In Search of Cos­sacks

They’re Sur­pris­ingly Hard To Find

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - By Tu­via Te­nen­bom

For no par­tic­u­lar rea­son, I find my­self at­tend­ing a ser­vice in a Bu­dapest church that is ru­mored to be as­so­ci­ated with the far­right Job­bik party. There’s no cross in this church, only flags, and quite many of them, de­pict­ing Hun­gary in var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal stages. Some of the flags con­tain the so-called Ár­pád stripes, which op­po­nents re­sent be­cause they were used by the Nazi regime dur­ing World War II. At the end of the ser­vice, the people stand on their feet, fer­vently singing the na­tional an­thems of Hun­gary.

The pas­tor, Dr. Peter Balla, shares with me his frus­tra­tion at the “Jews” who two weeks ago demon­strated a cou­ple of hun­dred me­ters away, near a mon­u­ment that is be­ing erected by the present govern­ment of Hun­gary. The mon­u­ment is said to por­tray Hun­gar­i­ans dur­ing World War II as the an­gel Gabriel, con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the fact that Hun­gary col­lab­o­rated with the Nazis at the time, caus­ing the Jews here to feel of­fended. But Balla is of­fended by them. “The Jews,” he says to me, “used loud­speak­ers when we were hold­ing a ser­vice at the church.” No Jew should be al­lowed to demon­strate, ob­vi­ously, when a Chris­tian is pray­ing.

This kind of talk about Jews re­minds me of Europe’s dark­est mo­ments. I try to learn more from the pro­fes­sor but once I tell him that I’m from New York, he guards his tongue. “It is not true that the Job­bik party is anti-Semitic,” he says to me.

I want to un­der­stand this new rise in Euro­pean anti-Semitism, but I can see that this pas­tor is not go­ing to of­fer much help. I won­der where on this planet I should go to in or­der to stare this phe­nom­e­non straight in the eye. Next time, I swear to my­self, I won’t men­tion the words “New York.”

I de­cide to go to Ukraine, but Ukraine is a huge coun­try and I don’t know where I should go. I set­tle for Lviv. Lviv, so say the mavens on the web­sites I’ve con­sulted, are where the Cos­sacks come from.

I know Cos­sacks. Ev­ery Jewish kid of Euro­pean her­itage knows of the Cos­sacks. The Cos­sacks, we learned when we were lit­tle kids, used to tear apart Jewish moth­ers’ bel­lies and put live cats in­side their wombs. And the Cos­sacks, I learn from the Web, are back. Not all of them call them­selves Cos­sacks, of course. Some, for ex­am­ple, call them­selves Ban­deras while oth­ers are Right Sec­tor na­tion­al­ists.

I soon find my­self in a Rus­sian Rail­ways train that goes from Bu­dapest to Lviv. In my sleep­ing com­part­ment, I meet my room­mate for the ride, a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic who takes out his vi­o­lin and starts play­ing.

Doesn’t look like I’ll be sleep­ing much tonight.

But then, the pro­fes­sor stops play­ing and starts talk­ing.

“First time that ‘Ukraine’ is men­tioned in the his­tory books was in the ninth

UKRAINE page 13 or 10th century — but Ukraine was not the of­fi­cial name at that time. Ukraine was ini­tially called Kyjivsjka Rusj,” he tells me. “I was born in Lviv and I stud­ied his­tory from Soviet teach­ers. In school they taught us many lies and some­times the lies get stuck in my brain. To this day I con­fuse dates and names. Ukraine, you have to know, ex­isted be­fore Rus­sia but the Rus­sians never taught this to us.”

He speaks softly, so that the con­duc­tor won’t hear him. “He is Rus­sian,” he whis­pers. I won­der what he’s afraid of. Does he think, per­haps, that the con­duc­tor is a Jewish devil? I try to ask him about Jews, just in case, but he has no clue what I’m tak­ing about.

He goes back to his vi­o­lin. I try fall­ing asleep but I wake up ev­ery few min­utes. Even­tu­ally, I get off my bed and sit down in the only seat in the com­part­ment. For hours I stare at the dark­ness out­side and when the sun rises, the im­ages that re­flect back into my eyes seem oth­er­worldly. What I see is a land­scape of green: moun­tains af­ter moun­tains, val­leys af­ter val­leys, all cov­ered in green. I have never seen a sight like this. “Am I in heaven?” I ask my pro­fes­sor. “No,” he says. “You are in the Carpathian Moun­tains.” I want to jump off the train right now, but I re­mind my­self that I am on a mis­sion to stare into the eyes of fas­cists.

The train moves on, and fi­nally it reaches Lviv.

My first task in Lviv is to change money. Which in my case is a great thing be­cause mon­ey­chang­ers, as ev­ery­body who ever stud­ied anti-Semitism will cor­rob­o­rate, are Jews. But the mon­ey­changer at Lviv’s train sta­tion is a young lady more beau­ti­ful than Venus, and she doesn’t speak one word in Yid­dish or He­brew. I hand her my pass­port and she starts fill­ing out documents. Only af­ter I sign three sep­a­rate documents does she ex­change my Eu­ros for Ukrainian hryv­nias.

I head over to Lviv’s tourist in­for­ma­tion of­fice. A young lady stands be­hind the counter and she is — sorry for be­ing po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect here — even more beau­ti­ful that the mon­ey­changer. I never imag­ined Cos­sacks to look so beau­ti­ful.

“What do you think of Putin?” I ask the lady, try­ing to strike up a friendly con­ver­sa­tion.

She looks around, as if try­ing to ver­ify that she’s safe. “I can’t talk,” she blurts out. I try to get her to talk to me any­way. “Imag­ine Pres­i­dent Putin just en­tered this room,” I tell her, “and asked you for a date. Would you go out with him?”

She stares at me in dis­be­lief, but her lips don’t move. She gives me a few maps of the city and we pro­ceed to chat about non-po­lit­i­cal is­sues. She is a great lady, this Marta, and when she hears my heav­enly Carpathian story she fi­nally opens her mouth and tells me that she could di­rect me to a nice place there, if I re­ally want. I do, but not to­day. I go out and check for a Star­bucks. Af­ter a night of lit­tle sleep I need a few shots of caf­feine. Hor­ri­fy­ingly, my eyes can’t spot even one lonely Star­bucks. In­stead I see end­less cof­fee es­tab­lish­ments, all seem­ingly lo­cal.

Lviv’s cof­fee costs a frac­tion of a Star­bucks in Amer­ica and I take a sip of the hot black wa­ters.

A sip. Fol­lowed by an­other sip. And then an­other. And then I buy an­other cup. And an­other.

I don’t know how to say this, but I’ve just dis­cov­ered an amaz­ing sci­en­tific fact: Fas­cist cof­fee is the best cof­fee made by hu­mans.

Be­tween the sips I sud­denly spot the lady from the tourism of­fice. She has just come here to sip some cof­fee. “Putin,” she now says to me, “is the worst man there is.”

“Why didn’t you say this when I first asked you?”

“I can’t say this in the of­fice,” she replies.

I walk the an­cient streets of Lviv where I en­counter some so­phis­ti­cated street art on the walls de­pict­ing a man wear­ing a Hitler’s mus­tache, next to a swastika sign.

I ap­proach the im­ages and note that the man por­trayed here is Ukraine’s de­posed pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych. A ques­tion pops in my head: Could it be that this swastika here is meant to present fas­cism in a bad light?

“Oil from Jerusalem!” I hear a voice call­ing, away from the swastikas. I walk to­ward the voice, which is com­ing from a place known here as Mary’s Statue at Mick­e­vich Square, where a priest is leading a prayer.

The priest tells me that “in 1917 the Mother of God said in Fa­tima, Por­tu­gal, to pray for the peace of Rus­sia, that Rus­sia may come back to God.” “Is Putin bad?” I ask. The priest doesn’t want to an­swer. First he wants to know who I am. I as­sure him that I’m not Rus­sian, at which point he tells me that Putin is do­ing the work of the devil.

I keep on walk­ing but am soon stopped by a long pro­ces­sion of people, headed by priests and nuns hold­ing stat­ues of the Holy Mother and Holy Son, who are parad­ing the streets of Lviv, beg­ging God to im­plant peace in the heart of the Rus­sians.

I by­pass the pray­ing crowd and walk hours in search of fas­cists but all I find out is this: Lviv is made of beau­ti­ful ladies, de­li­cious cof­fee, parad­ing prayer say­ers, and mul­ti­tudes of people who are scared of the Rus­sians.

I go to eat at a lo­cal restau­rant where a Ger­man jour­nal­ist is con­vers­ing with a young lady. I eaves­drop on the con­ver­sa­tion. “English is a very sim­ple lan­guage,” he teaches her in per­fect Ger­man.

I butt in, as if this is my busi­ness, and talk with them. The lady tells me that she is work­ing for a Ger­man foun­da­tion. The Ger­man govern­ment, she tells me, is in­vest­ing mil­lions of eu­ros in Ukraine. What for, I ask. She says she wouldn’t mind telling me, but she’s on her way to Kiev — that’s where the fa­mous Maidan is, the square where the re­volt against Yanukovych’s govern­ment started. A thought comes to me: Per­haps the fas­cists are there.

I take an­other train, and I reach Maidan a day later.

The fash­ion­able square and nearby streets are packed with tents of ev­ery size, burned-out army ve­hi­cles, and men dressed in cam­ou­flage. No one, as far as I can tell, is a real sol­dier. A num­ber of them carry base­ball sticks, in case some “sep­a­ratists” — people who would like Ukraine, or part of it, to join Rus­sia — show up.

“Can you tell who’s a sep­a­ratist?” I ask one of them. “Yes.” “How can you tell?” “Sep­a­ratists have a Rus­sian ac­cent.”

Past him, I see some older Ukraini­ans in a tent, drink­ing cof­fee. “Where are you from?” one asks. I’m not go­ing to say New York, again, and so I say “Ger­many.”

Bad choice. He gives me a speech: “When Yanukovych’s govern­ment killed the people here, Yanukovych was sit­ting with An­gela Merkel in Ger­many, drink­ing cof­fee with her.”

“Are you amem­ber of any party?” I ask.

“Right Sec­tor. All my friends here, too.”

Right Sec­tor. Oh, yes, these are the real Cos­sacks.

Strangely though, these na­tion­al­ists — who ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports are fight­ing against the es­tab­lish­ment of Rus­sian as an of­fi­cial lan­guage in Ukraine — speak in­ter­change­ably in Rus­sian and Ukrainian. I take a closer look at them. Their busiest ac­tiv­i­ties are: drink­ing cof­fee, smok­ing, kiss­ing and then drink­ing some other stuff. They also sell rolls of toi­let paper with the im­age of Yanukovych stick­ing his tongue out on each sheet.

I check my sur­round­ings and no­tice that be­sides the fake soldiers there’s no sign of govern­ment here: no po­lice, no army, just funny toi­let paper.

I walk over to my ho­tel, the Khreschatyk, which is right next to the trade union build­ing that was set on fire dur­ing the ear­lier stages of the revo­lu­tion. There are splashes of pink cir­cles on the de­serted, black­ened trade union build­ing, but my ho­tel is beau­ti­ful. As I en­ter the lobby, the word “mafia” comes to my mind. On one side of the lobby there’s an “Ap­ple Store,” with a huge and “au­then­tic” Ap­ple logo. Here they sell, for ex­am­ple, dis­creet mo­bile phone recorders, but not a sin­gle Ap­ple prod­uct. Across the lobby is a huge, heav­ily guarded hall packed with 20-year-olds play­ing poker. The play­ers look as though they’re chil­dren of oli­garchs who have noth­ing bet­ter to do with their time. And then there’s an­other es­tab­lish­ment in this build­ing, a night­club where, I’m told, I could get my­self a pros­ti­tute for $1,000 a night.

I go out and meet a young Ukrainian lady who works for a Ger­man and EU-spon­sored Ukrainian NGO that is at­tempt­ing to in­tro­duce “green liv­ing” to Ukraini­ans through a bicycling pro­gram. Kiev should look like Ham­burg, she says, and ev­ery­body should be bik­ing here. To be hon­est, I’m not sure I un­der­stand. Un­like Ham­burg, Kiev has many steep roads and bik­ing wouldn’t be easy. Not to men­tion the enor­mous cost that this will in­cur.

Why? The only rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion that I can come up with is this: Pow­er­ful Euro­peans want to cre­ate a new hu­man species, a Euro­pean man and woman who look the same, think the same, feel the same, and eat the same. This new species will wor­ship the en­vi­ron­ment, be healthy, sup­port gay mar­riage, sup­port Pales­tine, stop fight cli­mate change and bike for­ever.

I share this with the lady and she seems of­fended. I bid her good­bye and re­sume my search for Fas­cists, talk­ing to ev­ery­body who has a mouth and a pair of ears. Yet, the word “Jew” never emerges from their lips. Am I miss­ing some­thing here? To find out, I go to the Jewish com­mu­nity cen­ter in Kiev and talk to one of the com­mu­nity’s chief lead­ers. To pro­tect him­self from po­ten­tial for­eign el­e­ments, the man tells me, he prefers to speak anony­mously: “It is a lie to say that the Right Sec­tor is anti-Semitic. The anti-Semites are the Rus­sians, who try to re­cruit Ukraini­ans to hurt Jews so that they could later on say that the ‘Ukrainian fas­cists’ did some hor­ri­ble things.” “Who are the for­eign el­e­ments you are afraid of?”

The Rus­sians, he tells me, might even­tu­ally in­vade Ukraine and they will take re­venge on him for talk­ing to me. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a Ger­man in­sti­tu­tion, which funds Kiev to the tune of mil­lions of eu­ros yearly, turns sour af­ter I ask him one sim­ple ques­tion: What would be dif­fer­ent in Kiev to­day had the mil­lions upon mil­lions in Ger­man fund­ing never ex­isted? “This kind of ques­tion­ing is not jour­nal­ism,” he yells at me. “Who are you work­ing for?”

But not all people refuse to go on record: For ex­am­ple, Natan Chazin, who wears the uni­form of the Right Sec­tor. Natan, who is presently com­mand­ing a Right Sec­tor bat­tal­ion in the east­ern part of Ukraine, has added a Star of David im­age onto the black-and-red in­signia. He tells me he was cap­tured by sep­a­ratists in the east and for 24 hours he was not given any­thing to eat or drink. “How did you get out?” “I prayed to God and he saved me from them.”

Of his bat­tles in the east, he tells me: “We are hav­ing a civil war, and in this civil war there are hun­dreds of spies from Rus­sia who are man­ag­ing this war. We just cap­tured a few sep­a­ratists and they told us how they were get­ting com­mands from Moscow and how they were get­ting mo­ti­vated by Moscow.” “How?” I ask. “The Rus­sians paid them thou­sands of U.S. dol­lars.”

Chazin lived in Is­rael as well, and even served in the IDF, but he says he loves Ukraine. “Ukraini­ans,” he tells me, “are so­phis­ti­cated people but with­out dis­ci­pline. They are people who wait for the Mes­siah to help and save them, in­stead of tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands and chang­ing their lives on their own.”

“Which is your na­tion?” I ask. “Ukraine or Is­rael?” “Ukraine is my home, not my na­tion. I’m Jewish, sadly.”

“Will you marry a Jewish girl?” I ask.

He bursts into laugh­ter. “That mis­take I al­ready made,” he says.

As evening comes I go to the main syn­a­gogue, which is packed with wor­ship­pers. When Chazin en­ters, young Jews rush to hug him.

Out­side in a park I meet Ok­sana and Natally, both stu­dents. I show them Chazin’s pic­ture and ask if they rec­og­nize him. “Right Sec­tor,” both of them say. I point at the Star of David and ask, “What does this star mean?” “A six-pointed star.” “What is it?” Ok­sana checks in Google; nei­ther of them has ever heard of the Star of David. My search for the hor­ri­ble Cos­sack fas­cists seems to yield noth­ing. Could it be that the rabbi is right and that the story of Ukrainian fas­cism is noth­ing but a ma­li­cious in­ven­tion of Rus­sia un­der Putin?

From here, I go to a ho­tel in the Carpathian Moun­tains. This I know for sure — even a blind man will be able to find fas­cists there. I get off at the Slavsko train stop where, I have been as­sured, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the ho­tel will be wait­ing to pick me up.

And in­deed he’s here. Or, more ex­actly, three men are here: a very hand­some man in a red jacket, a tough-look­ing sol­dier car­ry­ing a huge gun, and an in­ter­preter.

They are Ban­deras, named af­ter the all-time leg­endary Ukrainian fas­cist, Stepan Bandera.

I take a closer look at the man in red, who seems to be the leader of the group, and ask him, “Are you an oli­garch?”

He bends down, lays his hand just above the ground and says: “Small oli­garch.”

We walk to our pick-up car. Or, bet­ter said, a van. Well, not ex­actly that ei­ther. You need some re­alsmok­ing, ly good mil­i­tary train­ing just to get into this cam­ou­flage-painted hell of a van. It is, by all ap­pear­ances, a mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle. “What ve­hi­cle is this?” I ask. “A NATO tank,” one replies. I laugh. There might be no law and or­der in Ukraine, but “NATO” is here.

It is now time, as it is in any or­dered so­ci­ety, for us to be in­tro­duced to each other prop­erly. Bandera/Right Sec­tor style, that is.

I say, “Slawa Ukraini,” loosely trans­lated as blessed be Ukraine, and they re­spond, “Geroyam slawa,” or blessed be the he­roes. This cer­e­mony done, the NATO tank rides the Carpathian roads, which re­quire a mas­ter driver to ma­neu­ver them. The scenery is a green par­adise, but the roads are a to­tally dif­fer­ent story. I have never seen any­thing like this: pot­holes every­where I look.

While we are rid­ing, the man in red in­tro­duces him­self to me. He is Volodymyr and he is the owner of the Vezha Ved­mezha ho­tel in Volosyanka, which is near Slavsko. Sergiy, a friend of Volodymyr, is serv­ing as in­ter­preter to­day, and then we have the sol­dier.

The ho­tel looks more like a cas­tle — proudly built by Volodymyr, the NATO tank owner.

I en­ter my multi-level suite, and it strikes me that this cas­tle was prob­a­bly de­signed for Rus­sian oli­garchs. I am tak­ing in my sur­round­ings when Volodymyr in­forms me it’s time to get go­ing. “To do what?” I ask. “Well, how about shoot­ing with some lovely guns?”

We go to Volodymyr’s shoot­ing range, dec­o­rated with the flags of both Ukraine and the Right Sec­tor. I get a nice uni­form, guns, plenty of bul­lets — and I shoot. I yell “Putin” and my bul­let falls on num­ber nine — al­most a per­fect shot.

I came all the way to this coun­try to find fas­cists and here I am shoot­ing bul­lets while dressed like a mod­ern-day Cos­sack.

Along the way, Sergiy, the in­ter­preter, tells me that he’s Jewish. “How about Volodymyr?” I ask him. “Volodymyr’s great grand­fa­ther was Jewish,” he tells me.

Volodymyr is also a faith­ful Chris­tian, and in a few min­utes, he tells me, he’s go­ing to church.

I ask if I could join him. He is happy to oblige and we drive to the church in a Rus­sian off-road ve­hi­cle that he calls a “Rus­sian Mercedes.”

“Tell me,” I ask the guys, “when were these roads last fixed, be­fore Stalin or af­ter?” No­body knows. We reach the church. The words “Free­dom or Death” greet us at the en­trance, plus one big Right Sec­tor flag. In­side, men stand on one side, women on the other, re­mind­ing me of an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue in New York.

When the ser­vice ends, wor­ship­pers ask Volodymyr to help them against out­siders who fre­quent the area and up­root its trees for their lum­ber busi­ness. There is a gov­ern­men­tal agency, called Lviv For­est, which was put in place to stop the theft of for­est trees; but the prob­lem is that this very agency pro­tects the thieves, not the trees.

Volodymyr lis­tens to the people, and I can see the pain on his face. He loves them and he wants to help them, but how do you fight a cor­rupt govern­ment? Maybe that’s why he has his NATO tank.

Here’s an old lady and her even older mama, and Volodymyr gives them a nice bot­tle of al­co­hol with a cross on it, plus a box of chocolates.

Would I like to see how people live here? Volodymyr asks me. “I would love to,” I say.

We drive in the Rus­sian Mercedes to a sim­ple house among the trees, where Olyshka serves us lunch. What a lunch! She and her fam­ily, I learn, live from the land and the an­i­mals roam­ing on it. They have cows, pigs, chick­ens and a field where fruits and veg­eta­bles grow. Would I like some milk? she asks me. Fresh means un­pas­teur­ized, which is poured into a cup by Olyahka straight from the “man­u­fac­turer,” her cow. Oh, Lordy Lord, what a taste! Pure heaven. Olyshka also gives me sour cream. Wait, no! This sour cream is any­thing but sour. It is sweeter than any ice cream I ever tried.

Then, be­tween a sip of milk and a lick of cream, the thought dawns on me: These sweet people are sup­pos­edly the hor­ri­ble Cos­sacks of Ukraine. I don’t know if I should laugh at the face of the ar­ro­gant West or cry be­fore the im­age of these won­der­ful Ukraini­ans. There’s some­thing sweet about them, the sim­plic­ity of their love and of their gen­eros­ity. Maybe this is the beauty that so ap­peals to me, and maybe that’s what the West and Rus­sia want to erad­i­cate.

Raped by Rus­sia and ridiculed by the bike-lane builders of the West, Ukraini­ans have nowhere else to go to but to the Holy Mother and Her Son. Does this make them fas­cists?

On the fol­low­ing morn­ing Volodymyr takes me to the train sta­tion, ac­com­pa­ny­ing me on my way out. “Slawa Ukraini,” he says unto me, as I mount the train. “Geroyam slawa,” I re­spond. The train con­duc­tor, an ob­vi­ous Putin sup­porter, raises his voice at me. “Adolf Hitler!” he calls me and then adds: “Jew!”

Yes, who­ever said that there were no racists in Ukraine?

Back in Hun­gary I go to see the demon­stra­tion around the ques­tion­able mon­u­ment. About 40 spe­cial unit po­lice, equipped with pis­tols and video cam­eras, are tak­ing pho­tos, some­times close-up, of govern­ment op­po­nents.

Fas­cists, real fas­cists, are here, and they are proud mem­bers of the EU.



Paved With Good In­ten­tions: The streets in the Carpathian Moun­tains fea­ture an un­godly num­ber of pot­holes.


Fas­cist Rolls: Mem­bers of the Right Sec­tor are sell­ing toi­let paper fea­tur­ing im­ages of for­mer Ukrainian pres­i­dent Vic­tor Yanukovych.


Dual Loy­al­ties: Natan Chazin wears the uni­form of the Right Sec­tor, but also a Star of David.

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