Ukraine's Phantom Neo-Nazi Menace

The country's Jews have faced unspeakable horrors. But Vladimir Putin isn't their savior.
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Ultra-orthodox Jewish men pray and dance in the Ukrainian town of Uman, where the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is located. (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

KIEV, Ukraine—“When was the last time you personally experienced anti-Semitism?” I asked the executive director of the organized Jewish community for the city of Kiev. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean, called me a Zhid or something like that?” “Anything.” He thought for a moment. “Back in Soviet times.”

I put the same question to a roomful of senior citizens in one of the country’s 32 Jewish social-service centers. The group, which was mostly women, laughed out loud. They faced plenty of problems: the standard old-age pension in Ukraine is only about $100 a month, pitifully little even in this poor country. But the Russian claim that gangs of neo-Nazis are roaming Ukraine, threatening its Jewish population, evoked unanimous scorn from every Jewish person I talked to in the country.

On the way out of the center, I stopped to talk to one of the two security guards in the driveway. As in all European cities, Kiev’s Jewish organizations take precautions. But this guard was nothing like the well-armed gendarmes you see patrolling Jewish institutions in France or Belgium. A friendly faced, middle-aged man armed only with a walkie-talkie, he told me that in four years on duty he had encountered not a single threat. I asked if the situation had changed in any way since the flight of the Soviet-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, on February 22. “During the protests [in January and February], we had extra guards,” he said. “But now we’re back to normal.”

***

The most audacious part of the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine is the way it suppresses and reverses the truth about the violence here: It was initiated and sustained by Russian-backed authorities. On November 21, under Russian pressure, the Ukrainian government rejected a trade treaty with the European Union, triggering massive protests across the country, and most visibly in Kiev’s central Independence Square, or Maidan. These protests were brutally broken up by plainclothes thugs as police stood by. Then the police joined in, with escalating brutality, including cold-blooded sniper fire against protesters and then against those who aided the wounded.

Central Kiev is now filled with poignant memorials of the struggle: candles, flowers, faded posters of people who went missing—and who are now known to have been killed by the authorities, their bodies tossed without ceremony into communal graves. The city still bears the marks of the violence, especially the torched and empty trade-union building overlooking Independence Square, which police invaded on the night of February 18. The square is still blocked off with barricades of tires, paving stones, and odd bits of trash: the metal balcony of an apartment, a soft-drink refrigerator with the glass front torn off. Men (young and not so young) in military uniforms seized from armories in western Ukraine sit encamped all over the square—unwilling to go home because the story doesn’t seem over but uncertain what to do now that the drama has shifted away from Kiev to the country’s frontiers, which are threatened by Russian invasion. 

***

Like Kiev itself, Ukraine’s government institutions also have a battered and broken look—in particular, the now-reviled police. The widespread distrust of the police, who in any case aren’t much in evidence, forms the basis of whatever fear Ukraine’s Jews do feel. If trouble were to arise, who would they call?

The good news is, there isn’t much trouble. Since February 22, there have been six notable anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine: four involving the defacement or desecration of synagogues and cemeteries, and two involving outright violence. These incidents have alarmed Jewish communities worldwide. In Ukraine, however, they are regarded with unanimous skepticism, if not outright disbelief.

People mourn in Kiev's Independence Square at a memorial for those killed in Ukraine's revolution. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

All my conversations on these subjects were off-the-record. The incidents are ongoing police matters, and older Ukrainians have developed a hard-learned caution about being identified in the media. However, I spoke to more than a dozen people who occupied a variety of leadership roles within the Ukrainian Jewish community. And not a single person took seriously the idea that these anti-Jewish incidents had been carried out by “neo-Nazis.”

Take the most visually spectacular incident: the daubing of a swastika and anti-Semitic slogans on a synagogue in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. The incident occurred the night before the Russians invaded, creating convenient photographic confirmation of one of Moscow’s pretexts for invasion: the supposed neo-Nazi menace inside Ukraine. The synagogue’s security camera recorded that a lone individual, never subsequently identified, was responsible for the graffiti. There had been no previous such incident in the nearly two decades since the local Jewish community recovered the synagogue from communist-era confiscation.

The circumstances surrounding the two violent anti-Semitic incidents are even murkier. The victim of one is a well-known and respected figure in Kiev’s Jewish life, who wears his hair and dresses in a visibly Jewish way. He was attacked suddenly from behind at night and stabbed in the leg, never managing to identify who assaulted him. The second incident involved a couple bursting into a local synagogue one night and claiming that they had been surrounded by a gang and physically threatened, but had hailed a taxi and escaped just in time.

In early March, leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community—which today, according to most estimates, numbers in the low hundreds of thousands—published an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they declared their support for a “sovereign, democratic, and united Ukraine.” “Your certainty about the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine … does not correspond to the actual facts,” they wrote. 

***

There’s no denying that the relationship between Ukrainians and Jews has historically been a difficult one. Jews came in large numbers to Ukrainian territory in the 1500s, when the country was carved into estates by the Polish crown. Aristocratic landlords recruited literate and numerate Jews to manage these new estates—to oversee the production of grain and ship it down the Vistula river to feed Western Europe. For the enserfed Ukrainian peasant, the Polish king and his nobles were remote figures. It was a Jewish middleman who typically supervised the peasant’s labor, collected rents, and enforced the estate’s monopoly on the distilling and sale of vodka. To the peasant, that middleman became the face of foreign exploitation. The hatred this engendered was reinforced by the teachings of an Orthodox church that vilified Jews as killers of Christ who still feasted on bread soaked in Christian blood. These attitudes persist, alas, to this day. One rabbi I met in Ukraine told me that an Orthodox priest had refused an invitation to an interfaith tea-and-cake meeting at his synagogue with the explanation, “I don’t eat blood.”

One of the worst massacres of European Jews between the Crusades and World War II took place in Ukraine in the 1640s and 1650s. Half Ukraine’s Jews lost their lives, and the devastated community would not begin to recover until the 19th century. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the warlord who unleashed that massacre, appears on horseback in a statue that dominates the square in front of Kiev’s cathedral. It was erected more than a century ago by tsarist authorities who appreciated his role as the leader who delivered Ukraine to Russia. It’s more than a little disconcerting, however, that his face still decorates the five-hryvnia note of independent Ukraine.

When Ukraine fell under Russian rule, the growing but impoverished Jewish community was assigned a political role rather than an economic one: as the people the tsars blamed to explain away challenges to their rule. It was in Kiev in 1913 that tsarist prosecutors brought the last blood libel case in European history, accusing Menachem Mendel Beilis, a supervisor in a brick factory, of the ritual murder of a 13-year-old boy. Beilis was acquitted after a sensational trial, though that didn’t stop someone from writing “killed by a kike” on the gravestone of the murdered boy. The factory where Beilis worked isn’t far from the infamous fields of Babi Yar, the biggest mass grave for Jewish victims of Nazi murder.

A defaced Jewish memorial at the Kurenivka cemetery in Kiev, in 2004. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

This grim history winds its way through pogroms and massacres after the Bolshevik Revolution and culminates in the Holocaust, in which an estimated 1.4 million Ukrainian Jews perished. The invading Nazis recruited Ukrainian units to do the face-to-face killing, especially of children, that German officers deemed too psychologically upsetting for their own men. After these executions were centralized in extermination camps, the Nazis enlisted Ukrainian collaborators as guards and enforcers.

Ukrainians had suffered their own holocaust during a horrific famine engineered by the Soviets under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. So when the Germans invaded in 1941, some Ukrainians seized the chance to recover the independence they’d briefly enjoyed in 1919. The Nazis rapidly made clear, however, that Ukrainians wouldn’t be more than serfs and slaves in the empire Germany was building. The Ukrainian independence leader Stepan Bandera was arrested and sent to a German concentration camp.

But as the fortunes of war turned against Germany, the Nazis decided Ukraine might make a useful ally after all. They released Bandera and equipped his paramilitary force. Under the red-and-black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Bandera’s followers fought a doomed war against Soviet forces for years after 1945—and committed atrocities to drive Poles from territory they hoped to claim. Patriotic Ukrainians faced only bad choices in 1941. But from a menu of bad, they chose the worst.

***

This history is the material with which Russian propaganda has fashioned its accusations against those who want to build a truly independent Ukraine. The symbols of Ukrainian nationalism are indeed historically compromised. Most Ukrainians have rallied to new symbols, including the circle of gold stars that represents the European Union. But over the tents of the ultra-nationalists who line one side of the Maidan, the red-and-black flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fly again.

On the other hand, Putin is no one to talk. If today’s Ukrainian nationalists deserve blame for the misdeeds of their predecessors, then Russian nationalists deserve blame for the misdeeds of theirs. As Putin hurls allegations of Nazism against contemporary Ukrainians who seek democracy and honest government, it’s worth recalling that he himself traffics in Nazi-like assertions, like the claim that Bolshevism was the work of Jews. The very thing Putin seeks to prevent—true democracy in Ukraine—is the thing most likely to slay the demons of the past.

One of the most exciting moments in my brief visit to Kiev was an afternoon at the offices of Hromadske.TV, an Internet broadcaster that has become the most influential news source in Ukraine through the bold and innovative strategy of reporting facts as best it can. A couple dozen young journalists work six and eight to a room. Moving around the small suite of rooms, I was transported back in time to Prague and Warsaw in 1989-90, when communism cracked and it was suddenly possible to live in truth.

Here again were the same funky haircuts and the same jeans and T-shirts: “Fuck corruption,” said one, in English. Here again was the determination to fuse nationalism and democracy, to live both as citizens of a free nation and participants in a free Europe. Here again were the agonizing questions: ‘After so many lost years, will it be our generation that manages to live a normal life? Or will our hopes, like those of the generations before us, be dashed? Will we grow old feeling that life is elsewhere and that hope is something only for our children or grandchildren?’

Ukrainians face more hostile conditions than Central Europeans did in 1989-90. The country is menaced by invasion, with part of its territory already seized and possibly more to follow. Its new government is weak, its people divided. Ukrainians themselves will have to solve their political problems and shoulder most of the responsibility for defending their nation against aggression. When the time comes, it is Ukrainians too who will have to face the full truth about their past and atone where atonement is called for.

But there is one thing that Ukrainians cannot do alone—that requires the involvement of the rest of the world: rejecting the defamatory lies told by those who robbed, exploited, oppressed, and invaded them.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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