In an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly that was broadcast over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility that “Jews” were the ones responsible for meddling in the 2016 US president election.
After being pressed by Kelly to comment on claims of Russian interference in the elections, Putin replied, “Maybe they’re not even Russians. Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked.”
Putin must have known that a Russian president insinuating “Jews” were behind a plot to meddle in the US elections would smack of antisemitism. After all, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a fabrication of the Czarist secret police.
Anti-Jewish paranoia resonates deeply within Russian society. In the pre-Soviet era, it was based on medieval Christian – particularly Russian Orthodox – notions about purported Jewish perniciousness and power.
By the late 1940s, after the creation of the State of Israel, and in the early 1950s with the onset of the Cold War, the Jews began to be seen by the Soviet leadership as an ethnic diaspora potentially loyal to a hostile foreign state. Their disproportionately high representation in the upper echelon of literally every sphere of Soviet cultural, scientific and industrial life began to be seen as a threat. Stalin’s purges, which resulted in the assassination or imprisonment of thousands of Jews, were often openly anti-Jewish.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian nationalist accounts of history seek to delegitimize Bolshevism by equating it with Jewishness and portraying it as an alien assault on the Russian people and culture. Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously urged Jews to accept “moral responsibility” for those of their kinsmen who “took part in the iron Bolshevik leadership and, even more so, in the ideological guidance of a huge country down a false path.”
Yet what it truly remarkable is that Putin – throughout his long career as supreme leader of Russia – has largely refrained from tapping into antisemitic tropes, either to deflect criticism during times of economic or social crisis, or to whip up patriotism during times of war.
IN AN essay for the online magazine Mosaic titled The Putin Anomaly, Leon Aron asserted, “In modern European history, Vladimir Putin is the first classically reactionary and even revanchist leader who is not, or at least not yet, an antisemite.”
Aron hypothesized that Putin’s formative experiences with Jews as a child and young man might have something to do with this. There were Orthodox Jewish neighbors who sheltered and fed him in the St. Petersburg slums where he grew up; there was his favorite high-school teacher of German, who was reportedly treated to a Jerusalem apartment by Putin after she immigrated to Israel; there was Anatoly Rakhlin, Putin’s judo coach, whose funeral he attended; and Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, fellow judo enthusiasts and sparring partners whom he made billionaires.
Perhaps Putin rightly realizes that Stalin’s purges of the Jews and the discrimination against Jews that persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately hurt Russia.
So did the mass exodus of 1.6 million Jews after the fall of Communist Party rule.
Putin’s Russia is hostile to homosexuals, migrants and Muslims. It is intolerant of any political dissent. It is in full control of the media and autocratic in the way it rules. But it is not antisemitic, at least for the time being.
A survey published in June 2017 by University of Oslo’s Johannes Due Enstad found that Russia “clearly stands out with a very low number of registered incidents of antisemitic violence in proportion to its large Jewish population [approximately 190,000].”
In fact, being Jewish today in Russia is fashionable, even cool, “because this means that you’re successful, you’re well-off, you’re smart,” according to Elena Nosenko-Shtein, specialist in Jewish affairs and head researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as translated by Due Enstad on his blog, Restless Russianist.
Can this state of affairs change? Undoubtedly. And Putin, if he were to choose, could unleash deep-seated Russian antisemitism as part of a broader nationalist, revanchist plan. That’s why world leaders’ silence in the face of Putin’s comments about the Jews is dangerous. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump must speak out, even at the risk of angering the Russian bear.