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Across the Former Soviet Union Finding Heroes in the Wrong Places: Ukraine May Celebrate Top Cossack

July 3, 2006
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A Ukrainian town may soon receive a monument to two men whom many Ukrainians regard as national heroes, but who historians say organized a revolt that led to the mass murders of Jews. The town of Uman is considering putting up a monument to Cossack leaders Ivan Gonta and Maksim Zaliznyak, leaders of an 18th-century anti-Polish uprising that led to the massacre of 20,000 of Jews and Poles.

The proposed monument is even more controversial because Uman attracts thousands of fervently Orthodox Jewish pilgrims each year because it is home to the grave of a Chasidic rabbi.

Some Jewish leaders fear that the plan for the monument in Uman reflects a bigger trend in contemporary Ukraine that is looking for heroic and self-asserting moments in its own history, and quite often at the expense of minorities that have long called Ukraine home.

“Every nation chooses and is worthy of its own national heroes,” said Igor Kuperberg, a longtime Jewish leader from Kiev. “This tendency reflects the point of view of part of the Ukrainian national elite. But it also can lead to the increase of anti-Semitism in the country.”

The idea of a monument to the two peasant leaders — whom many Ukrainians see as the pioneers of the Ukrainian struggle for national independence — is not new for Ukraine, but during communism, it was impossible to erect a monument to the leaders of what the historians call the massacre of Uman.

But in post-Soviet Ukraine, several nationalist groups are advocating the idea of a monument to be erected inside Uman’s main landmark, Sofia Park.

Among the supporters of the idea is the Ukrainian Conservative Party and its leader, Georgy Schokin, who is also president of MAUP, a Kiev-based private university whose leaders are known for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activities.

Earlier this month, Schokin visited Uman and spoke about the monument with local officials. He also submitted the project of the monument for the approval to the board of the Ukrainian National Parks.

“Ivan Gonta and Maksim Zaliznyak occupy a fitting place in the history of the national and liberation movement and they are worthy of eternal memory of the people,” Schokin said when speaking in Uman last month, according to MAUP’s magazine Personnel Plus.

But Jewish activists disagree.

“These two Cossacks — Zaliznyak and Gonta — were not heroes, and this monument shouldn’t be erected,” said Mikhail Frenkel, chairman of the Association of Jewish Mass Media in Ukraine.

He blames a group of leaders around Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yuschenko, for advocating an idea that “Ukraine should bear out its greatness” by honoring what many in Ukraine consider to be a glorious part of their history.

For his part, MAUP’s leader does not see any problem.

“The rebels smashed up Russian, Polish and kike country estates, killed their owners. They saw themselves as the masters in their land,” Schokin said, according to his school’s magazine.

The rebellion of the Gaidamaks, as the Cossack rebels were called, was focused against Polish landowners, was not only a social and political uprising; it also had a religious element against Catholics and Jews.

“The Gaidamaks advanced a slogan — a return to Orthodox Christianity,” said Larisa Garbuzova, of the Uman Museum of Local Lore, History and Culture.

Uman — a manufacturing center in central Ukraine that is home to some 95,000 people — sees an influx of thousands of Chasidic pilgrims every year from around the world around Rosh Hashanah and Purim to visit the grave of a revered leader. Last fall about 12,000 came to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, a prominent Chasidic leader who died in Uman in 1810.

There are about 500 Jews in Uman today, and many of them, as well as hundreds of non-Jews, are involved in providing services to pilgrims that have been flooding the streets of old Uman since the fall of communism.

The impact the Jews are playing in today’s economy of Uman may help local authorities think twice before they give a final go-ahead to the controversial monument.

“We should take into account that during one year more than 30,000 Jews visit Uman, and we have direct relations with two Polish towns,” Svetlana Lipinska, an adviser to the mayor of Uman, told JTA. “This complicates the situation,” she said.

Lipinska confirmed that Schokin recently visited Uman and met with the town officials, but that no final decision on the monument has been made.

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