Josef Zissels - On the Path from Soviet Jews to Citizens of Ukraine

zisels-120x120Josef Zissels is the chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine (Vaad) and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress. The program “Encounters” is on the air and we are talking about the transformational path of Soviet Jews into citizens of Ukraine. We are also talking about the cooperation between various groups of dissidents and about the interaction between human rights dissidents, Zionists, and “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” both within the camps and at large.


Iryna Slavinska: I remember meeting you here in this broadcasting studio in October 2014 and discussing another project, “Citizens of Ukraine,” and talking about the life of the Jewish community in Ukraine in general, about issues of discrimination, and some social matters. We ended our conversation then with a talk off air about a very important and rarely discussed story in the discourse on Jews in Ukraine. You articulated it then as the “transformation of Soviet Jews into citizens of Ukraine.”

Josef Zissels: It sounded a bit different.

I.S.: Let’s rephrase it.

J.Z.: It sounded like this: “from Soviet Jews to Jews of Ukraine to Ukrainian Jews.

I.S.: So let’s talk about that. What’s the history? What are the points in this chain? Or perhaps not points but links.

J.Z: Perhaps you can view this humorously, but from the standpoint of identity and the laws of transformation of identity—I have for some fifteen years been intrigued by these problems relating to issues of identity, the crisis of identity, and so forth—you could say that thirty years ago during the time of the Soviet Union, the Jews living on its territory had very few unifying attributes of identity.

The reason is that Soviet authorities had been destroying not only Jewish, but any ethnic or religious identity, for seventy years. It resulted in us having just one identifying factor—state antisemitism.

This united us. There were some 2.5 million Jews in the former Soviet Union, about one percent of the population, and they were united by knowing to some extent that state antisemitism existed, affecting their lives, their education, jobs, career, and lives in general.

Some of them, of course, could speak the language, but they were mostly old people in western areas of the Soviet Union—Western Belarus, the Baltics, Western Ukraine, and Bessarabia, possibly Moldova. Some knew bits of history, others were aware of some traditions, but those were fragments. The only unifying factor was state antisemitism.

When later, this humanistic empire collapsed—although I suspect that in the subconscious of many of us it still exists, but formally it has collapsed—this factor lost its influence. There no longer existed a country epitomizing state antisemitism. It disintegrated into various countries, and so Ukraine, a formally independent state, started to rebuild its own, Ukrainian, state, identity. Not just an ethnic identity, but also a state Ukrainian identity. So all the ethnic minorities living on its territory began to reconstruct something of their own. However, the process of reconstruction of what we call a political nation, when most of a country’s residents have a common identity, a common political identity, not an ethnic identity but a political identity, which is called a “political nation,” is a very slow one. It is possibly much slower in Ukraine than in any other place of the world.

This process takes place both among Ukrainians and among minorities. Jews who ended up in Ukraine became Jews of Ukraine, for there was no more Soviet Union, but they had within them a lot from their past, and they have been searching…

I.S.: For what, for instance?

J.Z.: For what? This is an interesting question and it goes far beyond what we call Soviet. These are features of authoritarian consciousness. Totalitarian consciousness is constructed in a certain way. This is not a dialectical, not a genetic feature. This is upbringing. It’s an upbringing in a certain environment, where it is possible to develop those seeds in our psyche corresponding with authoritarian consciousness. If a person gets into a critical environment instead of an authoritarian, he or she develops a different disposition. But in principle all of us have both of them.

So, an authoritarian consciousness corresponds to certain matters. They are transferring one’s own liability to someone else. There is someone deciding on our behalf—we are subordinate to him, he is responsible for everything. We do what we’re obliged to. That’s it. There is no freedom to choose, like in a democratic society, and no freedom of responsibility. I take for myself liberty but I take the responsibility.

I.S.: Those are rights and obligations.

J.Z.: Yes. This is a matter for not only Jews, but for all citizens of an authoritarian society, of a post-totalitarian society.

Now, this is not all. There are many features accepted by an authoritarian society, and by a totalitarian consciousness, like invasion of privacy. I mean European citizens know they have their private life, privacy, and no one has the right to intrude—neither the state, nor neighbors, or even relatives. This is their micro-world, and it belongs only to them. Authoritarian society has no privacy. Anyone can intrude into a person’s family life, marriage, the lives of his or her children, and his or her personal life. The state and various institutions affiliated with the state do it all the time. We can remember this from our Soviet life. And there are many features characterizing an authoritarian person.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, we were all authoritarian persons to some extent. This happened among Jews as well, especially given that a diaspora minority lives according to certain laws, for it is primarily oriented first of all to the central authorities. This is a separate issue. I spoke about it on the Maidan in December 2013. Minorities living in a diaspora gradually transform, especially within empires, into authoritarian structures. They understand that only the metropolitan power can grant them rights, and that it can deprive it of everything and conduct a pogrom or something. So they look in this direction only.

In large empires with national and social movements, minorities fall into conflict with these movements because the movements oppose the metropolitan country, and minorities are oriented to it. And thus we have a schism in the minority, for older people of conservative views continue to follow the metropolitan country, like they used to do, but a portion of the youth—who make friends and fall in love and feel a part of the community, of society, who feel they are part of something broader than an ethnic minority—they follow their friends into these social or national-liberation movements.

This was felt back in the 19th-century Polish rebellions against the Russian Empire. There were three rebellions. The first one saw no Jews, in 1830 they participated, and in 1863 there were many of them. They were exiled to Siberia. They learned about Jews for the first time in Siberia, in Yakutia, because of those Jews exiled from Poland.

We lost focus but I have sketched this image of authoritarian people. The Jews of Ukraine used to have some of these authoritarian features, and some of them still do. Those who participated in such liberation movements, who were compassionate, who created an atmosphere around them, a dissident environment, were not only those who were in prison, but also included their families, and friends who created this atmosphere, and many more people…So these people started to adopt step-by-step the features of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian Crimean Tatars, Ukrainian Moldovans, Ukrainian Polish, and Ukrainian Jews. They identified themselves not with a nation or ethnicity, but with the state where this ethnicity prevails.

I.S.: We have with us here in the studio Josef Zissels, the chairman of Vaad Ukraine and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress.

There must be some kind of metaphorical chemistry boiling in this melting pot, when people with some special experience transform into Ukrainian Jews, Ukrainian Crimean Tatars, and eventually identify themselves with a political nation. We mentioned this phrase earlier today. What has happened? Is this some recent experience, like Euromaidan, or is it the memory of dissident experience?

J.Z.: All of it together. There are several factors influencing the formation of a political nation. We are still in the middle of this formation; we cannot say it has happened. We can see the process. Those special passionate moments like the Maidan allow us to see this better that in quieter times. In both Maidans, the first and the second one, we spoke of the creation of the political nation, and still back during the first Maidan we attempted to analyze and understand what had happened. Now we have a continuation on a larger scale, a more powerful one. I do not know what…

There’s a war going on. The war is also a factor that speeds up this identification with the state. Those who feel a part of this country, who go to fight and are ready to die for the state if this happens, they do not separate themselves from the state, they identify themselves with the state. We know there are representatives of various ethnic groups there, including Russians; there are Russian citizens who fight for Ukraine. This is a bit different. We know that in any revolution internationalist groups take part, hoping that winning here will allow them to do something like this in their country sometime later, although Russia is very far from this.

I.S.: A question I thought over this morning. This question arose after the announcement of Volodymyr Viatrovych’s lecture. This lecture is titled: “The Cuisine of Antisemitism by the KGB: An Attempt to Foster Animosity Between Jews and Ukrainians by Soviet Special Forces.” If I got it right from the annotation, Volodymyr Viatrovych in his lecture looks to the experience from the 1950-80s and says that at that time, Soviet Special Forces disseminated mutual mistrust between Ukrainians and Jews. Given the dates, I feel it must also concern certain dissident circles, for the 1970s were…

J.Z.: Well, the dissident circles were tight-knit enough, it would be difficult to do that, but they did influence the environment, of course.

I.S.: What do you know about this?

J.Z.: I know this from my own experience. The thing is that when I first fell under the eye of the KGB, it was 1965. Hard to imagine how long ago it was, fifty years ago. I was a second-year student and took part in one…it was a seminar, a disputation on Freud’s psychoanalysis. I was a physicist, but I was very interested in psychology.

I.S.: I am surprised Freud was not banned at that time in the USSR?

J.Z.: He was banned, but we were growing up in this epoch…it was 1965, it was still the Thaw, Khrushchev’s Thaw, and no one understood its boundaries. It was already over, when Khrushchev was gone, this thing was getting smaller…this sun spot, it was getting smaller and smaller… So, there was this disputation we held in Chernivtsi University, and my speech at this disputation was noted, and my case was in the KGB in 1965. They had been thinking it over for a while because they did not understand what to do with me. On the one hand, I was Jewish, so I was supposed to be a Zionist; they all were thinking in stereotypes. So they blundered around for over ten years, they did not know what to do with me. But when I became a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group in 1978, they got it and started to call me a Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist instead of a Zionist.

It was in fact a thought-out system. First, it was literature. The informational flow was so wild…well, there was no Internet at that time, but radio and TV were used.

I.S.: And it was much more difficult to check false information.

J.Z.: Yes, there was this set of stories, a set of books, special libraries on crimes of Zionism, Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism, on the Banderivtsi [Ukrainian nationalists, editor’s note], and so on. And it was…they just were pouring and pouring it on with that. There were staff propagandists who gave lectures, regional [Communist] party lecturers who did it, who pitched people against each other. Well, this was the imperial practice of “divide et impera.” So we felt it, and we needed more efforts to unify this dissident community, for it was obstructed deliberately, for they feared that various dissident movements would unite. The Jewish [movement] was separate, the Ukrainian was separate, the democratic was separate, and as long as they were separate, they were still unpleasant for the authorities and the KGB, but it was still easier to fight separate movements instead of all of them united.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Group appeared…it first appeared in Moscow in the summer of 1976, and in the fall of the same year it appeared in Ukraine. All of the dissident movements were united there—ethnic, democratic, Zionist, all of them united. I was not a representative of the Zionist one at that time, although I was considered a representative of the Jewish community in the Helsinki Group. Anyway, I did not call myself that; I was more interested in investigating the use of psychiatry for political purposes.

However, the fact that there was a Russian in the group, Volodymyr Malinkovych, and there was the Jew Josef Zissels, it set a totally different mood for the process—and it was frightening. So the group was continually under attack in Ukraine. The first wave had been completely imprisoned, except for Oksana Meshko, who was sent into exile for five years a bit later, but she had enough time to accept us, the second generation, into the group. I was not in the first, but in the second generation, it was the summer of 1978. At that time they understood that…for there were no Russians in the first one, no Jews, just Ukrainians. And we all were put in jail, all who joined the group, were put in jail in 1978 or early 1979. And it was scary for the KGB and for the party to see these small springs uniting into one single flow.

I.S.: This cooperation, did it continue in the camps?

J.Z.: Of course. This is very important. When I am asked, “How did Ukraine with its bad xenophobic past, as it is believed by stereotypes, how did it avoid interethnic conflicts after the Soviet Union collapsed?” I say, “Look what was going on in the concentration camps, within the dissident movement. There was cooperation. I do not overestimate, but there were people who had cooperated.” I was not the only one. There was Oleksandr Feldman; there was Semen Gluzman, whom you know, and other participants of the dissident movement. They were not members of the Helsinki Group, but they participated in the movement. It allowed the overcoming of stereotypes from both sides.

I’ll give you this example. In 1972 in the camps of Mordovia—which had three political zones, 17, 18, and 19—a rumor spread that Jews who had attempted to hijack a plane from the Soviet authorities and escape abroad were coming. Everybody was making fun of them. No one believed it. “They are such cowards, they are so very cautious, how could this happen?” And that’s what people were saying to each other…I was told this by those who heard. And there came these young men, wearing their prison hats with the Magen David embroidered on them, with prayer books in their hands—and that’s how this overcoming of stereotypes began.

It turned out that the Jewish and Ukrainian national movements have much more in common than other factors, for they both were fighting for their national values. And it turned out that your national value and my national value are in fact the same, they are identical. When you fight for yours—I help you, when I fight for mine—you help me.

I am very grateful to the Ukrainian dissident movement for bringing forth the national value in me, my own nation’s value, after I got acquainted with the Ukrainian movement. I always knew I was a Jew, I had no issues with that, but general democratic [issues], and general dissident matters were more important. When I met Ukrainians, especially the Horyn family, Mykhailo Horyn explained the importance of the national to me. This was in the 1970s, when he got out of jail, we communicated. It was very important for my personal growth.

I.S.: Please tell us more about this. How did it happen? What were the thoughts, ideas, and what caused it?

J.Z.: I was talking about mine and he was talking about his. At first, it was very discreet, because people were treated with much caution. No talks at homes, although we could write things to each other. There were special notebooks—I still have a few at home—for children’s drawings, from which anything could be erased. You lift a page, and it’s all gone. So we were writing to each other at home, for we were bugged.

It was sometime in 1977 or 1978 when he got out of jail. Or I think he got out in 1976, I do not remember well…I do not live in the past. You ask me and I am trying to remember. I came to see him through Nadiika Svitlychna. It was only possible through a recommendation. If I came up to him on the street and said, “I would like to talk to you,” I would have been given the brushoff.

I came to Lviv on a business trip to take technical measurements on television transmitters. So I came to him, said “Hello” from Nadiika and whatever else I had to say, and he started to trust me a little bit. But he was putting me through my paces, asking many questions about me and us. So I started to communicate with him, and later with others…Of course, I was very much impressed by Ivan Svitlychnyi…with anyone I [met]… Zenovii Krasivskyi, Panas Zalyvakha. I communicated with all of them all those years before I was imprisoned in 1978, between 1981 and 1984, when it all went dark, there was no more sun spot, total darkness, it was this agony of the government before the collapse. We did not feel the collapse yet, we were feeling that it was frightening for everybody…they were handing out additional sentences right in the jails, and [people] were not let out. I thought they wouldn’t release me as well, but they did and then sentenced me again after some time.

Anyway, I am very grateful to those people for discovering my nationality in me on a different level—not an individual one, but on this social level. This cooperation showed that there was a lot in common, and above all, it showed that only after we overcame this monster would each nation be able to develop.

I do not exaggerate. I generally like to de-heroize. I do not overstate the meaning of the dissident movement, but I give credit to it that we could possibly destroy the myth of the Communist system’s unity. It did matter. Now, when we look at how many political prisoners there were—there were three thousand of us. I do not include the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army, editor’s note], for they were kept imprisoned for a very long time and did not get out, like us; they did not communicate, they just were inside, and inside, and inside. So, it was three thousand from the 1950s to the 1980s. This is very little for a 50-million-people country. What we see now—seven to eight million volunteers operate in society—and it is still very difficult to transform the country into a democratic, European, prosperous one, where people are conscious, where they do not steal, but work for their state. Seven to eight million volunteers have been working for a year, and we were only three thousand. What is it all about? It’s even funny to talk about it. But still, it was maybe the beginning. The beginning was not then, it was in the liberation struggle, in armed struggle, and we should give credit to it—because if not for that struggle, there would have been no term of ours.

I.S.: You also said you did not think of the past, but prefer to look into the future. This shall probably be my last question. What can modern Ukraine learn from this experience?

J.Z.: This is a very simple experience. We can only win in this fight between the Eurasian and European civilizations if we are together. It is our fate to be on the front line of this struggle. We can only overcome it together. United within our community, first of all, our society, but this is not going to happen soon, and together with others outside our borders, with other countries.

We see feedback from distant countries starting to arrive: first from Australia, from Canada, America. For Europe is still sleeping. Europe [is acting] as in 1938, when the Munich Agreement already existed, but it doesn’t want to see anything, it doesn’t want problems, troubles, doesn’t want to go to war, but it might get too late, just like it was then.

I.S.: Josef Zissels in the program “Encounters.” Josef Zissels is the chairman of Vaad Ukraine and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress. We talked about the experiences of Soviet and contemporary Ukraine, as well as about lessons that could be taken into the future.

I would like to remind you the program “Encounters” is produced with the support of the Canadian charitable fund the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska was in the studio.

Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger