As the war against Ukraine continues, the Kremlin is painting a picture of Russia being under existential threat from the West, with Kyiv leading the charge. According to this propaganda, Ukraine is controlled by ideological descendants of the Nazis, with Russia’s mission being the same as it was in World War II – to defeat them.
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage presents a particular challenge to this narrative. How can a Jew lead a neo-Nazi regime? Russian President Vladimir Putin recently addressed this issue, saying, "This makes the whole situation extremely disgusting, in that an ethnic Jew is covering up the glorification of Nazism and covering up for those who led the Holocaust in Ukraine."
Ukraine has never fully addressed its history during the Holocaust, and the fact that many of its citizens collaborated with Nazi Germany, including actively participating in the murder of Jews. Furthermore, as an act of rewriting history, Ukraine has glorified some of these murderers and elevated them to the status of national heroes, not because they killed Jews - but because they fought for Ukrainian independence. Still, as complex and challenging as this reality is, it is far from aligning with the Kremlin's portrayal.
The Russian government has recently found ways to undermine Zelensky's Jewish heritage. One way is by labeling him a "disgrace” to the Jewish people – as someone who works against the interests of his people and collaborates with their worst enemies. Putin argued that "Israeli citizens understand this the most.”
Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even claimed that Hitler himself had Jewish blood, a well-known antisemitic argument that caused a diplomatic crisis with Israel. The Russian government basically says they have no issues with Jews, but some Jewish representatives harm both Jewish and Russian interests.
Meanwhile, under the surface, more dangerous messages are being circulated. In a recent article on a Russian outlet affiliated with Pravada, Zelensky is alleged to be sending his citizens to die on the front lines out of a malicious intent to destroy Ukraine and annihilate its people - as retaliation for what has been done to Jews throughout history.
"The mass destruction of the Ukrainian nation by its foreign president doesn’t stem from a lack of military or strategic talent but is itself the main strategy - to kill as many members of the ethnic group responsible, in his view, for past crimes," the article read.
The idea of a Jew secretly seizing control of a state only to bring it to ruin is a motif that’s been taken directly from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A Western reader, even if shocked by the idea, would be able to dismiss it as nonsense published in a fringe outlet but anyone who understands the way Russian society operates knows that nothing can be published without the approval of the authorities, or at least without the expectation that the message will be perceived as legitimate by the authorities.
If the Kermlin describes Zelensky as a wild weed growing in the Jewish world, and the press starts writing about Jewish revenge against Ukrainians, then antisemitic messages are much more explicit, blunt, and aggressive in various other forums and on social media platforms in the country.
The entire Western threat, according to the sentiments of some Russians, is a Jewish conspiracy. The fact that a Jewish president leads Ukraine in the war against Russia proves his people's ancient plan for world domination and the undermining of the existing order. Russia’s destruction is such an important goal in the eyes of the Jews – it is claimed - that they come out of hiding, remove their masks, and openly take charge.
All of this reminds us that Russian antisemitism, a fascinating combination of ancient Christian disdain for Jews, Russia’s Tsarist ideology, and remnants of communist beliefs, has not disappeared. It simmers beneath the surface and at times bubbles over.
The fact that its exposure of such content is still relatively minor is probably related to Putin himself, who prevents its more substantial expression due to his own motives. But that may only be a matter of time before the circumstances change and this volcano erupts in full force.
Boris Dolin is a researcher at Haifa University's Comper Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism