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A SPRING VISIT TO UKRAINE

March-April 2009

 

Jewish Life in

Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Kharkiv, and Kyiv

 

 

The writer visited Ukraine in March and early April in 2009, arriving in Odesa on March 16.  From there, she traveled to Dnipropetrovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Kharkiv, and Kyiv.  She departed from Kyiv en route to the United States on April 3.

 

Ukraine is a country somewhat smaller in size than the American state of Texas.  It shares a lengthy border with Russia to its north and east, and is bounded by Belarus to its north, and Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to its west.  On its southwest are Romania and Moldova, and its southern boundaries are the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.  Ukraine is comprised of 24 provinces or oblasts, one autonomous republic (Crimea), and two cities with special status, the capital city of Kyiv and the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which continues to host the Russian Black Sea naval fleet.[1]

 

 

State flag of Ukraine.

 

 

 

The estimated populations of Ukraine’s largest cities in mid-2009 are: Kyiv, 2,304,511; Kharkiv, 1,461,234; Dnipropetrovsk, 1,046,608; Odesa, 992,669; Donetsk, 989,569; and Zaporizhya, 787,865.  The estimated population of Dniprodzerzhynsk, which the writer also visited and is located north of Dnipropetrovsk, is 244,747.[2]

The total population of Ukraine is estimated at 45,700,395 in mid-2009,[3] a precipitous decline from its estimated 1991 population of approximately 53 million.[4]  As of 2008, the estimated birth rate was 9.55 per 1,000 population and the death rate was 15.93 per 1,000 population.  The life expectancy at birth is estimated at 62.37 for men and 74.5 for women.[5]

 

 

Ukraine in March and April 2009 was mired in a deep and seemingly unrelenting crisis (кризис) with both economic and political dimensions.  Each of these aspects exacerbated the other, and none of the writer’s interlocutors expected the duration of the crisis to be brief.  Almost all anticipated further deterioration with severe consequences not only for the traditionally vulnerable segments of Ukrainian society, but also for some previously successful individuals and institutions.  “The party is over,” said one individual whose organizations had derived great benefit from Ukrainian economic growth of the 1990’s and the earliest years of the twenty-first century.

 

Perhaps nowhere was evidence of economic distress more obvious to the visitor than in the surfeit of “for sale” and “for rent” signs in empty shop windows and on buildings in every city that the writer visited.  New construction, which had been  proceeding at a rapid pace one year earlier, has been suspended in mid-project; older buildings that had been gutted in preparation for rehabilitation stand in partial ruin, their remaining exterior walls, broken windows, and empty, dark interiors eerily evocative of war damage.

 

The store at left, located across the street from the famed Bessarabian market in central Kyiv, is for rent.  Thousands of properties across Ukraine bear similar “for rent” or “for sale” (“Продам”) signs.

 

Photo: the writer.

Official unemployment statistics, which are broadly recognized as unreliable, report spring 2009 joblessness at about eight percent of the workforce.  More realistic estimates are 20 to 25 percent, with even higher figures assumed in industrial cities of eastern Ukraine.  “Hidden” unemployment adds to the grim situation.  Many individuals reported as employed are working only two or three days each week or are working without compensation, hoping that their labor will be rewarded at some point in the future.  Tens of thousands of migrant workers once employed in large cities are reported to have returned to their villages where the cost of living is significantly lower and extended families provide a support system.  Cars have been repossessed by banks or have been concealed where banks cannot find them.  Traffic in large cities is noticeably reduced from 2007 and early 2008.

 

Among the key causes of the Ukrainian economic crisis is the general global recession and consequent collapse of prices for the principal Ukrainian exports of metals and industrial chemicals.  Approximately 40 percent of the Ukrainian economy is dependent on steel and aluminum exports.  Additionally, an overheated banking industry offered credit to individuals with inadequate resources to repay loans.  Many Ukrainian banks are seriously overextended; some have failed, and others are limiting withdrawals.  Even with significant government support, not all currently operating banks are expected to survive.[6]  Consumers who had purchased new apartments or new cars on credit find that banks are recalling loans while construction companies or automobile dealerships are simultaneously demanding immediate payment.  Some developers and dealerships have failed, stealing away with consumer deposits and partial payments.

 

The Ukrainian hryvnia, which was trading at four or five to the United States dollar one year ago, was trading at eight to the dollar during the writer’s 2009 visit.  Although the difference in exchange rates was a boon to philanthropic organizations that receive subventions from abroad, the devaluation of the hryvnia was disastrous for import-dependent individuals and organizations and for consumers who had taken loans in dollars, expecting the hryvnia to retain its exaggerated 2008 worth.  Some observers estimate that 80 percent of Ukraine’s once-expanding middle class held loans in dollars.

 

Reflecting the fact that the crisis became evident only in mid-2008, the Ukrainian economy achieved a growth rate of 2.1 percent for the entirety of 2008.  For 2009, the World Bank is predicting an economic decline of up to nine percent.  However, as the economy cools, the World Bank anticipates that inflation will decrease to 16.4 percent in 2009 from 22.3 percent in 2008.[7]

 

In November, the International Monetary Fund promised Ukraine an emergency loan package of $16.4 billion, but full payment of the loan is contingent on whether the government can carry out specific anti-crisis steps, such as reducing subsidies on natural gas imported from Russia and raising the retirement age from 55 for women and 60 for men.  Both measures will be difficult to implement in an election year.

 

The Ukrainian government remains paralyzed, with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko openly feuding, each maneuvering for advantageous positions as elections approach in early 2010.  The national government is “hopeless,” said one prominent observer in Kyiv; it has “failed on all economic issues.”  The objective of national leaders is to retain power “by any means,” even if such self-aggrandizement leads to “bankruptcy of the country.”  All political leaders are beholden to one or another Ukrainian oligarch, a circumstance that inevitably deepens the corruption that is endemic throughout the country.  Contempt for President Yushchenko, hero of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, and his onetime ally, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, is widespread.  Cynicism abounds in any discussion of national leadership.

 

Disdain for Ukrainian authorities is matched by fear of Russia, Ukraine’s powerful neighbor and supplier of almost all of its energy resources.  Russia is perceived as exploiting the Ukrainian economic crisis to strengthen its own hand, imposing sharply increased prices for natural gas at the beginning of each year after cutting off shipments to Ukraine – and to eastern and central Europe though pipelines that traverse Ukraine – to demonstrate its power.  It is suspected of provoking anti-Ukrainian ethnic tensions through support of ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as well as minority groups, such as Rusyns in far western Ukraine.[8]  Additionally, the Moscow Patriarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is accused of challenging the Ukrainian identity of the Ukrainian church.[9]

In general, the writer found the mood in Ukraine to be one of unremitting gloom.  Almost everyone with whom the writer spoke, whether in a formal meeting or in a casual conversation, knew individuals who had lost jobs or whose bank accounts were no longer accessible.  Organizations dependent upon foreign contributions are coping with reduced budgets as Western donors face economic stringencies in their own countries and are unable to maintain their support of various philanthropic causes.  Abandoned stores and suspended construction projects provide visual evidence of economic distress.  Ukrainians have no experience with a cyclical economy or with a responsive government.  Russia and its assertive government will not disappear.

 

The recently-constructed Dnipropetrovsk building at right bears a “for sale” (Продам) sign, as do thousands of other buildings across Ukraine.

 

Photo: Oleg Rostovtsev.

 

 

One of the few positive aspects of the current dismal situation in Ukraine is a lack of antisemitic reaction to the economic hardship and political paralysis affecting the country.  With the exception of troubling March election results in Ternopil,[10] which two Kyiv observers termed “alarming” (тревожный) in separate conversations, few individuals reported any recent upsurge in expressions of antisemitism.  In fact, several commented that expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry may have decreased since the writer’s most recent previous visit to Ukraine in February 2008.  It was noted that the university known as MAUP (Міжрегіональна Академія управління персоналом or Interregional Academy of Personnel Management) is no longer publishing antisemitic tracts or sponsoring antisemitic speakers.[11]

General xenophobia, however, continues to be a persistent problem, with blacks (predominantly foreign students), individuals from the Caucasus Mountain area, and Asians (individuals from both the post-Soviet Central Asian states and more distant Asian countries) targeted in physical assaults.  Some Ukrainian nationalists also lash out at Russians.

In addition to assaults based on ethnicity, individuals in every city reported an increase in ordinary crime deriving from economic hardship.  In both eastern Ukraine and Kyiv, the writer was told of “raids” on grocery stores in which perpetrators swept up food that they apparently could not afford to purchase.  A Jewish community professional in Kyiv related accounts of teams of two or three assailants methodically mugging passengers, one after another, in metro cars on the capital city’s east bank; the attackers, said the professional, must have known that public transportation passengers on the less affluent east bank were unlikely to be carrying much money, but they were targets of crime nonetheless.  A woman told how her anxious husband has arranged for her to be met by acquaintances at her Kyiv bus stop so that she can be escorted home in their newly dangerous neighborhood.

Estimates of the number of Jews in Ukraine range from 180,000 to 250,000.  All respondents report declining enrollments in Jewish day schools, summer camps, and other institutions targeting younger-generation Jews.  Although the low quality of some such institutions may account for some decrease in numbers, it is likely that reduced population simply presents a smaller pool of potential participants.  The high proportion of intermarried families also yields a large number of people of partial Jewish ancestry who are not halachically Jewish and thus are ineligible for many programs operated under Orthodox Jewish auspices.[12]

 

The writer interviewed 85 people during her travels in Ukraine, including six diplomats attached to foreign representations.  The diplomats are not quoted by name in this review.

 

 

 

Odesa

 

A famous port city on the shores of the Black Sea, Odesa was founded by a Turkish khan in 1240 and was controlled by Turks until the 1789 Turkish-Russian War.    During  much of  the  nineteenth century,   it was a free port,   a factor that

doubtless has contributed to the diversity of its population, which includes  Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, and others.

 

The Potemkin Steps are a well-known symbol of Odesa.  A workers’ uprising supported by the crew of the battleship Potemkin occurred near the steps in 1905. A famous motion picture, The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein, depicted a massacre of workers by tsarist Cossacks as having occurred on the steps.

 

Photo: Wikipedia.  Retrieved April 14, 2009.

 

 

From the 1880’s until the 1920’s, the Jewish population of Odesa was the second largest in Russia (after Warsaw, which was then within tsarist Russia).  According to general censuses, 139,984 Jews (34.65 percent of the population) lived in Odesa in 1897, and 153,194 Jews (36.4 percent) resided in the city in 1926.[13]  Pogroms occurred in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, and 1905.  Notwithstand-ing repeated anti-Jewish violence, Jews were well-represented in Odesa commerce and general culture.  Odesa Jews also developed an extensive network of Jewish educational and cultural institutions, and the city became a strong center of popular Zionism.  Among Odesans who achieved prominence in the Zionist movement are Ahad Ha’am, Menachem Mendel Ussishkin, Meir Diezengoff, Haim Nachman Bialik, Leon Pinsker, and Vladimir Jabotinsky.

 

Approximately 180,000 Jews lived in Odesa in 1939.  At least half of the Jewish population managed to flee the city before it was occupied by German and Romanian troops in October 1941 following a protracted siege.  Most of the remaining Jews were slaughtered in several massacres in 1941 and 1942. Others were transported to concentration camps, where some died in mass shootings and some perished from starvation, disease, and exposure.

 

As is the case throughout the post-Soviet states, no reliable demographic data exists about the contemporary Jewish population of Odesa.  The writer heard estimates ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 individuals eligible for immigration to Israel under provisions of the Law of Return.[14]  The majority of responses were in the range of 20,000 to 35,000.

 

As a seaport, commented several observers, Odesa always has been a market city.  Even during the Soviet era, when private enterprise was forbidden, trading continued.  With commerce so prominent in the life of the city, Odesans have been severely affected by the current economic crisis.  The devaluation of Ukrainian currency has generated considerable hardship for many residents because they are unable to purchase foreign goods for local sale.  Factories are closing or operating part-time, stores are closing, and unemployment is increasing.  Salaries are paid late and pension payments are irregular.  A large portion of the local population, said one highly-placed professional in the Jewish community, blames the economic situation almost entirely on the very public feuding between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, not understanding that an economic crisis is afflicting most of the world.

 

 

1.  Almost every discussion with Odesa Jews began with observations about the impact of the crisis on individuals and on Jewish organizations.  Apart from the ubiquity of this concern, a visitor is impressed by a number of other topics that arose repeatedly in discussions with several dozen individuals.  Common among well-educated Jews in Odesa is an intense pride in the rich Jewish cultural heritage of the city.  Contemporary residents are quick to mention historian Semyon Dubnow, writers Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Babel, various Jewish architects and artists, musicians, physicians, and luminaries of modern Zionism.  Activists have marked the homes or workplaces of many such individuals with commemorative plaques.

 

A second topic of frequent discussion is the competition between the two chief rabbis of the city, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, a “Litvak” associated with Ohr Somayach, and Rabbi Avrum Wolf, who is affiliated with Chabad.  The two religious leaders, who barely speak to one another, have established duplicate institutional “empires”,[15] subjecting themselves to opprobrium and ridicule from Odesa’s largely secular Jewish population.  Each of the two men is competent and “sophisticated” in his own right, said one observer, but they seem unable to discern the harm that their rivalry causes to development of a sense of Jewish community in the city.   Some indigenous Jews feel compelled to seek the approval of both rabbis for local Jewish ventures, but others feel obligated to choose sides in a battle that they do not want to join.  The competition is unseemly, said another, and drives people away from Judaism and Jewish practice.

A third topic is a new Jewish cultural center known as Beit Grand, named after an American Jewish family that provided support to the Joint Distribution Committee for its construction.  Well-located on the site of a former hospital, the center includes a sports hall, a 220-seat theater, and a number of activity rooms and offices.  A hesed (welfare center) is located on its ground floor.  Commercial clients, whose rental fees are intended to provide ongoing support for the maintenance of the building, occupy substantial space.  The JCC was dedicated during Chanukah in 2008, but most of its activity rooms remain unused.  Beit Grand, say observers, is an “elitist” institution unable to attract large numbers of local Jews because it is demanding user fees that few Odesa Jews can afford.  Notwithstanding high participation fees from individuals and rental fees from prospective Jewish organizational tenants, Beit Grand is absorbing all Jewish philanthropic funds in the city, commented an activist; the building stands empty while starving more dynamic Jewish organizations of support.[16]

 

 

Jewish Education and Culture

 

2.  The Ohr Dessa school sponsored by Ohr Somayach is one of three Jewish day schools in Odesa.  It enrolls approximately 600 children from preschool through grade 11 in five separate buildings; these include two small preschool/lower schools in different parts of the city, discrete upper schools (grades five through 11) for boys and for girls, and a yeshiva school with 74 youngsters between the ages of six and 12 from religious families.  Among the pupils in the yeshiva school, said Principal Mark Dreerman, are some children between the ages of ten and 12 from the Tikvah children’s home (see below) who have expressed interest in an intense religious education.  Enrollment is stable, said Mr. Dreerman.

 

Mark Dreerman (pronounced Drey-er-man) is principal of the Ohr Dessa schools in Odesa.

 

Photo: the writer.

 
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