Betsy Gidwitx Reports


REPORT ON

JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE IN UKRAINE

(Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Krivoi Rog, Kyiv)

A Visit in Late March and April 2014

 

 

The writer visited Jewish communities in Ukraine during a period of two and one-half weeks in late March and April, 2014.  She entered the country in Dnipropetrovsk on March 26, made a two-day visit to Kharkiv and a daylong visit to Krivoi Rog (Krvyvi Rig) during a ten-day stay in Dnipropetrovsk, and concluded her journey in Kyiv on April 11. 

 

Ukraine is a country somewhat smaller in size 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.  Until February 26, 2014, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov alone formed its southern border; in late February, Russian troops entered and occupied the former Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, thus adding Russia to the list of Ukraine's southern neighbors.

 

Ukraine is divided into 24 provinces or oblasts.  The capital city of Kyiv has a special status, as did the Crimean seaport of Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea naval fleet of Russia.

 

 

 

Map: Globe Turner, LLC.  Retrieved June 4, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine in spring 2014 was a country in shock, its government having been toppled by a spontaneous, leaderless, organic uprising.  The insurrection began on the night of November 21, 2013, when up to 2,000 protestors gathered on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Ukr., Майдан Незалежності; Independence Square) in response to a government decision to suspend preparation for concluding an association agreement with the European Union.  The agreement would have provided Ukraine with financial support for reforms in almost all aspects of Ukrainian society and the subsequent loosening of political and economic ties with neighboring Russia.[1]

 

Spurred by widespread use of social media, Maidan crowds swelled in the coming weeks and months.  The protesters expanded their agenda and railed against the corruption that permeated Ukrainian life, the conspicuous greed of government officials and oligarchs, and general economic mismanagement.  They called for judicial reform, modernization of the education system, better medical care, and greater attention to ecology.  Above all, they demanded a better future for their children.  Notwithstanding the great number of demonstrators, reaching 400,000 to 800,000 on weekends, the crowds remained orderly, the atmosphere was peaceful and safe.  Although the Maidan and Kreschatyk were lined with shops, including expensive boutiques, no looting occurred.

 

Maidan protesters are seen in this photo of early December 2013.  The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag predominates; many participants also carried the European Union flag (blue with stars) and banners of political parties.

 

Photo: The Globe and Mail [Toronto], December 5, 2013.

Retrieved June 6, 2014.

 

Assisted by taxi drivers and subway workers, demonstrators erected barricades and built encampments to accommodate a continuing protest, hoping that their persistence over time would force the government to resign.  Financial support was sought and gained through collection boxes and other means of local fundraising.  Makeshift kitchens and medical stations were built, all staffed by volunteers.  Representatives of international organizations attempted to act as intermediaries between protestors and the Ukrainian government.

 

Government security forces initiated action in mid-December to clear the square of demonstrators, barricades, and encampments.  Although injuries occurred, many protestors held their ground and, in fact, some seemed re-energized by the police action.  The government took no measures to address the agenda of those in Maidan.  Several small rightwing groups among the demonstrators generated concern and spawned substantial anti-Ukraine propaganda; local observers claimed that these groups were marginal and without influence.[2]

 

The first deaths occurred on January 22 when three Maidan activists were killed on a nearby street in clashes with local police; a fourth Maidan protestor, who had been kidnapped by unidentified forces one day earlier, was found dead on January 22 on the outskirts of the city.  Five additional Maidan activists would be killed in the next several weeks.  The deaths generated protests in different cities throughout Ukraine, only to be followed by five additional Maidan-related fatalities between January 25 and February 13.

 

The Maidan crisis peaked February 19-20 when well-armed snipers atop nearby buildings shot at demonstrators, killing approximately 100 individuals and seriously wounding many others (some of whom would die later).[3]  On February 21, President Viktor Yanu-khovych left Kyiv, appearing in Kharkiv on February 22 before fleeing to Russia.  The Ukrainian parlia-ment declared him unable to govern, and a temporary functional new government was installed on February 28 until elections could be held in May.

 

 

Viktor Yanukohvych as President of Ukraine.

 

 

Photo: NBC News.  Retrieved June 6, 2014.

 

A few days earlier, on February 23, pro-Russian protesters initiated rallies on the Crimean peninsula,[4] an autonomous oblast of Ukraine with a majority Russian population and home to the Russian Black Sea fleet at a Russian naval base in Sevastopol.  On February 28, the same day that the new Ukrainian government was installed in Kyiv, Russian troops began to deploy at strategic locations in Crimea.  On March 1, the Ukrainian government stated that up to 16,000 Russian military were positioned on the peninsula; Russia declared that its troops had entered the territory at the request of Viktor Yanukhovych, already in Russia.  Crimea's parliament proclaimed on March 6 that the region wished to leave Ukrainian jurisdiction and join Russia; after a controversial referendum on March 16, it was stated that 97 percent of voters supported a proposal to unite with its larger neighbor.  Ukrainian troops subsequently withdrew from the territory. 

 

Beginning on March 1, Russian separatist demonstrations and subsequent occupations of Ukrainian state buildings occurred in several large eastern Ukraine cities, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.  Although some local residents were among the participants, the instigators were believed to be Russians who had crossed the porous border between the two countries.  Notwithstanding the reality that many local people are of Russian ethnicity and prefer the Russian language, many also are bilingual and reliable Western-administered polls show a strong majority of the population in easternUkraine favor continued union with Ukraine and reject accession to Russia.

 

Pro-Russian activists prepare to clash with Ukrainian police at a Donetsk regional administra-tion building on April 6.  Red/ blue flags are Russian, striped orange/black flags represent the Russian Order of St. George.

Photo: news.kievukraine.info, n.d.

Retrieved June 9, 2014.

 

 

 

In contrast, another major city in eastern Ukraine, Dnipropetrovsk was awash in Ukraine blue and yellow flags and patriotic billboards, nearly all of which had been paid for by local residents.  Arriving in the city on March 26, the writer saw no Russian flags or banners.   Pro-Russian demonstrations had been few and non-violent.

 

The billboard at left was typical of many in Dnipropetrovsk.  Set against the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, the sign reads in Russian (top) and Ukrainian, A Single Country, A United Ukraine.  Smaller wording under the main slogan says (in Russian) that the sign was placed on the private initiative of Dnipropetrovsk residents.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Unlike Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts, Dnipropetrovsk oblast shares no borders with Russia.  Infiltration of Russian agitators was, therefore, more difficult.  Further, although some of the same 'rust-belt' industries that dominate its eastern and southern neighbors also can be found in Dnipropetrovsk, the economy of Dnipropetrovsk generally is better balanced, reflecting more enlightened oblast governance and economic policy that encourages private initiative and independent business develop-ment.  Nonetheless, economic growth in Ukraine had stalled during the past several years, seriously affecting local individuals and institutions.

 

Throughout her trip, the writer heard accounts of economic distress afflicting both individuals and institutions.  Economic conditions, already dire in 2013, had deteriorated even further in the past year.  Factories and service industries had closed, no new investment had occurred.  The Ukrainian currency (hryvnia) had declined substantially in value and, accordingly, imports (including medicine) had become more costly.  Responding to increasing Ukrainian independence, Russia raised the cost of natural gas exports essential to Ukraine.  Inflation was 30 to 50 percent, depending on specific sectors of the economy. Unemployment was growing.

 

Additionally, Ukrainians worried about rising crime; although some in eastern Ukraine believed that local police were more concerned about infiltrators from Russia than neighborhood criminals, individuals in Kyiv attributed swelling crime to police fleeing their posts in response to citizen hostility.  Police under Yanukhovych were widely perceived as corrupt, brutal, and too tightly aligned with the then-departed President.

 

Amidst this mounting hardship, Ukrainian Jews with whom the writer spoke expressed solidarity with the new direction that Ukraine had taken.  They supported the Ukrainian turn toward Europe.  They spoke approvingly and gratefully of the financial and other assistance offered by wealthy Ukrainian Jews to Ukraine as a country and nation.[5]  Some found their new adversities overwhelming and feared for their own future - and/or the future of their children - and spoke of emigrating.[6]  At the same time, most said that their own identities had changed as a consequence of Russian action; they now saw themselves not just as Jews, but as Ukrainian Jews.[7]

 

 

Responsible estimates of the size of the Jewish population in Ukraine range from 100,000 to 350,000, with the largest single number - 20,000 to 65,000 - residing in the capital city of Kyiv.  Dnipropetrovsk is believed to have the next largest concentration of Jews, probably between 25,000 and 40,000, followed by Kharkiv with a slightly smaller number of Jewish residents.  Odesa may be home to approximately 20,000 Jews.  About 50 percent of the Ukrainian Jewish population is believed to be elderly.  The total Jewish population has declined significantly in recent years, mirroring and exceeding a decrease in the Ukrainian population in general.[8]

 

 

The writer interviewed 76 individuals during her travels in Ukraine, including five diplomats attached to foreign representations.  The diplomats are not identified by name or position in this report.  The writer also communicated with three additional individuals by telephone and/or e-mail with reference to this report.

 


[1] Independence Square is the central square in Kyiv. Located on the Kreschatyk, Kyiv's main thoroughfare, the Maidan has been the traditional locale for various gatherings and festivities throughout Ukrainian history.  Since the beginning of the contemporary Ukrainian independence movement in 1990, the square also has been the site of large political rallies and protests.

[2]  The two groups were Svoboda (Свобода) and Right Sector (Правий сектор).  Periodic denials of antisemitism aside, Svoboda leaders have made many antisemitic statements; Right Sector was described to the author by a prominent qualified observer as anti-antisemitic.  Each group polled approximately one percent in the May 2014 national elections.

[3]  See pages 97-99 for an interview with Marina Lysak and Masha Pushkova, two Kyiv residents who assisted wounded protesters on Maidan and organized medical care in Israel for some of those requiring continued medical attention.

[4]  Russian-speakers refer to Crimea as "Krim" (from the Russian Крым).

[5]   Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch and strongly-identifying Jew from Dnipropetrovsk, had been appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast.  It was broadly known that he and his Jewish banking partner, Hennady Boholubov, were providing financial support to the Ukrainian armed forces.  They are major supporters of Jewish community life in Dnipropetrovsk.

[6]   According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, aliyah (immigration to Israel) from Ukraine increased 141 percent during the first six months of 2014 over the first six months of 2013.  Emigration of Jews from Ukraine to the United States also has increased in 2014 related to 2013.

[7]   The nationality of Soviet citizens was indicated in the notorious "fifth paragraph" of their compulsory internal passports or identity cards.  According to Soviet practice, Jewish ethnicity was considered a nationality and all Jewish citizens were indicated as such in these important documents.  The concept of a "Ukrainian Jew" or a "Russian Jew" was a contradiction in terms, according to Soviet custom.  Thus, the self-identification as a "Ukrainian Jew" is a major change in self-perception for Jews in Ukraine.

[8] The estimated population of Ukraine in July 2014 was 44,219,413, a steep decline from the estimated 1991 population [at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union] of 53 million.  The estimated 2014 Ukrainian birthrate is 9.41 per 1,000 population, compared with a death rate of 15.72 per 1,000 population, i.e., significantly more people die than are born.  The estimated Ukrainian life expectancy at birth in 2014 is 63.78 for males, 74.86 for females.  (See CIA - The World Factbook at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/up.htmtl.  Retrieved July 3, 2014. 

Population loss 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.

 
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