‘He finds laughter in the tragedy’: Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky set to become first Jewish president of Ukraine

On Sunday, Zelensky will probably become Ukraine’s first president of Jewish origin, breaking boundaries in a country long associated with antisemitism, writes

Friday 19 April 2019 15:41 BST
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Hasidic pilgrims have travelled to Uman for two hundred years to visit Rabbi Nachman's tomb
Hasidic pilgrims have travelled to Uman for two hundred years to visit Rabbi Nachman's tomb (Oliver Carroll)

Lines of corrugated iron, black hats and sidelocks guide you to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman. Somewhere inside the maze, dozens of joyous Hasidic pilgrims are reciting the 10 psalms they hope will will bring them relief from all sins.

They are some of the hundreds of thousands of Hasidic pilgrims that each year make their way to Uman, a town lost in the middle of Ukraine and arguably a previous century too.

Nachman, a mystical teacher somewhat obsessed with the transgression of "wasted seed" (masturbation), came to Uman’s hills in 1810, as a seriously ill man, close to death. According to legend, he wanted to rest here in order to die alongside the some 2,000 “martyrs” killed in the town’s infamous 1768 pogrom. Nachman told his disciples that they too should make the trip to Uman after his death – and since that time, the town has become the equivalent of a Hasidic Mecca.

Like the rest of Ukraine, Uman hasn’t always been a good place for Jews. Persecution has accompanied almost every stage of history: from the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the Communists, who from 1917 sealed the city off from foreigners.

The worst page of history came in 1941, with Hitler’s invasion, sending the town’s entire Jewish population of at least 17,000 to open pits in one of the very first acts of the Holocaust.

But now, it seems, Uman, like the rest of the country, is about to break with tradition and help elect Ukraine’s first ever president with Jewish origins.

Bar a major upset, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky will beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko handsomely in this Sunday’s elections. Most predictions are now focused on the scale of his landslide, with numbers increasing with each new poll.

It’s a prospect that has created considerable excitement among locals – especially among the 6,000 or so Jewish returnee population.

Oleh Vyshnevetsky, head of the local Jewish community group, says Jews can “immediately” see a kindred spirit in Zelensky.

They were especially proud, he says, by the way the presidential favourite stood by his Jewish identity in rebuffing Ukraine’s populist ethnic-nationalist politician Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party. Lyashko had accused Zelensky of lacking patriotism. Zelensky jokingly responded by threatening to “unleash” his Jewish mother on him.

“We adore the way he manages to find laughter in the tragedy of our country,” he says.

But Zelensky’s appeal stretches far beyond the Jewish population. Remarkably, it extends also into groups who identify with national icons associated with serious antisemitic crimes, including collaboration with the Nazis in extermination practices.

Vyshnevetsky hopes Zelensky’s election will give the nation an opportunity to come to terms with its past.

“Almost every national hero is essentially an executioner of the Jewish nation,” he says. “But even Stepan Bandera’s supporters in western Ukraine are with Zelensky,” he says of the Ukrainian nationalist leader, who was assassinated in 1959.

“Maybe this will help find some peace.”

Signs in Hebrew in Uman’s Hasidic district (Oliver Carroll)

Perhaps surprising for a country still commonly associated with antisemitism – thanks in large part to the unhindered violent actions of far-right groups like C14 and Azov, who have some links to government – Zelensky’s Jewish heritage has not been an obvious election issue in the campaign.

Early on, there were signs the Jewish card might be used. At one point, one of Poroshenko’s advisers wrote a social media post, claiming the country needed a “Ukrainian, Christian” leader in times of war. Another nationalist writer and commentator, Dmytro Korchynskaya, made the point more explicitly: the president of Ukraine was a “coat of arms” for the country; he could not be Jewish.

But such talk has mostly been limited to fringe commentators and anonymous social media posts.

“It’s obvious from the way the campaign has played out that Jewishness is no longer considered a negative thing,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, head of National Minorities Rights, a group monitoring xenophobia and hate crimes in Ukraine.

Likhachev’s group has recorded a marked decrease in antisemitism over the past five years. While vandalism “still happens” from time to time – Uman’s Jewish cemetery remains under lock and key, for example, after a spate of attacks –​ violence has thankfully become very rare.

A major study showed Ukraine to have the lowest level of antisemitism across the whole of eastern Europe.

A memorial plaque near to Uman’s central square marks the underground cellar where 2,000 local Jews were poisoned to death with diesel fumes under German occupation in 1941 (Oliver Carroll)

“The dynamic is a positive one, with data showing that the vast majority of Ukrainians view Jewish people in positive terms and as their own,” he says. “The conflicts of the past have been largely forgotten.”

Even more surprisingly, Ukrainians also seem unfussed by Zelensky’s association with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. The businessman, who wears his Jewishness even more prominently than Zelensky, has revelled in his caricature image as a tough and cynical tycoon.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would be an obvious target for attack. But Kolomoisky’s villainous image has been tempered somewhat by the critical role he played in 2014, stopping the wave of Russian-inspired counter-revolutions in the east. Using means fair and foul, the then-Dnepropetrovsk regional governor helped halt the advance, and probably changed the course of history.

For that reason, many Ukrainians view him much more positively than before.

Under Kolomoisky’s leadership, Jewish community organisations across the land were prominent supporters of the push against Russian-backed aggression. Vyshnevetsky’s Jewish organisations were no exception. They supported the Ukrainian army, and backed the Euromaidan revolution, though they didn’t announce it widely at the time.

These newest pages of history have changed the way many Ukrainians view the Jewish community, Vyshnevetsky says.

“We used to get vandals writing ‘piss off to Israel’ here in Uman,” he says. “All that stopped once Israel offered to help rehabilitate our wounded soldiers.”

The switch in attitudes is mirrored in statistical data from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. For the past 30 years, the centre has asked Ukrainians if they would accept various social groups as their neighbours, partners, friends and family. These polls show a dramatic uptick in numbers after 2014.

“It seems that Ukrainians began to see the Jewish people as being on their side, as loyal to Ukraine,” says the monitor Likhachev. “The social distance has decreased exponentially.”

Back in Uman, the Hebrew signs and the frenzy of the Hasidic quarter, for the most part, maintain an otherworldly distance from the rest of the town. But even here, Sunday’s elections have brought locals and visiting pilgrims together in a lively discussion.

Oleh Vyshnevetsky, head of the local Jewish community group in Uman, says Jews can ‘immediately’ see a kindred spirit in Zelensky (Oliver Carroll)

Nathan, surname withheld, a frequent visitor from Beit Shemesh, Israel, says the topic has caused surprise and interest in the Orthodox community across the world. The election of a Jewish president in Ukraine offers one bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture, he says. “When my dad first came to Uman in the 1960s, he was watched over at every moment of the day by Intourist officials that everyone understood were KGB officers. Some people managed to escape and hide in the forests. So we’ve come far.” (Intourist was the Soviet travel company via which all foreigners had to arrange trips to the bloc.)

“But with the idealisation of the far right here, you understand that the hatred is never far away. Jews can never be too optimistic about the future. Barack Obama was America’s first black president, but he was followed by a racist.”

Others, like Yaakov Dov Bleich, Ukraine’s American-born Chief Rabbi, are more sanguine.

Adviser to candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine ripe for change

Ukraine is a “young country in the early stages of its development”, he tells The Independent. Yes, the country needed to find new heroes, but that couldn’t come quickly. Of course, memory politics, with the “repugnant” fetishisation of the far right, remained an issue. But democracy and the democratic process were “key” to improving tolerance.

In Bleich’s view, Ukraine has progressed significantly in this regard during the five years of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency.

“I happen to think Poroshenko did a phenomenal job, but if democracy does give us Zelensky, so be it,” he says.

The idea of a Jewish president does not come without risks, he adds. “You only need to look at the unjust criticism Poroshenko received to understand this. People are going to have problems with Zelensky too. When you put his Jewishness into the mix, it might get dangerous.”

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