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would like to tell a personal story about why the word “zhyd,” a derogatory
reference to Jews, stirs so much emotion in Ukraine. The reason I am doing this
is discussion around a recent comment by my former university mate-turned-member
of parliament from Svoboda Party, Ihor Miroshnychenko. He called the Hollywood
actress of Ukrainian descent Mila Kunis is a “zhydivka.”

great-grandfather’s name was Efim Abramovich Kalishevsky. The name is telling,
but in Soviet days people used to hide very carefully the Jewish roots of one’s
relatives. Actually, my great-grandfather was a christened Jew, and some years
ago he married my grandmother Varvara Radzievska. They had two daughters, the elder
Susanna and younger Agnessa, my grandmother.

In the 1930s, my great-grandfather was a bishop of the
Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. In 1937, he was shot in the dungeons of the
October Palace for membership in counter-revolutionary church-based
nationalistic organization. I only found out about it in 1990.

big happy family lived in a semi-communal apartment on 24/7 Instytutska Street
in the very heart of Kyiv. The reason I say it was semi-communal was that three
of the vast rooms in this flat were taken up by my family, while the other one
was used by the authorities for lodging various underclass folks, with whom we
had to share our everyday existence and the mailing address.

My grandmother’s name was Agnessa Efimovna, and this Jewish name she also used
to hide. For her colleagues and the rest of the people around her she was Alla.
Until the age of five, I used to know her as “Granny Alla,” until one day I
picked up the phone when her close friend was calling.

friend asked to talk to Agnessa, and I was scared and said that Agnessa doesn’t
live here. I told this story to my parents and they explained to me that my
granny, who headed a lab in one of Kyiv’s infectious hospitals, wore shoes by
Chanel at the age of 60, used bright red lipstick and smoked Belomor
cigarettes, had two names. This is how my granny turned from Alla Efimovna to
Agnessa Efimovna. 

underclass neighbors also knew my granny’s real name. In the late 1980s, the
fourth room in our flat was taken over by Uncle Yura, his wife and two little
daughters. Uncle Yura was a militiaman from Fastov, I think [a suburb town
outside Kyiv]. It is because of his job that he was lodged in a room of a flat
in the very center of Kyiv.

Yura had a tough job, so he got drunk rather frequently. A few times he got
very drunk and called me “little zhydovka” because my granny’s real name
haunted him. One day my father heard him say it, and he simply smashed his face
in our communal kitchen.

when Svoboda, in an attempt to whitewash their party member Miroshnychenko,
says that the word zhyd, or
Jew, is a Ukrainian literary archaism, and the rest of their blah-blah-blah, I
am not buying it. I know everything about it, and I know that the way this
particular word is used in our country is unfortunately offensive.

rest of my story has little to do with my main point, but nevertheless
it’s interesting and relevant. My fraternal grandfather, the husband of my
favorite granny Agnessa Efimovna, was called Taras Hryhorovych Diachenko. He
was a distant relative of another great Ukrainian, Taras Hryhorovych
Shevchenko, through artist Fotiy Krasitskiy, the grandson of Shevchenko’s elder
sister Kateryna.

fact of distant kinship with the great Ukrainian poet, who used the archaic
word zhyd (Jew) in his
literary work, did not prevent my grandpa from marrying the daughter of an
enemy of people with a disreputable name and surname.  And he never used
the word about my granny. My father was born in this complicated family, and so
was I.

of the people mentioned in this family story are living any more. Mila Kunis
has probably not heard the words of my ex-university mate Miroshnychenko, but I
did and it stirred a lot of emotions.

don’t mean to moralize. This is just my personal family story that demonstrates
the complex connections. And it also shows why I am still ready to smash the
face of anyone who calls someone a zhyd in
my presence. I also think that people should avoid the word to make sure people
don’t start hiding who they are and what their real name is.

Yulia McGuffie is the chief editor
of, one of Ukraine’s
biggest online news portals.

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