Like many of us, I have been heartbroken to see the news, images and footage coming out of Ukraine over the past week. Despite the foreboding news over the past weeks, I didn’t believe it would come to this; now that it has, it’s hard to imagine how we (Ukraine, Russia, the world) move forward from this. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and to the people of Russia, millions of whom are now stuck in the midst of a conflict that they did not want and certainly did not vote for. Families on both sides of the border will lose loved ones because of a conflict that no one, save for a very small group of people surrounding Putin, wanted. While I am very cognizant of my privilege of being able to write this from the comfort of my safe home in Duluth, Minnesota, the violence in Ukraine is particularly painful for me because of my personal connections to this country.
Three of my grandparents were born in Ukraine. My Jewish maternal grandfather was born in Artemovsk (present-day Bakhmut), a city within the Donbass region which lies close to the border of the current separatist regions of Donestk and Donbass. His parents spoke Yiddish but, growing up in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), my grandfather would recall his mother proudly saying “we are from the Donbass.” My maternal great-uncle perished during World War II when the Nazis attacked Borispyl airport, the same airport that is now under attack by Russian forces. My Jewish paternal grandmother was born in Kiev. Over a dozen of her relatives perished in Babii Yar during the Holocaust; she and her parents survived because they were evacuated to Kuibyshev (present-day Samara) in the nick of time. My paternal grandfather was born in Kiev and lived there through the Second World War. His parents came from Glukhov (current day Hlukhiv), a town in north-eastern Ukraine on the border with Russia; they were ethnically Ukrainian. My grandfather grew up speaking Russian at home but attending a Ukrainian language school. He lost his father during the Second World War; he has never learned the full story of how his father perished nor where he is buried. He met my grandmother at the Kiev Civil Engineering University and they later moved to Moscow where he pursued graduate study. They spent summers in Kiev and my grandfather’s greatest passion was to go fishing in the beautiful Dnieper river which snakes though the gorgeous Ukrainian capital. When my grandmother was pregnant, she decided to return to Kiev to give birth to her son, my father, so that she could be close to her parents. Thus, my father had Jewish and Ukrainian background; he grew up in Moscow but spent his summers in Kiev, a city he adored.
My family’s story is not unique. In fact, it is typical of millions of other stories of Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish families across the twentieth century. These family stories are marked by suffering, loss, and displacement. At the same time, they demonstrate the resilience of hybrid identities; family members spoke different languages, ascribed to different belief systems, and saw themselves as belonging to multiple communities. In some ways, these stories are iconically Soviet.
The events of the past week have made me think a great deal about these hybrid identities and their untenability in the 21st century. Over the past decade, President Putin and his propaganda machine have worked very hard to construct their own (false) historical narrative, using terms that are familiar to the population and grossly mis-applying them. Putin has capitalized on a historical fact, the alliance of some Ukrainian nationalist groups with the Nazis during World War II, to claim (ridiculously) that the current democratic Ukrainian state (led by a President of Jewish background no less) is somehow a Nazi polity. Putin has used some elements of shared culture, history, and religion between Russians and Ukrainians to claim that Ukrainians have no right to their own nation-state, going so far as to claim that Lenin “invented” modern Ukraine in 1917.
Furthermore, he has used the history of a very real genocide of Jews during the Holocaust to claim that contemporary Ukraine has been perpetrating a genocide against Russian-speakers residing in Ukraine. To be clear, while Ukraine has pursued language policy encouraging the use of the Ukrainian language, there is absolutely no reason to claim that Russian speakers in Ukraine have been subject to a genocide. In fact, as we are seeing on our TV screens, most Ukrainians have been defiant in rejecting Russia’s incursion and Putin’s ludicrous claims of defending Ukraine from a “fascist” regime. Listening to this quasi-historical rhetoric often feels like living in a world of funhouse mirrors. You are able to recognize some of the elements but everything is distorted beyond recognition and, in some cases, these justifications are used to argue for something that is very opposite of what they refer to. A case in point is Putin, a dictatorial leader who has amended the laws in Russia so that he can continue to rule indefinitely and has repeatedly used state resources to attack and imprison his critics, arguing that he is fighting Nazism by attacking the democratically elected government of Ukraine. Yet, Putin’s misuse of historical narratives is rather clever. For those who are not paying too close attention, terms like Nazis or genocide evoke strong associations and emotional responses.
For people like my grandfather, now 93, and millions of others who have relatives, loved ones, and friends on both sides of the Russian/Ukrainian border, the events of the past week have been particularly painful. The world of hybrid identities, of multiculturalism, of bi and trilingualism in Eastern Europe is being dealt a final death blow. It is worthwhile pointing out that this is particularly the case for Jewish families whose roots span the map of Eastern Europe, through present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and whose family histories do not conform to strict geographical or cultural borders. There is no doubt that Hitler dealt the heaviest blow to the diversity and multi-culturalism of Eastern Europe. Today, Putin, who claims to be fighting against fascism, seems to be continuing Hitler’s campaign.
Natalie Belsky is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her areas of specialization are Soviet history, Soviet Jewry, the Second World War, and the Holocaust and population displacement. Her current book manuscript examines civilian evacuation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.