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Interview'Putin doesn’t believe Ukrainians exist'

Why Putin bombs the very same Russian-speaking people he claims to liberate

Speaking during a break from reporting on Russian invasion and smuggling refugees across border, intellectual Vladislav Davidzon eschews neutrality in fight for independent Ukraine

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. His nonfiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Literary Matters, and Speculative Nonfiction, and his fiction in The Woven Tale Press, Atticus Review, and the UK’s Ambit. He most recent book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

  • Political and cultural journalist Vladislav Davidzon. (Courtesy)
    Political and cultural journalist Vladislav Davidzon. (Courtesy)
  • Vladislav Davidzon, right, with actor Sean Penn, who was in Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022 filming a documentary on the unfolding conflict. (Courtesy)
    Vladislav Davidzon, right, with actor Sean Penn, who was in Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022 filming a documentary on the unfolding conflict. (Courtesy)
  • An anti-Putin protest in Ukraine, February 19, 2022, five days before the Russian invasion. (Vladislav Davidzon)
    An anti-Putin protest in Ukraine, February 19, 2022, five days before the Russian invasion. (Vladislav Davidzon)
  • Vladislav Davidzon, right, in Kyiv with former prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, the youngest prime minister in Ukrainian history, a few days before the Russian invasion. (Courtesy)
    Vladislav Davidzon, right, in Kyiv with former prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, the youngest prime minister in Ukrainian history, a few days before the Russian invasion. (Courtesy)

Vladislav Davidzon is a political and cultural journalist who has spent the last decade chronicling the creation of an independent Ukraine — and the ongoing attempts by Vladimir Putin’s Russia to derail that national project. His recent book, “From Odessa with Love: Political and Literary Essays in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” was published in September 2021, just as Putin began to amass the military forces that eventually invaded Ukraine late last month. Davidzon is based in Paris and spends about a third of his time reporting from Kyiv — which is where he was when Russia began to bombard Ukraine.

Davidzon, 37, refers to himself as a dandy — both his style and his attitude reflect the label — but he is also a tireless writer, artist, and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, and Foreign Policy. In 2015, with his Odessa-born wife, he founded and edited the Odessa Review, which over the next three years served as a cultural bridge between Ukraine and the rest of the world. Since 2012, he has been Tablet Magazine’s European culture correspondent.

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, raised in Moscow and New York, and currently shuttling between Paris and Kyiv, Davidzon brings a unique perspective to the conflict in Ukraine.

Davidzon spoke to The Times of Israel over Facebook audio from Panska Huralnya, an Austro-Hungarian-style cafe in Chernivtsi — the famed southwestern Ukrainian city that is also the hometown of numerous literary and cultural giants, including Aharon Appelfeld and Paul Celan. He had arrived there after spending several days on the Belarusian border, to which he had traveled from Kyiv when Russia launched its invasion. While we spoke he ate a caesar salad and potatoes in the Viennese style, the eerie sounds of jazz standards being played by a pianist in the background as he discussed his work and the current situation in the war-torn country.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: There’s a lot of talk at this time about Ukrainian heroism in the face of Russia’s onslaught — what are your thoughts on this?

Vladislav Davidzon: I’m temperamentally geared toward recklessness. Some people think it’s crazy, but I just have a high resistance to risk. I don’t feel that I’m being heroic. I just feel like I’m doing what everyone else is doing. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. In my off time, I’m working on helping refugees — helping people get out and connect with relief efforts.

A big part of me wants to pick up a gun and defend Ukraine. Some people think that makes me unfit to be a journalist. Anyway, I haven’t done it yet. But it comes from anger and frustration, not heroism or masculinity. This is my city. These are my people — Russian speakers, Ukrainian Jews, post-Soviets — they’re all my people. And Putin is bombing them under the pretext of denazification. He should just be honest and say that he’s cleansing all those who will not subjugate themselves to him. It’s a cleansing of difference, of people who are capable of standing up to his totalitarian dictates.

Vladislav Davidzon, right, in Kyiv with former prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, the youngest prime minister in Ukrainian history, a few days before the Russian invasion. (Courtesy)

You’ve written an article in Tablet about the unique circumstance of a Jewish leadership in the struggle for Ukrainian independence. Can you expand on this?

Basically, this is a government of Russian-speakers. The previous government was made up of Ukrainian titular nationalists — they believed in preserving the Ukrainian language and culture, and that all minorities in Ukraine should be well-versed in that culture. But this actually made a lot of space for minorities, since only about 55 to 60 percent of the population in the country speaks the language of the state at home.

In this January 1, 2019, file photo, activists of various nationalist parties carry torches, Ukrainian national flags and a portrait of Stepan Bandera during a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

The uproar around Stepan Bandera is a perfect example. He was a Ukrainian ultranationalist, an antisemite and Nazi collaborator, but in today’s Ukraine, being a Banderite is really just about being a tough guy with big tattoos, big muscles, and big guns. Do these folks actually want to go back to an integralist Ukraine, Bandera’s Ukraine? Maybe a small part does, but the majority of the population thinks they’re gross. Are they ideological integralists? Of course not. Even the real integralists go out of their way to tell stories about Jews working with Bandera — which says something interesting. They go into revisionism, inventing things that never existed, to help turn contemporary Ukraine into something that makes sense to them.

In your article, you write that “Zelensky’s Ukraine represents the hyperspecific and beautiful contradictions that stem from the acceptance of contradiction, the multiethnic tolerance, and the polyglot nationality.” You also talk about Ukraine as a “traumatized nation that just wants to exist, and to escape from the toxic bonds of world war and holocaust and gulag and famine that its revanchist neighbor has imposed on its population in the absence of its own ability to provide a normal life.” In cultural terms, what does this say about the relationship between Ukraine’s and Russia’s aims in this conflict?

Putin claims he’s come to save the Russian world and the Russians from Nazism — but he’s mostly bombing Russian-speaking cities. Kherson, Mariupol, Odessa, Kharkiv, these are all cities where the majority of the population speaks Russian.

The fact that a big portion of the current Ukrainian leadership is of Jewish descent is no accident — they are fighting for a new, contemporary Ukraine. We want to live like normal people, not like animals: not to be poor, not to be under someone’s thumb, or someone’s boot. We don’t want to be dominated.

Putin doesn’t believe that Ukrainians exist. And he can’t let the new Ukraine state stay alive — he can’t let it slip away from him. So he has to derail the project. He has tried everything. The fact that he had to go to war is already proof that he wasn’t successful, that he couldn’t achieve his goal in any other way.

Another Russia is possible, but for that to happen, Russians have to repudiate today’s Russia — a complex and probably bloody process. They have to repudiate Putinism, the gulag, their nostalgia for the Soviet Union and for the Russian Empire. And if they don’t, then they can’t have a free and democratic Ukraine on their border, since it’s a bad example for Putin’s Russia. Ultimately, this is as much about them as it is about Ukraine.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

What have your last two weeks looked like?

I started out in Kyiv and left after the bombing started. I reported from the Belarusian border and then I thought they’d invade, but they didn’t and it seems that Lukashenko avoided having been forced to enter the war. I’m a triple-citizen and so, as a Russian citizen, I had to leave the area, since I would not be treated by the Russian forces as a Western journalist. So I went to Rivne, in northwest Ukraine, where I spent three days before taking a car down to Chernivtsi.

I’m about to go back to Odessa — to be there, to help evacuate my family, to chronicle what’s happening there. [Editor’s note: Davidzon has since escorted relatives over the Romanian border en route to France.] My family’s history is in Odessa. Isaak Dunayevsky, the composer who wrote “Song of Odessa,” was my great-great-great uncle. I edited the Odessa Review. And I’ve written about Odessa for a long time. I’m also working with my wife, who’s in Paris spending 18 hours a day organizing Ukrainian volunteers, and when I’m not reporting, I try to get people out, fielding a lot of requests. If anyone reading this needs information, I can help them get in touch with the right people in the right cities and the right organizations. I’m easy to find.

Vladislav Davidzon, right, with actor Sean Penn, who was in Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022 filming a documentary on the unfolding conflict. (Courtesy)

You were photographed with Sean Penn on the night before the invasion. What was he doing in Kyiv?

Hanging out with me.

What brought you from the United States back to this part of the world?

I’m interested in personalities. This is not a normal country. It isn’t a normal time in history. All these characters in Ukrainian politics are straight out of central casting. It’s a country that’s like the Wild West. Odessa is a city of bounders and soldiers of fortune trying to get paid in whatever currency they want: recognition, TV interviews, kompromat, fame. There’s a cast of international characters — perhaps including myself — who have wound up here in the last 10 years, people like Rick Perry, Rudy Guiliani, Hunter Biden, Mikheil Saakashvili, Paul Manafort. They all come here looking for something. My book is full of characters who also come to Odessa to engage in adventures. [French-Jewish philosopher] Bernard Henri-Levy, Michel Onfray, [Russian-French performance artist] Petr Pavlensky, [Belarusian-Ukrianian Nobel-Prize winning author] Svetlana Alekseevich… Odessa has been a staging ground for the adventures for all sorts of people.

An anti-Putin protest in Ukraine, February 19, 2022, five days before the Russian invasion. (Vladislav Davidzon)

Isn’t there something ironic about the West rallying for a place that is so complex and, in your words, wild — a place that’s freer in the best but also the worst ways possible?

In many ways, the West really is decadent and rotted through with an officious corruption. It’s packaged differently, but there’s division and a lack of values that’s created a crisis in the West. The economic insecurity of the last years, increasing secularism, the end of the social compact, the wars. This all leads to a crisis of values — which also leads to cultural wars — much of which is very tedious and boring and unpleasant and divisive.

The reason that the entire world is holding its breath watching this is because Ukraine is so remarkable. There’s cohesion, there’s valor, there’s piety, there’s resilience, there are simple values, like the nation standing together. There’s no crisis of values here. Ukrainians are, in many ways, healthier as a people than Western Europeans and Americans.

An elderly lady pauses after fleeing Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

How does Zelensky fit into this landscape?

He’s a president who’s a kind of Pinocchio. He came to power not unlike Trump — an entertainer who used his populist charisma to be elected — but instead of being divisive, he uses his talents to unite people and becomes an incredibly inclusive leader. So he steps out of the television and begins to lead the country. Then the war starts and he knows he’s going to die. They’ve already sent three hit squads to kill him. And he’s on television making these pitch-perfect speeches. He knows he’s going to die so he decides to become the real thing.

What is there to hope for?

A quick victory for the Ukrainian troops. Enough MiGs to make the skies safe from Russian planes. Either a coup d’etat in Russia or a massive uprising once they see how many Russian boys were sent to die in Ukraine.

What are your feelings in the meantime?

I’m mostly feeling frustration. And rage. I spoke to my aunt and she said that when they bomb Odessa, she would cry in the same way she cries every time there’s an acqua alta in Venice that floods and destroys all its beautiful mosaics.

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