We will have to live in wartime conditions until Russia disintegrates and democratic states emerge on our borders — Josef Zissels

How is our identity changing during the full-scale war with Russia, and how is this identity changing in Ukraine's ethnic communities?

Chernivtsi recently hosted the annual festival Meridian Czernowitz, whose co-founder and constant guest is Josef Zissels, a Ukrainian civic activist, former dissident, and member of the Ukrainian-Jewish movement. He is also the executive co-president of the VAAD of Ukraine and executive vice-president of the Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine.  

In today's episode of the Encounters program about Ukrainian-Jewish relations, we spoke with Mr. Zissels about the main topic of the festival: the ethnic communities of Ukraine during Russia's aggression. 

The identity of minority populations after the creation of independent states

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What are your impressions of what you heard? What questions were asked? What were the responses? What was the festival like in general, and what are your impressions of it?

Josef Zissels: This is an annual festival, and I am pleased that it has not skipped a year — either during the COVID epidemic or now during the ongoing war. There were many foreign participants, which underscores the poetry community's interest in poetry and friendliness toward Ukraine. People were not afraid to come, thus expressing solidarity with Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.

My presentation was entitled "The Ethnic Communities of Ukraine against the Backdrop of Russian Aggression." I was interested not so much in the specific manifestations of activity on the part of ethnic communities — although I did devote some time to this — as in some systematic things. I focused on how the identity of minority populations generally develops after the creation of independent states. This is precisely what I tried to convey to the audience.

There were questions that touched more on the view of aggression but none about specific minorities, as far as I recall. Most people are generally interested in what they are living amidst now — war. They tried to obtain some answers about this from me, which had little — well, perhaps a little — to do with the behavior of ethnic communities.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You are saying that ethnic communities were prepared for this war and that they have, in fact, been very active throughout these past 30 years. Tell us about this. What do you mean by this preparedness?

Josef Zissels: What is generally meant is the genesis of ethnic communities in the context of empire and how their identity evolves in these conditions. Communities always orient themselves toward the leadership of the empire, i.e., toward the metropole. Because in an empire, only its leadership — emperor, tsar, general secretary, or president — can grant rights to a minority or revoke them. I talked about how identity was constructed in the Russian Empire and how it came into conflict between the leadership of a community and the youth of the community, which lived amongst its friends and people they loved. And when some kind of anti-imperial movement began, then the young people from the minorities also took part in these anti-imperial manifestations. In other words, there was no identical behavior in the context of the empire. The same was true for the Soviet Union, which was also an empire.

But the year 1991 — and I emphasized this point — introduced a very powerful factor into the development of the Ukrainian state and civic identity stemming from the rise of the state. It's not even about the authorities, what they do or don't do. It's about the fact that the very establishment of a state is already a powerful factor in the development of state identity.

Pro-Ukrainian manifestations among ethnic minorities

I also said that, in reality, the emergence of this powerful factor of statehood caused a minority community that was once oriented toward the leadership of the empire to start reorienting itself a bit toward this country, shifting its preferences from imperialism and the metropole. We observe this in our Maidans, the Ukrainian Maidans, in which members of ethnic communities were increasingly involved. This signified that the identity of the communities is changing. It follows the development of the identity of the titular nation. This never happens in the reverse order: a minority, an ethnic community living in the context of a diaspora, cannot build its Ukrainian state identity before the majority does. It evolves very circumspectly, observing how the identity of the majority is developing. And seeing that Ukrainians have become more and more Ukrainian over the past 30 years of independence, minorities, the ethnic communities, also change, following the development of the titular nation's identity.

Thus, we have seen pro-Ukrainian manifestations among ethnic minorities on the Maidans and during the war. This is a kind of litmus test, a marker. We know that in wartime, the members of ethnic minorities have also come to Ukraine's defense. They have also done a lot for this in the humanitarian sphere and in the military aspect. Members of the ethnic communities have been in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Territorial Defense, the National Guard, etc.

Were the ethnic communities ready for war?

What does it mean that they were "ready for war"? In the context of their development, the communities were building up their infrastructure. There is a certain level of ethnic and religious identity that requires its own infrastructure, even with its dispersed settlement throughout the country, in order to develop the community's education and social protection, as dictated by the tradition of living as a diaspora.

The presence of this infrastructure and a large number of organizations with experience of building logistics and holding various conferences and seminars is precisely what I mean when I say that they are ready, because they now have an infrastructure and the experience of organizing. That is why the communities — not all of them, but many active ones — joined Ukraine's defense effort at the start of this expanded phase of the war.

How is the Jewish community changing its identity in Ukraine today?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: When we talk about identity, we can infer from what you have already said that this is not something genetic, hereditary, even though we know that this factor also plays a role. In other words, identity can change and be transformed depending on the circumstances. And each ethnic community also has its own process, possibly with certain historical factors having an impact. What can you say about the Jewish community? How is it changing its identity right now in Ukraine?

Josef Zissels: The Jewish community, like other communities, is also growing. And you're right: There are some differences because there is a certain historical experience in the life of various communities. Communities have states that give them a name. They may be close to them, for example, Hungary to the Hungarians of Transcarpathia or Romania to the Romanians of Bukovina.

Where Jews are concerned, there is quite a distance involved, because Israel is not quite the same thing in terms of identity as the Jewish community in the diaspora. But we could discuss this for a long time.

The development of Jewish identity after independence went through the same stages that I have mentioned. At first, we were Soviet Jews, like there were Soviet Ukrainians, Soviet Poles, and Soviet Romanians who lived on the territory of Ukraine. In other words, the emphasis was on the word "Soviet." This was almost total assimilation — historical, national, and religious.

The restoration of national and religious life in all other communities, especially the Jewish one, began only when independence came in 1991. I was there at the start of this renewal back in the 1980s, which is why I remember very well how it happened. We went through the same stages as other communities, but it took us somewhat less time, simply thanks to our significant experience of living in the diaspora.

The Jewish community possesses these elements of organization. Not on the genetic level — I don't agree with that. It is introduced entirely through upbringing — family upbringing and social upbringing. Identity is that which is added.

When I talk about identity, I do not mean the individual identity of one person or another, but collective identity, group identity. How this collective identity develops is fascinating. We are seeing various manifestations of this.

At present, no fewer than a thousand Jews are fighting in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There are also Israelis who are fighting in the international brigades. In our community, dozens have already been killed during the months of this terrible war, just like in other communities.

The center is not Moscow but Kyiv

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: During your discussion at Meridian Czernowitz, you remarked that in the past, the center was Moscow and that this was felt very strongly. Now, this center is shifting; we sense that Kyiv is becoming the center. In your opinion, did the full-scale invasion and the fact that it is happening now accelerate this change-of-center process? Was it, perhaps, its main or culminating moment? How would you define the role of the full-scale war in the formation of this center?

Josef Zissels: I began to talk about this when discussing Jews: just like Poles and Romanians became Poles and Romanians of Ukraine, respectively. But this happened with a measure of uncertainty because their gaze was still fixed on Moscow, the center of the empire, even as they started glancing at Kyiv as the center of a new state. But over time — and our Maidans are the markers — we saw how the greater part of the population of these communities was joining this struggle for Ukraine's independence.

At one time, I invented the formula "Soviet Jews — Jews of Ukraine — Ukrainian Jews." We can state that all the minorities are proceeding along this path in parallel — from the Poles of Ukraine to Ukrainian Poles.

When I talk about "Ukrainian Jews," I mean identity change on the individual level, when a person identifies with Ukraine, its future, and its democratic order. All of that is the genesis of this identity, both individual in these discrete cases and collective. We are seeing more and more Jews who begin to reorient themselves away from Moscow as the Soviet center toward the center in Kyiv.

More and more Jews are beginning to reorient themselves away from Moscow as the Soviet center of Moscow toward the Kyiv center

Did the war accelerate the change of identity?

The aggression did not so much trigger a reorientation toward Kyiv as create a separation. That is, we fell from the multipolar world into a black-and-white one. In reality, it is more beautiful when there are many colors and halftones because G-d is truly wise. And He is an aesthete for having created the world so brilliant and multifaceted. But the war is dividing everything into our people and outsiders, into black and white. As unpleasant as this is, it helps mobilize forces for the state's defense. These are our people, and those are our enemies.

We have here a complex situation. You see, in Ukraine, a person can be not pro-Ukrainian without being an enemy at the same time. This happens when a person's identity has simply not been reformatted from the old one to the new one.

At this event, I cited a public opinion poll conducted in February of this year. It showed that 57 percent of respondents were ready to defend Ukraine in some way, while 37 percent of them were ready to take up arms and defend it. This may have been an exaggeration because sometimes people think of themselves more highly than the reality indicates. But we can utilize only these figures. What interests me in these poll figures is not the 57 percent ready to defend the country but the remaining 43 percent. What about these people who are not willing to stand with Ukraine in any way, even in humanitarian terms? What do they think about their lives in Ukraine and about their identity? Everyone, above all civic society, which is the leading actor in Ukraine's development today, must think about this because this identity is marked by such research.

The path to Ukrainian consensus

We have still not traversed the path to a national, all-Ukrainian consensus. This happens when, for example, 80 percent of the population shares practically an identical view of our past, present, and future. In that case, the enemy is met with resistance — powerful resistance — right away. And we are making our way toward that. You are partially correct in saying that the war is accelerating this identity.

What is forming this identity are precisely the steps that are taking place, like the Ukrainian army's counteroffensive in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. This is when not just the minorities but Ukrainians themselves are beginning to believe in Ukraine, for it is winning. It has mounted powerful resistance, which has already attracted attention. And now that it is winning, this becomes an important factor for ensuring that those 43 percent will gradually reorient their identity toward Ukraine and that the active minorities will also continue this reorientation at a higher speed.

What should Ukraine's ultimate victory be like?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What does Ukraine's victory in this war mean to you personally?

Josef Zissels: That is a difficult question because I am trying to think systemically. I am a trained theoretical physicist, and my interests focus specifically on systemic processes. I asked the auditorium but did not obtain an answer, although it was a rhetorical question: What will count as a victory for Ukraine?

I understand victory as a guarantee of non-aggression on the part of this enemy. But will we gain such a victory? For this to happen, we must smash this Russian system completely. And that will be possible only after the occupation of Russia, similar to what happened after the occupation of Germany or Japan during the Second World War. By means of soft power, Russia is replaced with an array of states, some of which will have a chance to become democratic.

I am certain that, in the form in which Russia exists today, it cannot, by definition, become a democratic country. This is my long-held conviction. Likewise, I did not believe that the Soviet Union could become democratic, and I discussed this with Russian dissidents. I said that this Soviet environment had to disintegrate, and only afterward would some states become democratic.

The same goes for Russia. But can we imagine that it will be possible to occupy all of Russia in the near future? I think that only China is capable of this because the West does not see this. Perhaps Ukrainians could take part in this, but they will not do this on their own —  at the very least, this should be done by a ten-million-strong army of occupation. Where does one find such an army today?

In other words, we can talk about victory as an inconclusive, provisional one. A provisional victory means pushing the Russian army back behind the 1991 state borders and making Ukraine so powerful in the military and economic aspects that it will be able to mount very strong immediate resistance to the aggressor as soon as it creeps in again.

I have no doubt that the aggressor will creep in once again. Because this is the determinism of empire; these are external wars. In this way, they consolidate their imperial environment. That is why there were such high indicators when Russia seized the Crimea and the east of Ukraine.

We must think about this. We must understand this. But it is not worthwhile thinking that we will simply chase them across the border and that that will be enough. I have been saying for years that we should not expect economic or military assistance, from Israel, for example. What can Israel offer us? It can teach us how to live in the conditions of permanent war. That is our future — to live in wartime conditions until Russia disintegrates and some democratic states appear on our borders.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

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