After a year of war, 'the most meaningful place to be Jewish is Ukraine'

If you’re Jewish, you’re living proof that Putin is lying, says 24-year-old 'Tanya'


Ukainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stands in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on April 4, 2022. - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on April 3, 2022 the Russian leadership was responsible for civilian killings in Bucha, outside Kyiv, where bodies were found lying in the street after the town was retaken by the Ukrainian army. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Tanya is 24, dark-haired, funny, beautiful, wry, a refugee from Donetsk, and, like President Volodymyr Zelensky, both Ukrainian and Jewish. “The funny thing is, right now, the best place in the whole world to be Jewish is Ukraine,” she tells me in Kyiv.

“That’s kind of ironic while we wait to be bombed, while we wait for the next swarm of Russian missiles.

“But the Russian fascists say our government is neo-Nazi. So if you’re Jewish and Ukrainian and happy, you are living proof that Vladimir Putin is talking rubbish.”

In 2014, when she was 15, the Russians first bit off a chunk of the Ukrainian apple, occupying Crimea and a swathe of the east, including her home city, Donetsk. Most of her school classmates sided with the Russians.

“When I declared my loyalty to Ukraine, that’s when they started to call me horrible antisemitic names.” She was so intimidated that to this day, she doesn’t want the JC to use her real name.

But she loves living in Kyiv. “I often talk Hebrew in the streets,” she says.
“No one bats an eyelid. I am very proud of being Jewish and I am very proud of being Ukrainian too.

"I thought of going to Israel, where quite a lot of my family are now living, but I have decided to stay in Ukraine. I want my children, when I have them, to be raised in Ukraine.”

Even now, a year from the start of the war, Tanya’s local shul — the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, the second biggest in Kyiv — feels more like a train station than a conventional House of God. Full of boxes of food, clothing, medical aid, medical equipment, it’s proof of how Jewish Ukrainians are at the heart of the patriotic war effort.

Its rabbi is the charismatic Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Reuven Azman. He is a whirl of energy and I count him as a friend. They call him — well, to be honest, I call him — Schrödinger’s rabbi: he is both here and there, moving so fast, popping up blasting the latest Russian nonsense on social media, delivering aid, meeting visiting Israeli officials.

The Chief Rabbi is, like Tanya, a campaigner against the big fat lie that Ukraine is neo-Nazi. Born in what was then Leningrad, he is now a brilliant opponent of Putin’s KGB fairy stories.

At the start of the big war, the rabbi made a video that went viral saying: “I see the Russians shooting civilian people. You make war crime. You are citizens of Russia. You are involved in the crime.”

One year on, the question remains: why on earth did Vladimir Putin launch his big war? The best explanation is that he sees the 21st century through the thick bottle-lens glasses of a 1970s KGB man. That everyone who sought to correct his Soviet, big Russia myopia has been shot or poisoned or fallen out of a window. That he has surrounded himself with half-men, none of whom dare to tell him anything that confronts his ancient, dark prejudices.

The Kremlin, of course, can never admit this. That’s why Putin’s version is that he had to attack Ukraine because the Zelensky “regime” is neo-Nazi.

A year on, this ugly madness is still repeated across social media around the world. It shouldn’t need Tanya and Rabbi Azman to show it’s untrue; Zelensky is, of course, Jewish, like the previous prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman. Zelensky’s grandfather on his mother’s side was the sole survivor of a Nazi massacre. Yet the Kremlin continues with the lie. Vladimir Putin repeated it only this week.

Depressingly, such is the volume of the Russian disinformation that people like Tanya and Rabbi Azman are needed. Last September, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, met the Chief Rabbi.

The general wrote on his Facebook page: “I received a blessing for the victory and sincere words of support to Ukraine and its armed forces in resisting the Russian aggression.

“Our peoples know what the struggle for survival is. And this war is nothing but the struggle of the Ukrainian people for their existence. On the Day of Remembrance of the Babyn Yar tragedy, it is painfully difficult to talk about its recurrence in Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, Izium and other cities.

“This war showed who is on the side of good and who is the personification of evil. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman clearly says that today Russia is a fascist state.”
This week, however, the forces of truth and decency got a shot in the arm in Kyiv. Like pretty much everybody else in the city, Tanya was gobsmacked when President Joe Biden rocked up.

“I was surprised and a little bit shocked that the trip was secret,” she says. “It was an amazing event. The idea that President Biden dared to come was so symbolic.”

As I write, after the great joy of Uncle Joe’s visit, the whole of Kyiv is waiting for Putin’s retaliation: a swarm of missiles, drones, helicopters and aircraft targeted at the Ukrainian capital in such a mass that some of the bombs will surely get through.

It’s scary and it’s funny, both at the same time. If Putin presses a nuclear button, then there’s a hill everyone will go to for the orgy. My tragedy is that I keep on forgetting the name of the hill.

Yaroslav Lodygin is a Ukrainian film director and a pal who has his own take on the possibility of a nuke coming our way. “I was a kid when Chernobyl happened,” he tells me.

“Then our old country disappeared, then there was an economic crisis, then Russia invaded the first time, then Covid. So, frankly, a nuclear bomb is just a question of collecting the full set of catastrophes.”

The smart money is not on Putin using a nuke because Russia is next to Ukraine; because China won’t like it and the Kremlin fears Chinese displeasure; and because the Americans would demolish Russian military assets in Ukraine with conventional cruise missiles. Putin huffs and puffs but he can’t blow the house down.

The Ukrainians are losing a lot of blood and treasure. But the West is now sending the heavy metal necessary to kick the Russian killing machine out of the country.

By the second anniversary of the big war, I believe that the Ukrainians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will succeed in humiliating the Russians. Putin will leave the Kremlin in a box.

“His lies will be finished. And Ukraine will still be the best place in the world for Jews.

‘Killer in The Kremlin’ by John Sweeney is now out in paperback, published by Penguin Books (£8.99)

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