Portnikov: We are all Ukrainians

Ukrainians on the Maidan protesting the criminal and oppressive regime of Yanukovich, 2014

Ukrainians on the Maidan protesting the criminal and oppressive regime of Yanukovich, 2014 

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This story took place in a sleepy seaside town when I found myself having a casual dinner at a table with friends of friends, people unfamiliar to me, who seemed to spend all their free time not on the seashore but in front of the TV, Russian of course, what else, other television does not exist. These acquaintances told me about the horrors of Ukrainian fascism, “the Right Sector” that was hunting the Jews, that Ukraine will soon crumble, and that it is Russia anyways, while the Americans had invented the Ukrainians to vex Putin. I did not feel like arguing, I just wanted to finish dinner as soon as possible. I languidly noted to my fellow diners that I myself lived in Kyiv, that I had not run into any fascists, that the “Right sector” was not hunting me, though I was a Jew, and that I had seen the famous Yarosh once in a lifetime, even though I do not spend my time in needlework but rather political journalism.

The head of the family, an elderly, flabby man, who was watching the fading sunset with the tired gaze of a man who understands everything in this life–everything which is permitted to be understood by the authorities–was also not set on conflict. He held a glass out to me,

“Stop telling stories, Khokhol! Let’s have a drink!”

I was dumbfounded. For the first time in the nearly half century that I have lived, I was perceived as an ethnic Ukrainian–and this despite the fact that I had just explained to this smug individual, unwilling to know anything in life besides the amount of money stolen, that I was a Jew. A Jew. A Zhyd, not a Khokhol. Actually, he would not call me a Zhyd just like that at the common table–yes, half of them here could have been anti-Semites, but in a decent society, it is not quite acceptable, now they will only talk about Jews with the usual expressions once they have left the table. But [to call someone] a Khokhol is easy. And no one even raised an eyebrow.

Thus, for the first time, I felt what a Ukrainian really feels when a random–or not-so-random–acquaintance casually insults him, because he is unable to understand that he is treating both the individual and the whole nation with contempt. This contempt, like poison, is poured over Russia–and almost all of them are sick because of it, from Putin, who publicly calls his buddy [Gennadiy] Timchenko a “Khokhol” at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, to my seaside interlocutor. And this poison is more dangerous than any anti-Semitism or hatred towards people from the Caucasus or xenophobia towardsGastarbeiters from Central Asia–a hatred and xenophobia, which have become the essence of existence for the Russian people in the past decade. Because when a Russian calls a Jew a “Zhyd” or a person from the Caucasus a “Black,” he knows that he is deliberately insulting that person. But when he calls a Ukrainian a “Khokhol,” for him it is just an affectionate nickname, akin to calling your dog Dimon [diminutive of Dmitry]. And really, there is no point in calling your dog Dmitry Ivanovich, that’s why it’s a dog, and it needs a nickname.

By Vitaliy Portnikov, Kyiv journalist, columnist for Radio Liberty
Original published on Radio Liberty
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine

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