During Soviet times, efforts to Russify Jews intensified: Andriy Kulykov

What was life like for Jews in Kyiv after the Second World War? How did the city lose its Jewish color, and can it be restored?

In today's episode of Encounters, a program devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations, we spoke with the journalist, television host, and Kyiv resident Andriy Kulykov.

Andriy Kulykov's recollections of Kyiv's Jews during his childhood

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You were born and raised in Kyiv. What years are we talking about?

Andriy Kulykov: From 1957 to the present, because I think that I am still growing up, but in a different direction from the earlier one, of course.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: The Jewish history of Kyiv stopped sometime during the tsarist period when Jews lived in the area of Kontraktova Ploshcha. Then there was a big gap, and then Babyn Yar. Somehow I cannot link up these two periods. What do you recall of Kyiv's Jews? Where could they be encountered and heard?

Andriy Kulykov: In Shevchenko Park. You could come to Shevchenko Park to walk around and would find elderly Jews sitting on benches there. Jews could be identified because they spoke to each other in Yiddish. As late as the 1960s, when I was 9–11 years old, you could still hear Yiddish — not everywhere in Kyiv but in places where elderly Jews gathered. 

My affiliation with Jewish topics began when I was still very young. I had no grandfathers, but my surrogate grandfather was a Jew: Yakiv Abramovych Smolensky. He was my distant relative and a very good, nice person; we called him "Uncle Yasha."

He personified the tragedy of the Jewish people both in Ukraine and in the Soviet Union as he was the sole Second World War survivor of all the relatives, of the entire generation of Smolenskys. And why? Because he was at the front.

As for the intervening period between tsarist times and Babyn Yar, anyone born in Kyiv during that period remembered — and still recalls — that, for example, Ploshcha Peremohy was known popularly as Yevbaz, short for Jewish Bazaar — a real Jewish bazaar was located there. Incidentally, today there is a café called Yevbaz there, but 50 percent of people don't know why it's called that way.

When this square was named Ploshcha Peremohy, a joke began circulating in Kyiv: "Israel's victory in the Middle East wars was first recognized in Kyiv."

Many Jews used to live on Saksahanska and Zhylianska streets, which were adjacent to today's Ploshcha Peremohy, because — and I don't know how much truth there is to this — there was a legend in Kyiv about the inner Pale of Settlement. People tend to think that the district traditionally densely populated by Jews was the Podil — but that's not the case. During tsarist times, Jews were supposedly allowed to reside on one side of Zhylianska Street and Saksahansky Street, but not on the other. My grandmother lived in a communal apartment with two female neighbors. One was Henia Havrylivna, and the other was Faina Mykhailivna. So, in this aspect, I was also involved in Jewish topics and relations. Incidentally, Henia Havrylivna's grandson, Zorik, visited her very, very rarely, which is why she directed at me all of her untapped reserves of grandmotherly love and affection.

Since then, I do not eat powdered sugar and gefilte fish because as soon as I showed up at my grandmother's for a visit, her neighbors would start feeding me these things.

The Slavicization and Russification of Jews under Soviet rule 

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Your mention of names is apt. I know that many people chose names similar to their real ones or a Slavicized version of them, and that, too, was an enormous tragedy. Everyone knew what their real names were, but their documents said otherwise. Can we say this was a manifestation of Jews being rejected, even though it was under the Soviet Union, where the policy seemed to be that everyone was equal and "building an absolutely different world?"

Andriy Kulykov: I think that this was a reaction, and in fact, we saw this not just among Jews — people were compelled to adapt and accommodate themselves to be regarded as Russians, first and foremost. They rarely took Ukrainian surnames, but some did.

For example, I didn’t know that Yurovsky is a typically Jewish surname. To me, it could be a Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, or Russian surname. My friend Pasha Yurovsky — he was one of my two best friends in the lower elementary grades — turned out to be Jewish. How did I find out about this? Pasha and I ended up at the same pioneer camp. We were eleven years old at the time. So, imagine: We arrived and were standing in line to register our year of birth, etc., and the eleven-year-olds were asked the following question: "Ethnicity?" And Pasha said: "Jew." It had never even occurred to me to wonder about who he was. I asked him: "You're a Jew?" This episode taught me a lot because my friend — no, he didn’t exactly flare up but stood tall and said: "Yes, I am a Jew. So, you're not going to play with me anymore?" Of course, we remained friends. He realized what was what, but it was revealing. Pasha and his family were not among those who hid their Jewishness; they simply didn’t see the need to advertise it.

Pasha could not enroll in the Faculty of Philosophy at Kyiv University because he was a Jew

But later, Pasha could not enroll in the Faculty of Philosophy at Kyiv University because he was a Jew, and Jews were not admitted there. He trained to be a professional surveyor, and he even traveled to the Pamir Mountains to capture the Abominable Snowman with Fedor [Igor — Transl.] Tatsl. But he left for Israel as soon as an opportunity to do so without problems presented itself. And you know what? He enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is how we lost people.

On the other hand, these people gained something. At one time, I knew — and still know — people who dreamed of immigrating to Israel precisely because, for them, it was the promised land — their ancient fatherland, as they believed. However, my friend was not one of them. He left because he was not allowed to develop as he wanted here.

My mother had a very close friend whom everyone called Tetiana Petrivna, but according to documents, she was Taiba Peisikhivna. For us, it was much easier to say "Tetiana Petrivna." But her surname remained typically Jewish, and no one ever doubted — nor did she ever hide the fact — that she was Jewish. Her real name was only revealed once when she was retiring, and the trade union awarded her some honorary certificate.

Of course, the authorities likely tried to Russify Jews most of all, and they were susceptible to this because of their different religion. As paradoxical as it may seem, Ukrainians and Belarusians, too, faced the risk of assimilation; the thinking was, we are all Orthodox, so we will not press you as much. And here were the Jews, who differed in this additional respect.

Hidden synagogues

During the Soviet period, I visited a synagogue two times, and I was struck by how beautiful it was inside. Of course, I didn’t understand a thing about it. I had read the Old Testament in translation but had no great interest in religion. Nevertheless, it was worth it to visit a synagogue. So, I was in a functioning synagogue once and, without realizing it, in a synagogue that housed a puppet theater twenty or thirty times. This is our finest temple, called the Brodsky Synagogue. Had I known more about Jewish culture and architecture then, I would have immediately recognized that this was a synagogue refashioned into a puppet theater.

Jewish life between the tsarist period and the Second World War

Jewish life in Kyiv flourished specifically between the tsarist period and the arrival of the Nazi occupiers. According to German data, up to 30 percent of Kyiv's population was Jewish. The occupiers prepared for this; we know for what purpose. Maybe, it was not, in fact, 30 percent, but the figure was still very significant. There was a Jewish drama theater here, Jewish newspapers, a Jewish magazine, schools with Yiddish as the language of instruction, etc. Of course, the people who miraculously survived the occupation or returned to Kyiv preserved Yiddish and some words. We know that the Ukrainian language borrowed some words from Yiddish and vice versa.

Soviet policy on Jews in mass media discourse 

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Can you remember how the state policy on Jews was represented in the mass media? Was it propaganda? How was this topic covered?

Andriy Kulykov: Naturally, there were no accusations that the Jews were bad people. Some paragraphs were deliberately excised from works of Ukrainian literature, or the word zhyd was replaced, not even with ievrei but with other words. However, the critique of Zionism supplanted all this because the authorities could not forgive Zionism for being essentially a socialist movement or, at least, very close to socialist ideology. At first, the Soviet Union supported the State of Israel, but this attitude changed later. Both Zionists and Ukrainian "bourgeois nationalists" were transformed into fierce and most persecuted enemies.

Caricatures appeared, which necessarily had to depict a Zionist with a huge nose, lips, bulging eyes, and the like. Clearly, there were certain stereotypical ethnic features, although an ethnic look is false to a great degree: We are all different — there are different Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians.

When did the Jews start fading into oblivion in Kyiv?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Let's return to Kyiv and the feel of the city. I was born and raised here but started learning about Kyiv’s Jews only once I grew up. I didn't sense their presence, and the city hasn’t had any distinct Jewish mood, cult, or color. Do you recall when this began to blur, and some sort of awareness of significant Jewish presence started to disappear?

Andriy Kulykov: This was the late 1960s and practically all the 1970s. First of all, when the Jewish Bazaar was being liquidated, Jews moved to Sinnyi rynok [Hay Market] to trade. The marketplace doesn't exist anymore, but I remember that granny lived on Saksahanska Street, and she and I would go to Sinnyi rynok, where there were a lot of female Jewish traders. There's a funny story about external features. At the time, I was chubby and dark-haired, and my eyes were darker than they are now, so I could be taken for a Jewish boy. My granny and I came to the bazaar, and a female trader addressed us in Yiddish. And my granny said: "Excuse me, I don't understand." Another trader did the same thing. And a third trader asked [in Russian]: "Lady, why don't you know the language of your ancestors?" Granny replied: "But I'm not Jewish." And the other said to her: "What are you saying? You have the little boy with you, and he's a Jew." I still remember this clearly.

The Nazi occupiers killed tens and hundreds of thousands of people. The Jewish drama theater was never revived after that, of course, and only some drama groups operated. As far as I know, there is a Building of Culture that houses a Jewish ethnographic group even today, located next to the Arsenal subway station.

Can Kyiv's Jewish color be restored?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In your opinion, who is responsible for the fact that this Jewish drama theater was not restored and Kyiv's Jewish color has not been preserved? Is it the [Soviet] regime's fault, or did the citizens themselves, particularly Jews and local residents, also simply succumb to this policy, not being able to resist it?

Andriy Kulykov: I think that the fault of Jewish residents stands at 1 percent, if one can even discuss guilt here. They were wiped out and largely left to the mercy of fate, experiencing immense trauma.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How realistic is it to restore this color? Kyiv seems to be losing a lot by not having this articulate, clear-cut page that we all remember, understand, and see in this city. Apart from a synagogue, I don’t see any other markers, and they are not associated with Kyiv.

Andriy Kulykov: I am afraid this restoration is impossible. The question is: Is it necessary? But we must not give in further. We need to pay attention to the people who dress in traditional Jewish clothing. Perhaps once an eruv is established — a small enclosure in which all Jewish religious institutions are maintained — this will become visible. But, but… Music, dances — we have to pay attention to this. Klezmer music exists in our country, but we don't promote it very much because it’s complicated yet very interesting. If you listen to Mitya Gerasimov and his Pushkin Klezmer Band… The things they do! This is sublime creativity that should be promoted. People's curiosity can be sparked by things like this.

There is an interesting play called Ievreiskyi hodynnyk [The Jewish Watch], written by Andrii Ruzhkovsky and Sergei Kiselev.

We don't know a lot about interweaving. Leonid Kiselev, the author of the excellent Russian-language poem "About the Ukrainian Language," came from a Russian-speaking Jewish family that lived in Kyiv, and he was simultaneously part of three cultures. The fact that this person became a figure in Ukrainian literature gives us reason to think that we have much in common and can work together, but what is lost can no longer be restored.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

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