The Ukrainians and Us

Both the Ukrainians and the Jews rebelled against the condescending imperialist Russian discourse

Dimitry Shumsky
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A Jewish choir performs at the monument at the Babi Yar, scene of Nazi massacres. Many Ukrainians wish that more Jews had been sent there.
A Jewish choir performs at the monument at the Babi Yar, scene of Nazi massacres. Many Ukrainians wish that more Jews had been sent there.Credit: AP
Dimitry Shumsky

As opposed to Eyal Megged (“Putin has been disingenuous, but I’m rooting for him in Ukraine,” Haaretz, April 23), I am familiar with Ukrainian anti-Semitism, and not from history books or from literature. I was born and grew up in the Soviet housing projects on the outskirts of Kiev, which were populated mainly by second-generation migrants from Ukrainian villages. I learned about my Jewish identity at the age of 6, in the street, from a 9-year-old Ukrainian boy. I also heard from him that Jews did not fight in the Great Patriotic War but fled to Tashkent, although my grandfathers fought in that war and paid for it with their health and life.

My family and I frequently heard the neighbors, all of them Ukrainian, saying, “What a shame that you didn’t all go to Babi Yar” [where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by Nazis during World War II]. To this day, whenever I hear the sounds of the Ukrainian language, my immediate instinct is to defend myself from a violent confrontation that will certainly ensue. Nor do I feel any internal connection to Ukrainian culture, but only to Russian and Hebrew culture.

And despite all that, when I read Megged’s crude and disdainful attack against the Ukrainian people I felt uncomfortable. I was disturbed by the fact that an Israeli writer and intellectual in a country that was founded by immigrants from Ukrainian Eastern Europe has apparently not heard about the richness of Ukrainian literature. It’s a richness that accumulated gradually, despite the diplomatic and cultural slavery under which generations of Ukrainians suffered, split as they were among Russian, Polish, Austrian, Hungarian and Romanian neighbors.

Megged has apparently not heard of the great playwright Ivan Kotlyarevsky, or about world famous giants of poetry such as Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka, or the satirist with the subtle humor Ostap Vishnia, who was able to amuse everyone except Stalin (he was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag). Were Megged aware of them all it is doubtful whether he would have dared to present the Ukrainians as a drunken and ignorant riffraff.

But my main discomfort stemmed not from Megged’s condescending attack against the Ukrainians, but from the fact that while he disdains the Ukrainian people and their culture, and identifies with the Russian empire throughout its history, he unwittingly touched upon one of the sensitive nerves of Eastern European Jewish history. Because in the deep historical stratum, the similarity between the history of the Ukrainians and that of the Jews in modern Eastern Europe, and particularly in the Russian empire, is greater than may seem at first glance.

Both the Ukrainians and the Jews were often “invited” by Russian “liberals” to give up their “tribal” identity in order to join the great and advanced imperialist culture. Both the Ukrainians and the Jews, some of whom accepted this invitation, found themselves, far too often, rejected and excluded on the margins of this culture. Both the Ukrainians and the Jews often rebelled against the condescending Russian imperialist discourse, thereby creating modern Ukrainian nationalism on the one hand, and modern Eastern European Jewish nationalism on the other.

It’s impossible to understand the Jewish nationalism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky properly except as, first and foremost, a challenge to the oppressive hegemonic discourse of the Russian empire. There was a good reason why he identified so profoundly with the Ukrainian national movement. It is impossible to gain an in-depth understanding of Yosef Haim Brenner’s literary work without relating to his protest against that same imperialist discourse, and not only to his intra-Jewish revolt against religion.

Recently literary scholar Dr. Rafi Tsirkin-Sadan published a fascinating book. Even its title, “Jewish Letters at the Pushkin Library − Yosef Haim Brenner’s Thought and its Connection to Russian Literature and Thought” (published by Bialik Publishing), clearly demonstrates the subversive attitude toward the cultural hegemony of the empire, which was inherent in Brenner and other creators of Hebrew national literature who came from the Russian empire.

How ironic that a Hebrew writer today passionately declaims the same imperialist hegemonic discourse against which some of the architects of modern Hebrew literature rebelled. How ironic that whereas some of the first members of the national movement who founded the state espoused the cultural and civil revolt against the czarist Russian empire.

Israel is now, by its thundering silence, siding with the post-modern Russian czar in his efforts to subdue his former subjects. How ironic that those who presume today to speak in the name of Zionism are submissively kowtowing to the oppressive empires to the east and west, in the spirit of that same exilic obsequiousness against which historical Zionism once rebelled.

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