A young man of traditionally Jewish appearance in a cap instead of a Kippah could very well pass for a Yeshiva teacher from a religious school. Yet, he is one of the most important people leading the Maidan Self-defense or Security Corps and is active on the barricades on the Hrushevskiy street in Kyiv.
The story about the man appeared on the Vaad, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine web site, Censor.net reports. Per his request we will not disclose his real name, but the rest of his answers are real.
How did you get here? What does Maidan mean to you, particularly, as a Jewish man?
As many other people in my country I came to Maidan not “for” something but rather “against” many things. It’s always easier to consolidate a society against something. Even before Maidan, I didn’t really like our government but the death of people was the last drop. It was the moment when I realized that I must come to Hrushevskiy street. When I only arrived, I was frustrated by total disorganization, no leader, no clear strategy, and others issues. I had not perceived it as entirely “my war,” but then all of sudden I became one of those controlling the course of the protests. I had organized the self-defense corps, raised barricades, and became a commander of a squad at the requests of many people.
So have you protested on Maidan before you came to Hrushevskiy Street?
I had gone to Maidan a few times to hear meaningless speeches by politicians, empty statements made by the opposition leaders, and I realized that people may get out of control. The protesters lost their patience when the opposition trio came to Maidan after seven-hour long negotiations with the President aiming to test the waters for some compromise. The people sent the opposition to hell and moved toward Hrushevskiy street looking to seize the building of the Verkhovna Rada without having any military background. Since I served in the Israeli army, I was trained in and even participated in anti-terrorist operations. I knew that there will be a lot of blood. I counted people on the barricades and suggested to stay in defense and strengthen the redoubts. At this point, the barricades are strong as they should be.
During storming of the Ukrainian House, I gained total confidence that I must be here as I managed to stay above the rest. One fifteen hundred people tried to seize the building with two hundred interior troops combatants, mostly cadets. There military would have gotten hurt should the protesters reached them. We started a negotiation process which resulted into the Ukrainian House being evacuated without a single gunshot or victims.
Beside you, are there more Jews in the Maidan security corps?
Only in my squad, there are four Israeli people with military experience who came to the Maidan to help avoid the unnecessary loss of human lives. Our group should be named “Blue Helmets” after the the UN peacekeepers. There is much unease on the Maidan caused by lots of people wanting revenge for the bloodshed, and even more people got very tired of the ineffectiveness of the opposition. These hot shots are full of illusions and have no idea what consequences real battles may have. Also, they don’t realize that people stand on both sides of the barricades so our actions must not compromise the humane nature of the Maidan.
Did you come across, not even the anti-semitic but rather a kind of condescending attitude when people see that you are a Jew but yet you participate in the protests. What I mean is that there is a dichotomy: “us” Ukrainians and “them” Jews, the two are separate even if the Jews are seen as fellow travelers or even friends. Ukrainians must also be asking, is this a Jewish war?
I have not felt any such attitudes. From the very first days, I communicated with the Right Sector and UNA-UNSO activists, with all of those with whom I would have found nothing in common in peaceful times. At the same, I position myself exclusively as a religious Jew. Under my supervision are dozens of activists who come from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia who never speak Ukrainian but yet there is no place for intolerance toward each other here. They all have showed respect to my religious tradition and know very well what I do and don’t eat, which does not lead to any hostility.
To what extent do your Jewish friends and you personally perceive Maidan as the Ukrainian national revolution? It seems certain that it is when we constantly hear the phrase “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Heroes!” or when the national hymn is repeated every half hour.
The flag and the anthem are symbols of the state and don’t belong to any party and respect them is a must. In the US, people automatically rise when they hear their anthem although in their words they may not reveal a nationalistic mood.
I am not trying to idealize our protest movement and not quite sure whether a new civic nation is being born on Maidan but I highly appreciate some of these processes. For over twenty years with all the official characteristics of a state, Ukraine was a synthetic entity and its people had little reason to be proud of it. Old stereotypes of Ukrainians who cannot be bothered continued to be cultivated. It’s a miracle nine years after the disappointing failure of the Orange Revolution people rose again. At the march of millions, I was walking with dozens of my Jewish friends next to the members of the nationalist Svoboda party, whose slogans I did not necessarily like. Very few doubted that Maidan may give birth to a united and strong spirit of freedom. At the barricades, a lost feeling of responsibility has revived. In the past, I evidenced a situation where people simply passed by a man lying on the ground. All of a sudden, people who work all day long come to Maidan to spend the night leaving only few hours for sleep. It’s a birth of a civic consciousness.
How heterogeneous is Maidan? How does Praviy Sector manage to exist side by side with liberals and so on? Can we describe Maidan as entity that has been developing mostly independent of the influence of the opposition or the government?
The parliamentary fractions present only 40% of protesters and they do not dominate Maidan. Increasing number of people don’t associate with a political party. Rather, they come here because they feel that’s their civic duty. At the same time, Maidan is a rather well organized body, all factions implement the decisions of the Maidan Headquarters. There was one incident between Svoboda and Spilna Sprava (we call them “The SS Troops”), but that was exception to the rule.
What do you mean by the SS Troops? Is this only the acronym?
No more than that. Not a single faction carries Natzi symbols.
Many of my Jewish friends are convinced that when the revolution wins, everything will normalize. The extremists will get pushed back by the democrats. Are these ideas oversimplified? In reality, being a well organized and disciplined minority, the radicals dominate the soft liberals.
Well-organized extremists are a myth. I supervise people who are organized much better than the radicals. We react much faster and more efficiently. Under my direct supervision, I have thirty people but I can mobilize up to three hundred. Neither OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, eds.], nor Pravyi Sector can achieve such impressive results.
Can you briefly describe some main social features of the Maidan security corps?
It is extremely diverse. The members range from the Azejbardzhani sellers working at Pryvoz [a market in Odesa, eds.] to some average managers. An average man is 20 to 30 years old. The number of people who came from western Ukraine and east-central provinces are close to 50/50. Majority does not have clear political sympathies.
The residents of western Ukraine are born and raised feeling respect to a national liberation movement. At the same time, they don’t see radicalism as a behavioral model. A leader of Svodoba, Tyahnybok along with his political party, are not very popular in their main region.
I don’t see a clear pull to the right. The right populists slogans are replaced by declarations of consolidation and a sense of responsibility. The goal is to avoid excesses, to self-govern, and to avoid being portrayed as vandals.
We may approve such acts but who was throwing Molotov cocktails?
Almost all of us as people could not react differently to the rubber bullets and stun grenades flying our way. I am pretty sure that if the government did use force of any kind but it didn’t hurt people, we wouldn’t have this reaction from protesters. The Molotov cocktails was a very light response.
Do Maidan activists realize that a full victory is not possible without the residents of East and South of Ukraine?
Despite the difficulty of the situation, people don’t want to divide Ukraine. For over two months the peaceful protests brought no real change. Only when the Molotov cocktails started flying and the tires burned on the Hrushevskhiy street, the government reacted. Therefore, we will continue a conflict to force the President to compromise. In the other words, we are putting pressure on the government to gain some leverage in the negotiations.
I am not talking about the government that has little support. I refer to regular people standing on both sides of the barricades.
In the east of Ukraine, authorities are using mechanism of intimidation, instilling fear of Banderites and play the nationalist card, including the Jewish one. On the website of Berkut riot police, the anti-semitic moods may have been dropped but a negative image of Maidan as fascists is still perpetuated.
(Our conversation was briefly interrupted by a phone call from an owner of the fashion shop who thanked my interviewer for removing the barricades to return his business to work)
I want to see Maidan retain a humane face, a face our opponents can accept therefore we should not burn our bridges. By all means, we all need to consolidate and realize that it’s not about any political games. It’s about the bright future of the whole Ukraine.
Do the skeptical if not hostile attitudes of a big part of the Jewish community toward Maidan offend you? At the same time, Ukrainophobia has nothing to do with it but rather 80% of Jews live in the regions where Maidan is not too popular. Do you see a necessity to initiate a dialogue not so much with the government or within the society but within your own community?
It’s so very sad. Someone has mocked me by asking if they should greet me like Hitler. The civic positions are fully misinterpreted. In my mind, the fact that the Jews are on Maidan is approved by God and will build a dialogue between the Jewish population and the future government. This process will help Jews to live and work in our country tomorrow. And, such future perspectives must break the perception that Maidan is not for Jews. With God’s help, when I can remove my mask, none will state that Jews did not get involved.
Every single day, our Lord sends some miracles to Maidan. One time at night, we detained an athletic looking man who said that he was looking for a pharmacy. We thought he was a provocateur, one of titushky. I approached him to ask what was going on. He said that he had stones in his kidneys they hurt badly. He needed an immediate injection. I personally took him to the Ukrainskyi Dim, where he was given a shot, which made him feel better.
However, some real provocations take place like arson of the Dnipro hotel. I manage to tame the fire using the bags with snow. It took fifty minutes for the firefighters to arrive by which time it was almost extringuished.
What have you discovered in yourself, in people around you, and in your country after two months on Maidan?
I was a bit scared that I have to lead hundreds of people during crisis as I didn’t get to accomplish this in my everyday life.
As for the atmosphere, on my first day at the barricades, I remember how all of a sudden a complete stranger offered me something. I saw medicine for sore throat in his hand.
Some other day, near the Ukrainian House I noticed a group of suspicious people. I came up to them to find out who they were and why they came. One of them apologized and explained that they were praying for people, for peace…
And, I like that. Was it worth to live in this country to end up in Maidan? Yes, it was worth it. I am shocked to see there is no vandalism. On Hrushevskiy street, there are around 1200 people who could have ruined everything within ten kilometers. If a soccer game ends with a wrong score any European city will feel it. There is simply no vandalism here, which proves that our nation is mentally healthy, that not everything is as bad as it seemed half a year ago. Such responsibility is valuable: the tragic events in Bosnia are living proof. The fact that people haven’t lost their face as humans means that we are growing up and there is a future ahead of us.
The interview was taken by Mykhailo Gold at the request of Hadashot
In the photo: Self-Defense of Maidan
Translated by [email protected]
Edited by Mariana Budjeryn