During the Cold War, Western governments and activists found the defense of Soviet Jewish rights against anti-Semitic policies a potent weapon against the Soviet Union. Washington, Paris and London put the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and condemnation of the Kremlin’s discrimination against its 2.3 million Jews at the top of the diplomatic agenda with Moscow.
The Soviet Jewry movement turned out to be one of the most efficient advocacy groups of the Cold War era and did much to undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet Empire in Western eyes.
How ironic, then, that as the Maidan movement has played out in Ukraine over the past five months, the Kremlin has reprised this Cold War-era accusation of anti-Semitism, but this time to support Moscow’s expansion into Crimea. Even as the Western media has at times over-idealized Maidan as an exclusively pro-European movement, Putin has systematically used accusations of anti-Semitism and Nazi-inspired fascism as propaganda to delegitimize a protest movement widely supported by the US, NATO and the 28 EU members.
On February 13, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote in the popular Russian newspaper Komersant that the Maidan protests “show traces of nationalist and extremist moods” and are “aligned with anti-Semitic, racist appeals.” In an official address to Russian Parliament on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified Russia’s opposition to Maidan and its actions in Crimea by stating that “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup.” Moscow has portrayed Maidan as a coup d’État that has returned Ukraine to the darkest pages of European history – a triumph of fascism, Hitlerism, Russophobia and anti-Semitism under the convenient and deceptive cover of democracy.
This strategy is a political masterstroke.
It touches the most vulnerable chord in post-WWII Russian- Ukrainian and Jewish-Ukrainian relations: the extremely intricate and divisive issue of the legacy of Stephan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, two heroes of the Ukrainian independence movement and sometime Nazi collaborators who were directly involved in the massacre of over 900,000 Jews within the borders of present-day Ukraine (including Crimea). More than three decades of Moscow-led propaganda against Ukraine has portrayed any Ukrainian nationalist demand, however moderate, as tainted with “fascist” and “Nazi” undertones. Now, the Kremlin is using the presence of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic “Svoboda” (Freedom) Party and the xenophobic grassroots movement “Pravyj Sektor” (Right Sector) among Maidan’s protesters to further disqualify the movement as anti-Semitic.
Yet Ukraine’s Jewish population (70,000 according to the official census but reaching 300,000 by some accounts) has, tellingly, not embraced Putin as their Tsar-Batiushka nor Russia as a savior from anti-Jewish violence or discrimination.
On January 27, Leonid Finberg, head of Kiev’s Center for Studies of History and Culture of Eastern-European Jews, called characterizations of the Maidan protests as anti-Semitic “widely circulated lies.” Finberg and Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Don Bleich, have both accused Russia of deliberately staging anti-Semitic provocations in Ukraine, including the defacement of the Ner Tamid Synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol on February 27, just hours before Russian troops poured into the region. Interestingly, Misha Kapustin, rabbi of the defaced synagogue, departed to Kiev to guard his safety in the wake of the Crimean referendum and not to Moscow, an open insult to Russian “rescue” policy.
On March 26, several dozen Ukrainian businessmen, communal leaders, artists and intellectuals published an open letter to President Putin in The New York Times, accusing him of fabricating the Maidan movement’s threat to Jews and other minorities: “We do not wish to be ‘defended’ by sundering Ukraine and annexing its territory... We are quite capable of protecting our rights in a constructive dialogue and in cooperation with the government and civil society of a sovereign, democratic, and united Ukraine.”
Putin’s denunciation of anti-Semitic foundation of Maidan is all the more surreal since the very ideology fueling his neo-Eurasian imperial vision is laden with fascist-inspired leitmotifs. Led by political scientist and ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, Russia’s neo-Eurasian movement is built on an imperial and syncretic vision of Russian nationalism that integrates elements of Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism and is tainted by a strong and open anti-Semitic and racist vision of the world.
Ironically, the only real relief Putin’s political and military machinations in Ukraine has brought to Jews may be to certain high-level Israeli officials who criticized US Secretary of State John Kerry’s mounting pressure on Israel over the past year. As tensions between the US and Russia mounted over Crimea, those critics are perhaps relieved to see Kerry traveling more frequently to Kiev, and Washington redirect pressure from Jerusalem onto Moscow, even for a short moment.
The author is a Research Fellow at INSS.
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