A Jewish leader once asked Russian President Vladimir Putin, how did someone like you with good relations with Jews, ever survive in an anti-Semitic organization such as the KGB. Putin answered that it was the domestic branch that was busy persecuting Jews and he served with the foreign intelligence directorate.
Not an entirely accurate answer, Putin worked for the KGB in Leningrad before being posted in East Germany, but setting that aside, and disregarding for a moment the obviously sycophantic attitude of the questioner, there is a near consensus that Putin, whose successor was elected this week and will step down in two months, has been pro-Jewish throughout the eight years of his presidency. Even severe critics of his democratic record, such as former minister Natan Sharansky, admit that it's hard to fault Putin's record when it comes to his attitude towards the Jewish community.
Many Jewish institutions were founded and flourished under his administration and while certainly far from being eradicated, many Jewish leaders, not all of them Putin-supporters, claim that he had little tolerance for the inbred Russian anti-Semitism.
When it comes to Russia, this is obviously not such a trivial thing. Russia-gazers are split over the correct historical analogy, is Putin a modern-day reincarnation of the pre-Bolshevik Czars or Joseph Stalin's spiritual heir? Both concepts give rise to disturbing memories.
With a few notable exceptions, the Russian Czars enacted anti-Semitic legislation, subjecting the Jews to inferior status and forcing them to live in the pale of settlement far away from the large cities. They routinely saw pogroms and blood libels, instigated from above, as a useful way for keeping the masses happy. From this period originated the call - "beat the Jews and save Russia."
Stalin was arguably worse, with anti-Semitism playing a major role in his murderous purges, and his paranoia of Jews during his last years leading to the "doctor's trials." Many believe that before his death he was planning the mass expulsion of Jews from Russia to the far eastern wastes of the Soviet empire.
But the anti-Semitic tendencies of the Russian dictators are hardly surprising when one considers the people they lead. Being pro-Jewish is certainly a political liability in a country where one of the slurs directed by nationalist parties at this week's victorious presidential candidate, Dmitry Medvedev was that he was actually a Jew.
So how can we explain Putin's supposed philosemitism? Some see its origins in his St Petersburg childhood, in which he apparently had a large number of Jewish friends, neighbors and teachers. This is probably true but Putin is hardly a creature of sentiment. He has said to a number of Jewish leaders who have met him that in his opinion, one of the major policy mistakes of the U.S.S.R.'s communist leaders was their crackdown on Jewish organizations and cultural activity and the deep suspicion with which they regarded any contact between Soviet Jews and their brethren in Israel and the rest of the world.
In a Russia which is facing a demographic crisis of negative growth, Putin certainly views the emigration of an estimated two million Jews, to Israel, North American and Germany, as a net loss of highly-educated and productive citizens. His government has set and supported a number of official and semi-official organizations whose objective is to maintain contact with these expatriates and if possible, persuade them to return to the rodina. The Foreign Ministry has even begun financing Jewish cultural events for Russian Jews around the world, such as a Hanukah party in Berlin.
Of course, not everyone is convinced. There is conflicting data, but some research groups insist that there has been no reduction in anti-Semitic incidents. Others see disturbing tones in the relentless persecution of the Yukos oligarchs, most of whom are Jewish. There is also a very instrumental side to his pro-Jewishness. Putin tried to use influential Jewish allies to get the Jackson-Vanick amendment, hampering trade relations with the United States, repealed. He has cynically used the anti-Semitism issue to attack his rival, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, who he also accused of being under "Zionist" influence. And besides, how can he be so pro-Jewish if he visits Ahmadinejad in Tehran and Russia is building a nuclear reactor for the Iranians and supplying them with nuclear fuel.
There are answers of course to all these question marks. Even Putin is incapable of wiping out a thousand years of Russian anti-Semitic tradition. The oligarchs he took down set themselves up as political rivals and at the same time, many of the oligarchs currently in favor within the Kremlin are also Jewish. Neither Israel nor the Americans have officially criticized Russia over its ties with Iran, some officials have even said that Putin might be effectively controlling the Iranian regime and preventing it from going too far. And of course, he puts what he regards as Russian interests before any consideration. If that means using his ties with Jewish organizations to his benefit, he has no problem with that. Indeed, there is a distinct element of divide and rule to his attitude, Jews on his side get preferential treatment, the others are frozen out.
Perhaps it would be more to describe Putin, not as being pro-Jewish, but as being released from his predecessors' anti-Semitic complexes. As a calculating politician, he understands the contribution Jews have made to Russia's fortunes over the centuries and the influence of Jewish organizations on the international scene. Putin will become prime minister upon leaving the presidency and will almost certainly remain the ultimate source of power in Russia. Will he remain a reliable ally in the future? It is stupid to try and make predictions but it is useful to remember one thing. As a rule, Jewish communities flourish most in democratic societies. The worst persecutions have always been under dictatorships. After a brief fling with democracy, Russia is firmly back on the path to autocracy and Medvedev's electoral coronation is ample proof of this.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now