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Russian-Speaking Jews Here Split On Ukraine

‘Civil War in Little Odessa:’ The community divides over crisis; communal leaders are trying to remain neutral.

Special To The Jewish Week
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Maidan Square in Kiev. Inset: Sergei Abramov, right, with his wife Yanina and son Victor. Getty Images
Maidan Square in Kiev. Inset: Sergei Abramov, right, with his wife Yanina and son Victor. Getty Images

For one day earlier this month, it was as if leafy Asher Lev Park in Brighton Beach had morphed into the still-barricaded and tire-laden Maidan Square in Kiev, ground zero of the Ukrainian independence movement.

A group of about 10 émigrés from Odessa — nearly all of them Jewish — came together in the park to discuss the fraught events back home. They were meeting on May 6, just a few days after 43 people were killed in Odessa in armed clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators.

Not surprisingly, things quickly got very heated, and this was even before Ukraine elected a Western-leaning chocolate tycoon as its president.

“The majority in the group, who supported Odessa staying in Ukraine, and the minority, who advocated joining Russia, were cursing each other,” said Alexander Lakhman, a journalist in the Russian-language media here, who had brought the group together.

“They were using terms like ‘traitor,’ ‘spy’ and ‘prostitute.’ It was a little civil war in Little Odessa,” Lakhman said, using the popular nickname for the heavily Russian-speaking neighborhood of Brighton Beach. 

Passions are indeed running high in the Russian-speaking Jewish community these days over the interlocking issues of Ukraine’s so-called Maidan Revolution, Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea and subsequent efforts of pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine to break away from control of the Kiev government.

On the Brighton Beach boardwalk recently, two friends sharing the same bench, Naum, 77, from Kiev, and Vassily, in his mid-40s, seemed to suggest the fault lines in the community.

“I’m for Ukraine with all my heart and soul,” Naum said. “There was always anti-Semitism in Ukraine and still is, but don’t forget that there are now a number of important Jews in the Ukrainian government, and Right Sector [a Ukrainian nationalist party] is protecting the synagogues in Kiev. Meanwhile, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is behaving like Hitler did in the 1930s, asserting his right to intervene in any country where ethnic Russians live.”

For his part, Vassily countered: “I am frankly afraid of what the Ukrainian nationalists may eventually do to the Jews and am glad Putin has the Jews’ back. I believe that most Russian speakers in New York are pro-Russian, but we also understand that is an unpopular position in America, so we aren’t going to go and march up Fifth Avenue carrying Putin posters.”

Close observers of the Russian-speaking community offer conflicting estimates about where people stand. Most experts say that a solid majority of 60 percent or more favor Ukraine over Russia, while a few report nearly the opposite: that as many as 75 percent of the community favors Russia. Yet everyone agrees that the roiling conflict in the FSU — in which charges of anti-Semitism have played a pronounced role — has deeply engaged and sharply split the city’s Russian-speaking community, which is estimated to be about 65-70 percent Jewish (down from over 80 percent 20 years ago). 

In the face of the passionate debate in the Russian-émigré “street,” mirrored and amplified in the Russian-language media, Russian-Jewish community organizations and leaders have tended to try to stay above the fray; they have avoided taking direct positions on the conflict, emphasizing the need for communal unity. How much longer that semblance of unity can hold amid the passions being expressed in Lakhman’s “civil war in Little Odessa” is an open question.

Certainly, political loyalties are scrambled on these issues, with arguments breaking out between old friends and even within married couples. The term “strange bedfellows” has rarely seemed so apt.

For example, Leonid Bard, formerly head of World Without Nazism, a body focused on fighting international anti-Semitism started by Russian billionaire Boris Shpiegel and derided by many as a Kremlin front, now leads the Assembly of World Diasporas; that group is largely supportive of Ukraine in the present crisis, even though Bard says he remains troubled after anti-Semitism flared among some factions in the new Ukrainian regime.

On the other hand, there is Moish Soloway. The media-savvy Russian-Jewish public relations dynamo and venture capitalist infuriated many in the politically conservative Russian-Jewish community by ardently endorsing Barack Obama for president and taking dovish positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Now, he is one of Moscow’s most outspoken defenders in the Russian-Jewish community here; he has castigated the Obama administration for “meddling in Russia’s backyard” and endorsed the position, being pressed hard by the Russian government, that “Nazis” are playing a key role in the new Ukrainian government.

Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish community affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and the Russian community’s most prominent pollster, has not yet polled attitudes on the Ukraine-Russia crisis. But he says he is convinced that the overall Russian-Jewish community here is 60-70 percent supportive of the Ukrainian position.

According to Kliger, “I start from the fact that the plurality of former Soviet Jews living in New York come from Ukraine, with significant numbers as well from anti-Russian countries like the Baltic States and Georgia. Also, I see much stronger support on Russian-language social media for Ukraine than for Russia.”

But Valery Weinberg, the former publisher of the longtime Russian daily newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which closed several years ago, believes that the true split in the community is around “75 percent for Putin.”

Weinberg, who notes that he himself strongly favors the Ukrainian position, said, “The position that so many Russian-speakers are taking disturbs me greatly because it is not what I would call a patriotic American position at a time when Putin is blaming America for everything that has happened in Ukraine.”

Weinberg added, “The people supporting Putin are not the ‘Let My People Go’ crowd of the 1970s and 1980s who came here to escape Soviet anti-Semitism. Rather, these are people who came here after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many from Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they travel frequently, own apartments or manage businesses. They are savvy professionals; doctors and lawyers and businessmen. They may have lived here 20 years or more, but they still get the bulk of their news straight from Moscow via Russian Channel 1.

“And yes, they prefer Putin to Obama, whom they despise as insufficiently pro-Israel.”

Asked about his position on the conflict, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, who has represented South Brooklyn since 2007, said, “Russian people are proud of Putin’s taking over Crimea, but it is not sustainable economically and against international law.”

Still, Brook-Krasny, acknowledged, “I haven’t really spoken about it in the district.” He added, “I’m still optimistic on U.S.-Russian relations in the long term. The two countries have to work together on a lot of issues, including fighting terrorism. I am hopeful that Putin and his team will ultimately ‘get it’ and choose to be part of the Western world.” 


COJECO (the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), the umbrella body of Russian-Jewish community organizations here, has said nothing publicly on the crisis; the group has chosen instead to focus on upbeat events like sending volunteers to visit aging veterans of World War II in their homes to congratulate them on Victory Day (May 9, marking the military victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany).

Lenny Gusel, founder of RJeneration, a Russian-Jewish young leadership network, said that RJeneration has not scheduled a specific event focused on the Russia-Ukraine issue, but the issue inevitably comes up anyway. “You can’t get Russian-speaking folks together these days without it coming up. What I hear consistently from many people I am close to in our community is that Putin is a totalitarian thug. But the next question is, ‘OK, so what should we do about it? Should we meddle in the struggle between Russia and Ukraine?’”

Gusel said that given the high stakes involved in the conflict for millions, including Jews, in both countries, “It feels almost inappropriate for those of us here to sit around discussing it.”

One venerable New York Russian community organization that is carrying on with business as usual is the Russian American Foundation. It is poised to hold its 12th Annual Russian Heritage Month, a month-long series of cultural events to celebrate the rich diversity of cultural traditions brought here from the various regions of the former Soviet Union. In past years, the Russian Ministry of Culture has cooperated with RAF on many Russian Heritage Month events and exhibits, and the RAF website features a 2012 blurb from the Russian Federation’s consul general in New York, Igor Golubovskiy, praising RAF for making a large contribution “to the preservation and expansion of Russian culture in the United States.”

RAF’s founder and president, Marina Kovalyov, a Jewish Week board member, did not respond to questions asking whether she is cooperating with the Russian Consulate again this year, or if it is appropriate to hold the festival this year at all, given Russia’s attack on Ukraine and strident criticism of the U.S.

According to Lakhman, “There are quite a few people in the Russian-speaking community who question whether holding the festival is appropriate this year, but I don’t expect any boycotts or protests since most people believe that culture is separate from politics.”

Whether it is politically sustainable for the Russian-speaking community to give even the appearance of even-handedness in the present situation, when U.S.-Russian relations have reached their lowest ebb since the Cold War, remains an open question. According to Igor Branovan, co-owner of the weeklies Forum and Yevreski Mir, “The Russian-speaking Jewish community is not neutral between America and Russia. Yes, Russia has spent billions on media to influence the opinion of Russian-speakers here, but it is wrong to question our community’s loyalty to America.”

While most would agree with that assessment, a sharp debate continues about the propriety of the expression of pro-Russia sentiment in the community.

Ari Kagan, a prominent Russian-Jewish journalist and political activist, is outspoken in his contempt of Putin, whom he says is “anti-democratic, anti-American.” He added, “It is particularly offensive to me that Putin has completely taken over Victory Day, which is sacred to all of us.”

Yet Moish Soloway, a 36-year-old international consultant who travels frequently to Moscow on business, said, “The Russian position makes more sense than the Western one. It looks to me like the U.S. tried to meddle in Ukraine and it backfired badly. Russia is not ready to have a hostile neighbor in its backyard that happens to be in a state of anarchy and has a nasty history of ultra-nationalism.”


Back on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, interviews with a number of Russian speakers turned up a preponderance of pro-Ukraine sentiment, but also plenty of people championing Russia, even if they often asked that their full names not be used.

Anna Solovyov, a pensioner in her 70s, who came here 35 years ago from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, remarked, “Putin is a tyrant and a problem not only for Ukraine, but the entire world. I am disgusted by his pretending to be pro-Jewish, when he is just cynically using the Jewish issue to his advantage.”

Sitting comfortably shirtless on a park bench in the warm sun, Leonid, a 39-year-old Jew who moved to the U.S. from Odessa as a child but now does business with Russia, had a very different take. “Odessa may be physically in Ukraine,” he said “but it was never a Ukrainian city. I spoke today with my uncle in Kiev, who is scared for his life from Ukrainian anti-Semites. For my part, I am worried about how the conflict may affect my business, which depends on money transfers between the U.S., and Russia. So far, U.S. sanctions on Russia have been minimal, but if they are strengthened, it very well could destroy my livelihood.”  

Sergei Abramov, a music teacher from Kiev who is in his 40s, has made two trips back to his hometown in recent months and spent considerable time on Maidan Square.

“It is amazing to see the level of self-sacrifice, kindness and cooperation of the everyday people there, many of them peasants and working-class people,” said Abramov. “Meeting people who are willing to do anything — even give their lives — to turn Ukraine into a normal country based on democracy, justice and the rule of law has been a deeply spiritual experience for me.”


Last Update:

06/15/2014 - 21:43
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Jews continue to blame us Ukrainian nationalists for anti-semitism when in fact it is Russians who use propaganda to say, that we are anti-Semitic. Maybe if the Jews of Ukraine would stop being Jewish first and living like all other Ukrainians, then maybe anti-senitism would go away. To keep calling us genetic anti-Semites is an excuse. The Jews need to either respect Ukrainians and our land, or simply get out. Yes, I am Ukrainian Nationakist and fight for my land, while most Jews have power and influence in our government. You want us to like you? Then stop calling us anti-Semites.

This ongoing Kremlin aggression against the sovereign Ukraine has exposed real faces of all those who came to live here. There are many who support Kremlin, among whom are many Jewish immigrants from Russia and typical mentally soviet cities like Odessa, Donetsk, Tashkent and other. The proportion is somewhat for Ukraine behalf that makes me feel content. However, pro-Russian element is numerous and may start disturbing local political and ethnic quagmire, which is very serene and balanced. An alarming sound of a new Cold war sounds louder and more distinctive. That's why I want to say something new to this discussion - it's time for FBI to act and prevent. Should pro-Russia agents of influence commence stirring water and pour oil into flame. American institutions of security will have to intervene. The names are known and response must be formidable and effective. At last, I want to say how much I am pissed off by Soloway, Kovalyov and all those who work on behalf of our enemy in Moscow. Shame on you, Moscow proxies

How about give up 1 meal a week or family eating-out money to fundraise and help Ukrainian refugees? Praying is great so is posting media comments hazing others (as well as FB comments) but actually helping real victims is so much more rewarding.

Can we stop being Pro this and against That? Kids are dying, families are destroyed...and so far I see nobody more reasonable than Putin and it scarries me, because I voted for current administration and its turning my country into a State with ill-defined, police all, bully those who disagree with us - vision. I do not want to be hated by Afghanis, Iraqis, Iranians, Ukrainians and Russians alike for being US citizen, because my country's job is to not be Jack-of-all-trades master of being overextended, inefficient, righteous government. Otherwise, we are facing WWIII as soon as one of the opponents will choose to stand up to the current policy makers.

My guess is that the Ukraine is another attempt to pick a fight with old Cold War neighbour-opponent, and it looks like all that is done by Neo-Nazi power group will be labeled as Democratic and just, and people who like my family members favoring Russia or having family members who can not choose between "mom or dad" to fit the mold "us" vs "them". I also can not feel comfortable to see how many videos on you-tube from foreign journalists and politicians criticising US are "censored-removed". Freedom of speech? I feel cheated: they censor freedoms in Russia not my America.

I worry about going back to Cold War style political games, but I can not pretend I am incapable to read information in three foreign languages (some of which is censored on you-tube), and make my own conclusions. I do not know about you, but I do not believe the United States has Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghanis and others' best interest in mind. US is about US. Plain and simple. May be if like in case of supporting cunnibal terrorists, Government is wrong in this case, too?

How can the US government that invaded Iraq, Syria. Afghanistan and more to comment on violations of International Law, Souvereignity and such? It is a double standard: us doing it - justified, them - wrong doing. Now, the US government these days supports Syrian rebel leader cutting organs of fallen enemy combatants and eating those for his political propoganda! Fellow citizens, are we all with our multitude of christianity based as well as other religious beliefs in support of these norms of military engagement?

Neo-Nazi agenda! How can any country including Germany or the US support people with anti-Semitic views? And when jewish community is not alarmed by that factor, it puzzles me. I grew up in Berdichev, zhitomirskaya oblasty, the Ukraine, where before WWII 60, 000 jewish people shared territory and life with all other soviet citizens. During WWII Nazi military marked that area and butchered almost all of the jewish population! I still can not read historic accounts of those events without tearing up. No excuses of any kind in my book to support pro-fascist oriented governing order.

1. There are lots of things I respect and like about country I live in, but the US has a long record of being a master and sponsoring "proxy wars", militant conflicts and other events all over the world; 2. The most notable conflicts are Vietnam war (US vs USSR), numerous Latin American conflicts (El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc), Iran (assasination of a democratically elected leader by Iranian militia sponsored by the US), Afghanistan (sponsoring Taliban movement fighting against USSR back in 1970), list can go on. And words like "democracy", "freedom", and such were just a part of the ideological propaganda justifying the wrong doings of the Government, and unfortunatelly, it is still used today. Instead of explaining the US citizens the real, unattractive and hypocritical agenda. 3. My family and friends are not bothered by me being 1/2 Russian; they can not stand me living in the country that supports Neo-Nazi government that "perfectly fits EUs agenda by turning the existent Ukrainian industry into the oblivion and allowing Nato military expansion" 4. They hate the US Goverment using their families and communities as acceptable loss factor of its International political move. 5. Crimea is historically Russian. No European country or the US agenda will force Russia to give up the land that historically was either Turkish, Greek or Russian. Nikita Khruschyov abused his power to gift Crimea to the Ukrainian Republic, and it was not his property to begin with back than to do that. Read the history! May be Russia needs to demand Alaska back? After all Russia sold Alaska their land to America. I wonder how quickly US fleet will be by the Bering straight? Makes no common sense unless one is incapable of objectivity.

First and foremost, respect for each other and objectivity should prevail. I am Ukrainian and Russian first generation immigrant and American citizen. I have family in the Ukraine, Russia and the US, and being educated (both in the Ukraine, as well as Russia, with second BA and MEd earned in the USA), I look at the situation from 3 different perspectives and wonder if "us" vs "them" approach has not taught the world, and, especially, Jewish community anything? I understand that we all have our own biases, prejudices, as well as political opinions based on our personal experiences, but one must know history, culture, and political practices of all 3 to have "well-informed, objective view". It will wonderful if one has also lived in all 3 cultures to be lacking "allegiances". I have difficulty nowadays with people who understand very little but speak a lot, frequently very loudly and very obnoxiously, using name calling and derogatory remarks towards "the other side". I understand that one tends to favor the side sharing his/her side or political opinion.

the same comments accusing putin of being anti-jewish, anti-democratic, and anti-american can just as easily be used against obama. obama has apologized for american actions without justification and disparaged america in front of other countries. he has acted in a negative and disparaging way towards israel, and has authorized spying on american citizens without legal justification. he isn't any better than putin.

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