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Russia can't decide if Ukrainian Jews are victims or villains

On April 18, a flyer appeared in Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk that brought back memories of 1941 for the city’s Jewish residents. Bearing the stamp of the “Donetsk Republic”—the label used by separatists in the region—it requested Jewish residents to register with the local city authorities and pay a head tax. For added effect, flyers were nailed to a tree directly outside of a synagogue to ensure that the congregation would discover them after services. The small Jewish community of Donetsk was terrified.

This was not the first incidence of anti-Semitic imagery during the Ukraine crisis. When tensions were building in Crimea prior to the Russian annexation, a synagogue in Simferopol was defaced with swastikas and the words “death to the Jews.” (As with the Donetsk flyer the perpetrators remain unknown.) And in the lead-up to the Crimean referendum, a billboard appeared there showing two Crimeas: one colored black with a red swastika in the middle, and the other in the white, blue, and red colors of the Russian flag. Underneath the two images, the word “choose.” The Crimeans chose the second option.

Russian media has focused on two far-right groups that were a minority presence on the Maidan: Svoboda (Freedom Party), a far-right nationalist party with seats in the Ukrainian parliament, and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), a new conglomeration of nationalist groups that emerged in the early weeks of Euromaidan.

Svoboda entered parliament in 2012 with 10.4 percent of the popular vote. In 2004 its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, claimed that a Muscovite-Jewish mafia was ruling Ukraine. Since then, Svoboda has moderated its rhetoric and softened its image. In the interim government, Svoboda members hold three out of twenty positions, and most Ukrainians would no longer call the party “radical.” Many jokingly call it “white and fluffy”: harmless as a bunny.

Right Sector, which registered as a political party on March 22, flies red and black colors and its members often donned balaclavas and camouflage uniforms during the Euromaidan protests. The group styles itself as a nationalist organization in the tradition of Stepan Bandera, a polarizing historical figure. Bandera led a guerrilla army fighting for Ukrainian independence during World War II, but was condemned as a traitor and Nazi collaborator by the Soviet Union. KGB agents assassinated Bandera in Munich in 1959. Yet Bandera also spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp, complicating his depiction as a Nazi stooge. Historical evidence suggests that Bandera and his followers were not programmatic anti-Semites, but rather ruthless militants willing to murder anyone—Jews, Russians, Poles, and even Ukrainians—who stood in the way of their political goals. In western Ukraine, where Bandera fought his battles, he is now remembered as a hero and freedom fighter. In the south and east, he is still remembered as a Nazi collaborator.

Leaders of Right Sector have attempted to distance themselves from accusations of anti-Semitism. In February, their leader, Dmytro Yarosh, met with Reuven Dinel, the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine. In an interview, Right Sector’s press secretary told me that Right Sector’s vision of Ukrainian nationhood is not ethnically, but rather politically, defined: “anyone can be a Ukrainian nationalist, as long as he/she fights for an independent Ukraine.” Despite this late “image work,” Right Sector has been such a persistent source of material for Russian propaganda that Ukrainian journalists have suggested a relationship between the group and the Kremlin.

Right Sector and Svoboda were a visible but minor presence on the Maidan—their influence was overblown. Today, they have almost no political support in Ukraine. In the most recent poll asking who Ukrainians would vote for in the May 25 presidential elections, 2 percent chose Svoboda’s leader Tyahnybok and 0.9 percent chose Right Sector’s Yarosh. But that has not stopped the Kremlin from using the fascist bogeyman to discredit the Euromaidan protests and the interim government.

It may not be surprising that Russian media casts Ukraine’s Jews as the victims of a “fascist threat.” The horrors of World War II are still vividly recalled in post-Soviet countries and Western Europe alike. Anti-Semitic imagery and fascist symbolism evoke memories of the War. No one wants to see another Holocaust.

But Jews have also been cast as villains. Under Viktor Yanukovych, Berkut, Ukraine’s riot police, was allegedly briefed that Jews were leading the Euromaidan protests. Berkut’s violent repression of the protests is now a matter of record. Yarosh’s meeting with the Israeli ambassador, meanwhile, led to speculation of an alliance of strange bedfellows between the ultranationalists and Ukraine’s Jews. Rumors of the alliance produced a bizarre juxtaposition of symbols on the internet: a Star of David on black and red background surrounded by the yellow stars of the European Union flag; Yarosh wearing a Photoshopped yarmulke; a racist image of Jews wearing both national Ukrainian peasant shirts (vyshivanka) and the traditional Jewish Orthodox dress.

One term in particular encapsulates the absurdity and irony of the alleged Jewish-ultranationalist alliance: zhidobanderа, a portmanteau that combines the Russian slur for Jews (zhid) and Stepan Bandera’s last name. The term seems to have originated in February, when it was used by tetushki—the for-hire thugs that Yanukovych’s regime used to intimidate protesters on Maidan—to refer to the protesters. Given that Russia and much of Ukraine still remembers Bandera for murdering Jews rather than for fighting for Ukrainian independence, zhidobandera is a mind-bending oxymoron that implicates Jews as murdersome anti-Semites.

In a testament to Ukrainian entrepreneurship, zhidobandera is now a brand: a red trident symbol of Ukrainian nationhood appears in a multiplied form in the shape of a menorah on a black background with the word zhidobandera. For twenty-one dollars, you can buy a zhidobandera t-shirt in both women’s (zhidobanderovka) and men’s (zhidobanderovets) versions. A Photoshopped image of Ihor Kolomoysky, governor of Dnepropetrovsk district and Jewish millionaire, wearing the shirt became a Facebook hit.

An offensive concept has thus become banal: zhidobandera is now pro-Russians’ generic label for Euromaidan protesters, the interim government, and anyone who opposes the Russian agenda in Ukraine. The term neatly captures two deep fears of Putin’s regime. The first is Jewish oligarchs with too much power. This includes Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, who both fled to England, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was released from prison last year after serving a politically motivated nine-year sentence. (Berezovsky died in March 2013 from an alleged suicide.) The second fear is of successful national democratic movements that overthrow corrupt autocratic regimes. The combination of economic power and political opposition threatens Putin's theater of control, which is why he's gone to such great lengths to discredit Euromaidan. Ukraine's Jews are indeed victims here—of a vicious propaganda war.

Alina Polyakova
Alina Polyakova is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology at the University Bern, Switzerland. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.