How a Jew Won Over the Land of the Cossacks
Under threat from Russia, national identity in Ukraine has overpowered religious and ethnic differences.
KIEV, Ukraine—The way Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Kiev, tells it, “a miracle” occurred on Sunday night. Or perhaps, Azman said smiling, it was merely that “God wanted to laugh a little bit.”
For centuries, Jews were chased and slaughtered in what is now Ukraine by Cossacks, Nazis, and Russians. During the Holocaust, more Jews were executed in two days at Babi Yar, in Kiev, than in almost any other single Nazi massacre. And today, across Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise.
But on Sunday, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, won Ukraine’s presidential elections with a crushing 73 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. In a country where about 70 percent of the population follows some form of Christianity and priests literally blessed protesters who overthrew a Russian-backed president in 2014, Zelensky’s Jewish background was a footnote in his victorious presidential campaign.
Zelensky is joined by Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. It means that Ukraine will be the first country besides Israel to have a Jewish president and prime minister.
What changed for Ukrainians? First, Zelensky, who was one of the most popular comedians in the country, rarely spoke about his Jewish background during the campaign, and it is likely that many Ukrainians did not know or care to find out about his religious identity. “The fact that I am a Jew is in 20th place on the long list of my shortcomings,” Zelensky joked to the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy at one point.
But even more important, according to experts, was that after Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula were overtaken by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, Ukrainians rallied around a national identity that transcended religion. That nationalism was fueled by a shared frustration over pervasive corruption that Ukrainians blamed on the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, ahead of Ukraine’s April 21 election. Zelensky trounced Poroshenko thanks to a near-universal name recognition, populist message, and slick social media campaign.
“In America it matters what your religion and identity is. In the post-Soviet space, it isn’t so, because religious identity usually doesn’t say something important about you,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, who is writing a book about Ukraine’s right wing.
“Zelensky is not about the Jewish identity,” said Yaroslav Hrytsak, a history professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University. “People in times of war and crisis don’t care that much about who is what religion. They care about the agenda he or she represents.”
The limits of religion as a tool for political organizing in Ukraine were displayed during Poroshenko’s campaign. As president, Poroshenko was one of the driving forces behind the breakaway of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Russian Orthodox Church, which occurred in December 2018. “This is a church with God. This church is with Ukraine,” the president said after the religious body’s independence.
Poroshenko’s presidential campaign slogan even tried to identify himself with Christianity: “Army! Language! Faith!” But the message did little to boost his poll numbers. He lost by nearly 50 points.
The question is, can such attitudes endure in a land so sodden with Jewish blood? Zelensky’s electoral rout is part of a stark reversal for Jews on Ukrainian territory. For centuries, Jews have been persecuted in what is now Ukraine. Perhaps the most well-known site is Babi Yar, a ravine in the capital city of Kiev.
Nine days after the Nazis took control of Kiev in September 1941, a poster ordered every Jewish resident of the area to appear at the specific street corning, according to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. As Jews and residents walked into the area, they were told to continue to the outskirts of the city, where German soldiers and their auxiliaries executed them in small groups for the next two days, according to the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum. More than 33,000 Jews were killed during the next 48 hours, according to German records, and anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar during the two-year Nazi occupation.
Today, the massacre goes largely unnoticed and almost forgotten at Babi Yar. This week, the park is a burst of serenity aided by blooming green trees and singing birds. Along the so-called Road of Sorrow, a dog sniffs and inspects gravestones as its owner treads on a cobblestone path with headphones in. One side of the road is lined with gravestones; the other is home to an office park. A group of blonde women in miniskirts pick at their lunch on a bench. Two women eating ice cream pass a grand, towering menorah without glancing over.
The indifference may be the result of the Soviet Union’s vision of a common identity that downplays ethnic diversity, according to Likhachev, the historian documenting Ukraine’s far-right groups. “There was 70 years of anti-religious government control and propaganda,” he said.
“The victims and losses of the Soviet people as a whole, and of the Russian people in particular, were emphasized, without giving attention to the suffering and victims of small ethnic groups; especially the Jewish people,” one Ukrainian Jew, Igor Rusniak, wrote on the website of his synagogue.
The economic modernization of Ukraine over decades is another explanation for improved Jewish relations, according to Hrytsak of the Ukrainian Catholic University. “Peasants are inclined to mistrust aliens, and Jews were the ultimate aliens,” Hrytsak said.
But then protests in 2014 that overthrew Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych became another inflection point for Jewish identity in Ukraine, according to Vladyslava Moskalets, who is on the executive committee of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies.
The protests were “a turning point in Ukrainian-Jewish relations, because prominent Jews took part in the revolution. I think we can treat it as the beginning of new Ukrainian-Jewish political identity,” Moskalets said. “We have so many churches and so many religions that there is no faith that dominates.”
To be sure, there are still anti-Semitic sentiments in Ukraine. Some nationalist groups have been accused of anti-Jewish chants during marches. Politicians have shared similar rhetoric. The country’s far-right Azov movement includes neo-Nazis. But Zelensky’s victory is another data point that suggests the Jewish identity is becoming more accepted in Ukraine. It is the country in Central and Eastern Europe where people are most accepting of Jews as fellow citizens, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
Rabbi Azman himself has seen the transformation of Jewish relations in Ukraine. Growing up, Azman saw the anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Now, his faith is accepted there. Azman’s office is dotted with pictures of himself with Ukrainian sportsmen and politicians, as well as foreign heads of state. He opened his phone to display a photo of himself with a grinning Zelensky, pre-victory.
“People ask me about anti-Semitism in Ukraine. It’s less than Europe and less than Russia,” Azman said. But the stakes of Zelensky’s presidency are high for Ukraine’s Jewish community, he added. “If he is not successful, they will blame the Jewish people.”