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Ukraine was the “Old World” of all four of my Jewish grandparents, although their entry papers variously read Poland, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. For them, it was a land of pogroms and poverty. Ukrainian history is tricky for Jews before and during the Holocaust, marked by antisemitism, mass killings of Jews and Nazi complicity. So when I traveled to Ukraine for the first time in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect. I was going there to investigate an anti-Jewish campaign by a state-funded university in Kyiv called MAUP and its connections to American white supremacist David Duke.
What I found was antisemitism on the fringes that was waning, and a vibrant new independent democracy in the throes of taming its historical inner beasts. No one in Kyiv at the time could help being swept up by the energy in the streets, the ways new connections to the West were inspiring business, media, NGOs and more. As the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv was an exciting place to be, a frontier in changing times, with Soviet-era dissidents now heroes. The Jewish community was diverse and growing, drawing people from all over the world. I visited Jews, young and old, in synagogues and apartments, and I traveled to Uman for the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave of 18th-century Hasidic mystic Rebbe Nachman. I crossed the country by train, bus and van, visiting three out of my family’s four ancestral towns and villages, Buchach, Bialy Kamien and Sudilkov, as well as Lviv, which had survived many wars with its lovely European-style architecture intact, and Khmelnytskyi, notorious for its anti-Jewish pogroms.
In 2015 I returned to western Ukraine, traveling to Rawa Ruska, home to one set of maternal great-great-grandparents, where I stumbled upon a new memorial erected by Father Patrick Debois to remember Jews murdered there. And as usual, I kept watch on the country’s tumultuous politics as Ukrainians circled democracy. That same year, we published Yigal Schleifer’s “The People of Ukraine Have Spoken: What Now?” as part of our series on emerging democracies. The subhead: “After massive demonstrations and new elections, Ukrainians have let it be known that they are ready for democratic and economic reforms. But that won’t be easy, given the country’s history of corruption and the bloody war with Russian-backed separatists.”
It wasn’t easy, but in recent years, Ukraine’s democracy matured under President Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s second consecutive leader with Jewish ancestry. Fast forward to today. Now, every hour, I check to see how Ukraine is faring against Russia. Or should I say, against Vladimir Putin? It has become clear, if it wasn’t already, that Russia is one man, and we see here an example of what one man, power unchecked, can wreak on the world. Last week, on the day war broke out, Robert Siegel spoke with former NATO ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, shedding light on Putin’s motivations and the dangers ahead. Putin’s expansionist ambitions are unlikely to stop in Ukraine.
I have never felt as proud as I do today of Ukraine, now bearing the brunt of attacks by a despot with a powerful military at his command and taking a stand against aggression that threatens the democratic world. Democracies are not perfect, but they are all we have to protect us against the worst of humanity. History is riddled with evil, as is the world we are living in at this moment. But brave, honest and heroic leaders, in this case a former actor and comedian, can help us transcend the past. That a courageous Jew is a hero at the forefront of the fight is a twist of fate, but one that should come as no surprise.
Still, as I write this in the quiet of my Washington, DC office, Kyiv could fall at any time. Whatever happens next, Putin’s invasion has already changed the world.