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Sick Russian Propagandists Try to Redefine “Nazi” and “Anti-Semitism”

Rewriting history to justify the war in Ukraine.
May 10, 2022
Sick Russian Propagandists Try to Redefine “Nazi” and “Anti-Semitism”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

The pathetic “Victory Day parades” yesterday in partly occupied Mariupol and several occupied Ukrainian cities, where enormous ribbons were apparently meant to make up for the lack of crowds, could be seen as symbolic of the debacle that the war in Ukraine has been for Russia’s image.

To make it worse, the Russian celebration of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany—repurposed this year as cheerleading for war against Ukraine—came right on the heels of a particularly ugly controversy sparked by the Kremlin’s ongoing, self-serving redefinition of Nazism and rewriting of World War II history. As this latest episode makes clear, the Kremlin propaganda narrative not only labels any adversary of the Russian imperial project as “Nazi” but minimizes actual Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In this sense, it is a bizarre revival of the Soviet tradition of Jewish erasure from World War II discourse—only much more strident and unabashed.

The row began on May 1 when, in an interview with an Italian news channel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to a standard question—How can you talk about “denazifying” a country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish?—with some startling comments that would not be out of place on a troll-infested social media platform:

So what if Zelensky is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood. It means absolutely nothing. The wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews. Every family has its black sheep, as we say.

Before getting to the reaction to Lavrov’s rant: Is there anything to his claim about Adolf Hitler? The rumor that Hitler was of partly Jewish descent started circulating during his lifetime, fueled by the fact his father, Alois Schicklgruber, was born illegitimate and of unknown paternity. The principal postwar source for the claim, a 1953 memoir by Hitler’s personal lawyer Hans Frank, has been conclusively debunked. Since the identity of Hitler’s paternal grandfather remains unknown, Jewish ancestry is theoretically possible (though highly unlikely, given that the Jewish population in the area was minuscule). There is no way to fully rule it out, but also no evidence to support it.

Lavrov’s comments understandably caused quite a firestorm, with a particularly outraged reaction from Israel—which, so far, has been walking a fine line to support Ukraine without alienating Russia, which it considers a security partner in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dug in deeper, claiming that critiques of Lavrov’s remarks were “ahistorical” and that “the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.” Then, on Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement on a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, claiming that Bennett “accepted President Putin’s apology for Lavrov’s remarks.” But on Friday, the Kremlin (sort of) denied the apology, issuing its own apology-free description of the Bennett-Putin conversation and affirming that the talks were “exactly as disclosed.”

And then, on the same day, an utterly surreal defense of Lavrov’s remarks came from the nightly TV show Evening with Vladimir Solovyov on state-owned Rossiya-1, a hugely popular program widely seen as channeling the Kremlin line and having a special connection to Putin. (Solovyov, the 58-year-old host, has received multiple decorations from Putin and has been granted a number of exclusive interviews.)

The relevant segment, featuring political scientist Elena Ponomareva—whose résumé tells us that she hates color revolutions and loves Serbian war criminals—unfolded as follows.

Solovyov: Nazism absolutely doesn’t have to be anti-Semitism.

Ponomareva: No, of course not.

Solovyov: It’s what the Americans keep stitching together. They say, Zelensky—he’s a Jew, he can’t be a Nazi. He can, and how! Nazism doesn’t have to be anti-Semitic—it can be anti-Slavic, anti-Russian—

Ponomareva: Yes, of course.

Solovyov: —which is what Ukrainian Nazism is.

Ponomareva: Today, we are seeing specific steps toward the revival of a global Nazi project. Why global? . . . Because Ukraine is the place where this revival is starting. But [it wouldn’t happen] without the support of Great Britain, the countries of the British Commonwealth, the United States and the European Union. Not just as anti-Semitism against Russians but against everything linked to Russia. After all, the West used the Ukrainians for many decades as the biomass from which these orcs were formed, these new stormtroopers, including the ones who are now holed up in AzovStal.

It’s hard to know where to start unpacking this bizarre narrative. First of all, of course Nazism “has to be” anti-Semitism, and no, the Americans didn’t make that up. Unlike fascism, which refers to far-right authoritarian nationalism in general, Nazism refers to a historically discrete ideology and political movement that existed in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. What’s more, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of its history knows that while Nazism was “anti-Slavic” in that it regarded the Slavs as non-Aryan Untermenschen, pathological and obsessive anti-Semitism was absolutely the core of its ideology. “Nazism doesn’t have to be anti-Semitic” makes as much sense as “the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t have to be anti-black.” Nor is there such a thing as “anti-Semitism against Russians” (or against Asians, Catholics, or gays). Words mean something, though obviously not if you’re a guest on Putin-era Russian television.

Is it possible for a Nazi-like ideology, movement, or regime to be focused on an enemy other than Jews? Yes—but as a number of commentators have pointed out, that description fits Putin’s Russia much better than it does Zelensky’s Ukraine. (Hence the brilliant term Rashism or Ruscism, a portmanteau of “Russian fascism.”) It’s got the authoritarian and increasingly totalitarian state; it’s got the shaky claim to “stolen” lands and the push for their military reclamation, with rapidly escalating imperial demands; it’s got the aggressive push to erase another ethnic group’s national and cultural identity while pursuing violent conquest of that group and exterminating portions of its population. Ukraine can arguably be criticized for some heavy-handed prewar policies toward Russian speakers, especially a law curbing non-Ukrainian language media by essentially requiring them to be fully bilingual; but we’re hardly talking Nuremberg race laws here, and democratic mechanisms to resolve such disputes remained.

What’s truly remarkable about the Lavrov contretemps and the Solovyov follow-up is the way Russian rhetoric about “Ukrainian Nazism” has evolved. Until recently, these claims focused heavily on Ukraine’s adulation of World War II-era figures seen as national liberation fighters but tainted by Nazi collaboration and sometimes implicated in Nazi massacres of Jews, or on radical-right Ukrainian militias accused of anti-Semitic views and neo-Nazi ties. However replete with bad faith, these arguments were at least somewhat anchored to reality.

Now, we’re in a bizarro realm where (1) the most vicious anti-Semites, including Hitler himself, are actually Jews, and (2) Nazism actually isn’t about anti-Semitism at all.

These are, of course, profoundly and viciously anti-Semitic tropes. In an especially obscene twist, the man peddling them in this case, Solovyov, has been known to flaunt his own Jewish identity when convenient—which adds a perverse level of projection to his nonsensical charge that Zelensky is using his Jewishness to cover for Nazism.

But never mind Solovyov, who is just his master’s voice. Until recently, the consensus was that, whatever you could say about the Putin regime, it didn’t traffic in state-sponsored anti-Semitism. I have always wondered how quickly that would change if, for one reason or another, state-sponsored anti-Semitism came in handy. Now we know.

Of course, those familiar with Soviet history—and Soviet historiography—will easily see that the Judenrein version of Nazism being pushed by Kremlin propaganda today is little more than an updated version of Judenrein Soviet narratives of World War II.

It’s something that I know firsthand, having lived in Moscow as a child and teenager until my family emigrated in early 1980. In school, the “Great Patriotic War” was central to civic education and to the history curriculum. The Soviet people’s great sacrifice—20 million dead—was frequently and reverently mentioned. (Today, that staggering death toll is estimated at closer to 27 million: some 11.4 million military casualties, 10 million noncombatants, and 8 to 9 million dead of war-related famine and disease.) What was never mentioned was the fact that nearly a third of the noncombatant victims, about 2.7 million, were Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. Our textbooks mentioned horrifying examples of Nazi atrocities toward civilians, such as villagers herded into a barn and burned for sheltering a partisan or a young girl shot dead for stealing food from a German warehouse; but I cannot recall a single reference to mass executions of Jews. (I think one of our teachers, on her own, mentioned Jews among groups targeted by the Nazis.) The famous Soviet young-adult novel The Young Guard, the fictionalized account of a youth resistance group operating in a Nazi-occupied town in Eastern Ukraine in 1942-43, which was part of our high school curriculum, contained two or three references to townsfolk who were hiding their Jewish identity. Whatever I learned about Nazi extermination of Jews, I learned at home. (I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard that one of my father’s uncles was killed in the Holocaust.)

The Soviet Union’s virtual erasure of Nazi anti-Semitism has a complicated history. At first, after the German invasion in June 1941, Soviet leadership was anxious to mobilize prominent Jews—particularly cultural and intellectual figures—for propaganda purposes to win foreign support for the war effort and to shore up its alliance with Western democracies. It even took the extraordinary step of allowing a group of Jewish writers, artists, and journalists to issue an appeal to fellow Jews around the world to support the USSR in its fight against Nazi Germany. This group, led by actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels, later formed the core of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), launched in April 1942. In 1943, Mikhoels and fellow JAC member poet Itzik Feffer toured the United States, Mexico, Canada, and England; they met with Jewish community leaders as well as renowned public figures, such as Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin, headlined a massive rally in New York, and raised millions of dollars in aid to the Soviet war effort.

Naturally, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, no such good deed could go unpunished. As the tide of war turned, the Jewish “anti-fascists” outlived their usefulness, and their annoying insistence on documenting the Nazis’ targeted murder of Jews was decidedly unwelcome. (Remarkably but not surprisingly, the only time Jews appeared in the May 1945 Soviet report on Nazi war crimes in Auschwitz was in an excerpt from a survivor’s testimony referring to “a Jewish woman named Bella”; the report described Auschwitz as a “camp for the extermination of captive Soviet people” and the victims as “citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium” and other countries.)

The JAC did manage to collect the evidence for a “Black Book” of German atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory, compiled by journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman (who later wrote the masterpiece Life and Fate). The volume was grudgingly approved in early 1946 after revisions to reflect the party line, only to be banned for “grave political errors” in a last-minute reversal. (The English edition was still released in New York the same year, but the Russian-language version was only published in 1980—in Israel.) Meanwhile, the Ministry of State Security, the KGB’s predecessor, was sending secret reports to the Kremlin accusing the JAC of “bourgeois nationalism” and contacts with foreign intelligence.

In January 1948, Mikhoels was murdered on Stalin’s orders in Minsk, Belarus, his death officially classified as a hit-and-run accident. Several months later, the JAC was disbanded. In the next several years, over a hundred of its staffers and members were arrested in the massive anti-Semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitanism”; Feffer and more than a dozen others were executed in 1952.

The Soviet war on Jews ended with Stalin’s death in March 1953, but the veil of silence around the Holocaust remained. There was no commemoration, for example, of the massacre at Babi Yar (now Babyn Yar), the site near Kyiv where some 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in two days in September 1941. In 1961, the rising young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko briefly broke this silence with his famous poem “Babi Yar,” published in the weekly Literary Gazette; it explicitly identified the victims as Jews and placed their murder in the context of a long history of anti-Semitic hate. On the Soviet literary scene, it was a true bombshell. To say that official reception was hostile would be an understatement. Yevtushenko was viciously trashed in the Soviet press—and criticized by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself—for fomenting ethnic division by focusing on the victims’ Jewishness rather than their identity as Soviet citizens. The editor who had greenlit the poem was sacked “for insufficient vigilance.”

While the poet eventually found his way back into the regime’s good graces, “Babi Yar” was not included in any of the Soviet-era editions of his poetry except for one three-volume collection. It should be said that Yevtushenko, often criticized for his Soviet-era conformism, showed genuine bravery in his willingness to address anti-Semitism: just five years after the “Babi Yar” scandal, his 1966 poem cycle The Bratsk Station featured a haunting poem in which a Holocaust survivor explicitly identified as a Jew, Izzy Kramer, recalls his experiences as a teenager in the ghetto and then a concentration camp.

Yet with such occasional exceptions (including the 1979 publication of Anatoly Rybakov’s novel Heavy Sand, which chronicled the plight of Soviet Jews under Nazi occupation), the silence persisted. The opening line of “Babi Yar”—“No monument stands over Babi Yar”—remained true until the fall of the Soviet Union: The first memorials on the site were built in independent Ukraine.

In post-Soviet Russia, all of this ostensibly changed. Jewish community life now existed openly; Putin counted Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar as one of his prominent supporters. Indeed, the Kremlin happily weaponized the Jewish Holocaust for its own agenda, to burnish its image as the slayer of Nazi dragons and demonize its obstreperous neighbors as Nazi sympathizers. Many of these issues came to a head in January 2020 when a controversy erupted over the Fifth Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, funded by pro-Putin billionaire Moshe Kantor. Putin, who got star treatment at the event, used his speech to portray Russia as the World War II-era savior of Jews while zinging Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia for complicity in Nazi atrocities (and, of course, giving a pass to Nazi collaboration in Russia and in mostly Russia-friendly Belarus). Yad Vashem had to apologize for the airing of a short film that peddled the Kremlin spin on World War II, omitting, for instance, any mention of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet division of Poland.

Now the wheel has turned again, and the Kremlin propaganda machine is churning out the absurd lie that Nazism doesn’t have to include anti-Semitism and that maybe the Jews did it to themselves anyway (just like those civilians in Bucha). It seems that Nazism, in its newest Russian iteration, is whatever Russia regards as anti-Russian. In the Ukrainian context, for instance, “Nazi” apparently means any Ukrainian desire for self-determination apart from Russia, while “global Nazi project” means international pushback to Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Half a century ago, Soviet erasure of Nazi anti-Semitism and of the Jewish Holocaust—erasure by omission—was no less pernicious. But at least it wasn’t quite so brazen and repulsive.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.