By Simon Maass
WESTERN observers have long underestimated the social radicalism of Russia’s political elite.
This changed only slightly when, around the beginning of May 2022, the discourse in Russia’s policy circles veered towards open anti-Semitism.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s suggestion that Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots was met with worldwide outrage, yet little awareness that it reflected deeper currents within in Russian politics.
But Lavrov’s remark was a restatement of what many in the Russian government’s base had already been saying. Worse, Lavrov was not the first high-ranking Russian official to flirt with this sort of rhetoric.
In a Telegram post last month, Sergey Glazyev, a former advisor to Vladimir Putin who still holds several positions of power, pushed ancient anti-Semitic buttons.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he declared, was out to decimate the stock of Ukraine’s men at the behest of the Rothschild family, in order to turn part of his country’s territory into a Jewish settlement. Tsargrad TV, owned by influential businessman Konstantin Malofeev, linked to the post approvingly. Malofeev, who has links to Putin, has been sanctioned for financially supporting Eastern Ukrainian insurgents.
Although the Russian government’s reliance on conspiracy theories and prejudice has become more apparent in the context of the full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the groundwork for this radical turn dates back decades.
Throughout the Yeltsin era, the Russian government’s mode of dealing with anti-Semitism and other expressions of bigotry was listless, as documented by Nickolai Butkevich. The state emphasised through various outlets that governmental anti-Semitism was a thing of the past to distract from the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Russian society and avoid addressing it.
Moscow’s ineffectiveness in countering anti-Jewish activity, often perpetrated by groups that partnered with local authorities and law enforcement, lasted into Vladimir Putin’s first term, according to Butkevich.
Although some progress was subsequently made in curtailing xenophobia, the Russian state made a hard turn to obscurantism and xenophobia around Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
Various far-right groups gained traction, three of which, united by the involvement of Fascist conspiracy theorist Alexander Dugin, have been studied by political scientist Andreas Umland. Perhaps chief among these is the Izborsk Club, which has hosted Russia’s Minister for Culture.
The club includes people like Maksim Kalashnikov, a popular writer employed by state media who has propagated Nazi ideas, and the aforementioned Glazyev. Some of its publications have echoed notions of “White Genocide,” and its central figure, Alexander Prokhanov, has sought to rally Stalinists and Czarists around a shared commitment to state power. Notwithstanding, the readiness of top Russian officials to resort to “conspirology” cannot be blamed entirely on Putin, as it was present under Boris Yeltsin as well.
The deep Russian affinity for esoteric conspiracy theories, fueled by the government, has created a quasi-dependency on such paranoid speculation for stoking enthusiasm for the Russian nation, naturally crucial during wartime. As historian Marlène Laruelle argues, alternate history and conspiratorial thinking are now among the chief vehicles of nationalism in Ukraine’s bellicose neighbour.
Appeals to nationalism and paranoia during crises have an extensive past in the country. Joseph Stalin famously emphasised Russian national pride during World War II. The Czarist regime was also no stranger to seeking nationalist legitimation, although in the latter days of the Russian monarchy, the relative unpopularity of government nationalism led the monarchy to supplement it heavily with Jew-hatred and Orthodox religion. Likewise, Boris Yeltsin started the First Chechen War to heal his popularity after his calamity in the 1993 parliamentary election.
The Russian government’s depiction of Ukraine as a Nazi state with a Jewish president is baffling to many, and Lavrov’s infamous comment was meant to give it credence.
Yet this narrative makes much more sense in light of the perceptions which the Russian state has long cultivated in its population. Political scientist Sergej Sumlenny declared himself “not surprised” by Lavrov’s statements, averring that to many in Russia, the concept of a Jewish Nazi contains “no contradiction.”
Indeed, what the historical Nazis represent in the Russian popular imagination has less to do with national socialist ideology than with aggression against Russia — and aggression against Russia is what the Putin government’s propaganda imputes to Ukraine and its allies.
Historian Timothy Snyder has highlighted as “Russia’s genocide handbook” an article in the Russian state media which makes essentially that argument: those who consider themselves Ukrainian are ipso facto Nazis because that identity is hostile to Russia. This also explains the Russian extremist right’s bogeyman of a “fourth LGBT Reich”.
The Putin regime’s actions and statements which have been shocking Western commentators since around the end of February should surprise nobody. They are culminations of long trends in public opinion and state policy. The war has merely revealed modern Russia’s ugly side.
Opinion articles featured on Redaction Report reflect the views of their author, not those of the publication as a whole. Only Editorials display the opinions of our management.
Simon Maass is third-year student of International Relations and a writer for the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review.
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