ANATEVKA, Ukraine — The road to Anatevka is bordered by harsh Soviet-era high-rises.
While downtown Kyiv is picturesque and filled with chic restaurants and coffee shops, as we drove out of the Ukrainian capital the architecture switched abruptly to dilapidated and stark buildings that my translator, Galya Rudyk, said “don’t look any better on the inside.”
“This is how the average person lives, in a 50-square meter apartment with a small kitchen and tiny bathroom,” she added.
Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a GDP per capita of $3,592, according to the International Monetary Fund. By contrast, Israel has a GDP per capita of $42,823, while that of the United States is $65,111. Rudyk said her mother, an obstetrician, earns about $200 a month; her father, a military officer, about $600.
After a 50-minute ride, we arrived at our destination.
Anatevka is a gated compound that it would be a stretch to call a village. Despite looking a bit like a movie set, it appeared to be a decent place to live. There is, we would eventually see, a brand-new playground and a soccer field, and the main apartment building was freshly painted and had large windows.
Getting in, however, was not straightforward.
A guard dressed in camouflage stopped us at the gate, telling us we needed permission from Rabbi Azman in Kyiv to enter.
But when I called Yossi Azman, one of the rabbi’s sons, he was unhelpful, albeit apologetically. “We’ve had too many problems with journalists,” he said. “Most of them are dishonest. In the beginning, we let them in, showed them everything, and they betrayed our trust. I’m not saying you’re one of the dishonest ones, but we’re not letting journalists visit Anatevka anymore.”
Anatevka, a displaced persons camp southwest of Kyiv, was built from the ground up in 2015 by Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman, who presides over the restored 19th-century Brodsky synagogue in central Kyiv.
The hamlet’s population is said to range from 65 to 150 people, depending on the report. Its purpose is to house, feed, educate and provide vocational training to Jewish refugees from the war in eastern Ukraine, in which more than 10,000 people have died and over a million Ukrainians were displaced. Azman told “Foreign Policy” in 2016 that he hoped that one day 500-600 people might live here.
Until October 2019, most of the publicity Anatevka received had to do with the novelty of a Jewish hamlet rising on the steppes of Ukraine with a name taken from the fictional shtetl in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In a fundraising video from 2016, Azman lip-synced and danced to the song “If I Were a Rich Man.”
In fact, the land Azman purchased to build the compound is next to an extant 16th-century village called Hnativka, which some scholars say is the inspiration for the town of “Anatevka” that appears in the fiction of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and later in the “Fiddler” musical. (Sholem Aleichem set his “Tevye the Dairyman” stories, which he began writing in 1894, in a town he called Boyberik, but some of the characters hailed from nearby Anatevka. In the musical, Anatevka became the main setting. That is probably why, when we originally typed “Anatevka” into Waze, we ended up in an ordinary village not far from the Jewish compound.)
A project in the headlines
In October 2019, a dramatic turn of events thrust Anatevka the real-life hamlet into the international spotlight.
On October 10, a Belorussian-born US citizen named Igor Fruman and a Ukrainian-born US citizen, Lev Parnas, were arrested at Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC, and indicted on charges of funneling foreign money to Republican political candidates. Journalists began to investigate all of Fruman and Parnas’s registered companies and charities, including one called American Friends of Anatevka, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit set up in October 2017 by Fruman, together with Azman. Parnas was also reportedly a board member.
Reports over the following months revealed how Anatevka fit into the events that led to US President Donald Trump’s impeachment. On May 9, 2019, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times that he planned to travel to Ukraine in the coming days to deliver a paid speech to a Jewish group on Middle East policy. A day later, he canceled his trip amid an uproar over his plan to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during the visit and press him to carry out investigations perceived to benefit Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
The Jewish group in question was later revealed to be American Friends of Anatevka. In lieu of the Anatevka visit, Giuliani traveled to Paris, where he met with Rabbi Azman, received an oversized key to the hamlet, and was named its honorary mayor. Giuliani also reportedly met in Paris that month with Dmitry Torner, an executive at a company owned by Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash. Torner had formerly been a politician with the pro-Russian Opposition Platform–For Life party.
Since the arrest of Fruman and Parnas, media coverage of Anatevka has ranged from fawning to skeptical.
A December 5 article in Israel Hayom [Hebrew link] described Anatevka as a resounding success, with a waiting list of young families, not all of them refugees, seeking to move in.
“Anatevka continues to grow and develop and take on the character of a community. Every few months a new apartment building is built,” the article reported.
By contrast, a November article in Bloomberg News questioned whether Anatevka was what it claimed to be, a refuge for Jews fleeing the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. It suggested that the number of actual refugees living there was small, and reported that New York prosecutors have been examining American Friends of Anatevka’s bank records in light of Parnas and Fruman’s October 10 indictment.
“The questions hanging over Anatevka are whether it is what its sponsors claim — a refuge for Jews driven from eastern Ukraine by the Russian-backed separatist war -– and what role, if any, it played as Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman sought to persuade Ukrainian officials to investigate Trump’s political opponents in the U.S.” the Bloomberg article noted.
After Yossi Azman, the rabbi’s son, said that my translator and I could not enter Anatevka, we asked the guard if we could walk around the project’s perimeter and take photographs over the wall.
“That is not prohibited. I can’t prevent you,” said the guard.
Anatevka stands in the middle of a field, in an area where suburban sprawl gives way to countryside. The temperature was 2 degrees Celsius (37° Fahrenheit), unseasonably warm for Kyiv in January. The air felt fresh, with a faint smell of burning wood. We trudged through thick black mud, which Rudyk told me is extremely fertile.
“This is the famous Ukrainian black soil that grows potatoes; it grows everything actually,” she said.
We saw a small white structure outside the wall, which we later learned was the tomb of a famous Hasidic rabbi, Mordechai Twersky of Chernobyl (1770-1837).
We took photographs of Anatevka over the wall surrounding it. We saw a school, painted in pastel blue, green and orange. We saw an apartment building where a blonde woman peered out at us curiously. We saw a greenhouse, and a synagogue, and several schools that appeared to be in session, with stenciled Hebrew letters perceptible through the windows.
Everywhere, workers were building. School buses and trucks loaded with firewood stood outside the gate. A rosy-cheeked boy in a puffy winter coat ran between buildings.
The streets of Anatevka were mostly empty, but we had been told by a member of the Jewish community that some of its residents had jobs elsewhere and were not around during the day.
Monty Python’s Ukrainegate?
The evening before visiting Anatevka, a Times of Israel colleague and I met with Arnold Kremenchutsky, a pro-Western filmmaker and active member of Azman’s Brodsky synagogue, as well as a longtime friend of Igor Fruman. Over kosher pizza in Kyiv’s Podol neighborhood, Kremenchutsky shared his insights about life in Ukraine, politics, cinema, Jewish identity, and many other topics.
Kremenchutsky told us that he found the notion that Anatevka might have a role in any kind of international conspiracy to be ridiculous.
“If Trump had done anything criminal, he would be in jail in one second, it’s the United States of America we’re talking about,” Kremenchutsky said.
“Giuliani can pick up the phone and ask anyone in the universe to call him in five or ten minutes. He doesn’t need Fruman and Parnas — for me, it’s Monty Python. It’s a comedy. I don’t know the truth, but we live in an age of paranoia. I think the American Congress is also suffering from paranoia.
“Did something happen between Parnas, Fruman, Giuliani and Moshe Azman? We’ll see in a couple of years. It will be funny. I’d like to produce that movie: Ukrainegate.”
As Rudyk and I continued to walk around the muddy perimeter of Anatevka trying to catch glimpses of life inside, I pondered what Kremenchutsky had said the evening before. What we were doing felt a bit silly. There was not much to see except a bunch of buildings. I raised my phone to take yet another photograph, when I saw a man inside approaching. He asked us who we were.
“Dobry den,” said Rudyk in Ukrainian. “I am here with a journalist from Israel.”
The man addressed me in Hebrew. Perhaps when he heard me reply in the holy tongue, his attitude softened.
“You can come in, but just to look around. You can’t talk to people,” he said. “I’m sorry about the situation, but we’ve had some very bad encounters with journalists.”
The man led us around. He did not tell us his name, but we understand he may have been one of Rabbi Moshe Azman’s sons. He said that he had been learning English and liked to read The Times of Israel.
He showed us an elementary school that he said was Modern Orthodox, meaning boys and girls study together. He showed us another school under construction, which would only be for girls. “This is a cheder, this is an orphanage,” he remarked, pointing to buildings as we passed.
“Are there orphans from the war in Donbass?”
“Yes,” he replied.
He pointed to a large building, under construction, which he said would be the largest mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, in the world. There were two museums — one dedicated to Ukrainian Jewry and another to Hasidic culture — in the works.
Finally, we entered a carpentry workshop, where three men worked cheerfully. The shelves were laden with wooden toys, Purim groggers (noisemakers) and kippah boxes that our helpful guide said were handmade by residents and schoolchildren.
“People from Anatevka give these as gifts before the holidays.”
We walked past a tree sculpture with the names of Anatevka’s donors inscribed on metal plaques. The names were in Cyrillic script, faded by the sun and rain.
“We’re both adults,” said our guide. “I know you are interested in the names of our donors. But you won’t find any names you recognize there, just local Ukrainians.”
I completed the walk around Anatevka rather charmed, and persuaded that even if the number of people it was helping by giving them homes, education and a community was not very large, as some news reports have claimed, it seemed to be a pleasant and positive place to live for whatever number of families it did serve.
Arnold Kremenchutsky, I tentatively concluded, had been right to laugh at the idea that a warm, welcoming Chabad community was somehow caught up in any kind of geopolitical intrigue.
A binary connection
As I was leaving Anatevka, I saw something that gave me pause.
“This building was donated by Ilan Tzorya, God bless him,” proclaimed a Hebrew plaque on the project’s main apartment building.
Ilan Tzorya, an Israeli, is the founder and was the owner of the binary options platform provider Tradologic, until at least late 2017. Binary options, as this reporter has documented, was a widely fraudulent online investment industry that stole billions of dollars from millions of ordinary people worldwide and was outlawed by Israel’s Knesset in 2017.
Tradologic operated around 50 binary options websites, many on a revenue-sharing basis, including one called Blue Bit Banc, whose owner, Blake Kantor, was indicted by a US grand jury in April 2018. He pleaded guilty and in July 2019 was sentenced to 86 months in prison. The indictment alleged that the computer software (i.e., Tradologic), used by Blue Bit Banc, “allowed Blue Bit Banc to [fraudulently] manipulate data associated with the Investors’ binary options so that the probability of investors earning a profit would favor Blue Bit Banc.”
Tzorya has never personally been accused of any wrongdoing by the various law enforcement agencies that have investigated or prosecuted Tradologic-run websites.
Funding from the EAJC
Nearby, I then noticed, another building proclaimed it had been funded by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC). An article [Hebrew link] in Israel Hayom elaborated that EAJC president Mikhail Mirilashvili and his son Yitzhak Mirilashvili are among the project’s most significant donors.
Mikhail Mirilashvili, reportedly the third-richest man in Saint Petersburg [Hebrew link], donates to dozens of charities in Israel, and is associated with prominent public figures in Russia, Israel and the United States. In a December 2019 interview to Calcalist magazine, Mirilashvili, who has a photo of himself with Putin hanging in his office, said [Hebrew link] that “to my great sorrow” he only knows the Russian president on a casual “Hello” basis.
In Israel, Mirilashvili is reportedly close to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Hebrew link] and Mossad head Yossi Cohen [Hebrew link]. As widely reported in Hebrew media, Mirilashvili and his son have been questioned by Israeli police over large sums they donated to a charity controlled by Yaffa Deri, the wife of Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. Police suspect that the Deris used the money for their own personal benefit. Mirilashvili has denied any wrongdoing in the case, as have the Deris.
The well-connected Mirilashvili is also a business partner of Alan Dershowitz, a prominent US attorney and defense lawyer for President Trump. Dershowitz became a shareholder in Mirilashvili’s startup Watergen, which extracts water from the air, in September 2017. The company signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 and its projected 2019 revenues were in the hundreds of millions of shekels.
Back to Kyiv
On the drive back to Kyiv, I asked Rudyk questions about life in Ukraine.
“Why is this country so poor?”
“Corruption,” she answered without hesitation.
“The first thing I tell foreigners about Ukraine is that, yes, Ukraine is really corrupt. When you go to the hospital, you’ll see people giving bribes to the doctor. When you put your kids into school, you give money to teachers to teach your kid better.”
This corruption extends all the way to the top, she said, where politicians and judges take bribes from businesspeople as a matter of course.
“Most people see that their salaries are small. But they see that politicians here live well and have nice cars and vacations.”
Rudyk said that most Ukrainians have internalized the belief, in principle at least, that if the country can clean up corruption, the standard of living will rise. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, won 73 percent of the vote in April 2019 elections.
In an interview with The Times of Israel soon after I returned from Kyiv, Zelensky said the battle against corruption would be long and difficult, and was necessitating fundamental reforms in Ukraine’s law enforcement establishment. “But when we’ll have these strong institutions, we will stop all the corruption.”
It is hard for ordinary Ukrainians to change habits like evading taxes and giving bribes, said Rudyk, but she thinks mores are changing.
In late 2013 and 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators took to Kyiv’s Maidan square, initially to protest their pro-Russian then-president’s decision not to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union and later to protest then-president Viktor Yanukovych himself, whose riot police beat unarmed protesters and who enriched himself greatly at what was perceived to be ordinary Ukrainians’ expense.
Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia; soon after, Russia invaded Crimea while Russian-backed separatists began fighting Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region, in conflicts that are ongoing. Russia’s government sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, Rudyk said, and is displeased that ordinary Ukrainians defiantly sought to carve out their own destiny and draw closer to the EU. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has reportedly said that “Ukraine is not a country.”
I asked Rudyk what makes Ukraine different from Russia, since many Ukrainians speak Russian and many of the countries’ customs and traditions are similar.
“The difference I see now between Ukrainians and Russians,” she said, “is that when something outrageous or corrupt happens, our people go into the streets to protest. Ukrainians are more proactive. But now I see that Russians have also started protesting in the streets and are not afraid to go out. I used to think that they were more shy than us. They didn’t want to live in a police state under Putin, but they stayed at home.”
Arnold Kremenchutsky, the filmmaker, had echoed Rudyk’s remarks.
“I think Ukrainians and Russians have different traditions of community or social organization,” he said.
“Russians rely more on the tsar or king — it’s not slavery but it’s like, there is a king, there is a tsar, there is someone else who will fix things for us. But Ukrainians want freedom. We’re closer to a European mentality. There are progressive Russians who think like us; it’s not all Russians. I’d say what many Ukrainians hate is the Soviet mentality, Putin, the KGB and all that.”
As we reached central Kyiv, Rudyk pointed to a bright yellow church, St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral.
“It’s one of the most beautiful churches in Kyiv. My parents go there on big holidays. We don’t go to the biggest church in Kyiv because it’s pro-Russian. The priests there get money from Russia and take Russia’s side in the war.”
Rudyk said that some Muscovite Orthodox priests in Ukraine live lavishly, drive luxury cars and appear to have more money than their pro-Ukrainian counterparts. There had been several scandalous exposés in the Ukrainian media showing priests living in a way not befitting men of the cloth, she said.
“Do you think because they get money from the Russian government they feel obligated to take Russia’s side in the war?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
I wondered if the same dynamic could occur in the Jewish community. Is it possible that the Russian government might directly or indirectly fund Jewish communities, and would their leaders then feel obligated to do or say things to advance Russian interests? On the surface, the answer is no, since there is no rabbi in Kyiv who publicly espouses pro-Russian views.
Meeting at the synagogue
A few hours after returning to the capital, I meet Yossi Azman, the son of Rabbi Moshe Azman who had not wanted me to enter Anatevka, at the Brodsky Synagogue in central Kyiv.
Yossi Azman told me that his father is the chief rabbi of Kyiv, although not an official representative of the Chabad movement. He said that the 19th century synagogue, which had served as a puppet theater in Soviet times, was returned to the Jewish community in the 1990s at the behest of his father. In 2000 it was restored, with the generous help of donors whose names appear on brass plaques in the entrance hall. The largest of these plaques bears the name of Vadim Rabinovich, who is currently a politician with the Ukrainian party Opposition Platform–For Life.
“This community is an address for every aspect of Jewish life in Ukraine,” Yossi Azman said proudly.
“We have a restaurant, a school, a kindergarten, a cheder, a girl’s school, an orphanage, and programs for all ages.”
Azman said the synagogue feeds 200 needy people on a regular basis. I could see some of them in the dining room where we sat speaking — elderly Kyiv residents whose faces were etched with hardship. Some had brought plastic containers to take food home with them.
Azman said that the synagogue provides free medicine and surgery for the community, because medical services in Ukraine are so poor. He also mentioned that his synagogue has an Israeli community, which started a year ago, and now has 120 members in its Facebook group. It helps Israelis feel less lonely in a foreign city, he said, while connecting them to their Jewish roots.
“We recently held a Hanukkah celebration [for the Israelis]. It was great.”
I asked Azman about the contributions to Anatevka from Ilan Tzorya and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
“Do you think some of your donors might be considered pro-Russian?”
“I would ask not to speak of politics,” he replied. “We are in the business of light, of good deeds.”
“When your donors give money to you,” I asked, “is it without asking for something in return?”
“God forbid,” replied Azman. “People give only because they want to contribute to the great things we are doing. I believe the people who give us money donate with a whole heart and without strings attached.”
Azman added that he wanted to correct any impression that there is a lot of money in the Brodsky synagogue.
“This is a big mistake. Once, there was a lot of money here, before 2008. Today the economic situation is difficult. This is the impression I want to dispel. If a donor thinks we have money they won’t want to contribute. We get no money from the state. This place exists only through donations.”
Azman mentioned Anatevka, and said that the world’s largest and most important media outlets had lined up and requested to visit the project but that he and his father had turned them away. He said that overall, he had formed a very low opinion of journalists.
“These journalists,” I suggested, “think some of your donors may be oligarchs with a connection to Russia, and that this influences you — that the Jewish community may be being used for political purposes.”
“I will not address that because it can be taken in all kinds of directions. We are only interested in light and goodness, nothing else,” said Azman. “The Lubavitcher rebbe said that darkness is not chased away by brooms and sticks, but by light.”
I realized that we journalists have a similar saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But what Azman means by light is focusing on good deeds and thoughts, while what journalists mean is exposing uncomfortable realities, with the goal of making things better. I wasn’t sure if the two positions could be reconciled.
I thanked Azman for the interview, and asked: “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
“All the turmoil in the world right now,” he said, “these are signs of the coming of the Messiah. He will come and solve all our problems. So hopefully you will be able to report the news of the divine redemption.”