Michael Gold (exclusively for “Hadashot”)
February, 2014 Vaadua.org
Translated by Olia Knight
Edited by Isis Wisdom
A cap instead of the kippah covering his head, a typical Jewish appearance – this young man could pass for a Yeshiva professor. However, he is one of the leading people in the complicated system of Maidan self-defense units and barricades on Hrushevsky Street [Hrushevskoho].
He requested to keep his name private, for obvious reasons, but proved to be pretty frank for the rest of our conversation.
– How did you end up THERE? What did Maidan mean to you, and to you as a Jew?
– Like the majority of people, I came to Maidan not “for” something, but “against” something – in general, the society is easier consolidated around protesting slogans. I never supported Ukrainian public authority, but the people’s deaths became a rubicon [point of no return]. That was the moment I realized that … I had to join people on Hrushevskoho. What I saw underwhelmed me at first – everything was so disorganized – lack of leaders, a definitive strategy, etc. Then, suddenly for myself, I started to lead the activities of the standoff, even though I did not consider it “my war” from the beginning. I organized the self-defense, the building of barricades, and later became a leader of a self-defense unit.
– So, you came to Hrushevskoho without going to Maidan?
– I visited Maidan a couple of times, I listened to the incoherent speeches of politicians, irresponsible announcements from opposition leaders, and knew full well that people could do more harm than good under such circumstances. And this is what happened when three opposition leaders came up to the stage after 7-hour negotiations with our president, and started sounding out the possibilities for a compromise. People sent them packing and started moving towards Hrushevskoho, ready for assault, without any military knowledge. I served in the Israeli army, and have a clear understanding of counterterrorist operations, I took part in some of them, and I realized that a lot of blood would be shed then. I counted the people on the barricades and made sure that the balance of forces was absolutely unacceptable for offensive action, and instead I offered to take a defensive position and reinforce the redoubt. Today, these barricades look like they should look.
I was completely convinced that I was where I was supposed to be after the attack on Ukrainian House [the international exhibition and convention center on Maidan], where I, in the words of “Pirkei Avot” tried to be a man in a place where there are no people. 1,500 people tried to take seize the building with 200 interior forces soldiers inside, predominantly cadets, and if protesters attacked these young men – the blood would be shed on the other side. We started negotiations that resulted in the release of Ukrainian House without a single shot and without wounded.
– Besides you, are there other Jews in Maidan Self-Defense?
– There are four Israelis with combat experience just in my subdivision. Like me, they came to Maidan to help prevent any unneeded casualties. I would call our group “blue helmets” as an analogy to UN peacekeepers. The situation on Maidan is rather nerve-racking, many people want to revenge the victims, and even more people are tired of opposition inaction – all these hotheads full of illusions of real fights and therefore unable to imagine possible consequences. They also do not stop to think that there are people on the other side of the barricades, and that our actions should not defame Maidan’s “human face.”
– Have you every encountered any, not even anti-Semitism, but a condescending attitude that “he’s a Jew and he is still here with us”? I’m talking about a certain dichotomy – there is a “we” – the Ukrainians, and “they” – the Jews, some of whom are our companions and even friends. Because our Ukrainian neighbors keep asking the “Is it any of the Jews’ business?” question.
– There was not even a hint of such attitudes. I have been in contact with activists from “Pravy Sector” [Right Sector, a far-right militant group], UNA-UNSO [Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense, a far-right political organization] – with all the people I would probably not see eye-to-eye with during peaceful times. However, I present myself solely as a Jew, and a religious one at that. I have tens of resistance guards – Georgians, Azerbaijani, Armenians, and Russians who do not even attempt to speak Ukrainian – we have never been intolerant to each other. They all are quite respectful to my faith – they already know what I can and cannot eat, etc. and this does not cause any hostility.
– How do you and your Jewish friends view Maidan, as the cultural revolution of Ukraine? There are no doubts about the fact that it is a national revolution – “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to its Heroes!” is constantly chanted, protesters sing the national anthem every thirty minutes…
– Both flag and anthem are national, not party symbols – and reverence for them is absolutely necessary. People in the United States stand at the sound of their anthem, and no one would treat its words as a nationalist appeal.
I do no idealize the protest movement, nor do I know if a new civil nation is currently being born on Maidan, but I am very impressed with a number of processes. For over 20 years, Ukraine was viewed as a relatively artificial formation with all superficial attributes of statehood – people did not feel proud for their country. The old stereotype “it is none of my business” has been cultivated, Ukrainians were viewed as people who lived without a care in the world. Nobody expected that after nine years since the Orange Revolution, after a full disappointment, people would find the strength to rise again. During the march of millions, where I participated – tens of Jews walked alongside Svboda supporters who shouted slogans I found little pleasure in… There is little doubt that the spirit of freedom and unity is concentrated on Maidan in abundance. Just go around the barricades – it has been a long time since we saw such responsibility; I remember how people would walk by a person that fell on the street in the past. And suddenly, a civil self-conscience appeared – people who work all day stay on Maidan all night, carving out a couple of hours for sleep.
– How diverse is Maidan? How do “Pravy Sector” and liberals, “Spilna Sprava” and “Svoboda”, and others coexist? Have they lost their control levers? Or is it a self-developing organism over which both the government and opposition have almost no influence?
– All these factions are not dominant, they represent about 40 per cent of all protesters, they are in the minority. And the trend toward non-factionalism keeps growing since people keep coming because they feel a duty to protest. In this, Maidan is quite a manageable body; there is a Headquarters of [National] Resistance whose decisions are carried out by all factions. Other than an incident between “Svodoba” and “Spilna Sprava” (we call them “SS”), a status quo is maintained.
– SS? It’s just an acronym, nothing else?
– Nothing else. Neither of Maidan’s factions uses Nazi symbols.
– Many of my Jewish acquaintances argue to “let the revolution win”, and that thereafter everything will normalize – democrats will push extremists to the peripheries of the political process. Don’t you think it is a simplified approach? Usually, the opposite is true – a radical, well-organized and disciplined minority dictates rules of the game to “soft liberals”.
– Well-organized extremists are a myth. People under my command are organized much better than radicals. We react much faster and more effectively. I am directly in charge of 30 people, but I can mobilize up to 300. Neither OUN [Organization of Ukrainian nationalists], nor “Pravy Sector” can afford such luxuries.
– Can you sketch in broad strokes a social portrait of an average Maidan “self-defense” guard?
– This is a motley crowd – from Azerbaijani salespeople out of Privoz [a large marketplace in Odessa, a city in southern Ukraine] – to residents of Kyiv – middle managers. Average age – men between 27 and 30 years of age. People from Western Ukraine, Central and Eastern regions are divided roughly equally. Most are without express political sympathies. The inhabitants from western regions have greater reverence for the Ukrainian national liberation movement – it’s a family tradition. However, none of the radicals are associated with these people with model behavior. Tyagnybok and “Svoboda”, for example, are not very popular in their base region.
One way or another, I don’t see them [protesters] leaning right. Right-wing populist slogans have become completely replaced by moderate calls for consolidation and taking responsibility for what happens. To prevent atrocities, establish self-government, and not to give reason to be called vandals.
– This is all very commendable, but who threw Molotov cocktails then?
– Practically everyone did – people could not react to bullets and flash grenades in any other way. I am more than confident that any forceful acts by the government would not have caused such reaction had they not resulted in a loss of human life. Molotov cocktails, this is the easiest thing that could happen there.
– Do Maidan protesters realize that without support from the southeast of Ukraine, real victory is impossible? Or who is not with us, is against us?
– Despite the complexity of the situation, people do not want the division of Ukraine. Peaceful independence for two months, did not lead to real change, and only the events on Hrushevskoho with throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tires caused the government to react. Therefore, we continue our resistance, to force the president to make concessions. In other words, we are holding the government by its throat with an understanding that negotiations are necessary.
– I’m talking not about the government toward whom few people today feel sympathy, but about people. Ordinary people on the other side of the barricades.
– The government launched the mechanism of intimidation, fear, in the east of Ukraine, and exploited people’s fear of “Banderivshchyna” [followers of a Ukrainian revolutionary and a leader of Ukrainian national movement Stepan Bandera], they played the nationalist, including Jewish, card. Everybody probably forgot about the anti-Semitism of Berkut police force’s website, but the government continues to create a negative image of Maidan, accusing it of fascism and other sins.
(The conversation is interrupted by a phone call from an owner of a fashionable boutique in downtown Kyiv thanking my interviewee for dismantling the barricades in front of the store – otherwise, the business would come to a complete halt).
I want to see Maidan “with a human face” that is acceptable to its opponents and I do not intend to burn any bridges. We’re definitely in need of consolidation and understanding that things are not for political games, but for a more successful future for Ukraine as a whole.
– Are you offended that the majority of the Jewish community treats Maidan if not with hostility, then with skepticism? Ukrainophobia has nothing to do with such an attitude – 80 per cent of Jewish population lives in regions where Maidan is, to put it mildly, unpopular. Don’t you want to bring differing points of view together, start a dialogue – not with the government or the majority of the population – but within your community?
– It’s a shame, unbearable. They’ve already urge me on to say a “Heil!” salute. This is a complete misunderstanding of a civil position. I consider the presence of Jews on Maidan not just the sanctification of the name of our Creator – it is the dialogue of Jewish people with the future government. This is what would help Jews live and work in this country. And it is a significant counterweight to those who shout about it being “a non-Jewish cause”. With God’s help, when I can show my face then nobody will say that the Jews holed up.
I see miracles from the Almighty every day on Maidan. One night, we detained a muscular man saying he was searching for a pharmacy. We thought he was a titushka, a provocateur. I came over to him and asked what was the matter. He complained of severe cramps (kidney stones), and that he needed an injection right away. I accompanied him personally to a makeshift hospital at Ukrainian House where they gave him a shot and the man started feeling better.
But there are real provocations – like in the case of the “Dnipro” hotel arson. I was lucky to stop the fire fast with snow bags – the Ministry of Emergencies of Ukraine emergency workers arrived 50 minutes later, when the fire was already put down.
– Have you discovered anything new about yourself, other people, and your country after two months of Maidan?
– I was a bit scared in my ability in emergency situations to guide hundreds of people; in civilian life I have never had such an experience.
As for the atmosphere – I remember how on my first day on Hrushevskoho I approached a barricade and a complete stranger suddenly gives me something saying: “It’s for your throat.” I look at it – it is a cough drop.
Another time, I was standing by Ukrainian House when I saw a strange group of people – I approached them and asked where they were from. One of them says, forgive us, we are praying here – for the people, for peace…
It is wonderful. At the end of the day, living in this country has been worth it – because we’ve lived to see the Maidan. It amazes me, the absence of barbaric behavior, since 12,000 interior troops that stand guard on Maidan and Hrushevskoho could turn everything within a 10 km radius [6 miles] to dust. A lost soccer match brings a lot of damage to a European city. There are no aspirations toward the vandalism and destruction of shops, it is a sign of a healthy nation, that it is not so hopeless as it looked six months ago. This responsibility is very well worth it, at any point on the globe such events would cause tragic consequences – look at Bosnia. And if after all these events people have not lose their human face, then we have matured and we have a future.