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Yosyf Zisels, dissident, public figure

We recorded an interview with Yosyf on the territory of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on February 17, a week before the start of the full-scale invasion. We talked a lot about Chernivtsi, his move to Kyiv, the Jewish community, and the situation surrounding the Russian project to memorialize Babyn Yar. We believe that now all Russian figures involved in cultural projects in Ukraine will be excluded from them.

Acquaintance with Kyiv

It is essential not when I first came to Kyiv, but when Kyiv appeared in my understanding of different places where people live, its closeness to me, it was the 60s. Kyiv approached me, or I approached Kyiv very slowly, moderately. I am from Chernivtsi, a native of Bukovyna, and this is evident when we talk about approaching something. The people of Bukovyna are less sure of something definite. They are as soft as the Carpathians and Prykarpattia. They are moderate and tolerant. They are patriots of their area, and it is very difficult to persuade Bukovinians to adapt to another place of their residence so that they perceive it entirely as their own. Bukovyna always leaves such an island inside the mind.

Kyiv became closer because I entered Ukrainian. I am an ethnic Russian-speaking Jew. It would seem that there was a distance between my upbringing and Ukraine, Kyiv, but it turned out that it was not so far away. People talked about Kyiv no less than about Moscow, even in those Soviet times.

Perhaps, because Bukovyna was still saturated with a western atmosphere, this was created by the city's architecture and the people who came from pre-war times.

And we were brought up under their influence, so the perception of the capital was appropriate. For them, Moscow was not the capital because Bukovyna was never part of Imperial Russia, and it was in the Soviet Union for a short time. Kyiv was perceived as a close capital, the Ukrainian capital.

I read a self-published magazine starting from the 9th grade. There was more and more about Kyiv, especially in 1972. From there, I learned about trials and arrests. I understood that there are Kyiv and Lviv and they are two significant cities for Ukraine. I did not feel any barrier to Kyiv as it gradually was becoming closer and closer to me. I met many people there, and I communicated with them even before moving to Kyiv.

​​I went to Kyiv for the first time when I was a student. I was impressed by its scale. I am used to a compact, familiar, small town where you know many people because it is impossible otherwise.

I remember once in Chernivtsi, my son and I got off the trolleybus and walked to our friends 800 meters from the stop. And he calculated that I greeted people 17 times. And suddenly — there is a huge city where you don't know anyone, and no one knows you yet.

Since 1968, when I first came to Kyiv, I have felt that Kyiv is a very organic city, despite its large size.

It is rare for a huge city to be so integrated into nature, into life.

The city lay down on the hills near the Dnieper and rests, despite all the storms that have passed through it, for all the terrible and cruel centuries. I liked and remembered this organicity.

I have two local episodes from that first visit that made a big impression on me. These episodes include the Catholic Church on Vasylkivska Street and the "Dynamo" stadium. The church impressed me primarily by its scale and the stadium — because I have been a fan of Dynamo Kyiv since school and definitely wanted to visit it. I even have a photo: my friend and I came to the stadium, I'm standing at the gate, he throws me a piece of snow, because it's winter, and I, as a goalkeeper — catch it.

Dissident Kyiv

Starting from 1972, I began to go to Kyiv more often because my university friend Ihor Pomerantsev moved here to work, and I came to visit. He lived in Bogomolets street, so I was familiar with this area. We walked a lot in Kyiv because he was my guide. Even then, the KGB began to follow us little by little because our fascination with self-publishing could not pass unnoticed.

At that time, I worked as an engineer on television, checking the quality of the television image. As I joked, we were technical workers of the ideological, propagandistic Soviet front. It still is inside of me, it is my sin, despite the dissidence. I was still forced to do this because I had a family, a child, but this is my sin. I carry it with me all my life.

Kyiv in 1972 was the year of repression, and I was already wholly engaged in self-publishing magazine in the local Chernivtsi dissident world — Kyiv was for me the island where I could find some acquaintances.

The logic of development forces you to constantly look for new opportunities to enrich the part of the world that you consider your own. And I believed that this was Kyiv, that it would provide such an opportunity.

It was quite an idealistic setup because I am an ethnic Jew, and it was not so easy to get into the very conspiratorial underground Ukrainian world. It would be much easier for a Ukrainian, but I did not have the appropriate contacts because all my contacts were connected to a friend. It was primarily a Russian-speaking intellectual circle. Kyiv was then a Russian-speaking city. It changed very slowly. Such revolutions as the Orange revolution and Maidan are not impulses — on the contrary, they are evidence, markers that something has changed in us. It reflects this change and manifests it in a mass dimension.

I remember Kyiv, for example, in the 1980s, when I was released in December 1981 and visited Kyiv until I was imprisoned for the second time. Kyiv was black. This was precisely the agony of the Soviet government. Many people were not released at all, they were given a second term.

So, for 4-5 years, I could not find the contacts of the dissident milieu in Kyiv. I could not simply walk the streets and ask. But the situation was changing. The centers of the Helsinki group began to form in 1976, and this circle gradually began to include various people close to the dissident environment.

So, around the middle of the 70s, I could reach Ukrainian dissidents directly through Moscow. At that time, it was a crossroads for dissident families who went to see their relatives because everyone was imprisoned after 1972, especially after 1976. I used to visit Moscow then because I was cooperating with a local publication, and there I got Kyiv addresses. The first address was that of Nadiyka Svitlichna, who had just been released after being imprisoned in Mordovia.

Then Kyiv opened up from another side for me, namely the Ukrainian-dissident one. And that's all, it has already put a stamp on my admiration for Kyiv.

I entered the Kyiv Ukrainian circle, and it opened up for me despite I seemed to be an ethnically foreign element, and my Ukrainian language was not as developed as it is today. It was important for them that I was ready to help and share this fate with them in those dangerous years. Because it was just when the first composition of the Helsinki group was imprisoned. In the spring of 1978, Mykola Horbal, Olia Geiko-Matusevich, Volodymyr Malenkovych, and I came to see Oksana Meshko. She was the only one left from the group, out of 10 founders, all the others had already been detained. I still can find that house on Kurenivka. I also remember the house across the street with an attic and a rather large window, there was a camera, and they filmed everyone who came to the opposite building. That's why Oksana didn't want to receive us, but I joked that everyone in the KGB already knew us, but we wanted to make a difference in the group. They could put the first team in prison, and then there was the second team, they will put the second — the third will come. We did not rush to jail but thought about such a possibility.

Oksana Meshko's house is one of my places in Kyiv, as are the places where my friends, colleagues, and fellow dissidents lived. My friends lived on Prorizna, on Pechersk, we gathered at their house but tried to talk less because the apartments were bugged. We were young, not yet trained in the conspiracy that came with time.

Moving from Chernivtsi to Kyiv

When I moved to Kyiv, I lived in the depths of Lesya Ukrainka Street, where the military hospital is. I lived with friends, then got married. Now I feel like a part of this city, although I carry Chernivtsi with me. There is a small homeland — Bukovyna, and a large one — Ukraine. Israel also has a place in my heart because I feel at home there. That’s my multi-structural identity.

I didn't come all at once because I was released only in the fall of 1987 and was under administrative supervision in Chernivtsi for another year. I lived there alone. My wife and son moved to Israel to protect the son from the army and Afghanistan. I was under supervision because I refused the amnesty, never signed a single piece of paper under investigation, and did not agree to anything. I was offered to leave in January 1987 on the condition that I renounce political activity. And I never considered our activity to be political. It was an activity determined by conscience; we were simply against lies, for the truth. It is not politics. On the contrary, politics is a lie, even now. It was the protection of the offended, that is, those who suffer from violence. It is also not politics.

I started coming to Kyiv because it offered more opportunities. I moved at some point in 1990-1991. I founded the first Jewish organization in Ukraine, and it was the second in the Soviet Union after the Estonian one. In 1989, we created an all-Union Jewish public structure that was legal for the first time.

And we understood that the Soviet era was coming to an end. I was one of the ideologues of the fragmentation of the Jewish environment in those countries where Jews lived because we all had to go our separate routes with the countries where we lived.

And so it happened. In January 1991, we created the all-Ukrainian organization Vaad of Ukraine, with the center in Kyiv. In addition, at the same time, I was engaged in movement affairs and was among the founders of the Chernivtsi People's Movement, and later created the Council of Nationalities. It was important for me to show that the movement's cause concerns not only ethnic Ukrainians but also everyone who lives in Ukraine. Only then can they realize their national and religious desires when Ukraine becomes independent.

Here is one episode about Independence Square. My friends and I were walking, and we passed the post office. There were many people. It must have been a day off. Suddenly, a person with a camera comes out of the crowd and pictures us. I guessed who it was, but I like to joke. I said — you know what, my friends and I rarely see each other here, can you send a photo, and I'll give you the address? He said he did not take pictures of us but of the buildings behind. Buildings? — well, then your management wouldn't like it if we were not in this image. I remembered that it was 1976. I told my daughters about this place when we were together at Maidan in 2004.

Kyivans identity change

In Kyiv, it is important and interesting for me to observe how the identity of the people of Kyiv is changing. In the years when I first visited here, in the late 60s, it was a Russian-speaking city. My first circle friends were Russian-speaking later. When the dissidents got involved, it started to become Ukrainian-speaking little by little, but very locally, only in certain small circles. Of course, it was more Ukrainian, but I wasn't there. It is gradually becoming more and more Ukrainian for me. Maidans only reflect these changes that are taking place. That is, within the identity of Ukrainians in general and Kyivans in particular, these processes of evolutionary identity changes are gradually taking place.

Kyiv is becoming more Ukrainian, as shown by various sociological studies and the voting of Kyivans in elections, they vote almost the same as west Ukrainians.

The entry of Ukrainians into Europe should happen, as I believe, with the dignity that we showed on the Maidan in 2013-2014; that is, we should enter Europe as Ukrainians who have reached their Europeanness, the values ​​that we are talking about. I see manifestations of purely European, and I see manifestations of purely Ukrainian identities, but these are more processes on the periphery, and the Ukrainian-European pattern is the mainstream, it is the main thing. And it doesn’t depend on politicians, but on the people's feeling of their place in the world, in their history. And it is happening here, in Kyiv, and is spreading from Kyiv to the whole of Ukraine, especially to the east. The fact that there is a city in the center of Ukraine that is more Ukrainian than the average Ukrainian identity in Ukraine greatly influences the East. Everything that changes suddenly can suddenly change back. Slow changes are evolutionary changes that are already irreversible. It is a tectonic process that is so powerful that it cannot be changed. Any government, any parliament, any president will do that. If he tries to do this, it will be like with Yanukovych, the avalanche will sweep him away.

Babyn Yar

Babyn Yar is also my place. I knew about the rallies that took place there in the 60s, I learned about Dzyuba's speech about Nekrasov, and I knew what was happening in 1966 because I read about it in a self-published newspaper and listened to it on foreign radio stations. Then in 1991, when I was already living here, the first Jewish monument was opened. I have a feeling, which I formulated not so long ago on the reflection level, that this is a Ukrainian place. It should be Ukrainian, not cosmopolitan or Jewish, because it is a part of Ukrainian history. You can’t erase it from Ukrainian history.

And it was important for me in the confrontation with various projects, American and Russian, that it should be a part of Ukrainian memory.

Ethnic Ukrainians have to let it all go through themselves, like all the rest in their history, which they don’t know very well yet. Whatever it was — bad or good — it's all ours in common because only in that case we can move on with more incredible speed. For now, we have different memories: some people consider it ours, some Ukrainians believe it is a Jewish place, but more and more people feel Babyn Yar as a Ukrainian memory place. As Anton Drobovych said, I couldn’t say that because I am a Jew, and he said, as a Ukrainian, let us commemorate our Jews. He meant us, Ukrainians, and it is very important.

I understand that the Russian project to memorialize Babyn Yar is part of a hybrid war, an information war that Russia is waging against us through various means. I was the first to say that this is a Trojan horse that Putin gives us. If we win in this hybrid war, we will also win in Babyn Yar, and the Ukrainian project will be implemented. And if we lose... I don't even allow such a thought, we shouldn't lose...

We are a post-colonial nation, and they are a post-imperial nation, these are different senses of the world. They look in an imperial way on it, there is an insurmountable barrier between us, it is a different identity. Although we understand each other through language, we are different inside.

In my opinion, you can’t change them. They are Eurasians by their identity and let them remain so. The main thing is that they stay away from us. But we have to be very strong so that they do so.

We should be very strong so that every attempt they make to get to us ends badly for them. It will also cost us, but there is no other way to freedom. Freedom is not given for free, whether we like it or not. We are responsible for making this country very strong in the economic, political, democratic, and military sense of the word. We can only be free when we are strong; weak people are not free.

I joke that the installations they made there in Babyn Yar will be trophies; our guides will show and tell them about the hybrid war. They want to impose their culture, politics, and memory on us — Russian and foreign. We are different. I'm not saying someone’s better or worse, but we are different, we don't need someone else's model of memory. Their memory is what has been formulated over the past 15 years as pobedobesie (victory frenzy) that Putin is imposing on the whole world. He cannot boast of moral, cultural, or economic achievements; as we can see now, he can't even boast of military accomplishments because it is all fake. It's like a game of poker — he fools the whole world, scares, counting on the world's nobility, that it will make concessions to him for Ukraine’s sake to save us from war. And we don't want the world to sacrifice important things.

Jewish Center

Now we are in the office on the territory of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I spent two years looking for money worldwide to repair this place because there was a terrible basement with water up to my knees. I met Vyacheslav Briukhovetskyi in Narodnyi Rukh, and when he started to restore the academy in 1991, I thought that it would be good to make a Jewish center. I talked to him about it, but at that time, we were not ready either organizationally, professionally, or financially. And in 2003, we started to make programs and projects together. I proved to them that Jewish studies are an attribute of modernity. We had no choice but to master this place. We first entered the university simply with our lectures and classes in various classrooms.

We wanted to have our office here. It was important that the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a center of Ukrainian nationalism, had a Jewish center.

Moreover, a German center began to form here, and there was a British council, and a Polish center. First, we found a room here next to the wall, made repairs and moved in. And then we spent two years looking for money to make repairs here. Now this is an important point on my map of Kyiv, I am here all the time.

Urban space

I like to walk on Podil, and it has become my little Chernivtsi because it is a bit similar. I like to walk on Pechersk, near the Dnipro. Now when Nika's daughter makes birdhouses, it is nice on Trukhaniv Island, on the Hidropark, I go there.

For me, the organicity of Kyiv is important, and what falls out of this organicity, I perceive as temporary, it will pass, and everything will get back into place. Like the hrushchevka’s, these terrible flats, which in the 60s were just treasures for those who needed houses. This temporality is not fleeting, it is not for a year or two, it stretches for decades. It annoys me a bit when you suddenly see a large office center among organic buildings, for example, on Podil, because it doesn’t fit in the old city. This is what worries me a little. But since I deal with Ukraine and all communities, it is not my focus. I know many Kyivans are doing this, which annoys them the same as me, but they are doing much more to change it. I am glad I can help them and am involved in it.

Kyiv is a really tolerant city, there is no such clear, sharp division between locals and others. Those who came gave a lot to Kyiv, developed it, built it. Kyiv accepted these people, adapted them, and they became Kyivans, just like me.

Photos for the material were provided by Yosyf Zisels.

The material was created by:

Author and Transcriber:


Sofia Kotovych

Tonya Smyrnova


Photographer and Interviewer:

Anna Pastushyna

Khrystyna Kulakovska


​Tonya Smyrnova and Bohdana Horban


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