Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has been based from the start on a twisted reading of history. Moscow says it wants to ‘de-Nazify’ its neighbour and cleanse it of fascist elements within, while arguing perversely that Ukraine has no independent existence. This forms the backdrop to the reprehensible comments made last week by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
Speaking to an Italian media channel, Lavrov was asked how Russia could speak of ‘de-Nazification’ when Ukraine’s President was a Jew. He responded that this meant nothing, adding that ‘Hitler also had Jewish blood’ and that ‘some of the worst antisemites are Jews’.
After his comments were met with justifiable outrage, the Russian Foreign Ministry doubled down on the remarks. A spokesman claimed that some Jewish collaborators during the Holocaust were ‘remembered for absolutely monstrous deeds’ and that Zelensky, who was ‘hiding behind his origins’, was consorting with today’s Ukrainian Nazis ‘quite consciously and quite voluntarily’. For good measure, it added that Ukraine was home to ‘the most extreme antisemitism’.
This is nothing short of a contemptuous distortion of history and politics. Historians are unsure about the identity of Hitler’s paternal grandfather, in part because the dictator’s paternal grandmother, the only person who might have been able to shed light on this question, never revealed the man’s identity and died decades before the dictator was born.
In terms of the present conflict, Lavrov’s comment implied that Jews were responsible for their own suffering, whether that was in Ukraine, Nazi Germany or anywhere elsewhere. It is a vile and intellectually mendacious insinuation, reflecting decades of state sponsored antisemitism from the Soviet era. It is also one of the most familiar tropes in the antisemitic handbook.
The fact that Zelensky, a Jew, is the head of state in his country, and that the leader enjoys mass support among its citizens, is proof that claims of a ‘Nazified Ukraine’ are nothing but a warped fantasy concocted to justify brutalising a nation.
Of course, this is not to deny that there are extreme right-wing forces in Ukraine. One such group is the Azov Brigade, an ultra-nationalist battalion who fought against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and which has now been integrated into the armed forces.
There are other far right forces in the country but support for them remains very small, ensuring that they are electorally insignificant. In the 2019 Presidential election, the candidate for the radical, right wing Svoboda party won less than 2% of the vote, a performance barely improved upon in the 2020 local elections. The far right therefore poses no current threat to Ukraine’s established political order.
To see where dangerous forces of authoritarianism have really taken root, one only need examine the politics of modern Russia. It was Moscow that unleased neo-Nazi paramilitary units in both Syria and Ukraine, such as the infamous Wagner Group and the Rusich task force.
Russia has also cultivated support from far-right political forces in Europe, including Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany and Italy’s Salvini. Many of these European ultra-nationalists see Putin as the arch-defender of patriotic, conservative values and the nemesis of liberalism.
Moreover, while Ukraine has made a bold experiment with democracy, Russian politics is marked by a chilling form of neo-fascist authoritarianism. The country is led by a demagogue who has stifled the media and judiciary, locked up or killed his opponents and cracked down on free expression.
In his cult of leadership, he promises to rejuvenate the nation and regain its former glory through territorial expansion and wars of violence. It is a state in conflict with the West and deeply hostile to liberal values.
Crucially, Jews are seen as the drivers of those values with their attachment to secular humanism, democracy and gay rights. That is one added reason why today’s fascists, including the ideologues behind Putin, indulge antisemitism so freely.
Jewish organisations should continue to speak out against Russian war crimes in Ukraine, denounce the lies and fantasies that underlie them and stand in solidarity with a democracy which is under attack from its neighbour.