David Klion: Hi, and welcome to On the Nose, the podcast from Jewish Currents. I’m David Klion, the Newsletter Editor, and I’m your host today–my first time on this podcast. For this episode we’re going to be discussing Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, who has become something of a global icon over the past month due to his decision to remain in Kyiv instead of accepting a US offer to evacuate after Russia first invaded. Zelensky, who is 44, was elected President on a reform platform with over 73% of the vote in 2019, having previously starred in a hit TV sitcom called “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a high school history teacher who unexpectedly becomes President of Ukraine after his anti-corruption rap goes viral. So a real case of life imitating art. Zelensky is also Jewish, which is notable given Ukraine’s fraught history with antisemitism, and especially notable given that Vladimir Putin has cited, quote unquote, “denazification of Ukraine’s government” as Russia’s justification for invading.
So today, I have a panel joining me to discuss Zelensky’s Jewish identity and what it means, both in the context of post-Soviet Ukraine and in terms of his symbolic status among American and other diaspora Jews. I’m joined by three experts. First, Linda Kinstler, who is a PhD candidate in rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Long Reads, The New York Times Magazine, 1843 Magazine, and more, and she is the author of Come to this Court and Cry, which will be published by Bloomsbury in May. She’s also a contributor, as everyone else here is, to the Jewish Currents Soviet issue, in mailboxes soon. Please subscribe.
The second panelist is Helen Betya Rubinstein, who teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School. Her essays, fiction, and opinion writing have appeared in Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and of course, Jewish Currents. And finally, Dr. JA:is an Assistant Professor of English, Cinema, and Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the creator of the nonfiction graphic novel Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution. And once again, a Jewish Currents contributor. Hi, everyone, and with introductions out of the way, let’s talk, first of all, about the way that American Jews are relating to Zelensky as a Jew. How do you see Zelensky in the American Jewish or wider, diasporic Jewish imagination? And why has he sort of made such a splash as a Jewish figure?
Helen Betya Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Helen. Like David said, I’m a contributor to the Soviet issue of Jewish Currents. I’ve spent a lot of the past decade researching Holocaust memory in Ukraine, and specifically in the Transnistria region of Ukraine, along the border with Moldova. I’m also working on a collaborative project about Jewishness and queerness, in a conversation that arose out of two trips to Ukraine in 2017 and 2018. And my family is from Kishinev and from the southern region of Ukraine. In answer to your question, I think the first reason–and the kind of short answer–to why Zelensky made this splash is really that it’s a surprise to see a Jewish figure in this world-power position.
Julia Alekseyeva: I’m Julie Alekseyeva. I was born in Kyiv–you know, post-Soviet Jew–and wrote a lot about the history of Jewishness within the Soviet Union in my graphic novel about my great-grandmother. So it’s something that I had been obviously thinking about a lot, but as a disclaimer, I’m not coming at this from a policy side at all. So it’s really just from my own research, which tends to be more humanities-oriented, and of course, just my own personal history and family history. And like, Zelensky, I’m Russian-speaking rather than Ukrainian-speaking. And this is, of course, true for most–I don’t want to speak for everyone–but true for most Jews from Ukraine, who grew up speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian.
What strikes me about the popularity of Zelensky is how the figure of Zelensky tends to somehow be overlapped with a kind of Israeli masculinity, with all of these images of the buff war hero. I mean, it’s really problematic, because, obviously, many of us are vocal critics of Israel and Israeli policy. So it’s a little bit uncomfortable for me, at least, to see this glamorization of a figure wearing army fatigues, who is fighting a war that many people–at least in the liberal side of things in the US–are kind of glamorizing, this war hero. There’s more to say about about Zelensky, but there is an overlap with the appeal of like an Israeli, war-version of Jewish masculinity here.
Linda Kinstler: Yeah. This is Linda, I’m really honored to be a part of this conversation, thank you for having me. Sounds like I share something of a background with everyone here. My family is from Kyiv and Kharkov, also Russian-speaking Jews–some of them are still there. And my family is also from Riga, Latvia. And yeah, I guess building off of what Julia was saying, I think there’s a way in which there’s always been this kind of mythology, among American Jews, about Ukraine, about this kind of forgotten homeland, right? And we’re all familiar with these kinds of narratives of return that have their own well-known, attendant problems. And so I think on the one hand, Zelensky is really speaking to that narrative, and also, in his kind of forthright embrace of his own Jewishness–as Julie was saying–recalling this idea of muscular Jewishness, a bit. And I’ve been thinking a lot about, in 2013, 2014, during the Maidan Revolution, there were all these myths and stories going around about IDF fighters being there, training Ukrainians who are learning how to fight. And in some ways these were true, to a limited extent, because for instance, one of the sons of the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine trained with the IDF and he was in Kyiv. And the synagogues were contributing to the Revolution in their own way. And so, all of these mythologies seem to be entangled in this one figure, who is now being, understandably, heroized.
DK: I guess I’ll also weigh in here. And first of all, I should say, lest we mislead anyone, that I’m the one person here who can’t really claim in any way to be a Soviet Jew or the child of Soviet Jews. That said, I have lived, worked, and studied in Russia and traveled in Ukraine. And I do speak Russian, however imperfectly. I have written about it for many places, including Jewish Currents. So, just my own my own bonafides.
As far as Zelensky–how to put this–I think that Zelensky is a revelatory figure to a lot of American Jews. Especially, let’s say, of my not-uncommon background, of being multiple generations removed from the Pale of Settlement and the old Russian Empire, the kind of classic, Russian Ashkenazi story. Because I think many people of our background, especially if they haven’t spent a lot of time studying the region, when they think of Ukraine or of that region more generally, they understand it as a place where Jews were persecuted by the Tsars and by Cossacks. They left. If they stayed through the 20th century–if they survived the Holocaust, and if they survived Stalin and his Great Terror and his purges–they went through some kind of repressive experience under the Soviet Union. The Soviet issue we have coming out will problematize some of these later narratives, in various ways. But you know, the Refusenik movement would would eventually give them opportunities to leave in the ’70s, or in the ’90s, and either to go to the US or Israel, or somewhere else.
And what gets left out of that story, of course, is that a lot of Jews never left. A lot did, but a lot didn’t, both from Russia and Ukraine and from other former Soviet republics as well. And I’ve talked to a lot of people I know who aren’t close Russia-watchers, or Ukraine-watchers, about Zelensky, and they’re often shocked, not just that Ukraine would elect a Jew President–and by a big margin–or that he would enter their pantheon of national heroes, as he clearly has in the last month. But you know, that there’s a significant population of Jews at all in modern Ukraine. The number I saw most recently was somewhere like 100,000. And in Russia, I would guess that number is a couple of times higher than that. And those populations are concentrated in certain major cities. So I think that Zelensky, to me at least, is kind of an iconic figure of Jews who stayed, however they might feel about Israel, or about religion, or anything else. And I don’t get the sense we know all that much about what Zelensky thinks about any of those things. You know, actually identify with Ukraine, or with Russia, as the case may be.
JA: Yeah, I wondered whether it might be a good idea to bring up the TV show, because it was recently put on Netflix. And I actually had COVID a week and a half ago, so I do decided to watch it. And it’s actually really fascinating. Because what’s interesting about “Servant of the People”–that’s how the translation goes, I think–is that he’s speaking in Russian throughout. Now he has become this figure that, iconically, speaks Ukrainian as a kind of patriotic gesture, to galvanize support for and from national-based, ethnically-Ukrainian people. And the show is like 90% in Russian. And that really shocked me, because the last time I was in Ukraine, about six years ago, after Maidan, most people on the street would be speaking Ukrainian. Occasionally, there would be Russian spoken, but Ukrainian has become the national language, obviously, and even in Kyiv, it’s more likely that one would hear Ukrainian.
But the show, still, is almost entirely in Russian. On the show, he’s a teacher of history in a high school, who has a private, kind of expletive-laden speech that he yells at a colleague, about the corruption of the government. One of his students secretly records and puts it on YouTube, and it gets many millions of views. And that’s how he’s voted into office, is through the encouragement of his students he tries to get elected President. And then, miraculously, it actually ends up happening. And the rant is in Russia. And he speaks to his students in Russian. When his students speak to him in Ukrainian, he responds back in Ukrainian, and so it’s this interesting mixture of languages. But on the show, he’s coded as Jewish, but he isn’t actually diegetically Jewish. He’s diegetically of a Ukrainian ethnicity, but anyone watching it in Ukraine would be able to actually read between the lines and see him as Jewish because of how his family speaks to him. And just reading the film through all of the knowledge I have, I feel like it’s fairly obvious that he’s Jewish, even if the show diegetically doesn’t make him so. But it is interesting that the show makes a point of not saying that he’s Jewish, and that there’s actually no attempt to talk about his Jewishness on the show, as far as I can tell in the first four episodes. So there is still a kind of masking.
DK: I’ve watched the first eight episodes and there hasn’t been a single reference I’ve picked up on to him being Jewish. One thing I think is worth talking about here is what does it mean? Do we think–granted that none of us are currently based in Ukraine, although some of us have spent a lot of time there–but what does it mean to the average Ukrainian when they see someone who is legibly Jewish on television? What does that represent in the context of Ukraine’s politics and history, and the history of Jews in the past century in Ukraine?
LK: I just wanted to bring up the kind of masking that Julia raised, because I think it’s such an interesting subject. And I do think it’s one that Zelensky really exemplifies. But I do want to note that the previous President of Ukraine, Poroshenko, whom Zelinsky defeated–Poroshenko being the President who came into power after the Maidan Revolution–there were rumors that he, too, was Jewish. There seems to be evidence suggesting that his father was Jewish and that Poroshenko took his mother’s name, which is a Ukrainian last name. And so, there is this kind of history to this questioning, masking. And Zelensky, even though, of course, he is Jewish, it was very well known in Ukraine before this recent reignition of the war–and I don’t want to say “the war began,” because I want everyone to remember, always, that it’s been going on for eight years–that he was very careful in ever speaking to it, overtly.
He would always, of course, be there to commemorate Jewish events at Babi Yar. In the fall, he spoke very movingly about how the ground was crying out. But I’ve been really struck, over the last month, about how he’s really been forthright about his identity. And for me, the moment that that really came through was in one of his first addresses when the war started. I think it was maybe February 22nd or 23rd. There was this kind of mic-drop moment when he said, “And now I’m going to speak in Russian.” And he addressed the Russian soldiers, and the Russian people, and Russian-speaking people directly. And that just kind of sent a chill down my spine. I thought it was so moving.
DK: It’s maybe worth noting, then, in terms of legibility of Jewishness, that–someone can correct me if I’m wrong–but in my general observation, Russian typically is the first language of Jews in Ukraine, and Ukrainian might be a second language as it is for Zelensky. Is that consistent with everyone’s general experience?
JA: That does tend to be true, and I’ve had people I know, and friends of mine, and even some family members, who have started speaking in Ukrainian more during and after Maidan, as a political gesture. So switching over to Ukrainian, even though it’s less comfortable for them, in order to show solidarity with Ukraine, and as a part of Ukraine.
HBR: I think it also might be worth thinking about how, I think his Jewishness became particularly visible in the face of Putin’s claim about denazification. Especially internationally, he became visible as this retort to the absurd claim. And I think that speaks to the moment that Linda is talking about, as well.
DK: I think that’s right. One thing that I was really struck by was a speech he gave right before the full-scale invasion–if we can use that term, since Linda correctly points out that there’s been a Russian-backed war in Ukraine for the last eight years. There was a speech he gave right on the eve of it, when it seemed like it was going to happen, where Putin had said that his goal was to denazify Ukraine. And I guess this was maybe the same speech when he was speaking Russian that you mentioned. And he said, “How can I be a Nazi?” And for a moment, I thought he was going to say, you know, “I’m Jewish, and my family could have suffered in the Holocaust,” and things like that. What he actually said was something closer to, “My father fought in the Red Army against the Nazis,” which, of course, is a common experience for people in Russia, people in Ukraine, Jews in both countries, many other ethnicities in both countries.
DK: And I thought that was an interesting way of framing it. Like I feel like if you recognize him as a Jew, and that’s meaningful to you, for whatever reason, “How can I be a Nazi?” speaks for itself. But there’s a very careful way he’s threading it. And maybe this goes to Julia’s earlier point about masking, where you can also just recognize him as a child of the Soviet Union, a descendant of a soldier in a Great Patriotic War, as people call World War II in the context of the Soviet war against the Nazis. And that’s the line he’s taking in appealing to the Russian people. But I thought that was fascinating, and it says something about the position of the Jew in the post-Soviet space.
LK: Yeah, I thought that was tactically brilliant, and I think Zelensky has been tactically brilliant in his addresses to the Russian people this whole time. Because essentially, what he’s saying is, “We are on the same side. We fought in the same army,” you know? And that’s the messaging that you’re seeing on billboards around Ukrainian cities. Whether or not they’re working, we don’t know.
DK: It’s a fascinating thing to see how both Ukraine and Russia–both countries that, I think, in the Western Jewish diaspora have reputations for antisemitism–have framed this war around each of them being the real heirs to the Great Patriotic War, and the other side being defined by Nazism. And their side being on friendly terms with the Jews, often in the form of Israel, which both countries have maintained open relations with, and an open channel with, since this full-scale war began.
HBR: Can I say something about masking? I guess part of me is tempted to question that frame for thinking about his Jewishness, because it suggests, at least to my American ear, like a kind of willfulness that I’m not sure is fair to read in his relationship to his own Jewishness. Where I wonder if, perhaps, he just really does primarily identify as a Ukrainian, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, who’s Jewish and it’s not important to put in the forefront. And similarly, with the narrative that he is telling about his family during the war, that really seems a direct inheritance–like you were saying, David–of the way that the War and the Holocaust was narrativized by the Soviet Union, as something that wasn’t about Jewishness and was instead about fighting Nazis.
JA: Yeah, I totally agree. Just to clarify, I think the show was doing a bit of masking because there was no discussion of any explicit Jewishness. And because on the show, he was billed, sort of quietly, diegetically, Ukrainian in ethnicity. So I completely agree, I don’t think he is consciously trying to hide–quote, unquote–hide some kind of Jewishness that he actually feels. Like my family, and possibly other other families here, just doesn’t really think about Jewishness in the same way as American Jews. And that’s always something that comes as a surprise to my American or American Jewish friends, that just the way that Jewishness is conceptualized–I’m not going to say that Jewishness is taken for granted, but there isn’t this kind of navel-gazing, I think. Not as much in the in the context of post-Soviet Jews as much as it is, I think, safe to say, in an American-Jewish context. And the way that the War is described, and how everyone, including Jews, went to fight in the Red Army against the Nazi, is just a part of personal history and collective history for the post-Soviet people. So I totally agree.
HBR: I was listening to an interview that he did on CNN where he was asked about his family’s history in the Holocaust. And he said, I think it was his grandfather who fought in the Red Army, along with a number of his siblings, and his siblings all were killed at the front. And then he interestingly said, his grandfather’s parents were burned in a fire, which he then explained was set by Nazis, and they were locked into a building. And I thought that whole history was really interesting, and maybe a little bit representative of this kind of mixed, Soviet Jewish War-Holocaust experience, where the way that his family was affected by the Holocaust had to do with fighting at the front. And then even the part where they were targeted–likely, but maybe not definitely for being Jews–and locked in this building and burned, the way that it’s told, I think, is demonstrative of this lack of focus on Jewishness in the Soviet treatment of that history.
LK: I just want to say one more thing on this point, because I think it’s really important. And I think both what Helen and Julia are saying, it kind of speaks to this more global lack of understanding of what the Holocaust was in Eastern Europe, and this unfortunate reality that it is the part of the Holocaust that has been less told. And just the ability to imagine Jews inhabiting different roles during World War II, I think that’s a really important way of conceptualizing what happened in Ukraine during that period, and during the Soviet period until 1991, and after that. Just the ability to imagine these different identities, I think, is really important. And I also think that’s one of the reasons why Americans, when they hear Putin’s justification for the war as denazification there, I think, occasionally are genuinely confused about how such a thing could be said and why, and just looking for anchors. And to me, it’s so perverse, because one of the reasons there is that confusion is because the history has not yet been told. It’s just no end to the heartbreak of it.
DK: If we could go a little bit deeper on that. It’s not, of course, a myth that antisemitism is a problem in Ukraine–in present-day Ukraine, and Soviet Ukraine, and in Russia, too, for that matter. I do fully agree that Putin’s framing of this as some unique pathology to Ukraine, that Russia, of all countries is qualified to stamp out, is ludicrous. But it’s not untrue, of course, that antisemitism is a past and present issue in Ukraine, in spite of having a Jewish President. And many critics, on both the left and the right in the West, have fixated–I think often under the influence of Kremlin propaganda–but have fixated on the existence of the Azov Battalion, which is a militia in Ukraine that uses neo-Nazi imagery, and other examples of the Ukrainian far right now.
DK: I hope we can all say, in good faith, that we’re not here to propagate Putin’s narrative about this, and not spend a huge amount of time deconstructing that narrative as a result, but I think it is worth talking about. And maybe, just as a minor provocation, I’ll say that in the several days I spent in Kyiv over a decade ago, and before the Maidan Revolution, I was on the Maidan–the central square in the middle of Kyiv–and I saw a bookseller there. And I was looking at the books, and they were mostly in Ukrainian, and several of them were by David Duke, the American Klansman, who had been translated into Ukrainian. And I took a picture of of these books, and the guy selling them looked at me and said an expletive, and then called me a zhyd, which basically means a kike. Now, I don’t want this unfortunate encounter to speak for an entire country at all. It’s just to say that, in my very brief time in Kyiv, I had an encounter like that, and I’ve heard of others. So it might be worth talking a little about. What is the situation for Jews in Ukraine and in Russia, and in the former-Soviet space, generally? And what has it been since the Holocaust? What kinds of obstacles have Jews faced as Jews in these countries?
JA: First of all, I’m really sorry that happened to you, David. I know that things like this do happen. I’ve actually experienced more antisemitism in Russia than in Ukraine, but this isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist in both places. I mean, historically, I think many of our families have stories of similar things happening to them. On the street, during and after the Soviet Union quotas, most of what, at least I heard, were quotas to get into good schools and colleges. Which also existed in the United States up till a certain time, too, so let’s not forget that. But, you know, members of my family weren’t able to get certain jobs that they wanted because they didn’t make that 1% or something quota of Jews in a specific institution. As well as, you know, people calling anyone who phenotypically–and what that means is complicated, you know–looked Jewish on the street “zhyd.” So it happened.
Right after the full-scale invasion happened, I felt like I needed to spread as much knowledge as I could and did a lot more research than I normally would do about this, just to try to prove, to mostly American leftists, that there weren’t as many Nazis as actually they claimed, and found a published article–that I think actually Jewish Currents might have reposted, or at least retweeted at some point–that through a Pew poll, showed that the favourability of Jews–whether people have a favorable or unfavorable feeling towards Jews–is higher in Ukraine than in Russia. And this poll was in 2018, I believe. And by a not-insignificant margin, actually. That isn’t to say that there aren’t Nazis in Ukraine, as you’ve just talked about the Azov Battalion. But the exaggeration, especially because the problem still exists in Russia to even more of an extent, in fact, according to this poll.
DK: I just want to say Julia, thank you for your service and for having those conversations with people.
JA: And just in terms of my own experience, I came to Ukraine in 2015, trying to find a Ukrainian, official translation for my book. And the book is very explicitly about my family’s Jewishness, and I was really kind of amazed and shocked by the positive way that people responded to a story about a Jewish family as actually representative of a kind of experience in World War II, the Great Patriotic War. So just anecdotal, you know, but I came in with my hackles up, ready for a fight, and it didn’t happen over the extended amount of time where I talked to as many people as I could about this story. So again, anecdotal, but not unimportant, I think.
It was so hard. I have had thousands of trolls on TikTok, and Instagram, and I could go on. It’s horrifying. It’s I would not wish that upon my worst enemy. Well, maybe my worst enemy, but not anyone else.
HBR: I thought that was a great piece, Julia. And I was really interested in the part about the Pew poll, and the language of “favorable view” toward Jews. And my anecdotal experience in Ukraine, often, like hanging out with gay, working-class non-Jews, I did encounter a lot of moments that I think we would call antisemitic. Like, the very first day my friend and I were there in 2017, our friend said, “My boss is chistyy yevrey,” he’s a real pure Jew. And we were like, “How do you know? Like, what about him?” And he was like, “Oh, well, he knows everything. He’s always right. He’s the boss.” And that same day, we were with Pavel Kozlenko, who runs the Odessa Holocaust Museum. I think we asked Pavel about charging to come to the museum. And he was like, “I can’t charge people because everybody thinks Jews are always asking for money.” I had a lot of experiences kind of along those lines. And it never felt like a dangerous kind of antisemitism to me, which I think is important to point out, even though, obviously, those forms of antisemitism are in conversation with the small fraction of far-right groups. But I think what those moments demonstrate, to me, is that an idea of Jewishness, or just the culture of Jewishness, or the presence of Jewishishness, is really present in the imagination.
HBR: That said, I also feel like these anecdotes are not necessarily in any relation to Putin’s claim about denazification, except maybe in a Western understanding of it. Because I think that when Putin says that, and maybe even when Ukrainians speak to it, I don’t think that they’re thinking about Jews primarily, or maybe even at all. I mean, correct me if you all feel differently, but I guess I understand the narratives around nazification are not to be about fascism, as it is opposed to some more benevolent form of governance. So fascism as this kind of enemy. And I guess I also understand a discourse around Nazism, often to be one–I don’t know about in this case–but often to be one that is kind of appealing to a West that is obsessed with a certain narrative of the War and the Holocaust, that’s very much about good and evil.
LK: Yeah, I totally agree with that characterization, Helen. I think that’s one of the reasons the denazification word has been so bewildering and confusing to many people who are watching this play out from afar. What you said about, you know, there is this kind of awareness of Jewishness as an identity and as a culture, and it’s like very much part of the warp and weave of Ukrainian life, especially in a place like Odessa of all places, but also in Kyiv. Kharkiv obviously, obviously less in Lviv. But you still get a menorah on the Maidan every year, the Presidential administration tweets out every single Jewish holiday, even the minor ones, congratulating them. And the Chief Rabbis do play a very important political role. So I just think many things can be true at once. And it’s a young country.
DK: When you mentioned earlier, Helen–because Kovalenko, he told a wonderful joke in The New York Times right when the invasion started. There was an article about Jews in Ukraine, and I cited this joke in the explainer I did for Jewish Currents on the first day of the full-scale invasion. And I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, he has, you know, two Jews talking on the street in Yiddish, and a third one comes over and says, “Why are you speaking Yiddish?” And one of them says, “Well, we’re afraid that if we speak Russian, Putin will come here and try to liberate us.” So I think that does capture something of the dynamic.
But I think, also, it’s worth acknowledging that Ukraine itself, even insofar as it’s defined as Ukrainian and not by ethnic Russian minorities, or Jews, or other ethnic minorities, has a somewhat divided history. Or a very complicated history, because of the multiple empires and states that used to control different parts of Ukraine. And that in western Ukraine, around the city of Lviv, which Linda alluded to a moment ago. There’s a particular story about World War II that’s very different than the majority of Ukraine, because this is a part of Ukraine that had been, before World War I, in the Austrian Empire, and developed very differently than the bulk of Ukraine that had been in the Russian Empire. And then in the interwar period, instead of being in the Soviet Union, had been in Poland, and then was invaded by Stalin as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact–the Nazi-Soviet pact before the Nazis turned on Stalin. And so you have national heroes in that part of Ukraine who collaborated in different contexts with the Nazis, because they saw the Soviets as their primary threat. And there is still a lot of contested historical memory about this today in Ukraine, and then also going further back.
A lot of Ukraine’s main, national heroes are Cossacks, like Bohdan Khmelnytsky. These are people who, you know, there are statues of them in major cities, their are streets named after them, they’re on the national currency, and who–certainly in the diasporic Jewish imagination–occupy a role as killers of Jews. And it’s interesting to me, and I’d like to hear from those of you who’ve spent time in Ukraine more recently than I have, how these figures, whether it’s Khmelnytsky or someone more recent like Stepán Bandera, how they feature in the Ukrainian national imagination, and how Ukrainian Jews might understand them. Because I think the story that we’re sometimes told in the West, and often with the encouragement of Russia, might be a little bit misleading.
JA: When I go back to Ukraine, I find the narrative and glamorization and glorification of people like Stepán Bandera, who you just mentioned, and Symon Petliura, as well–they’re both kind of glorified as national heroes and martyrs. And when I went to Kyiv after Maidan, there were these giant portraits of them on the street. And it took me a while to get used to. One of my relatives actually works as just like a clerk, I believe, in the Hotel Ukraina, like where they were shooting down, the snipers were shooting down during Maidan. And from that, I got a hotel room at that hotel, and I was looking down at the Maidan Square, and I see these famous, giant signs, saying, “Slava Ukraini! Heróyam Slava!” which means “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” And it’s like a call and response now, like you say, in any kind of Ukrainian national context–so a politician or like an activist would say, “Glory to Ukraine,” and then like “Glory to the martyrs” or “Glory to Ukraine” back.
And at first, the call and response was kind of difficult for me to take. It felt very nationalistic. I don’t know whether other people have the same response, but the first time I heard it, it kind of chilled me to the bone. And then I thought about it, and talked to people who are Jewish, and talked to people who were young and who were activists, and realized that that Bandera and Petliura are not glamorized because they were Nazi collaborators, but because they were examples of a Ukrainian national life and culture that evaded Ukraine. That people in Ukraine were not able to access that type of nationalism.
So I did not find anyone who glorified those people in terms of their relation to Jewish people. These figures were kind of prototypes for an unrealized, national history in Ukraine. And once I realized that, the call and response made more sense. It’s still a little strange for me, personally, to see it on the street. And probably Linda and Helen would know more about the contemporary context from the side of Jews in Ukraine. But the Petliura and Bandera situation is, I think, for the average Ukrainian person, divorced from their Nazi collaboration, or even connection to ideology.
LK: Yeah. I think just to give some context, slava heróyam is also the password to get into a very chic restaurant that opened underneath Maidan Square after the revolution. But I think we should be concerned about the glorification of Stepán Bandera. If you look in any of the former Soviet countries, basically, just pick the former Nazi who’s now glorified as a national hero. Unfortunately–one hopes that is changing. I very much hope it is, having tracked this for a long time in the Baltic countries. I also think that’s one of the reasons that Zelensky is such a powerful figure, because he’s kind of harnessing the slogan and making it stand for a true right to national self-determination, without the ugly connotations of history.
Another thing I will say is, in that way–in the way that he’s kind of harnessing this nationalist tradition to fight for Ukrainian self-determination–he’s, for me at least, harkening back to this period in the early 20th century, when what we now think of as former-Soviet states were then new states, following the collapse of the Russian Empire, and were trying to figure out how to have their own entities, and also to have relations with the many Jews who lived on their territory from the former Pale of Settlement. And since I knew about Latvia, the most I will speak about that, but there was this moment among very, very famous Latvian nationalist poets and writers to say, “Look at our Jewish neighbors. Look at the Jews who are living among us. They have this idea of nationhood, they have survived. Look to them for this inspiration.” And I don’t know, maybe this is a kind of misapprehension on my part, but when I look at Zelensky saying, “Slava heróyam, slava Ukraini,” that’s what I kind of think, too.
HBR: I’ll say, when I was there in 2018, speaking with older Jews in a small community in Balta, which is about an hour northwest of Odessa, there was some anxiety around this shifting narrative of the war, that gave more attention to Bandera. But one thing that I’m thinking about right now is how under the Soviet Union, everyone’s now–quote, unquote–nationality was on their passport, and all Jews were marked as Jews. So you know, in the land that’s Ukraine, some people’s passports might have said Ukrainian as their nationality, some might have said Russian, and some might have said Jewish, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I’m just thinking about Zelensky, too, as this populist figure, which I think is part of what makes him really recognizable to American audiences. Like there’s something very American about his t-shirt, and his aesthetic, and his values.
DK: Well, speaking of Jewish nationhood, it might be worth discussing, briefly, this speech. So Zelensky has been giving speeches, via video, to Parliaments and Congresses all over the world, including in Washington, in Ottawa, and London, and so on. And he’s addressed the Israeli Knesset, and Israel, compared to really most Western governments, has actually been much more on the fence about this war, for various reasons. Some I alluded to in my my recent feature for Jewish Currents about Roman Abramovich, the Russian-born, Jewish oligarch, who is also an Israeli citizen. And there are actually a number of Jewish oligarchs, from both Russia and Ukraine, who have dual citizenship in Israel, or reside in Israel, or have business relations in Israel. And those ties are, I think–with both countries–one reason why Israel rather than coming down firmly on the side of sanctions against Russia, has been working as almost a diplomatic backchannel between the two countries. With Zelensky’s encouragement, I should say. And Zelensky has also been encouraging Abramovich himself to play that role.
But in his speech to the Knesset, Zelensky, he said something to the effect that Ukrainians helped save Jews from the Holocaust, which I took to mean, you know, in the context of the Red Army liberating Auschwitz, and other camps, as it pushed west toward Berlin. But it seemed like that didn’t go over well, either in Israel or with American Jews, or other diasporic Jews. Who followed it, you know, whose minds immediately went to, “Did Ukrainians really help Jews?” So I wonder if we could talk about that speech, briefly, and talk about maybe some of the weird disconnect that was exposed there.
JA: I also was somewhat horrified when he said that. I didn’t think that that statement was in good taste, perhaps because of that continued aligning between Ukrainian ethnicity and Ukrainian nationality, or nationhood. So like Helen mentioned, until very, very recently, one was either an ethnic Ukrainian or not an ethnic Ukrainian, and just residing in Ukraine did not necessarily make one Ukrainian. This, of course, I think has started to change after Maidan, with more of a solidarity with Ukraine as a multi-ethnic state. But in the speech, I think Zelensky was speaking as if that was true for everyone, that everyone saw Ukraine as a multi-ethnic state rather than Ukrainians as ethnic Ukrainians. And that kind of ambiguity did not, I think, do him or Ukraine any favors, because the way one reads it, one’s mind–at least my mind–immediately went to “Oh, but what about all those times when Ukrainian people did collaborate with the Nazis and did kill Jews?” Which is verifiably correct, like that happened, as did people in Poland, as did people in Latvia and Lithuania. It happened all over the place, because people were just trying to save their own hides. And also, potentially, they could have also harbored Nazi ideology. It’s possible, but more often than that, people are trying to survive. And that meant, sometimes, killing the Jews and offering up Jews to Nazis on a silver platter, so to speak. So the fact that that happened made that statement, at the end of Zelensky’s speech, kind of horrifying, because it’s as if–even though it’s not necessarily the case that he’s ignoring that history–it reads as such, because we don’t yet live in a purely non-antisemitic, multi-ethnic utopia.
HBR: I think, in that moment, he may actually have said, “We saved Jews.” Which I thought was interesting, because I was trying to listen to that speech, and think about whether he was identifying himself as Ukrainian or as a Jew when he spoke to the Knesset. And it really, I think–listening closely, without projecting my vision of him as a Jew onto it–he really is speaking as a representative of his nation.
LK: I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in that address to the Knesset, he mentioned that a a Russian missile strike hit Babi Yar, which is the largest Holocaust mass grave in Eastern Europe. And it’s where over 100,000 Jews, and Roma, and also Ukrainian nationalists were murdered, and which I write about in the Soviet issue of Jewish Currents. But I think it’s interesting that he brought that up, and it’s kind of obvious why he would, in an appeal to Israel. The Israeli President was there in September, there are Israeli funded monuments on the site. And also, I think two days ago, a Russian missile hit Drobitsky Yar, outside of Kharkiv, which is a similar mass grave. And there it was a direct hit. The menorah that was the memorial was physically damaged, and you can see the really striking image of that broken Holocaust Memorial. I forgot who it was, it was an Israeli politician, tweeted that they would help pay to rebuild Babi Yar, and obviously, they’re kind of not doing much else. I do think it’s a really fascinating thing, what’s going on right now, about the role that Israel is playing as an intermediary. And I think there’s a lot of kind of historical nuances that are coming up and going around, and why Israel would emerge as a potential mediator is a really rich and fraught question, I think, Dave, we can also talk about Abramovich here.
DK: I’ll say briefly, about Abramovich, there was a big story today. And there are already conflicting reports, so I don’t want to belabor it, and by the time this podcast goes up there may be new developments. But according to one account, when Abramovich–who has been, at the invitation of Zelensky and the Ukrainian government, been appearing at different locations in Ukraine, and I think possibly also Belarus, to help broker a ceasefire–apparently, at one of these, he and some of the Ukrainian negotiators became sick, and he lost his eyesight for a period. And they believe they were poisoned. But there are also some US officials questioning this narrative. So we don’t know exactly what happened.
That would be truly wild, if some faction in the Kremlin was trying to poison Abramovich, who, I guess I should just briefly gloss, is an astonishingly wealthy man. He’s one of the iconic oligarchs, he kind of survived the ’90s and the first wave of oligarchs that Putin cracked down on when he consolidated his power. He’s worth something like $14 billion, he owns the Chelsea Football Club, which he recently tried to put up for sale but British sanctions might stop him from selling it, and certainly from getting any money, if he does. He has properties in Aspen, Colorado, in Manhattan, in the French Caribbean, and in Israel. He acquired Portuguese citizenship through a–I’m just gonna say dubious–claim of Sephardic heritage. He’s also given half a billion dollars to Jewish charities all over the world, including in Russia itself, and Jewish charities in the West and in Israel, including Yad Vashem, including the Anti-Defamation League, Tel Aviv University, and many others, and a settlement group in East Jerusalem.
All of this is detailed in my piece, and my piece sort of is built around the idea that they might be in some way complicit in Russia’s invasion, insofar as Abramovich and the other oligarchs are basically seen as extensions of the Kremlin. So where this recent news is kind of complicating that narrative is the oligarchs, they certainly have an incentive to try to end this war, because they are facing sanctions all over the Western world, and having their yachts, and apartments, and properties seized. And several of them, not just Abramovich, have been publicly lobbying for the war to end. And if it is true, and we don’t know if it is, that Kremlin hardliners have tried to poison him for doing that, I mean that really complicates the narrative.
That said, I think I stand by the framing of the piece, insofar as all of these guys have been complicit in Putin’s regime, and its spread of influence worldwide, for decades now, for 20 years, give or take. There were a lot of things to object to in that before last month. But it is interesting that’s Zelensky and, apparently–this has been kind of vaguely reported–there was an appeal by the Ukrainian Jewish community, whatever that means, to bring someone like Abramovich in, and that may be related to the role Israel is playing as well.
Now is probably a good point for us to wrap this up, but are there final thoughts that each of you want to share, concerning the role that Zelensky, and what this moment–this horrible moment that we’re witnessing–tells us, big picture, about how the role of Jews has evolved in the post-Soviet space?
Which is all just to say that it is kind of incredible to me, having recently, I’ve been listening to the wonderful podcast, Revolutions, that Mike Duncan hosts, and he’s deep into the Russian Revolution at this point. And he’s talked about the antisemitic pogroms that many sides were inflicting during Ukraine’s extremely complicated experience of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, just about 100 years ago, you know, early 1920s. And it is kind of incredible to think that a century later, there’s a war between Russia and Ukraine, and not only are Jews not being persecuted–as Jews, obviously, if you live in a Ukrainian city and bombs are falling on your home, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re Jewish or not–but Jews are not being persecuted as Jews. There are no reports of pogroms. And not only is the President of Ukraine Jewish, Jews and the Jewish state, I guess we’ll call it, are actually playing this kind of leading role in trying to negotiate some kind of ceasefire, and some kind of normalization. Which so far isn’t working at all. But it is a kind of fascinating turn of fortune for the Jews themselves, over 100 years.
JA: I mean, while there is, as you mentioned, David, such a big difference with where Jews are placed in this conflict compared to what was obviously happening almost exactly 100 years ago, on the other hand, I still feel like there’s a similarity to Jewishness being used, generally, as a scapegoat. And that I find to be very disconcerting and really horrifying. And that’s both on the sides of, obviously, Russia’s ludicrous attempt to, quote unquote, denazify Ukraine. But it’s also true in the American left, and I’ve just been really horrified by what I’ve been seeing from people that should know better, and who are not really listening to people who know more about the visceral experience of Jews in Ukraine, and are imposing a lot of their own preconceived notions of Nazis and of Ukrainian politics generally.
So what I feel like we’ve been seeing, in the last more than a month since the invasion, is just a full-scale collapse within the American left when it comes to this issue. And it’s been really scary, and there isn’t a lot of room for nuance and thoughtfulness here. And if anything, I think I’d like to plea for some critical distancing that maybe people should enact or attempt when thinking about these extraordinarily complex topics. It’s complicated. And I think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. We should think about it even harder, or even longer and more thoughtfully.
HBR: One thing I had been thinking about a lot, in relation to my own encounters with this Jewish mythology in Ukraine, which also included a dinner with the one wealthy person I interacted with there, who was very bent on telling my friend and I, like, “You Jews are everywhere,” and kind of listing off all the Jews with power in Ukraine, and also asking, “How come it took you so long to get your own country,” in this way that I think Jewishness and Israel are so connected in the public eye. And I’ve thought a lot about how Zelensky was elected within an antisemitic mythology that might make it seem natural for Jews to be in a position of power. But I did see this old Times of Israel article, from before his election, where his, I think, Press Secretary was kind of refusing to answer whether or not he was Jewish. Someone was pointing out that one of his kids was christened and his wife’s not Jewish. So what I take away from this conversation, and this thinking that I’ve been doing, is just like the incredible complexity of Jewishness in the former Soviet Union, or in Ukraine. And yet, at the same time, I feel no regret about mainstream American Jewry’s appreciation of him.
LK: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I mean, an acquaintance of mine, with kind of distant, Ukrainian Jewish roots, was thinking rhetorically about taking up arms and going to fight for Ukraine, which I thought was a fascinating moment of reflection. I think the worst thing that could happen is that these kinds of questions–and very good questions–about Zelensky’s Jewishness, and the Russian rhetoric of denazification, that they could do exactly what they in some ways are trying to do, like make us focus our attention away from the atrocities that are occurring. And I just don’t think there’s ambiguity. I would really love for people to continue focusing their eyes on what is happening in Mariupol, and obviously elsewhere in Ukraine. But that’s kind of top of my mind right now. I think Russian forces are doing everything they can to obstruct evidence coming out of there, to obstruct any potential for documentation, even though a lot of people have successfully extracted some of that. So I don’t know, I feel like I’ve lost all hope or belief that there’s a bottom. So I think all I want to end with is like a plea, I guess, for people not to stop paying attention.
DK: I couldn’t agree more. And I think we would be remiss if we didn’t end on a note that there is an ongoing, terrible war in Ukraine. And people are being bombed and driven from their homes, and this war was unprovoked. This war is criminal. This war is also extremely strategically baffling and stupid. And for all that rhetoric about Jews and Nazis that’s been thrown around and all that, there are Jews in both countries. And I think we should say, for Jews or for anyone in Russia who opposes this war, and who is protesting against it, or who has left Russia in the context of this war, which many people have–they are, in many ways, victims of Putin’s decisions as well. And those are the real stakes of this moment. I think I can probably speak for all of us when I say Zelensky is a compelling figure, and a figure who poses a lot of interesting questions that I hope we’ve managed to address here, about post-Soviet Jewish identity and global Jewish identity. But at the end of the day, the really important thing to say about him is that he’s a wartime leader, in the middle of a war that is a terrible tragedy. And with that, thank you all so much for joining us, and I hope we can do this again sometime.
LK: Thank you.
JA: Thanks for having us.
HBR: Thank you all.