By BERNIE BELLAN With the war in Ukraine still raging, its effects are being felt especially closely by individuals who have relatives or friends in that country.
Such is the case with several newer members of our own Jewish community in Winnipeg, who either came to Winnipeg directly from Ukraine, or who emigrated first to Israel, then to Winnipeg.
Wanting to learn more about the attitudes of former Ukrainians who are now members of our Jewish community here, I contacted Dalia Szpiro, who is the GrowWinnipeg Director at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, to inquire whether she could put me in touch with one or more of those individuals.
Subsequently, I spoke with two men of Jewish Ukrainian origin on Tuesday, March 22. The first, Alexey Guider, was quite willing for me to use his name, but the second individual asked me not to mention his name. The reason for that, as you’ll see if you read on, is that he was not totally unsympathetic to the view that Russian-speaking Ukrainians would not be opposed to seeing a part of Ukraine transferred to Russian control. He was worried that taking a position that might not be all that popular here was something that he didn’t want to lead to potential backlash against him or his family.
My primary purpose in speaking with both men was to try and find out what they are hearing from friends and relatives still in Ukraine. Further, I wondered what their attitudes were toward the war that is currently going on in Ukraine.
Alexey Guider explained that he and his wife (from whom he is now separated) came to Winnipeg 11 years ago, directly from Kiev, which is where he and his wife lived for 10 years before emigrating to Winnipeg. He noted that they were both planning on making aliyah to Israel, but they “decided to come to Canada instead.” Their two children were both born in Winnipeg, Alexey noted.
Alexey said that he’s a business analyst working at New Flyer Industries. He added that he has “a small business as well.”
I asked Alexey how many family members he still has in Ukraine?
His parents were living there until quite recently, he answered – in a town close to Kiev called Irpin . His “siblings live in Israel,” Alexey said.
I asked whether Irpin was under attack?
“I’m not sure at the moment,” Alexey answered. “It was captured, liberated, and captured again,” he said. “I’m not 100% sure what’s going on right now –but it’s not suitable for life at the moment.”
“Have you been in touch with your parents?” I asked.
Alexey explained that his parents were able to leave Ukraine shortly before Russia invaded, and go to Germany, where his grandfather had been living. “They went there in the middle of February – just before he died,” Alexey said. “They were able to say good bye – and then the war started…they were lucky.”
Alexey added that his mother-in-law is still in Ukraine – in the western part. “There’s no heavy fighting there,” he noted, “although at least twice a day there’s an air raid alert – so she has to run for safety.”
The rest of Alexey’s family, other than his siblings in Israel, live in other parts of Europe, he said.
“But what about your friends?” I asked. “You must still have many friends who remained in Ukraine?”
“Yes, I have lots of friends,” Alexey said. “Some of them escaped before the war. Some of them went to Poland. I have one friend who went to Spain with her kid. She was able to get her parents there too. I talk to her every day. She’s very anxious. Her husband is still in Ukraine. A man can’t leave Ukraine. “ (Men between the ages of 18-65 are not allowed to leave and must report for military duty.)
Alexey mentioned that he and his parents had been very involved with the Jewish community in Ukraine. His father, he said, was director of a Reform congregation in that country, while his mother was a program coordinator for the congregation.
Even though they’re in Germany now, “they have been helping members of the Jewish community to get out of Ukraine to Poland…not just Jewish people,” Alexey added.
I said to Alexey that I had read that most Ukrainian Jews who are able to leave that country prefer to go to Germany, rather than Israel.
“People are hesitant to go to Israel because it’s a similar situation there (as Ukraine),” he suggested. “There was shelling all over Israel.”
Something that Alexey told me though which took me somewhat by surprise was when he said that “most people who have left Ukraine (and who are still leaving) “are planning on returning when the war’s over.”
Yet, notwithstanding the desire of most Ukrainians who have left the country to be able to return home – and apparently the preference of most Jews who have left to move to Germany, I wondered whether Ukrainians would be eager to come to Canada if they were offered the opportunity?
The Canadian government has taken steps to expedite the immigration of Ukrainian refugees to this country, including dropping the normal visa requirement and allowing Ukrainians to obtain work permits immediately upon their arrival, although there will be a two-year maximum stay permitted for anyone coming here under the relaxation of the normal rules.
As a result, Alexey told me that he is in the process of bringing his parents here under the new provisions. They have family in Germany, he said, but this will be an opportunity for them to see their grandchildren again, so of course they’re eager to come, he explained.
In addition to his parents, Alexey will also be hosting two other friends who will be arriving within the next few weeks, he told me. “I’m going to have a full house,” he said.
He added that many Manitobans of Ukrainian heritage have been offering to take in refugees from Ukraine. (He said there’s been a Facebook group created for that specific purpose with a great many members already.)
Alexey added though that it would be great if the Jewish Federation here were to take the initiative and ask members of the Jewish community to volunteer to take in Jewish (and non-Jewish) refugees from Ukraine. I told him that I’d asked representatives of the Federation whether that is an initiative they will undertake and that I hoped the Federation would respond to my inquiry.
I did receive a response from Adam Levy, the Federation’s Public & Community Relations Director, to my query when I asked whether the Federation might want to ask members of the Jewish community whether they’d be prepared to take in refugees from Ukraine.
Here is what Adam wrote on March 25: “At this time, we are not making such an ask of the community, but continue to re-assess the situation on a daily basis as needs change and evolve. If community members wish to take Ukrainian newcomers into their homes, they can certainly do that.
“This is why we have settlement services in our community. Besides finding housing, there are many other vital parts to living in Canada that these services help to facilitate. We hope that they will utilize these resources so that their needs will be met and their transition to life in Canada will be as painless as possible.”
While Alexey Guider comes from Kiev, which is in the western part of Ukraine, and which is Western oriented in terms of its culture and politics, other Ukrainian Jews, especially those in the eastern part of the country, might have stronger connections to Russia.
Such was the case with Michael (not his real name), who told me he left Ukraine when he was 10, at which point his family moved to Israel for 20 years. He and his wife came to Winnipeg with their three-month-old baby eight years ago. (He wanted to thank the Jewish Federation for its help in bringing him and his family here. He specifically cited Dalia Szpiro’s assistance in that regard.)
Michael works in IT, having been involved in projects for companies both inside and outside Manitoba, he said.
When I asked Michael what part of Ukraine he came from, he said it was a town called Petrovsk, which is situated in the province of Luhansk Oblast. That area of Ukraine has been the scene of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces for the past eight years and, during Russia’s recent invasion it was taken over completely by Russian forces during the very first days of the invasion.
Two years ago, Michael noted, he was able to bring his parents and grandparents as well to Winnipeg, under a Federal sponsorship program. But, he added, “I still have a bunch of family in Ukraine.”
He said that another grandfather and an uncle of his are in Luhansk, while his wife’s mother and aunt are outside of Luhansk, in an area that has been subject to intermittent bombardment for the past eight years.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, Luhansk and the areas adjacent to it are now quiet, Michael said, as they are now totally under Russian control. “The people are working, shopping centres are open, so are restaurants,” he added.
As noted, an aunt of Michal’s left the Luhansk area with her two daughters (who are approximately the same age as Michael) eight years ago when the fighting first began there, and they moved to a town west of Luhansk.
“It’s quieter there,” Michael said. “You can’t compare to the other places, but still they have sirens in the middle of the night, they’re hiding, they’re getting some humanitarian aid – they’re volunteering in those centres. Basically, right now there is no active combat going on in that part, but there’s uncertainty where everything is going. The economy is stalled; they’re not working.”
What he’s been able to do though is send money to them through Western Union – which is “deposited directly into their bank account,” Michael said.
I asked Michael whether he’s in touch with his family in Ukraine. He said that he is, through a platform called “Viber” (which, interestingly, was developed in Israel).
But I was curious to know what life was like for his relatives who are now living in areas totally under Russian control. “From what you say, life is pretty normal,” I said to Michael.
In response, he told this story about his uncle, who is still living in Luhansk: “He was going someplace, going shopping or something. He was stopped by two Russian soldiers…they were checking his passport and his papers. He took his hat off. He’s like 75. He’s like a traditional Jewish person – he looks Jewish. And they said to him, ‘Sorry father’– (a Russian expression, Michael explained) and they apologized. They said ‘You look like someone else.’ They were looking for resistance. They checked his paperwork and wished him good day, and off he went.”
“So this is fair and normal in the city of Luhansk,” Michael said.
I said I was surprised to hear what Michael just told me. I said, “So this means the Russian soldiers are behaving fairly nicely,” I suggested.
Michael agreed, adding, “The Western media. They are reporting just one side of the story. And, to be honest, I don’t know who is wrong, who is right. You know, you see all those terrible things on the TV, on Facebook, on Instagram, but on Viber – and I haven’t heard from my uncle for a week or so, he says that everything is stable, everyone is okay.”
“Isn’t that interesting?” I responded. I continued, asking Michael, “What would you say then if the Russians took over all of Ukraine, how do you think they would behave?”
Michael answered: “This is what the Western world really doesn’t understand. Ukraine is actually divided into two. The eastern part is truly Russian-speaking population. They share the same traditions, the same language – everything. Even myself, when I was in school, Ukrainian was like a foreign language. It’s like you learn French here. It’s as if Ontario and Quebec were combined together – and you called it Ukraine.
“For those areas where it’s mostly Russian-speaking people, the quality of life is not that great. They don’t really care who is in power, honestly. They just want to get to work, get paid, and feed their families. The people there are mostly farmers, miners (of coal). They don’t really have an agenda for politics. They don’t want war. They just want to lead a normal life.
“In the western part of Ukraine, it’s a different story because they’re more Polish in nature. They have stronger connections to Poland. There was always tension between Ukrainians and Russians. It’s not spoken of, but during the Holocaust the Ukrainians cooperated with the Nazis. (To which I said, “Yes, I know.”) More (Jewish) people were killed by Ukrainians than by Nazis. These days we don’t talk about that. But I don’t know who is better and who is worse (comparing Ukrainians and Russians). They both do the same.
“It’s not black and white, it’s sort of gray,” Michael suggested.
“But how do you react when you see what they (the Russians) are doing to Mariupol and to Kharkiv?” I asked Michael. “Mariupol has been destroyed.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Michael said. “How do I feel? I feel bad. How can you feel when the city is being destroyed, but the point is: Russia has its own agenda and Ukraine has its agenda. Someone is making a lot of money out of this.” (I didn’t ask him what he meant by that.)
I wanted to return to asking about Michael’s relatives who were still in Ukraine. I wondered whether any of them are trying to get out?
He explained that it’s all but impossible where his relatives are. “So,” I asked, “what can we as Winnipeg Jews do to help people like your relatives? We can help with money, I suppose,” I said.
“I guess so,” Michael said. “But he noted that the Russian army is not progressing to the centre of the country where his aunt and his cousins are living. His aunt is working part-time in a grocery store, Michael explained.
I remarked to Michael that I found his perspective totally different from Alexey’s and was rather unsure what to make of what he had told me.
Based on what he told me, I wondered whether the war could be brought to an end if Ukraine were to hand over the two eastern provinces (Luhansk and Donetsk) that are primarily Russian speaking, along with Crimea (which used to belong to Russia)?
“But,” Michael suggested, “they (the Russians) won’t stop. Sanctions mean nothing to them. What do you care about sanctions when you have nothing to begin with?”
He said that there should be “some kind of reasonable negotiations,” but when I suggested that Zelensky has been willing to engage in honest negotiations from the very beginning, yet the Russians are engaged in some kind of charade when it comes to negotiations, he said “I don’t know. I’m not a politician.”
But after listening to Michael, I felt that I had a better understanding how Jewish Ukrainians are not all on the same page when it comes to this terrible conflict. Yet, I don’t want what I’ve written in any way to come across as a defence of what Vladimir Putin has done – and I’m afraid that someone reading this could easily extract from some of Michael’s comments exactly that. Still, I wonder if perhaps, by understanding somewhat better the divisions that exist within Ukraine between Russian speaking and Ukrainian speaking Ukrainians, we might come to the realization that a compromise solution will have to take into account those divisions.
Is a compromise possible? It would seem so, but Vladimir Putin and his generals seem determined to punish Ukrainians terribly first, and for expatriate Ukrainians like Alexey and Michael, they can only watch and wait – and hope that their relatives and friends still living in Ukraine don’t become casualties.
Postscript: Several days after I interviewed Alexey and Michael, I was troubled by the message that I discerned from what Michael had said to me. He was quite sanguine about Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, I thought.
So I decided to look further into his claims that Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel quite differently about the Russian invasion than do Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians.
According to an article in the Washington Post, “most Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel Ukrainian.” The article went on to say that “In Ukraine, the language people speak cannot be equated with ethnic identity. A larger representative study from 2013 examining the identity of Ukrainians living in various regions of the country found that the vast majority consider their ethnic identity as Ukrainian – the lone exception was in Crimea….strong Ukrainian identification can be found in predominantly Russian-speaking parts such as southern, eastern Ukraine, and even Donbas – where 70 percent or more identify as Ukrainian.”
I thought about Michael’s relative acquiescence to the Russian occupation of that part of Ukraine where he lived – until he was 10. But that was 28 years ago. Even though he says he is in touch with relatives in that area, including his grandfather and uncle, I wonder just how much Michael’s views were shaped by his experience growing up in a country that was under Soviet occupation until1991. According to what he told me, Michael would have left Ukraine for Israel in 1994. One can well imagine how much the country has changed in the past 28 years.
But to say that “But I don’t know who is better and who is worse (comparing Ukrainians and Russians),” as Michael said; “they both do the same”, would seem to be a distortion of the reality that now exists in Ukraine.