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.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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