Speech of Josef Zissels at Euromaidan

Leader of the Congress of Etnic Communities of Ukraine Josef Zissels delivered a speech at the People’s Assembly of Euromaidan, during the Day of Dignity, December 15, 2013



“To Freedom Ours and Yours!”

Good day to the honored gathering.


In 2004 I stood here, at this very Independence Square, this very Maidan, at the stage which had been built here, and thought of how happy my fate is. For having spent six years in Brezhnev’s camp, I still stayed alive, remained a human being, and lived to this very instant with my friends who had also been imprisoned for political reasons -- sadly, not with all of them. I lived until Ukraine did not become merely formally independent, but to those times when its population became the Ukrainian people, and its citizens -- the political Ukrainian nation.


I spoke from that stage to the national minorities of Ukraine, to those Ukrainian citizens who are not ethnic Ukrainians, though they have lived on this land for centuries, preserving their language, culture, religion, and customs. I urged them to come out to Maidan and to take a step together towards a future European Ukraine, towards an European Ukrainian political nation.


I, as a representative of one of these national minorities, being Jewish, also wanted to speak to all present at the Maidan, to all of Ukraine, on behalf of millions of national minority representatives, that we are together with you, together with the Ukrainians on our way to the future. But I could not have said that, for it would have been a lie.


Back then, in the faraway year of 2004, the presidential administration used specialized propaganda techniques to scare many citizens who are not ethnic Ukrainian, to scare them through artificially created imagery of a Bandera-following Ukrainian, of a xenophobic Ukrainian, of an anti-Semitic Ukrainian. Half of Ukraine’s citizens were put up for international derision as Fascists who just wanted to come into power. Back then the provocation did not work and the Maidan won, though many disoriented people were not able to rise above their stereotypes and vote the representative of the united opposition, Victor Yuschenko.


Today the situation in Ukraine is very similar to 2004, for once more the same propaganda is being used against Euromaidan, against the united opposition, against all of us. They are trying to sow the seeds of conflict, to pit us one against the other, and to create an artificial standoff -- national minorities against Ukrainians. But Ukraine and its people have changed in these years, in this short time. The Maidan has changed, not only thanks to the barricades, but in much greater ways -- thanks to the people who are defending their dignity here. We are not so naive as we had been then. We no longer idealize our leaders from the opposition. Instead, we work together with them, having a firm understanding that they are not messiahs, but simple people like we ourselves are. We are not enchanted, and thus not in danger of being disenchanted.


I have returned to the Maidan and once again dream of speaking to you, to the Maidan, to all of Ukraine on behalf of national minorities, stating our shared goals, but reality stops me once more. So I shall once again speak to them, to the millions of citizens of our country who are also members of national minorities. I dream of the time when I will able to speak to them in Ukrainian, but it is too early -- in the 22 years of Ukraine’s independence, not all of us who are representatives of national minorities have learned the language of the people among whom we have successfully lived for a very long time.

So for now I’ll turn to them in Russian, and I have hope that I will live to see the day when I will be able to speak to them all in the one language of the state -- Ukrainian.


(Starts speaking Russian) Dear compatriots, representatives of Ukrainian national minorities!


I am one of you, one of the representatives of the many ethnicities and peoples who have by fate and history ended up in Ukraine. We differ from Ukrainians not only by our ethnic heritage, race, and creed, not only by our customs and traditions, but by the important fact that, while living in Ukraine, we live at the same time in our diasporas.


However long ago did parts of our peoples decide to settle in Ukraine, most of us always have a choice: to leave for our historic homeland or to stay in Ukraine and share the fate of its people. Whatever our choice, we must always remember that the Ukrainian people are devoid of it: they are living in their own country and they can have no other homeland.


We lived on the territories of the Eastern Empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman), and to survive in these empires we have created a particular form for our identity while mostly preserving its essence -- our religion and customs. An important characteristic of this form was the absolute course towards the imperial government, toward the center of the empire (the emperor, tsar, sultan, secretary general, president).


We used a rule forged by centuries of experience, followed an instinct of self-preservation available to communities living in a diaspora, we trusted in the government for the most important things in our lives, for only the powers that be could give us rights or take them away, could protect us from troubles or even tragedies in our joint histories. We aspired to stabilities, for in empires national minorities could freely and peace develop their cultures, their traditions, maintain intergenerational continuity, extend themselves into the future only in conditions of stability, only if they were protected by the imperial powers.


But is that always the correct choice? The nations among which we live are not always going through a phase of stable development. Sometimes a time of changes comes, a time when peoples rise up in battle for their independence, for their social and democratic rights. When we continue to look to the powers that be, we, the national minorities, unwittingly come into contradiction, and sometimes even direct conflict with the people who live in their country and wish for a better future for it. Our instinct of self-preservation pushes us towards the authorities, but our feelings of justice and empathy often lead some of us, and especially our children, into an alliance with the struggling people. This has happened many times in our history: in Western Europe, in Poland, in Baltic countries and countries of the Southern Caucasus, and, naturally, in Ukraine.


Such a time of changes is upon Ukraine now, and we are once again, as it has been many times previously in our history, are before a difficult choice: are we with the people or with the authoritarian regime, with the honest citizens or with thievery and corruption, do we follow instinct or our feelings?

Do we want to return to our Eurasian past or move into a European future, into the state which neighboring European countries are currently in? We, citizens of Ukraine, are in constant contact with these countries’ citizens, we visit these countries, and of course we all know very well that they are not ideal fairy tale kingdoms, but countries and peoples that have achieved a dignified life for most of their citizens through their own will and perseverance.


The government knows of our weaknesses, of our eternal problem of choice, and wants to attract us to its side again, to scare us with “nationalists and Fascists,” to divide and work us against the Ukrainian people, who are all the more certain in choosing their European future. The government uses different ruses and provocations to force us to remain in our Eurasian past. It tries to seduce our children through its corrupted feeding trough and possibilities of illegal enrichment.


Last Sunday I spoke in Berlin to many experts from European countries and tried to give an objective evaluation of the situation in Ukraine and to answer many questions. In particular, when asked about the extent of the threat to the Jews and to Jewish communities in Ukraine, I said that risks are ever present. But right now in Ukraine the risks of attack from protesters and even radical groups are minimal, but the provocations of the government, constantly being organized to implement a scenario of violence or a state of emergency, carry much more threat.


Ukrainians are a very calm and benignant people, especially during a time of change, during a Maidan. A provocation might be planned and carried out wherever and by whomever. The most important thing is that this provocation not turn into a chain reaction, but the experience of three weeks of Maidan shows that most provocations are suppressed by the Maidan activists themselves.


I return to the eternal choice looming over national minorities that exist in diasporas.


Is it not time for us to break this vicious circle of choice and to join those standing at Ukraine’s many Euromaidans? We are not faced with a political choice -- which party or which candidate to vote for in the elections. Now we are choosing between dignity and conformism, between freedom and slavery, between past and future.


Men and women always desire one thing, independently of their race, ethnicity, or religion -- they want happiness for their children, so that the children grow honest and just, become educated feeling with a sense of self-worth. Let each of us ask themselves the question: can we achieve this with the current government? And is it not time for all of us together to legally change this government for one which will lead Ukraine to a European future together with us?


So let us all repeat that wonderful slogan of our joint past together: “To freedom, ours and yours!”


(Speaks in Ukrainian) I return to Ukrainian with pleasure, like to a song from prose, and am now turning to those who are hearing and seeing our Maidan right now.


Our imperial, Communist past does not want to release us. We haven’t paid back that past. We haven’t condemned the Communist ideology and many of its bearers who have brought the peoples of Ukraine and many other peoples violence and blood, Holodomor (forced famine) and repressions, the destruction of national languages and cultures, religions and tradition. The empire and slavery itself make themselves a home in almost every one of us, but by going out to Ukraine’s maidans we force them out of ourselves -- together, helping one another.


The main factors of our imperial Communist past were lies and the absence of a right to the truth, violence and the absence of a right to defense. We left the empire, but over the 22 years of independence there were many lies, though the right to truth had already been present. And on the night before November 30, the government showed us its readiness for violence and bloodshed, it reminded us that we are not free people in our own state, for instead of the right to defense it gives us violence and the lies covering that violence.


When we go out to the Maidan desiring freedom, we have one joint goal -- a united dignified future. To achieve this dignified future, we need to change the government in a legitimate manner. However much time we may have left until the next presidential or parliamentary elections, we need to live until that time and together make sure that they are transparent and democratic. We will not be able to achieve this goal with the current government. We need a new government, a government of national unity that shall hold the country back from the gaping pit, that shall preserve its integrity, prevent discord and civil war, and prepares civilized elections with no falsification or government resources used.


Until we have such a government, we have only one peaceful weapon -- these maidans, which can grow into an all-national Maidan, into a perpetual campaign of civil dissent.


3000 years ago my people took 40 years to walk from slavery to freedom.


We -- the people of Ukraine -- have already gone halfway. There is not much longer to go!


Only together! If you fight, you shall win!

Glory to Ukraine!


Josef Zissels, leader of the Congress of Etnic Communities of Ukraine,

Head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (VAAD Ukraine)

Member of the Helsinki group since 1978, former political prisoner.

Josef Zissels supports Master’s Program in Jewish Studies, opened at NaUKMA by a decision of the Senate in May of the 2012th.



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