Jews in Crimea, St. Louis assess Russia’s intervention

By Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA

Shortly after Russian soldiers occupied the Crimean city of Sevastopol last week, Leah Cyrlikova took her two children out for an afternoon stroll in a city park.

When they passed a group of soldiers, they stopped to have a friendly chat and pose with them for photos.

While many Ukrainian Jews have strongly condemned the Russian military incursion into Crimea, others see the intervention as restoring order in the wake of a violent revolution that overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

“I feel safer with them around,” said Cyrlikova, a Jewish Ukrainian who has lived in Sevastopol for five years. “These are crazy times, and now I know that if something bad happens, they will stop it.”

Divisions within the Ukrainian Jewish community have deepened in the wake of the Russian movement last week into the Crimean Peninsula, where approximately 10,000 Jews live amid an ethnic Russian majority.

Many Ukrainian Jews took part in the opposition movement centered in Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square. Jews participated despite the fact that the protests included far-right activists and some political figures who have been known to espouse anti-Semitic views. But support for the revolution is hardly unanimous among the country’s Jews.

Rabbi Misha Kapustin, whose Reform synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol was recently vandalized with swastikas, acknowledged that some Jews support Russian involvement in the crisis.

“In this area there is considerable support for the Russian invasion, and the local [Crimean Jewish] community is very assimilated here,” Kapustin told JTA. “You should take into account the effect of Russian propaganda: the television they watch, what papers they read.”

But he stressed that he felt his country was being invaded by foreigners.

“How would a Brit feel if another nation invaded London? That’s how I feel as a citizen of Ukraine,” Kapustin said. “The city is occupied by Russians, who seem to have decided to take over the Crimea. If this were the case, I would leave the country because I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”

U.S. threatens sanctions

Residents of Crimea are at present able to move around freely at all hours, Kapustin said. They are also free to leave the peninsula for other parts of Ukraine. Kapustin asked his wife, Marina, to leave for Israel until the situation stabilizes. She refused.

“I stayed to remain with my community, but I wasn’t very happy my family also stayed,” Kapustin said. “I would rather see them as far away from the action as possible, but I respect Marina’s choice.”

The United States has condemned Russian “aggression” in Ukraine and threatened to impose economic sanctions in response. Major news agencies, as well as American and Ukrainian officials, have reported a massive mobilization of Russian troops in Crimea. But speaking at a news conference near Moscow on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that his troops had occupied Crimea, while reserving the right to act militarily to protect Ukrainian citizens from an “orgy” of radical nationalists and anti-Semites.

“We have seen the work of neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” Putin said. “They and anti-Semites are rampant in Ukraine today.”

Putin seemed to be referencing the prominent role in the Kiev protests of Svoboda, a xenophobic political party whose members have referred to Jews as “kikes.” Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok has described his movement as the “worst fear of the Jewish-Russian mafia.”

On Monday, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, appointed Svoboda politician Sidor Kizin governor of the Zhytomyr district, pending elections scheduled for May. At the same time, Jewish businessman Igor Kolomoisky was appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk district.

The protest movement erupted in November because of the Yanukovych government’s prioritizing of ties with Moscow over relations with the European Union. But the revolution has exposed deep divisions between the country’s mostly Ukrainian-speaking west and the more Russian-oriented east and south.

“The Maidan Revolution was a dangerous thing,” said Boruch Gorin, a prominent Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow who was born in the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Odessa in southern Ukraine. “The decision to abandon democracy as a tool for change and adopt violence is always frightening, especially to minorities.”

Gorin, however, acknowledged that the protest movement was larger than just nationalist diehards and included both Jewish and non-Jewish liberals, as well as ordinary Ukrainians angered by rampant corruption and poor economic policies.

Amid the months of unrest leading up to Yanukovych’s ouster, unknown assailants staged two violent attacks on Jews in Kiev. On Jan. 17, an Orthodox Jew was stabbed after leaving a synagogue. The week before, another Orthodox Jew was beaten outside his home. Both men are expected to recover fully.

On Feb. 23, the day after Yanukovych’s ouster, a synagogue was firebombed in southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. It sustained only minor damage.

Last week, unidentified individuals drew swastikas and wrote “Death to the Jews” on the front door of Kapustin’s Simferopol synagogue in Crimea.

Some leaders of Ukrainian Jewry, including a Kiev-based Ukrainian chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, suggest that at least some of these incidents may have been provocations by pro-Russian forces seeking to justify Russian involvement in the crisis.

Locally, opinions are mixed

In St. Louis, a mix of opinion characterize the views of those with roots in Ukraine.

Covenant Place resident Marya Mugerfeld, who was born in Kiev and has lived in both Ukraine and Russia, said that she had deep concerns over the new Ukrainian government in the capital. 

“My feeling is that the coup that took place is very bad,” she said. “In a short time, it could lead to fascism. It could be the same as Germany in 1933.”

Mugerfeld said the issue was a very complicated one but she felt that the removal of the president was not democratic.

“Maybe Yanukovich was not so perfect but the way it was done is illegal,” she said.

Mugerfeld noted that Putin has justification at least “to some degree” for his move into Crimea since the area was under Russian control until the 1950s when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, a move that made little difference at the time since it was still within the U.S.S.R.

She noted that the new Ukrainian government’s move to disallow Russian as an official language was an example of the radicalization in Kiev.

 “I worry every day. Every day, I listen a lot to the news from different sources,” she said. “I think people could not be happy about such a government. The situation is not good.”

Lyubov Strauss, a former St. Louisan now living in Denver, said she was a firm supporter of Yanukovych and Putin’s action saying the latter should go forward all the way to Kiev and restore the president and former leader.

“I believe that this government coup was planned for three years,” said Strauss, who was born in the Ukrainian capital. “There was special military training. It was not just people on the streets.”

She said the pro-Western protests were never peaceful and that the removal of Yanukovych was a tragedy brought about by radicals and nationalists.

Strauss said she was in Ukraine when it became independent and that the two nations have a shared history.

“Russia helped us to become a country,” she said. “They were our brothers and our partners.”

She said the Kiev government was aggressive and potentially fascistic.

 “I’m afraid that if they take power, they will start killing everyone who is not with them,” she noted.

Yana Hotter, another Ukrainian native who now lives in St. Louis, said that she didn’t really support either faction. Her sympathies were for those caught in the middle while nationalistic tendencies rage around them on both sides.

“They have dug the grave for their freedoms as far as social development, national development, cultural development because they are so ingrained into the ideology of ‘we are better than you,’” Hotter said.

She noted that eastern Ukraine, where she grew up, was heavily pro-Russian just as Crimea is.

“I was able to say to my school principal, I don’t want to study the Ukrainian language. I was excused. It was never a priority,” she said. “They are still very much Russian, still very much in tune with Putin’s ideology, with his goals, with his ideas.”

Hotter said her main concern was for frightened relatives since anti-Semitism runs strong in the area among both Russians and Ukrainians. She said those she has talked to back in the land of her birth are scared about the future and want to leave.

“They are terrified,” she said. “They are absolutely terrified because whatever happens, the Jews are going to be hurt first. They always will be.” 

Anti-Semitic threats vs. military threats

At a press conference in New York on Monday, Bleich called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. He drew a parallel between Russian actions in Crimea and the false pretenses Adolf Hitler used to justify his invasions and annexations of other countries in the 1930s.

But others say the threat of anti-Semitic violence is real and that Russian protection is vital for Ukrainian Jews. Baruch Fichman, founder and president of the Ukrainian League Against Anti-Semitism, based in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, said Ukrainian neo-Nazis are feeling emboldened by the revolution’s success and are more dangerous now.

“The threat of Russian intervention is a good thing because it will cause the neo-Nazis to rethink their attacks on Jews,” Fichman said. “Russian intervention in other places in Ukraine would be a positive thing for the safety of the Jewish population.”

Putin’s suggestions notwithstanding, Gorin says Russia’s mobilization in Ukraine is not motivated by its concern for Jews but by the new Ukrainian government’s scrapping of a law recognizing Russian as an official language. Russian intervention, he said, was an error that would mainly serve to reignite Ukrainian nationalist fervor.

“All said and done,” Gorin said, “Jews and non-Jews in Ukraine perceive Russian military intervention as a bigger threat than any revolutionary government.”

David Baugher, who writes frequently for the Jewish Light, contributed information to this story.