Betsy Gidwitx Reports


Report of a Visit in January/February 2004 to Jewish Communities

in Dnipropetrovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Zaporizhya, Krivyy Rig, Kyiv



The writer arrived in Dnipropetrovsk on January 26 and remained there until February 4, making day trips to Dniprodzerzhinsk, Zaporizhya, and Krivoy Rog. She was in Kyiv from February 4 until departing for the United States on February 10.

The population of Ukraine continues to decline, from approximately 52 million at the time of independence in 1991 to 47.6 million at the end of 2003. Causes of population loss are aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality, emigration of younger age cohorts, significant substance abuse (alcohol, narcotics, tobacco), poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, impoverishment, and environmental degradation. Fully one percent of the Ukrainian population is believed to be HIV-positive, and 700,000 people are reported to be infected with tuberculosis. Life expectancy of men and women is 62 and 73 years of age respectively, slightly higher than in Russia.



The gross domestic product in Ukraine increased by 9.3 percent in 2003,2 and the Ukrainian currency is stable. The average monthly salary is between $70 and $100. Many individuals hold several jobs concurrently in order to support their families. Single-parent families and pensioners continue to live in dire circumstances. Corruption is rampant, and Russia controls several key sectors of the Ukrainian economy, including energy.

Political stability in Ukraine is an issue of great concern to many Western observers. “Creeping authoritarianism” characterizes Ukrainian daily life, with various forms of intimidation employed to silence opponents of President Leonid Kuchma3. Nuisance inspections by sanitation or public safety officials, punitive tax investigations, disruption of political rallies, closure of independent media, and mysterious accidents befall those who speak out against Mr. Kuchma.4 Representatives of foreign non-governmental organizations may be stalked by individuals who decline to identify themselves. Temnyki (secret instructions)5 are issued to media, both state-controlled and private, defining how various issues are to be covered.6

President Kuchma will have completed his second five-year term of office in October 2004. By law, he is compelled to step down. In December 2003, to the surprise of few, a Ukrainian constitutional court ruled that Mr. Kuchma is eligible to run for a third term in the October elections. Some observers believe that he will indeed declare his candidacy at an appropriate moment; others reason that he will not attempt to remain in office, but simply does not want to be considered a lame duck during the last months of his tenure. The web of corruption is so extensive that he is certain to be granted immunity by his successor for criminal activity.

Political opposition in Ukraine is weak and disorganized, in part due to intimidation by President Kuchma and his associates, but also because competing clans based on regional interests (principally in Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk) cannot agree on a single candidate. Some powerful individuals seem amenable to the attenuation of democratic process, apparently eager to avoid the uncertainties of democracy and the possibility that a rival clan leader may win.7

The Jewish populations of Kyiv and all Ukraine continue to decline at a rate more severe than that of the general population. In background material prepared for a 2004 strategic planning effort, the Jewish Agency for Israel estimated the total enlarged 2003 Jewish population of all Ukraine at approximately 233,000 individuals and the enlarged Jewish population of Kyiv alone at 60,000.8 Until the publication of this data, the Jewish population of the Ukrainian capital was assumed to be between 80,000 and 100,000.

By 2007, predicts the same study, the enlarged Jewish population of all Ukraine will have fallen to 168,000, and the Jewish populations of Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, and Kharkiv will be 32,000, 21,000, 20,000, and 18,000 respectively.9 Reasons for the sharp demographic decline include: aging of the population and a high mortality rate, a low birth rate, assimilation, extensive intermarriage, and emigration of younger age cohorts. The average age of Ukrainian Jews is believed to be in the high 50’s, and the death-to-birth ratio is 10 to one. 10

Evidence of the Jewish population loss is seen in falling Jewish day school enrollments in many schools across the country. Although additional factors must be considered in some cities, such as the emergence of elite independent secular schools that have attracted some pupils from inferior Jewish schools, the writer encountered no rabbis or school principals who failed to mention declining numbers of Jewish children as a primary reason for Jewish day school enrollment losses. 11

Jewish population losses have been offset to a modest degree by a return to Ukraine of some individuals and families who had emigrated to Israel and, to a lesser extent, to Germany. No source knows the precise number of such persons, but an estimate of 5,000 may be reasonable. Most commonly, émigrés return due to difficulties in economic and social integration in Israel, pressure to return from families remaining in Ukraine on graduates of Israeli academic programs, or perceived business opportunities in Ukraine.

1. According to Ukrainian government statistics, 408,591 babies were born and 765,408 people died in Ukraine in 2003. See Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, 8:8 (January 14, 2004) and 8:27 (February 11, 2004) for 2003 demographic statistics.

Five cities in Ukraine boast populations of more than one million inhabitants. These are: Kyiv, the capital, with a population of 2.6 million; Kharkiv, 1.5 million; and three with approximately one million -- Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk and Odesa.

2.. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, 8:14 (January 23, 2004), quoting Ukrainian government statistics. Evidence of an expanding economy is seen in new construction in several cities, especially in Kyiv, where building sites abound and the costs of land and existing structures have skyrocketed. Similarly, Kyiv traffic is increasingly congested, plagued by frequent traffic jams (??????).

3. See Jackson Diehl, “Ukraine’s Tipping Point,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2004, for use of the term “creeping authoritarianism.”

4. For an article on punitive taxation in Ukraine, see The Wall Street Journal Europe, February 23, 2004.

5. The Russian/Ukrainian root of temnyki is the same as that in terms relating to darkness.

6. A Kyiv-based national radio station, Radio Dovira, ended Ukrainian-language news broadcasts provided by Radio Liberty, the U.S. government service, in February 2004 after it was purchased by Serhiy Kychygin, an individual with close ties to President Kuchma. (Radio Liberty can still be heard on FM frequencies in Odesa and a few smaller cities and on shortwave broadcasts throughout the country.) Ukrainian broadcasts of Deutsche Welle, the German service, have been jammed since January 2004.

For additional information on government harassment of political opponents, see the remarks by Ambassador John Herbst of the United States in a meeting with the writer, p. 50.

7. See “Ukraine’s Political Landscape and the 2004 Presidential Elections,” Meeting Report (The Kennan Institute, Washington, D.C.), XXI:11 (2004). This article summarizes a presentation on December 18, 2003) by Taras Kuzio, a recognized specialist in Ukrainian studies at the University of Toronto.

8. See Draft Report of the Committee for the Formulation of the Jewish Agency Long-Range Policy in the FSU (Jerusalem: Jewish Agency for Israel, 2004), p. 15. JAFI states that the enlarged Jewish population of the second largest Jewish population concentration, Dnipropetrovsk, is 30,000, and the enlarged Jewish populations of Kharkiv and Odesa are between 10,000 and 20,000. The term enlarged Jewish population refers to the core Jewish population (individuals who identify themselves and their children as Jewish in the government census) plus members of a household in which one person declares him/herself to be Jewish, but who themselves are not Jewish or do not declare themselves to be Jewish. The aliyah (emigration to Israel)-eligible population is still larger because the Israel Law of Return grants immigration rights to descendants of Jews until the third generation and their spouses, i.e., individuals with one Jewish grandparent and their spouses.

9. Ibid., Table 2.

10. See the interview with Leonid Finberg, a prominent Kyiv sociologist, pp. 65-66.

11. See interviews with several school principals below.

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