The recent elections in Ukraine have prompted some political commentators to note with a degree of surprise, even astonishment, that alongside Israel, Ukraine is the only country in the world that has a president and a prime minister, both of whom are Jewish. Why the surprise and astonishment? Because Ukraine historically has a reputation of being rife with anti-Semitism. Whether or not such a reputation is justified, the anti-Semitic stereotype of Ukraine exists to this day, in particular among diasporan Jews and their sympathizers in various parts of the Western world.
I will return to present-day Ukraine and the significance of the recent elections. But before doing so, it might be useful to say something about the context of Ukraine and how Jews came to live there.
There are two basic factors to keep in mind in order to understand Ukraine. As a civilization, Ukraine is old, very old. But as a state, it is young, very young. Despite some proto-state structures and efforts to gain independence in the past, Ukraine as a sovereign state only came into being in 1991, that is a mere 28 years ago. In other words, Ukraine has until then been ruled by other states. Therefore, Ukrainians have not controlled their own political destiny but have been subject to the rule of outsiders.
The second factor is the multinational character of Ukraine. The lands that encompass present-day independent Ukraine have always been home to many different peoples. Although ethnic Ukrainians are the numerical majority, they have always lived alongside many other, what we may call, dominant and subordinate peoples.
The dominant peoples were those associated with states that at various times ruled all or part of Ukraine, such as ethnic Russians, Poles, Crimean Tatars, Austro-Germans and Hungarians. The subordinate peoples are those who are generally referred to as minorities – peoples who have had little or no political power and were of a lower social status, such as Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Mennonites, and Belarusians, not to mention ethnic Ukrainians themselves.
And so, when we use the term “Ukrainian,” we are really referring to citizens of a country who derive from a whole host of ethno-national or religious backgrounds, only one of which is ethnic Ukrainian.
Among the subordinate minority peoples who historically inhabited Ukrainian lands were the Jews. A Jewish presence has been attested as far back as the eighth and ninth centuries, whether transient traders and craftsmen settled along the Black and Azov seacoasts under the rule of the Khazars, or in the city of Kyiv itself, the center of the medieval state known as Kyivan Rus’.
It was only in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that significant numbers of Jews settled permanently in Ukrainian lands. This was a time when most of Ukraine was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jews were granted certain privileges by the ruling Polish kings, while the socioeconomic status of ethnic Ukrainians and other peoples was worsening. The number of Jews in Ukraine was initially rather small, reaching about 54,000 by the mid-17th century.
That was also a time when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth entered a period of decline that lasted until 1795, when Poland-Lithuanian literally disappeared from the map of Europe. From then on, Ukrainian lands were ruled by two states: the Russian Empire and the Austrian Empire. By the end of the 19th century, the number of Jews in Ukrainian lands had increased to nearly 2.9 million (2 million in Dnipro Ukraine; 660,000 in Galicia; 102,000 in Bukovyna; 87,000 in Transcarpathia). Their legal and social status differed greatly, however, depending in which empire they lived.
For instance, the roughly 2 million Jews who inhabited Ukrainian lands in the Russian Empire were restricted to residing in an area known as the Pale of Settlement. By contrast, the 850,000 who inhabited “Ukrainian” lands of the Austrian Empire (Galicia, Bukovyna, Transcarpathia) could reside anywhere they wished and enjoy rights equal to all other subjects of Austria’s Habsburg rulers.
After World War I and the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1917-1918, Jews in present-day Ukraine found themselves in four new sates: the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. This political situation lasted until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and the Nazi German invasion (with nominal assistance of Romania and Hungary) of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
When World War II ended in 1945, the Ukrainian lands as we know them today were for the first time in history under the rule of one state – the Soviet Union. This situation lasted until the Soviet Union came to an end in late 1991, when independent Ukraine was born.
One result of these political changes is that for the longest time there were no “Ukrainian Jews.” Of course, Jews lived in what we today know as Ukraine, but they were designated by others – and by themselves – as Russian Jews, Polish Jews, or Austrian Jews (perhaps Galizianer), Carpathian Jews, or Soviet Jews. These labels stuck and are still used today by many Jews and their descendants living in Israel and diasporan communities throughout Europe and North America.
Ukraine’s Jews, at least since the late 16th and early 17th centuries, have shared the fate of all minority peoples living on Ukrainian lands. Particularly fruitful has been the economic, linguistic and cultural interaction between Jews and ethnic Ukrainians. By the late 19th and 20th centuries, these interactions and mutual influences were particularly noticeable in socioeconomic life as well as in literature, the arts, music and theater.
During those same 19th and 20th centuries, Jews shared the fate of other peoples who were caught up in the conflicts that raged at times in one or another part of Ukraine. Jews, as well as Roman Catholic Poles and Greek-Catholic ethnic Ukrainians were killed during the mid-17th century Khmelnytsky uprising and the late 18th-century Haidamak revolts. A century later, Jews were singled out as victims of the first pogroms that occurred under Russian rule. The worst of the pogroms took place in 1919 during the Russian Civil War, when Jews (alongside other well-to-do inhabitants of Mennonite, Greek and Polish background) were killed in various parts of the former imperial Russian-ruled Ukraine.
And finally came the mid-20th century Holocaust and the general destruction of World War II, when of the 3.9 million civilians killed in Ukraine, an estimated one quarter of them (850,000 to 900,000) were Jews. In the case of the Holocaust, Jews were singled out for extermination not because they were the enemies of the Nazi German or Romanian invaders and occupiers, but because they were Jews.
It is the memory of these destructive events that has contributed to the perpetuation of the anti-Semitic stereotype attached to Ukraine and to all Ukrainians. As one Jewish visitor from Israel (Daniel K. Eisenbud) noted a few years ago in the Jerusalem Post (November 15, 2012): “Despite Ukraine’s undeniable bucolic beauty,” because of its “flagrant anti-Semitism … I in turn began to view it as the ugliest place I had ever set foot in.” But are such stereotypical attitudes justified?
If we take the last four and one-half centuries of the major Jewish presence in Ukraine, of those 450 years, only 16 to 20 at most were marked by periods of violence. And that violence, we should not forget, was perpetuated not solely against Jews. In other words, for 430 years Jews lived alongside ethnic Ukrainians and other peoples of Ukraine in a state of cooperative tolerance, if not harmony. It was during those 430 years that mutual relations and influences, whether in the arts, crafts, economic and civic life, even intermarriage, developed.
This, then, is the larger context for the recent presidential elections that we have recently seen.
Many observers of Ukraine have focused on the political inexperience of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and how such inexperience might have a negative impact on the country’s immediate future. Whatever the future may bring, I view the electoral results in another light – as a great success. Success in the sense that the election campaign revealed the degree of political maturity of Ukrainian society.
It seems that hardly anyone gave a second thought to the ethnic or religious background of the candidates. Mr. Zelenskyy may be a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, and he may be of concern to some because of his inexperience, while to others he represents a positive new face in the government. But the fact that he is of Jewish background was irrelevant during the electoral campaign. Such irrelevance is indeed a good thing, because it reflects a new reality: Ukrainians consciously or unconsciously define themselves as Ukrainians because they are citizens of a state called Ukraine not because they are, or are not, of ethnic Ukrainian background.
This positive reality that characterizes Ukrainian society was reflected not long ago in a poll conducted by the respected PEW Research Center, according to which Ukraine ranked lowest of all countries in Central and eastern Europe with regard to negative attitudes toward Jews. True, there may be isolated instances of anti-Jewishness, but in essence there is little anti-Semitism in present-day Ukraine.
The problem with negative stereotypes about Ukraine is derived from a superficial understanding of the past. Too much history based on cherry-picked facts might lead one to agree with one Israeli commentator, the Auschwitz survivor Yehuda Elkana who, recently writing about the Holocaust on the pages of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (April 25, 2019), raised the issue about “the need to forget.”
For a people like the Jews, whose cultural and educational formation requires them never to forget, Mr. Elkana’s suggestion about “the need to forget” is simply unrealistic, some would say immoral. I would suggest that while one should not forget, one should make every effort to learn, contextualize and remember not only the horrors of the past but also the very many positive aspects of Jewish life in Ukraine.
Such contextualized learning is the only real basis on which to assure an on-going healthy relationship between Jewish Ukrainians, ethnic Ukrainians, and all other Ukrainians regardless of their ethnolinguistic or religious background. The book “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence” (by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, University of Toronto Press, 2016) may be helpful to those who truly wish to learn and appreciate fully the value of mutual respect and understanding.
Paul Robert Magocsi is professor of history and political science at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Chair of Ukrainian Studies.