March 4th, 2023
Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he asserted that Ukraine had always been part of Russia, and that, in effect, Ukraine isn’t a real nation. He emphasized the shared history and culture of Russia and Ukraine. There may have been a time when Putin’s words were at least partially true. After all, Kyiv is the birthplace of the first Russian state back in the 9th century. However, that was a long time ago and things change.
I have a friend from a synagogue that I attend. My friend is an old man, pushing ninety, and he came to the United States with his wife as political refugees after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old guy is a native of Kyiv. He left Kyiv when Ukraine was newly independent, a time when chaos reigned. He and his wife had already decided to leave Ukraine when they had an unexpected visit. My friend often tells me the story. In his thick Slavic accent, he tells it to me like this:
“My good friend, one day a group of armed men came to my house. They were part of an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia. They wore camouflage uniforms; you know what I mean? The one man he talks to me and says,
‘You must leave. Ukraine is for Ukrainians. We don’t need no Poles or Moscow people. And we don’t need no Jews!’
I ask him, ‘What if I don’t leave?’
He says, ‘If you don’t leave here, your life won’t be worth one kopeck!’
My wife and I left, sooner than planned.”
My friend from the synagogue is very interested in the war currently ravaging the Ukraine. He and his wife watch Ukrainian newscasts. He said to me,
“My friend, I watch the news from Ukraine. It is all different now. They show on TV two Ukrainian soldiers together. One speaks Ukrainian, but the other is from the east, and he speaks Russian. These two soldiers are friends. They fight alongside each other. They are comrades; you understand what I mean?
Now, the people in Ukraine they don’t argue about who is a true Ukrainian. They don’t argue about western Ukraine and the east. It doesn’t matter anymore if a person is a Jew or not. The old Ukrainian nationalists, the fascists, are no more. It is a whole new generation. Ukraine is united!”
Is my friend right about the “new” Ukraine? He might be. He knew the old Ukraine intimately. He sees a great change from thirty years ago.
It is ironic that, even if there was a strong connection between Russia and Ukraine in the past, it no longer exists today. Putin’s goal was to extinguish the budding Ukrainian national identity. If anything, the Russian invasion has made Ukrainian pride incandescent. He has effectively united Ukrainians in a way they never were before. Putin has inadvertently done some nation building, and he has created an implacable enemy on his border.