What Putin’s war tells us about Ukrainian Jewish life today

A woman cries next to her children in a Kyiv bomb shelter. . Photo by Raphael Lafargue/ABACAPRESS.COM (Via Jewish News)
A woman cries next to her children in a Kyiv bomb shelter. . Photo by Raphael Lafargue/ABACAPRESS.COM (Via Jewish News)

The Russian invasion has shown that a quiet yet extraordinary transformation in Ukrainian Jewish life has been underway.

A century ago, Ukraine was the epicentre of antisemitism. This was the age of the pogrom, the most violent chapter in pre-Holocaust modern Jewish history. The word ‘pogrom’ derives from the Russian verb gromit’; to plunder or destroy.

Like kiosk, it is one of the few to have entered the English language. It did so just as news spread to the Anglophone world of shocking waves of anti-Jewish violence at the turn of the century. In the Civil War pogroms, over 100,000 Jews were murdered, many by Ukrainian nationalists. It was ultimately the Red Army that brought the violence to a halt.

All the place names you are hearing in the news right now – Kyiv, Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Odesa, Uman – were sites of major acts of anti-Jewish violence. This antisemitism was carried into the middle of the twentieth century, through the violence of Stepan Bandera, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and collaboration in the occupied territories. For many in the Jewish diaspora, Ukraine was simply synonymous with antisemitism.

Yet today, as Russia invades, that association no longer holds. The Ukrainian state is headed by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish. In the passing of time, something significant has taken place. Has the past simply faded from view?

Not really. Streets are named after Simon Petliura, there is a monument to him in Vinnytsia; Bohdan Khmelnytsky adorns the 5 hryvnia banknote; there is a Bandera Boulevard in Kyiv; the history of the OUN is too often occluded in official Ukrainian nationalism; the far-right retains a presence in contemporary Ukraine.

And yet, Ukrainian Jewry cleaves to the nation and more or less does so successfully. Powerful statements against Putin’s war from mainstream Jewish organisations in Ukraine underline that attachment.

This shows the complete absurdity of Putin’s ‘denazification’. But perhaps it tells us something about history as well: what seems fixed today can change tomorrow. Just as Ukraine has evolved for Jews, Putin’s rule in Russia will become a thing of the past. Maybe sooner than we expect.

About the Author
Dr Brendan McGeever is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, which is based at Birkbeck University of London. He is the author of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.