Ninety years ago in Ukraine
The coming of spring in Ukraine has drawn the curtain on a grim winter dominated by power cuts caused by Russian airstrikes on civilian infrastructure. The resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of Moscow’s efforts to subjugate them by depriving them of heat and light made a strong impression on many observers. The events of this winter have also drawn comparisons with another brutal winter in Ukraine, exactly 90 years ago, when Moscow attempted to overcome Ukrainian resistance by depriving the population of food.
During the winter of 1932-33, in the midst of a poor harvest, teams of activists roamed the Ukrainian countryside moving from village to village, house to house, searching for food that they were told was being hoarded by greedy peasants. Any grain they found, even the tiniest quantities, was requisitioned for the state. The local peasants began to hide grain under floorboards or in holes in the ground. The activist squads searched for loose floorboards and freshly dug earth to reveal such hiding places.
The requisitions were ostensibly geared towards fulfilling the first Five-Year Plan – the centrepiece of Joseph Stalin’s planned economy aimed at much-needed industrialisation and modernisation of the Soviet economy. To meet the plan’s goals for economic growth, the country needed hard currency to import modern machinery and equipment from abroad – machinery that it was not yet able to manufacture itself.
Back in the 1930s, with its energy industry still undeveloped, the USSR's key means of gaining hard currency lay in grain exports, and its most fertile land was in Ukraine – already known as the Breadbasket of Europe. As well as plentiful supplies of grain, Ukraine also had a huge peasant population to sow and harvest it.
Stalin’s Five-Year Plan was hugely ambitious. It was aimed at propelling the backward Soviet economy into the big league of industrialised nations; transforming a rural, peasant society into an urbanised industrial powerhouse. Nobody could accuse Stalin of lack of vision. But his plan was not only ambitious, it was totally unrealistic.
Soviet grain production inevitably failed to meet the inflated targets set by the bureaucrats drawing up the Five-Year Plan. But the planned export volumes still needed to be met to enable the country to fulfil its international trade obligations and achieve its hard currency goals. The activist squads searching cellars and yards for hoarded grain were tasked with requisitioning more than was actually produced.
The inevitable result was widespread food shortages across all the grain-producing lands of the USSR. The famine peaked in the summer of 1933, when the daily death toll from starvation is estimated at around 28,000. During this period, the Soviet Union exported 4.3 million tonnes of grain from Ukraine.
While other grain-producing regions of the USSR also suffered from famine, Ukraine was singled out for special treatment. Stalin’s policy of collectivisation had begun in 1929 and met with savage resistance from the Ukrainian peasantry. For generations, the peasants had farmed their own plots, often at subsistence levels, with any surplus sold to private traders. The most successful peasants – known as Kulaks in Soviet terminology – increased their landholdings and supplemented their grain production by rearing livestock.
Collectivisation aimed to put an end to private ownership of all land, livestock and farm equipment, by transferring the peasants – with force if necessary – to vast collective farms producing agricultural output for the state. But many Ukrainian peasants refused to join the new collectives, organising rebellions and sabotaging equipment.
The unrest brought back memories of the Russian civil war, which had raged in Ukraine just a decade earlier. Following the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks had failed to gain control of Ukraine, as violence, anarchy and uprisings brought carnage to the countryside. It took them three years to crush a nascent nationalist movement, subjugate numerous peasant rebellions and finally impose Soviet power on Ukraine.
During collectivisation, fearful of a repeat of the violence and anarchy, Stalin imposed a crackdown on any individual, family or community that had shown support for the Ukrainian nationalist movement in 1917-21. These groups were singled out for even harsher treatment than the rest of the population. As well as requisitioning their grain, all dried goods, vegetables and – most damaging of all – livestock, were taken away, leaving families with nothing and effectively condemning them to death by starvation.
The hunger drove people mad. Stories of parents killing and eating their children were not uncommon. Others gave their children to orphanages in the hope of saving them from starvation. Roadsides were littered with the dead and dying. Nobody knows exactly how many people starved to death in Ukraine in 1932-33, but recent research puts the figure at around 4 million.
For Stalin, the Holodomor – as the forced famine is now known – served its purpose. The will of the Ukrainian people to resist was broken. Weakened by starvation, those who had cheated death joined the new collective farms without putting up any further opposition. All vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism and the Ukrainian independence movement had been strangled and did not re-emerge until the end of the Soviet Union more than half a century later. Stalin’s goal of Sovietising and subjugating Ukraine to Moscow’s rule was realised.
Stalin forbade any mention of the famine in the press and removed any references to the events of the Holodomor from official records, even falsifying census data to cover up the excess deaths. Ninety years later, Russia’s post-Soviet dictator Vladimir Putin bars the media from reporting on the conflict in Ukraine, making it a crime even to refer to it as a war. But in today’s world of globalised social media and amid overwhelming western support for Kyiv, Putin’s attempts to subjugate the Ukrainian people is far less likely to succeed.
To read more about the Holodomor, I recommend Anne Applebaum's prize-winning book Red Famine: Stalin's war on Ukraine published in 2017.
The warning signs were visible in Russia from the early days of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, but few in the West were looking for them. Instead, US President George W Bush famously said of him in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The UK prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, engaged in a charm offensive with Putin, arguing that he should be allowed “a position on the top table” of international affairs and describing him as "an intelligent man [whose] reform programme is the right reform programme.”
And yet this was at a time when the Russian armed forces had already flattened the Chechen capital, Grozny, a tactic it repeated later in Aleppo and more recently in Mariupol and Bakhmut. The roots of Putin’s crackdown on dissent at home can also be traced back to his early years in office.
To mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt – who served as Chief Rabbi of Moscow from 1993 until his departure from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine – published a fascinating article in the American news publication Foreign Policy that sheds light on the Kremlin’s infiltration of religious leadership.
“I arrived in Soviet Russia in 1989, as perestroika and glasnost were in full swing, to help rebuild the Jewish community destroyed by 70 years of Communist rule,” he writes.
“One winter day in 2003, the Federal Security Service (FSB) official who was assigned to the Moscow Choral Synagogue at the time—a man I’ll call Oleg (his name has been changed purposely)—invited me to come to a police station at 40 Sadovnichevskaya Street. Oleg and his colleague started saying that I, a Swiss citizen, had been using a business multiple entry visa to stay in Russia, which is illegal since I was a religious worker; however, they were ready to overlook this issue if I started reporting to them. They pressed me to sign something, yet I refused categorically, saying that it is against Jewish law to inform on others.
“After badgering me for over an hour, they finally let me go. I was shaken to the core of my being. Oleg came back twice to try to convince me. Once he even stopped my car in the street—from that moment on, I understood that the driver might be working for the FSB as well.”
Rabbi Goldschmidt was briefly deported from Russia in 2005 and notes that at least 11 other rabbis have been forced out of the country over the last decade because they failed to toe the party line.
Rabbi Goldschmidt was aware of many attempts by the FSB to recruit leading figures in the Jewish community, and described how FSB agents “regularly monitored, visited, and intimidated” religious leaders. As early as 2000, the Kremlin formed an alliance with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which Putin was able to use to manipulate support from Jewish leaders at home and get them to do his bidding abroad, effectively silencing dissent from the Jewish community. The Federation’s chairman, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, spoke out last year in support of the need for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s success in controlling and instrumentalising Russia’s Jewish community mirrors the tactics it employed on the Russian Orthodox Church, which has played a leading role in the war narrative. As Rabbi Goldschmidt says, “Religion has been weaponised—and perverted—to justify crimes against humanity”.
“The Russian Orthodox Church, decimated and almost destroyed after seventy years of Communist rule, finally found its voice with the creation of the Russian Federation in 1991, but experienced a real renaissance only with the ascent of Vladimir Putin to power in 2000. By 2020, the Church had built as many churches and monasteries (roughly 10,000) in Russia as before the 1917 revolution,” the rabbi writes.
He quotes James Billington, a US academic and Russia expert, who described how the Orthodox Church could choose to become a vehicle of democratisation, or it could side with an authoritarian government and reap the benefits, such as the building of magnificent churches all over the country. The Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill, chose the latter.
“In a country devoid of ideology, the Church paired with the state to provide a new ideology for the regime’s anti-Western propaganda and, to some extent, replaced the Communist Party in its creation of culture and values. The Church’s mandate evolved to provide ideological backing for the regime’s lack of support for human rights, democracy, and free elections, directing it to attack the West’s support for gay rights and sexual permissiveness,” the rabbi continues.
Patriarch Kirill gave his blessing to Putin’s quest to recreate the Soviet Union, mobilising the clergy to exert influence on their congregations to support this goal. The Patriarch himself is a fervent advocate of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, giving it the status of a holy war.
Rabbi Goldschmidt points out that, “the voices in the Church that did not support the invasion were immediately silenced—Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of external relations and essentially the number two in the Moscow Patriarchate, was exiled to the Orthodox backwater of Budapest, Hungary, over his refusal to support the war.”
The Kremlin has successfully managed the FSB’s infiltration of Russia’s Muslim leaders as well as the leadership of the Russian Orthodox and Jewish communities. The Grand Mufti of Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin has voiced support for the war, while the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is a key Putin ally.
The full article can be found here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/28/moscow-chief-rabbi-putin-fsb-religion-patriarch-kirill/
A grim milestone
February 24th marks a grim milestone – the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The initial shock of the early days and weeks of the war – the dread instilled by footage of a 40-mile column of tanks heading for Kyiv from the Belorussian border; the shelling of apartment blocks; the flood of refugees trying to reach Poland – has subsided into an uncomfortable acceptance.
Today the worst of the fighting is back in the east of Ukraine, as it had been before, further from the West, further from our consciousness. Already over 14,000 people had died – many of them civilians – in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2022 in a conflict that was no longer being reported, and which many outside the country had forgotten.
For now, in Kyiv and elsewhere, normal life has resumed to a degree. The exodus of Ukrainian women and children has slowed to a trickle; some families have become accustomed to living apart, while others have returned to their homes if not for good, then at least to visit loved ones. Residents have learned to live with power rationing and air raid sirens. For those of us living in Europe, it feels like the worst of the crisis has passed. The winter of exorbitant fuel prices is almost over, we can afford to fill our cars once again.
But the horrors of this war live on for so many and must never be forgotten by the rest of us. The atrocities of Bucha; the mass graves of Izyum; the flattening of Mariupol and Bakhmut; the repeated bombardment of energy and water infrastructure in a freezing cold winter. The death toll is staggering, with an estimated 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed or wounded and Russian casualties higher still. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 8,000 to 30,000. Barely a single Ukrainian family remains unaffected by loss of some kind.
The threat of nuclear war has hung over the conflict from the beginning and continues to hold back Western support. From the very start, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with the West to “close the sky”. Yet again this month in London, Paris and Brussels he repeated his demands for fighter jets that Western leaders are unwilling to heed lest they provoke a nuclear response from Russia.
The Ukrainian army has fought with a passion and determination that few could have imagined, repelling many of the initial Russian advances and winning back swathes of territory in the autumn. The Ukrainian people have shown an astonishing resilience and won the admiration of us all. An unpopular and ineffective comedian-turned-president has transformed into a Churchillian figure, rallied the Western world and become an unlikely hero.
And still Ukraine waits in trepidation for the much-discussed spring offensive, in whatever form it may take. Russia has been training and arming some of the 300,000 reservists it recruited back in September ready for a new attack. There is talk of weapons deliveries from China. An end to the war appears as remote as ever.
And what of Russia? It has become a pariah state barred from selling its oil and gas – its key source of revenue – in much of the world, with its financial system and most of its industry subject to Western sanctions. Foreign companies have shut down their Russian operations, or sold their stakes in Russian firms; oligarchs have had their luxury yachts impounded, their freedom to travel terminated. Even President Vladimir Putin’s friends in China and India have been unwilling to offer much support – although their reluctance has not stretched as far as refusing the opportunity to buy cut-price Russian oil.
But support for the war in much of Russia remains unstinting thanks a barrage of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda in the state media and a blank denial of the facts. All dissent is brutally repressed; many of the brave protestors who staged demonstrations in the early days of the war have emigrated or been imprisoned. Thousands of Russians – mostly professionals – have left the country in protest at the war and thousands more to avoid mobilisation. All political opposition to Putin has been silenced, with opponents in jail, in exile, or murdered. A spate of Russian businessmen falling to their deaths from windows or balconies has been one of the more bizarre features of the last year.
Nevertheless, occasional cracks have started to appear in the armour of state-media backing for the so-called special military operation. And some Russian citizens who had previously supported the war are beginning to question Putin’s judgement as their menfolk return in body bags – the number of Russian soldiers killed per day in Ukraine is thought to have reached 824 in the first two weeks of this month, the highest so far. On top of this, the impact on the population of economic sanctions has so far been limited, but is expected to increase over time. The best hope for an end to the conflict may lie with the Russian people, if their patience with the war and the president who wages it begins to run thin.
Holocaust Remembrance Day
Last Friday, 27 January, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops on that day in 1945. The sombre anniversary was commemorated across Europe in many different ways. Most movingly, in Kyiv, the choir of the Ukrainian armed forces performed a haunting song called Eli Eli (my God, my God) in a ceremony at Babi Yar – the ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were shot after Nazi troops invaded Soviet Ukraine in 1941.
The song was written by Hannah Szenes, a Jewish poet living in Palestine, who volunteered to join the British forces during World War II. She and her unit were dispatched to Croatia and joined a local partisan unit in 1944. Attempting to enter Hungary to save her mother, who was at the time still living in Budapest, she was captured and later executed by the Nazis. Before leaving on her mission, Szenes had entrusted a notebook to a friend, which included Eli Eli, a song that she had written in 1942.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky attended the ceremony. Zelensky’s own great-grandparents died when the Nazis burned down their village, and his grandfather was the only one of four brothers to survive the war as a Red Army soldier. In a video statement to mark Remembrance Day, Zelensky called on the world to “overcome indifference”.
“We know and remember that indifference kills along with hatred. Indifference and hatred are always capable of creating evil together,” he said. “That is why it is so important that everyone who values life should show determination when it comes to saving those whom hatred seeks to destroy.
“Today, we repeat it even more strongly than before: never again to hatred; never again to indifference. The more nations of the world overcome indifference, the less space there will be in the world for hatred.”
Other Ukrainian government officials were more direct in their condemnation of today’s war. A leading presidential advisor, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Twitter that the Holocaust “should have served as a warning to prevent new crimes against humanity. But today, in the very centre of Europe, a genocide of Ukrainians is occurring. We will neither forgive nor forget anything.”
Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin took advantage of Holocaust Remembrance Day to reiterate his phoney claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine. "Forgetting the lessons of history leads to the repetition of terrible tragedies," he said. "This is evidenced by the crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing and punitive actions organised by neo-Nazis in Ukraine. It is against that evil that our soldiers are bravely fighting."
At the same time, the Kremlin continued its attacks on independent news media reporting on the war, branding the popular news site Meduza as undesirable. The designation means that anyone who aids or promotes Meduza – by speaking to its journalists (based in Latvia), or even sharing or liking its content – could face prosecution. By silencing independent media, Putin hopes to drown out all opposition to his own war propaganda, which is trotted out on state television and in the Russian press.
In Poland, around 185 miles from the Ukrainian border, survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other mourners gathered at the site of the Nazi concentration camp to commemorate the anniversary of its liberation.
“Standing here today at the Birkenau memorial site, I am horrified to hear the news from the east. That there is a war there, that the Russian troops that liberated us here are waging a war in Ukraine. Why? Why is there such a policy?” Auschwitz survivor Zdzislawa Wlodarczyk said.
The director of the Auschwitz museum, Piotr Cywinski, echoed President Zelensky’s call to overcome indifference. “Being silent means giving voice to the perpetrators. Remaining indifferent is tantamount to condoning murder,” he said, comparing Russian war crimes in towns such as Bucha and Mariupol with Nazi atrocities.
Rabbi Refael Kruskal, vice-president of Odesa’s Jewish community and the son of a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, has helped evacuate over 4,000 people from Odesa. The city had a Jewish population of around 45,000 before the Russian invasion. “People always say never again, never again, but this year it is actually happening again,” he told France-based Euronews. “I never had to run away from Ukrainians, but I helped my entire community flee Ukraine because of Russian bombs.”
Russia’s latest exodus
Moscow’s former chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, has urged Russian Jews to leave the country while they still can, warning that they may become scapegoats for difficulties caused by the war in Ukraine. Goldschmidt – who resigned in July because of his opposition to the war and lives in exile – pointed to numerous historical precedents for today’s rising antisemitism.
“When we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community,” he told The Guardian. “We saw this in tsarist times and at the end of Stalin’s regime.”
Antisemitism was rife under the tsars, and waves of pogroms in 1881-1906 were condoned by the tsars, if not actually encouraged by them. Often the police were ordered not to intervene, and sometimes even joined in the antisemitic attacks and looting. Up to two million Jews left Russia as a result of the pogroms. Attacks on Jewish communities peaked in 1919 during the Russian civil war, in Ukraine in particular, when numerous different factions fought for control of the land. All of them committing acts of violence against Jews who were blamed both for food scarcity and rising prices, and for supporting the Bolsheviks.
Discrimination and antisemitism prompted many Jews to back the Bolshevik regime, which banned religion of any kind and proclaimed all citizens as equal – although the reality was a far cry from the rhetoric. Official government-led antisemitism remerged in 1953 under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the form of the Doctors 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.
Once again, as a backdrop to today’s ugly war, history is repeating itself. “We’re seeing rising antisemitism while Russia is going back to a new kind of Soviet Union, and step by step the iron curtain is coming down again. This is why I believe the best option for Russian Jews is to leave,” Goldschmidt said.
Jews are increasingly being blamed for Russia’s difficulties in the war – Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, of course. The Russian government and state-controlled media, as well as many on the far right, routinely repeat antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. Foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov in May trotted out the unfounded claim that Hitler was part-Jewish, in a crude attempt to portray Zelensky as a Nazi.
Goldschmidt served as Moscow’s chief rabbi for over 30 years until he resigned in July, prompted by fears that the city’s Jewish community would be endangered if he stayed, after he refused to voice support to the war and gave assistance to Ukrainian refugees. He had already left Russia in March, two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began.
“Pressure was put on community leaders to support the war, and I refused to do so. I resigned because to continue as chief rabbi of Moscow would be a problem for the community because of the repressive measures taken against dissidents,” he said.
Goldschmidt first urged Russian Jews to flee the country in October after the assistant secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Aleksey Pavlov, proclaimed the Jewish orthodox Chabad movement to be a supremacist cult. Chabad is the largest Jewish sect in the former Soviet Union.
“Now we are under pressure, wondering if what was published in the newspaper — this interview with a top security official — represents the start of an official wave of antisemitism. I think that would be the end of a Jewish presence in Russia. Official antisemitism would drive every Russian Jew out of the country,” Baruch Gorin, a spokesperson for the Russian Jewish community, said at the time.
Since July, Russia has been engaged in a legal battle with Israel over its attempts to close down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, an Israeli quasi-governmental organisation that promotes Jewish immigration to Israel and organises Jewish cultural and educational activities in Russia. Moscow’s efforts call to mind earlier crackdowns on the organisation and on Jewish communal life during Soviet times.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Goldschmidt estimates that between a quarter and a third of Russia's Jews have left the country or are planning to do so. More than 43,000 Russians and 15,000 Ukrainians emigrated to Israel last year.
In all, some 200,000 Russians have left the country since the war began, many of them as a result of Putin’s mobilisation drive in September. Jews comprise a disproportionate number of Russia’s middle class and the exodus marks a considerable brain drain for Russia, with a large contingent of business and cultural leaders, intellectuals and creatives fleeing the country.
Battling on a cultural front
As the end of the year approaches, the war in Ukraine has now been raging for close to 300 days. So much has changed in that time. Ukrainians have seen all life’s certainties upended and endured inordinate suffering – many thousands killed; millions more living abroad; families separated; homes destroyed; energy and water supplies cut. On the other side, Russians face boycotts, mobilisation and a government that ratchets up hate speech and clamps down ever harder on any form of dissent. And even here in Europe, none of us is immune from the effects of the war. I am sitting typing by the fire in the kitchen, wrapped in blanket and wearing a woolly hat because of the soaring cost of heating my home.
In his now famous speech that preceded the Russian invasion, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine’s right to statehood, dismissing its distinct history and culture and referring to its territory as “historically Russian land”. As well as fighting a brutal physical war against Russian invaders and occupiers, Ukrainians are battling on the cultural front, as a way of countering Putin’s twisted arguments.
As the rest of the world watched events unfold with a mix of horror and enormous admiration for the resilience and spirit demonstrated by Ukrainians, we too began to embrace Ukrainian culture.
Interest in Ukrainian literature spiked, with publishers and translators fast-tracking projects to get works by Ukrainian authors to an English-speaking audience. UK sales of books by Ukraine’s best known living novelist, Andrey Kurkov, increased by 800% in the early weeks of the war. Kurkov himself became a voice for Ukraine in the wider world, encouraging readers in the West to learn about his country and its history. In October he published Diary of an Invasion, detailing his own experiences of the war.
Interest in Ukrainian music has also flourished, with Ukrainian performances slotted into concert programmes everywhere from international venues to village halls. Overwhelming public support propelled Ukraine’s entry, Kalush Orchestra, to an emphatic victory at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in May. And the newly formed Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra – made up of Ukrainian musicians, many of them now living in Europe as refugees – was added as a special late addition to this year’s Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
In contrast, many Russian performers, composers and artists have been dropped from programmes in the West. London’s Royal Ballet, for example, adopted a policy of avoiding working with Russian state actors, including the Bolshoi, as well as individuals associated with the Putin regime. Many other organisations have taken a similar stance, but continue to work with Russian artists who refuse to identify with the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko has called for a complete cultural boycott, urging the country’s allies to put a stop to performances by Russian composers until the end of the war. No Russian music can be performed in Ukraine for the foreseeable future, although the cultural boycott does have some limits. The national music academy in Kyiv voted against ditching its branding as the Pyotr Tchaikovsky conservatory to rename itself after the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko instead.
A cultural boycott would not amount to “cancelling Tchaikovsky”, but would be “pausing the performance of his works until Russia ceases its bloody invasion,” Tkachenko told The Guardian. He described the war as “a civilisational battle over culture and history” in which Russia is actively “trying to destroy our culture and memory” by insisting that the two states constitute a single nation.
Italy’s world-renowned opera house La Scala is having none of it, opening its new season earlier this month with the Russian opera Boris Godunov, while protestors lined the streets outside. Russian media reported widely on the production, making it a propaganda win for the Kremlin. Notably, the Polish National Opera in Warsaw cancelled scheduled performances of the same opera following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it would consider staging it in peacetime instead.
Russia has long used culture as a form of public diplomacy in its cold war with the West. Its greatest soft power success in recent years was probably the 2018 World Cup finals, which did wonders for Russia’s reputation as the country opened its arms to football fans and showcased the glitz and glamour of the new Russia, belying its recent history as a dangerous threat amid wars in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, and the poisoning of former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in the UK.
The three key pillars of Russian cultural and public diplomacy – cooperation agency Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund – are controlled and financed by the state and actively promote the Kremlin’s narratives, whether by means of culture, youth exchanges, or support for academic cooperation. They also finance a network of other civic organisations and cultural institutions that help make up Russia’s propaganda machine.
The physical destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage has been a feature of the Russian invasion too. According to Unesco, more than 200 historical sites, buildings and monuments have been damaged. Ukraine puts the figure at up to 800, with thousands of artifacts removed or destroyed. Most recently, before fleeing Kherson last month, Russian forces emptied the city’s local history museum and art gallery, transferring the paintings and artifacts to Crimea. During the occupation of Kherson, giant billboards showed images depicting the iconic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and other Russian historical figures and highlighting their connections to the city.
One means Ukraine is using to fight back in the culture war is a project from Kyiv’s Ukrainian Institute titled Postcards from Ukraine, which aims to draw attention to Ukrainian architectural heritage and cultural monuments that have been destroyed or damaged since the Russian invasion began. It is a major international campaign, financed by USAID, that presents before-and-after pictures of damaged buildings and helps showcase how Europe is losing an important part of its cultural heritage.
Volodymyr Sheiko, director of the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv, sees culture as a means the country can use to counter Ukraine war fatigue. He says: “The number of times Ukraine is mentioned [in the media] has decreased tenfold compared to February and March. But this fatigue can be prevented if we do not talk about ourselves exclusively from the position of victim. If we inundate people every day with photographs from the front, this truly exhausts them. But this is not the only part of the Ukrainian story today. We also have a history of struggle, of heroism, of a fantastic social solidarity. And this is part of our dynamic and creative culture. We should present this culture as broadly as possible because it can astonish and impress and be competitive. This does not cause fatigue. On the contrary, it entertains and fascinates, and allows us to keep people's attention on the wave of solidarity with Ukraine.”
Postcards from Ukraine can be found here: https://ui.org.ua/en/postcards-from-ukraine/
Commemorating the Holodomor
Ukraine on 26 November marked the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor – the famine of 1932-33 in which millions of Ukrainians died. Since 2006, the country has recognised the Holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, perpetrated by the Soviet authorities under Joseph Stalin.
The anniversary falls as Russia is once again using food as a weapon of war, both against the Ukrainian people and the rest of the world, and with Ukrainians again facing what may be perceived as genocide at the hands of a Russian regime that denies Ukraine’s right to statehood.
“Ninety years after the Holodomor genocide committed on the territory of Ukraine, Russia is committing a new genocide – war. The eternal enemy is again trying to “denationalise” and suppress us so as not to let us out of its influence and prevent the strengthening of Ukrainian statehood. The methods of the latest Putin regime differ little from Stalin’s: murder, terror with hunger and cold, intimidation, and deportation,” Kyiv’s Holodomor museum said on 16 November.
The term Holodomor derives from the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). Between 3.5 million and 7 million people are estimated to have died in Ukraine’s grain producing regions during the Holodomor. The famine peaked in the summer of 1933, when the daily death toll from starvation is estimated at around 28,000. During this period, the Soviet Union exported 4.3 million tonnes of grain from Ukraine to earn hard currency to pay for its industrialisation drive.
The famine came about as a result of Stalin’s policy to collectivise agriculture, forcing those who lived and worked on the land to give up their farm holdings and personal possessions to join the new collective farms. Collectivisation faced mass opposition in many parts of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, and led to lower production and food shortages.
In November 1932, Stalin dispatched agents to seize grain and livestock from newly collectivised Ukrainian farms, including the seed grain needed to plant crops the following year. While other grain-producing regions of the Soviet Union also suffered mass hunger as a result of collectivisation, the policies enacted in Ukraine were far more brutal than elsewhere, with whole villages and towns blacklisted and prevented from receiving food, as Stalin sought to stifle rebellions and armed uprisings by Ukrainian resistance movements. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has referred to the mass starvation that followed as “clearly premeditated mass murder”.
The harsh reprisals against Ukrainians included a campaign of repression and persecution against Ukrainian culture, religious leaders and anyone accused of Ukrainian nationalism.
The Soviet authorities denied the existence of famine, prevented travel to the regions affected and suppressed reports of it, refusing offers of assistance from the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations once news of the tragedy leaked out.
The parallels between Stalin’s repression of Ukraine in the early 1930s and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions 90 years later are stark. Russia’s targeting of grain storage facilities and its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea exports have sparked accusations that Moscow is using food as a weapon of war. And repeated waves of attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure are cutting off electricity and water supplies with the aim of breaking the resolve of the Ukrainian people, just as the withdrawal of food supplies did during the Holodomor.
"On the 90th anniversary of the 1932-1933 Holodomor in Ukraine, Russia's genocidal war of aggression pursues the same goal as during the 1932-1933 genocide: the elimination of the Ukrainian nation and its statehood," Ukraine's foreign ministry said in a statement.
And Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video posted on social media, “Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now – with darkness and cold…. We cannot be broken.”
Several European leaders – including from Belgium, Lithuania and Poland – travelled to Ukraine for the anniversary to pledge their support for the country. Other nations, including Germany and Ireland – which suffered its own devastating famine in the 19th century – are joining Ukraine in recognising the Holodomor as a genocide on the Ukrainian people.
And Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed its permanent council in Vienna with a damning statement: “The men, women, and children who lost their lives during this famine were the victims of the brutal policies and deliberate acts of the regime of Joseph Stalin. This month, as we commemorate those whose lives were taken, let us also recommit ourselves to the constant work of preventing such tragedies in the future and lifting up those suffering under the yoke of tyranny today.
“It is especially important this year to remember that the word “Holodomor” means “death by hunger.” Putin’s regime is demonstrating its brutality in Ukraine by conducting attacks across Ukraine’s agriculture sector and by seizing Ukraine’s grain, effectively using food as a weapon of war.”
Ukrainians typically mark the anniversary, which falls on the fourth Saturday of November, by placing candles in their windows. Today they need those candles to light their homes.
The images circulating in recent days of joyful Ukrainians celebrating the Russian retreat from Kherson tell a rare story of hope amid the devastation of war. Kherson was captured in early March, just days into the Russian invasion, and since then had remained the only Ukrainian regional capital under Russian occupation.
For Moscow, the Kherson region provided a foothold west of the Dnieper river, a tactical location to facilitate a Russian push further west – to Odesa, seen as one of the most valuable prizes for Russian president Vladimir Putin. As well as being a key strategic port on the Black Sea, Odesa was known as the jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire, so called for its glorious situation, architecture and cultural heritage.
Just a few short weeks ago, Putin announced with great fanfare that Russia had annexed the whole of the Kherson region – together with the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia – and that it would remain Russian forever. Moscow still claims this to be the case, but its words now ring hollower than ever.
The liberation of Kherson feels like a watershed moment in the conflict, and it is little surprise that some have made historical comparisons with Stalingrad – the most crucial turning point of World War II. This brutal battle was fought from August 1942-February 1943 and finally resulted in a Soviet victory, triggering the German retreat from the Soviet Union.
“After Kherson, it will be the turn of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, then Crimea. Or Crimea could be first, followed by Donbas, depending on how the situation plays out on the battlefield,” Roman Rukomeda, a Ukrainian political analyst, optimistically predicts.
Whether the Russian retreat from Kherson indeed turns out to be a pivotal event in the Ukraine war remains to be seen. Kyiv remains wary of a Russian trap or ambush and consolidation of Russian positions east of the Dnieper raise fears of another bombing campaign. The recent heart-breaking BBC documentary Mariupol: The People’s Story offers a terrible reminder of the utter devastation that city and its population suffered under Russian bombardment earlier this year…
…Which brings me to another World War II comparison from the same part of the world. SHTTL is a new film showing at the UK Jewish Film Festival this week, set in a Ukrainian shtetl near Ternopil close to the Polish border on the eve of the Nazi invasion in June 1941. Like the scenes in the BBC documentary of Mariupol and its inhabitants before the Russian invasion, the film depicts a location and way of life that is on the verge of vanishing completely. Its title, SHTTL, purposefully drops the letter ‘e’ to symbolise the disappearance of Jewish shtetl life and acts as a tribute to those who lived there.
The action centres on Mendele, a young man returning to the shtetl to get married having left for Kyiv to pursue a career as a filmmaker. It follows his interactions with friends, family members and neighbours; their debates, discussions and arguments. Only the viewer knows, of course, that the wedding will never take place; that the community is about to be destroyed, its residents shot and buried in shallow pits. This is a Holocaust film with a difference, for rather than depicting death and suffering, it depicts life, with its diverse mix of joy and sorrow and disappointment.
Written and directed by Ady Walter, and with dialogue entirely in Yiddish, SHTTL was filmed in a purpose-built village 60 kilometres north of Kyiv. The set includes a reconstruction of the only remaining wooden synagogue in Europe, which was blessed and consecrated to enable it to hold real-life prayer services. Household items from the 1940s were sourced from all over Ukraine. The village was intended to be transformed into an open-air museum to educate local schoolchildren and help Ukrainians to better understand their Jewish history and culture.
The area north of Kyiv, of course, was under Russian occupation in the early weeks of the current war. The utter devastation wreaked by the Russian troops and their complete disdain for human life, as witnessed in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere, leaves the museum project up in the air.
“We don’t know what’s happened to it now,” Walter told the The New European. “We know it became a minefield around there and that there was heavy fighting, but we have no idea what has become of the construction.”
Mariupol: The People’s Story is on BBC iPlayer in the UK and will be available on other BBC platforms for viewers elsewhere.
SHTTL will be screened in London at the UK Jewish Film Festival at 6pm on Thursday 17 November. It is not yet on general release. A tour of the film set is available on YouTube:
Russia’s latest move in its war with Ukraine, to pull out of a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea, reignites fears of a global food crisis. The arrangement – brokered by the UN in July – had enabled Ukraine to export more than 9 million tonnes of grain and oilseed products to the world market, while allowing Russia to export food and fertiliser. The deal helped avert a famine in parts of Africa and other low-income countries, and prompted a 15% drop in food prices.
Russia suspended the arrangement for an “indefinite term” in response to a drone attack at the weekend on its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea – home to its iconic Black Sea Fleet. Moscow has called the incident a terrorist attack and blamed the British navy for coordinating it – an accusation dismissed by the UK government.
Kyiv says Russia’s decision leaves more than 200 Ukrainian vessels blocked in port or at sea. Other participants in the deal have vowed to continue with it, while some European countries are working to boost Ukrainian grain exports via land routes. The United Nations, Nato, the European Union and US have all urged Russia to reverse its decision to pull out of the deal, under which Moscow guaranteed safe passage for cargo ships carrying grain from Black Sea ports that had previously been blocked because of the war.
Nato has accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “weaponising food”, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken called on “all parties to keep this essential, life-saving initiative functioning”. It would appear that Putin is blackmailing the West with the threat of a global food crisis in response to Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield.
Ukraine has long been known as Europe’s breadbasket, with grain exports of more than 45 million tonnes a year making it one of the world’s largest exporters. Russia’s invasion in February led to the closure of its seaports, which halted all grain shipments, driving up food prices and contributing to fears of famine in many parts of the world. Soaring food costs this year had pushed an estimated 47 million people into severe hunger.
Russia’s own most productive grain-producing areas lie directly to the north of Ukraine, and much of its grain passes through Black Sea ports. The Russian Empire was largely built on grain revenues, with wide swaths of the fertile steppe land of present-day Ukraine seized for Russia by Catherine the Great, and trade routes were much the same as they are today, with grain transported to the Black Sea for export.
Grain was shipped from Odesa, the region’s major port, to the fast-expanding cities of London, Liverpool, Amsterdam and Antwerp, where it was ground into flour to feed the growing working classes of western Europe and help fuel industrialisation from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Jewish grain merchants based in and around Kyiv and Odesa were the middle-men in this enterprise – among them my great-great grandfather, Berl Shnier.
Berl was born in 1860 in the Jewish shtetl of Pavoloch, southwest of Kyiv. His father owned a millet mill, where he used an abacus to calculate his prices, scratching chalk marks onto the stone wall for his accounts. Being illiterate, his marks were incomprehensible to anyone but himself. Unlike his father, Berl attended school, learning to read and write not only Yiddish and Hebrew, but later Ukrainian, Polish and Russian too. With his father’s help, he deciphered and transcribed onto paper the chalk marks along the wall. By the time he was twenty, he had grown his father’s business to trade millet with Jewish dealers from Riga and Kaliningrad to the Caucasus.
As time passed, Berl expanded into wheat, rye, corn, buckwheat and barley; later he added dried pulses, developing a network of agents, dealers and shippers and broadening his business right across Europe – as far as England – and throughout Central Asia.
The local train station at Popilnia, some twelve miles away, was on the Kyiv-Odesa line and became the hub of his business, providing news of current market prices and export rates. It’s difficult to believe looking at contemporary photographs of the sleepy railway buildings, but the station at Popilnia was a buzzing hive of activity. Here Berl would pass the hours drinking tea with his fellow traders, discussing prices and agreeing complex speculative contracts based on potential production months or years ahead.
In February-March each year, he would spend a month in Kyiv for the annual commodities exchange, where agents and dealers from all over Europe congregated to meet suppliers, examine the quality of produce and negotiate prices. He spent the evenings in the company of brokers, money-lenders, merchants and travelling salesmen, discussing their successes and failures and the business news of the day.
Berl died in 1924, shortly before he was due to emigrate to Canada, where his granddaughter Pearl – my grandmother – was raising money and arranging documentation to enable the rest of her family to join her in Winnipeg.
A bridge too far?
Russian air strikes on the centre of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities this week killed at least 19 people and injured dozens more. The missile attacks came two days after the bombing of the Kerch bridge, the only direct link between Russia and Crimea – the area of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev described the air assault as the "first episode" of Moscow's planned response to the bridge attack.
Vladimir Putin labelled the explosions that took out a section of the road bridge and caused significant damage to the rail line as “terrorist acts” by Ukraine and promised a harsh response. Moscow has blamed Ukraine’s security services for the attack, which occurred when a truck blew up while crossing the heavily fortified bridge, killing four people. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the actions.
Although the Kerch bridge might appear an obvious focus for a Ukrainian attack, given its strategic and symbolic worth to Russia – and to Putin in particular – it is no surprise that it has not been targeted successfully until now.
The 12-mile steel and concrete bridge is heavily defended. It is fortified with Russian air defence missile batteries, and surrounded by barges with radar reflectors to act as radar decoys and confuse Ukrainian missiles. The bridge is also patrolled by elite troops and combat air defences, with attack helicopters at the ready nearby. Even with its sophisticated weaponry supplied by the West, Ukraine lacks the means to inflict lasting damage on such a structure.
For Ukraine, the bridge is a key military target, given its role as a strategic supply and logistics route for Russian forces on the southern front centred around Kherson, taken by Russia in the early days of the war and still the only major Ukrainian city to have fallen to the enemy. A Ukrainian operation to seize back territory around Kherson was already seeing some success before the bridge attack. The Kerch bridge is also crucial for the supply of food, fuel and other goods to Crimea itself.
The bridge is important in symbolic as well as practical terms. It is a manifestation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the only direct link between Russia’s transport network and the Crimean peninsula. Costing $3.6bn, it was built by a firm belonging to Putin ally Arkady Rotenberg – a former judo partner of the Russian president – and is the longest bridge in Europe. In 2018, Putin himself opened it to great fanfare by ceremoniously driving a truck across the strait. The bridge was described by Russian state media at the time as “the construction of the century”. That the explosions occurred a day after Putin’s 70th birthday will not have been lost on him.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 followed immediately after the Revolution of Dignity – Kyiv’s long and bitter Maidan uprising that forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to stand down after months of brutal government crackdowns on protestors. The demonstrations had begun as a protest over Yanukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union, following an eleventh-hour reversal under pressure from Putin. The Russian president had threatened to cut of gas supplies to Ukraine, while dangling a carrot of advantageous participation in his latest project – a Eurasian customs union.
Crimea has always been somewhat apart from the rest of Ukraine. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1783 following a battle against Ottoman forces. Within the Soviet Union, it was transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, with the official rationale that its transfer commemorated the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia (a reference to the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement) and in recognition of the territorial proximity of Crimea to Ukraine and their cultural, economic and agricultural affinities.
Neither of these justifications stands up to much scrutiny. Although Crimea is attached by land to Ukraine – via the isthmus of Perekop – and had important economic and infrastructural ties with Ukraine, its cultural and military links were always stronger with Russia.
Ever since Tsarist times, Crimea had been the site of key military bases and was a symbol of Imperial Russian power against the Ottoman Turks. The naval base at Sevastopol is famously the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. What is more, the ethnic mix of Crimea’s population of just over a million at the time of its transfer to Ukraine was roughly three-quarters Russian and a quarter Ukrainian. The peninsula had been populated for centuries primarily by Crimean Tatars, until 1944 when Joseph Stalin had ordered the ethnic cleansing of Crimea, deporting the Tatars en masse to Central Asia. Smaller populations of Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks were also expelled from Crimea.
According to an article by the author and academic Mark Kramer for the US think tank, the Wilson Center, the real reasons for the Soviet authorities’ decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine are quite different.
Of particular importance, he says, was the role of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who, at the time of the transfer in February 1954, was still trying to consolidate his position in the post-Stalin power struggle. For Khrushchev, securing Crimea for Ukraine was a means of winning support from local Ukrainian elites – in particular Oleksy Kyrychenko, who had become first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine – in his battle for power with Soviet prime minister Georgy Malenkov.
Khrushchev himself had served as the head of Ukraine’s Communist Party until 1949, and had overseen brutal efforts to enforce Soviet control over an unwilling and restive population in the parts of western Ukraine annexed from Poland in 1939. In the wake of the atrocities, Kramer says, the transfer of Crimea acted as a means to fortify and perpetuate Soviet control over Ukraine, with the addition of around 860,000 ethnic Russians to an already large Russian minority in Ukraine.
In his closing remarks at the session of the Supreme Soviet in 1954, chairman Kliment Voroshilov declared that “enemies of Russia” had “repeatedly tried to take the Crimean peninsula from Russia and use it to steal and ravage Russian lands”. How ironic his comments appear today, in light of the 2014 annexation and the current war, with Russia itself first taking Crimea from Ukraine and now using it as a supply and logistics hub to steal and ravage Ukrainian lands.
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.