By Vitaliy Portnikov, Kyiv journalist, columnist for Radio Liberty
06.21.2014 Radio Svoboda
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
This story took place in a sleepy seaside town when I found myself having a casual dinner at a table with friends of friends, people unfamiliar to me, who seemed to spend all their free time not on the seashore but in front of the TV, Russian of course, what else, other television does not exist. These acquaintances told me about the horrors of Ukrainian fascism, “the Right Sector” that was hunting the Jews, that Ukraine will soon crumble, and that it is Russia anyways, while the Americans had invented the Ukrainians to vex Putin. I did not feel like arguing, I just wanted to finish dinner as soon as possible. I languidly noted to my fellow diners that I myself lived in Kyiv, that I had not run into any fascists, that the “Right sector” was not hunting me, though I was a Jew, and that I had seen the famous Yarosh once in a lifetime, even though I do not spend my time in needlework but rather political journalism.
The head of the family, an elderly, flabby man, who was watching the fading sunset with the tired gaze of a man who understands everything in this life–everything which is permitted to be understood by the authorities–was also not set on conflict. He held a glass out to me,
“Stop telling stories, Khokhol! Let’s have a drink!”
I was dumbfounded. For the first time in the nearly half century that I have lived, I was perceived as an ethnic Ukrainian–and this despite the fact that I had just explained to this smug individual, unwilling to know anything in life besides the amount of money stolen, that I was a Jew. A Jew. A Zhyd, not a Khokhol. Actually, he would not call me a Zhyd just like that at the common table–yes, half of them here could have been anti-Semites, but in a decent society, it is not quite acceptable, now they will only talk about Jews with the usual expressions once they have left the table. But [to call someone] a Khokhol is easy. And no one even raised an eyebrow.
Thus, for the first time, I felt what a Ukrainian really feels when a random–or not-so-random–acquaintance casually insults him, because he is unable to understand that he is treating both the individual and the whole nation with contempt. This contempt, like poison, is poured over Russia–and almost all of them are sick because of it, from Putin, who publicly calls his buddy [Gennadiy] Timchenko a “Khokhol” at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, to my seaside interlocutor. And this poison is more dangerous than any anti-Semitism or hatred towards people from the Caucasus or xenophobia towards Gastarbeiters from Central Asia–a hatred and xenophobia, which have become the essence of existence for the Russian people in the past decade. Because when a Russian calls a Jew a “Zhyd” or a person from the Caucasus a “Black,” he knows that he is deliberately insulting that person. But when he calls a Ukrainian a “Khokhol,” for him it is just an affectionate nickname, akin to calling your dog Dimon [diminutive of Dmitry]. And really, there is no point in calling your dog Dmitry Ivanovich, that’s why it’s a dog, and it needs a nickname.
If a Ukrainian lets the insulting nickname fall on deaf ears–nothing will change in the image of the world for this natural Russian chauvinist. If he [the Ukrainian] calls himself a Khokhol, it would result in universal affection and a desire to suggest that he sing something lengthy or dance the Hopak. But if he becomes indignant, well, then they will call him a “Banderite” and look forward to wiping him off the face of the earth.
I became indignant–after all, I had no choice, I was simply obligated to defend the honor of the people with whom I had grown up and continue to live. I explained as calmly as possible to my companion that he had not just insulted me, but millions of people. That I am not an ethnic Ukrainian, but that I can very well understand what the Ukrainians themselves feel when faced with such piggery–because the destruction of my fellow countrymen also began with harrowing screams of, “Kill the Zhyds, save Russia!” And the fact that Russia has now found it advantageous to destroy another nation for the sake of its own salvation did not improve by mood.
My companion looked at me with surprise and asked what I saw that was so offensive and anti-Semitic in that slogan. Did I not know that there are Jews, and then there are Zhyds? Jews are the ones that…
It ceased to be a languid evening. My friend, who had not seen his friends for several years, with a stunned look glanced first at me and then at them, and I realized that I would have to listen to a lecture about what a demoralizing effect the Russian propaganda has on unfortified minds, and that it would only take a few more years of [this] enlightenment and education, and we would no longer recognize Russia. But I did not want to listen to lectures. In fact, I was happy.
Happy because we can repeat many times at rallies and in articles that “we are all Ukrainians,” and fail to believe it ourselves. Because they are indeed Ukrainians, and you are a Jewish muzzle. And even if the Ukrainians themselves, who went through the flames and pain of Maidan with the Jews, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Crimean Tatars, Russians and other fellow citizens, see that the political nation is not blood or soil but a shared love for the homeland and solidarity, for all the others you will still not be a Ukrainian, no matter what you do or say. And all these others will dutifully separate the flies from the cutlets and the Khokhols from the Zhyds.
The man who called me a Khokhol had involuntarily confirmed what I could only guess: that the Ukrainian political nation had come into being, and it was being noticed by those who belonged to it, those who loved and sympathized with it, and those who hated it. A Ukrainian in the post-Soviet space is synonymous with a free man, who doesn’t want to offer his neck to the master’s yoke. The Anthem of Ukraine is akin to the “Marseillaise.” Blood and soil are no longer interesting, neither to us nor to them–those, who are killing us…
A few days later I was in Kyiv. An employee at a small bank branch, an intelligent elderly woman, was telling her colleagues about a conversation she had with her sister from Kemerovo [city in Russia].
“And she says to me, ‘You are all fascists there, “Banderites,” you are for America. You should kiss Putin’s feet that he has not dropped an atom bomb on you, since you don’t want to speak Russian!’ And I had called to wish her, the fool, a happy birthday! And she is talking about an atom bomb!”
And switching her gaze to me, she suddenly asked,
“Can I renounce my Russian nationality? I’m Russian after all… It’s so embarrassing!”
“Why would you renounce it?” I was surprised. “You are a real Russian simply because you are Ukrainian. Because you are free. Because you wanted to greet your sister on her holiday, and not drop a bomb on her. Let your sister renounce it herself. What the hell kind of a Russian is she anyway?”
After all, in order to be a Russian, as well as a Ukrainian, a Jew or anyone else, what’s needed for starters is to be human and not a beast. This is the biggest state secret of modern Russia.