By Timothy Snyder
Violence is a distraction from the simple facts, and propaganda turns distraction into abstraction, people into symbols – and all the more now as Russian intervention in Ukraine grows ever more extensive and threatening. Consider the threat made by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, that it would “respond” if Russian citizens in Ukraine are harmed. Yet who are these citizens?
There are speakers of Russian in Ukraine, but they are not Russian citizens any more than I, a speaker of English, am a British subject. There are people who identify as Russian – about a seventh of the population – but they are no more Russian citizens than Quebecois are citizens of France. Dual citizenship in Ukraine is not permitted. So the answer to the riddle is: the Russian citizens in Ukraine are the soldiers of the Russian special forces who are already there. To push the logic a little further, one could say that Lavrov has finally admitted that the soldiers without insignia, whom the Ukrainians call “little green men”, are Russian soldiers, since he had raised the possibility that they could be harmed.
In the information war no one is hurt more than the Jews, since mobilising the global memory of the Holocaust has real costs for actual people. From the very beginning of the revolution, they were an object of Russian propaganda. The current Ukrainian government, we were told, was composed of antisemites, fascists, and Nazis. Russian intervention was required, went the argument, to rescue the Jews of Ukraine.
This version was peddled to the west, where it had some effect, but interestingly it failed entirely in Ukraine itself. Putin seems to have believed that Jewish people in Ukraine would identify with Russia, especially in times of threat. This was one of his many mistakes.
Ukrainian Jews, especially those from the major communities of Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk, made clear to me that they had no desire to be protected by Russia. Jews in Ukraine understand Russia far better than anyone in the west Jewish or otherwise..
But this is not just a matter of a more accurate sense of threat from the outside. It is also a sense of being inside. Many and probably most Jews have moved towards a distinct identity of their own over the 25 years of Ukrainian independence, a trend that has accelerated dramatically in recent months.
The Jews of Kiev generally sided with the protesters of the Maidan, and indeed were present in the protests from beginning to end. When the Viktor Yanukovych regime tried to install a dictatorship in January, Jews were among those who resisted violence with violence. There was even a Jewish fighting unit, or sotnia. Ukrainian Jews returned from Israel and applied their Israeli Defence Forces training. Ukrainian Jews in Israel sent messages of support by social media, and challenged one-sided coverage of the protests in the Israeli press.
When the Yanukovych regime, under Russian pressure, carried out a sniper massacre of the protesters in February, one of the people shot was a Ukrainian Jew. On the Maidan itself, a Ukrainian artist of Jewish origin created an extraordinary sculpture called the Wall.
Today, in the tentative new order, Jews are present in Ukrainian public life. One is a deputy prime minister, another, Ihor Kolomoisky, is governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. He returned from a perfectly secure life in Switzerland to take responsibility for an east Ukrainian territory at the edge of Russian aggression. He clearly relishes the challenge, deliberately adopting symbols of Ukrainian nationalism as his own, deriding Vladimir Putin as a “schizophrenic of short stature”, and offering a bounty for captured “little green men” – who, thus far anyway, seem to be steering clear of his territory.
Yet the greater point is not that all Jews supported the Ukrainian revolution. Mykhailo Dobkin, perhaps the most prominent pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, is Jewish. But he, like his political opposite Kolomoisky, is an active and powerful figure in civil life, no victim and no symbol.
When presidential elections take place next month, it is unlikely many Jews will vote for the Jewish candidate. The commitment of the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews to Ukrainian independence is a matter of civic, rather than ethnic, identification. Reducing Jews to their ethnicity is the first step towards making them a collective symbol in a propaganda story, in a situation where those who use the most violence get to tell the story first. Whichever side they are taking, Jews in Ukraine defy every day our reflexive assumption that Jewish minorities in eastern Europe are nothing more than tomorrow’s headlines, the future victims of some greater power.
Jews can be victims, of course, and if the Russian invasion continues they likely will be, along with the Roma and the Crimean Tatars who are already suffering where Russian troops control Ukrainian territory, along with Ukrainians and everyone else. The pamphlet released last week in an area under Russian control, asking all Jews to register with the separatist authorities, understandably raised fears. The history of the Holocaust demonstrates that few things are more risky for Jews than the destruction of state institutions and the rule of law, which is openly the goal and the consequence of Russian policy. Jews in the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia is in control, can no longer count on the predictability of the rule of law. The immediate consequence of the Russian intervention was been gangsterism.
The intervention in Ukraine distracted us from a good many important things. One is the reality of the revolution: a mass movement pursuing classical revolutionary goals that actually succeeded in dethroning a kleptocrat. Another is the disaster of a Russian foreign policy which, in pressuring the former Ukrainian regime to do more and more, got an outcome that was exactly the opposite of what Russian leaders wanted: pluralism and elections.
But above all, what we have missed is the way in which the experience of revolution and counter-revolution has allowed people to reconsider their identity. Jews of Ukraine have become Ukrainian Jews.