'I had to tell the world about Russia's crimes' says UK's former woman in Kyiv

Dame Melinda Simmons said that her Jewish heritage meant she had to speak up when stationed in Ukraine


Britain's outgoing ambassador to Ukraine has said she felt compelled to speak publicly about apparent Russia's war crimes because of her Jewish family history.

Discussing her four-year term in the war-torn eastern European country, which ended earlier this year, Dame Melinda Simmons, who has family ties to Ukraine, said: "I have a heritage that dictates you don't go through that experience and not talk about it."

As she travelled in Ukraine during the war, the Finchley Reform Synagogue member witnessed the aftermath of missile strikes and civilians shot with their hands tied behind their backs, she said.

"I wasn't going to be someone who went away to not tell about it," she told audience members at JW3.

Dame Melinda's maternal great-grandparents emigrated in the 19th century from a town close to the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has been badly affected by the war.

While in Ukraine, she said, she had gone "out of my way" to understand the nation's Jewish history.

She said: "Wherever I travelled I told my staff I wanted to visit the synagogue and the killing field... I built a really tragic picture for myself."

In most towns, she said, following the Nazi occupation around 30 per cent of the population was killed, sometimes stretching to 40 or 50 per cent.

At her ancestral home, Dame Melinda found solace in the Kharkiv memorial to 14,000 Jews rounded up and executed.

When it was hit by a Russian missile strike, she said, the ambassador found herself "never more angry".

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's first Jewish president, was a constant source of energy driving the war effort forward, Dame Melinda said.

During meetings with him that focused on securing Western assistance to fight Putin, she insisted Ukraine must also find time to address pervasive antisemitism.

Due to Soviet censorship of religion and Jewish history the country has a "historic gap" in understanding Jew hate, she said.

"Zelensky brushed off antisemitism concerns as not the most important priority [during war]," she said.

"I told him a strong democracy confronts its past."

Dame Melina did acknowledge, however, it is hard for a country to address prejudice while also reeling from tens of thousands of deaths.

During her time in the country the ambassador experienced an unwillingness among Ukrainians to confront to darker side of their history, she said.

Tourist shops in Kyiv would openly sell Russian dolls featuring antisemitic caricatures of Orthodox rabbis that Ukrainians would buy as good luck charms.

When she confronted one shopkeeper, they were baffled that anyone would object.

"I uncovered deep discomfort to peel off that plaster," she said. "It is a very delicate and sensitive thing to do."

Addressing the truth about antisemitism without playing into Russian propaganda about a supposed Ukrainian fascist state was a challenge, she explained.

Recalling how she spoke to Ukrainians about her own ancestors, Dame Melinsa said: "I really needed to talk about the full circumstances in which my family were marched to a ravine and shot."

But, she added: "Jewish history is Ukrainian history, and Ukrainian history is Jewish history."

Born in London’s East End and brought up in Ilford, Dame Melinda read French and German at Exeter University. She spent a year sponsored by the Foreign Office learning the Ukrainian language before taking up her current posting in 2019.

All British ambassadors have the option of adding one additional year to their standard three-year term in office. After just three weeks in Kyiv Dame Melinda had already fallen in love with the country and asked to extend her stay.

She stepped down this year, and was replaced by Martin Harris.

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