Asher Tcherkasski’s life revolved around the traditions of Orthodox Judaism and raising three children to observe these traditions. But the war in eastern Ukraine changed all that.
Asher joined a battalion of pro-Ukrainian volunteers battling pro-Russian rebels at the start of the conflict. With his long beard and his glasses, he quickly became one of the most recognizable figures of the conflict, which enabled him to gain popularity and enter politics.
A native of Feodosia, an historic city in the southeast of the Crimean Peninsula, the 45-year-old who made his living by doing odd jobs did not hesitate for a second to abandon the peninsula after its annexation by Moscow in March 2014, considering that the new status of Crimea was “not in line” with his convictions.
He went to Dnipropetrovsk, the bastion of the Jewish community in east-central Ukraine, where he joined the ranks of the Dnipro battalion which, as of April 2014, became focused on fighting the separatists.
The Dnipro battalion was created by Igor Kolomoïski, a Ukrainian oligarch with a tarnished reputation, know for using questionable methods. Kolomoïski, also Jewish, was at one time the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, the heart of his financial empire.
“I have to protect my children”, Asher explained regarding his commitment. “If the territorial integrity of your country is at stake you must defend it.”
And countering statements by pro-Russian separatists to the effect that the volunteer pro-Ukrainian battalions are composed of “fascists”, he affirms that he has never encountered anti-Semitism in his unit.
“We act as a single unit, without any suspicion towards one another,” he told AFP, but admitted that observing his religious traditions and eating kosher was hard on the battlefield. “Russia attacked Ukraine. This is a real war,” asserts Asher, referring to the conflict in the east of the country that has left more than 9,000 dead.
A link to the nations
Asher Cherkassky became famous in Ukraine after a video was broadcast in late 2014 showing him in camouflaged uniform on the front line. With his very long beard, his look clashed with that of the other fighters.
“Cherkassky is one of the symbols of the new Ukraine, he is a link to the nations who see Ukraine as their motherland,” said a local journalist, Dmytro Rozmeritsa, to AFP.
According to the leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish leaders, the Ukrainian Jewish communities have they have mainly supported their country against the pro-Russian insurgency.
“We are all Ukrainian citizens and we have to fight for our country,” declared Yosef Zissels, President of the Association of Jewish organizations and communities of Ukraine. However, “the stature of Asher Tcherkasski is not really typical,” he acknowledges.
Few Orthodox Jews have joined the fight, many of them avoiding, as everywhere in the world, any military service which could get in the way of their religious practices.
Corruption, the new enemy
After several cease-fires went into effect in eastern Ukraine, the intensity of fighting has dropped significantly, though sporadic incidents still occur regularly along the front line.
And Asher Tcherkasski has abandoned the fight. His commitment and his fame allowed him to win a seat in Dnipropetrovsk’s municipal council, in the process beating powerful businessmen and local politicals.
He now fights another enemy: corruption. “We can stop these things,” he said.
“The money will not go into the pockets of bureaucrats but to the city’s social programs to improve quality of life,” he added.
Although still a member of the Dnipro battalion, his new mission has become his priority. “If I feel that military service prevents me from being an effective elected official, I’d rather stay in this position as I believe I can accomplish more in this capacity,” he concluded.