Russian-Israelis Perspective I: Ukraine and Maidan

Leksika contributor Andreas Kindsvater met firsthand with Russian-speaking Jews throughout Israel to document their views and perceptions.


Jewish migration from the ex-USSR has had a major influence on Israel’s society and political landscape, making it the third largest among Russophone countries outside the former-USSR. While most Israelis with a Soviet/Russian background are well integrated and politically focused on Israel and the Middle East, the generation of the 1990s “mass exodus” expatriates from the former Soviet-Union still retain some cultural and personal relations with their former countries of residence, contributing to a strong opinion about the latest events in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, those opinions diverge from strong support for Kiev to distinct pro-Russian positions, thereby creating a rift among many Russian-speaking  citizens, some of whom even take an active part on both sides of the conflict.


History Haunting

We’re drinking tea with Tanja, a cordial and widowed old lady living in a state-owned veterans home in Rehovot, barely 30 km South-East of Tel Aviv. Born during the late 1920s in Bessarabia, she spent almost her entire life in western Ukraine and was among the first to experience the horrors of Nazi-occupation. Right before the arrival of the German and Romanian forces, pogroms against the Jewish population erupted immediately, perpetrated by local Ukrainian nationalists. “It was horrible, really horrible… they broke into our houses, chased us through the streets like dogs and beat us, spit at us,” Tanja recalls. After the occupation forces took over, Tanja and her family were sent on a month long-death march, before finally arriving in the Katashin Ghetto. Here again, Ukrainian sympathizers took active part in the oppression, humiliation and murder of Jews alongside the German and Romanian forces. After losing several family members to the Nazi extermination campaign, Tanja was finally freed by the advancing Red Army in 1944 and met her husband, a Jewish Red Army major and war veteran, a few years later. 

“I can’t support those bloody criminals who glorify that anti-Semite scumbag Stepan Bandera and allegedly cry for democracy while forgetting what they did to us,” explains Tanja after I ask her why she opposes the Maidan. To her, the same forces that terrorized her as a child are now participating in the Ukrainian revolution.


Same is true for Masha, a Uzbekistan-born Israeli, that migrated to Israel as a childand lives with her boyfriend Abraham in Jerusalem. While we take seats in a popular restaurant near the Mahane-Yehuda Market, she tells me that she doesn’t really care about Russian politics and has no detailed opinion about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. “What I do know however is, that part of my family was living in western Ukraine before the war. It was a large Jewish-Orthodox family, many children, a long line of local rabbis. When the war began, everybody was murdered instantly by local Ukrainian nationalists… they were eager to cooperate with the Nazis, providing lists, sparing nobody, not even children. That said, I guess you can imagine where my sympathy lies.”


In search for a strong leader

Abraham has much more to say: born in Central Russia, the proud Israeli moved to Jerusalem at the age of 12 and stayed with the Israeli Defense Forces after his military service. While having mostly negative views of post-Soviet Russia and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, he has a strong opinion about Ukraine: “Wherever America goes around, it messes up. Just look how Mr. Kerry is pressing us to make his kind of peace with the Palestinians, while sitting in total safety at the White House in Washington D.C. and neglecting our reality. Same is true for Ukraine: we saw Senator McCain shake hands with Klitschko, Tyahnybok and his pals on TV; we saw Mrs. Nuland distribute cookies to protesters in Kiev, but hey, now it’s Russia that intervened in internal Ukrainian affairs? You have to be blind not to see what’s going on and who obviously sponsored the whole mess!” He agrees with his girlfriend on the historical dimension of Ukrainian nationalism and strongly rejects it.

But what about the Jews in the new Ukrainian government and Jewish activists in support of the Maidan? “First of all, you can find idiots everywhere, also among Jews. That said, we’re shocked to see our brothers in faith to side with those people, it’s a disgrace, they are literally collaborating with the same political forces, that build memorials for Stepan Bandera in Lvov and commemorate Nazi troops,” both of them tell me while we order salads and a round of cold beer. What about Vladimir Putin and his politics? “Like it or not, he’s a strong leader and he acts according to his national and strategic interests, regardless of whether America likes it or not. We are kind of in the same situation and I admire that, also if he occasionally does business with our enemies.” And then, after we take a sip of our beers, he suddenly adds: “To be honest, there’s a saying now in Israel: if only we could have Vladimir Putin as an Israeli leader for a few years, to deal with our enemies and our problems.”