Putin's path from philosemite to antisemite: What's behind his statements about Zelensky's Jewish background?

"It's difficult to find any logic in Russia. We are dealing with labeling. They simply select the concepts that evoke the most negative reaction among the Russian public and use them: Nazis, neo-Nazis, Banderites, fascists, and so on," says historian Alexander Friedman.

When Vladimir Putin met with Russian war correspondents on 13 June 2023, he said the following, in addition to the traditional distortions, outright lies, and insults:

"I'm actually surprised that a person with Jewish blood in his veins, who is the head of the state of Ukraine, can support neo-Nazis. I just don't understand it."

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said what he thought about these words:

"The impression is that he [Putin] does not fully understand his words. I'm sorry, but he seems to be the second king of antisemitism after Hitler. And it's the president who says these things. The civilized world cannot speak like this."

So, does Putin understand what he is saying? Is this a coincidence or a pattern? Has Putin ever been a philosemite or at least tried to come across like one?

We discuss these questions with historian Alexander Friedman, who teaches modern and East European history at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and the University of Saarland.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How did Zelensky turn into a neo-Nazi, a Jew who destroys Jews, in Putin's mind?

Alexander Friedman: This is not really easy to trace. For Putin, the detail of Zelensky's background was secondary. Any leader of Ukraine who pursues an independent policy, refuses to steer Ukraine in line with Russia's interests, and sees Ukraine as a free, independent, and democratic state is an enemy in Putin's eyes. In order to label the enemy as negatively as possible, they reach for their well-known toolkit. Hence all these stories about Nazis, etc.

It's difficult to find any logic in Russia. We are dealing with labeling. They simply select the concepts that evoke the most negative reaction among the Russian public and use them: Nazis, neo-Nazis, Banderites, fascists, and so on.

However, Putin did run into a problem with Zelensky, namely his Jewish background. In the eyes of ordinary people, especially in the West, this Russian concept of a neo-Nazi or Nazi Ukraine is shattered by the figure of Zelensky. It is completely unclear to Westerners how a person of Jewish descent can be the head of a state thus labeled. Moreover, Zelensky did not come to power as a result of a military coup or something like that. He was elected; he won a democratic election, and the majority of Ukrainians voted for him. They elected him being fully aware of his background, which he has never hidden. This did not hinder Ukrainians in any way.

Putin's anger arises because Zelensky breaks this concept. Therefore, they go further and make a kind of hyperbole: "Zelensky is twice, maybe three times as terrible because he is a Jew (they deliberately emphasize this) and also leads neo-Nazis." For the Russian audience, this vilifies Zelensky as a leader of neo-Nazis and paints him as a traitor who "spat on the tragedy of his ancestors and turned into a 'Nazi Jew'."

This absolutely absurd image of a Nazi Jew, at which one can only shake one's head, is widespread in Russia, and many Russians are convinced.

How did the authorities and society react?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska:  The international community and adequate people react to such statements, and this case is no exception. There was a reaction both in Ukraine and abroad. What does it tell you?

Alexander Friedman: There are two aspects here. On the one hand, if we assume that Russia is trying to promote this image of Zelensky as a "Nazi Jew" beyond its borders, it is not successful, even quite on the contrary. And Sergey Lavrov's statements, for which Putin had to apologize, are absolutely shameful. And now to Putin's statements. They did not bring him any bonus points. On the contrary, his words are clearly perceived as antisemitic in the West.

An open reaction is a different matter. There has been no open reaction to Putin's words, for example, from Western leaders. Israel has also remained silent. Putin's statement was disgusting, but he did not cross the red line. He said it not on his own behalf but with reference to some mythical or real Jewish acquaintances. Putin did it more or less cautiously, but I think there will be even more radical statements from him, and Western leaders will have to react.

Lavrov's case was different. Lavrov went way overboard and even mentioned Hitler. Putin had to apologize not because Lavrov discussed Zelensky's origins but because of this sheer antisemitic stupidity that Hitler had a Jewish background.

They have no success abroad, with the possible exception of antisemites, right-wing radicals, and neo-Nazis in the West, who sympathize with Russia anyway and are on its side.

As far as the domestic audience is concerned, there is a somewhat paradoxical effect that many in the West do not understand. This is a special feature of Russian antisemitism and xenophobia, which is widespread in Russia. On the one hand, they use the term Nazi. A Nazi is someone terrible. "Zelensky is terrible because he is a Nazi." And if you also emphasize his Jewish background, it will fuel hatred for him even more. It's like he should be hated because he is a Nazi, the head of the so-called "neo-Nazi Ukraine," and a Jew to boot, which means he is an enemy of Russia. That is why they have been so active lately in spreading this narrative. I think they are primarily targeting the domestic, i.e., Russian, audience. I don't think they have any illusions of being able to convince anyone in the West.

"Putin is interested in building relations with Israel."

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I believe Russia's policy toward Israel and Jews was quite progressive. Russia tried to develop these ties somehow. Is that correct?

Alexander Friedman: You are absolutely right, especially if we look at the Putin era. Putin is interested in building relations with Israel. He also regularly emphasized his positive attitude toward Jews and talked about his Jewish friends and the Holocaust. As a result, Israel and Jewish communities in the West perceived him as someone who sympathized with Jews. He was even sometimes called a philosemite.

"He is a person who is openly good to Jews. He likes the Jewish people, Jewish culture, and Jewish traditions." I think this vision is completely exaggerated and untrue. If we take Putin and other people from his entourage, such as Patrushev or Lavrov, they all had Soviet socialization. Patrushev and Putin, for example, come from the Leningrad KGB, one of the most antisemitic of all the KGB committees and organizations.

It seems to me that Putin has adopted the prototype of attitudes toward Jews from the KGB conspiracy theory that says: "Jews rule the world and should be treated with caution." It even goes as far as suggesting that "the USSR lost the Cold War possibly because it introduced anti-Israeli policies and turned Jews against itself." This is his view, perception, and conclusions regarding Jews.

On the one hand, he has Jewish friends whom he really treats well. On the other hand, he has this vision of the so-called "world Jewry" that rules the world and with which one should not quarrel. But now, in connection with the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine and Zelensky, whom Putin deeply dislikes on a personal level, they no longer pay attention to all those theories they used to embrace.

Boiling over with hatred, they have decided to pull out this antisemitic card in an effort to generate even more sympathy in Russian society. This is a move that has often been used in Russian history. Thus, their idea is to rally the population even more in the face of an external enemy.

"With these statements, Putin is deliberately playing with the antisemitic card and sending it to Israel and the United States."

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska:  Can we say that, as of now, Putin does not care what kind of relations he has with Israel?

Alexander Friedman: I think that Putin has his own logic. With such statements, he is deliberately playing with the anti-Semitic card and sending it to Israel and the United States. He comes from the USSR, where the dominant idea was that Jews ran the United States. It is fashionable in Russia to pick policymakers in the Biden administration and talk about their Jewish background. This applies especially to those known as the biggest supporters of Ukraine, for example, Antony Blinken.

Blinken is in the United States, and Zelensky is in Ukraine. This is how they put together this "worldwide Jewish conspiracy."

It seems that Putin is leaving himself room to maneuver with such provocative, rather harsh statements and is sending a message to Israel and Jews worldwide: "Look, I am ready to use this topic. I have no problem making this kind of statement — disguised but antisemitic nonetheless. Antisemitism will have no borders if Israel and Jewish organizations worldwide don't behave the way Russia wants them to. That is, if you [continue to] support Ukraine in humanitarian, political, informational, and financial ways, and if you go further and start helping Ukraine with weapons. If that happens, we will exploit this topic to the fullest, as we did in Soviet times." I think this is Putin's veiled message.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: To what extent do these predictions bear on Israel's decision-making?

Alexander Friedman: Israel is indeed in a rather difficult situation. There were no questions at all in the case of Lavrov, who had definitely gone overboard. The reaction was very swift. And yet, Lavrov is not Putin. His influence on Russian politics and decision-making is limited.

Israel is having a much more difficult time with Putin's case. Putin is the decisionmaker who has the ability to harm Israel. This includes military and political cooperation with Iran, Israel's main enemy, and control over the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which borders on Israel. And we shouldn't forget about the Jews in Russia: they have been leaving the country in large numbers, especially after the outbreak of the war. So far, the Russian authorities have allowed this exodus to happen. Russia can strike and harm Israel in all these areas.

For this reason, Israel has been forced to act very cautiously. Israel's position is something like this: helping Ukraine without harming itself.

If this dependence on Russia did not exist, Israel's statements would be harsher, and its assistance could be on a completely different level, including military and technical aid.

Russian propaganda

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Does Russian propaganda work in Israel?

Alexander Friedman: Russia is working hard to create a negative image of Ukraine in the world. Zelensky and his ethnic background are both an offensive and defensive tactic for Russia. Russia is working not only with the image of Zelensky. They are actively using the image of Bandera, Ukrainian nationalists, the role of antisemitism in Ukrainian nationalist organizations in the 1930s, Ukrainians' participation in the Holocaust, and so on. All these topics are emphasized specifically to form the opinion that things are not so simple in Ukraine, to say the least. The message is that while Russia may be acting inappropriately, Ukraine is "not all so white and fluffy."

Russian propaganda is making inroads in Israel, European media, Western media, etc. This is a severe problem for Ukraine. For example, the perception of Stepan Bandera in Ukraine today is very different from that in Israel. He is a hero in Ukraine, whereas in Israel, that time is generally perceived as a period when Ukrainians participated in the Holocaust.

Jewish-Ukrainian history is complicated and includes many difficult episodes that all of us still have to reconsider.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.

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