It’s never that simple

Reading this article, about a Ukrainian Israeli Orthodox Jew who led one of the maidan militias in Kiev, reminds me of the Red Cavalry stories.

Isaak Babel, bespectacled, intellectual Odessan Jew, joined the notoriously anti-Semitic red Cossack brigades in Ukraine in 1920. He survived (he didn’t survive the later Soviet regime under Stalin), and wrote some extraordinarily beautiful and violent and ambiguous stories about it.

It’s never as simple as anti-Semitic versus Zionist, nationalist versus internationalist, intellectual versus fighter, Right versus Left, East versus West. You can’t truthfully describe a whole popular protest movement as fascist (that abused word), any more than you can describe a whole peninsular as native Russian-speaking. But that’s what governments have to do through their media, if they want to claim some sort of legitimacy for their actions.

And so we have Russia claiming it just wants to protect the rights and safety of Jews in Ukraine from a mob of anti-Semitic fascist extremists; to protect Russians in Crimea from – well, from who exactly? No one has been very clear about that. The Russian army is moving into Crimea and the head of the Crimean parliament asks Russia for help?

It’s not so simple. ‘Delta’, the Israeli maidan militia leader, doesn’t give his name, even though he claims to know the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda is not really anti-Semitic:

“If I were Ukrainian, I would have been a hero. But for me it’s better to not reveal my name if I want to keep living here in peace and quiet.”

In his Red Cavalry stories, I sense a similar ambiguity from Babel, at once revelling in and loathing the violence, at once part of events and a despised outsider, at once acting and refraining from acting – observing.

It’s hard, living life like that. Not being able to give yourself or those around you a simple label of definitely this, definitely that; me against them, them against those others.

But if you don’t live like that you end up telling lies, believing lies, and giving lies legitimacy.

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