For Ukrainian Orthodox Jews Asher and David Cherkaskyi, a father and son both fighting on the front lines in the eastern Donbass region, beating Russia has become especially important to them because of their faith.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claims his army is “liberating” Ukrainians from a Nazi regime, Cherkaskyis say it’s quite the opposite – they say Ukraine is fighting the evil of a fascist dictatorship in Moscow.
NPR caught up with the father and son in July and caught up with them again by phone in September as Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins. Tuesday evening.
Asher, 52, remembers what it was like to be Jewish in the Soviet Union.
“If you said you were Jewish, you would be downgraded in school. And if you fought in the army, you wouldn’t get a medal, even if you were brave. You would just be sent to the most dangerous places . ,” he says. “I remember anecdotes and propaganda to humiliate and intimidate us. Jews and other nationalities were considered inferior. In the Soviet Union, only Russians were good enough to rule.”
He says the Soviet Union was a land of fear and violence and that continues in the Russian Federation today.
David Cherkaskyi, 20, has only known an independent Ukraine, which declared its independence in 1991. “Ukraine is a completely free country,” he told NPR. “You can do whatever you want here. You can go to church, you can be a Muslim or a Jew, that’s no problem.”
Both men say they are proud of Ukrainian Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
NPR caught up with the Cherkaskyis in their hometown of Dnipro, just hours before David deployed to the Donbass front. The city has a large Jewish population and one of the best sofruts in the world, a center of religious calligraphy where the Torah and other Jewish scrolls are inscribed by hand.
Asher says he began identifying as Ukrainian Jew in 2014, during the Russian occupation of Crimea, where his family lived. He remembers the invented referendum on unification with Russia.
“Many buses arrived with Russian citizens who came to vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia. We knew we could not accept this. It went against our conscience, our values and our loyalty to our fellow Ukrainians.”
So they fled, leaving behind their business and their home. He joined a volunteer unit in Dnipro, serving several tours of duty in the Donetsk region.
Asher Cherkaskyi says the so-called voting process the Kremlin just held to try to justify seizing four Ukrainian regions was even tougher and more cynical than the Crimea referendum.
But he says Putin’s decision to recruit hundreds of thousands of new soldiers “by trickery” – who Cherkaskyi says are “unprepared, coerced and intimidated” – does nothing to hurt the morale of Ukrainian soldiers.
“We are defending our country, our homes, our families and our children. So how can this affect us? he asks.
Ukraine launched a major counteroffensive in September that recaptured areas in the northeast and south of the country. And Russian forces have now faced another battlefield defeat in one of the regions Putin said Russia had supposedly annexed to Ukraine.
Cherkaskyi says the Ukrainians have the Russians on the run and will continue to drive them out of “our land”. He says Russian elite units have been killed and the Russians no longer have the weapons they fought with at the start of the war.
According to their recent communications with NPR, father and son are still fighting in Donbass.
But this past Rosh Hashanah, Asher says they were able to celebrate as usual, with blessings, apples and honey. And, he says, they said a “prayer for light to overcome the darkness that approaches Europe and the whole world from the Russian Federation.”