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- Retention of Yiddish among Ukrainian Jews, 1920s
- Retention of Yiddish in different age brackets, 1926 (% of the whole Jewish population)
Shapovalov dodges the rocket fuel theory by explaining he is “not quali
fied to comment”. Rocket fuel is a military problem, outside the realm of chil
dren’s doctors, and can only be dealt with by specialists; i.e. the military”.
“One day, they may say what really happened. Maybe there is too much
secrecy in this country”, he adds. Then, reflectively: “It is natural for any military
organisation to cover up this problem. It would be the same in your country”.
Then, with even more surprising candour, Shapovalov suggests a reason
why the military will not acknowledge the fuel spillage: if shown to be the
cause of the illness, they would be forced to pay compensation. And they
cannot afford the money to do so.
In a flat in the poor part of town, a meeting is taking place — a meeting of
the Mother’s Committee for the social protection of the rights of the children
who fell ill with chemical intoxication in 1988. The committee represents the
185 children who went bald and were taken to Kyiv and Moscow for tests.
“T h ey are still sick, nothing has ch a n g ed ”, says chairm an Halyna
Khomenko. “Ukraine is ashamed to tell the truth o f these children”.
The Mothers Committee followed their sick children to Kyiv and Moscow
for three months of tests. They were never informed of the results and are
incredulous that now, five years later, they are still no closer to the truth.
Even in the case of the children whose condition has recently deteriorated,
the doctors refuse to link this to the original illness.
The mothers believe the rocket fuel caused the illness, and that their children
were contaminated while playing in the street. They claim that the children
would not have become ill if warnings had been issued at the time of the spill.
“Our children were in good health before 1988, but soon after the acci
dent, all their hair fell out. We know that they were poisoned with chemi
cals. What else could it be?” says one mother.
“On the quiet doctors have told us to get out of Chernivtsi if we want our
children to recover. But they won’t say it officially”, says Khomenko. “But
where can we go? We can’t afford to leave”.
Chernivtsians, like most western Ukrainians, were especially glad to see
the end of the Soviet Union. A region that, historically, leant west to the
Austro-Hungarian empire for cultural ties, it only came under the hammer
and sickle in 1939. Communism was never widely accepted and most peo
ple stuck to their Christian beliefs. They suffered in return. It is rare to meet
a Ukrainian who did not have at least one grandfather murdered in Stalin’s
purges. As recently as four years ago they were still being discriminated
against: 40 per cent of the soldiers sent to Afghanistan were from western
Ukraine. “Our punishment for being Christian was to have to go and fight
Moslems” was how one veteran put it.
With independence in 1991, therefore, the sick children o f Chernivtsi
thought their problems would be over. Why, hadn’t the new world order
been ushered in on a wave of “eco-glasnost”?
Maybe then, but not any more. Whereas environment issues were a safe
focus for anti-establishment sentiment in the early days, the new republics
THE UKRAINIAN REVIEW
have been forced to put “green” issues on the back burner as they slide into
financial ruin, liven Chornobyl — where the 1986 accident, in some experts’
opinion, was one of the factors leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union
— may soon be recommissioned to provide much-needed electricity in the
present power crisis.
With the econom ic collapse has come a breakdown o f communication
systems. Telephones are increasingly out of order and mail rarely gets
through. W estern Ukraine, though geographically clo ser to the rest o f
Europe, has had a rude awakening to its dependence on Moscow for infor
mation from the outside world. And the free world, rather than ride to
Ukraine’s aid like a knight in shining armour, has chosen to focus its assis
tance on Russia in the naive notion that such help will filter through to the
“In some ways it is harder io cope with our problems now than it was
three years ago", says journalist l.udmyla Florivna o f the weekly “Young
Bukovynian” (Bukovyna: the bolder area between Ukraine and Romania).
“No one will help us from East or West, we are more cut off than ever before.
OK, we are no longer influenced by Moscow, but neither can we send out
information or receive it. We can hardly get enough paper to go to print”.
Florivna rocked Chcrnivtsi five years ago with a frank expose of the sick
children problem. Until then, people were unaware of the extent of the suf
fering. For her pains, Florivna lost her job (her editor fought hard with the
authorities to keep her on) but was soon reinstated and, after indepen
dence, voted Journalist of the Year.
Like Freylikh, she has made meticulous research of the fuel spill theory and
believes that the Rocket Forces are the most likely cause of the 1988 illnesses.
“Wherever we have military establishments we have ecological problems.
It is a fact of life. We also have secrecy, and an in-built self-protection
The former Soviet intelligence service — the KGB — seems to have sur
vived independence to re-emerge mostly intact under its new Ukrainian
guise, the SBU. In Chcrnivtsi, as well as being part of the investigating com
mittee, they seem to be keeping more covert tabs on the rocket fuel contro
versy (“I say, ‘Hello, Major’ when I pick up the phone”, was how one cam
paigner put it). It is hard to gauge their goal in the affair. Certainly, in other
parts of Ukraine, the former KGB have proved unlikely allies to environ
mental campaigners. In Rivne they joined forces with Greenpeace to publi
cise illicit imports of toxic waste from Germany. In Chcrnivtsi their hands
may be lied. A former KGB officer told Florivna that “if the rocket fuel scan
dal touches the former Soviet Union, not even the KGB will find the truth”.
Outside verification of the rocket fuel theory is equally muddled. What
we do know is that in late July 1988 a lot of military missiles were being
This was the year of the INF Treaty, which started with a US-Soviet pact
to scrap the bulk of their ground-based medium-range missiles. The Soviets
had begun withdrawing missiles from bases in Czechoslovakia and East
Germany in February. However, the destruction of the SS-12 missiles (one
version of which was liquid-fuelled) at Sary-Ozek in Kazakhstan did not
begin until August 2, 1988.
(The Soviets, quite sensibly, did not act to destroy the rockets until then,
since the US government did not fully ratify the treaty until June).
Other missiles to be scrapped under INF were the old SS-4s, also liquid-
fuelled and vehicle-transportable, o f which there were bases at Kolomyia
and Skala Podilska — both within 50 miles of Chernivtsi. It is also known
that at the end of July long-range Ukraine-based SS-18 missiles (though not
covered by the INF Treaty) were being transported to Russia under the earli
er SALT agreements. SS-18s are also fuelled with liquid dimethylhydrazine.
On July 15 this year, the Ukrainian 43rd Rocket Army began stripping
down the first of ten SS-19 missiles (another liquid-fuelled rocket) and, as
the government admitted a year ago, technicians face a big problem of how
to handle the poisonous propellants. The US Congress has earmarked $300
million-worth of technical aid to Ukraine to help the disarmament process.
If the testimony of Chernivtsi is true, the people of Ukraine have good
reason to question the integrity of their military leaders and the government
that keeps them in check.
Undoubtedly, Chernivtsi is only a small drop in the ocean o f ecological
disasters facing the former Soviet Union (take Chornobyl for example). But
the town is setting an example others can follow. Local investigators like
Viktor Freylikh have the determination to bring the “old system” to book
and to show Ukraine’s leaders that people come first.
THE UKRAINIAN REVIEW
U K R A IN IA N JE W S ’ LANG UAG E B EHA VIO U R IN T H E
1920s: AN IN D E X OF U K R A IN IA N STATUS
In 1926, the 1,574,000 Jews of ihe Ukrainian Republic made up more lhan
60% o f ihe enlire Soviet Jewish population. The 20lh century, which from its
very beginning was fertile in wars, revolutions, pogroms, starvations and
migrations, brought tangible changes in the socio-demographic physiogno
my of the community. In the vortex of events between the censuses o f 1897
and 1926, the Jewish population of Soviet Ukraine (in its interwar bound
aries) decreased by 4.7%.’ Crucial shifts occurred in the territorial and occu
pational distribution T he vector of Jewish internal migration became direct
ed chiefly from small market towns (shtellach) towards big urban centres,
especially outside the former Pale of Jewish Settlement. In 1926, about 62%
of Ukraine’s Jews lived in cities and towns, 29% — in shtellach, and 9% —
in villages. About 28% of them were concentrated in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa,
and Dnipropetrovsk. Relative to 1897, in Kharkiv the number of Jew ish
dwellers increased sevenfold, in Kyiv it quadrupled, in Donbas it trebled.
It is no coincidence that the Jewish population of the industrial regions
showed the highest level of language assimilation. Thus, the percentage of
Donbas Jews who claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue was 50% in the
Artemivsk and Luhansk districts and 38% in the Stalino district. The figure for
the Kharkiv district was 11%, and for the Kyiv district — 63%. The position of
Yiddish was not very strong in other industrial regions either, c.g. 49% in the
Dnipropetrovsk district, 58% in the Odessa district. It is also characteristic that
in 1927 less than one third of Jewish Communists from the industrial districts
Gennady Pstraikh is a doctoral student at St. Antony's College, Oxford. 1 lc specialises in the
socio-linguislic problems of Yiddish. His native city is Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine.
1 The statistical data quoted in this article arc gleaned from: Pcrcpis' Kieva 16 marta 1919
goda, part 1, Kyiv, 1920; Alfarbandishe baratung fun di yidishe scklsyes fun al. k. p. (b),
Moscow, 1927; Pidsumky partperepysu 1927 roku,- Kharkiv, 1928; Y. Veytsblit, "Di mutcr-
shprakh ba di yidishe proletaryer in Ukraine”, in Der shlcrn, 3 April, Kharkiv, 1930; Y. Veytsblit,
Di dinamik fun der yidisher bafclkcrung in Ukraine far di yorn 1897-1926, Kharkiv, 1930; Y.
Kantor, Natsional'noc stroitcl'slvo sredi evreev, Moscow, 1931; Y. Leshchinsky, Dos sovetishe
yidntum, New York, 1911; G.O. Liber, Soviet Nationality Policy, Urban Growth and Identity
Change in the Ukrainian SSH, 1932-1931, Cambridge, 1992.
of Ukraine claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue, whereas in the agrarian
districts more than a half of them identified Yiddish as their first language.
Yiddish retained its strongholds among the sedentary population of the
Kam ianets (97% ), Shepetivka (96% ), Proskuriv (96% ), Tulchyn (96% ),
Berdychiv (95%), Vinnytsia (95%), Uman (95%), Bila Tserkva (92%), and a few
other districts which had been the heartland of Ukrainian Jewry for genera
tions. Although now, among these linguistically retentive Jews there began a
mass flight from the backwaters to the urban melting-pots, since their shtet-
could not recover from the devastation and pogroms of the Civil War
period. In addition, the shtetl, “an ugly unit of the capitalist system”, became,
in the 1920s, the target of “the most ruthless blows of the Revolution”.2
The following statistics give some notion about the language behaviour of
Ukraine’s Jews in the 1920s.
Retention of Yiddish among Ukrainian Jews, 1920s
% of Jews claiming
Yiddish as their
General census of the population
All trade-union members’ census
All Communist Party members’ census
All trade-union members’ census
Rapid language assimilation in big urban centres was not a new phenom
enon. However, the post-Revolutionary Jewish urbanite was much more
assimilation-prone. First o f all, the proportion of Jewish urbanites to the
general urban population fell by half during the inter-census period 1897-
1926 due to an even more rapid influx of non-Jewish migrants. As a result,
in a Soviet city the Russian and Ukrainian languages could easier “drown”
Yiddish. Especially as any ethnically organised public activities were official
ly viewed suspicious. To name but one example: in 1922, a circular of the
Ukrainian Komsomol’s Central Committee banned all private sport clubs
with exclusively Jew ish membership.3
2 A. Bragin, M. Kol'tsov, Sud'ba evreyskikh mass v Sovetskom Soyuze, Moscow, 1924, p. 5-6.
5 G. Estraikh, "Neskol'ko neizvestnykh tsitat”, in Evreyskayagazela, No. 5 (March) Moscow, 1992.
THE UKRAINIAN REVIEW
On the other hand, occupational acculturation began to be far more
widespread in the post-1917 years. In 1922, Lenin lamented, “We have in
Ukraine too many Jews. It is the genuine Ukrainian workers and peasants
w ho should be involved in governing”.4 However, this pronouncem ent
referred mainly to certain key executive posts. Jews, the most literate and
urbanised ethnic group of the Republic, remained prominent among office
workers and professionals. Less than 50% o f Jew ish trade-unionists with
such work status retained Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Retention of Yiddish in different age brackets, 1926
(% of the whole Jewish population)
In urban centres
In contrast to them, Yiddish retention was very high (about 80%) among,
say, Jew ish tailors and sempstresses who constituted the vast majority
(above 70%) of the clothing industry workers. In this industry, some o f the
trade-union organisation conducted their activity only in Yiddish. A charac
teristic example was the Tinyakov clothing factory (in Kharkiv) where there
was a special Yiddish newspaper “Shtolene nodi” (Steel Needle) with a
readership o f some 1,500.
Even at the height o f the indigenisation drive (which was generally bene
ficial to Yiddish activity5), the linguistic assimilation of Ukrainian Jews meant
for the most part Russification rather than Ukrainisation. In 1926, fewer than
one per cent Jews claimed Ukrainian as their first language. Even the inci
4 Ibid. See also G. Estraikh, "Letters to the Editor”, in East European Jewish Affairs, Vol. 23,
No. 1, 1993, p. 123.
5 M. Altshuler, "Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in the Soviet Milieu in the Interwar Period”, in H.
Aster and P.J. Potichnyj (eds.), Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in H istorical Perspective, Edmonton,
1990, p. 296-8.
dence of Ukrainian literacy was not very substantial — 240,000 as opposed
to the 935,000 Jews who were literate in Russian. However, these figures
might be welcomed as a fundamental change. (In 1919, a census of the
population of Kyiv found that among 89,500 literate Jew s only 1.4% claimed
to be literate in Ukrainian; the majority — 95% of the Jewish respondents of
1919 — answered that they could read and write in Russian, 68% — in the
“Jewish language”, and 1.7% — in Polish.6) Outside the rural areas the social
basis for Ukrainisation was quite thin even among the Ukrainians,7 let alone
other ethnic groups.
The Yiddish word-stock p e r se furnishes evidence of the roles which
Russian and Ukrainian played in the Jewish society. It was Russian offi
cialese and journalese that fed the vocabulary of Soviet Yiddish publications.
True, some outdated caiques and loan-words from the Soviet Ukrainian
Newspeak can be recognised, but their number is very limited; e.g.
Y. d orfh oy z
Y. k o m n ez a m
Y. orem p oy er
C ertainly, this b rief list could be exp an d ed . H ow ever, the Soviet
Ukrainianisms become lost on the fringes of the Soviet Yiddish vocabulary
among thou san ds of borrowings from Russian.
It is known that as far back as the second half of the 19th century, words of
Russian origin had become predominant in the Slavonic component of literary
Yiddish. The impact of Ukrainian was especially weak in the vocabulary of
administration and modern city life.8 9 After the Revolution, this impact could
increase only very slightly. In spite of official lip-service to the languages of
the Soviet Republics, it was Russian that became d e fa c t o the supra-language
of the new regime and its elite. Therefore, both Yiddish and Ukrainian found
themselves, in a sense, in the same position — they become targets of Soviet
Russian lexical infusions. But that is only half the story.
By denationalising Jewish life, the Soviet milieu deprived Yiddish, to a
considerable degree, of its creative capacity. Abraham Koralnik, a Jewish
essayist, wrote, “Language, national culture! But... for us, for Jews, it’s not
enough. That is sufficient for Letts, Poles, Ukrainians. [...] Jew s need a
In 1910-1911, Ukrainian practically did not figure in the language repertoire of Jewish stu
dents in the Kyiv higher schools (cf. G. Estraikh, “Languages of Yehupets Students", in East
E uropean Jew ish Affairs,
vol. 22, No. 1, London, 1992, p. 63-71.
7 G.Y. Shevelov, The U krainian Language in the First H a lf o f the Twentieth Century (1900-
Cambridge, 1989, p. 122.
8 V. Swoboda, “Ukrainianisms in J.M. Lifsic's Judes-rusyser vertes-bix”, in P. Wexler (ed.).
Studies in Yiddish Linguistics,
Tubingen, 1990, p. 109.
A.D. Karal'nik, "Evreyskaya problema vlasti”, in Novyyput', No. 32, Moscow, 1917, p. 10.
THE UKRAINIAN REVIEW
But in the Communists’ hands Yiddish language and culture became a
Soviet indoctrination tool, rather than a “chimera”. The Jewish Communists
Sections’ Central Bureau reported in 1922, during the First All- Ukrainian
Congress of Jewish culture activists,
Some of the activists did not have a dear enough notion about the meaning of the
Communist activity among the Jews. They have attached a particular value to the lan
guage question. The members of the Central Bureau have managed to straighten the
line based on principle and to rally the delegates round the resolution which attracted
attention exdusively to the intrinsic value of the activity, viz. its Communist content.10
The introduction of what was called “international” terminology was one
of the most favourable “anti-chimerical” devices of Soviet language regula
tors. In point of fact, both Ukrainian and Yiddish w ere o b lig ed to emulate
the shape of Russian coinages with international (Latin, Greek, etc.) roots or
affixes.11 At the same time, the aftereffects of this policy were essentially dif
ferent. For Ukrainian; such an approach spelled an overt swing towards
Russian, whereas for Soviet Yiddish language-planners it provided a unique
chance to steer a middle course among the co-territorial Slavonic languages
— Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian. Thus, such caiques as "kolvirt" [col
lective farm] or "dorfrat" [village Soviet] appeared to be a compromise set
tlement: neither did "kolkhoz"/"sel'sovet" (Russian) nor "kolhosp‘/"sil'rada"
(Ukrainian) nor "kolcbaz7"sielsaviet" (Belarusian). Moreover, the “interna
tional” disguise levelled many lexical items, especially different abbrevia
tions, e.g. "partorg" (Party organiser), "revkom" (revolutionary committee),
etc. It is no coincidence that the All-Ukrainian conference on the Yiddish
language would later, in 1934, go so far as to make "international" word-for
mation the principle.12 Often, however, these “international words” repre
sented (as opposed to “regular” Russian) a distinction without a difference,
because the real source of almost all Sovietisms, including coinage with
international constituents, was Russian.
In summary, both the language-related statistical data and the vocabulary
o f Soviet Yiddish are indicative of the real status allotted to Ukrainian even
in the heyday of indigenisation. The Ukrainian Jews as well as Yiddish grav
itated chiefly to the Soviet supra-language, viz. Russian.
The a u t h o r w ish es to th a n k th e R ich F o u n d a tio n a n d th e M em o r ia l
F ou n d ation f o r Jew ish Culture f o r aw ardin g the sch olarship w h ich fa c ilita te d
10 Rossiyskiy Tsentr Khraneniya i Isucheniya Dokumentov Noveyshey Istorii, fond 17, opis'
60, delo 974, list 30.
11 Cf. P. Wexler, Purism a n d Language: A Study in M odem U krainian a n d Belorussian
N ationalism (1840-1907),
Bloomington, 1974, p. 162.
12 Afn shprakbjront, No. 3-4, Kyiv, 1935, p. 267.
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