A week before the Russian elections, an otherwise staid conclusion to the Russian political calendar was averted with televised allegations of Vladimir Putin’s own meddling in the 2016 American elections. Sitting down for an interview with NBC News’ Megyn Kelly, the Russian president was confronted over having ordered Russian state-backed involvement In American elections. Nonplussed, Putin intimated that the fault was not with Russians, but that perhaps certain other nationalities were involved. “Maybe they’re not even Russians,” he said. “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked out. Maybe they have dual citizenship. Or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don’t know.”
Putin’s breezy denial caused an international furor that he had likely not expected or intended. Accusations of anti-Semitism poured forth. Was Putin really blaming the Jews for corrupting American elections?
To a native Russian speaker, it sounded as if the president was listing nationalities, claiming that they were not ethnic Russians who took part, rather than pointing out that one of them was the responsible party. Russians consider Jews to be an ethnic nation, rather than merely a religious group. This linguistic point was brought up in the smarter English language takes, though far from all.
Putin is a master of the silky insinuation and the veiled threat, and so people wondered if this was merely the latest. Though his humor is that of an emotionally arrested, swaggering adolescent projecting the image of a tough guy, Putin can be pretty funny, even when most of his jokes turn out to be menacing threats. Still, Putin is famous for his reputation as a Philo-Semite, with myriad sentimental connections that date back to his Leningrad childhood. The Jewish portfolio, both within the country and in terms of relations with international Jewry and with the Israeli government, are very important to the Russian president, though his relationship to Jews is anything but simple.
Putin has certainly thought about Jews and Judaism and the character of the Jewish people fairly deeply, and his respect for Jews and personal involvement in issues concerning Russian Jewry is certainly not fake. Upon first ascending to power in Russia, Putin found that he had to bring the original early 1990s post-Soviet oligarchy to heel in order to consolidate total control. That oligarchy was heavily Jewish, and after political opponents such as Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky were safely imprisoned or exiled, he set about supplanting it with his own loyal oligarchy. This new oligarchy, whose claim to wealth was that of unwavering loyalty to Putin, also had numerous Jewish representatives, such as his childhood friends, the Rotenberg brothers. Putin was always keenly aware of needing to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism while fighting off the old Jewish elites. Russia’s international Jewish organizations were likewise replenished with Kremlin loyalists, and a pliant chief Rabbi, utterly loyal to the Kremlin, was installed. The Putin Kremlin takes a very special interest in Russian Jewish relations, and by all accounts take the issue very seriously.
The Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who has written a very lively and keenly anticipated biography of Netanyahu, points out that Putin considers Netanyahu to be an equal, and treats him as such. “He considers the emigration of over a million Russian Jewish citizens to Israel to be a significant loss to Russia” Pfeffer explained to me. In his own piece, Pfeffer rightly pointed out that Putin has no issues with mobilizing anti Semites or those who believe in anti Semitic tropes when it suits his own goals.
Indeed, Putin and the Kremlin political narrative have weaponized the issue of European anti-Semitism on numerous occasions, such as when he flippantly invited European Jews to settle in Russia if they were truly experiencing anti-Semitism in Europe.
The Russian president also never ceases to amuse himself with cruel invocations of world war two era memory, with his speeches and public pronouncements containing a continuous stream of comments about Ukrainian fascists.
The outcome of American Middle East policy of the last few years has been to construct a hostile military alliance on the northern borders of Israel with Russian military advisors serving as a defacto buffer between Iranian led forces and the Golan Heights. The February 10th air battle, described by some analysts as a miniature war, was allegedly only stopped by the direct intervention of a phone call to Prime Minister Netanyahu from President Putin. If he is not quite the essential decider of who controls which piece of land around Israel, he certainly has more say than any other person in the world, including the Iranian Ayatollah and the American president. Ultimately, Putin is superstitious when it comes to the Jews, but he is also always happy to use them to snipe at his enemies. As I have written previously for Tablet, “with Putin it is trolls all the way down”.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.