Russians tell lies, and Ukranians flee
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Russians tell lies, and Ukranians flee

Another conversation with Alexander Smukler

Ukrainian refugees stand on line in Krakow, Poland. (David-Seth Kirshner)
Ukrainian refugees stand on line in Krakow, Poland. (David-Seth Kirshner)

So far, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, whose understanding of Russia comes from his life there, from when he was born in Moscow until 30 years later, when he left, and from the friends, the business connections, and the active businesses that he has there still (although it’s unlikely the businesses will survive, because no business can survive in Russia today, after the invasion and the sanctions), has explained why the angry dwarf, as he has called the undersized, enraged, and paranoid dictator of Russia, has done what he has done.

Now, he talks about what Russians are being told and what they believe, and also about what’s happening to the Ukrainian Jews whose lives the Russians are demolishing.

First, he sets the scene (and readers, please note that this was from a discussion on Monday; we’re a weekly newspaper, and things change rapidly).

“During the last few days, it seems to me, from a military point of view the Russians are exhausted. The main battle is around Mariupol,” where indiscriminate, unspeakably cruel attacks against civilians seem unending. “The city is a key strategic point. It is surrounded by the Russians, and heavily bombarded. The Russians are claiming that they’ve taken the city, but the Ukrainians are saying that’s not true. I think the Russians probably are lying; they show it on their news channels, but in a way so that you see only part of the city. That probably means that they control only part of the city.”

He’s talking about television, which now serves Russians some images of the war. At the beginning, it showed nothing. Now, “they show more and more pictures of destruction, the result of what they,” the Russians, “are calling a special operation. They still don’t use the word ‘war.’ They show the destruction, but they say that it’s the Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis who are causing it.

“But at the same time, they talk about how precisely they are operating.”

Wait. What?

“As it is well known by now, during the last few days the Russians used their hypersonic, very modern missiles twice.” Those are the Kinzhal missiles — dagger in English. “On the news stations, they said that ‘We have to use these very expensive but very precise weapons to protect the civilians. We don’t want to hurt them.’”

In fact, Mr. Smukler said, Dmitry Kiselev, one of Russia’s premiere news anchors, used his Sunday night show, Vesti Nedeli — that’s News of the Week, a much-watched Sunday night roundup — to say, “I can show you examples of how precisely our army is conducting special operations, by using these very expensive, very precise weapons, these hypersonic missiles, to destroy military objectives but not touch civilians.”

Refugees are greeted with help from around the world once they leave Ukraine.

This is a change from what Russians had been told. Until now, they’d heard that a quick special operation was going to liberate Ukrainians from the tyranny of the drug-addled, corrupt neo-Nazis who were leading them. It would be over quickly and would be no big deal.

They can’t say that anymore. Even though the government has forbidden any discussion of the war, there are too many ways for its people to find out about it — too many connections between Russians and Ukrainians, too many phone calls, too many dead soldiers — to pretend that nothing at all is going on.

They also know that the truth — that the government is trying to bomb civilians into submission through what are basically brutal acts of state terrorism — would be too much to bear. So they alter the truth.

“Now Russians understand what ‘special operations’ means,” Mr. Smukler said. “Now Russian TV shows tanks and missiles and helicopters and aircraft. But it keeps saying ‘We are liberating the civilian population, which was surrounded by Ukrainian nationalists.’

“They keep saying that Ukrainian nationalists are using civilians as a shield, because we cannot hurt the civilian population. That is why we have to start using these very precise weapons, which are very expensive. We use them to save lives.’

“The propaganda is so completely twisted from the truth. They lie with every word. It is brainwashing.”

That’s not why the Russians are using those weapons, Mr. Smukler said. “Putin wants to demonstrate to the world, and to NATO, that he has these missiles. That he can use them.

“There was no need to use them except to demonstrate to the Western world that he has them, and that potentially they could carry nuclear warheads.”

These missiles — the Daggers — “are Russia’s newest invention,” he continued. “They first used them in Syria about a year and a half ago, when Putin showed the world that he had that kind of technology. As far as I know, no one else in the world except the Chinese have these kind of missiles — and there is zero protection against them.

Dov Ben-Shimon, the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, also went on one of the JFNA missions, and he drew what he saw. Polish police and volunteers load refugees’ bags onto a bus at the border; the bus will take them west, into Poland.

“The United States already announced that they will have similar missiles — but only by the end of 2023.

“This is a very important sign that the conflict is escalating during the last few days.”

Mr. Smukler gave some other examples of Russian truth-twisting.

“They showed a picture of a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol. They say that nationalists exploded it from the inside. You see elderly women coming out of the bomb shelter and show Russians giving them water. But you can see that the building hasn’t been exploded. It’s still standing, and there’s a hole in the middle of it.” It wasn’t exploded by anyone inside the building. It was hit from the outside, by Russian missiles.

“They showed a large group of people in Ukrainian uniforms, who Russian soldiers were taking as prisoners. They showed a Russian journalist giving them a microphone, and some of them saying, ‘We are here. We are alive. They aren’t beating us. They aren’t torturing us.’

“But they are 17-, 18-year-old boys and 60-year-old men. Men with gray hair and gray beards. They are 60 years old or older. They are my age, or older. They are not the regular army.

“This is not the army. These are civilians” — too young or too old to be in the army — “who are protecting their homes, their country, their land.

“These are grandfathers standing with their grandsons. They are wearing the uniforms of what is called territorial defense. They basically took machine guns to protect their towns and their land, and the Russians made the big mistake of showing them as war prisoners.

“It means that everyone who could is fighting against the invasion. These people are civilians who have been defending their houses and their towns and their country. They were presented as captured warriors, but they are just regular citizens.

“Through the propaganda, you can see the face of the real war.”

A refugee at the Medyka crossing wheels a small child across the border in a shopping cart as other refugees and onlookers make way for them.

Mr. Smukler described the dilemma facing the Russians. “They can’t say nothing anymore. It’s already been a month; it’s the longest military operation that Russia has had since the war in Chechnya.”

And there’s the question of how many dead Russian soldiers there really are. “The Ministry of Defense said that there have been about 700 casualties and deaths,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s more like 14,000 Russians killed or captured. And an incredible number of tanks, helicopters, and war planes have been grounded.”

Mr. Smukler also is astonished by the silence of the Russian Orthodox church. “As the months have passed, the church, including the Russian patriarch” — that’s Kirill, the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia — “never raised its voice against the war.

“There are lots of videos on the internet showing the highest-level priests blessing the Russian soldiers for their operation in Ukraine.”

Most of eastern Ukraine is Russian Orthodox, he said, so the patriarch was blessing soldiers “who were killing the children of their own church. We have never had that before in our history.

“The church is one of the most important pillars holding up Putin’s power, and the church is playing such a significant role in Russian society today that this is putting me in shock. They did not raise their voices to support those who are dying beneath Russian artillery and missiles. Those are the kids of their church. And they never raised their voices to condemn it.

“This conflict is unusual. Usually, it’s Sunnis against Shias, Christians against Muslims, Protestants against Catholics. Yes, most of western Ukraine is Catholic, but right now most of the battles are in eastern Ukraine, and the people dying are mostly Russian Orthodox.

“I keep expecting the church to say ‘Guys, stop this. We need to stop this. These are the children of our church.’

“But they are never raising their voices to say that. What kind of church is this?”

A giant mall repurposed to help refugees includes a place for children to play.

Mr. Smukler also talked about the refugee crisis Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused; his passion about it is not theoretical but comes from his own experiences as a refugee.

“This is the biggest and deepest refugee crisis in the world since World War II,” he said. “About 3.4 million people have crossed Ukraine’s borders as refugees, and almost 14 million have been displaced — that means that they have had to leave their homes and their towns and migrate to different parts of the country. They’re moving from the east to western Ukraine.

“We know that European countries are doing everything possible to accommodate these refugees and give them temporary or permanent homes or places to stay.

Most of them cross the border at three places, he explained. The largest group goes 15 miles from Lviv, in far western Ukraine, to the Polish border, which is open to them. “They come by cars, by train, and even by foot. The Polish border today is the biggest and widest gate for refugees.” Others go to Moldova, which also is open to them, but “Moldova is very poor, and it has no resources. It’s had hundreds of thousands of refugees, and most of them go on from there to Romania, in order to get to the European Union.” (Romania is part of the EU.) The third country that borders on Ukraine — although the border is small — and accepts its refugees is Slovakia. In general, Mr. Smukler said, “refugees from western Ukraine go to Poland, and refugees from the Black Sea area go to Moldova.

“European countries are having a major crisis as they try to accommodate and provide food and shelter for these people.

“And it’s important to understand that most of these refugees are women with their children, and elderly people” because of the rules keeping most men of military age in Ukraine, “Ukrainian border patrols do not allow men to cross unless they have severe medical issues, and if for some reason a man came to the Polish border the guards there would push them back.”

So that means that families have been separated. “The emotional crisis is unique,” Mr. Smukler said. The women worry about their husbands, the children worry about their fathers and also respond to their mothers’ distress. The older people worry about their sons. And of course, everyone worries about the future, which is even more unknowable than usual.

“It is an extremely complicated operation, to accommodate all those people, to feed them, to make them comfortable physically and psychologically, to have a safe place to stay. I know that the Polish, German, and Romanian governments are doing everything possible to provide them with this help.”

All refugees need and deserve help, Mr. Smukler said; as a Russian Jewish immigrant, though, he’s particularly interested in Jewish Ukrainian refugees. “There are approximately 270,000 Jews in Ukraine,” he said. “And maybe there are many more. We really don’t know. There are people in Ukraine who have Jewish ancestors but are not practicing Judaism but instead are fully assimilated.

“The Ukrainian Jewish community is considered to be the third largest in Europe, after Russia and France,” he continued. “Thousands and thousands of them are among the refugees who had to leave cities like Odessa, Kyiv, and others with large Jewish populations.

“I know that the Jewish Agency, the Sachnut, is actively working to set up a strong operation there,” in Poland, “and so is the Joint,” the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “They’re very much involved in helping people on the ground, providing extremely important services for elderly people and for those who need their help.

“The Israelis are there, and they are trying to airlift refugees from Poland and other countries to Israel.

“Israel is overloaded today with refugees from Ukraine. They are processing 1,000 applications a day, I have been told.”

But not all the refugees can go to Israel. To begin with, not everyone wants to. And second, not everyone would be welcome. Although the Law of Return allows everyone with a Jewish grandparent to become an Israeli, it is fair to say that life in Israel is harder for people not considered to be halachically Jewish than it is for those who are.

Also, many refugees left home without the documents that can prove that they are Jewish. (In fact, many left home without the documents that provide them with their identities in general; that is another part of the overwhelming feeling of instability and formlessness that can afflict them.)

The question of whether Ukrainian refugees can come to the United States is a fraught one. So far, in general, the answer has been no; that is an issue that enrages Mr. Smukler, and that we hope to investigate in our next installment of his story.

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