One year ago, the world awoke to the news that war had broken out in Europe after almost 80 years of relative peace. British Jews were stunned by this turn of events — especially those whose ancestors had escaped Tsarist persecution in Ukraine.
For Putin, the fall of the USSR in 1991 — like the Versailles Treaty for the Nazis — was a shameful episode to be erased from history. Putin had spoken of Bolshoe Prostrantsvo — the great living space, where Russians should dwell — and regarded Ukraine as merely a sub-division of Russia. Yet there was no victory parade in Kyiv last February. Instead the brutality of the invasion turned even the Russians of Ukraine against the Kremlin.
Lenin’s anguish a hundred years ago was that the Workers’ Revolution had not broken out in Germany but instead in backward Russia. Over the past year in Ukraine, the indiscipline of Russian troops, the incompetence of their generals, their torture of ordinary citizens, their pillage of goods, their indiscriminate attacks on hospitals, theatres and kindergartens suggested to British Jews that not too much had changed since Lenin’s death in 1924.
Putin has endeavoured to paint the regime in Kyiv as a nest of Nazis, committing genocide against Russian speakers in the Donbas. The Jewish Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelensky, however — stiff-necked and stubborn in the historical tradition of Jewish dissidents — refused to leave his country before the massed ranks of the invading Russians.
Zelensky Is a student of history and is currently reading Lawrence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War. Having lost three great-uncles in the Shoah, this was also Zelensky’s personal history. It is no coincidence that even before he became president, he listed Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as a favourite film.
There are some who believe that Ukrainians have remained the same — corrupt, collaborators and instigators of pogroms. After all, the first leader of independent Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin Leonid Kuchma, was secretly recorded as referring to an opponent as “a f…ing Yiddish sprout”.
In contrast, Zelensky represented a new generation in their 30s and 40s which looked westwards to a future in Europe and not to the past, symbolised by Putin’s Russia.
The Shoah clearly has a different meaning for Putin and Zelensky. The Chabad Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, met Putin on Holocaust Day this year and told him that “Jews feel really comfortable in Russia”. The Russian president was thankful for such remarks but later that day spoke about “the crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing and punitive actions, carried out by the neo-Nazis of Kyiv” — as the Jewish oligarchs found out, cultivating Putin comes at a price. 73,000 Jews left Russia and Ukraine for Israel in 2022.
To this must be added the comments of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that “Hitler was of Jewish blood” and that the involvement of the US was designed to forge “the final solution of the Russian question”.
Such targeted utterances were calculated to enlist and inspire ultra-nationalists in Russia — those who trumpet their antisemitism. It indicates that while Putin may not personally be antisemitic, he is not averse in using it as a weapon internally to advance a political agenda.
It gels with the mystical belief that many hold in Russia that the Jews are unrepentant crucifiers and sly financial exploiters. This is supplemented by the band of trolls, employed by Russian military intelligence, who spread conspiracy theories on social media.
History hangs over this conflict. The British have led the charge to arm the Ukrainians, the Germans, mindful of the past, have been intensely reticent. The East Europeans have watched with horror at Putin’s attempt to rehabilitate Stalin in Russia regardless of the millions who perished at his slightest whim.
Israel is anxious not to offend Putin because of the need to ensure that there are no clashes above Syrian skies with the Russians while maintaining a freedom to attack the Iranians there.
While Yair Lapid felt deeply uneasy about this necessity, Benjamin Netanyahu has enthusiastically embraced this approach as it fits easily into his world outlook, one stripped of the universalism of Jewish tradition. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit to Kyiv last week resulted in an Israeli refusal to provide anti-missile air-defence systems and only the promise of an early warning mechanism.
Yet Zionist history offered a different message. Vladimir Jabotinsky, born in Odesa and the so-called “father of the Israeli Right” was a strong supporter of a liberal Ukrainian national movement after World War I.
Ukraine today awaits the Russian spring offensive with trepidation. Given our understanding of history, it should be a moral imperative for British Jews to help Zelensky and his colleagues in all ways possible.
Jewish Chronicle 22 February 2023