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JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE IN UKRAINE

 

(Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Kyiv)

 

Report of a Visit in May 2012

 

 

The writer visited Ukraine in May 2012, arriving in Kyiv on May 7 and proceeding to Dnipropetrovsk the same day.  From Dnipropetrovsk, she traveled to Kharkiv and subsequently returned to Dnipropetrovsk.  She concluded her trip in Kyiv, leaving the country on May 18.

 

 

Ukraine is a country somewhat smaller in territory than the American state of Texas.  It shares borders with seven other countries: Russia to its east and north; Belarus to its north; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to its west; and Romania and Moldova to its southwest.  The Black Sea and the Sea of Azov form its southern border.

 

Ukraine is divided into 24 provinces or oblasts, one autonomous re-public (Crimea), and two cities with special sta-tus – the capital city of Kyiv and the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which hosts the Black Sea naval fleet of Russia.

 

 

 

 

Eastern Ukraine – the territory east of the Dnipr River – borders mainly on Russia and is more russified in language and general outlook than the remainder of the country.  A strong natural resource base of iron ore, coal, and other minerals has generated an economy based on heavy industry in this segment of Ukraine.  Central and western Ukraine often is characterized by smaller cities and towns.  Portions of western Ukraine were controlled by other countries throughout its history until Soviet rule was consolidated through Red Army triumphs and subsequent occupation in World War II.  The influence of Poland, especially, remains strong in the westernmost part of Ukraine.  Ukraine declared independence in 1991.

 

The estimated population of Ukraine in July 2012 was 44,854,065[1], a steep decline from its estimated 1991 population of approximately 53 million.[2]  The estimated 2012 birthrate is 9.59 live births per 1,000 population, and the estimated 2012 death rate is 15.76 per 1,000 population, that is, the number of deaths is expected to exceed the number of live births substantially.  The estimated life expectancy for women born in 2012 is 74.77 years; life expectancy for men born in 2012 is 63.07.[3]

 

The estimated populations of Ukraine’s five largest cities in 2012 are: Kyiv, 3.0 million; Kharkiv, 1.5 million; Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa, 1.0 million each; and Donetsk, 971,000 (2009 estimate for Donetsk).  Internal migration from smaller cities to larger metropolitan areas, particularly Kyiv, continues today; it is possible that the population of these large metropolitan areas is larger than noted due to the influx of unregistered migrants from smaller population centers.

 

 

The writer’s May journey in Ukraine was her most depressing experience in that country since it became independent from the former Soviet Union in 1991.  Despair was commonplace; a sense of despondence seemed omnipresent.  Confirming her observations, a foreign emissary in Kyiv commented that “great disaffection” is prevalent everywhere.  A local Jew employed at an executive level in the Jewish community stated that Ukraine is “moving toward disaster” and that the future of the country is “bitter” for all who remain within its borders.  The key issues are economic and business-related, all agreed.  The global economic downturn has affected Ukraine severely.  Conflicting local tax laws deter transparent compensation for goods and services.  Politically well-connected individuals instigate punitive tax inspections against their competitors and arrange to confiscate businesses that they find attractive.  Investment, therefore, is minimal; economic stagnation and unemployment are the inevitable results.

 

Corruption is endemic at all levels; at least 50 percent of individual income, asserted a Kyiv-based analyst, is accrued “in envelopes”, i.e., illegally.  Compounding “everyday lawlessness”, stated another observer, is the growing “appetite” of clerks, whose demands increase from day to day.  The cost of doing business used to be predictable, he said, but that no longer is the case.  One doesn’t know on Monday, he continued, what will be the price of completing a transaction on Friday.  Purchasing and developing real estate is a difficult and costly venture with numerous intermediaries, some of dubious authority, demanding personal fees and incentives for the completion of bureaucratic tasks.  Inevitably, financial corruption leads to corruption of the soul and a sense of defeat and hopelessness.

 

The rule of law remains elusive, subject to corruption and intimidation.  Opponents of the governing elite are persecuted[4], and much of the oligarch-controlled media is subject to self-censorship.  “It’s not as bad as Russia,” said one prominent Jewish figure.  “It’s not a dictatorship.”  However, he continued, underlying “tension” exists, and many people are fearful of speaking out.  As in Russia, the Internet offers some anonymity and has become a major source of news for those in large urban areas, replacing print media and television.[5]

 

The government of President Viktor Yanukovych is fractious with few accomplishments to its credit.  The opposition also is badly divided with no faction able to provide an attractive alternative.  Various polls suggest that 60 percent of Ukrainian young people would like to emigrate and build their lives elsewhere.

 

Viktor Yanukovych has been President of Ukraine since February 2010.  He is considered by many to be a political bully and thoroughly corrupt.

 

Photo:http://www.wizatbusiness.com/ukrainian-election-finally-resolved/2010/02/.  Retrieved August 21, 2012.

 

Another issue of concern is Ukraine’s large and often overbearing neighbor, Russia.  Not only does Russia control a significant portion of Ukrainian energy resources, Russian oligarchs – as well as Ukrainians with close ties to Russia - also are prominent in Ukrainian business and industry.  A heavy Russian presence is visible in Ukrainian culture, and the Russian Orthodox (Православ; Pravoslav) church persistently attempts to undermine the Ukrainian Orthodox church.  Russia also maintains a naval base in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.  Erosion of Ukrainian sovereignty clearly is the Russian goal, stated one foreign analyst.  “They [Russia] do not need to physically occupy Ukraine,” said another.   Russia has enough leverage in Ukraine to be highly influential without deploying Russian troops on Ukrainian territory outside Crimea.[6]

 

 

Responsible estimates of the size of the Jewish population in Ukraine range from 80,000 to 200,000, with the largest single number – 20,000 to 50,000 - residing in the capital city of Kyiv.  A somewhat smaller number of Jews is believed to live in Dnipropetrovsk, and progressively smaller Jewish populations are to be found in Odesa, Kharkiv, and Donetsk.  No other Ukrainian city has even 10,000 Jews.[7]

 

No Jewish population center in Ukraine can be characterized as the center of Ukrainian Jewry.  Notwithstanding its stature as the national capital and the relatively large size of its Jewish population, Kyiv remains without effective Jewish leadership,[8] a city with multiple Jewish offices but little sense of Jewish activism or direction.  Odesa, as always, is the Jewish intellectual and cultural capital, and Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv are important centers of Chabad activity.  However, the majority of Ukrainian Jews remain distant from Jewish engagement, finding little of interest in contemporary Jewish life.

 

Antisemitism is common throughout Ukraine, most frequently expressed through attribution of Jewish ancestry to repellent fictional figures in television programs, allegations of Jewish ancestry in smearing political opponents, and escalating antisemitic commentary on websites.  Antisemitic daubing sometimes appears on walls and in Jewish cemeteries, but anti-Jewish physical attacks on individuals are relatively rare.  Nonetheless, some Chabad or other Orthodox rabbis attired in traditional religious garb rarely walk in public without the accompaniment of security personnel.  In general, law enforcement officials seem reluctant to pursue reported cases of antisemitic attacks against property, even when security cameras have recorded the images of perpetrators.[9]

Local antisemitism sometimes is provoked by the annual gathering of 20,000 to 25,000 foreign Hasidim and sympathizers every Rosh Hashanah on a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) in the small town of Uman.[10]  Conflict between residents and crowds of visitors is almost inevitable, especially when each side is primed by alcohol. Eager for tourist revenues from the visitors, many residents are nonetheless offended by the conduct of the Hasidim. Further, said one observer familiar with the annual incursion, the situation is exacerbated by local corrupt practices in which the mayor and several other  officials manage to retain a disproportionate share of tourist revenues for themselves, depriving other Uman citizens of compensation for the considerable disruption of their lives. The “Uman situation”, said one foreign diplomat, is “painful” – and no solution is in sight.

 

 

Jews pray in Uman under the protection of Ukrainian police.

 

Photo: Sergei Supinsky, AFP. Copyright 2010.Retrieved August 23, 2012.

 

 

 

 

Another generator of local antisemitism has been large lavish weddings of daughters of several prominent Chabad rabbis.  Hundreds of guests have descended upon cities for these festivities; in one instance, the wedding was held in the local football stadium, the only venue capable of accommodating the mammoth crowd.  Various services provided by rabbis to guests may interfere with city life for several days. Even when local non-Jewish residents are included in the celebrations, resentment of the extravagance and disruptions often has a strong antisemitic tinge.

 

The writer interviewed 45 people during her travels in Ukraine, including four diplomats attached to foreign representations.  The diplomats are not identified by name or position in this review.



[1] Unless otherwise noted, most demographic statistics in this section can be found in CIA World Factbook at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/up.html.  Retrieved June 4, 2012.

[2] Demographic trends in Russia are similar.  Population loss in both countries reflects poor health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, narcotics), aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality, emigration of younger age cohorts, impoverishment, and environmental degradation.  The 2009 estimate of Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS was 1.1% of the total population, a high rate. 

[3]  Comparable life expectancies in Russia are 73.18 for women and 60.11 for men.  The life expectancy gender gap is notable.

[4]  The trial and subsequent imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister and electoral opponent of current President Victor Yanukovych, is the most prominent, but certainly not the only, example of government harassment of those who challenge its power.

[5]  Internet access remains limited in some areas outside major cities.  Where accessible, the cost of Internet service is more expensive in these locales, a situation exacerbated by the reality that personal incomes generally are significantly lower outside urban areas.

[6] Yanukovych is from Donetsk, a highly russified industrial center in eastern Ukraine.  He has many ties to Russia and Russians; however, he is thought to want to lead an independent Ukraine, if only to retain power over a large more-or-less discrete economic base.  Yanukovych, declared an observer, does not want to lead Malaya Rossiya (Малая Россия, Little Russia; a historic Russian term for Ukraine as an effective Russian colony that most Ukrainians find highly offensive).  His power base is independent Ukraine, where he and his cronies find it easy to maintain control.

[7]  These numbers refer to self-identified Jews.  They should be multiplied by three to account for non-Jewish family members who are eligible for immigration to Israel under the provisions of the Israeli Law of Return.  The Jewish population of Russia is more concentrated, with large Jewish populations remaining only in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

[8] Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Brooklyn-born Karlin-Stolin hasid, is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, but now spends approximately half of the year outside Ukraine.  He is unable to exercise leadership in absentia.  See pages 76-78.

[9] Unlike antisemitic assaults in contemporary western Europe, anti-Jewish bigotry in Ukraine appears to stem from traditional Ukrainian nationalism rather than from anti-Israel sentiment.  See pages 86-87.

[10] Uman is located in Cherkasy oblast (region), south of Kyiv and west of Vinnytsia.  Its year-round population is approximately 90,000.  See pages 86-88 for further discussions of the Uman situation.

 

 

 
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