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Monday, March 17, 2014

Ukraine’s Jews Especially Worried Over Tensions

Russian riot police stand in central Simferopol on March 17, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine. Voters on the autonomous Ukrainian peninsular of Crimea voted overwhelmingly yesterday to secede from their country and join Russia.  (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Russian riot police stand in central Simferopol on March 17, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Now that Crimea has voted to join Russia, there is fear that the rest of Ukraine will also fall under Russian control.

That’s especially true in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, where 11,000 Jews were rounded up and shot by Nazi occupiers in 1941. People there have the fear of war again as Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s border.

David Filipov of The Boston Globe has been writing about this and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.




It's HERE AND NOW. Yesterday, Crimeans voted to join Russia. Today, Crimea's parliament approved a resolution declaring the region independent and then filed an appeal to join the Russian Federation. Also today, the U.S. and European Union slapped travel bans and asset freezes on a number of Russian and former Ukrainian officials.

President Obama announced the sanctions in a televised speech from the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are imposing sanctions on specific individuals responsible for undermining the sovereignty, territorial integrity and government of Ukraine. We're making it clear that there are consequences for their actions.

YOUNG: Well, those individuals targeted include members of Russia's parliament and advisors to former president - rather to President Vladimir Putin. But how is the move to secede reverberating in pro-Russia eastern Ukraine? The Boston Globe's David Filipov joins us by Skype from an Internet cafe in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

And David, Ukrainians in the west, in Kiev, fear a domino effect. You write that you're seeing a secessionist fever spreading across the east. Tell us more.

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, every day people gather outside government buildings with the intent of storming them, going inside, taking down the Ukrainian flags, putting up Russian flags and demanding that they, too, get to hold a referendum on either seceding from Ukraine, joining Russia, or at the very least gaining more autonomy within Ukraine.

YOUNG: Well, and you hear a slogan being said. Explain this to us: fascism will not pass - again, this is a pro-Russian crowd talking about the new government in Kiev in Ukraine. They say Putin come here and chase away Bandera. What are they saying there?

FILIPOV: Well, the line, the way that Russians feel is that you go back to World War II, the Soviet army fought and defeated Hitler. This is the basic narrative. There were Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis. And so the feeling is we in eastern Ukraine are like the Soviet Union, victors in World War II, defenders of the war against fascism, and those guys there are the fascists.

Now that's a really simple way of putting it because there were Ukrainians who fought and were killed in the Red Army. You know, there were Russian collaborators. But that's the narrative that's working now, and that's why you see Russian demonstrators with these orange and black flags, which is the flag that was flown on Victory Day in the Soviet Union after the end of World War II.

Bandera is Stepan Bandera. He's a Ukrainian nationalist hero who, during World War II, fought for Ukraine's independence, which sometimes meant fighting on the same side as Nazi Germany. Ukrainians say it's more complex than that, that he was a Ukrainian patriot, not a Nazi. But over here in the eastern side, and of course in Russia and Moscow, his name is synonymous with fascism, you know, that whole thing.

YOUNG: Well, David, you say there in the east, they see Bandera and the party that reveres him, Svoboda, as fascists and Nazi collaborators in Bandera's time. But aren't there people outside of the east of Ukraine who also see this one strain of the opposition in the new government in Ukraine as anti-Semitic and fascist?

FILIPOV: Right, well, there are famous speeches, you can go on YouTube and find them, of, you know, Ukrainian nationalist party leaders who are saying things like that. Now right now when you interview them - and I haven't, I've just read interviews, I've been out here in the east so I can't say this on firsthand - they're saying, you know, that was way back then, we've changed our ways, we've moderated our views.

And tellingly, when I was in Dnipropetrovsk, an eastern Ukraine city which has a very large Jewish population, people there were saying yes, we know these Svoboda Party members. They aren't fascist. They aren't ultranationalists. They get along with us, we get along with them. We can deal with them. So that's the feeling is that they've moderated their scene. Whether or not you, me or anyone here accepts that is a different matter.

YOUNG: That's David Filipov. He's a reporter for the Boston Globe who's found an Internet cafe in Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine, where there have been protests by pro-Russian supporters. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

Well, tell us about your trip to Dnipropetrovsk. Have I said that even close to...

FILIPOV: Dnipropetrovsk. That was name was not made for English speakers. It's the Dnieper River. This is an industrial city, one million people, where they used to make SS20 intercontinental missiles that were aimed at us to blow us to smithereens in case we ever tried anything on the Soviet Union.

It's also a city that historically had a large Jewish population. Before World War II, the Jewish population was nearly half the size of the city. And during the Soviet era, of course Jewish culture and life, like all religions, was basically assimilated into the official Soviet doctrine. There wasn't a Holocaust. They were Soviet citizens who were killed in the war. There were no religions. There was no Jewish life and culture. There was one synagogue.

And since 1992, this community there has made a remarkable comeback. It's very vibrant. It's a very big part of the larger Dnipropetrovsk society - there I said it. And so, you know, the governor now is Jewish. He's the person who built this amazing Jewish community center. And so there's this sense of quite a bit of revival and quite a bit of we can't believe how far we've come given where we started.

YOUNG: And a lot of concern about what happens next. And as you said, these were Jews who were horribly persecuted by the Holocaust and then by the Soviet Union, which pretty much tried to wipe out their existence and their beliefs. They feel they've had this come back. And now, as you said earlier, they're not as much concerned about the opposition party in the west, in Kiev, that some people consider fascist. They are more concerned about a Soviet-style Russian takeover because of what happened to them during the Soviet Union.

FILIPOV: Well yeah, if you go back to the history, yes, the devastation of the Holocaust is something that Jews in Ukraine do not forget. However, what came after that for the people who survived was all the years of oppression and forced assimilation. But more importantly, when they look at what's the best future for them in Ukraine, it's the West, it's Europe, not just Jews but anybody in Ukraine who is not thinking I want to be back in Russia.

And Europe money, the ability to travel, to ability to invest, the ability to have connections with other countries, that in Ukraine is the route that a lot of people want to take other than members of this ethnic Russian minority that you see here in the east, largely.

YOUNG: So David Filipov, you've got two opinions here. In one city, you speak to Jews who are very concerned that what happened in Crimea will soon be happening to their area. But then in another city, you've got protestors pushing for a closer relationship an annexation by Russia. Overall, just what's the feeling in the east? I know you can't be everywhere, but what's the feeling?

FILIPOV: The feeling is who are these people from the West, and what do they want with us. We want to be Russians. We want to be surrounded by Russian language. We want to be surrounded by Russian people. We don't want some other society to come in here. We don't want the Germans to come in here and tell us who's boss.

And, you know, if we're in the European Union, what does that mean for us? Who are we now? That's the general feeling you get.

YOUNG: David Filipov, reporter for the Boston Globe. Again, he found an Internet café where he could reach us by Skype in Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine, a very pro-Russian part of Ukraine. David, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FILIPOV: Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: So interesting to be reminded how Russians', Ukrainians' past history with Germany is revealing itself again today. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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