Five years ago this month Ukraine's Maidan protests were at their height, a precursor to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year. The night of 22 January 2014 marked a turning point in events at the Maidan square in central Kiev, the night when the first killings took place.
The demonstrations had begun in late November as a protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s eleventh-hour refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a deal that would have consolidated ties with Europe, but was far from a precursor to joining the EU club.
Through the cold, bleak Ukrainian winter, crowds gathered every evening in the large central square that became known as the Euromaidan. Many remained permanently on site, sleeping in tents and warmed by bonfires, living off donated food heated on makeshift stoves.
The original protestors, made up largely of students and young professionals, had been joined by their parents’ generation, angry at the authorities’ aggressive treatment of the young demonstrators, a core of passionate pro-Europeans from parts of Western Ukraine that had previously been part of Poland or Austria, as well as a well publicised and aggressive bunch of die-hard members of radical right-wing movements.
Encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych had forced a raft of repressive measures through parliament. The ‘dictatorship law’ passed on 16 January made the erection of tents without police permission illegal as well as the wearing of hard hats during public demonstrations, among other measures.
Shortly afterwards riot police used water cannon in an attempt to break up the crowds, then rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. For their part, the protestors retaliated with cobbles, fireworks and home-made petrol bombs. They built up barricades into huge bulwarks surrounded with burning tyres. The peaceful protests had become a Revolution.
On 22 January, the body of Yuriy Verbytsky – a middle-aged seismologist-turned-activist from Lviv in Western Ukraine – was found in the forest near Kiev’s Boryspil airport, his ribs broken and remnants of duct tape over his hands and clothing. He had been abducted the previous day with his friend Igor Lutsenko, an opposition journalist.
Lutsenko claims the men were thrown into a van, taken to the forest and locked up separately in an abandoned building. He was beaten, interrogated, forced to his knees with a bag over his head and told to pray, in what he described as a mock execution. Lutsenko, who was far from the only journalist to suffer brutal injuries at the hands of riot police while covering the Euromaidan protests, made it out alive. Verbytsky was left to freeze to death.
The same night, police killed three protestors during riots on Hrushevsky Street, close to Kiev’s national gallery. Two were attacked and shot. A third was beaten, stripped, jabbed with a knife and made to stand naked in the snow singing the national anthem.
Altogether 130 people would die during the Euromaidan demonstrations, the vast majority civilian protestors. Eighteen police officers were also killed during the clashes. I will write some of their story next month to mark the anniversary of the killings of 20 February, which brought an end to the Revolution as Yanukovych fled to Russia and Putin began his annexation of Crimea.
Following on from my previous post, I have been reading lately about Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. One book I have re-read is Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, a fascinating first-hand account of the events, written by a local writer living close to the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, which is at the heart of the action. From his apartment, Kurkov can smell the burning barricades and hear the sounds of grenades and gunshot.
The diary portrays the horrific violence perpetrated against many innocent victims, the powerful sentiments of injustice felt by the protestors and the fears generated by an ever-changing political climate, interspersed with the mundane day-to-day trials and tribulations of family life.
It also sheds light on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year and on the ongoing conflict in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine, the heartland of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
This week in 2014 marked the climax of events in Kiev. On 18 February, violence broke out during a peaceful march on parliament in which protestors demanded a change to the constitution to limit the powers of the president. “And then, about two o’clock, the situation suddenly worsened. Activists invaded the Party of Regions headquarters and set fire to it. The Berkut [riot police] threw grenades and fired rubber bullets, from the ground and from the rooftops,” Kurkov writes in his diary entry for that day.
Still on 18 February, he mulls: “What will happen next? The dissolution of parliament, the announcement of new elections in six months, the lifting of parliamentary immunity for opposition deputies and their arrests? This country has never had such a stupid president before, capable of radicalising one of the most tolerant populations in the world!”
The following day, 19 February, he writes “In Kiev, they are counting the dead, the wounded and the disappeared…The hospitals are overflowing right now. But many of the wounded are in hiding, from their friends as well as from strangers. They are afraid of going to hospital because the police have often abducted injured protesters from there to take them to the station, without offering them any medical care.”
And here is an insight into the sharp divide between the European-oriented western Ukraine that Kurkov inhabits and the Russian-dominated east of the country exemplified by the industrial city of Donetsk: “Hatred is overflowing. It is born from a simple dislike of a Donetskian government that is both strange and foreign; a dislike that, by perhaps growing too fast, has become hatred, and is currently raging through western Ukraine, in Odessa, Cherkasy and other places. Meanwhile Crimea is once again calling on Russia to take it back.”
The following day, 20 February, Kurkov writes: “Today a lecturer from the Catholic University in Lviv was killed, along with several dozen other people. Snipers are shooting even at young nurses…There are rumours everywhere, each one more disturbing than the last, but the reality in this country is already horrifying: today, in St Michael’s Square, two policemen were killed. Why? Who needs that? It is obviously the hand of Moscow, pushing us into a state of war…”.
And on the 21st: “In Kharkiv, the regional governor is assembling a congress of deputies from the south and east of Ukraine to study the possibility of separating from Kiev. The country is trembling all over – it is close to being torn apart – but Yanukovych doesn’t see this.”
On 22 February Yanukovych fled, having earlier that day signed an agreement with the opposition to make the constitutional changes demanded by the opposition and setting out plans for a presidential election by the end of the year.
The diaries continue through to late April, by which time Russia had annexed Crimea following a hastily arranged referendum in March and the conflict in the east of the country was beginning. Russians were infiltrating eastern Ukraine to organise pro-Russian rallies, their troops and military apparel massing at the border, all of which President Putin denied, and armed separatists were occupying government buildings. “What frightens me is a possible Russian intervention in the east and south of the country. It would be wonderful not to have to think about the possibility of a war, but a day has not passed without that possibility crossing my mind,” Kurkov writes on 24 March.
That war has gone on to take the lives of more than 10,000 people. More than 2 million have been made homeless.
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev by Andrey Kurkov is published by Harvill Secker, London, 2014.
This month marks the fourth anniversary of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, and later, the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass.
The seeds of the revolution were sown when the president failed to sign an association agreement with the EU in November 2013, having initially agreed to do so. People took to the streets in protest, setting up a base camp in the Maidan, Kiev’s central Independence Square.
After weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations, a march on parliament on 18 February turned violent. Police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas and grenades. The protestors fought back with makeshift weapons. Two days later, police began firing live ammunition, including automatic weapons and sniper rifles. Some 80 people were killed. Despite concessions from President Yanukovych, the protests continued and the demonstrators took control of much of Kiev. The president fled and new elections were called.
The Euromaidan Revolution is remembered as a conflict between pro-Europeans (mostly in Kiev, the west and centre of the country) and pro-Russians predominantly from Ukraine’s east. I have been reading about the history of Ukraine, which – apart from a brief stint in 1918 during the Russian Civil War – had never existed as an independent country until 1991, to make sense of recent events.
The country’s very name, Ukraina, means border, or edge. This region of flat, fertile steppe land was always on the edge: the edge of Europe, the edge of empires, the edge of Russia. A large swathe of western Ukraine belonged to Poland for much of its history; some formed part of Lithuania, while other areas were in the Hapsburg or Ottoman Empires. Much of the territory became part of the Russian Empire. The western fringes were a true borderland, endlessly invaded and conquered, the frontier between nations ever shifting. Ukraine as we know it today is a very recent concept.
The capital Kiev developed owing to its position on a trade route between the Baltic and the Black Seas along the River Dnieper, and became a sophisticated trading centre in medieval times, with links to Constantinople. It is known to historians as Kievan Rus.
Both Ukrainians and Russians believe their ancestry derives from Kievan Rus, Russians claiming that their descendants moved away from the Dnieper region to found Muscovy, several hundred miles to the northeast, bringing the culture of Kievan Rus with them. This helps to explain why Russians feel such a strong connection to Ukraine, and why any move by Ukraine’s leadership towards rapprochement with Europe at the expense of Russia provokes hostile feelings.
Ukraine’s position as ‘Little Russia’ dates from a deal between Cossack leader Khmelnytsky and the Russian Tsar in 1686. The Little Russia narrative was promoted under Catherine the Great a century later, when Russia experienced waves of expansion and large swathes of present-day Ukraine – including the areas with a large Jewish population that became the Pale of Settlement – joined the Russian Empire as a result of the partitioning of Poland.
Further east and south was a Cossack stronghold, while the east was largely unpopulated steppe until coal-mining began in the late nineteenth century. Russian peasants were attracted to eastern Ukraine during its industrial revolution and again during Stalin’s industrialisation drive, populating the growing towns and cities. Today the majority of population of this region, the Donbass, still aligns itself with its Russian Motherland.
As for Crimea, while the annexation of territory by another country is clearly deplorable, Crimea’s historical links to Ukraine are tenuous. Although parts of Crimea entered into the territory of Kievan Rus, the area was for much of its history a Tatar land ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was won by Catherine the Great in 1783, becoming part of the Russian Empire and later the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was not transferred to the Ukrainian SSR until 1954. Its population at the beginning of the twentieth century was a mixture of Crimean Tatars as well as Russian newcomers, Ukrainians, Germans, Greeks, Jews and others, mainly attracted to the region by its fertile land.
So Ukraine was never a homogenous entity. Its depiction as Little Russia may have accurately characterised parts of the future nation, but this was largely an artificial notion, a process of Russification imposed from above by both the tsars and the Communists that resonates more with Russians than Ukrainians. Likewise the rise of Ukrainian nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is celebrated by a large and vocal right-wing nationalist movement today, also was representative of only a small section of society.
For an excellent insight into the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, I recommend Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov. Anna Reid’s Borderland provides a highly readable and entertaining discourse on Ukraine’s history.
In my third and final blog post on Jewish life in Ukraine past and present, based an article that appeared recently in the Jerusalem Post, the focus turns to Ukraine’s current wave of nationalism and its impact on the Jewish community.
The presence and place of Jews in the still-crystallising Ukrainian state remains a sensitive issue, but this is not primarily because of a physical threat to Jewish well-being. Jewish communal buildings in Kiev require considerably less physical security around them than do their equivalents in Western Europe.
Nationalist groups, nevertheless, played a very visible role during the Maidan protests. The author witnessed the proliferation of banners of the far-right Svoboda Party on the square in December 2013 alongside the red and black flags invoking the memory of Stepan Bandera’s UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army). The armed volunteer groups, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the summer of 2014 when the Ukrainian army faltered, flew similar colours.
But the nationalist candidate in the presidential elections of 2014, one Dmitro Yaros, scored just 0.7% of the vote. Svoboda also achieved a tiny showing in presidential elections. Efforts by the volunteer battalions to transform themselves into political parties have as yet achieved meagre results. “Ukrainians don’t want to be led by extremists,” a young man in Kiev told me.
Still, while nationalist political achievements remain marginal and levels of antisemitic violence low, the debate over national memory and its symbols continues to raise difficult questions for Ukraine’s Jews.
Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee says the apparent electoral weakness of the nationalists is deceptive. Dolinsky pointed to their strength at the municipal level. He is concerned at the role of what he called “apologists of national memory” – propagandist pseudo-historians who seek to downplay the role of Ukrainian nationalist movements in the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Ukraine.
Dolinsky says of such figures as Bandera and Roman Shukhevych: “They participated in the Holocaust. Then people present them as protectors of Jews. This is Holocaust denial and desecration of Jewish memory.”
The placing of these figures in a mainstream pantheon of national heroes in Ukraine is evident.
In July 2016, a major street in Kiev was named for Bandera. On May 25, 2016, the Ukrainian parliament held a minute of silence for Petlyura.
Other voices, both Jewish and non-Jewish, dispute the gravity and implications of the “mainstreaming” of wartime nationalist leaders. Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad organisation of Ukrainian Jews, was quoted recently warning against “unnecessary assignment of blame” in a country where Jews enjoy formal equal rights and levels of antisemitic violence are low.
The country faces enormous challenges ahead in the building of institutions, fighting systemic corruption and forging a version of national identity with which all elements of society can at least broadly identify. The Jews, both the actual living examples of them in Ukraine and no doubt also the mythical, archetypal Jew that never seems to quite vanish from the European consciousness, will be playing a role in this.
For the full article, see/http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106 w
My blog has taken a back seat in recent weeks over the children's long summer holiday. Catching up on the newspapers once they returned to school this week, I came across this article on Jewish life in Ukraine that recently appeared in the Jerusalem Post. Much of it based on interviews the author conducted recently in Kiev and elsewhere with Jews displaced by the war in the east of the country. I found this piece fascinating and worth reproducing almost in full. As it’s very long, I will post in instalments. Here is the first of three:
Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory – memory both tragic and sublime. In every field of endeavour – religious thought, Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science – Jews have excelled.
It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine; Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, who was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine; Haim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, who was born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine.
Goldie Meyerson, who became prime minister Golda Meir, was born in Kiev. Israeli-born Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, was the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine. Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose “Red Cavalry Tales” remains a classic of 20th-century Russian literature, came from Odessa.
Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, came from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, came from Odessa. Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem Aleichem, came from Pereyaslav, in the Kiev governorate. And so on. The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.
It is also prominent among the lands of destruction. Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose statue on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace stands outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kiev; his Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th-century uprising. It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917. And, of course, it is the land of the “Holocaust of bullets” of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape until 1.5 million were dead.
[Photo - Simon Petlyura]
So, Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood. But there is Jewish life here, too. Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360,000- 400,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which would make it the fifth largest Jewish community in the world. Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict.
War returns to Ukraine
In summer, Kiev is a charming city filled with cafes and light. But the peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. History has not departed. Ukraine has been shaken in recent years once again by revolution, and its handmaiden, war.
The Euromaidan Revolution toppled the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych in March 2014. Yanukovych’s departure was followed by the Russian seizure of Crimea and then the outbreak of a Russian-supported separatist insurgency in the Donbass – the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The ill-equipped, rusty Ukrainian forces moved to crush the insurgency but were met by the entry of conventional Russian troops in August. The Ukrainians suffered bloody setbacks in the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, before a cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk on February 11 2015.
The war is not over, and the issues that led to its outbreak have not been resolved. Today, the Ukrainians and their Russian enemies face one another along a static 400km frontline. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the ceasefire. This reporter spent several days in the war zone of eastern Ukraine; shooting across the lines is a nightly occurrence. And not just rifles – RPG, self-propelled grenades and machine guns too. Over the past three years, 10,090 people have died in this largely forgotten conflict. More than 2 million people have been made homeless.
The war has impacted on Ukraine’s Jewish community in two central ways. Firstly, Jews resident in eastern Ukraine have suffered the direct physical effects of the fighting. Most of Donetsk and Luhansk’s Jews fled westward as the frontlines approached their homes in 2014. The provisions offered by the Ukrainian authorities to those made homeless by the war are minimal. Efforts are ongoing by a variety of Jewish organisations to provide for Ukrainian Jews who have become refugees.
The second impact is a little less tangible. The war of 2014 was an important moment in the ongoing development of national identity in independent Ukraine. This is a complex and sometimes fraught business, and Ukraine’s Jews are part of it whether they like it or not.
Ukraine remains divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces. Both of these broad camps contain fringe elements that are hostile to Jews. On the pro-Russian side, neo-Nazi groups such as Russian National Unity and a number of Cossack groups maintain an armed presence in separatist controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. On the Ukrainian side, there are also militia groups active in the combat zone that use far right and neo-Nazi imagery.
But more importantly, the mainstream Ukrainian leadership is keen to make use of a nationalist heritage that celebrates Khmelnytsky and Petlyura, and which includes organisations and figures that collaborated with the Nazi invaders during World War II, and with the persecution and murder of Ukraine’s Jews at that time. The public commemoration of such wartime nationalist leaders as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych remains a starkly divisive issue that is unlikely to lessen in intensity over time.
To read the original article in full, click here http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.