The AtlanticUkraine's Phantom Neo-Nazi Menace
The country's Jews have faced unspeakable horrors. But Vladimir Putin isn't their savior.
David Frum Mar 26 2014, 2:01 PM ET
KIEV, Ukraine—“When was the last time you personally experienced anti-Semitism?” I asked the executive director of the organized Jewish community for the city of Kiev. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean, called me a Zhid or something like that?” “Anything.” He thought for a moment. “Back in Soviet times.”
I put the same question to a roomful of senior citizens in one of the country’s 32 Jewish social-service centers. The group, which was mostly women, laughed out loud. They faced plenty of problems: the standard old-age pension in Ukraine is only about $100 a month, pitifully little even in this poor country. But the Russian claim that gangs of neo-Nazis are roaming Ukraine, threatening its Jewish population, evoked unanimous scorn from every Jewish person I talked to in the country.
On the way out of the center, I stopped to talk to one of the two security guards in the driveway. As in all European cities, Kiev’s Jewish organizations take precautions. But this guard was nothing like the well-armed gendarmes you see patrolling Jewish institutions in France or Belgium. A friendly faced, middle-aged man armed only with a walkie-talkie, he told me that in four years on duty he had encountered not a single threat. I asked if the situation had changed in any way since the flight of the Soviet-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, on February 22. “During the protests [in January and February], we had extra guards,” he said. “But now we’re back to normal.”
The most audacious part of the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine is the way it suppresses and reverses the truth about the violence here: It was initiated and sustained by Russian-backed authorities. On November 21, under Russian pressure, the Ukrainian government rejected a trade treaty with the European Union, triggering massive protests across the country, and most visibly in Kiev’s central Independence Square, or Maidan. These protests were brutally broken up by plainclothes thugs as police stood by. Then the police joined in, with escalating brutality, including cold-blooded sniper fire against protesters and then against those who aided the wounded.
Central Kiev is now filled with poignant memorials of the struggle: candles, flowers, faded posters of people who went missing—and who are now known to have been killed by the authorities, their bodies tossed without ceremony into communal graves. The city still bears the marks of the violence, especially the torched and empty trade-union building overlooking Independence Square, which police invaded on the night of February 18. The square is still blocked off with barricades of tires, paving stones, and odd bits of trash: the metal balcony of an apartment, a soft-drink refrigerator with the glass front torn off. Men (young and not so young) in military uniforms seized from armories in western Ukraine sit encamped all over the square—unwilling to go home because the story doesn’t seem over but uncertain what to do now that the drama has shifted away from Kiev to the country’s frontiers, which are threatened by Russian invasion.
Like Kiev itself, Ukraine’s government institutions also have a battered and broken look—in particular, the now-reviled police. The widespread distrust of the police, who in any case aren’t much in evidence, forms the basis of whatever fear Ukraine’s Jews do feel. If trouble were to arise, who would they call?
The good news is, there isn’t much trouble. Since February 22, there have been six notable anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine: four involving the defacement or desecration of synagogues and cemeteries, and two involving outright violence. These incidents have alarmed Jewish communities worldwide. In Ukraine, however, they are regarded with unanimous skepticism, if not outright disbelief.
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