Ten years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, I was part of a UJA of MetroWest trip to the Ukraine. Our first stop was the small city of Korasten, about 20 kilometers from Chernobyl. We visited its small Jewish community and gauged some of their human service needs. Staring back at us were the faces of young children, virtually all of whom visibly suffered from the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.
When the nuclear accident occurred, the Soviet authorities, who ruled the Ukraine, underplayed the dangers to avoid bad publicity and embarrassment. The result was the ensuing public health disaster that was reflected in the faces of tens of thousands.
Five years after the nuclear disaster in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and Ukraine, like the other republics under the USSR, became independent. With the Orange Revolution, Ukraine became a fledgling democracy. Now, its democratically elected president is Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish former actor and comedian.
And now, with the ruthless invasion of Ukraine by the infamous former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, I hope we have not witnessed the apogee of Ukrainian independence.
The Jewish and Ukrainian experience has witnessed some highs and too many cataclysmic lows. Having survived the Khmelnitsky pogroms between 1648 and 1657, with its toll of thousands, the Jews were confined by Catherine the Great to the Pale of Settlement, largely encompassing today’s Ukraine. With rare exceptions they were not allowed to enter Russia and its major cities.
In the ensuing centuries, Jewish communities developed variants of chasidism, and life, to a great degree, resembled the stories of Sholom Aleichem, a native of Greater Kyiv. The Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, produced the likes of the great poet Chayim Nachman Bialik, Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’Am, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, and the founder of revisionist Zionism, Zev Jabotinsky.
Born a year earlier than Jabotinsky, in the outskirts of Odessa, Lev Davidovich Bronstein was to have a profound effect on Ukraine. Known more commonly as Leon Trotsky, he and Vladimir Lenin were the masterminds of the October Revolution, foisting communism on a largely recalcitrant population.
Caught in the vise of Civil War between the Red and White armies and marauding Ukrainian Cossacks, Jews were caught in a whirlwind of pogroms, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Once Stalin secured power, he forced collectivization on peasant farmers and largely eliminated the Kulak, or wealthier peasants, as a class. As recounted by Robert Conquest in his magisterial “Harvest of Sorrow,” millions of Ukrainians died from starvation as a result of this misguided policy and genocide. Stalin also suppressed the Orthodox Church and liquidated its land.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis’ “liberation” from the yoke of Communism during Germany’s invasion in June 1940.
What is a permanent stain in Ukrainian history is the collaboration of too many Ukrainians in carrying out the “Holocaust by Bullets” of the Einzattszgruppen, bands of German soldier executioners. The most tangible atrocity was Babi Yar, in the outskirts of Kyiv , where 34,000 Jews were slaughtered in three days and buried in mass graves.
It took many decades before the Soviet Union even formally recognized Babi Yar as a genocide of Jews, preferring to portray its victims as Soviet citizens. Helping to galvanize support for this change were the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who took inspiration for his 12th Symphony Bai Yar from Yevtushenko’s poem.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Ukrainians don’t like Russians, particularly autocratic Russians like Putin.
At this hour, Russian forces have launched offenses from the north, east, and south, and have encountered stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces inflicting significant casualties and loss of military hardware. And the West, under U.S leadership, has demonstrated unity not seen since 9/11 by imposing tough sanctions and. supplying lethal weapons to the Ukrainians. Even if the Russians prevail, which is becoming more unlikely the more Ukrainians hold on to their country, it’s easier to conquer territory than to control it. Because it’s the size of Texas and has 41 million citizens, Ukraine would be well positioned for a devastating insurgency.
The will of the Ukrainians to defend and die for their country is extraordinary, and Putin has blundered into historic miscalculations. But leadership has made such a dramatic difference, in the person of President Zelensky. Although receiving significant political, economic, and military support from the West, he and his people are fighting the Russians alone. Like Churchill, he is a symbol of personal courage, staying in Kyiv with his battered citizens and rallying them both through his example and rhetoric. Like another former actor who asked Gorbachev to “tear down these walls,” Zelensky’s plea that he “needed more ammunition not a ride” to safety exemplifies his profile in courage. It’s indeed ironic that this Jewish president, whose family suffered grave losses during the Holocaust, will go down in history as one of the greatest Ukrainian nationalists.
Regarding the Jewish community of tens of thousands, I hope many of them will choose to make aliyah. We as Jews should be in the forefront of helping our co-religionists and other Ukrainians receive humanitarian aid and advocate for and help fund the refugee waves this act of aggression triggered. We should exhort our political leaders to maximize efforts to help Ukraine, even if we suffer some inconvenience. Helping a democratic country endure such a devastating attack by a ruthless dictator should not only be left to the victims.
This tragic situation marks the end of the stability of the post -Cold War geopolitical architecture. But if this stiffens the resolve of the West and the Ukrainians hold on, it will mark the beginning of the end of Putin’s reign of terror.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.