Betsy Gidwitx Reports






(Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Krivoi Rog, Donetsk, and Kyiv)


Report of a Visit


March 21 – April 8, 2011


The writer visited Ukraine in March and April 2011, arriving in Kyiv on March 21 and proceeding to Dnipropetrovsk the same day.  From Dnipropetrovsk, she traveled to three other Jewish population centers in eastern Ukraine: Kharkiv, Kryvyy Rih (Krivoi Rog), and Donetsk.  She then returned to Kyiv for five days, leaving the country on April 8.


Ukraine is a country somewhat smaller in territory than the American state of Texas.  It shares a lengthy border with Russia to its north and east, and is bounded by Belarus to Ukraine Mapits north, and Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to its west.  Romania and Moldova are its southwestern neigh-bors, and its southern boundaries are the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.[1]


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


The estimated population of Ukraine in 2011 is 45,134,707,[2] a precipitous decline from its estimated 1991 population of approximately 53 million.[3] The estimated 2011 birthrate is 9.62 live births per 1,000 population, and the estimated 2011 deathrate is 15.74 deaths per 1,000 population, that is, the number of deaths is projected to exceed substantially the number of live births. The estimated life expectancy for individuals born in 2011 is 68.6 for the entire population (62.8 for men, 74.8 for women).[4]


The estimated 2009 populations of Ukraine’s five largest cities are: Kyiv, 2.8 million; Kharkiv, 1.5 million; Dnipropetrovsk, 1.01 million, Odesa, 1.00 million, and Donetsk, 971,000. The 2011 population of Krivoi Rog is estimated at 667,874.[5]


As was the case during the writer’s most recent previous visit to Ukraine in April 2010, the general mood in the country was disconsolate. Primary among the causes of discontent was widespread economic malaise, in part reflecting global economic adversity and in part reflecting conditions particular to Ukraine and certain of the other former Soviet states. Unemployment was estimated to be as high as 30 percent to 40 percent in Kharkiv and Donetsk, industrial cities with economies based largely on local deposits of coal, iron, manganese, and other minerals. Some of the mines had been depleted, energy costs had soared, and factories using these resources had become obsolescent. Unemployment in cities with a more diverse economic base was estimated at 15 to 20 percent. Recent university graduates, the writer was told, had difficulty finding jobs in their specialties or in any field that provided a salary sufficient to support even one person.


A new tax code effective in December 2010 “sends people into the black economy,” said one observer, continuing that taxes are used as political leverage to “punish” people and to obtain their businesses when they can no longer pay the confiscatory taxes. The new laws are especially burdensome to emerging small businesses, effectively stifling new economic initiatives in their early stages. Loopholes in a harsh payroll tax have been closed, forcing many employers (including Jewish communal institutions) to either begin to pay taxes that they had long evaded or to reduce significantly the size of their payrolls.


Energy costs had risen substantially, thus increasing the expenses for heating and transportation; higher transportation costs generated higher prices for food and other necessities. Inflation is estimated at 15 to 20 percent annually.


Corruption appears endemic, affecting not only business operations, but also such aspects of daily life as medical care and grade school education. Apart from the financial impact, ubiquitous bribery is exacting a toll on the psychic well-being of individuals caught in its web.


Basic pensions were being paid on time, said several individuals familiar with the state welfare system, but long-established welfare supplements for specific handicaps or conditions were irregular, leaving many elderly and disabled individuals in even more straitened circumstances than usual. Perhaps not surprisingly, street crime had increased substantially in several cities.


The political mood was characterized by great cynicism and disappointment. The popular attitude toward the government of President Viktor Yanukovych was less one of anger than one of resignation. Mr. Yanukovych’s government is less open that that of its predecessor; press oligarchs assiduously self-censor their publications and courts pursue opposition figures in dubious legal procedures. Nonetheless, the situation concerning basic freedoms has not yet deteriorated to that of neighboring Russia or Belarus. The government remains fractious and has few accomplish-ments to its credit. Various polls suggest that 60 percent of young Ukrainians would like to leave the country and pursue their careers elsewhere.


Viktor Yanukovych (right) “is not Putin,” declared one observer. He has “no record in the KGB,” but he has few accomplishments to his credit. Neither he nor his opposition has been able to articulate a vision for Ukraine.


Photo: /60916776. Retrieved May 18, 2011.



Responsible estimates of the size of Jewish population in Ukraine range from 100,000 to 200,000, with the largest single number – 26,000 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.[6]


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 Jewish leadership, a city with multiple Jewish offices but surprisingly little active Jewish life. 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, was, and will be” widespread throughout Ukraine, said one longtime observer, although, unlike the Soviet period, it no longer is state-sponsored. Instead, he continued, it is commonly expressed through attribution of Jewish ancestry to repellent fictional figures in television programs, allegations of Jewish ancestry in smearing political opponents, and growing antisemitic commentary on websites.[7] Although law enforcement officials sometimes pursue perpetrators of physical attacks on Jewish individuals or Jewish institutional property, antisemitic hostility in political exchanges and in media appears part of everyday life and draws little response from a Jewish population that remains too timid to suggest that such portrayals are offensive and unacceptable.[8]


The writer interviewed 60 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] Map: Retrieved May 11, 2011.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, most of the statistics on this page can be found in the CIA World Factbook at:
Retrieved May 11, 2011.

[3] 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% (350,000) of the total population, a high rate. Ukraine declared independence in 1991.

[4] Comparable life expectancies in Russia are 59.8 years for men and 73.2 for women.

[5] See the Krivoi Rog municipal website at Retrieved May 11, 2011.

[6] 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.

[7] See the summaries of interviews with Oleg Rostovtsev and Vyecheslav Likachev on pages 39-40 and 116-117.

[8] 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.


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