Recently, and old colleague and friend asked me if I had ever been to Ukraine, and if I had views on the current conflict there. The following is my response to her, making clear that my views of the issue were at least to some extent influenced by my personal experiences, family history, and ethnic background. Since this personal perspective adds, I believe, a certain amount of nuance to what has developed as a rather polemical discourse in western media, I submit my answer to my colleague for the consideration of Ytali readers:
I have, over the last decade taught in Ukraine several times as guest professor, lectured, and was interviewed on Ukrainian television. My professional activity was exclusively in Odessa, but I also traveled to visit Lviv and the surrounding area, where my paternal ancestors had lived at least since the beginning of the XVIII century. Luckily, my immediate family migrated to the US long before the Nazi invasion, but some of my extended family were burnt alive in their local synagogue by Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. Their names, bearing my rather unique family name, are inscribed on a plaque placed by a Jewish organization on the ruins of the burnt out synagogue containing the names of the many victims there in the town of Veliky Mosty, a short drive from Lviv.
I have, moreover, taught for even a longer period in Russia, principally in Astrakhan, but also in Dagestan and Chechnya. Until it became evident that they were trying to use me as a “useful idiot,” I had ongoing and even close relations in the Russian migration ministry. I had, at a meeting at the University in Astrakhan, commented favorably on the reception and integration in Russia of the mostly ethnic Russian migrants from Ukraine during the 2014 conflict. Encouraged by this, the ministry facilitated my access to several of their projects, but it all came to an end when my contact at the ministry asked me to disseminate trumped up reports of the Covid 19 virus having been developed in a US biological warfare lab. I, of course, refused and cut off all subsequent contact.
I have maintained friendly collegial relations with academic colleagues in both Russia and Ukraine, although, because of security reasons, I never discuss politics with them on the internet, even over the supposedly secure channels. My Russian contacts are all, I believe, anti- Putin, but, I think, not necessarily pro Ukrainian. As for my Ukrainian contacts, they are all mostly, but not exclusively, ethnic Russian or Jewish (Odessa is a centre for both of these minorities).
Please understand that my position on the current situation in Ukraine is strongly influenced by my being a gay, Jewish academic specialising in migration law. On one hand, Putin is undoubtedly the most pro Jewish Russian leader in history. He has funded an important Jewish museum in Moscow and financially supported Jewish communities throughout Russia. I have personally visited several of the projects he has funded. He is, if anything, PHILO-semetic.
On the other hand, he is a vehement homophobe, supporting harmful homophobic legislation throughout Russia, and my gay Russian friends, even those in rather good professional positions and whose sexual orientation is known by straight colleagues, live in an ongoing state of anxiety. Most tragically, they do not dare to council gay teenagers struggling with their sexuality who desperately need guidance, because of the Russian laws severely punishing “gay propaganda.”
In like measure, the situation in Russia concerning academic freedom has darkened appreciably in recent years. When I first began teaching international asylum and immigration law in a Russian University about a decade ago, I could be even directly critical of Russian asylum regulations and practice and even received open support of the university administration. More recently, however, at a conference held at the same university where I had formerly enjoyed freedom of expression, when, in a presentation, I voiced what amounted to no more than an indirect, very mild criticism of the Russian system, suggesting that the Russian asylum system needed some mild revisions in view of contemporary events, my presentation was cut short. It happened twice, exactly at the same point in my presentation, in two separate sessions, so there can be no doubt that it was not simply a “lack of time”, as was alleged. Subsequently, I was invited to give a course at a university in Moscow, but I was warned by colleagues there that I must be careful in what I say. I declined the invitation.
And most important, aside from these issues, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a serious violation of international law, even if we don’t consider the recently reported Russian atrocities.
Quite clearly, I am not a fan of Mr. Putin, nor can I support the Russian side in this conflict. But as a Jew, and also as a legalist, it is difficult for me to be totally enthusiastic about Ukraine. Ukrainians collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis in their annihilation of the Jews, and several off the major collaborators, such as Bandera, are still celebrated with statues and street names, especially in western Ukraine. Until the present Ukrainian government, there was official Ukrainian government support of an organisation, the Institute of National Memory, that fostered trivialisation of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of nearly the total Jewish population, and Zelensky has not been able completely reverse this orientation. The current Ukrainian national anthem celebrates the Cossaks, who were primary agents of antisemitic pogroms, and towns are named after historic antisemites, such as Khelmnitsky. Until recently, it has been difficult for Jewish communities in Ukraine to gain control of, or even access to synagogues that have been taken over by the local authorities. Even in Odessa, it took years for the Jewish community to gain control and access to the historic main synagogue there. It’s very hard for a Jew to be enthusiastic re Ukrainian culture, even today. I visited and worked in Odessa with pleasure, since it is, in this regard, somewhat atypical. I do not think I would have been as comfortable in Kyiv, and certainly not in Lviv, despite its being one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
Moreover, I strongly support the western EU’s resistance to expediting Ukraine’s entry into the EU. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, rating 122 out of 180 countries evaluated. It is second only to Russia in terms of corruption among European countries. Zelensky is probably less corrupt than most Ukrainian officials, but the courts are riddled with corruption, as are members of the parliament and local officials. I am sure that even some of my university colleagues were not totally innocent in this regard. Part of the reason for the corruption is that salaries are so ridiculously low across the board that one is forced take bribes in order to survive. These low salaries are not only limited to academics; members of the judiciary also earn barely enough to survive. It is, therefore, quite reasonable to question the validity of Ukraine’s democracy, given the degree of corruption, which undoubtedly penetrates many factors of public life, including the electoral process.
In addition, the whole issue of the rule of law is very weak in Ukraine; the current government’s blockage of men 18-60 from leaving the country is in direct violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 13.2, which guarantees the freedom to leave and return to one’s country (excluding, of course, those under criminal indictment). While obliging citizens to submit to military conscription is, clearly, legal, it is, however, not legal to prohibit emigration to avoid conscription. During the Vietnam War, in the US many young men emigrated to Canada and other countries to avoid being drafted into the war, and they were not blocked from leaving. Even Mr. Assad, in Syria, does not block young men from exiting the country to avoid conscription. The Western media, in its justifiable support of Ukraine in the current conflict with Russia, goes overboard, and avoids discussion of these blemishes on the face of what is consistently represented as the victim; those blemishes are, however, there.
And remember, once a country is admitted into the EU, there is no provision for expulsion, and the country would have veto power on many EU decisions that require unanimous approval. We have seen how Hungary and Poland have weakened the EU. In short, the lives of EU residents would be, to a certain extent, determined in Kyiv. Do we really want this? Expediting Ukraine’s entry to the EU would, of course, be a strong slap in Putin’s face. But is Putin’s humiliation worth the ongoing price?
Clearly, I strongly support the Ukrainian side in the current conflict, but while being highly critical of Putin and Russia, I also strongly oppose the blanket demonization of the Russian side, just as I resist the whitewashing of serious problems with Ukraine. Perhaps the polarization of the discourse is inevitable in a wartime situation. It may very well be necessary for those who are directly in battle, but for us who have the privilege of considering the situation from a distance, we should afford ourselves the luxury of more nuanced consideration.