Editor’s Note: Amelia Glaser is professor of literature at UC San Diego. She is the author of “Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands” and “Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine.” She is currently the Rita E. Hauser fellow at the Harvard-Radcliffe Institute, where she is writing a book about contemporary Ukrainian poetry. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“If things had turned out the way my mother wanted, I would have been a violinist,” Volodymyr Zelensky said in a standup routine on his late-night variety show, “Kvartal-95.” “That’s right, as a good Jewish boy, I played the violin as a kid.” That Zelensky is a good Jewish boy presents a problem for Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly accused Ukraine of fascism and even anti-Semitism.
Putin’s language of “fascism,” “nationalism” and “Nazism” revives Soviet-era shibboleths that suggest an ideology of protecting ethnic minorities, including Jews, from dangerous forms of ethno-nationalism. And yet Russia is now attacking a Ukraine that has one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in Europe (according to recent Pew studies), a diverse public sphere and a Jewish president.
The inconsistency between Putin’s accusations and Zelensky’s Jewishness has helped to clarify the deeply problematic premise for the current invasion of Ukraine: Russia claims it is attempting to “de-Nazify” a country that has, over the past decade, become not more ethno-nationalist, but less so. In the process, Moscow has exposed its own right-wing nationalist agenda, and its distance from the antifascism and even anti-colonialism it may have represented at various points during the Soviet period.
Putin’s use of the term “nationalism” evokes a familiar Soviet accusation in which acts of self-determination threaten the power and centrality of Moscow. But what the Kremlin’s narrative has attempted to deny is the fact that many Ukrainians have outgrown a dated understanding of identity, which relies on a monolithic ethnic understanding of a single Ukrainian people sharing a language, history and religious traditions.
Ukrainians have moved increasingly toward a civic understanding of Ukrainian identity, centered on citizenship as opposed to parentage. Zelensky’s rise to the presidency, as a Russian-speaking secular Jew, is living proof of this shift toward a pluralistic Ukrainian identity. The fact that an ethnic Jew is now expertly commanding a war from besieged Kyiv has struck some outside Ukraine as ironic, for the history of ethnic relations in Ukraine includes terrible episodes of anti-Jewish pogroms. But Jews have long played positive roles in Ukraine.
Moreover, Zelensky’s landslide victory in 2019 came at a time of open conversation in Ukrainian society about its diversity and the righting of past wrongs. Over the past several years, new Ukrainian art and literature has explored themes of the Holocaust and the multiple displacements of the Tatars; the government has moved to protect indigenous cultures and the cabinet of ministers has discussed the legalization of same sex civil partnership.
Zelensky himself has not only embodied Ukraine’s poise under pressure (he is, after all, the entertainer who won Ukraine’s “Dancing with the Stars” and dubbed the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukrainian), but has also reminded the world that Ukraine, far from being full of Nazis as Putin claims it is, has become more welcoming of religious minorities and more unified across geographical and linguistic divides than it was a decade ago.
When Russian tanks crossed the border in February, purportedly to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Zelensky addressed the people of Russia in their common native language: “The Ukrainian people are already free.” On March 1, following multiple missile strikes, including a deadly missile strike near the Holocaust killing ground of Babyn Yar, Zelensky posted a Ukrainian language video-address to his Facebook page, accompanied by a translation into Hebrew.
The shift in Ukrainian identity
The Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk dates the shift from basing Ukrainian identity on citizenship rather than blood lineage to the Maidan protests of 2013-14 and the Russian military intervention in Crimea, observing that these events “brought about a perceptible change in ethno-national identities, as many people felt both stronger attachment to Ukraine and stronger alienation from Russia.”
This civic understanding of Ukrainian identity represents an important evolution from Soviet definitions of ethno-national groups. The Soviet Union may have laid ideological claim to Marxist internationalism and anti-colonialism, but in fact, Soviet policy often drove a wedge between members of different ethnic groups.
Soviet Ukrainians, Jews and Russians were viewed as belonging to separate ethnic categories, and these identities were inscribed in their passports. As a result, ethno-national difference remained an important paradigm for many Ukrainians in the years immediately following independence in 1991.
Former President Viktor Yushchenko bestowed the title of “Hero of Ukraine” on the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who collaborated in the 1940s with the Nazis to fight against the Soviet state. While some appreciated the acknowledgment of the historical struggle against Moscow, many criticized the posthumous embrace of Bandera as a fatal political miscalculation.
Even Petro Poroshenko, who led Ukraine during the difficult years after the 2013-2014 Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” ran for reelection on a platform of “Army, language, faith.” That a Russian-speaking secular Jew from the industrial east defeated the incumbent Poroshenko in 2019 suggests that a majority of Ukrainians wanted a more unifying narrative. Zelensky, who spoke out against Putin’s invasion and in defense of Russian-language culture in 2014, was a vote against both Ukrainian ethno-nationalism and Russian neo-imperial nationalism.
New artistic and political efforts
The civic energy that flowed out of the Maidan protests has also led to new artistic and political efforts to acknowledge Ukraine’s multiple languages and religions, as well as individual group’s past traumas. Non-Jewish Ukrainians have embraced Jewish history as part of the Ukrainian story.
The Lviv-based poet Marianna Kiyanovska published a haunting book about the massacre in Babyn Yar in 2017. In 2021 the filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa released a controversial film about Babyn Yar that provocatively presented the Nazi massacre of Jews in Kyiv alongside the fringe Ukrainian nationalist movement in the Western city of Lviv.
Although the film provoked much criticism for having potentially gone too far in connecting Ukrainian nationalism with Nazism, the fact that a film critical of Ukrainian nationalism was screened and discussed speaks to the general openness in Ukraine to engaging in difficult conversations about history.
The Tatar singer El’vira Sarykhalil has collaborated with the Ukrainian hip-hop group TNMK to raise awareness about the displaced Crimean Tatar community. Mustafa Nayyem, an Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, was one of the first organizers of the Maidan, and later became deputy minister of Infrastructure.
Russian-language literature has long thrived in Ukraine; even as the war in Donbas broke out in 2014, novelists like Andrei Kurkov, and poets like Iya Kiva and Boris Khersonsky wrote strong literary indictments of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military involvement in Donbas in Russian.
On July 1, 2021, Parliament passed Zelensky’s bill “On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine,” which granted special protection to the cultural heritage and language of Crimean Tatars, as well as two Crimean Turkic Judaic groups – the Krymchaks and Karaites. These discussions of multiethnicity aren’t easy or perfect. But a collective effort to acknowledge Ukraine’s multiple histories has helped to define a pluralist vision for Ukrainian society.
Putin has mis-fired
As Ukrainians of different backgrounds have embraced a civic understanding of their identity, Kremlin representatives have doubled down on ethno-national categories to describe Ukraine, and Zelensky himself. Zelensky’s “Indigenous Peoples” bill incensed Putin, who compared it to Hitler’s race laws for its exclusion of special protections of the language and culture of native Russian speakers. Notably, the bill, which was aligned with the United Nation’s declaration on indigenous peoples, omits groups whose identity is reflected by an existing state, including Ukrainians.
“What about people with mixed blood?” Putin asked on Russian television after the bill was introduced. “Zelensky himself is an ethnic Jew, he may have mixed blood.” Putin’s preposterous confusion of indigenous cultural preservation with race laws is part of the larger (and equally inconsistent) narrative that he has cultivated to equate Ukrainian government to Nazism and Russian speakers with Nazi victims.
In a long article published on the Kremlin website in July 2021, Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, the heirs of ancient Rus’, with a shared language and religion. Putin declares that Ukraine is a Soviet construct, and that, by rejecting Russia, Ukrainians are “attempting to create an ethnically pure state.” He compares Ukraine’s anti-Russian sentiment to a “weapon of mass destruction.” The document, read in hindsight, was a declaration of war.
If such ideological rhetoric can be a weapon, Putin has mis-fired. In Putin’s July 12 article he wrote, “Our relationship is passed down from generation to generation. It is in the hearts, in the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families.”
Few in the world can take this draconian insistence on the importance of “blood ties” seriously after Russia’s bombing of Ukrainian hospitals, university buildings and theaters, wreaking particular violence on the largely Russophone cities of Kharkiv, Mykolaev and Mariupol. Ukrainians’ unity in defending their country and protesting the invasion has been inspiring.
Ukrainians have chosen an uncertain future
But in addition to the horrific human toll, Ukraine’s embrace of a diverse civic identity may be at stake as the war progresses. If Putin succeeds in reinventing Ukraine in his own image, Ukrainian public discourse, which has become more nuanced and open over the past decade, could regress into the kind of nationalist rhetoric it has managed to resist throughout the Donbas war.
The invasion and the military buildup that preceded it has, understandably, aroused strong anti-Russian sentiment among Ukrainians. This has already created some rifts within the Ukrainian cultural sphere. In January, the government passed a law making Ukrainian the official language in public settings.
Although this law does not restrict belletristic literature in Russian, the Russian-language novelist Andrei Kurkov wrote to me that the “Russian language is almost officially in Ukraine now ‘the language of the enemy.’” Some Russian language writers have shared on social media their intention of shifting to Ukrainian. Kurkov elaborated, “I will use my Russian for my novels but non-fiction I write now mostly in Ukrainian.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
In March 2022, Sergei Loznitsa, who sparked controversy with his film about Babyn Yar, was dismissed from the National Film Academy for his support of screening films by those Russian filmmakers who spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Zelensky, for his part, has continued to call attention to the tolerance and open mindedness of Ukraine, in contrast to Russia, promising Russian soldiers, for example, that if they defect, they will be treated “as people, decently.”
Before becoming president, Zelensky created and starred in the TV show, “Servant of the People,” about a high school teacher, Holoborodko, who is accidentally elected president of Ukraine. In one poignant episode, Holoborodko hallucinates a conversation with Ivan the Terrible, the 16th century Tsar who, among his many deeds, murdered his son and purged his opposition. “We are Slavs! We are one blood!” The Tsar tells him. Holoborodko disagrees. “You go one way, and we’ll go the other. We’ll meet again in 300 years.”
For the past decade, Ukrainians have chosen an uncertain future over the myth of a past greatness based on blood ties. In doing so, the country has ceased to be legible to Putin and Russians who support him. We must hope that Ukraine can emerge from the current war with renewed optimism about its future as a democratic society, that it will continue to avoid the trappings of nationalism that Russia has tried hard to awaken in it.