(JTA) – Two small sects with Jewish roots have been drawn into a new diplomatic fight between Russia and Ukraine.
The few hundred Karaites who remain in Ukraine today are remnants of a sect that broke away from the dominant Judaism in eighth-century Iraq. They were documented in Crimea in the 13th century and almost wiped out during the Holocaust.
The nearly extinct Krymchaks, on the other hand, are related to the Karaites, but are believed to be more descended from Georgian Jews.
Last month the Ukrainian president Voldymyr Zelensky unveiled a bill which he said was designed to help preserve the legacy of small minority groups, as well as the Tatars, a Muslim people.
But in designating these groups “indigenous peoples”, Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, angered Russia, which zealously defends the interests of the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been very strong, taking the opportunity to further fuel the many pre-existing inter-ethnic tensions in Ukraine. He protested against the bill’s perceived implication that ethnic Russians, who make up about a third of Ukraine’s population, and other groups are somehow not indigenous there.
“The division into categories of indigenous people, first class, second class and so on – it’s definitely completely heinous, reminiscent of the theory and practice of Nazi Germany,” Putin said on Wednesday. Russia television 1.
Historians I agree that the peoples who are now known as Slavs inhabited Ukraine long before the arrival of the Tatars around 500 years ago. Ethnic Slavs also arrived centuries before the Jewish sects.
But Slavic cultures are not in danger of disappearing in Ukraine. In fact, they are thriving amid a wave of nationalism following the 2014 conflict, a turbulent revolution which invited Russian interference.
Things are different for the 300,000 or so Crimean Tatars living in Ukraine and in territories internationally recognized as belonging to it.
Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 separated many families from the Tatar minority, which even before the war was declining due to assimilation, emigration and low birth-rate. The financial crisis created by the war, especially in eastern Ukraine where most Tatars lived, accelerated immigration to large cities and the disintegration of secular communities.
the Karaites and the Krymchaks are in much worse shape. Most of the approximately 800 Karaites live in Crimea. In 2007, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress valued there were only 300 Krymchaks in Ukraine.
Recognizing this, Zelensky’s bill “promotes the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine,” the document said. It provides special funding for media and cultural projects focused on preserving the heritage, languages ââand education of the three groups designated by the bill.
A bitter conflict divides many ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians in the country, which for the past five years has grappled with separatist enclaves of ethnic Russians in its eastern regions.
Jews in Ukraine – around 50,000, according to a 2020 demographic study – have also been divided by this fight. In question, the status of the Ukrainian and Russian languages ââand the attitude of the state towards the Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union.
Some Jewish groups, like the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, join ethnic Russians in opposing glorification of Nazi collaborators by government and private groups. But other groups, like Vaad, defend Ukrainian nationalist sentiment and opposition to Russia.
Ukrainian Jewish organizations did not speak about the Indigenous Peoples Bill.
Zelensky, a former actor with little political experience and plummeting approval ratings, was careful not to anger Ukrainian nationalists. He expressed his displeasure with the naming of streets for nationalists whose troops murdered countless Jews during the Holocaust, but tend to focus on restoring the economy during COVID-19.
In attacking Zelensky over the new bill, Putin referred to Zelensky’s own ethnic identity. He suggested that Zelensky’s designation of the Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks as âindigenousâ is an injustice to the Jews of Ukraine, whose presence there was first documented in the 11th century – some 200 years before the newly designated indigenous groups.
âZelensky himself is ethnically Jewish,â Putin told Russia 1. âI don’t know, maybe he’s half blood. So what are we going to do with such people? What will happen to them now? Maybe their body parts should be measured like in Nazi Germany, so that âtrue Aryansâ can be distinguished from fake ones? So now they will define a “real Ukrainian”? “
In Ukraine, Putin’s critics said he was throwing stones from inside a greenhouse.
“In Russia, indigenous peoples are only allowed to dance in national costumes,” Syres Bolyayan, a Ukraine-based member of the small Russian Erzya minority – a Finno-Ugric group – Told Radio Freedom. âThose who fight for the rights of their people are persecuted for extremism or are forcibly admitted to mental hospitals. “