After Ukraine War Displacement, Young Jewish Cop Gives Back

November 10, 2015


One year ago, Nikita Didenko was like any other young Jew in the small eastern Ukrainian city of Alchevsk, located about 25 miles southwest of Lugansk.

Then the war came.

A graduate of JDC’s Metsuda young leadership program and a madrich (counselor) in the city’s youth club, Nikita loved his city. He appreciated the work JDC’s Hesed social welfare center conducted on behalf of the city’s vulnerable elderly Jews. He’d met a girl there and after dating for five years, they were set to marry.

When separatist forces entered Alchevsk with tanks and stores began getting robbed less than a mile away from his family’s business, Nikita knew he had to leave.

“There’s a phrase: ‘Life begins where your comfort zone ends.’ I feel that in my skin,” he said. “When you lose everything, you realize that you are absolutely free and you begin to live. I lost everything — my house, a stable job, love. But I kept myself.”

Following old school friends, Nikita moved the nearly 500 miles northwest to Kiev. His relationship — like many between internally displaced persons in Ukraine — didn’t survive the move, collapsing under the pressure of so many unimaginable choices.

Looking for something new and a measure of stability, Nikita moved into the city’s Moishe House — a home and community hub for young Jews.

But doubling down on his Jewish identity was just one of the major shifts Nikita was about to make. Back in Alchevsk, young people really only had two options: to work in the mines or to study metallurgy.

But Kiev represented the chance to try something new — the police.

“I went to the police largely for romantic reasons,” he said. “When your country makes it possible for you to change something, it’s foolish not to take advantage of it.”

Nikita says his police work offers a meaningful corrective against a privileged childhood.

“I was very lucky. I was born in a well-off family. But already as a young man, I realized happiness is not in the cars, homes, or gold chains,” he said. “So now I’m constantly thinking about why I have this life, and what I must do.”

On day shifts, he says he can expect about 20 calls and on overnight shifts, about two to three. In between calls, he patrols the streets and watches traffic; 90 percent of the tickets he writes are for running a stop sign, he said.

Nikita said he’s surprised but happy to see how supportive the average Kiev citizen is of his work. Once, a woman on the street who had conducted a survey about the police stopped him and said, “Look how many people like you!”

But Nikita stays humble and focused on the enormity of the task ahead, helping to forge a positive path forward for a Ukraine in crisis.

“It’s very nice, but it’s a very big responsibility. It seems to me that if the police fail that everything will probably fail in this country,” he said. “The police are one of the last institutions you can trust. At the same time, I’m so happy to be part of this reform.”

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