This month marks the centenary of one of the worst pogroms in history, an attempt at genocide against the Jews of the town of Proskurov in present-day Ukraine. In February 1919, local Cossack leader Ataman Semosenko assumed command of the nationalist forces in the region and called for the elimination of the Jews in order to “save Ukraine”.
As the town’s Jews, who numbered around 25,000, prepared to celebrate the Sabbath, hoards of Cossacks descended on the town and began attacking Jews in the streets and in their homes with knives, swords, bayonets and even hand grenades.
The following are accounts from survivors:
“They [the Cossacks] were divided into groups of five to 15 men and swarmed into the streets which were inhabited by Jews. Entering the homes, they drew their swords and began to cut the inhabitants without regard to sex or age… Jews were dragged out of cellars and lofts and murdered.”
Entire families were slain. One survivor, a nurse by the name of Chaya Greenberg, later testified:
“The young girls – repeatedly stabbed. The two-month old baby – hands lacerated. The five-year old – pierced by spears. The elderly man – thrown out of a window by his beard. The 13-year old – deaf because of his wounds. His brother – 11 wounds in his stomach, left for dead next to his slain mother. The paralysed son of a rabbi – murdered in his bed. The two young children – cast alive into a fire….I will never forget the reddened snow from sleds filled with the hacked bodies going to a common pit in the cemetery.”
Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves. Around 1,600 Jews are estimated to have been killed, although some put the death toll higher. Many more sustained terrible injuries and were crippled for life having had limbs severed.
The Jewish hospital and makeshift medical stations were filled with the wounded as relatives and local peasants brought in the victims. Most were buried in mass graves.
Some gentiles risked their lives to protect their fellow townsfolk, in a community that generally experienced good relations between those of different faiths. A doctor named Polozov helped many wounded Jewish children he found in the street. He hid more than 20 Jews in his own home. Priests were murdered as they attempted to halt the pogrom.
The Proskurov pogrom was just one of hundreds that took place in Ukraine in 1919 during Russia’s chaotic and bloody civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. The pogroms followed the withdrawal of German troops after World War I, when Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, the anti-Bolshevik White Army and numerous smaller factions vied for control, all of them engaging in anti-Semitic violence to a greater or lesser degree.
The words of historian Orest Subtelny in his mammoth Ukraine: A History are worth repeating, “In 1919, total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time”.
My own ancestral village of Pavoloch, where like Proskurov relations between Jews and the rest of the community were generally amicable, suffered wave after wave of attack by different groups of fighters, who my grandmother referred to collectively as ‘banda’. The most vicious was the White Army under General Anton Denikin.
The following is an extract from A Forgotten Land describing just one of many, many horrors that my family suffered in Pavoloch in 1919:
“The Whites weren’t like the anarchists who burst in and began smashing the furniture to pieces. They had brains and intuition that they used to figure out just where their victims might be hiding money or jewellery or hoarding food. The soldiers sniffed around like dogs, tapping at walls and floor boards, listening for a hollow echo that might indicate a hiding place.
“‘Money! Give us your money, old man!’ the first giant demanded in Russian, prodding Zayde [Grandpa] with his bayonet.
“Zayde’s carefully learnt Russian seemed to desert him and he mumbled something incomprehensible, his eyes fixed on the scuffed leather boots of his interrogator.
“While his companions continued to search the house, kicking down the door to the warehouse, the leader of the group dealt my grandfather a swift blow with his rifle butt and watched poor Zayde crumple to the floor like a rag doll. Then he kicked him in the stomach with his huge leather boots until Zayde curled into a ball on the hard kitchen floor as pitiful as a tiny child. Again and again he beat him with his gun and kicked him.
“By that time the other four soldiers had returned. Zayde wasn’t a big man so it didn’t take them long to hustle him onto the table, pull his scuffed leather belt from around his waist and force his head into the noose they made with it. Then they hanged him from the hook on the kitchen ceiling that we used for drying meat.”
My great-great grandfather survived the ordeal, but only because the belt that was used to hang him snapped in two, dropping him to the floor with a great thump. But he was never the same again.
A state of total chaos reigned in Ukraine a century ago. The Canadian-Ukrainian academic Orest Subtelny described it thus:
“In the modern history of Europe, no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The prime targets for much of the violence that engulfed the region were Jews. Historians estimate that between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine’s pogroms in 1919-1920 – the greatest modern mass murder of Jews before the Holocaust.
But unlike the Holocaust, these earlier attempts at ethnic cleansing are largely forgotten, even in their centenary year. However some fascinating footage of the pogroms has emerged on the Russian website net-film, an organisation that is digitising film archives in cooperation with Russia’s state cinema archive, Gosfilmofond.
The first of the two short films covers just a small number of the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Ukraine in 1919-20. It shows still shots of shops and apartments pillaged by peasant insurgents or povstantzy in Bohuslaff (Boguslav) and by the Ukrainian army in Shitomir (Zhitomir); Jews murdered by Ataman Grigorieff in Kamenskoje (Kamianske) and by Ataman Strook in Tshernobil (Chernobyl); and rows of victims lined up in common graves. The second film shows moving images of a hospital in Ukraine treating victims of the pogroms, from the very young to the very old; several of the scenes make you wince and look away.
Most interesting for me was the inclusion of victims of a pogrom in Khodorkoff (Khodorkov). Members of my family lived in the town and escaped a vicious pogrom there. Here is how I describe it in my book A Forgotten Land:
“The Cossacks rounded up all the Jews and accompanied them to the sugar beet factory that stood beside the lake. Then they herded them past the plant to the water’s edge. To terrified screams and cries for mercy, the soldiers forced the Jews to continue walking into the lake until the icy water entered their bones and froze them to death or pulled them down into its depths. Bloated bodies could be seen bobbing on the lake’s surface or washed up on the shore for days.
“At last a letter arrived from Kiev to tell us that our relatives had survived. Leah, Babtsy, her husband Moishe and the children had hidden in the cellar beneath Moishe’s watch shop. Babtsy had stuffed her young children’s mouths with rags to stop them from uttering a sound when they heard the Cossacks destroying the shop upstairs. Moishe winced at the noise of his precious display cabinets being beaten to splinters, panes of glass being smashed into tiny shards and his valuable clocks hitting the wooden floor above their heads.
“At last the heavy thump of hob-nailed boots above them receded and they dared to breathe again. But they weren’t yet ready to risk emerging from their shelter. They listened carefully and heard the sounds of distant screams. They sensed the sweetness of the lilac that drenched the town in springtime being overpowered by the smell of fear and the stench of burning houses. They remained in the cellar all night and the next day rose to witness the devastation. Their town lay in ruins. Houses were smouldering all around them and the lakeside was littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping for a moment to grab a handful of belongings, Moishe and Babtsy fled to the railway station, a young child in each of their arms and a third running by their side, while Leah, over seventy years old now and much less vigorous than she used to be, stumbled along behind them holding onto the belt of Babtsy’s coat. They took the first train to Kiev and remained there with Moishe’s parents and sisters, who harboured them through the years that followed.”
My dad and I visited Khodorkov in 2005, where we met a 95-year old woman who had lived there all her life. Her daughter, no youngster herself, shooed out the chickens and invited us into her modest home to talk with this impossibly old lady. She spoke in Ukrainian and I couldn’t understand everything, but I got the gist.
“What do you remember from before the Revolution,” I asked her (in Russian).
“Pogrom,” she said. “They took them to the lake.”
“Who did they take?”
“Who took them?”
This word banda was the same one that my grandmother had used to describe the warring parties that had passed through her village during Russia’s civil war, spoken with identical intonation. Grandma passed away back in 1988, but my father had recorded her many years earlier telling stories, in Yiddish, of her early life in Russia. It sent shivers down my spine hearing this old lady talking of the same events that Grandma had described, and even using the same word, despite the fact that she spoke a completely different language.
You can view the films here:
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 a trip to Poland in August, I wrote about the revival of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, with its Jewish restaurants, Jewish festival and synagogue renovations. Now attempts are under way to undertake a yet more unlikely revival across the border in Ukraine.
The town of Mezhbizh in western Ukraine is famous as the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century. Mezhbizh has become something of a pilgrimage site for tourists, mostly Hassidic Jews, visiting from Israel. Some are even returning to the town to live, and renovating the shtetl that was home to around a third of the town’s population before pogroms, emigration and the Holocaust wiped the Jews from this part of the map.
The shtetls of Eastern Europe were once vibrant communities, home to millions of Yiddish-speakers, as I describe in my historical work A Forgotten Land. Numerous writers of the time wrote of the world of the shtetl – brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, Sholem Aleichem (apparently a distant relative of mine, but I am yet to discover our common ancestor), Bella (wife of artist Marc) Chagall and Elie Wiesel to name but a few.
In the Russian empire, pogroms from 1881 onwards prompted waves of emigration that began to decimate the population of the shtetl, a process that culminated, of course, in the Holocaust when the remaining Jewish inhabitants were exterminated en masse. In this part of the world, the process generally involved mass shootings rather than deportation to concentration camps, the most famous being at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 34,000 Jews were killed in 1941 (see my blog post of 27 January 2017 for more about Babi Yar).
Today Mezhbizh is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, down from as many as 10,000 during the era of the Baal Shem Tov. In those days it was a regional centre and a third of its residents were Jewish. Their numbers swelled every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as devotees travelled from miles around to worship at the Rebbe’s synagogue and express their devotion to the famous Rabbi and subsequent Hassidic Rebbes.
A Hassidic cemetery was built near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave. The illustrious Rebbe’s remains now reside in a white marble tomb inscribed in Hebrew script, which draws thousands of Hassidic pilgrims each year. To accommodate the tourists, infrastructure has been built including a large hotel catering for Orthodox Jewish customs, a kosher restaurant, a yeshiva and Torah institution.
And now an initiative has developed to recreate the Mizhbizh shtetl, renovating old Jewish homes abandoned three-quarters of a century ago. Numerous single-storey houses built of mud and brick or straw stand derelict on the site of the old shtetl, and around a dozen are currently under reconstruction aimed at becoming homes for Jewish families wanting to return to live in the town. Some members of the Hassidic community have already left Israel and set up home in Mezhbizh. In two-to-three years, entrepreneurs claim, the shtetl will have a Jewish-Israeli street with up to three renovated synagogues.
Mezhbizh is not the only Ukrainian town to attract Jewish visitors from overseas. Famously Uman, in central Ukraine, draws tens of thousands of tourists each year for the High Holy Days to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, and a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Not all are Hassidic believers, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.
In Uman too, 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 for the visitors. A few hundred Israelis have made Uman their home and the annual pilgrimage has become the town’s major source of income.
In 2005 I visited Berdichev, once known as Russia’s Jewish capital with a population of over 50,000, some four-fifths of whom were Jewish. The large Jewish cemetery is impressive, with acre upon acre of beautiful old graves overgrown with vegetation. A path between the graves leads to a new mausoleum built above the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a prominent Hassidic leader. The tomb has become another pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.
The cemetery is also home to the rabbis Moshe Mordechai Twersky and Tsvi Arye Twersky of Makarov, in whose rabbinical court my great-grandfather Meyer grew up and hoped to stay forever. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
Meyer’s own grandfather – my great, great, great grandfather – was advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna. Reb Dovidl was the grandson of Rabbi Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When I visited Talna, now known as Talnoye, we found Reb Dovidl’s grave in a dirty concrete box housed in an old shack covered with graffiti. It lay at the end of a dingy alley that smelt of urine, on the edge of what was once a Jewish cemetery but had become an overgrown wasteland littered with old tyres.
The site has since been renovated, thanks to the editor of the local newspaper who spearheaded a fundraising effort to have the rabbi’s remains interred in surroundings more appropriate to the founder of one of the most revered of Hassidic dynasties.
The story of the renovation of the Mezhbizh shtetl comes from an article on ynet.news.com by Dr Yoel Rappel. To read the full article, please click here https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5443742,00.html
Ukrainian director Oles Yanchuk’s latest film, Secret Diary of Symon Petliura, was released earlier this year. I believe it released only in Ukrainian, but am hoping a version with English subtitles will become available.
Yanchuk is known for making films that are both historical and political. His other works treat subjects such as the 1930s famine in Ukraine – widely regarded as a preventable disaster forced on the region by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – in his 1991 film Famine 33; while his 1995 work Assassination deals with the killing of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in 1959.
All his films address subjects that were off limits during the Soviet era and have often spawned controversy. The latest is no different. Posters for the film displayed outside a cinema in Zaporizhia were splattered with red paint in September, and leaflets distributed with the words “Petliura – Persecutor of Jewish People”.
Petliura led the Ukrainian National Republic during Ukraine's short-lived sovereignty in 1918–1921, and was commander of the Ukrainian Army, leading the struggle for independence following the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Secret Diary of Symon Petliura is based on entries in a fictional diary featuring key events leading up to Petliura’s exile in France from 1924. It also features a number of clips in black and white that were filmed in Ukraine in 1919. The main event of the film is the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jewish watchmaker who assassinated Petliura in Paris in 1926 because of his involvement in anti-Semitic pogroms at the time of the Russian Civil War in 1918-21. The accused was pronounced not guilty on the basis of Petliura’s role in respect of the attacks on Jews.
Much later, in the 1950s, a KGB agent who had defected to the US claimed that Schwartzbard had been an agent of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD – a precursor to the KGB.
Petliura is still a controversial figure. For Ukrainians he is a national martyr who fought against Poles, Bolsheviks, Russia’s White Army and Anarchists during the mayhem that constituted the Civil War in Ukraine.
For Jews, he was the Ukrainian leader, whose army committed terrible anti-Semitic violence. It is widely understood that Petliura himself was not an anti-Semite. Indeed he signed an order dated August 1919 that “All those who will be inciting you to carry out pogroms be expelled from our army and tried as traitors of the Motherland”.
But he manifestly failed to prevent his troops from carrying out pogroms and appeared to have pulled back from his threats to punish officers and soldiers engaged in crimes against the Jews for fear of losing their support.
This account of Petliura, published in the Yiddish language Der Morgen Zshurnal in 1926, gives a glimpse of the commonly held view.
“In the primitive Jewish folk consciousness a very definite idea of the just recently assassinated Petliura has formed. Under this name the people imagine a terrible, wild rider on a white horse, with blood-filled eyes, a thick Cossack moustache and an unhuman cruel face, who rides into a Jewish village at the head of bloodied pogromchiks and slaughters every Jew that comes in his way with animal delight”.
And here’s how I described Petliura’s army in my book A Forgotten Land:
“A rogue by the name of Petliura had been released from prison and was regrouping the Ukrainian nationalists. One of his first actions was to order railway stations to be attacked so that he could grab the weapons of the evacuating German soldiers, which were more sophisticated and in better condition that then guns and grenades that his own men had stowed away in chicken sheds and stables across the land. He and his banda didn’t only steal weaponry, they took clothes, money, munitions, trucks, carts and horses, anything that would help them seize Kiev and the government of the land for themselves.
“Thieving was a way of life to them and in the towns and villages Petliura’s men passed through they stole first and foremost from the Jews. All across the land, the experience was the same. They didn’t knock at the door, but hammered and kicked, giving an indication of what to expect. Once I was alone in my father’s cottage when the Petliurists came. I hid in the wardrobe upstairs rather than answer the door, my heart pounding. First they tried kicking it down, then they shot bullets at the hinges so that the door collapsed. They walked in and dropped cigarettes on the floor, grinding the stubs with the heel of their boots, crushing shreds of paper and tobacco into the earth floor that I spent hours sweeping and watering so that it looked like polished tiles. Seeing that there was nothing for them, they soon walked out, and I could hear them hammering on the neighbours’ doors, shooting other people’s door hinges and shouting ‘You filthy yids!’ as they pushed occupants aside and took all they could find: food, clothing, silver and especially money.”
My great as-yet-unwritten novel has not yet started to take form, but its shape is finally becoming slightly less amorphous. The notes on historical background are burgeoning in the lovely soft-backed notebooks with cream-coloured pages that I treated myself to in the hope that they would help inspire my writing.
I recently embarked on a dauntingly enormous tome that has been sitting beside my sofa for many months, taunting me with its great heft. At nearly 800 pages, Ukraine: A History by the academic Orest Subtelny, promises to be a valuable resource, but perhaps one that I shall dip into rather than reading from cover to cover in my usual methodical way.
I like the book’s dedication: "To those who had to leave their homeland but never forgot it" – people like my grandparents who circumstance forced to travel thousands of miles to forge a new life in Canada. Grandma certainly never forgot her homeland. She talked about it endlessly, so much so that her children – my Dad and aunt – grew up surrounded by her stories, and the inhabitants of a distant Ukrainian village – many of them long dead – seemed more real to them than those of the Canadian city in which they lived.
The period that interests me most is the Russian civil war of 1917-22. The book refers to this era as the Ukrainian Revolution. These two events were intertwined, each an integral part of the other. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, the revolution turned to civil war as, in Subtelny’s words, “numerous claimants for power in Ukraine and throughout the former empire were embroiled in a bitter, merciless military struggle, complete with large-scale terror and atrocities, to decide who and what form of government should replace the old order”.
These “claimants for power”’ were what my grandmother called the banda. They were “rebels and hoodlums, peasants and ex-army officers representing every kind of faction, every ideology imaginable. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. Each recruited fighters to his cause, often luring the impoverished and the illiterate with the promise of food and action, arming them with guns brought back from the war – the other war – and hidden in hayricks or underground hideouts.
“It seemed that each banda was competing to be more bloodthirsty than the last. They appeared to take pride in acts of rape and pillage, mutilation and murder. Their armies were each represented by a colour, like pieces in a giant board game. Every banda was competing against all the others, occasionally forging an alliance to gang up on one enemy, only to break the pact a few months later and start fighting again. There were Reds, Whites, Greens and sometimes even Red-Greens and White-Greens and names that instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin. The Greens took their name from their little flat caps and those of Zeleny’s men were yellow. Makhno’s anarchist fighters wore black hats and carried black flags crudely painted with the words ‘Liberty or Death’. The Cossack fighters had scarlet caps, while the Bolsheviks decorated their arms with thick, blood-red bands. As well as those sporting what could pass for a uniform, there were other banda made up of rag-tag bunches of ruffians.”
One of the key turning points of the Ukrainian Revolution took place exactly a century ago, in November 1918. Ukraine had been ruled since April of that year by a regime known as the Hetmanate, a conservative Ukrainian government headed by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky – his title evoking Ukraine’s old Cossack traditions. The Hetmanate existed under German occupation and replaced Ukraine’s year-old Central Rada, a broad but mostly nationalist and socialist council, or soviet, which had come to power following the Russian Revolution.
Skoropadsky was a wealthy landowner and part of the Tsarist establishment, but had thrown off his imperialist veneer to become leader of a Free Cossack peasant militia and set about dismantling some of the left-wing policies imposed by the Central Rada. He bestowed on himself sweeping powers and declared the establishment of the Ukrainian State. New Ukrainian-speaking schools popped up across the land, Ukrainian-language school books were hastily published and even two new Ukrainian universities were created.
But opposition to Skoropadksy and the Hetmanate soon mounted and spontaneous, fierce peasant revolts spread across Ukraine. Led by local, often anarchistic, leaders known as an otaman or batko, hordes of peasants fought pitched battles against the occupying German troops. The insurrection centred on a town called Bila Tserkva, just west of Kiev and only a few miles from my family’s home in Pavolitch. Thousands of peasant partisans poured into the area. By 21 November they had encircled Kiev and three weeks later the occupying Germans evacuated the city, taking Skoropadsky with them. As a result of the fall of the Hetmanate, the following year total chaos would ensue, but the story of 1919 is one that I will save for later.
The West is once again engaging in reprisals against Russia and considering wider sanctions in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The moves come four years after the European Union and United States first imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its status, and two days later it became a constituent part of Russia. The referendum was declared to have achieved an overwhelming majority, with more than 80% in favour of annexation by Russia. But no Western observers were able to monitor the ballot and it attracted widespread criticism. Turnout figures in particular were thought to have been massively inflated, with the number of citizens actually voting for a Russian takeover possibly closer to the 30% mark. Both Kiev and the leaders of the Tatar community urged their citizens to boycott the vote.
The annexation of Crimea, while shocking from a legal and human-rights perspective, should not have surprised informed observers. It followed months of unrest in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that had spread across the country, tipping the situation from protest to civil war. The dismissal of a compromise deal on 21 February by the leaders of the revolt, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a so-called ‘unity’ government in fact made up predominantly of anti-Russian and nationalist members, were factors in the increasing radicalism taking hold in Ukraine.
Across the country, statues of Lenin were toppled, provoking a counter-mobilisation in Russian-speaking areas such as Crimea and the Donbas in the east of the country. Sections of society opposed to the pro-Western and nationalist forces that had occupied Kiev’s central Maidan, or square, since November began to seize government buildings, copying the tactics of the protesters in Kiev. Armed militants gained quasi-official status, patrolling the streets and providing ‘security’.
Anti-Maidan sentiment was strongest in Crimea and it is remarkable that Russia’s takeover of the region passed so peacefully given the state of confrontation elsewhere in the country.
Crimea’s history as a part of Ukraine was a short one. It was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, at a time when major water courses were being developed from Ukraine to irrigate Crimea’s arid, desert landscape with water from the River Dnieper – bringing Crimea under the Ukrainian republic’s jurisdiction at that time made logistical sense.
At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Crimea was treated as a special case, being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol was recognised as having ‘all-union significance’ and therefore would normally have reverted to Russia when Ukraine gained its independence, given Russia’s role as the ‘continuer state’ of the Soviet Union, assuming the former country’s obligations and privileges.
At the time Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, did not pursue the idea assuming, one imagines, that the relationship between the two countries would continue as before under the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States.
The events of early 2014 prompted Russian fears that it would be evicted from Sevastopol. On 28 February, soldiers took control of the local airport at Simferopol, under the pretext of protecting Russians in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalism. Although Russia officially denied sending in forces, armed military seized control of strategic areas. As late as 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied any intention of annexing Crimea, although he stated that residents should have the right to determine the region’s status by means of a referendum.
The status of Sevastopol was just one of the factors behind the Russian annexation. The Kiev protests began after President Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013. With much of the population of western Ukraine clamouring for closer ties with the West, Putin feared that Russia would continue to lose status and influence in a region it had once called its own. Already most of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had severed ties with the Soviet Union were fully-fledged members of the EU and NATO, including the three Baltic States that had been part of the USSR.
If this were not enough for Putin to bear, the EU and NATO appeared to be creeping even closer, right into his backyard. Ukraine’s history as the birthplace of modern Russia dating back to medieval Kievan Rus’ and the two nations’ close – even intertwining – ties throughout their history, make Ukraine a special case. “We are not simply close neighbours, but we are one people,” Putin said. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin perceived that he was being repeatedly snubbed by the US and EU in their pursuit of closer ties with Ukraine, and as the West has repeatedly learnt, Hell hath no fury like the Russian president scorned. The Western powers should have paid more attention to that great diplomat of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who said, “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the east or west. But if it is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other, it should function as a bridge between them. The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
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.
Two stories have been in the news this month about famous people whose history lies in Ukraine’s Jewish community either going back to their roots, or their roots coming back to them.
Odessa played host last month to a conference organised by Limmud, the international organisation dedicated to Jewish learning. Ahead of the conference, huge billboards appeared around the city featuring images of Bob Dylan surrounded by slogans proclaiming the American folk hero’s Odessan heritage.
Dylan’s grandparents left Odessa for the US in 1907, their departure prompted by one of the Russian Empire’s worst waves of pogroms, which began in 1905. In that year, more than 300 Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks in Odessa alone. The city’s Jewish community at that time was the second largest in Russia at around 140,000, with Jews making up around 40% of the population. The family settled in Minnesota, where Robert Zimmerman, later to become Bob Dylan, was born in 1941.
“We will celebrate the wonderful gift that Odessa gave the world,” proclaimed the founder of Limmud’s branch in the former Soviet Union, Chaim Chesler. “This shows that the Jewish roots that come from Odessa last forever.”
Surprisingly, local reaction to the imported Dylan-mania was underwhelming , his music apparently being not widely recognised in Ukraine. But there was no outright hostility, unlike that met by the actress Mila Kunis, who recently visited her childhood home in Ukraine. The Hollywood star told the media this month that she had travelled to her native town of Chernivtsi in August in the hope of visiting the house that she had left back in 1991, when her family had emigrated to the US.
“We went to our house and I knocked on the door because we really wanted to look inside. And [the owner] was like, ‘No!’ She did not care. I said, ‘I used to live here when I was little, my parents are here.’ …She wouldn’t even open the door. The whole experience was very humbling,” Kunis said in an interview.
These experiences differ hugely from my own encounters when visiting my ancestral home in Ukraine back in 2005. My father and I, along with our cousin Irina who had emigrated from Kiev to Germany ten years earlier, spent several days driving around some of the country’s largely forgotten backwaters southwest of Kiev in search of the villages where our family had lived and worked.
Like Kunis, I found the experience humbling, but for very different reasons. People were overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming, interested and eager to help. We turned up in villages without prior warning and asked the locals whether there were any old people in the vicinity who might have lived there around the time of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
In one village, Khodarkov, an elderly lady invited us in to meet her 95-year old mother. The daughter shooed out the chickens from the front porch and ushered us into the living room, where the stooped old babushka recounted stories of the pogroms in 1919, during which the Jews were drowned in the lake (see photo).
My grandmother’s great-aunt had survived this pogrom by hiding in the cellar of her husband’s shop, stuffing her children’s mouths with rags to stop them from crying. She and her family had fled to Kiev immediately afterwards, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. They emigrated to Canada in 1929. When we left the house, the daughter tried to give us a precious family photo as a gift and it was all that we could do to press her to keep it and cherish it for her own family.
In the town of Andrushky, we tracked down a sugar factory, still functioning, that had belonged to an influential landowner that my great-great grandfather had worked with. Here we were initially interrogated at length by the factory director before he would respond to any of our questions, fearful perhaps that we were sugar barons ourselves, travelling to Ukraine with the aim of snapping up cheap commercial assets.
Once he was satisfied with our story, he offered us vodka, which we declined. We drank tea instead and he provided us with a written account of the factory’s history, which verified that it was, indeed, the one connected to our family. Then he proceeded for the next three hours to show us around the warren of new administrative buildings that were being constructed.
In all the other towns and villages linked to our family history that we visited – Pavoloch, Makarov, Talne, Berdichev – we were warmly greeted and local people spent many hours with us showing us sites and recounting the area’s history. Like so many Ukrainian Jews, most of our ancestors moved away, unable to endure any more of the suffering they had been forced to tolerate for so long. The ancestors of those we met there had stayed behind in the ‘old country’, and suffered so much more. It was humbling indeed.
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.