Trading Barbs with Putin
By Alexander Motyl
One of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky, has just taken another rude poke at Russian President Vladimir Putin. And this time the Jewish Ukrainian businessman hasn’t just insulted Putin. By invoking Jewish support of Putin’s Ukrainian nationalist bogeyman—Stepan Bandera (1909–59)—Kolomoisky, who is president of the European Jewish Union and a leading Jewish philanthropist, has engaged in the ultimate provocation.
Kolomoisky, 51, was one of Ukraine’s first oligarchs to side with the post-Yanukovych democratic government. Just after Putin’s occupation of Crimea in early March, he agreed to serve as governor of his native Dnipropetrovsk province and publicly called Putin “a schizophrenic of short stature.” As if that weren’t enough, Kolomoisky then went on to say: “He is completely inadequate. He has completely lost his mind. His messianic drive to recreate the Russian empire of 1913 or the USSR of 1991 could plunge the world into catastrophe.”
A day later, Putin paid him back in kind: “For example, Mr. Kolomoisky was appointed Governor of Dnepropetrovsk. This is a unique crook. He even managed to cheat our oligarch Roman Abramovich two or three years ago. Scammed him, as our intellectuals like to say. They signed some deal, Abramovich transferred several billion dollars, while this guy never delivered and pocketed the money. When I asked him [Abramovich]: “Why did you do it?” he said: “I never thought this was possible.” I do not know, by the way, if he ever got his money back and if the deal was closed. But this really did happen a couple of years ago. And now this crook is appointed Governor of Dnepropetrovsk. No wonder the people are dissatisfied.”
Kolomoisky’s latest assault on Putin wasn’t a statement, but a performance. He donned the T-shirt depicted here. The shirt abounds with semiotic meanings that need some unpacking.
For starters, black and red are the colors of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that derives its ideological inspiration from the radical branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists affiliated with Bandera. The OUN was established in 1929 as a national liberation movement committed to attaining Ukrainian independence. Until its demise in the mid-1950s, it fought the Polish, German, and Soviet authorities by means of propaganda, terrorism, and guerrilla activities. Ideologically and behaviorally, the OUN closely resembled the Algerian National Liberation Front, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Jewish Irgun or “Stern Gang,” while Bandera was the Ukrainian version of Ahmed Ben Bella, Yasir Arafat, Menachem Begin, or Avraham Stern.
Note as well that the image on the T-shirt represents a fusion of the Ukrainian national symbol, the trident, and a menorah.
The most semiotically charged part of the shirt is the term beneath the trident-menorah. If you read it in Russian, it’s zhidobandera—or “kike-Bandera.” If you read it in Ukrainian, it’s zhydobandera—or “Jew-Bandera.” Recall that, in the language of Soviet and Putin propaganda, “Bandera” is shorthand for “enemy of the Soviet Union,” “enemy of Russia,” “fascist,” and “anti-Semite.” According to this logic, enemies of the USSR/Russia must be fascists and anti-Semites. Hence, the T-shirt’s Russian reading boils down to a fusion of “kike” and “anti-Semite.” Its Ukrainian reading fuses “Jew” with “anti-Semite.” Both readings fuse “Jew” with “enemy.”
What, then, are the messages that the T-shirt, and Kolomoisky with it, are conveying?
First, and most obviously, Kolomoisky is claiming that ethnic Ukrainians and Jewish Ukrainians have a common cause in today’s Ukraine and that that cause—building a democratic Ukrainian nation and state (or what most Ukrainian nationalists would call nationalism)—is deserving of Jewish support.
Second, Kolomoisky is implicitly accusing Putin of being both anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian. The term zhidobandera reverberates with the interwar anti-Semitic notion of zhidokomuna, which fused Jews with Communism. By identifying himself, a Jewish Ukrainian, with a benign version of zhidobandera, Kolomoisky is by the same token identifying Putin and his apologists with the malignant version, which views Jews as “kikes” and Ukrainians as “anti-Semites” and “fascists.”
Third, in the manner of gays and African-Americans, who have appropriated such terms as “fag,” “queer,” and “nigger,” in order to drain them of their offensive content and turn them against homophobes and racists, so, too, Kolomoisky is appropriating the offensive Russian zhid and the pejorative term, Bandera, and stating that, in Ukraine, his homeland, both terms will have the meaning that ethnic Ukrainians and Jewish Ukrainians choose to ascribe to them. In effect, Kolomoisky is taking control of both the Russian and Ukrainian languages and insisting that, not Putin, not Russia, and not Russian propaganda, but he, together with his Ukrainian/Jewish countrymen and women, will decide what words mean in Ukraine.
Finally, Kolomoisky’s T-shirt is a plea for Jewish-Ukrainian understanding. Many of Ukraine’s Jews, who are generally Russian speakers, find the Ukrainian word for Jew, zhyd (which is identical to the Polish, Czech, and Slovak words for Jew), to be too close to the Russian pejorative, zhid, to be acceptable and therefore prefer yevrey. Many Ukrainians defend their choice of zhyd on the grounds that yevrey came to Ukrainian from Russian. In effect, the pragmatic Kolomoisky is telling both communities to cool it, take a deep breath, transcend their complex past, and work out a solution that addresses current concerns.