DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine (AFP) — Asher Cherkasskiy lived a modest life in peaceful southern Ukraine, observing Orthodox Jewish custom and putting his three children through religious school.
But when war against pro-Russian insurgents broke out in 2014, everything changed.
Cherkasskiy became one of the few religious Jews to join a pro-Kiev militia and his bearded, bespectacled face — so different from the others — turned him into an unlikely icon of the conflict.
“I had to protect my children,” said the 45-year-old former handyman whose fame has since propelled him into politics. “If the territorial integrity of your country is broken, you have to defend it.”
Cherkasskiy left his small town of Feodosia in Crimea after the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March 2014. Its new status, he said, “went counter” to his conscience and convictions.
He moved to the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, the heartland of the Jewish community in the country’s east. There he joined the Dnipro battalion, a group fighting the pro-Russian insurgency in the region.
The Dnipro militia was established by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoyskiy, also a Jew, who like Cherkasskiy ridicules allegations by Russian state media that pro-Kiev militias are full of “fascists.”
Symbol of a new Ukraine
Cherkasskiy conceded that his Orthodox practice and kosher diet were difficult to observe at the front.
But he says he never encountered anti-Semitism from fellow fighters in this mainly Christian country, where Jews have been massacred and faced extreme anti-Semitism over history.
“We acted as a single unit without any suspicion of one another,” he told AFP in an interview at a Jewish center in Dnipropetrovsk.
He also says he has “a good relationship” with ultranationalist lawmaker Dmytro Yarosh, whom Moscow brands a neo-Nazi and wants on an international arrest warrant on charges of “inciting terrorism.”
Yarosh, former head of the Right Sector which is both a party and a militia, is the point man between pro-Kiev volunteer battalions and the army general staff. He defends groups like his as “nationalist not fascist.”
But he is infamous for espousing the views of World War II Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, a man Israel blames for colluding with the Nazis to murder thousands of Jews who had survived the pogroms first practiced by Russia’s czar and then continued with abandon by its first Communist leaders.
Historians believe that the Holocaust erased the lives of up to 900,000 Jews living in modern Ukraine, leaving slightly more than 800,000 survivors in the first decade after the war.
The country’s Jewish population remained largely unchanged until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But tacit — if not overt — anti-Semitism witnessed in the more nationalist western and other parts of country saw hundreds of thousands of Jews flee to the United States, Israel and other countries when the Cold War’s borders evaporated.
Jews today account for just 0.2 percent of Ukraine’s population of slightly more than 40 million, or about 80,000 citizens.
Yet some see Cherkasskiy as the symbol of a new Ukraine that has parted ways with its Moscow-tied past and is eager to fall into the West’s embrace.
It was Cherkasskiy’s looks, in striking contrast to his comrades, that shot him to fame thanks to a video filmed on the frontline in late 2014. He stood proud with his bushy orthodox beard, a Jewish warrior in combat fatigues.
“Cherkasskiy is one of the symbols of a new Ukraine, he is a link between the nations that consider Ukraine their motherland,” local journalist Dmytro Rozmeritsa told AFP.
His beard became “a bridge,” he said, a potent, if ironic, symbol of unity.
“Russia attacked Ukraine. It’s a full-scale war,” Cherkasskiy said of the 20-month conflict that has claimed more than 9,000 lives.
‘Not very typical’
Some of the country’s Jewish community leaders say their members support Kiev against pro-Russian rebels.
“We are all citizens of Ukraine and we have to fight for our country,” said Iosif Zisels, who heads the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine.
But he admits that “Asher Cherkasskiy’s position is not very typical.”
Few Orthodox Jews have flocked to join volunteer battalions. In general, religious Jews worldwide — as in Israel — shun military service as an institution of secular society that disrupts religious practices.
While sporadic clashes continue on the frontline, a series of truce agreements have significantly reduced fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Cherkasskiy, meanwhile, has traded combat for politics, winning a seat on Dnipropetrovsk’s city council in November local elections, beating out powerful businessmen and politicians.
His new enemy: corruption plaguing Ukraine’s economy.
This is also the primary foe of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was recently urged by US Vice President Joe Biden to fight the “cancer” of government graft that has hounded a succession of Ukraine’s post-Soviet governments.
That campaign has so far had mixed results, although men like Cherkasskiy and those who spearheaded Ukraine’s 2014 pro-European revolution vow to never give up.
Cherkasskiy is still, above all, a militia member. “But if I feel military service is preventing me from being an effective city councilor, I will opt for being a lawmaker because I think I can do more in this job,” he said.