With Volodymyr Zelensky in power, could his Jewish identity unite this fractious country?
The final episode of the first season of the Ukrainian hit TV series, Servant of the People (Sluga Narodu), finds president Vasilii Holoborodko – a history-teacher-turned-president – at a live talk show. He is about to reveal his prime minister’s corrupt behaviour. Holoborodko, who frequently hallucinates historical figures, is confronted by Ivan the Terrible. The 16th-century tyrant advises him to consider torture. “You are the law. You are the tsar,” Ivan tells him. When Holoborodko protests, Ivan asks: “Then who are you? Whose are you? Holoborodko? I once had a jester by that name. A real wit. I had his tongue cut out.”
The suggestion that Holoborodko could be a ‘tsar’ is funny because of Ukraine’s long struggle to gain political and economic independence from Russia – after all, the country has been embroiled in a war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region since 2014. It is even funnier because the actor, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. Although the fictional Holoborodko is not identified as anything other than Ukrainian, Ivan’s insistence on knowing ‘whose’ the president is, and his likening of the character to a (tortured) court jester, hint at the irony of an ethnic minority assuming the leadership of a Slavic nation.
Who is the comedian president?
This comic exchange is pertinent to recent events in Ukraine. In May, Zelensky, the actor-comedian who played the president on TV, became the country’s president, ousting the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in an unprecedented landslide vote of 73 percent.
Like Holoborodko, Zelensky is an unknown quantity. Who is he? Whose is he? Will he move towards Europe or slide back towards Russia? Will he take Ivan the Terrible’s advice and torture opponents? Recent police brutality, under an allegedly corrupt minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov (who was appointed in 2014), has led some to fear a return to the 1990s, when power struggles yielded violence. But Zelensky’s policies remain obscure.
If Zelensky’s Jewishness matters, it may be that it helps him to distance himself from either Ukrainian or Russian nationalism. Born in the southern city of Krivii Rog to secular Jewish parents, the 41-year-old comedian has described himself as a Ukrainian “with Jewish blood”.
In one episode of the show, Holoborodko sits around a table with his friends (now cabinet members), reminiscing about a Lenin youth summer camp. One of them notes in deadpan that it’s been renamed for Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist with ties to Nazism during World War II – and whom former president Viktor Yushchenko has called a “hero of Ukraine”. The dismissive Bandera quip is complex. In addition to evoking some degree of Soviet nostalgia, the joke criticises those who prioritise Ukraine’s struggle for independence. This includes Jewish activists who, in their rejection of Russian political influence, have ironically embraced the slur ‘Zhido-Banderovets’ (Jew-Banderite).
The 'Jewish vote'
In a country with 50,000-150,000 Jewish citizens (roughly 0.2 per cent of the total population), Jewish politicians have represented a variety of parties. Many Jews are Russian-speaking and live in eastern Ukraine, which might suggest a greater desire for positive relations with Russia. However, across Ukraine, Jews emerged as prominent activists during the 2014 ‘Euromaidan’ uprising, which called for closer ties to Europe. Jewish leaders have spoken forcefully about the lack of antisemitism in present-day Ukraine as compared to that in Soviet times. Although Zelensky achieved greater geographical unity in the recent election than past presidents, those who opposed him tended to reside in Ukraine’s western regions of Transcarpathia, Bukovina and Galicia.
A complex history
Jews outside Ukraine tend to associate the country with the pogroms and massacres of the past. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the leader of the 1648 Cossack uprising against the Poles that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews, is still referred to by many Jews as: “Chmiel, may his name be obliterated”. The 1648 uprising remained, in collective imagination, emblematic of the waves of pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Those who rejected the 2013-14 Euromaidan message of moving further from Russia and closer to Europe readily likened the protesters to “pogromists”.
The Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish nexus is far from simple. In the 1654 Pereyaslav treaty, Khmelnytsky ceded the newly won Ukrainian territories to Muscovy. Over the centuries, leaders have celebrated this historic union of Orthodox brethren as the moment Russia became great. When Khrushchev gifted the Crimean Peninsula to Soviet Ukraine in 1954, it was in memory of the 300th anniversary of this Ukrainian-Russian brotherhood. The presence of Jewish revolutionaries who held prominent roles in Ukraine in the early Soviet period further complicated the relationship: Ukrainian peasants, abused and deprived of their land in these tumultuous years, often viewed Jews as Soviet agents. While on the one hand Russia has long celebrated its Slavic brotherhood with Ukraine, on the other it has admonished Ukraine as the site of historical antisemitism.
Beyond the Ukranian-Russian bind
The role of Jews as foils in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship could expose Zelensky to antisemitic bias, or it could point a way forward. In the Ivan the Terrible segment of Servant of the People, the tsar asks Holoborodko: “So how are you, my brothers, still under the rule of the Poles and Lithuanians? Be patient my kindred… We will soon free you." Holoborodko responds that the Ukrainians do not need freeing: “We will go to Europe."
“What? But we are Slavs! We are one blood!” Holoborodko rejects the relevance of blood, adding: “You go one way, and we’ll go the other. Let’s head in different directions and we’ll talk again in 300 years."
Zelensky has, so far, avoided explicitly identifying with a Russian or anti-Russian cause. He has simultaneously spoken of joining NATO and negotiating with the Kremlin to end the war in the Donbas. Putin has hinted that the new Ukrainian president does not inspire confidence.
Moreover, Zelensky is hardly a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Jews. On his popular variety show, Vechernyi Kvartal, Zelensky plays with antisemitic stereotypes. In a scene about an Israeli medical clinic in Odessa, Zelensky and co-star Koshevoy, both in yarmulkes, haggle over the cost of an appendectomy. In another sketch, Zelensky, dressed in the same yarmulke and wire-rimmed glasses, tries to avoid paying his electricity bill. He has even parodied the media oligarch Kolomoysky, affecting an exaggerated Jewish accent in his trademark gravelly voice.
Will his Jewish background matter to his political platform? Probably not much. But it may give Ukraine the opportunity to reassess its historical multiethnicity. Zelensky, in spite or because of his inexperience, could offer a new model for an East European democracy – one that defines itself by its political aspirations rather than by faith, ethnicity, or language.
By Amelia Glaser
Photos © IMDB
This is an abridged version of Amelia Glaser’s article from the July 2019 issue of Jewish Renaissance. To read the full piece purchase the issue or take out a subscription, so you can access our entire archive online.
Servant of the People is available on Netflix in certain countries and there are a few free episodes on YouTube.