Even though I was born in Kyiv and lived there until I was 15, I have no affinity with the Ukrainian culture and language. As someone who grew up in one of the city’s Soviet tenements that were built in the 1970s and populated mainly by the first generation of villagers to migrate to the cities, I have to admit that my day-to-day contacts with Ukrainians left me with few good memories.
Covert and overt violence against a background of explicit antisemitism was an almost daily occurrence – in the courtyard of our apartment complex, in the streets of the neighborhood and in school. Our Ukrainian neighbors across the hall more than once hailed my parents and grandmother with the routine greeting, “It’s a shame you didn’t go to Babi Yar.” The son of other Ukrainian neighbors was the first to explain to me that I belonged in “Palestine,” not in Kyiv.
As the only Jew in my class, I chose to absent myself when we were assigned to read “Mykola Dzheria,” a novel by the 19th-century Ukrainian author Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky whose protagonist is a Ukrainian serf who escapes from his Polish master only to be exploite by a rapacious Jewish factory owner.
The Ukrainian national pantheon today, its greatest and most revered political and cultural heroes, mainly arouse in me a feeling of disgust. Thus I found it disgusting, if not downright creepy, to see streets in the capital named for Symon Petliura and Stepan Bandera.
The first, president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic during the Russian Civil War, was among those responsible for the slaughter of Ukrainian Jews in 1919-20 – the biggest mass murder of Jews prior to the Holocaust (an estimated 50,000-200,000 were killed).
The other headed the far-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which as early as the 1930s displayed clear genocidal tendencies with its call to rid the country of “hostile nationals.” Its militants put those principles into practice when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, joining the Nazis in slaughtering Ukrainian Jews starting in the summer of 1941 and committing massacres in Poland in 1943-44. (Bandera was arrested by the Nazis after his deputy, Yaroslav Stetsko, dared to declare an independent Ukraine in Lviv on June 30, 1941, but the military arm of the organization, which remained loyal to Bandera’s ideology, continued to engage in ethnic cleansing throughout the war.)
But faced with the imperialist war Russia has declared on Ukraine, we must set feelings aside. Every freedom- and equality-loving person must unreservedly support the Ukrainian side. We are not just talking about a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty but an existential threat to the Ukrainian people and its national and cultural life.
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The Ukrainian people today faces a stark, unequivocal choice: to be or not to be, to continue to develop its identity, language and national culture on its own as befits all peoples, or to assimilate linguistically and become culturally extinct under the pressure of imperial Russian culture.
Those who subscribe to the utopian thesis of Yuval Noah Harari about the “new peace” of the 21st century may find this all hard to believe. But the truth is that the basic tenets of imperial Russian ideology vis-a-vis the Ukrainian people, language and culture have not changed since the 19th century: The very existence of the Ukrainians as a unique national-cultural group is a historical accident.
In the Russian language, in the era of the czars – which is now regarded as the country’s golden age – the Russian people are the “Great Russians” and the Ukrainians are the “Little Russians.” And now, as in the past, Ukrainians are regarded in the eyes of imperial Russia as rebellious and culturally inferior little brothers. The Ukrainian language is seen as a kind of corrupted and defective dialect of the “great and powerful” Russian language whose geographical proximity only enhances Russian contempt and ridicule for it.
Karel Havlicek Borovsky, among the greatest modern Czech authors and journalists, warned in 1844 that “Russians like to label everything Russian as Slavic and then to label everything Slavic as Russian.” Today, Russian imperialist propaganda in regard to Ukraine is replete with the same deceptive slogans about the deep historical and cultural affinity between the two Slavic peoples.
It’s amusing to see that none other than Ramzen Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, is playing the “Slavic brotherhood” card and calling for a historic peace between Russia and Ukraine. Kadyrov – who was appointed president by Russian President Vladimir Putin and exercises dictatorial control over a place in which Russia committed horrific war crimes not very long ago – publicly called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to recognize that “Russian and Ukrainian are one Slavic nation with a common history, culture and religion.” He also stressed that he could never believe that the “Ukrainians think of themselves as part of what is called ‘the Western world,’ with all its degenerative ‘values’ and Russo-phobic hysteria.”
It cannot be denied that national identity and culture in contemporary Ukraine are complex. Many of Ukraine’s inhabitants, including ethnic Ukrainians for all intents and purposes, have a deep affinity for Russian culture and language. But as regards the attitude of Russian imperial culture toward the Ukrainians, there is no room for complexity or cultural nuances.
Even if Putin and his spokesmen do not state this explicitly today, every Ukrainian understands very well that Russian control of their country means not only the loss of national independence and democratic government but the start of a long-term predatory Russification of the Ukrainian people. We can only hope that in the democratic West, there are those who understand this, too.