Opinion |

Putin Is Reviving Soviet-era Antisemitism to Crush Opposition to His War on Ukraine

In his recent address on Russian TV about Ukraine, where he red-flagged "fifth columnists" who are "traitors to the nation," Putin did not explicitly say the words "Jews," "Zionists" or "cosmopolitans." He didn't need to

Michał Bilewicz
Michał Bilewicz
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest speeches follow the distinctive Soviet era antisemitic narratives and language that preceded anti-Jewish purges
Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest speeches on Ukraine follow distinctive Soviet era antisemitic narratives and language that preceded anti-Jewish purgesCredit: POOL/ REUTERS
Michał Bilewicz
Michał Bilewicz

"Listen to what the Kremlin says. Just listen! Now the same words [Nazi terminology] are being used again, the Final Solution, but now it is directed at us!" declared Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his public address to the Knesset. In his appeal to Israeli society, the Ukrainian president made explicit comparisons between today’s Russia and Nazi Germany.

Although controversial to many Israelis, it is hard to deny that for many Eastern European Jews, recent Kremlin propaganda reminds them of the darkest episodes of our history. And Russia's President Vladimir Putin has achieved that ignominy even without specifically mentioning "Jews," "Zionists" or "cosmopolitans."

On March 16, Putin went on television to discuss the invasion of Ukraine. His address however, did not focus on external enemies. Instead, he pointed to an alleged vast conspiracy in the homeland - a key threat to the "special military operation," as the invasion is euphemistically labelled in state propaganda. The speech is remarkable for the motifs he used - tropes that were commonly used in antisemitic rhetoric in the Soviet era, and that legitimized antisemitic violence.

Vladimir Putin's March 16 address, where he railed against 'fifth columnists' and rootless traitors

The enemies of Russia "will certainly be counting on the 'fifth column,' on traitors to the nation," otherwise known as "scum," said Putin in his address. This statement is almost an exact copy of Polish communist leader Władyslaw Gomułka’s speech from 1967 that preceded the regime's anti-Jewish purge in Poland.

That purge also originated in a hunt for alleged traitors who opposed the Soviet-supported "operation" against Israel (which had just won a victory over the Soviet-backed Arab states in the Six Day War).

"We cannot ignore the people who, when facing a threat to world peace and Poland’s security and peaceful operation, take the side of the aggressors, the havoc-wreckers and the imperialists. We do not want to have a fifth column in our country," said Gomułka, in his notorious address to trade unionists.

A few months later, workers' rallies against "Zionists" and "fifth columnists" were organized across the country, thousands of Jews were fired from their jobs, expelled from academic institutions, and forced to emigrate

Another notable element of Putin’s speech was the accusation of cosmopolitanism: "The problem is that in essence, their mentality is there, not here, with our people. Not with Russia."

Again, Putin follows a typical antisemitic narrative from the Soviet era that preceded anti-Jewish purges, this time in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Propagandist daily Pravda published a screed in 1949 about "unbridled, evil-minded cosmopolitans, profiteers with no roots and no conscience (…) non-indigenous nationals without a motherland, who poison our proletarian culture with their stench."

Three years later, numerous leaders of the Soviet Jewish community were executed, including the great Yiddish poets Peretz Markish and David Hofshteyn and actor Solomon Mikhoels; academic Lina Stern  was sentenced to labor camp camp and internal exile. The hunt for "rootless cosmopolitans" continued for more than 20 years, even after Stalin's death, targeting many other artists, scientists, musicians and writers of Jewish ancestry.

The "anti-cosmopolitan" argument used in Putin’s speech was soon repeated across the Atlantic. "President Zelensky is a very bad character who is working with globalists against the interests of his own people," wrote American conservative political commentator Candace Owens. "Globalist" is the new "rootless cosmopolitan," and it is not by accident that the Jewish president of Ukraine is described this way.

A few months earlier, one of Fox News' pro-Russian military experts said that America has "a huge problem with a class of so-called elites" who “they have no connection to the country, there is nothing there that holds them in place" who are "as the Russians used to call certain individuals many, many years ago, rootless cosmopolitans." 

The quest for a scapegoat in times of crises and losses is nothing new in world history. Gomułka’s tirade against the "fifth column" was an obvious reaction to the losses of the Soviet-supported Arab side in the Six Day War. Putin has been using the same argument after an unsuccessful blitz attempt to subdue and occupy Ukraine. "When the society suffers, it needs someone to blame, someone upon whom to avenge itself for its disappointments," wrote French sociologist Emil Durkheim presciently in 1899, trying to understand the antisemitic turmoil of late 19th century France.

At the University of Warsaw, we have studied this process extensively through research studies, surveys and psychological analysis. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are most commonly trusted by those who lose control over their life. Losers need scapegoats, and Jews are the most common targets. We observed this pattern in Poland, Britain and other countries.

Notably, this does not seem to be true in Ukraine. Ukrainians do not tend to blame Jews for their misfortunes. In a large nation-wide study performed in 2001 we found that, contrary to Poles, Ukrainians did not explain their losses by way of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The paradox of Putin’s rhetoric is that he accuses Ukraine of "Nazism" while simultaneously using antisemitic tropes to stigmatize Russians who oppose his war and support Ukraine. This recalls the most absurd slur used by pro-Russian activists during Moscow's first invasion of Ukraine, its war in the Donbas in 2014: "Zhidobanderovtsy" (Kike-Banderites).

The conflation of Jews with a well-known antisemitic ideologist made no sense, from a logical point of view. Stepan Bandera led a Ukrainian ultranationalist organization that collaborated with the Nazis and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. 

Yet it made sense to the followers of conspiracy theories. There is no logic in their thinking. Conspiracy theorists can strongly believe that Princess Diana is dead and alive at the same time.

In his March 16 address, Putin did not say the word "Jews." He didn't need to. The key elements of his narratives sound all too familiar to any Jewish person living in Eastern Europe. And his promise of "a natural and necessary self-purification of society" must have filled many of them with dread.

Michal Bilewicz is Associate Professor of social psychology and the director of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw. Twitter: @Michal_Bilewicz 

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