In an interview broadcast on NBC this weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to repeated questions concerning allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election: “Maybe they’re not even Russians,” he said. “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked. Maybe they have dual citizenship. Or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don’t know.”
Many Western listeners understood this to be an anti-Semitic statement – Putin trying to blame the Jews for hacking the U.S. elections. But it’s worth reading the entire transcript before jumping to conclusions based on an isolated quote. It’s a long and wide-ranging exchange between Putin and Megyn Kelly, and the section dealing with Russia’s alleged interference is also quite long. The “Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews” bit is near the end of it. Before that, Putin cast doubt on whether the hacking ever happened; denied Russian government involvement in it if it had; suggested it could have been U.S. citizens temporarily living in Russia; or, at the very most, Russian freelancers acting of their own accord or working for a U.S. company. Only after a long back-and-forth with Kelly – during which he suggested the hackers could have come from France, Germany or Asia – did he finally come out with the “Ukrainian, Tatars, Jews” line.
I asked a number of Russian-born experts whether, in their opinion, there was anything anti-Semitic in what Putin said, and their views were divided.
There were those who saw in it classic Russian Judeophobia. But some, especially those who had read the entire transcript, believed Putin was simply “reeling off names of different nationalities. In Russia, Jews are members of a nation, not just a religion.”
Taken in light of the entire interview, this actually makes sense. “But even if in this case there’s no proof that Putin was using anti-Semitism,” warned one of his defenders, “that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do so routinely in other cases. It’s like a particular blend of tea he doesn’t care for himself, but is OK with others drinking.”
An unbelievable concept
Ever since Putin first came to power in 2000, there has been an understandable fascination with his attitude and opinions toward Jews. Understandable because the possibility that Russia – a nation whose leaders both in Czarist and Soviet times routinely fomented and utilized anti-Semitism for political goals – could actually have a philo-Semitic president seemed unbelievable.
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Over the years, I’ve heard an array of explanations from Russian Jews about Putin’s apparent friendliness. There were those who rooted it in his childhood growing up in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). There are apocryphal stories of his hanging out as a kid largely with Jewish friends, even of them all breaking into a local synagogue around Passover to gorge on matzot.
This story may have some basis in reality: Two of the best-connected oligarchs in today’s Russia are the Jewish brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who have made billions from government contracts for their company’s pipelines and electrical cables. Arkady was the young Putin’s sparring partner in the martial-arts club they both attended from the age of 12.
Jewish teachers had a huge effect on Putin during high school, discovering the intellectual potential in this thuggish boy and putting him on a track to academic excellence, which would enable him to join the KGB. At least one of them, his German teacher Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, emigrated to Israel and a grateful Putin later bought her an apartment in Tel Aviv, which she left him in her will when she died last December.
But it’s not only nostalgia that formed Putin’s views on Jews.
“Putin has spent decades analyzing why the Soviet Union collapsed,” a senior Jewish-Russian official, who has had many conversations with the president, once explained to me. “He is convinced that one of the mistakes of the Soviet leadership was to have made enemies of the Jews. Not only did that work against the U.S.S.R. on the global stage, but it caused Russian Jews to hate their country. And Putin believes the 2 million Jews who emigrated to Israel and the West when the Soviet Union collapsed were a strategic loss for Russia.”
Every Israeli leader who has met Putin since he came to power – and he has made sure to meet them all, frequently – has come away with the feeling that he has a deep respect for Israel and its achievements, especially its military and intelligence-collecting capabilities.
However, that didn’t stop other members of Putin’s entourage darkly warning Israel during the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 revolution in Ukraine to “keep out” for their own sake. “Even when Putin is being his friendliest,” said one Israeli diplomat who spent years in Moscow, “there’s always the undercurrent which we never forget: That he holds hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews hostage.”
And while Putin often goes to unusual lengths to show his friendship to the Jews – including donating a month’s salary to the main Jewish community center in Moscow, and periodically visiting it – the use of anti-Semitism by those linked to the Kremlin has continued under his presidency.
Members of his United Russia party have not been above making various comments about the Jews, including relatively senior members like Doma Deputy Chairman Pyotr Tolstoy, who talked last year of the “descendants of those who in 1917 jumped with guns out of the Pale of Settlement and proceeded to destroy our churches.”
The churches are important, since they have played a central role in Putin’s drive to rebuild post-Soviet Russian nationalism. One of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is also rumored to be Putin’s personal confessor, has claimed that the last czar of Russia was a victim of “ritual murder” – a thinly veiled allusion to the anti-Jewish blood libels of old.
Anti-Semitic priests in the Russian church are far from the only ones trading in these medieval slurs in Putin’s Russia. The main opposition party that remains tolerated, even protected, by the authorities is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. This is led by the virulent anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who will be a candidate once again in the presidential elections next Sunday. He doesn’t have a chance in hell of unseating Putin, of course, but the presence of racists like him in the race are useful to allow voters to blow off some steam.
And then there’s the Kremlin’s international propaganda channel, Russia Today, which routinely hosts Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists as respectable commentators.
They don’t actually spout anti-Semitism on their broadcasts: They have other outlets to do that, like the fringe website Russia Insider, which recently ran a 5,000-word article titled “It’s Time to Drop the Jew Taboo.” RT and other official wings of the Kremlin maintain a minimal distance from this sort of stuff, but the community of xenophobes and anti-Semites who find sanctuary and swear allegiance to Putin’s Russia are his fellow travelers.
Putin may not be an anti-Semite himself. In fact, nearly all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. But he is fine with anti-Semitic allies, as long as they boost his anti-Western narrative. They are an integral part of the cocktail of nationalism, chauvinism and bigotry buttressing Putin’s base at home, and exciting his growing community of supporters on the far left and far right in the West.
Last July, Putin said the allegations about Russian-meddling in the U.S. elections “reminds me of anti-Semitism. A dumb man who can’t do anything would blame the Jews for everything.”
That pretty much sums up Putin’s attitude to anti-Semitism: it’s dumb, but it can be useful.