MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we meet a father and son in the Ukrainian military who say they have extra motivation for their fight. They are Jewish and recall the treatment of Jews in the old Soviet Union. And they're from Crimea, which Russia annexed years ago, as it is claiming to do to other regions now. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been keeping in touch with them.
DAVID CHERKASKYI: My name is David Cherkaskyi. I'm 20 years old.
ASHER CHERKASKYI: And I'm Asher Cherkaskyi, 52.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: At a restaurant this summer in the central eastern city of Dnipro, I meet Asher and David Cherkaskyi just hours before David is to deploy to the front line in the Donbas. The two Orthodox Jewish men wear Ukrainian military fatigues, caps and beards. David's is dark and trim, his father Asher's long and white. The family lives in Dnipro, but is originally from Crimea. They left in 2014, when Russia annexed the peninsula. Asher Cherkaskyi remembers the referendum that cemented Russia's illegal land grab.
A CHERKASKYI: (Through interpreter) A lot of buses arrived with Russian citizens who came to vote for leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. We knew we could not go along with this. It went against our conscience, our values and our loyalty to our fellow Ukrainian citizens.
BEARDSLEY: Cherkaskyi says he was forced to flee his family home and leave his profitable industrial machinery business behind. Russia's occupation of Crimea was when he first began to identify as a Ukrainian Jew. He believes Russia has had its sights on Ukraine since the country became independent in 1991.
A CHERKASKYI: (Through interpreter) I remembered what Russian soldiers had done in other post-Soviet republics like Chechnya. And that's when I decided to fight.
BEARDSLEY: Cherkaskyi joined a volunteer unit in Dnipro in 2014 and did several tours of duty. He saw heavy fighting near the Donetsk airport. His son, David, wanted to come along, but he was much too young at the time. When Russia invaded on February 24, David didn't hesitate to join his father's battalion.
D CHERKASKYI: I very pride to fight with my father and to defense my country. This is us land. It's our people. And we defending. We not started this war.
BEARDSLEY: David says he has always felt completely free and at home as a Jew in Ukraine. He's particularly proud of his Jewish president, though he admits he didn't vote for Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019. His father has strong memories of being Jewish in the Soviet Union.
A CHERKASKYI: (Through interpreter) You couldn't say you were Jewish or you'd get a lower grade in school. In the army, you'd get sent to the most dangerous places. I remember the stories in propaganda to humiliate and intimidate us Jews and other nationalities they considered inferior.
BEARDSLEY: Reached on the phone at the front in Donetsk this week, he says the votes that the Kremlin just staged attempting to justify joining four Ukrainian regions with Russia are even tougher and more cynical than the Crimea referendum in 2014.
A CHERKASKYI: (Non-English language spoken).
BEARDSLEY: Then it was more about persuasion, he says. Today, the Russians openly threatened people's lives as they forced them to cast ballots. But he says Russia's recent move to mobilize more troops doesn't scare him because Ukrainians know their fight is just.
A CHERKASKYI: (Through interpreter) Soldiers who are intimidated and forced to fight will now be coming after us. And we already have the Russians on the run. We're squeezing them. Their elite troops are dead.
BEARDSLEY: Asher says he and his son David are doing fine. He believes one day soon they'll return to Crimea with weapons in their hands to liberate it. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.
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