Opinion |

I Was a Russian-speaking Jew From Kyiv. Now, I Am Ukrainian

It wasn't until I watched the bombs raining down on my home city of Kyiv that I began to identify, proudly, as a Ukrainian. The Russian language I speak is part of my identity: It doesn’t mean I support an imperialistic war

Olga Markus
Olga Markus
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The Ukrainian national flag seen through the window of an apartment destroyed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the town of Borodianka, near Kyiv, last week
The Ukrainian national flag seen through the window of an apartment destroyed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the town of Borodianka, near Kyiv, last weekCredit: STRINGER/ REUTERS
Olga Markus
Olga Markus

It wasn't until I watched the bombs raining down on my home city of Kyiv that I began to identify as a Ukrainian.

I have not lived in Kyiv for 25 years, but it is where I ran to school as a little girl, attended university, and took my first professional steps. It is where I buried my mother and married my husband.

Yet I have always considered myself a Russian-speaking Jew from Kyiv.

Jews living in Soviet Republics were never considered fully Ukrainian or Russian, or Belarusian, or Georgian, or Moldovan, or Azerbaijani. We were treated as second-class citizens, and never felt at home. That’s why we left.

Russian-speaking Jews make up about 10 percent of the total North American Jewish population. We are not a homogenous group in our views, ethnicities, and birthplaces, but we share parallel histories.

Rabbi Moshe Azman, center, conducting a funeral at a Jewish cemetery in Kyiv on Friday, for a congregant felled by a Russian bullet. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Today, as I watch the tragedy unfold, I feel proudly Ukrainian, as many of my countrymen do all over the world, perhaps for the very first time. No matter where we came from, we are hurting.

Most of my Russian-speaking Jewish friends and colleagues here in North America can’t remember the last time they had a good night’s sleep or a proper meal. We are exhausted and overwhelmed. Nothing we do feels enough.

I organized a few pre-Shabbat gatherings for Russian-speaking Jewish professionals to breathe and be together; the sense of pain was palpable.

"Help! Save my sister!" a stranger seeking support whispered to me through tears over the phone.

Like me, she was named Olga, and told me she was "from Los Angeles and Kharkiv." What could I say? There we were, two Olgas speaking in Russian, connecting across the continent and time zones, sharing what we know and what we can do to help.

My newfound feelings of deep Ukrainian pride, are further complicated by both its painful Jewish history and the pride I have as a Russian speaker. The Russian language is at the center of this war’s narrative, just as it is a core part of my identity.

One official justification for the invasion is that the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine need to be "rescued."

Mendy, a Jewish Ukrainian refugee and student from the Alumim children's home in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, celebrates the Jewish holiday of Purim after arriving in Israel Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

But in places such as Western Ukraine, a large proportion of the citizens do not speak Russian. It is devastatingly ironic that cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, where a majority of the people actually speak Russian as their primary language, are suffering the brunt of the Russian military’s attacks.

Adding to the mess is the misperception by some here at home that Russian speakers sympathize with the invasion.

The Russian language that always gave my community a sense of unity, comfort, belonging, and connection has now opened the door to feelings of guilt, grief, and division.

But solidarity with Ukrainians under attack should not require me to give up a part of my identity, especially one as crucial as language.

Russian is the language of my grandpa’s WWII stories and my mother’s lullabies, the language of many Ukrainian citizens fighting alongside their Ukrainian-speaking neighbors with pride and courage. It is the language of brave souls protesting in Russia, risking their lives.

Russian is not just the language of rulers, ordering tanks and soldiers into Ukrainian cities, it is also the language of the Ukrainian little girl singing the theme song from Frozen to the fellow citizens huddling together in the bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukrainian flag proudly draped right behind her.

Russian artist Yelena Osipova, 76, with the anti-war placards she made to protest the conflict in Ukraine, in her home in St Petersburg this monthCredit: - - AFP

Russian is not just the language of those who regurgitate the official propaganda, it is also the language of those who work hard to spread the truth. It is my language. I will not let it be defined only by people who sow hatred and war.

Discussing such nuanced questions of identity is difficult in the middle of the war. Now, when bombs are falling and lives are lost, we should stay united in our efforts to support the people of Ukraine who fight and are trying to survive, to support refugees fleeing from a war zone and speaking many languages, including Russian.

Today, all of us need to focus on working together, wherever we come from and whatever language we speak.

I am proud to be part of an effort, through the Jewish Federations of North America, to mobilize skilled volunteers from the Russian-speaking Jewish community to areas absorbing refugees and pair them with a slew of partner organizations working on the ground.

It feels particularly poignant that we are returning to help those in need through the very thread that draws our community together: the Russian language.

Olga Markus is a Program Director of Community and Jewish Life at the Jewish Federations of North America where she leads the Russian-speaking Jewish Engagement Initiative in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group

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