Hromadske Radio: Leonid Finberg - On the Architects of Mutual Understanding

Ukrainian Jewish Encounter

Leonid Finberg is the editor-in-chief of the publishing house Dukh i Litera and the director of the Judaica Center at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. For the project “Encounters” we talk about the architects of mutual understanding from the generation of Soviet dissidents of the 1960s. The project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska: When we were arranging this meeting and discussing the topic of the talk over the telephone, we came up with an interesting phrase: “architects of mutual understanding.” Therefore, we will talk about them, and to clarify matters I will ask Leonid Finberg to explain who these architects of mutual understanding are.

Leonid Finberg: I think that in relations among people or in relations among communities and bigger communities, countries for instance, there are always those people who try to exacerbate conflict. They try to push some problems that exist in every community to conflict, or God forbid, to war. There are also those people who try to overcome certain historical contradictions, try to overcome some problems, and attempt to find a solution and solve them. I do not remember when, but Olha Hnatyuk offered this term “architects of mutual understanding.” I like it a lot and I think we can talk about many brilliant names among the architects of mutual Ukrainian-Jewish understanding.

Iryna Slavinska: So the understanding can be “hand-crafted,” just like the buildings that are created by the imagination of the architects?

Leonid Finberg: I think there is no another way. I think it is hand-made, but maybe even head-made, because it is usually concepts of action and so on.

Iryna Slavinska: So let us continue this talk with the range of names. Who are these architects that you want to talk about today? Leonid Finberg: I am afraid that when I start to list names, our listeners will not know many of these people. I will say that during the Soviet period the government was fomenting hatred a lot. During the first years it was hatred towards class enemies, and half of the country was among them. Then it was hatred for the priests, rabbis, and so on, stratum after stratum. This was a mechanism for domination by those who seized power. A part of this was the specific interpretation of inter-nationality relations: Ukrainian-Polish, Ukrainian-Jewish, Russian-Ukrainian, and others.

Iryna Slavinska: As far as I understand, this was when a lot of myths and stereotypes appeared?

Leonid Finberg: Yes, those myths and stereotypes have changed during the lifetime of the Soviet Union, and there is an expression that “a pole is a well edited tree.” The same applies to the truth that was known even by the first participants in the events of 1917-18. The truth eventually turned to the absolutely opposite thing. I had a personal experience when I tried to find out about certain stages of Ukrainian-Jewish history and Soviet history. However, it was all closed: all the archives, and everything. Books did not come to us from the outside world, foreign newspapers could be bought only in a few hotels, but ordinary people were not let in there as well, and you had had to ask foreigners for help. There was such madness then! I was a book collector, and was collecting books for my library. Once I saw the book called The Anti-Soviet Underground and it was about those years, I think 1918. And I was glad the book had 500 pages. I thought, oh, finally I will learn what was happening. Imagine however that the book had all the references to the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin and there were no other references to other sources!

This was the mechanism of falsifying history. I think, at some point it had to be told just like stories. Listening to Russian propaganda about what we have today, we have the same phenomenon of virtual reality, which does not have anything to do with reality.

Returning back to the topic you offered, one of the strategies of the Soviet government was the representation of the history of inter-communal relations as a history of conflict. Any event, whether it happened or not, was distorted, made as an absolute, and talked about only in one manner. For example, at some point, all anti-Jewish pogroms that happened from the beginning of the 20th century, especially after the revolution, were called “Petliura” [Symon Petliura, Ukrainian national leader. Editor’s note.] pogroms, and this label persists to this day. So, there were pogroms staged by certain units that broke away from Petliura, or by units that formally belonged to the Ukrainian army, but much worse massacres were committed by Denikin [Anton Denikin, White Army leader during the Russian Civil War. Editor’s note.] or by the Bolsheviks, and Trotsky wrote about that. But with time, in the history, all those pogroms were by Petliura. By the way, I have an interesting experience to share. When a journalist from France was visiting me, and started to ask about what was happening in Ukraine in the Jewish community and so on, I was ready to tell him. But he had certain stereotypes based on Russian propaganda today. I advised him to first clarify the process around the killing of Petliura [Assassinated in Paris in 1926. Editor’s note.], because it is clear that this was a time when the NKVD and their structures were killing those leaders who were anti-Soviet minded.

There are still no contemporary versions as to what happened even though there are enough facts stating that those were the deeds of the Soviet government. The French journalist told me that all the documents about Schwartzbard [Sholom Schwartzbard, put on trial for the assassination of Petliura, but acquitted. Editor’s note.] and Petliura disappeared from the French archives. I asked him how many documents disappeared, and the journalist just smiled. Thus, the hands from Moscow also got there and this is what we have.

Talking again about many stereotypes, they existed for a long time as the Soviet government existed over the lives of three generations. The following generations knew less about the truth of history and knew more Soviet stereotypes and myths. Moreover, this was due to the fact that people were afraid to talk even within their families about the truth that they remembered. We know very well that Ukrainian families barely talked about the famine of 1932-33, and I am not even talking about the famine of the 1920s, 1940s and other tragedies. Similarly, in the Jewish community these stories were very lapidary. This helped the Soviet myths to dominate, and it exists even today to a great degree. These myths are still dominant because the alternative texts and viewpoints have very great difficulty in breaking through the settings that were established at that time.

If it is possible, I would like to talk to you about the architects of understanding. For the most part, they appeared with the dissidents. Of course, they existed also at the beginning of the 20th century, with Zhabotinsky [Ze’ev Zhabotinsky, Zionist leader. Editor’s note.] and Ivan Franko [Ukrainian writer. Editor’s note.] who established an understanding in the pre-Soviet era but that is another story. I think the deeds of modern people and our understanding today is mostly influenced by the generation of the Sixties: Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish and other dissidents.

Iryna Slavinska: We have finished our previous discussion with defining the area where we function and the context we are talking about, and decided to talk more about the experience of the Sixtiers separately.

Leonid Finberg: The texts, statements, and livelihoods of the dissidents were an alternative to Soviet concepts. Despite the fact that the Soviet government did everything to make dissidents quarrel with each other, even in the prisons and camps, the solidarity of these people, who can be called “giants of the spirit,” was much stronger. In this sense, of course, Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the camps and prisons largely determined what would be happening later.

Iryna Slavinska: It looks to me a little bit like the Polish history with Solidarity, like a mobile prison workshop on democratizing Poland.

Leonid Finberg: Of course, but it was much more complicated and difficult. When Adam Michnik [former Polish dissident and public intellectual. Editor’s note.] was introduced to Ukrainians as a political prisoner, he pointed out he was only imprisoned for six years and then in Polish prisons and here in Ukraine people were imprisoned for much longer in worse conditions. We are talking about solidarity symbolically, with the texts or significant figures who proclaimed this solidarity. I think, those are the texts of Yevhen Sverstyuk. At one time, when Eugene Zubar organized a conference on Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the beginning of the nineties and we then printed that in the magazine The World, the most interesting speech was by Yevhen Sverstyuk. Now I would like to recall this because a few months ago Yevhen passed away and we were left without one of the strongest and most moralistic Ukrainian intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st century. May his memory live forever…

From the Jewish side, there were also significant figures such as Mikhail Heifetz or Arye Vudka. Every one of them can be talked about separately. I will focus on two personalities: Yevhen Sverstyuk and his text “In the Egyptian Captivity of Indifference” and also the book Ukrainian Silhouettes by Mikhail Heifetz.

So, about Yevhen Sverstyuk…I will quote a bit, because his words cannot be confused with the words of anyone else. The imagery and power of his language are unique. He said the following: “Perhaps for the first time in history, the sons of Ukraine and the sons of Israel meet without intermediaries in order to start cleaning the Augean stables. They have not been cleaned for centuries. There are stories about what was happening, and what was not, the legends of hatred and boundless cruelty, the story of the Jew who has the keys to the church and about the Cossack with a rope in his hands. Instead of the horseshoe there is on the door of the stable the stereotypical Jew-exploiter and the Ukrainian robber. The main thing is that in the stable there is no acknowledgment of the thousand of thousands examples of normal human cooperation between Ukrainians and the Israelites. Those facts were not registered and not remembered.” [Excerpt from “In the Egyptian captivity of indifference”].

I would like to read this article from the beginning until the end and I think it would be more persuasive than all of my talks; it would have been brilliant.

Iryna Slavinska: By the way, that is a good recommendation for the possible list of literature for those who are listening to this talk and want to continue reading this text.

Leonid Finberg: Fine. I will say that this was published in the magazine The World, which has become a rarity now. At the Judaica Center now we started a calendar of dates of Jewish history and culture. For Yevhen Sverstyuk’s birthday or for the anniversary of this conference, we will post this text on our website. Besides, I am sure that those who will search the Internet for Yevhen’s texts will find this. Just remember that it is called “In the Egyptian Captivity of Indifference.”

Yevhen then analyzes different stages and stereotypes. I think the most impressive and exciting for me was his analysis of the Soviet stage. He talks about the period of plebeianization of the culture. He asked, “Who now knows Biblical texts very well? Of course everybody knows the jokes about Abraham and Moishe.” This is evidence of the plebeianization of the culture. We remember the feuilletons of Soviet era that were anti-Semitic, we remember stereotypical texts that accused Ukrainian intellectuals of nationalism—all of this is also plebeianization of the culture. Thus, there is no other way to overcome these stereotypes other than through serious and in-depth research on the level of knowledge of the modern world by the best historians and publicists.

Our activities at the Judaica Center and the Dukh i Litera publishing house try to address this. I can say that over time we published over one hundred books, and many of them are devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations. These are the texts of the deceased Professor Martin Feller that were specifically about that. And the book that was recently published—The Dialogues of Understanding—contains the records of the Polish journalist Iza Chruślińska with Ukrainian, Israeli, and Polish historians, publicists, and politicians on these topics. She knew and researched these people very well, and her dialogues are very profound. They are not superficial. Among the authors there are such people as Yaroslav Hrytsak and Josef Zissels, and Semyon Gluzman, Ivan Dziuba, Taras Wozniak—the elite of Ukrainian society.

Iryna Slavinska: We were talking about Yevhen Sverstyuk and his famous article “In the Egyptian Captivity of Indifference,” excerpts of which we already heard.

Leonid Finberg: I would like to bring up one more of his thoughts, which is very important here. He spoke not only about the indifference of Soviet officials who specifically tried to present negative information. He spoke about the indifference of the world that did not hear the testimony about the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33. He pointed out that if the world had paid heed then, perhaps there would not have been the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust. His words are relevant also today; it seems that today the world hears much more about the problems of contemporary Ukraine, the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Russian war against Ukraine, than in those days. Let's hope the world learns something.

I also would like to talk about another person whom I mentioned before, and this is Mikhail Heifetz. He was a prisoner of conscience, and today he is a citizen of Israel and a brilliant writer. At some point he was imprisoned with Chornovil [Vyacheslav Chronovil, prominent dissident and political leader. Editor’s note.] and Stus [Vasyl Stus, poet and dissident who died in the Gulag in 1985. Editors’s note.], and he is the author of the book Ukrainian Silhouettes. These texts are on the Internet. Heifetz was the first person outside of Ukrainian culture who predicted the rise of “General Chornovil,” anticipating his great political future, and he wrote absolutely brilliant texts about his meetings with Stus.

For me Vasyl Stus is a great name of Ukrainian culture in the 20th century. I think we still do not know enough about his work, especially his poety. Great work has been done by Mykhailivna Kotsiubinska and Dmytro Stus to prepare and publish nine tomes of his poetry, nearly all of it written when he was behind barbed wire, and great poetry it is. I think they accomplished their task. Our task is to ensure that every scholar and every Ukrainian knows about the great texts of Stus. But I digress…

Iryna Slavinksa: This is all about exchanges and relationships and I think it is important for out discussion to bring up the names of our various heroes…

Leonid Finberg: Stus was also an architect of understanding. He brilliantly translated from different languages. Translations are a large part of his legacy. Strangely enough, he was a great Ukrainian poet, but he also largely relied on such world-renowned poets as Celan, Mandelstam, or Pasternak.

Iryna Slavinska: But let us go back to Ukrainian Silhouettes.

Leonid Finberg: Yes, Heifetz’s book became a signal to the world about the great Ukrainians. And a signal about the Ukrainian-Jewish understanding or the solidarity that arose in the camps and prisons. The Russian philosopher and thinker Sergei Averintsev wrote that the solidarity among people of different faiths in opposition to vulgar Soviet atheism was more valuable than each person’s system of belief. This is solidarity. Mikhail Heifetz did a great job and thanks to this the world got to know about the Ukrainian dissidents and the great Ukrainian poet Stus. The names of Sverstyuk and Stus are not alone in this process. Arye Vudka, who also was imprisoned with the Ukrainian dissidents, now lives in Israel and I believe he is a rabbi. He has a fantastic memory; in the camp he memorized the poems of a considerable part of the intellectuals who wrote them. The first book of Ukrainian poetry, Behind Bars, was published in Munich because he was freed a little earlier, wrote down the poems, and the book was issued. Yevhen Sverstyuk told me about this once. I told Sverstyuk nobody knows about this. So we did an interview with Svertsyuk and now Ukrainian society is familiar with this page of history. There were analogous pages of history in many of these ties.

Myroslav Marynovych’s [a founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and founding member of Amnesty International Ukraine. Editor’s note.] texts are also extremely important to me. They are noteworthy. He expressed the thought that traditionally Ukrainians and Jews survived in a world that was hostile to them. And if the Ukrainians survived on their own territory, the Jews survived in different countries. These small groups by necessity oriented themselves to those who were strong, stronger in their state, whether they were Poles or Russians who ruled their empires. It would have been unnatural for the Jews to orient themselves to a weaker group such as the Ukrainians. So paradoxically, to make Ukrainian-Jewish relations better, Ukrainians should be strong. The Jewish community, Jews, and other minorities will fit naturally and normally in a strong Ukraine.

I think we are witnesses to this today, because over the last couple of decades the texts of the dissidents of both sides have made their contribution to the normal coexistence of national communities in Ukraine, despite all the efforts of governments that were and are. And I’m not even bringing up here other dissident groups such as the Crimean Tatars, with Mustafa Dzhemilev, or Russian human rights activists who all made their contribution. But the most important contributors were those I discussed.

Iryna Slavinska: Leonid Finberg is the director of the Judaica Center of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the editor-in-chief of the Dukh i Litera publishing house. We have concluded this program “Encounters,” and I would like to remind you that this program is about Ukrainian-Jewish relations, and the mutual culture and exchanges that exist between these cultures. Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio, and I would like to remind you that this program is being supported by the Canadian organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in: http://hromadskeradio.org/2015/01/24/leonid-finberg-pro-arhitektoriv-porozuminnya/

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger


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