The idea that the Ukrainians are Nazis has been a major theme of Russian propaganda during the war against Ukraine. This is not a metaphor but the official stance of the Russian government: Just like in the 1940s, the Russian army is engaged in a fight against Nazis. Vladimir Putin declared the “denazification” of Ukraine as one of the primary goals of his “special operation.”
This accusation is not only false and outrageous, it could even be seen as a bit funny because the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. In a conflict between an aggressive militarized dictatorship raving about the importance of protecting its ethnic kin from imaginary foreign conspiracies (conspiracies involving liberalism and liberty), and a democracy with a Jewish president, which one is a better fit for the “Nazi” label?
Even with the persistence of Russian propaganda in calling the Ukrainians Nazis, this kind of unintentional hyper-irony surely generates cognitive dissonance, at least among Russia’s educated elite. On May 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cracked. During an interview with an Italian outlet, he was asked the predictable question of how the Russians can claim to “denazify” Ukraine if Ukraine is led by a Jewish president. Lavrov dismissively responded:
“[Zelensky] puts forward this argument: ‘What kind of nazification can we have if I’m a Jew?’ I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. So this [that Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. For some time we have heard from wise Jewish people that the biggest antisemites are Jewish.”
Suggesting Hitler was Jewish in order to defame a Jewish president as a modern-day Hitler is certainly an interesting rhetorical strategy. This answer caused predictable international outrage. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the comment was “both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error.” A few days later the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs doubled down, posting this tweet, which reads in English:
“We paid attention to the anti-historical statements of the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry @yairlapid , which largely explain the course of the current Israeli Government to support the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev.”
The tweet links to an essay from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs titled “On Antisemitism” which lays out the ministry’s opinion on how it is possible for Jews to cooperate with Nazis:
“One of the ‘reinforced concrete’ arguments [against the idea of Ukraine being Nazi] is the Jewish origin of Vladimir Zelensky. This argument is not only untenable, but also crafty. History, unfortunately, contains tragic examples of cooperation between Jews and the Nazis.”
The Russian MFA then chose to dig into the issue of the Judenräte as their leading example. These were councils established in the Jewish ghettos by the Nazis in Poland and forced to collaborate with their oppressors. The Russian MFA elaborates:
“In Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe, the Germans appointed Jewish industrialists as heads of ghettos and Jewish councils (“Judenrats”), some of whom are remembered for absolutely monstrous deeds. Jakub Leikin in Warsaw conducted surveillance of the Jews and reported everything to the German occupation administration, dooming his compatriots to certain, and sometimes painful death.
“At the same time, the historical tragedy lies in the fact that if during the Second World War some Jews were forced to participate in crimes, then V. Zelensky, who speculates on his roots, does this quite consciously and quite voluntarily. He hides behind the origin himself and covers them with natural neo-Nazis, spiritual and blood heirs of the executioners of his people.”
A future historian might speculate that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is actually staffed by saboteurs determined to further ruin the international reputation of the Russian government. Their considered response to what was likely a gaffe by their boss was to double down, raise an extremely delicate and fraught historical issue, and then call the most famous and admired Jewish man now living a willing Nazi collaborator. It is possible that this was deliberate. Maybe the Russians got wind of Israeli plans to step up aid to Ukraine, including military assistance, and decided to make a last-ditch attempt to ruin Zelensky’s reputation in Israel. This is possible, but in my opinion unlikely. Putin has already apologized for Lavrov’s statement, though Lavrov has not and the slanderous essay remains up on the web. Where did Lavrov’s response and the MFA’s doubling-down come from?
This may be an example of the long tail of Soviet propaganda, particularly Soviet anti-Jewish propaganda. Lavrov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MIGMO) in the 1970s and has been in service of Moscow ever since, first as a diplomat and analyst in the USSR, then for the Russian Federation. As one of the Soviet elite who came of age in the 1960s then studied and served the Soviet state in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lavrov’s brain was marinated in the propaganda of Soviet antisemitism.
Many in the West have forgotten the deeply anti-Jewish policies and rhetoric of the USSR. The Soviets had successfully portrayed themselves as the protectors of Jews by defeating the Nazis on the battlefield and conquering the regions that held the Nazi extermination camps. The USSR was founded on a theory created by someone of Jewish descent (as Nazis and other believers in the Judeo-Bolshevik myth incessantly remind us) and according to the way the USSR was “supposed to run,” there would be no discrimination against good, proletariat, secular Jewish citizens.
As with everything else, Soviet reality was quite different from theory, and the USSR persecuted Jewish groups like the Zionists and the Bund from its earliest days, not to mention rabbis and religious Jews. After the USSR switched sides in World War II and helped defeat the Nazis, there was a brief period of official pro-Jewish, even pro-Zionist sentiment. The USSR voted in favor of the creation of the state of Israel in the U.N. in 1947. This changed during the last few years of Stalin’s rule. Most scholars point to the so-called “Doctors Plot” when Soviet propaganda claimed there was a cabal of Jewish doctors murdering Soviet leaders under the orders of Anglo-American intelligence.
During the late 1960s this Soviet antisemitism reached a fever pitch as the “Zionists” were depicted as the chief tools of the worldwide “imperialist” (banker) conspiracy. Soviet propaganda often depicted Nazism as a tool of this same kind of imperialist conspiracy, and therefore it was not difficult for a mind addled with Soviet ideas to have the hated Nazi enemy bleed into the new hated “Zionist” enemy. This led to a weird and disturbing mix of anti-Nazi and anti-Israeli/Jewish imagery in some Soviet propaganda material. For example, take this image from the Ukrainian-language Soviet propaganda magazine Peretz that depicts a “Zionist” jew instructing the Israeli soldiers on how to build extermination camps. The “evil Jew” caricature here is disturbingly similar to Nazi images of the “evil Jew.” Of course images and slander this scurrilous could not remain just attached to “Zionist Jews” in the popular imagination, they become a reason to despise all Jews. Jewish people in the USSR faced increasing discrimination in the second half of the 20th century, at times denied university admittance, jobs, and promotions, and coming under increasing suspicion of links to anti-Soviet “Zionist forces.”
Soviet propaganda depicted the Nazis as an ultimately anti-Soviet project of sinister anti-Communist banker conspiracies. Israel was also depicted as an anti-Soviet project of sinister anti-Communist banker conspiracies. There were of course other major tools of anti-Soviet conspiracies, like, for example, Ukrainian nationalism. Soviet propaganda also depicted Ukrainian nationalists as Nazis, and just as today’s Russian Foreign Ministry attacks Zelensky by focusing on Jews who “collaborated” with the Nazis, Soviet propagandists would raise the specter of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis in order to attack the idea of an independent Ukraine.
To be sure, there were Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis, and Latvian ones, French, Polish, Norwegian, even American! In populations that number in the millions, it should not shock us a few willingly collaborate with even the worst evil—be they true believers, opportunists, or sociopaths. Soviet propaganda, and Russian propaganda, used evidence that any nation that had members who collaborated with the Nazis as cudgels to tar the whole anti-Soviet populace as Nazi. This was made easier by the fact that the leader of the major Ukrainian nationalist organization during and after the war, Stepan Bandera, actually did collaborate with the Nazis during the war. He became a bogeyman of Soviet propaganda in Ukraine after the war, allowing the USSR to depict anything pro-Ukrainian and anti-Soviet as Nazi.
Unlike Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, etc., Russia was never completely occupied by the Germans, so there may be relatively fewer examples of Russian collaborators. However, there was a “Russian Liberation Army” that numbered more than 100,000 and was commanded by the Russian general Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov of Nizhny Novgorod, a recipient of the Order of the Red Banner—but it would be ludicrous to call Russian nationalism inherently “Nazi” by using the memory of Gen. Vlasov and his army.
The Soviets were not believers in Godwin’s law, and they used this cudgel often. The Nazis were tools of the imperialists, the Zionist Jews were tools of the imperialists, and the Ukrainian nationalists were tools of the imperialists. By the transitive property Nazis = Zionist Jews = Ukrainian nationalists, and this link was repeatedly expressed in Soviet propaganda, especially in Ukraine. There are a bunch of Soviet propaganda caricatures illustrating this that I have collected over the years during my studies, but to show just one—here a Ukrainian nationalist with swastikas on his cuffs and a Radio Free Europe microphone in his belt drinks an “Anti-Soviet” toast with an Israeli soldier.
This old linkage reiterated in Soviet propaganda for decades of Lavrov’s early life was probably what his brain reached for when he got that annoying question about Zelensky. Even if Putin has privately apologized to the Israeli PM for this statement and the Russian MFA takes down its essay, this is not going to magically make the effect of decades of Soviet antisemitic propaganda just disappear from Lavrov’s brain. Russian propaganda today tries to portray nearly every anti-Jewish incident in Eastern Europe as Nazism reborn and ignores the impact that Soviet antisemitic propaganda had on the populace.
Indeed, you can still pick up whiffs of antisemitism from time to time in Ukraine, some of it surely Soviet-incubated. Of course, it is impossible to disentangle whether someone’s anti-Jewish animus is Soviet-incubated or older or newer. One shock I got was when some political activists in rural southern Ukraine who were against then-president Poroshenko (who ran on a Ukrainian nationalist platform and was defeated by Zelensky) told me that Poroshenko’s real name was “Waltzman”—implying that he was secretly Jewish and that this explained his business and political success. The American white supremacist and onetime Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke got his “Ph.D.” from a school in Kyiv, writing his thesis on “Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.” I have even bumped into a few people in Ukraine who identify as far-right radicals—though they tended to tiptoe around discussion of Jews, at least when speaking to me. Once at a cafe in Kyiv I met a guy who proudly claimed he was a National Socialist and extolled Hitler’s teachings—but he was not a Ukrainian, just a creepy Western European searching Eastern Europe for fellow-travelers. There are Ukrainian far-right parties, the largest of which has a seat in the Ukrainian parliament, and in some places, especially in rural Western Ukraine, the memory of Nazi collaborators (“fighters against Stalin”) are excused or even venerated as heroes.
The example of Ukrainian Nazis always brought out in Russian propaganda is the Azov Battalion, some of whose troops are currently besieged in Mariupol. This unit was initially formed from a core group of fanatical soccer fans, the kind of young men who travel to other cities during matches in order to get in drunken brawls with locals and wave around offensive symbols (it is a weird European disease which is difficult for Americans to comprehend). One of the initial founders of the unit in the chaotic days of early 2014 was young far-right Ukrainian politician Andriy Biletsky, and one of the major funders of the unit in its early days was the Ukrainian-Jewish oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. (One can see how well this unit fit into the Jewish-Nazi narrative earlier in the war.) Russian propaganda would like you to think that this unit is the core of an emerging Nazi force in Ukraine. In fact, the unit has reportedly de-politicized and purged itself of far right ideology (though surely some recruits still show up looking to fight for blood-and-soil nationalism). The U.S .congress blocked any U.S. aid for that unit in 2015 citing concerns about its far-right orientation. By 2016 the ban was over, and as one Ukrainian-Jewish scholar of antisemitism put it “… it is necessary to clearly distinguish between the Azov regiment and political projects related to its former commander.” That founder, Biletsky, left the unit in October 2014, just eight months after the war started, and went on to found the fascist organization “National Corps” and participate in far-right Ukrainian politics. His party failed to get enough votes in the 2020 election to put anyone in parliament.
There are right-wing, anti-Jewish nuts in Ukraine. Ukrainian young men who sport Nazi symbols do join the Ukrainian military (to the delight of Russian propagandists), but I doubt that the nutty Ukrainian far-right is proportionally any larger than the nutty far-right movements in other parts of Europe. Also, I don’t believe a photograph of some U.S. Marines with an SS flag means that the Corps is Nazi (though Russian propagandists might disagree).
Seeing reports or photographs of far-right symbols in Ukraine or hearing about the latest moves of Andriy Biletsky or some other right-wing nut in a country making such rapid strides and full of such potential upsets me. I console myself by remembering that Ukraine is a free country, and in free countries there will be people who will freely express execrable opinions, or even make monuments for execrable people. For example, in my own country there is a monument to the Russian Nazi collaborator General Andrey Vlasov. It is located at a Russian Orthodox monastery in New York.
In Ukraine anti-Jewish nuts are marginal, increasingly so as the Soviet legacy recedes. If you are openly anti-Jewish and given to making insane statements about the Holocaust, it may still be possible for you to win a mayoral election in some towns in Ukraine. In Russia, on the other hand, you can become foreign minister.