Ukrainian Jews living in America can be found supporting both sides of the conflict with Russia, but all of them are watching events there unfold with worried interest of the welfare of friends and family members.
When tens of thousands are clashing with the police, when barricades are erected and tires are burning, when guns are fired and scores are falling, when Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border — this is war. And the truth, as usual, is the first casualty.
One can marvel at how opposite, mutually exclusive coverage of the Ukrainian unrest arrives from various sources and news organizations. The protesters are called everything from neo-Nazi thugs to freedom-loving revolutionaries who are fed up with corruption, lawlessness, hopelessness and outright plunder of their own national treasures by a small group of government bureaucrats and oligarchs.
Most likely, the truth is all of the above. Some of the protesters cannot tolerate “the East,” which means Russia, while many others cannot stand “the West,” which means Europe, the United States and their own Ukrainian right-wing, ultranationalist movements. But nearly everyone cannot tolerate the corrupt system of government, born out of an unsustainable fusion of the remnants of the Soviet Empire with hungry privatization of the country’s natural resources and industrial base.
As Jews who came from the former Soviet Union, we possess a unique vantage point. In fact, most of the estimated 50,000 Jews from the FSU residing in the Greater Philadelphia area came from Eastern and Western Ukraine. Through the miracles of Facebook, Skype and Odnoklassniki (the Russian version of classmates.com) we are following closely reports from ground zero and elsewhere, speaking directly to our friends and family still living in Ukraine. Even so, it is difficult to fully understand the reality and implications of what is unfolding today on the cobblestone streets of Kiev and throughout Ukraine. And we cannot even start to speculate what will happen next.
We do know that the protest movement is anything but a united front led by common goals and aspirations.
With a deep ethno-linguistic and political divide, it is possible that the West and Southeast regions of the country have crossed the point of no return, with aspirations of a united and independent Ukraine now futile.
One of our biggest concerns is the fate of the Jews who still remain in Ukraine. It is very hard to ascertain the real numbers still there. Estimates in the city of Kharkov, with close to two million people, range from 5,000 to 50,000.
The Jews who remain represent three distinct groups. The first are elderly Jews who either do not have children or decided not to leave the country with their children. Their situation is truly dire, with low pensions ($150-$200 a month), and a cost of living that has escalated exponentially in the last 10 to 15 years, leaving them well below the poverty line.
The second group are business owners, some of whom have become extremely wealthy, and in some cases, count among the so-called oligarchs. A third group consists of Jews who are completely assimilated and don’t think of themselves as Jews but rather Ukrainians.
Based on our conversations with our friends in Ukraine, Jews can be found on both sides of the conflict.
There are reports of vandalism at various Jewish institutions, mostly in Eastern Ukraine. However, these reports are suspect as Russia once again is playing a “Jewish card” to persuade the West that the opposition movement in Ukraine is nationalistic and anti-Jewish in nature.
Given the situation, we believe that the Jews who left the FSU made the right decision and the Jews who remain should think carefully about their future in the countries that are historically hostile to their Jewish populations. We are forever grateful to the “Free Soviet Jews” movement, with an outsized role played by Philadelphians, for bringing us out of the FSU!
Val Sudakin, a cancer biologist, emigrated from Kiev in 1990. Andre Krug, CEO and president of Klein JCC in Philadelphia, was born in Kharkov, Ukraine. He emigrated in 1989.