20 years under Putin: a timeline

Last October former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote an article focusing on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an ethnic Jew. Medvedev mocked and insulted him, implying that Zelensky is a treacherous Jew and a disgusting person. The article was criticized for anti-Semitism and attempts at undermining Zelensky’s political status in Ukraine, but it also reflects complicated attitudes toward Jews in the Soviet Union and Russia.


 Screenshot from Leonid Parfyonov's documentary Russian Jews. YouTube.


In the article, full of expletives and insults, Medvedev accuses Zelensky of betraying the Russian language, with which he was raised, and flirting with Ukrainian nationalists, whose intellectual and political predecessors mercilessly killed Jews during WWII. Medvedev also implied that Zelensky should not pretend to be a Ukrainian nationalist, but embrace his own ethnicity and take pride in being an Ashkenazi Jew. 

The article was largely criticized, but Medvedev’s idiosyncratic narratives reflect a wider intellectual and political discourse that cannot be easily pinned down. For one, a philosemitic reference to Ashkenazi Jews coming from a high-profile Russian official would have been absolutely unthinkable a few decades ago. Medvedev’s writing is also so contradictory and convoluted that it could be seen both as philosemitic and anti-Semitic, depending on the point of view and context. This convolution, however, is not inherent to Russia. A closer look at history and beyond would indicate that “anti-Semites” are indeed capable of praising Jews, whereas “philosemites” can sometimes be quite anti-Semitic.


Jews in the Soviet Union 

Most Russian Jews are Ashkenazi and became subjects of the Russian state in the 18th century, following the partitions of Poland. In Tsarist Russia, Jews, seen as a religious group, were allowed to reside (with a few exceptions to the rule) only in particular areas known as the “Pale of Settlement.” Jews were generally discriminated against, so it is no wonder that they joined various opposition parties, including the Bolsheviks. After the October 1917 Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power, Jews held visible positions in all branches of the government, including the secret police. As a result, some critics of the Soviet regime identified Bolshevik rule with Jews. The fate of Russian Jews then became intimately connected with the evolution of the regime and the prevailing ideology. By the 1930s, the Soviet regime’s ideology had changed—things had become more complicated. While Marxism-Leninism remained the official ideology, the actual functioning ideology was National Bolshevism, which praised the Bolshevik Revolution as a launchpad of not so much the global proletariat revolution, but the mighty Russian state in the form of the Soviet Union, thus re-asserting the continuity between pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia.

As part of the regime mutation, the Soviet Union introduced domestic passports with the infamous “fifth clause” (piatiy punkt), which specified the passport holder’s ethnicity. Defined in biological terms, ethnicity could not be removed or legally changed, and did not depend on language, culture, place of birth, or religion. Thus, Russian/Soviet citizens’ ethnicity was politically contextualized as a biological category (something similar would be introduced in Nazi Germany). Throughout the 1930s and World War II, the notion of ethnicity as a biological construct evolved, creating a potential threat to Jews, who in this context could not renounce their Jewishness. Initially, the Soviet authorities saw Jews as a “benign” ethnic group, in contrast to “dangerous” ethnicities—that is, dangerous for the Soviet state. Ethnic groups deemed as “dangerous” by the state could become subject to relocation to remote places where they would no longer pose a supposed threat. The policy of relocating “dangerous” ethnicities can be traced back to antiquity. The Assyrians relocated ten tribes of Israel to the heartland of their empire. The Ottoman Turks did the same with the Armenians during WWI. The Soviet regime followed the same model, deporting its Koreans in the late 1930s. During the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), the same fate befell the Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, and Russian Germans. These practices had implications for Russian Jews. 

In the beginning of the postwar era, the Soviet Union actively supported Jews in Palestine, and was the first country to recognize Israel. The nature of this support was pragmatic. On one hand, Israeli Jews were strongly pro-Soviet, seeing the Red Army as a major force that had saved the Jewish people from annihilation. On the other hand, for Moscow, pro-Soviet Israel provided a chance to establish military bases on the Mediterranean Sea. But when Israel started moving closer with the West, the Soviet attitude toward Jews changed—Russian Jews were increasingly seen as “alien” and “dangerous,” with Stalin planning to deport them to the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East. Stalin’s death thwarted these plans, but the attitude and policies survived.

With Israel perceived by Moscow as a U.S. proxy, Russian Jews emerged as a totally alien body in the Soviet Union. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, making the situation for Russian Jews even worse. And when they started emigrating to Israel, the U.S., and other Western countries in droves, the Kremlin fully embraced the idea of the danger posed by Jews to the Soviet state.

The general population’s views of Jews varied to a certain degree. Some Soviet nationalist dissidents and semi-dissident intellectuals followed the state in their suspicion of Jews, while liberal intellectuals and even some segments of the wider public saw them in a positive light. For instance, Westernized liberals perceived Jews as predominantly anti-Soviet, while the average Soviet citizen generally saw them as a privileged group, since they could freely emigrate to the West (that is, anywhere outside the USSR and Eastern Europe) where they could live a seemingly glamorous life. While it looked as if Soviet/Russian people had either philosemitic or anti-Semitic attitudes toward Jews (who were divided into “good” and “bad”), the reality is more complicated.


Jews divided

The early division into “good” and “bad” Jews can be seen in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were fiercely anti-Semitic, having murdered six million Jews. But even they were not always consistent in their views or at least treatment of Jews. They differentiated between German Jews and Eastern European Jews. Although the 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and deemed them almost non-human, they were not killed, at least in the beginning, and the Nazis plainly encouraged them to emigrate from Germany. Some German Jews were made into Reichsjuden , that is “imperial” or “state Jews,” who were so important to the state that they were allowed to live. There were also thousands of people of mixed ethnicity (so-called Mischlinge), who served in the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces. 

The Soviet government similarly emphasized the difference between “good” and “bad” Soviet Jews —the latter were those unfortunate Russian Jews who had been “seduced’ by Zionist propaganda and emigrated to the West or Israel. Even some dissidents followed this dichotomy of “good” and “bad” Jews. But nationalists among them, such as mathematician Igor Shafarevich or philosopher and historian Lev Gumilev, saw Jews as universally evil. Gumilev, who gained popularity in the late Soviet years, believed that most ethnicities of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union lived in a happy “symbiosis,” with Jews being the only exception, since they were uprooted and thus could exist only as a parasitic alien body. Their coexistence with indigenous groups, he thought, had created a “chimera,” a harmful artificial unity.

Interestingly, some Jews, especially those who emigrated to Israel, often divided their own kin into the same two categories and promulgated that the characteristics of “bad” Jews (cowardly, cynical creatures without any attachments) were not typical of all Jews—only those who had been uprooted from their historical motherland, Israel, and had no desire to go back to their roots. Those who lived in Israel were absolutely different from the galut (Hebrew for “diaspora”). Some Israelis were almost brazen in this juxtaposition of Israeli Jews and Western Jews. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former prime minister, elaborated on this in a scandalous interview, in which he said that the prevailing view of European and American Jews that Holocaust victims were morally right, whereas the Nazis were disgusting brutes, was a philosophy of spineless wimps, “Yids.” Soviet cyberneticist and historian of National Bolshevism Mikhail Agurskii, a Russian Jew, whom the author of this piece knew personally, shared this view to an extent. He told me, sounding almost anti-Semitic, that he hated the United States and those Jews who had emigrated there for their cynicism and mercantilism, but he praised Israeli Jews, who were ready to fight and die for their land, not concerning themselves with the “political correctness” of the West. He also noted that “true” Jews had no issue with “true” Russians, who were also willing to die for their country, which even earned him praise from some Russian nationalists.


Division continued: from Dugin to Putin

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the idea of dividing Jews into “good” and “bad” persisted in Russia. Alexander Dugin, the best-known ideologue of Eurasianism in the early post-Soviet era, divided Jews into “Eurasian” Jews, faithful servants of the great “Eurasian” or Soviet empire, and “Atlantic” Jews, mercenary agents of cynical capitalism and the alien mercantile “civilization of the sea.” Later, Dugin reinvented himself as a “traditionalist,” but Jews in his philosophy remained divided. On one hand, there were “good” religious Orthodox Jews, who lived for “eternity” in the context of the immutable traditions of conservative Judaism. On the other hand, there were “bad” Jews, who served the materialistic, cynical fluidity of modernity. He also noted that the two groups disliked each other. This juxtaposition continued into the Putin era.

Putin’s views of Jews have been ambiguous. “Bad” Jews were mostly oligarchs who opposed him, such as Boris Berezovsky, éminence grise of the Yeltsin era. Forced into exile in 2000, he died in London 13 years later under strange circumstances. “Good” Jews were loyal oligarchs, such as billionaire Roman Abramovich, or Kremlin propagandists, such as TV anchor Vladimir Soloviev. Incidentally, Putin has been more predisposed to Russian Jews than any Russian ruler in the past, even the Bolsheviks. While many of the latter were ethnically Jewish, they did not regard themselves as Jews but as leaders of the global proletariat revolution or international trans-ethnic Soviet state governed by workers and peasants. Being basically assimilationists, they made no special effort to develop Jewish culture or religion. In contrast, Putin accepted Russian Jews as a distinct cultural and ethnic group. Jews are no longer seen as an alien force, but as a group fully integrated into Russian history. In an extraordinary move, Putin even allowed the Museum of Tolerance, dedicated to Russian Jews, to open in Moscow. Overall, Putin’s approach to Israel has been mostly friendly, almost cordial. He is also the only Russian leader who ever visited the country. 

Similar acceptance of the Jews emerged in Ukraine. While historically Ukraine had been quite anti-Semitic, attitudes toward Jews have changed, at least for a considerable portion of the population. Jews residing in Ukraine were integrated as a benign “indigenous” ethnic group. Ukrainians went so far as to elect Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew, as their president. Even some Ukrainian nationalists were able to find a common language with Zelensky when it came to the country’s stance on Russia. Thus, Medvedev clearly targeted Zelensky’s political status in Ukraine as Russia was preparing for the invasion, but his alternate jabbing and praising reveal a much broader discourse on perceptions of Jews in the post-Soviet space.