Writer didn't get what it meant to be Jewish... until he was 16

By Simon Yaffe

WRITER Vitali Vitaliev can see many similarities between the European Union and the former Soviet Union.

And he should know as he was raised in the USSR - and encountered its invasive and autocratic way of life on a regular basis.

The 62-year-old takes a personal journey through the EU in his relaunched book Passport To Enclavia: Travels in Search of a European Identity (Thrust Books, 7.99).

He reveals what it means to be European through Europe's forgotten enclave.

"The USSR had a totalitarian way of ruling - and so does the EU," Vitali told me. "It is about unelected people dictating to millions of others.

"There is innate corruption everywhere, too, and a reluctance to account for its budget. In fact, five per cent of the EU's budget remains unaccounted for.

"One of the main differences with the USSR is that in the Soviet Union, there were whistle-blowers. Their lives, of course, were made difficult."

Obviously pleased with the outcome of last month's UK Referendum, he maintains he is in no way anti-European.

"I know writers should be neutral, but it was hard for me not to be involved emotionally," said Hertfordshire-born Vitali.

"I visited Brussels for the book and I did so with an open mind and heart. However, every single person I interviewed could in no way have qualified as a competent person.

"The EU is self-serving and arrogant, without exception. I am pro-European - I love Europe and the versatility of its cultures. That is exactly what Brussels does not like.

"I would be worried if the UK does stay in the EU - it would mean more federalism, more totalitarianism and less freedom."

Enclavia is his third book on Europe, following Borders Up! Eastern Europe Through the Bottom of a Glass and Vitali's Ireland - Time Travels in the Celtic Tiger.

Writing what he wants, without the scrutiny of the KGB, is something he has only been able to do since he defected from the former Soviet Union in 1990.

Vitali was raised in a Jewish family in the city of Kharkiv, in modern-day Ukraine.

But because atheism was the state 'religion' in the USSR, he knew little about being Jewish. Nor could his family practise.

"I remember when I was five or six, we would spend the summer in the countryside," Vitali recalled.

"I blurted out to the country boys I was playing with that I was Jewish and they viciously attacked me.

"Even the adults there said, 'He is a good boy, he cannot possibly be Jewish'."

Vitali did not realise what being Jewish meant until he was 16 when he received his passport.

In those days, Soviet citizens' ethnicity was printed inside their passport.

"My parents were ethnically Jewish, but they had been raised in Russian and Ukrainian cultures," Vitali recalled.

"None of my family had been inside a synagogue and they could not read or speak Hebrew or Yiddish.

"The only synagogue in Kharkiv had been turned into a gym."

He graduated from the local university in French and English, but nearly did not get on to the course as there was a limit on accepting Jewish students.

"I was scared, as if I had not been accepted, I could have been drafted into the Soviet army, which could have meant death," Vitali said.

"My father was a particle physicist, which was unique at the institute he worked because he was the only Jewish scientist there."

Vitali became a translator and interpreter before becoming a journalist in 1981, working as a special correspondent for the satirical magazine Krokodil in Moscow.

It was during his time in the Soviet capital that Vitali was approached to appear as Moscow correspondent on Clive James' hit BBC One show Saturday Night Clive.

He explained: "Martin Walker, who was working for The Guardian in Moscow, arranged for me to go to London to spend three weeks at the paper on a so-called attachment.

"Then, I received a phone call from the BBC asking if I would appear on Clive James' show.

"The Soviet authorities were okay for me to do it because of perestroika and glasnost."

But, by the late 1980s, the KGB was monitoring Vitali and his family.

He was the first Soviet journalist to publicly expose organised crime, as well as the existence of prostitution, political prisoners and Soviet neo-Nazis.

Vitali's work led to Harvard honouring him with the Nieman Fellowship in Journalism - the most prestigious title that can be bestowed on a professional working in international investigative journalism.

"The KGB wanted me to help them with something, but I refused, so they took their revenge," Vitali explained.

"I was subjected to a sort of siege in that my mail was intercepted and my telephone calls, as well as my family's, were eavesdropped by them."

The father-of-four, who has been divorced twice, left the USSR in January, 1990, by train with his then-wife and son, Andrei.

"Once we reached Poland, it was the most acute feeling of freedom I have ever had," Vitali said.

He and his family moved to Melbourne, but, after two years in Australia, during which time he had settled his mother there, he decided he wanted to return to England.

"We had a nice house with a swimming pool and I wrote a successful column in a national newspaper," Vitali explained.

"However, I felt I was stagnating there and, as a writer, I needed to see the world.

"I used to listen to the BBC World Service in the middle of the night so I could hear what was going on in the Soviet Union and Europe."

After moving to the UK in 1992, Vitali wrote for numerous newspapers, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, and was a staff columnist at The European.

Currently a features editor at E&T magazine, he has written more than 15 books, mostly about Europe.

Clive James wrote the foreword for his 2009 book Life as a Literary Device.

He has also written and presented several documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, as well as working as scriptwriter and researcher for the BBC Two quiz QI and been a regular guest on Have I Got News For You.

Hours after I spoke to Vitali, he was due to return to Ukraine for the first time in 22 years.

His son, Andrei, is now based in Canada, but is spending time in Kyiv as part of a cyber security project.

Ukraine, like so many European countries, has a history of antisemitism. But Vitali insisted there is hardly any Jew-hate in the country today.

"I never generalise about any group of people," he said. "I hear that today, Kharkiv is an accepting place. Its mayor is Jewish, as is its head of regional administration.

"Odessa's mayor is Jewish and so is Ukraine's Prime Minister (Volodymyr Groysman).

"Russia is trying to portray Ukrainians as antisemites, but I know that it is not true.

"Of course, there are some unpleasant people, but I have a lot of Ukrainian friends."

Vitali does not practise Judaism, but is proud of his background.

He said: "It is probably too late to start practising and, somehow, uproot all the cultures which brought me up and assume another one and pretend that I am someone I am not.

"Culturally I am English, Russian and a little bit Ukrainian and Australian, as well as a little bit Jewish.

"It is one of the many components of my complicated identity.

"Do not forget that my Jewishness came to me as a stigma, originally."

Vitali has never been to Israel, but professed to be a "big supporter" of the Jewish state.

"I feel a lot of warmth towards Israel and I really should visit," he said.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph