Remarkably, Ukraine is the only country in the world, apart from Israel, where both the president and prime minister are Jewish. And, according to a recent survey, it is also the least antisemitic state in eastern and central Europe, with the overwhelming majority of the population now welcoming the presence of a community which had previously faced prolonged persecution.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with his own TV show, won 73 per cent of the votes in the country’s recent presidential election, in a resounding victory over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. The prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, a former city mayor, is a more established politician who had served in the previous administration.
The presence of two Jewish men in such high positions may come as a surprise for a place which has a long history of virulent antisemitism and murderous pogroms: a land which suffered some of the most notorious atrocities of the Holocaust, including the shooting of 33,782 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine, and the Nikolaev massacre where 35,282 Soviet citizens, most of them Jewish, were slaughtered.
The estimates for the total numbers of Jews killed in Ukraine during the Second World War ranges between a staggering 1.2 to 1.6 million.
The Nazis did not lack help. More than 100,000 Ukrainians joined police units which actively collaborated in the violent oppression. But there has been little by way of repercussions for the guilty. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has pointed out that “Ukraine has never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator.”
Indeed, antisemitism in Ukraine is not consigned to the distant past. I came across soldiers in some of the private armies fighting against the Russian-backed separatists in the civil war, including Western volunteers, openly espousing neo-Nazi and anti-Jewish views and slogans. Their behaviour fitted in with the perception of many in eastern Ukraine of “fascists from the West”; the bitter legacy of the Second World War, which was very much alive in that part of the country and had been rekindled by the violent strife.
The grim echoes of history were very evident during an attack I witnessed on the port city of Mariupol, then separatist-held, during the height of the fighting five years ago. It was carried out by a private militia fighting for the Kiev government and left dozens dead. The assault took place on 9 May, the anniversary of the surrender of Hitler’s Germany, a day of great reverence for the Russians as they remembered the 20 million who fell in the Great Patriotic War.
“This is not about 2014 in Ukraine, this is about Berlin in 1945; that is why they are here. What they want is to avenge the defeat of their Nazi masters,” Captain Zorin Aleksandr Nicolaivitch said to me, his voice cracking with anger, as he gestured at a dead body. The 63- year-old navy veteran of 18 years, in full dress uniform with two rows of medals, had been attending the parade to commemorate the Second World War anniversary. “Look, this is the only weapon that I am carrying today,” he said, lifting the ceremonial dagger from his belt. “These are what we are all carrying: only one side came to fight and kill today – the fascists.”
Since the civil war began, several cities across the country have named streets after the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. In Lviv, the local authority gave permission for a public celebration on the anniversary of the founding of the 14th Galician division of the Waffen SS, with men in German uniforms taking part in a parade. On 20 April, members of the neo-Nazi C14 group (also known as Sich) celebrated Hitler’s birthday by burning down a Roma camp in Kiev and attacking Roma families. Other hard-right groups have attacked LGBT and civil rights rallies.
Last year, 50 members of the US congress condemned legislation in Ukraine which “glorifies Nazi collaborators”; measures which, they held, went even further than new, highly controversial laws in Poland, which seeks severely to restrict criticism of local complicity in the Holocaust.
In January last year Ukraine banned Antony Beevor’s seminal book Stalingrad on the Second World War, because it had one paragraph about the involvement of a Ukrainian unit in the murder of 90 Jewish children. The government also banned The Book Thieves by the Swedish author Anders Rydell because he described how followers of the early 20th-century nationalist leader Symon Petliura had murdered Jews. The subject of The Book Thieves, ironically, was the targeting and destruction of works of literature in Nazi Germany.
Zelensky had, so far, confined himself to saying that he personally does not like the veneration of people such as Bandera, but noting also that he was “a hero to some Ukrainians” – a carefully worded view on what continues to be a very emotive and contentious subject. The president elect had not spoken much in public about his religion
Bernard-Henri Levy, the French Jewish philosopher, had mused during the election campaign just how “extraordinary it was that the possible future president of the country of the Shoah by bullets and Babi Yar is a self-affirmed Jew from a family of survivors” from the “land of pogrom”. Levy asked: “This postmodern kid, is he new proof that the virus of antisemitism has been contained?”
Zelensky’s response to Levy was a one-liner from his comedy routine: “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults…”
The issue of Zelensky’s Jewishness surfaced from time to time, but not that often, during the election campaign. Alexander Paliy, a political analyst and a supporter of the former president Poroshenko, declared in a Facebook post that, while he had “respect” for Jews as well as some Russians, “the president of Ukraine should be Ukrainian and Christian like the absolute majority of Ukrainians.”
Overall though, Zelensky’s Jewishness did not play a significant role in the race. Some in hard-right circles attempted to seize on the fact that he had a show on a television channel owned by Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire, key supporter and the third richest man in the country. There were claims of a “Jewish conspiracy” of business, media and politics trying to control the country and some vowed that this would be resisted.
But Kolomoisky had also presented himself as a dedicated opponent of Russian-backed separatists during the civil war, spending millions of dollars to fund a number of private militias including the Dnipro and Azov battalions, whose members took part in the Mariupol assault, and offering bounties for captured separatist fighters.
He also had himself photographed wearing a T-shirt combining the Jewish emblem of menorah and the Ukrainian nationalist symbol of the trident with the word “Zhidobandera” – an amalgamation of a Russian Ukrainian word for Jews and Bandera.
Vladimir Putin has called Kolomoisky a “unique crook”, who had cheated, among others, Roman Abramovich, the Jewish billionaire who owns Chelsea football club. Moscow is asking that Kolomoisky be put on Interpol’s wanted list, and a district court in Russia has issued a warrant for his arrest in absentia for allegedly “organising the killing of civilians”.
The view among analysts is that the votes Zelensky may have lost due to antisemitism was compensated to an extent among right-wingers thanks to his backing by nationalists as well as more widespread disillusionment, as has been seen across Europe, with mainstream politicians.
I first met the then 20-year-old Taras Kolysnik during the Maidan protests in Kiev six years ago, which led to the overthrow and exile in Russia of President Viktor Yanukovych. I ran into him again seven months later at a frontline in the Donbass, where he was serving in one of the volunteer private battalions against the separatists. Some of the fighters openly expressed hard-right views; some wore “Wolfsangel” badges, associated with Nazis, on their uniforms.
I caught up with Taras in Kiev a few weeks ago. Sitting in a cafe in the Maidan on a day of watery sunshine, across the road from posters recalling the days of the uprising and photos of those who died, we talked of what took place, the current politics of his country and the new president.
“We had some crazy guys fighting with us, that’s for sure, and some of them had these political views, very right-wing, fascist even. And we had a few foreigners as well, you remember?”
“But they were fighting for us, for Ukraine, against the Russians, so we accepted them,” Taras recalled. “We all had to work together, look after each other.”
After returning from the frontline,Taras, like many other young men and women in the same position, felt, he said, a bit disillusioned, “a little bit lost”.
He gave up his university studies and travelled in Europe with a keen interest in protest movements. “And guess what: in Germany, Italy, Hungary I met really right-wing people who worship Putin, the guy whose country invaded my country. What is all that about? So I began to wonder about a lot of things, you don’t really know who is on what side really in this modern world,” he laughed.
“On this Jewish thing, some people are still prejudiced. But they see this guy Zelensky as new, different from the same old politicians, the same old corrupt lot. And people thought maybe we need someone really different: someone new, someone who can bring changes. That’s why my girlfriend and I voted for him. Why worry he’s Jewish? We have enough other big problems to worry about here. It is more a question of whether he brings a good government. If he brings back the old crooks, we vote him out.”
Zelensky, on the day of his inauguration, announced fresh parliamentary elections. According to recent polls, his party will get around 40 per cent of the votes, needing another 10 per cent for a majority, achievable with a coalition, to embark on implementing his policies – policies about which he had been rather vague so far on detail.
What happens with Russia and the separatist east now will have an obvious impact on his presidency.
Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Poroshenko was toxic, but the Russian leader did not congratulate Zelesnky on his victory, saying he would wait to see what the new Ukrainian president would do about the issues which had divided the two states. Soon afterwards, however, Putin suggested that Russia may fast-track citizenship for all Ukrainians, not just those living in the east, a deliberately provocative act. Zelensky responded with a Facebook post calling Russia “an aggressor state which wages war against Ukraine”.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic said he was “ready for dialogue” with the new president, who should “naturally take into account the interests of Donbass”. However, he condemned what he called the “destructive” statements by Zelensky’s team and accused them of being inclined to “block the peace process” in place.
The only mention of Zelensky’s religion in Russia to make the news was an article on a news website by Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Putin, who suggested that Zelensky, with the backing of Donald Trump and “far-right forces in Israel”, could orchestrate a “massive move” in which the Russian population in eastern Ukraine could be cleared out and replaced by “the inhabitants of the Promised Land tired of the permanent war in the Middle East”.
The Israeli foreign ministry charged that the views were “conspiratorial and anti-semitic”. Glazyev claimed his words had been deliberately misrepresented; his article did not, he wanted to clarify, mention the word “Jews” once.
The Jewishness of Zelensky and Groysman has resulted, as is to be expected, in a lot of publicity in Israel.
There has been excitement about claims that the new Ukrainian president may follow the Trump administration and move the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Eighty-six out of the 450 MPs in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, have signed a motion for the change to take place. There is yet to be a vote, however, on the issue and, in any event, such a vote would not be binding on the government. There has been no comment on the embassy move from the presidential office.
I was in Kiev earlier last month when the World Jewish Congress held their first ever annual meeting in Ukraine. With all the interest swirling around Zelensky, it had seemed a very appropriate location. The president and the prime minister were expected to be the star turns in the conference earlier this – but neither turned up.
There were various explanations on offer for this. People close to Zelensky wanted to point out that he was not hiding his religion and had utmost respect for the Congress. At the time of the forum in Kiev the president elect was meeting a group of Chabad rabbis in the city. Afterwards, Zelensky posted on Instagram quoting a rabbi, Shmuel Kaminezki, telling him: “a little bit of light drives away a lot of darkness. There are three central factors behind the success of your leadership: justice, honesty and peace. Never do what you would not wish to be done to you.”
Rabbi Kaminezki said after the meeting: “Without even getting into the Jewish aspect, this is a clean, honest individual; educated, solid morals, there is a lot of hope here. This is the sixth-largest Jewish population in the world and he was interested in every detail, why people stay, why they leave, what we’re all seeing in all our individual communities. We believe that Jews can live and grow here, that there is a great future for the Jews of Ukraine.”
Kaminezki is the Chief Rabbi of Dnipro, a city known until three years ago as Dnipropetrovsk. It was the Jewish community in Dnipro which announced the meeting with the president. Dnipro also happens to be the home town and power base of Kolomoisky, who was appointed governor of the region during the civil war.
One reason Zelensky did not turn up at the World Jewish Congress summit, it has been claimed, was on advice not to do so by Kolomoisky. The billionaire, according to this account, had deep political animus against one of the senior figures in the conference and was displaying his political power by keeping the president elect away.
If accurate, this showed that Ukrainian political rivalries, often personal and deeply vindictive, have taken precedence over a prestigious religious occasion. It also showed that the influence of Kolomoisky runs very deep. After returning from two years of self-imposed exile, spent partly in Israel, Kolomoisky has advocated that Ukraine should default on its debt. “In my opinion, we should treat our creditors the way Greece does. How many times has Argentina defaulted? So what, they restructured, it’s fine,” he said to the Financial Times.
The west, he continued, should write off the debt to compensate for what the country has suffered in the confrontation with Russia: “This is your game, your geopolitics. You don’t care about Ukraine. You want to hurt Russia and Ukraine is just an excuse,” was his message to western politicians.
The EU, US and the IMF are unlikely to agree merely to forget the debt, having bailed out Ukraine to the tune of $3.9bn. Successive tranches of loans have come with repeated warnings about Ukraine’s failure to tackle endemic corruption, and to carry out promised reforms amid the continuing grip of overmighty oligarchs on the political and legal process.
Kolomoisky’s statement has raised questions about the incoming administration in Kiev. Some of Zelensky’s allies rushed to distance him from the billionaire backer’s views. The proposal, said former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, was the personal opinion of a “detached oligarch”. He wanted to stress that “default is not in the interest of the state. Any responsible government must avoid it.”
Ukraine may have made significant and welcome moves away from antisemitism but, as it seeks to take faltering steps away from a devastating conflict, a divided nation and a fractured economy, Volodymyr Zelensky, the new-style Jewish president, is likely to find he has a hard struggle ahead to deal with old style problems of vested interests, greed and graft – all of which have plagued his country for a very long time.