Putin’s Antisemitic Freakout
The fact that Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish still has Russia’s furious fascist flailing.
THIS MONTH, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT and indicted war criminal Vladimir Putin offered up some bizarre musings on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his Jewish heritage. After a clearly orchestrated setup question from Russian TV propagandist Pavel Zarubin—“Western leaders keep lecturing Russia, what kind of Nazism can there be in Ukraine when it has a Jewish leader?”—Putin responded:
I’ve already discussed this . . . but I think it’s important to repeat it. Namely, that Western handlers placed at the head of modern Ukraine a man—an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, a Jewish background, and I believe that in this way they cover up, as it were, the anti-human essence that is at the foundation of the modern Ukrainian state. This makes the entire situation supremely repugnant, in that an ethnic Jew is giving cover to the heroization of Nazism and giving cover to those who once oversaw the Holocaust in Ukraine, that is the murder of a million and a half people.
But there’s more. The interview with Zarubin, it turns out, was a follow-up to an equally jaw-dropping moment at a video forum of the Pobeda (Victory) Organizing Committee in which Putin, in dialogue with Moscow Victory Museum director Alexander Shkolnik, offered a peculiar history lesson the Holocaust in Ukraine. The mass murders of Jews, he asserted, was entirely the work of Ukrainian “Banderovites,” i.e., members and supporters of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) headed by Stepan Bandera: “It was precisely the Banderovites and others of that ilk who gave the direct orders. Even the Germans. . . even the SS troops didn’t find it possible to participate in these mass executions. They put practically everything in the hands of local nationalists and anti-Semites.”
Putin’s twisted history is nothing new by now, but the claim that the SS balked at participation in mass slaughters of Jews is shocking even by Putin standards. It certainly would have come a surprise to SS functionary Otto Ohlendorf or to SS intelligence officer Paul Blobel, both of whom were hanged in 1951 for orchestrating, and in many cases directly supervising, the murders of tens of thousands of men, women, and children—most of them Jews, including Ukrainian Jews. (Blobel was in charge of the massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews at the Babyn Yar/Babi Yar ravine outside Kyiv on September 29–30, 1941.) Both men were convicted in the Einsatzgruppen trial of the Nuremberg tribunal, which compiled horrific evidence of the work of the mobile SS units that followed regular German troops and exterminated those deemed undesirable: Roma and Jews; the mentally and physically handicapped; Communists and other potential enemies of German rule.
Local collaborators often took part in the killings. This was also true in Ukraine, though it’s hard to say how many of the Ukrainian perpetrators were “Banderovites”; the extent of the OUN’s Nazi collaboration and involvement in murders of Jews has been the subject of contentious debates. What’s not in dispute is that SS troops not only “gave the direct orders” but did most of the actual killing.
In an interview, Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov spoke trenchantly of the visceral revulsion at Putin’s statements felt by Ukrainian Jews like himself who had grandparents and other family members murdered by the Einsatzgruppen.
Putin’s Holocaust revisionism is not only ahistorical and obscene; it is profoundly hypocritical given his own tirades against attempts to revise or deny the conclusions of the Nuremberg tribunal—a charge he lobs at those who engage in inconvenient discussions of the Soviet Union’s role as Germany’s co-aggressor at the start of World War II.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Putin has turned his attention to Zelensky’s Jewish background. In June, he declared that “Zelensky is not a Jew but a disgrace to the Jewish people,” and that Zelensky had supposedly connived in Nazi-whitewashing and Holocaust denial. Putin attributed this opinion to his unnamed “Jewish friends.”
On both occasions, Putin’s outrageous remarks were widely seen as antisemitic. For many, they were “mask-off” moments, casting strong doubt on the view once shared even by most Putin detractors that whatever else one might say about the man, at least he was not an antisemite.
In a commentary on TV-RAIN, the exiled independent news channel, Ukrainian-born Russian journalist Julia Taratuta argued that the latest controversies were the “culmination” of Putin’s long history of flirting with antisemitism. Some of Taratuta’s examples are debatable: For instance, Putin’s repulsive joke in a 2006 meeting with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert complimenting the sexual prowess of then-Israeli president Moshe Katsav, who was facing several charges of rape and sexual assault, seems more a case of troglodyte sexism than of antisemitism. But Taratuta’s commentary also highlights repeated instances of Putin making jocular and seemingly benign comments that play up Jewish stereotypes, from wealth and business acumen to “alien” names. (It’s a bit like Donald Trump’s habitual references to American Jews as shrewd financial dealers whose first loyalty is to Israel.)
It should be noted that Putin really has had close personal ties to Jews throughout his life. Among them: his judo trainer and father figure Anatoly Rakhlin; his high school German teacher Minna Yuditskaya, with whom he met on a 2005 visit to Israel, and possibly also his middle-school German teacher and mentor Vera Gurevich, with whom he is reportedly still in contact; brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, his fellow judo students (and now, billionaires); his erstwhile patron Boris Berezovsky, who arguably enabled his rise to the presidency (of course, that relationship didn’t turn out too well when Berezovsky began to criticize his ex-protégé); and quite a few of his crony capitalists. And one could argue that Putin’s mostly amicable relationship with Israel is light-years away from Soviet-era strident anti-Zionism.
But there’s also another side to Putin’s complex relationship with Jews. His career in the KGB, an organization permeated with antisemitism, likely left a mark on his mindset. Russian expatriate commentator Stanislav Belkovsky, a veteran political strategist and onetime Kremlin adviser, has said that Putin likely shares the assumption, common in KGB circles, that Jews run the world—but has concluded that it’s useful and even essential to have Jews on one’s side.
Another émigré and former Kremlin adviser, Abbas Gallyamov, gave an ambivalent answer when asked directly, in a Radio Liberty interview after Putin’s latest “Jewish Question” moment, whether Putin was an antisemite: “Generally no. But right now, he’s freaking out, and so he’s started flirting even with the demons of antisemitism. He’s looking for a way out of this situation, he’s trapped and can’t find an exit . . . and so he’s trying various options.”
ONE REASON PUTIN IS “FREAKING OUT” is that Ukraine’s Jewish president keeps messing with his narrative of the war against Ukraine as a continuation of the Soviet Union’s “sacred war” against Nazism. To make the “denazification” canard fly (at least in Putin’s own eyes), the Jew Zelensky must be a recast as a Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer, or a Nazi puppet—efforts that almost invariably have an antisemitic flavor. While Putin’s labeling of Zelensky as a puppet of his “Western handlers” inverts the usual trope of the Jew as the evil puppet master, it still assigns a central place in an insidious global plot to “an ethnic Jew.”
Putin’s increasingly obsessive focus on Zelensky’s Jewishness is especially obscene because his central charge—that Zelensky abets Holocaust denial—is blatantly false and easily refuted. Just last January, for instance, Zelensky attended a service at Babyn Yar to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In October 2021, a few months before the Russian invasion, he unveiled the newest memorial installation on the site, the Crystal Wall of Crying by the internationally renowned performance artist Marina Abramović.
Yes, post-Soviet Ukraine has had a fraught relationship with the history of Ukrainian nationalism during World War II—including a tendency to whitewash the OUN (and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and cherry-pick the historical record to scrub away the organization’s antisemitism and at least occasional Nazi collaboration. This is a real problem that gets in the way of a necessary historical reckoning—but it does not amount to Holocaust denial. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was created in September 2016 under Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, more than two years after the Euromaidan revolution which Kremlin propaganda depicts as a neo-Nazi coup. A quarter-century earlier, in October 1991, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of a newly independent Ukraine, presided over the first official commemoration of the Babyn Yar massacre and, for the first time ever, acknowledged and apologized for the role of Ukrainian collaborators.
This historical fact points to another irony: Putin’s repulsive pronouncements on Zelensky and the Holocaust obscure the USSR’s actual denial of the true history of the Holocaust. The Soviet party line was to frame Nazi crimes as crimes against humanity, or, in the context of the “Great Patriotic War,” against Soviet citizens; to single out any particular group was “politically incorrect.” In practice, this faux universalism amounted to a wall of silence around the Nazis’ targeted extermination of Jews. Monuments erected by the Soviets on the sites of mass graves of Jews often read “To the victims of fascism.” This not only obscured for future generations what the memorialized event really was, but also signaled to the surviving population who likely witnessed—or in some cases even abetted—the segregation and mass murder of their Jewish neighbors that Nazi antisemitism wasn’t a problem worth mentioning.
Thus, the “Black Book” documenting Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Soviet Union, compiled by the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee in 1946, was killed by Joseph Stalin’s censors shortly before the Committee itself was disbanded (with most of its leadership either murdered or sent to the gulag). Even during the relatively liberal rule of Nikita Khrushchev, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem “Babi Yar,” which explicitly identified the Babyn Yar victims as Jews and placed the massacre in the historical context of antisemitic violence, was officially condemned as divisive. The editor who approved its publication in a literary weekly was sacked, and Yevtushenko himself was “canceled” for several years. When I was in school in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, neither the history textbooks nor the numerous school activities commemorating the war and its victims mentioned Jews. In 1979, the renowned Soviet novelist Anatoly Rybakov managed to “breach the wall” (as he later put it in his memoirs) and get an epic novel about a Ukrainian Jewish family and its destruction by the Nazis serialized in a magazine and then published as a book, but he was forced to cut or alter overly “Jewish” passages and change the title from the way-too-Jewish Rachel to Heavy Sand. The wall did not come down until glasnost.
Today, glasnost is long gone, but while Soviet leadership made the Holocaust practically unmentionable, Putin has made a habit of weaponizing it for his own public relations strategies. (He also unveiled Moscow’s first major Holocaust monument in 2019, albeit located inside the Jewish Museum.) And yet, while Russians today are far more aware of the Holocaust than they were in decades past, Holocaust minimization continues under Putin’s authoritarian nationalism. In 2011, a plaque identifying the Zmiyevskaya Balka massacre site near Rostov-on-Don as a Holocaust memorial location where “more than 27,000 Jews were exterminated by the Nazis” was removed by local authorities on the grounds that a small percentage of those killed were not Jews. The new plaque describes the victims as “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on- Don” of “many different ethnic backgrounds,” with only a brief mention of “the mass extermination of Jews by the fascist invaders.”
WHEN I INTERVIEWED dissident Russian Jewish journalist Evgenia Albats in January 2020, she noted that “Putin is not an antisemite; this is a known fact”; but she also warned that “a wave of antisemitism [in Russia] will inevitably come unless we succeed in defeating this regime before it becomes openly fascist.”
Today, the Putin regime has indeed gone full fascist, and quite a few pundits believe that Putin’s disturbing pronouncements about Jews illustrate the truism that such a regime will also inevitably go full antisemitic. While it would be an exaggeration to speak of a wave of antisemitism, there are some troubling signs—recently rounded up in a report by Ben Cohen, senior correspondent at the Algemeiner. Recent developments include, for example, the case of a Jewish theater director and poet, Evgenia Berkovich, accused of “glorifying terrorism” in a play examining the real-life stories of Russian women who decided to marry Islamist radicals and move to Syria. Berkovich was arrested on a complaint from a quack “expert” who has said that some Jews actively support Wahhabi fundamentalists “in order to spite Russians.” Cohen also points to an alarming trend of Russian propagandists and regime supporters stressing the real or alleged Jewish identities of war opponents and Kremlin critics—and to several incidents of high-level officials making antisemitic remarks, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recycling the “Hitler had Jewish blood” canard in yet another attempt to depict Zelensky as a Nazi.
Putin, it seems, is now solidly in the ranks of those high-level officials. Unfazed by the backlash against his comments about Zelensky, Nazis, and Ukrainians, he had another Jews-on-the-brain moment this week at an economic forum in Vladivostok where he commented on Anatoly Chubais, former deputy prime minister of Russia and Putin’s former special liaison to international organizations, who fled Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Asked about rumors that Chubais was now living in Israel, Putin replied, “For some reason, he’s hiding there. They showed me photographs from the internet where he’s not Anatoly Chubais anymore but some sort of Moshe Israeilevich, living somewhere there. Why does he do this? I don’t understand.” He was apparently referring to a meme in the far-right corners of the Russian internet—and speaking with the classic smirk of the antisemite savoring a jeer at a “Jewish name.”