Opinion |

A Passover Lesson for Russia’s Putin

Just like Pharaoh before him, Putin, by dint of who he is, is simply incapable of accepting change. It will lead him and his people to ruin

Avraham Bronstein
Avraham Bronstein
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents flowers during a ceremony to award the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents flowers during a ceremony to award the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, 2021.Credit: Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS
Avraham Bronstein
Avraham Bronstein

“I did not believe that Vladimir Putin would accept the complete economic, political and moral collapse of his country for the sake of his imperial madness,” German President Franz Walter Steinmeier said earlier this month.

This Passover season, I hear Steinmeier’s surprise as an echo of Pharaoh’s advisors urging him to send the Israelites out of Egypt before the next plague: “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7). By the end, of course, Egypt is ruined and the Israelites march free.

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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, The New York Times’ Frank Bruni expressed his dismayed shock at how the worst parts of recent history seem to be repeating themselves. “Aren’t we supposed to be past this? Didn’t history move on?” he wondered. “Well, Putin didn’t get the message.”

Bruni’s reflection is particularly resonant because a core principle of the Passover narrative is that change is both inevitable and good, while Pharaoh epitomizes the attempt to halt the march of history. Just like Pharaoh before him, the Russian president, by dint of who he is, is simply incapable of responding in his own best interests or those of his people.

One particularly dramatic illustration of this principle of change is in the beginning of Exodus 12, when God instructs Moses and Aaron that the Israelites will adopt and maintain a lunar calendar, in place of the Egyptians’ solar calendar. The rabbis attach profound meaning to this first instruction issued to the Israelites as a nation – for some, everything recorded in the Torah until this point was merely prelude.

The instruction’s significance lies in the divergent theologies undergirding these different calendars. The Egyptian solar calendar, which was calculated and enforced by the priestly class, justified and reinforced the religious and political systems that supported it: It was calibrated to the annual rising and receding levels of the Nile River, which irrigated crops and sustained life. The priests imbued everything involved – the months, the seasons, the Nile and the sun – with deep religious meaning. Through its unending cycle, year after year, their calendar reflected the immutable stability of the religious and social hierarchy of Egypt, with Pharaoh, the national avatar revered as king and god, at its pinnacle.

Thus by adopting a lunar calendar, the Israelites were not just being different, but subversive. Rejecting the Egyptian calendar implied a rejection of the entire Egyptian social order, including their own place within it as slaves. Adopting a non-Egyptian calendar was almost a precondition to their emancipation.

No wonder Pharaoh held on so stubbornly. Pharaoh knew that his own legitimacy as a ruler depended on maintaining the worldview that demanded it. If the Israelites could become free, his own reign and the Egyptian order that he represented were not set in stone either.

In this way, the modern-day conflict between the Western-leaning, democratic Ukraine and the autocratic throwback Putin, reflects that Biblical struggle between the Israelites and Pharaoh.

A hallmark of a vibrant democratic society is the possibility – even inevitability – of change, growth and social progress. Ukraine had been under the dominion of the Soviet Union and then the Russian sphere of influence until the ouster of corrupt Moscow-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. The 2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy moved the country even closer to the West. There was talk of Ukraine joining the European Union, even NATO.

In contrast, the overarching motivation of Putin’s 20 years in power has been resisting, even rolling back, change – “pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union,” as the late U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated in her final op-ed.

Putin could no more lose Ukraine than Pharaoh could lose the Israelites. If Ukraine, just next door, could depose a dictator and move toward Western democracy, so might Russia. Like Pharaoh, Putin saw these changes within Ukraine as a threat to the stability of his own reign, which needs stagnation in order to remain viable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow, April 14, 2022. Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP

Putin’s autocracy is based on the coercive imposition (he would say “restoration”) of his own nostalgic vision of Russia. It is not an accident that Putin’s project to restore his idea of Russian greatness has been marked by cracking down on agents of change; he has rolled back democratic reforms, limited civil liberties including restricting the free press, persecuted political opponents and fomented mistrust of outsiders, including immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Putin has also increasingly identified his leadership with the Russian Orthodox Church, casting himself as a defender of traditional Christian values in opposition to encroaching Western decadence.

Putin’s ethnonationalist-religious rhetoric and anti-democratic tendencies parallel those of other ultra-conservative leaders across the world, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

These ethnonationalist-religious movements, like Pharaoh’s, support oppressive power structures, but the West must respond in the spirit of the Passover story, challenging and rejecting them.

One critical way Western countries can do so is by responding to the plight of Ukrainian refugees. One thing today’s autocrats especially share with Pharaoh is a distrust of the stranger, the refugee, the marginalized minority – those who represent instability and change. Putin’s war strategy weaponizes refugees, targeting civilian population centers in order to drive more Ukrainians from their homes, creating social and economic burdens on neighboring countries and triggering political backlashes. It may be working. Since refugees have been resettled in France, Le Pen’s poll numbers are up to the point where she is now disturbingly competitive with President Emmanuel Macron as they head into their run-off election. And millions more Ukrainian civilians will be displaced before the fighting is over.

In contrast, again and again God invokes the lingering memory of Egyptian slavery to press the Israelites not to oppress the stranger or even to love the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Seeing oneself in the stranger is about recognizing that marginalized people are not inherently lesser. It also means being open to change as they are welcomed, their contributions are accepted, and communities and societies adjust to their presence. The absorption, rehabilitation, and success of Ukrainian refugees would be a strong repudiation of the rigid ethnonationalism shared by Putin and his admirers on the world stage – a powerful contemporary reliving of the Passover story.

At its root, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was about whether or not the world has changed since the middle of the 20th century. Like Pharaoh, Putin bet that it had not. The challenge the West faces is proving that, in the words of Albright, this was “a historic error,” with a cost that will reverberate for years to come, just as it did for the biblical Pharaoh.

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York.

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