heads a cruel and corrupt administration, but has built a personality cult around himself to appear as a paternalistic leader who has the best interests of his citizens at heart. Both regimes have been guilty of hiding or falsifying data and masking the truth with a state-sanctioned view of world events and a thick veneer of propaganda.
At the time of writing, the cause of Navalny’s death is unclear. A video taken the previous day showed him looking surprisingly well given the inhumane conditions in which he was incarcerated. His family and legal team have repeatedly been refused access to a mortuary where his body is believed to lie.
Just days before Navalny’s death, another Russian politician, Boris Nadezhdin, was barred on technical grounds from standing against Putin in next month’s presidential election. Nadezhdin has been careful to play by the Kremlin’s rules, to avoid calling out or criticising Putin, but he is a vocal opponent of the war in Ukraine. Russia-watchers had considered he might be allowed to remain on the ballot to give the appearance of competition, and to provide a narrative for Putin to rally against.
But Nadezhdin proved too popular. A hundred thousand Russians flocked to sign supporter lists to enable him to stand against Putin, so the electoral commission ruled that thousands of the signatures he had gathered were fraudulent. Nadezhdin continues to appeal the ruling, but he must now be looking over his shoulder in case FSB officers are sent to arrest him, just as those who opposed Stalin’s regime lived in fear of a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
Another parallel between Putin’s Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union can be found in the Russian-occupied cities of eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin is carrying out ethnic cleansing just as it did in the 1940s. In Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia and other cities located in the regions where the Kremlin held rigged referendum votes on becoming part of Russia, the occupying authorities are doing all they can to wipe out Ukrainian identity.
Mariupol, before the war a pleasant, leafy coastal city on the Sea of Azov, was besieged and almost razed to the ground in the spring of 2022. Now smart, Russian-built apartment blocks line newly reconstructed avenues planted with lawns and neat rows of trees. In these apartments live recently arrived Russians, shipped in from the Motherland with the promise of better housing, good jobs, higher wages.
Many of the previous inhabitants fled the bombardment back in 2022, or were killed or taken prisoner during the siege. What’s more, around 5 million Ukrainians from the occupied territories are estimated to have been deported to Russia in the last two years, including 700,000 children. Those who stayed and survived, or returned, were forced to acquiesce with the occupying authorities, to become Russian.
Access to social services, including pensions and maternity payments, is only available to those with Russian passports. This in turn means babies are born to Russian rather than Ukrainian nationals, and inherit Russian citizenship. They will go to schools where they are taught in Russian, be subject to Russian cultural influences and learn a Russian history curriculum filled with hateful rhetoric about Ukrainian Nazis.
Refusal to apply for a passport of the occupying power leaves defiant Ukrainians living a shadowy undercover existence, while any show of insubordination is likely to land them in a Russian prison.
Crimea has experienced the same manipulations of population and bureaucracy for the last decade, since the Russian annexation in March 2014. Ukrainians were forced out or coerced into giving up their citizenship, native Russians were encouraged to settle, and only those holding Russian passports can access schools, hospitals and social services.
Most Russians, and many outside Russia, have long believed that Crimea was not really Ukrainian, that it was something of a Russian enclave inside Ukraine. After all, it had only become part of Soviet Ukraine in 1954, transferred by then premier Nikita Khrushchev from the Russian Federation (for reasons I discussed in a previous article). Crimea’s population at that time was roughly 75% Russian and it was home to the Soviet (now Russian) Black Sea Fleet.
But that only tells a small part of Crimea’s story. The peninsula, strategically located at the centre of the Black Sea, was wrested from the Ottoman Empire by Russia in 1783 under Catherine the Great. Its population for centuries had been predominantly Crimean Tatar – a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim ethnic group. In 1944, Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars en masse to Siberia, the Urals and Central Asia and expelled Crimea’s smaller populations Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians. The peninsula was repopulated with ethnic Russians.
Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, many Crimean Tatars had returned to their homeland, along with other ethnic groups, who were granted citizenship rights by the Ukrainian government.
At least 95 Ukrainians known for their work in the creative industries have been killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion began nearly two years ago, according to the writers’ association PEN Ukraine. The organisation tracks losses among writers, publishers, musicians, artists, photographers, actors, filmmakers, and other creative professionals whose stories appear in the information field. It is likely that many more artists have been killed in the war than appear on PEN’s list.
On 7 January the poet Maksym Kryvtsov was killed by artillery fire in Kupiansk, near Kharkiv, one of the key fronts in Moscow’s winter offensive. His loyal companion, a ginger cat, was killed with him. Kryvtsov, aged 33, had been hailed as one of the brightest hopes of Ukraine’s young, creative generation.
Kryvtsov was an active participant in the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity – better known in the West as Euromaidan – and joined Ukraine’s armed forces as a volunteer in 2014, when the war against Russian separatists in the Donbas region began. He was later involved in organisations helping to rehabilitate fellow veterans and help them reintegrate into society, and also worked at a children’s camp. He was, by all accounts, far from the stereotypical image of a fighter.
Kryvtsov returned to army in February 2022 when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Comrades knew him by his call sign Dali – a reference to the curling moustache he grew in imitation of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.
“I think the war is a kind of micellar water that washes cosmetics off: from a face, streets, plans and behaviours. It’s like a hoe cutting through sagebrush, leaving a bitter aftertaste of irreversibility. In war, you become your true self, no need to play a role. You are simply a human, one of billions who ever lived on the Earth, sharing the commonality of breath. There’s no time for love at war. It lies abandoned next to a trash pile and disappears like a grandfather in a fog, lost somewhere behind this summer’s unharvested sunflower fields of a heart,” Kryvtsov said in a 2023 interview with Ukrainian publishing and literary organisation Chytomo as part of its Words and Bullets project with PEN Ukraine.
Even through the chaos of war, Kryvtsov continued to write poetry. Many of his poems reflect on the harsh reality of war and the contrast between war and ordinary, civilian life. His first poetry collection Вірші з бійниці (Poems from the Embrasure) was hailed by PEN Ukraine as one of the best books of 2023. Within days of his death, the book’s entire print run had sold out and the reprint had racked up thousands of preorders. Profits from the book will be split between Kryvtsov’s family and projects to bring books to the armed forces.
Hundreds of people gathered at St Michael’s monastery in Kyiv to attend a ceremony to honour Kryvtsov, ahead of a funeral in his hometown of Rivne. Some carried copies of his book, others a bouquet of violets, a reference to Kryvtsov’s final poem, posted on Facebook the day before he died (see below). The second part of the memorial service was held in Kyiv’s central Independence Square, the scene of the Euromaidan revolution in which Kryvtsov had participated. Mourners took turns stepping up to a microphone to share their memories of Kryvtsov and his poetry.
He “left behind a colossal height of poetry,” said Olena Herasymiuk, a poet, volunteer and combat medic, who was a close friend of Kryvtsov. “He left us not just his poems and testimonies of the era but his most powerful weapon, unique and innate. It’s the kind of weapon that hits not a territory or an enemy but strikes at the human mind and soul.” (quote from the Associated Press)
In an outpouring of grief on social media following Kryvtsov’s death, many drew parallels with Ukrainian cultural figures killed during the Soviet Union’s repression of writers and artists in the 1920s and 30s. Among these is the mighty figure of Isaac Babel, whose most famous collection of short stories Red Cavalry was written a century ago, inspired by Babel’s experiences as a war reporter in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. I have recently been rereading the Red Cavalry stories and had intended my latest article to be about the historical parallels between Babel’s commentaries on war and contemporary war writers in Ukraine. That will have to wait for next time. Instead, I leave you with the prophetic poem Maksym Kryvtsov wrote the day before he died, and an extract from his poem about his ginger cat, posted on Instagram a few days earlier.
My head rolls from tree to tree
or a ball
from my severed arms
violets will sprout in the spring
will be torn apart by dogs and cats
will paint the world a new red
a Pantone human blood red
will sink into the earth
and form a carcass
my shattered gun
my poor mate
my things and fatigues
will find new owners
I wish it were spring
as a violet
My Ginger Tabby
When he falls asleep
slowly stretches his front legs
he dreams of summer
dreams of an unscathed brick house
dreams of chickens
running around the yard
dreams of children
who treat him to meat pies
my helmet slips out of my hands
falls on the mud
the cat wakes up
squints his eyes
looks around carefully:
yes, they’re his people:
and falls asleep again.
Taken from Wikipedia, translation credited to Christine Chraibi
Russia’s war on Ukraine did not begin on 24 February 2022. Its roots go much deeper, extending back a whole decade, to the last weeks of 2013. Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych had for many months been following a policy of ‘walking towards Europe’. But just at the moment when he was due to sign an agreement with the European Union aimed at forging closer ties, he got cold feet.
The reason for the about-turn? Vladimir Putin. With promises of cheap gas and advantageous trade arrangements through his new Eurasian union, the Russian president persuaded Yanukovych to turn his back on Europe in favour of deeper ties with Russia.
On 21 November 2013, the government announced that it was shelving the EU agreement. Outraged students and young people gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan. They waved EU and Ukrainian flags. They sang Ode to Joy – the anthem of the EU – and Ukraine’s national anthem, with its prophetic opening words: Ukraine has not yet perished. They stayed late into the night and their numbers swelled. By the end of November, their cause seemed lost, the impetus for continuing the protest was waning.
But everything changed on the night of 30 November. Riot police stormed the square, firing teargas and beating up the students with truncheons – metal truncheons. Beating them hard enough to break bones. The attack was intended to scare the protestors away and put an end to the demonstrations, but they had precisely the opposite effect.
Had Yanukovych not sent his riot police into the Maidan that night with orders to clear the square at any cost, Ukraine could be a very different place today. No full-scale invasion, no Russian republics in the Donbas, no annexation of Crimea. It’s impossible, of course, to turn back the clock to pivotal moments in history and know what would have happened if events had played out differently. My guess is that Ukraine and Russia would have continued to coexist in an uneasy peace, the leadership in Kyiv at times veering towards Europe, then being pulled back towards Moscow.
Instead, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians came out onto the streets in protest at the heavy-handed action of the riot police. The students’ outraged parents joined the demonstrations. Pensioners, mothers with toddlers in pushchairs, tradesmen, ex-soldiers, teachers, doctors – the whole gamut of Ukrainian society rose in outrage. The protest was no longer just about European integration, but about police aggression, corruption, values, morality.
In early December, the area around the Maidan transformed into a tent city, a camp of makeshift shelters, complete with a stage and barricades, decorated with flags and banners and slogans. The protestors established kitchens to provide food, medical facilities, book exchanges, donation centres for provisions. They took control of buildings around the Maidan where protestors ate and slept and got respite from the cold.
And night after night, they burned tyres and waged war with the riot police. Armed with baseball bats, fireworks and Molotov cocktails, and dressed in balaclavas and bicycle helmets, the anti-government activists pitched themselves against trained squadrons firing tear gas, stun grenades and watercannon. What started as a peaceful student protest within a few weeks had turned into an uprising, a revolution.
The nightly clashes reached a climax in February 2014, when police began firing live ammunition. Snipers shot and killed dozens of protestors in a massacre that is still the subject of competing narratives of blame, and whose perpetrators have never been brought to justice. In total 107 activists were killed during the Maidan revolution – nearly half of them during the massacre of 20 February 2014 – and 13 police officers. Today the fallen heroes of what has become known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity are remembered as the Heaven’s Hundred.
With Ukraine reeling from the horrors of the massacre, Yanukovych fled, leaving Kyiv in a state of chaos and the country rudderless. Putin was rubbing his hands in glee. Moscow was already widely believed to have infiltrated the Maidan, carrying out ‘false flag’ operations and aiding the government’s forces. As soon as the revolution was over, Putin made his next move: preparations for the annexation of Crimea and violent uprisings in the industrial Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk that would rumble on until the full-scale invasion began, leaving around 14,000 dead and displacing millions of civilians.
Since February 2022, more than six million Ukrainians have fled abroad in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Another 8 million are internally displaced, mostly in western Ukraine. And around a million Russians have also escaped abroad, many because of their opposition to the war or to avoid the draft under Russia’s partial mobilisation.
Among these numbers are tens of thousands of Jews. According to Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, more than 40,000 immigrated to Israel from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus in the year to February 2023. Many members of the Ukrainian Jewish community have also found refuge in other European countries, but those who arrived in Israel held an advantage in having an immediate right to citizenship.
The number of Ukrainians with at least one Jewish grandparent – and therefore qualifying for Israeli citizenship by Israel’s Law of Return – was 200,000 in 2020, according to the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), while the number who identify as Jewish (the ‘core’ Jewish population) was estimated at 45,000.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Jewish population of Russia and Ukraine has fallen by 90%, according to the JPR, continuing an exodus that had begun in the early 1970s. An easing of the ban on Jewish refusenik emigration from the Soviet Union at that time allowed approximately 150,000 Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a further 400,000 departed, with more than 80% heading to Israel and the remainder mostly to Germany and the US – several members of my own family among them.
In 2014, the number of Ukrainian Jews immigrating to Israel jumped by 190% in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine. Jewish emigration from Russia also spiked and the numbers coming to Israel from both countries stabilised at this higher level in the eight years leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
With another war now raging in the Middle East, some of those displaced by the hostilities in Ukraine have had to flee twice over. Among them are more than sixty children from the Alumim children’s home near Zhytomyr in western Ukraine. Some are orphans from the surrounding towns and villages within the historic Pale of Settlement, others have parents who are unable to provide a stable home for them.
On 24 February 2022, bombs began to fall around the home, which was located close to a Ukrainian air base. Its founders, Rabbi Zalman Bukiet and his wife Malki, had made advance preparations in case of a Russian attack and were able to quickly evacuate the children to the west of the country by bus. After a few days, when it became clear that the war would not reach a swift conclusion, they crossed the border into Romania and from there boarded a plane to Israel.
The logistics of the transfer were complex as almost none of the children had passports. Some of their mothers and other community members joined the group until it numbered 170 people. “El Al Airlines wanted us to finalise the number of seats we needed, and the paperwork was an open question,” Rabbi Bukiet recalled. One child had been away visiting his home village when the war broke out and had to be driven to Romania by taxi for a fare ten times higher than the standard rate.
Once in Israel, the group was hosted at the Nes Harim education centre in the Jerusalem Hills. “We came for a month and stayed for six,” Rabbi Bukiet said. But as the new school year came round, he needed to find a more permanent home for the children. The group moved to Ashkelon, a coastal town in southern Israel, and rented two accommodation buildings – one for girls and one for boys – as well as apartments for the 16 families that had come with them from Zhytomyr and a home for the rabbi and his own family.
“And so Ashkelon became home. The kids learned Hebrew, gained Israeli friends and integrated into the local community. The mothers took jobs and learned to navigate life in Israel. And we all got used to the new normal,” Rabbi Bukiet said. He and Malki arranged visits for a family member from Ukraine for each child, along with outings and activities. With the next school year due to begin, the group decided to stay another year in Ashkelon.
Until history repeated itself. On 7 October the sirens once again blared at six am, just as they had in Zhytomyr 18 months or so earlier. Once again, the sound of gunfire and explosions reverberated around them. Rabbi Bukiet and his own family ran to a shelter but were unable to reach the children’s dormitories until midday. By the afternoon, the constant sirens had eased the he and Malki were able to gather the children together in a larger shelter. That night they made plans to relocate again, further north into Israel. Today the inhabitants of the children’s home are based in the Hasidic village of Kfar Chabad, not knowing how long they will stay. Safe for now, their future is uncertain once again.
The full story of the Alumim children's home can be found here:
When Hamas terrorists entered southern Israel last month, they committed the biggest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. That on its own is a desperately chilling thought. But Israel’s response to the attacks has unleashed a wave of antisemitism around the globe on a scale not seen since the middle of the last century. Words that for decades have been unsayable in public are now being chanted in the streets of our major cities.
And in Russia, a country with a devastating history of antisemitism that had until recently been quashed, pogroms have broken out once again. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews in Russia suffered wave after wave of pogroms – anti-Jewish riots that involved terrorising communities, attacking Jewish homes and businesses, humiliating and maiming, rape and murder. Last weekend Russia witnessed its first pogrom in sixty years.
In Dagestan, a mainly Muslim region of southern Russia bordering Chechnya, an angry mob shouting antisemitic slogans stormed the airport of the regional capital Makhachkala. The rioters broke through security barriers onto the runway with the intention of attacking passengers arriving from Tel Aviv, fuelled by rumours circulating on social media that the plane was carrying refugees from Israel. The rumours were later proven to be untrue.
Elsewhere in Dagestan, a riot broke out outside a hotel in the city of Khasavyurt, because Israeli refugees were believed to be sheltering inside. The protestors pinned a sign to the door: Entry strictly forbidden to Israelis (Jews). And in Nalchik - located, like Dagestan, in the North Caucasus region - a mob attacked and set alight a Jewish cultural centre that was under construction. The words Death to Jews were daubed on its wall. These events took place in spite of strict rules prohibiting public demonstrations in Russia, implemented to stifle protest against the war in Ukraine.
The pogroms of the past took place across the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were restricted to living in Tsarist times – in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the western fringes of Russia. These regions had been absorbed by Russia during the partitions of Poland under Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. Jews had long been present in great numbers in Poland because its liberal policies contrasted with most other parts of Europe at the time; Jews were welcomed for their skills in commerce that helped bolster the economy. But Russia was far less tolerant and pogroms were a direct result of an official policy of antisemitism.
Today’s pogroms in Dagestan derive from sympathy with Palestinians under Israeli bombardment in Gaza. With a mostly Muslim population, Dagestan has historically been more closely aligned with the Middle East than with Russia. But it is also home to Russia’s oldest Jewish community. Jews have lived in the region since Biblical times and as Jews from elsewhere in Russia have emigrated in huge numbers, mostly to North America and Israel, Dagestan today is home to Russia’s largest Jewish community.
Just as the pogroms of the past were a manifestation of official antisemitism in the Russian Empire, the pogroms in Dagestan reflect a change in sentiment in the echelons of power in Moscow. While the Vladimir Putin of the past spoke out against holocaust denial and xenophobia, the Russian president has in recent months ratcheted up antisemitic rhetoric as a reaction to Russia’s failings in the war in Ukraine, not least with his derogatory comments about Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelensky (see my article on the subject here). Putin’s reaction to the violence in Dagestan has been to blame Ukraine and the West, accusing Russia’s enemies of fomenting unrest to destabilise the country.
The violence in Dagestan continues a worrying trend for Putin, demonstrating again how his authority is being undermined. Having risen to power almost a quarter of a century ago, Putin cemented his popularity with a reputation for restoring Russia’s territorial integrity and stability after the chaotic unravelling of the 1990s. It was his quelling of violence in Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya that helped reinforce the strongman image that the president has sought to project ever since.
But Putin’s obsessive focus on trying to destroy Ukraine has led him to turn a blind eye to unrest in Russia’s provinces that threatens to undermine his reputation and the sense of order and stability that he has so painstakingly nurtured. The attempted mutiny in June by his once loyal ally Yevgeny Prigozhin was the first clear manifestation of Putin’s authority beginning to unravel. Unrest in the North Caucasus may be the next.
Anyone who has followed my blog will know that I have written extensively about pogroms. My family survived pogroms and I have been writing about them for years. But I never expected to witness pogroms in my lifetime.
The slaughter of communities in southern Israel by Hamas terrorists is a stark reminder of the antisemitic violence our ancestors faced repeatedly in the Russian Empire more than a century ago: brutal assaults, rape, beheadings, indiscriminate killing of women, children and babies, entire families massacred.
The Hamas attacks were also timed to call to mind the shock invasion of Israel in 1973 by Syrian and Egyptian forces, which took place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This month’s surprise invasion by Hamas coincided with the end of Sukkot, again a time when Jews were celebrating a religious holiday, and exactly fifty years on from the Yom Kippur war.
Back in 1973, the Arab forces were armed by the Soviet Union and were quickly and soundly defeated by Israel and its ally, the US. Today, neither Israel nor Gaza is likely to win a rapid or decisive victory. Ironically, the only probable winner in the conflict will be the Soviet Union’s dominant successor state – Russia.
Israeli images of burnt-out cars, bodies littering the streets, houses and shops pockmarked with bullet holes, are hauntingly reminiscent of the scenes in Ukrainian towns including Bucha and Irpin in March 2022 after Russia’s failed attempt to take Kyiv.
While there is no evidence to suggest that Russia was directly involved in the Hamas incursions, Russian weaponry has almost certainly found its way to Gaza – provided by Iran – and may well have been used by the Palestinian fighters. Russia’s relations with Hamas date back to 2006, when the Palestinian faction won its famous election victory. Numerous Hamas delegations have visited Moscow since then, most recently in March this year, as Russia has attempted to carve out a niche for itself in the Middle East peace process by mediating between different Palestinian groups.
Russia’s relationship with Iran – Hamas’ main international backer – has strengthened considerably in the last 18 months as Moscow has become heavily dependent on Tehran as a supplier of weapons, including artillery and tank rounds and, most importantly, the Shahed kamikaze drones that it uses to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.
For Russia, the key benefit of the conflict in Israel and Gaza is that it is diverting the West’s attention away from Ukraine. For the first time in 18 months, the spotlight is no longer on Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and US President Joe Biden has promised to supply Israel with all the military assistance it needs. If the violence in the Middle East continues for more than a few weeks, this is likely to engender a fall in US financial and military support for Ukraine.
“Russia is interested in triggering a war in the Middle East, so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said this week. Russia’s response to the events in the Middle East has been muted, in spite of its strengthening ties with Israel, forged by the countries’ cooperation over Syria that has enabled Israel to secure its north-eastern border.
For Kyiv, the timing of the latest Middle East crisis is terrible, coming just when the tide appears to be turning against Ukraine. Its ground offensive has been slower and less successful than had been hoped, the army is running out of ammunition, and international support is waning.
Even before the Hamas attacks, some US Republicans were arguing against continued military aid for Ukraine, and with a tight presidential election campaign looming, many fear that US weapons supplies will tail off. While Israel is a longstanding ally of the US and holds great resonance for many Americans, Ukraine is often perceived as distant and irrelevant to US interests. If the two are in competition for US funding, Israel will be the winner.
Elsewhere, Slovakia recently elected a government that is sympathetic towards Russia, breaking the EU’s consensus of support for Ukraine. And in Poland, where voters go to the polls this weekend, a far-right coalition campaigning to reduce support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees may end up holding the balance of power. Already disputes over Ukrainian grain exports being diverted through Poland have cooled relations between the countries.
Zelensky is keen to draw parallels between the two conflicts, to urge the West to support the cause of democracy, freedom and human rights. “It’s the same evil – the only difference is that it was a terrorist organisation that attacked Israel, and here a terrorist state attacked Ukraine,” he says.
Support for Israel is palpable in Ukraine as the population sees those parallels too. A large screen in Kyiv is lit up with an image of the Israeli flag and locals have placed flowers and candles outside the Israeli embassy. The visible signs of support come in spite of Israel’s lack of military aid and its repeated refusal to make its Iron Dome missile defence system available to Ukraine, as well as arguments over Israel’s treatment of Ukrainians refugees.
Vladimir Putin has been accused of multiple crimes and offences over the years, but until recently, antisemitism wasn’t one of them. In the last few months, he has come in for criticism from the West, from Israel and the Ukrainian leadership for a spate of antisemitic comments.
Putin appeared on TV in early September ranting that “Western masters” installed Volodymyr Zelensky, “an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, with Jewish origins” as Ukraine’s president “to cover up the anti-human essence that is the foundation…of the modern Ukrainian state” and “the glorification of Nazism.”
The diatribe followed comments made at the St Petersburg international economic forum in in June, when Putin was asked about the apparent contradiction of Ukraine being a Nazi state led by a Jew. “I have a lot of Jewish friends. They say Zelensky is not a Jew; he is a disgrace to the Jewish people,” he said.
And most recently, speaking at an economic forum in Vladivostok, Putin said of the former senior Kremlin official Anatoly Chubais, who fled Russia after last year’s invasion of Ukraine and is reportedly living in Israel, “He is no longer Anatoly Borisovich Chubais, he is some sort of Moishe Israelievich, or some such.”
The brand of ethnic nationalism that Putin has started to espouse sits rather strangely. Firstly, there’s that awkward issue in his repeated claims to be trying to “denazify” Ukraine, that the country’s leader is a Jew who lost several members of his family in the Holocaust.
To those raised with a Soviet (or post-Soviet) view of history, this is less paradoxical than it seems. According to Soviet historiography, no specific emphasis was placed on the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, rather the focus was on the suffering of the Soviet people as a whole. And indeed, the suffering of the Soviet people was terrible, Hitler’s regime classed Slavs as sub-human and Communists were a mortal enemy. There was little awareness during Soviet times that the Jews had suffered any more than the rest of the population and many Russians have held onto that mindset.
Putin’s antisemitic outpourings echo comments made in May last year by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, comparing Zelensky with Hitler. Lavrov claimed that Jews had been partly responsible for their own murder by the Nazis because, “some of the worst antisemites are Jews,” and Hitler himself had Jewish blood.
But the conflation of Zelensky and Nazism doesn’t fully explain Putin’s recent antisemitic outbursts. According to historian Artem Efimov, Editor-in-chief of Russian independent media outlet Meduza’s Signal newsletter, the Russian president is exploiting rhetoric to serve his purpose, whether that rhetoric is Marxist, right-wing or, indeed, antisemitic. His words are not based on any deep, systematic beliefs – for Putin has no ideology of his own – but serve as a means to justify his actions, Efimov says.
Most notably, Putin repeatedly manipulates the collective memory of Russia’s struggle against Nazism in World War II – or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia – to legitimise his imperialist ambitions in Ukraine.
In pivoting towards antisemitism, Putin is repeating an age-old tendency to create a distraction, a scapegoat even, as his strongman image frays and begins to fall apart. As I have written before, Putin has more than a whiff of Joseph Stalin about him. Stalin, amid the paranoia and insecurity that characterised the final years of his rule, repeatedly resorted to antisemitism to push the blame onto others.
The post-war years were characterised by Stalin’s purge of “rootless cosmopolitans”, a reference largely to Jews, whose loyalty to the USSR was questioned with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Well-known members of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, formed during the war to organise international support for the Soviet military effort, were arrested, tortured, and executed.
Shortly before his death in 1953, Stalin launched another anti-Semitic purge in the form of the “Doctor’s Plot” – an alleged conspiracy by a group of mostly Jewish doctors to murder leading Communist Party officials. The plot was thought to be a precursor to another major purge of the party, and was halted only by Stalin’s death.
Moscow’s former chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, has repeatedly warned of rising antisemitism in Russia and urged Russian Jews to leave the country while they still can. Rabbi Goldschmidt resigned in July 2022 because of his opposition to the war and lives in exile in Israel. Tens of thousands of Russian Jews have already emigrated to Israel since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February last year, the largest wave of departures since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine doesn’t rank high on the holiday bucket list for most of us right now. But thousands of Hassidic Jews have ignored warnings about travelling to a war zone and flocked to the small town of Uman, some three hours south of Kyiv, for an annual new year pilgrimage.
They came to worship at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who was buried in Uman in 1810. Not all are religious Jews, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
This year around 35,000 pilgrims arrived in Uman (up from the 23,000 who visited last year) in spite of warnings from the Ukrainian and Israeli authorities not to travel because of the risk of Russian air attacks and insufficient bomb shelters for the influx of visitors. Some brought young children with them, believing that a child who visits the grave site before the age of seven will grow up to be without sin. A small number of pilgrims have even been known to bring newborn babies to be circumcised in Uman, in spite of a lack of medical facilities for the procedure in Ukraine.
Visitor numbers are only slightly down on the years before Russia’s full-scale invasion, even though Uman has been targeted on several occasions. In April more than 20 missiles struck the town killing 24 people including several children in a residential district. It last came under Russian missile attack in June. The front line lies around 200 miles to the south.
“It is very dangerous. People need to know that they are putting themselves at risk. Too much Jewish blood has already been spilled in Europe. How can you take such a risk?” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month.
With Ukrainian airspace closed, the journey to Uman is long, costly and uncomfortable, involving a flight to Poland, trains, minivan taxis and an inevitable long wait at the border. But the pilgrims remain undeterred in spite of the danger, expense and logistics of holidaying in a war zone. Some are firm in the belief that their Rabbi will protect them from beyond the grave; others just come to party and have a good time.
Most come from Israel and spend up to a week in Uman around Rosh Hashanah. Although women are allowed on the pilgrimage, the vast majority of the visitors are men. The annual Jewish gathering has become the town’s major source of income, with pilgrims charged a $200 fee to visit. In recent years, the rabbi’s grave has been renovated with funds donated by Jewish tycoons from around the world. Hotels and hostels have popped up and locals have carried out house renovations to provide accommodation priced at hundreds of dollars a night. Those who can’t afford the exorbitant room prices pitch tents in courtyards or vacant lots.
A whole hospitality industry has built up around the pilgrims, offering kosher food and drink at vastly inflated prices, using Hebrew signage and accepting payment in dollars or Israeli shekels. Most of the business owners are Israelis. Dozens of Israeli families moved to Uman in the years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The annual influx of bearded, black-robed, skull-capped men makes quite an impact in this quiet town. While the visitors provide Uman with much-needed cash, relations between the pilgrims and the townsfolk are not always harmonious. Locals complain about the loud music, drunkenness, fighting and excessive litter. They resent the police cordons and checkpoints that prevent them from going about their daily business; and they question how the authorities are spending the money collected from the pilgrims, citing widespread corruption.
Imagine a massive rave – albeit a religious one – taking over the streets of a small, unexceptional town and you start to get the picture. The Hassidic music blasting from speakers in the streets is imbued with a techno twist. Alcohol and drugs are much in evidence, as is prostitution. It’s hard to put a number on the percentage who come to celebrate and party, not just to pray.
There’s a heavy security presence, even in peacetime, but it was stepped up this year in light of the added dangers of war. Police numbers have increased since 2010, when a young Israeli was stabbed in a brawl and ten pilgrims were deported after violent clashes broke out.
Violence in Uman is nothing new. In 1941, under German occupation, the Nazis murdered 17,000 Jews here and destroyed the Jewish cemetery, including the grave of Rabbi Nachman, which was later located and moved before the area was redeveloped for housing. The original burial site was close to a mass grave for victims of another Jewish massacre, one that took place in 1768 as part of the Haidamak uprisings.
The Uman pilgrimage began shortly after the rabbi’s death in the early 19th century and attracted hundreds of Hassidic Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland until the Russian Revolution of 1917 closed the borders. The photo below dates from this period. In spite of the Communist regime’s clampdown on religious practice, a trickle of pilgrims continued to visit the grave site, including some Soviet Jews who made the journey in secret and were exiled to Siberia as a consequence. From the 1960s, small numbers of American and Israeli Jews travelled to Uman either legally or clandestinely. In the late 1980s, travel to the Soviet Union became easier and the number of pilgrims began to grow. Around 2,000 made the journey to Uman in 1990, rising to 25,000 by 2018.
Warsaw is possibly the most fascinating city I have ever visited. Its glorious old market square, lined with Baroque-style merchants’ houses, rivals those of Krakow, Prague or Brussels. And yet Warsaw’s old town was reconstructed from scratch in the middle of the twentieth century. Somehow the knowledge that the colourful facades are mere decades rather than centuries old added to my appreciation of them – each one painstakingly rebuilt using 18th century paintings of the city by the Venetian artist Bernardo Bellotto as a blueprint. That this reconstruction was carried out during a period when Stalinist architecture dominated in the Soviet bloc makes it doubly remarkable.
The rebuilding of Warsaw itself could, in the coming years, serve as a blueprint of another kind – as a route-map for the reconstruction of Ukrainian towns and cities after months of Russian aerial bombardment.
While much of Europe experienced destruction on a monumental scale during World War II, the fate of the Polish capital was uniquely cruel. Most of the city was razed to the ground in retribution for the failed Warsaw Uprising of August-September 1944, when the Polish resistance attempted to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Despite being poorly equipped, the Poles succeeded in killing or wounding several thousand German fighters in a battle lasting for two months, but at a terrible cost. Up to 200,000 Polish civilians were killed, mostly in mass executions, and once the Germans had quelled the uprising, they systematically destroyed what remained of the city, reducing more than 85% of its historic old town to ruins.
Today we can only imagine how daunting the task of reconstruction must have seemed. Indeed, some suggested at the time that what remained of Warsaw should be left as a memorial and the capital relocated elsewhere.
Many residents and refugees, who returned once Soviet and Allied forces reoccupied the ruined city, were formed into work brigades tasked with clearing the vast amounts of debris, as were German prisoners of war. It was estimated that the sheer volume of rubble – around 22 million cubic metres of the stuff covering almost the entire city – meant that it would take 20 years to transport it out of the city by daily goods trains.
Amid the post-war scarcity, Poland lacked the financial resources to purchase construction materials. And the hundreds of brickworks that had flourished in Warsaw before the war – many of them owned by Jews – no longer existed. If the city was to rise from the ashes, the only option was to reuse the rubble from former buildings to rebuild anew, and a host of new construction techniques were invented to fashion new building materials from old.
The Polish word Zgruzowstanie came into use to refer to this post-war innovation in recycling building materials. It was also the name of a recent exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw about the city’s reconstruction, translated into English as Rising from Rubble. The exhibition was curated by architectural historian Adam Przywara, based on his PhD research about the new technological developments that emerged during Warsaw’s post-war reconstruction.
The most important of these was gruzobeton, or rubble-concrete – a mix of crushed rubble, concrete and water, which was formed into breeze-blocks and became one of the main symbols of post-war Warsaw. Innovative methods were used to reconstitute old bricks and use them in new buildings. Rubble from the former ghetto was formed into building materials and used to build new neighbourhoods. Salvaged architectural details from demolished buildings in the old town were added to the reconstructed facades. Iron was recovered and reused.
Mass demolitions even took place in other Polish cities, including Wrocław and Szczecin, to provide more bricks to rebuild Warsaw. Rubble that could not be used in construction was piled up in huge mounds to form geographical features including the Warsaw Uprising Mound, Moczydłowska hill and Szczęśliwicka hill. Although the old town was – remarkably – largely rebuilt by 1955, reconstruction elsewhere in the city lasted until the 1980s, and rubble became a national symbol used by the communist regime to represent the collective effort of reconstruction and a brighter, socialist future.
The Rising from Rubble exhibition is more than just a lesson in history. “There are two areas of contemporary relevance: the idea of sustainable architecture, and how it might relate to rebuilding in Ukraine,” Przywara is quoted in The Guardian.
Today Warsaw is home to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and is a key transit point for travel to and from Ukraine. Numerous Ukrainian and European delegations, architects and city planners have passed through and made a point of visiting the exhibition, taking Przywara’s point that the city’s post-war reconstruction could become a blueprint for rebuilding Ukraine’s urban landscapes. The mayor of Mariupol was one such visitor, and the parallels between last year’s Russian air strikes on Mariupol and the bombing of Warsaw nearly 80 years earlier are plain for all to see.
Ever since Yevgeny Prigozhin staged his failed mutiny two months ago, commentators in the West have been suggesting that he should avoid standing near windows in tall buildings and keep an eye on who serves his tea, not to mention who washes his underpants – references to the Kremlin’s favoured methods of disposing of its critics in recent months.
When Prigozhin’s plane crashed yesterday near Tver, while travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg, the only surprise was the means of death. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether the crash was caused by a bomb on board the plane, or whether the aircraft was shot down. Either scenario would implicitly require the authorisation of Russia’s top brass.
After years of political assassinations in which Vladimir Putin has denied, shrugged off, or indeed scoffed at, any involvement by the Kremlin, this one could be hard for him to rebuff – although his former advisor Sergei Markov has already attempted to pin the blame on Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly imprisoned, poisoned, shot or defenestrated his political rivals, but the demise of Prigozhin (assuming that he was indeed on the downed plane) marks the first assassination of one of the president’s inner circle.
Prigozhin was a former convict who emerged from prison in 1990 to sell hotdogs from a street stall in St Petersburg before expanding into the restaurant business and becoming chief caterer to the Kremlin, earning himself the sobriquet Putin’s Chef. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 provided the springboard for Prigozhin’s involvement in the military, including major contracts for food and supplies to the Russian army and establishing a band of mercenary soldiers, who have been accused of numerous war crimes in Syria and, of course, more recently in Ukraine. But Prigozhin’s troops fought not only on the battlefield – they have also been mired in allegations of creating a network of fake online accounts to interfere in the US presidential election in 2016.
I have written before that Putin has more than a whiff of Joseph Stalin about him, and his (assumed) purging of Prigozhin is yet another reminder of the Soviet past. No member of Stalin’s entourage was ever safe. One whispered word or false rumour of criticism of the leader was enough to prompt a show trial, a forced confession and a bullet in the back of the head.
It’s 70 years since Stalin died and – thanks to Putin – his reputation today is being rehabilitated as never before since his denunciation by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, in the so-called Secret Speech of 1956, when Stalin’s crimes were made public for the first time. Hundreds of modern-day Stalinists gathered in Moscow’s Red Square in March to mark the anniversary of his death, and the state-run news agency RIA Novosti published an article with the headline “Stalin is a weapon in the battle between Russia and the West”, which argued that criticising Stalin is “not just anti-Soviet but is also Russophobic, aimed at dividing and defeating Russia”.
It was Stalin who led the Soviet Union through the devastation of World War II. Putin’s rhetoric during his full-scale military invasion of Ukraine harks back repeatedly to the Great Patriotic War, as it is known locally. He equates the war in Ukraine with the fight against Nazi Germany, Ukrainians with fascists.
Famously, Putin has stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, and he has tirelessly aimed his foreign policy at recreating the Soviet era, trying to reimpose control over the former republics as well as attempting to restore Russian ascendancy on the world stage. He brought back the Soviet national anthem and Soviet-era symbols, endeavouring to put back the jigsaw pieces of the past, but making a different shape – one representing the dollar sign rather than the hammer and sickle, with Capitalist bling replacing Communist drudgery.
That Communist drudgery came to an end exactly 32 years ago following a previous attempted coup, one used by many commentators to draw parallels with the past during Prigozhin’s mutiny in June. In late August 1991 a group of die-hard Communists, opposed to the reform agenda of President Mikhail Gorbachev and his loss of control over the Soviet republics and former Eastern European vassal states, attempted to seize power. Although the coup failed, it prompted the immediate collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, just four months later, the whole country.
Ironically, the attempted coup aimed at preserving the Soviet empire precipitated Ukraine’s declaration of independence on 24 August the same year, an anniversary it is marking today without parades or public celebrations out of fear that such events would be targeted by Russian air strikes. Instead, Ukraine is marking the anniversary with a public holiday and a kilometre-long display of destroyed Russian military vehicles on Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s central boulevard.
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.