Radio Liberty: Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to exist at all, but she exists and will exist – Yaakov Bleich

Radio Liberty: Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to exist at all, but she exists and will exist – Yaakov Bleich

Interview with Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich on Radio Liberty, 20 July 2014

Interviewer: Vasyl Zilhalov

Source of Ukrainian text:, “Путін хоче, щоб України взагалі не було, але вона є і буде – Яків Блайх”

Translated by Myroslava Luzina, Ukrainian Jewish Encounter


One of the most complicated books of the Old Testament—Ecclesiastes—says, "A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace" (3:8). That is, since ancient times war has been a part of humanity's life. Some time later Christ reminds his disciples about the words from Genesis, "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind" (9:6). The German philosopher Hegel compared wars in the history of mankind to a fresh wind blowing over a decayed lake. It appears that wars offer specific lessons to mankind. But do people draw the correct conclusions from these lessons? Hegel was a pessimist in this regard because he thought that history unfortunately didn't teach people anything.

Will Ukrainians be taught the correct truths by the current war in the East of Ukraine? This is what we discussed in our program with the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine Yaakov Dov Bleich. I first asked Rabbi Yaakov Bleich what he thought about current events in Ukraine's East.

- I think that we are seeing, with God's help, the end of the events that are happening there. I think that the situation is going to turn toward calm, and we will not see a worsening as was the case before. I see that for Russia it is very important to make Ukraine negotiate and reach an agreement that would allow Russia to feel comfortable with respect to events in Ukraine. In order to force Ukraine to act the way Moscow wants, there have to be problems in the east of Ukraine. And what is happening there, I think, is playing into Russia's hands. Ukraine and Russia will have to work toward an agreement in which each side wants to secure the most benefits for itself.

- Rabbi Bleich, but Russia wants an awful lot. It wants to stop Ukraine's rapprochement with the EU, its integration with the West, and to undermine the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

- What they may want is past the point. But when there are negotiations, both sides have to put forward their conditions and then try to align them to reach a compromise. We understand that not everyone can obtain what he wants. Putin wants that there be no Ukraine at all, as we understand it now, doesn't he? But they also understand over there that they will not have their way. Ukraine exists, and it will continue to exist. Putin wants to draw Ukraine into the Customs Union. This will not happen either. I think a compromise can be found that is similar to how the United States has free economic zones in its southern states at the Mexican border. And I think we can make Donbass into such a free economic zone within Ukraine, where Russia could trade freely and have respect. Because it wants to be a world power. This is what is extremely important for Putin. In his view, he is and wants to be a global figure after the collapse of the USSR, which is something he doesn't accept. He wants to be a global force again, so that the world is not a one-lane road moving under the influence of America, so that Russia would have its balance of influence also.

And I think that Ukraine has the possibility to do something to make Russia feel more comfortable. For example Ukraine would not join NATO. We all remember the Cuban missile crisis, when the USSR was placing its missiles in Cuba, and America was very uncomfortable about that. This is why Russia is afraid of Ukraine joining NATO. Although Ukraine has never been an aggressor toward Russia, and today there are no aggressive intentions on the part of Ukraine. Kyiv doesn't have such plans. That is why I think a compromise needs to be found that would be satisfactory for Russia, which could thus emerge out of this with some dignity. But Ukraine also needs to have its security guaranteed, so that as an independent sovereign state it could continue to develop. Because Ukraine is now going to develop, and develop very well. In our Ukraine, both democracy and the market economy will develop, and all of this will significantly strengthen Ukraine.

- Rabbi Bleich, what is your assessment of Russian propaganda today, which looks even ghastlier than that of Nazi Germany?

- I want to tell you that there is democracy in Ukraine. And I would not like to have to gauge the level of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia because I don't live there and I don't have any specific interest in it. But it is important to me that they do not air deceitful information about Ukraine, for example about the life of Jewish communities in our country, as they had already done before.

I think that there is a potent propaganda machine of disinformation at work in Russia today. But it is impossible to pour out streams of lies and disinformation ad infinitum, because today there is so much objective information on the Internet, and people are fully able to learn the truth. One can lie for one, two, three months, or half a year, but the truth will come out anyway. So Russia has invested a lot of money in propaganda, lies, and disinformation, but they would be better served if they invested it to counteract war, to counteract misery and poverty from which the people in Russia are suffering. And this money would have produced a better, kinder result for years to come.

Mass media in Russia belong to Putin as the president, and he directs them to act on what he considers important. I think that this is not important, and this is probably his great mistake. We know from history however that propaganda, lies, and disinformation have short legs, and this situation cannot last. The truth will prevail. As my colleague and friend Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) says, God will be only where truth is to be found. And where there is God, there will be victory.

- Rabbi Bleich, how do you evaluate the situation when President Putin, during a meeting with rabbis in Russia, called Goebbels a very talented man, and everyone kept mum?

- I once had a great honor of meeting with Putin at the Kremlin during his first presidential term. And back then he also said something that we didn't like, something that was not quite so. This was at a meeting with the representatives of the European Jewish Congress. We kept silent then because this was a president and we were his guests, so what would we say? But I think that Putin just repeated Hitler's words; I have read that Hitler himself had said it and it had been published in Mein Kampf before Goebbels joined the Nazi party. And what he had said was directed against Jews. So there is a tragic side and a comic side to the fact that Putin said it during a meeting with rabbis who remembered this and who had gathered to talk about combating manifestations of Fascism.

In 2010, I wrote an article about people who live in glass houses and who should not throw stones at others, and there I explained the situation in which Russia criticizes Ukraine because there is "Fascism" or "Neo-Nazism" here. But Moscow is doing this at a time when Russia is contributing a lot to honor the memory of Stalin. I think that there is no difference, even mathematically with regard to the mass killings of people, between Stalin and Hitler. Both of them massacred many millions of people. Hitler was a bad man, as was Stalin. It's hard to say who was worse, and it is not that important, because both of them are criminals. And now Stalin is venerated in Russia, so how can they lecture or accuse someone in Ukraine, some minority, let's put it this way, who says something about Fascism. I am against Fascism, and I am against Stalin, in whom there was nothing good. I don't understand how in Russia they can contrast Stalin and Hitler, both of whom were waging a war against humanity. And how can Stalin be called a good manager, as Putin put it? [laughs]

- Rabbi Bleich, many Jews in Ukraine are fighting separatism in Donbas, and Ihor Kolomoiskyi is doing a lot to defend Ukraine's sovereignty.

- Jews in Ukraine are a part of Ukrainian society, a whole Ukraine. They are never trying to be outside of society, be it in good times or in bad times. That's why there were Jews who participated in the Euromaidan, and there are Jews now who are taking part in combat, helping the Ukrainian army, and helping Ukraine restore its sovereignty and unity over all the territory of Ukraine. That includes Ihor Kolomoiskyi and others. Jews should not be viewed as separate from all Ukrainians, because all of them together are fighting for a sovereign and unified Ukraine, and I want to say that all Jews in Ukraine, from Lviv to Donbas, are a force of Ukrainian society. Because Jews, like other Ukrainian citizens, are also now living through a complicated time in Donbas. All Jews and Ukrainians, all of them together, want to preserve Ukraine and make it a much better place.

- Rabbi Bleich, how does the life of religious organizations in Ukraine look like now, when peace and stability in the country are under such a threat?

- Who doesn't wish for peace and calm in Ukraine today? I think that there are no organizations in Ukraine who would not want that. But also in our meetings at the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, as recently as last week, we have discussed the situation in the country and talked about the unacceptability of further deaths in the East of Ukraine. We have noted that a stop has to be put to it immediately. This is something no one needs—neither Russia, nor Ukraine, nor the separatists. One has to sit down at the table and talk about the real needs.

I am a religious man, and I am for peace and against war. But if there is aggression and there are terrorists who came to you and started shooting, one needs to defend oneself and work toward ending the war. And sometimes it happens, as we know from the Torah and the Bible, that in order to understand the benefits of peace you need at first to experience war. Then people understand that waging war is not worthwhile.

It pains me to think that people on both sides are dying. I don't understand the purpose of this. I understand the people in the army who are fighting; it is obvious that patriotism is on the rise in Ukraine because people want to defend their country, an independent Ukraine, and this is understandable. But what is the goal of terrorists who are shooting at peaceful citizens of Ukraine, while they themselves don't believe that there will be a "Donetsk People's Republic"? This won't happen. No one needs this—neither Russia, nor Ukraine. No one in the world needs this. Why are they terrorizing civilians, killing people, for what purpose? I think that all people—both religious and non-religious—want peace and quiet to prevail in Ukraine.