Nadiya Savchenko was Ukraine’s first female combat pilot, a 2009 graduate of the Air Force University in Kharkiv. In 2014 she was captured by pro-Russian separatists whilst serving in eastern Ukraine, after having volunteered to fight in the conflict in the Donbas region that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
In protest, Savchenko went on hunger strike for 83 days and, in May 2016, was released in a prisoner exchange. She was awarded the Hero of the Ukraine medal and has been feted as Ukraine’s Joan of Arc , yet vilified by others, “a killing machine in a skirt”.
Nadiya Savchenko, although a controversial figure, is clearly brave and stoic in the face of aggression and her experiences; she is a formidable opponent. She has impressed in interviews, displaying a steely determination, as she does in this interview with Kirsty Wark for Newsnight. Further, her family were labelled Kulaks and her mother’s family had suffered under Stalin’s Holodomor, the enforced famine of 1932-33, which resulted in death by starvation for c.3million Ukrainians.
Against this full and chequered past, it is all the more disappointing that Savchenko embroiled herself in accusations of antisemitism. As a Ukrainian Parliamentarian, in an interview on the Ukrainian 112 station radio, she seemed to agree with a caller’s remarks who had spoken of a “Jewish takeover of the Ukraine”, but has denied being antisemitic. She said “I have nothing against Jews. I do not like ‘kikes’.” and further said Jews possess “80 percent of the power when they only account for 2 percent of the population.”
She first used the term “evreiv,” which for speakers of both Ukrainian and Russian is a neutral designation for Jew. However, later she used the term “zhidiv,” which in Russian is a pejorative for Jews, akin to “kike” in English.
It also seemed important to her to mention the supposed Jewish roots of Volodymyr Groysman, (Ukraine’s Prime Minister); Petro Poroshenko, (Ukraine’s President) and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a leader of the nation’s Orange Revolution.
In her radio interview, she replied to the caller, “Indeed, part of the ruling establishment in Ukraine does not possess distinctly Ukrainian blood and we need to talk about it and act.” What does “act” mean? With the often tragic history and current day trials of Ukraine’s Jewry, talking is one matter, what she means by “act” is another. From someone with a reputation for forthrightness, it’s not unreasonable for Jewry to interpret this as veiled and threatening.
Despite Savchenko’s denials, it appears that pejoratives and insinuation are so entrenched within her use of language that the tone of antisemitism is not even recognised by her as such. The comments about various politicians, and the fact that this is even a source of speculation to begin with, reeks of antisemitic conspiracy theories and demonstrates an underlying antisemitic sentiment.