Melinda Haring is the editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. She tweets @melindaharing.
In early June, when president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky takes the oath of office, Ukraine will become the second country to simultaneously have a Jewish president and prime minister. Born less than a week apart, Zelensky and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman will run the country at least until October, when parliamentary elections could yield a new prime minister.
For more than five years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that “anti-Semitic forces” run Ukraine and that “fascists” orchestrated the Maidan street protests in 2013 and 2014. Moscow relishes every opportunity to point to Ukraine’s painful past, highlighting the collaboration between some Ukrainian nationalists and the Nazis during the 1940s. During the Holocaust, it is estimated that as many as 2 million Jews were killed in territories that are now part of Ukraine.
Moscow is fixated on this period — yet that grim history says little about modern Ukraine and who runs it today. Right-wing parties in Ukraine can’t get into parliament. In this year’s presidential election, the candidate from the far-right Svoboda party received only 1.62 percent of the vote. In the 2014 elections, Svoboda got only 4.71 percent, failing to make it into parliament. Far-right parties perform better in many Western European countries.
The reality is far different from the Kremlin’s fantasies: By and large, modern Ukraine is a good place to be a Jew. “There are no obstacles at all for Jews to join the highest levels of government, business, or academia in modern Ukraine,” said Boris Lozhkin, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. “There is no religious discrimination at work in Ukraine. The Soviet era is long over.” Lozhkin served as the head of Petro Poroshenko’s presidential administration from 2014 to 2016. He was replaced by Ihor Rainin, who is also Jewish.
Public opinion backs up the idea that deep-seated anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. Ukrainians are the among the most tolerant toward Jews in all of Europe. The Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians would not accept Jews as their fellow citizens. Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe scored much more poorly — such as Russia, for example, where the figure was 14 percent.
Jewish life is flourishing. In Dnipro, a major industrial city in central Ukraine, Jews make up 5 percent of the city’s population of nearly 1 million, and Jewish officials say that the population is growing, even despite relocations to Israel. There are prominent Jewish businessmen in Odessa, Kiev, Dnipro, and Lviv.
To be sure, there are limits to this acceptance. Even though many prominent members of the community are happy to discuss their Jewishness in conversation, few are keen to discuss the subject in public. Zelensky, the president-elect, fits this pattern. During the campaign, he made little mention of his religious background. That conforms with an unspoken norm for many Jews in Ukraine and Russia: they must not be Jewish in any meaningful way. “The fact that I’m Jewish is only the 20th entry in the long list of my misdeeds,” Zelensky quipped. Zelensky and Groysman both lead decidedly secular lives and, reportedly, neither has been seen celebrating a Jewish holiday.
Problems persist. Ukraine still hasn’t done enough to come to terms with its past. While there are efforts to remember the dead of the Holocaust, there’s also a pernicious tendency in Ukraine to shrug one’s shoulders and say that the Jews don’t deserve any special treatment because the Nazis killed more non-Jewish Ukrainians than Jews. Even more problematic is the lionization of figures who committed or were complicit in war crimes, such as nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, whose followers massacred up to 100,000 Poles and collaborated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews. Sooner or later, Ukrainians will have to face up to this tortured history as they move toward their goal of becoming a modern European state.
Nor are such blind spots restricted to the past. A tiny but vocal group of anti-Semitic extremists and right-wing groups have operated with impunity since the Maidan uprising and the Poroshenko administration repeatedly turned a blind eye.
But the evidence is clear; most Ukrainians disavow anti-Semitic views and right-wing extremism. This is bad news for the Kremlin propagandists who try to use the crimes of yesterday’s minority to obscure the achievements of today’s majority. More importantly, it is good news for Ukraine, and for its small but resilient Jewish communities that now enjoy representation at the highest levels.