Putin’s despicable attack on Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity

A year and three months into the brutal war in Ukraine, one might think there could be no deeper doom for Vladimir Putin. But Putin’s comments a few days ago at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, in response to the moderator’s question on how to reconcile the Kremlin’s claims of a Nazi regime in Kiev with the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jew, effect reached a new level of deplorable.

Putin said: “I have had many Jewish friends since I was a child. They say: “Selensky is not a Jew, he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.” And that’s not a joke, it’s not ironic, you see?…

Today Ukraine elevates neo-Nazis, Hitler’s remains, to the pedestal of honored heroes. Six million Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust, and a million and a half died in Ukraine, mostly at the hands of the Banderovists [Ukrainian nationalists].”

Putin added that he was expecting such a question and asked his assistant to prepare some materials. After reading scathing anti-Semitic comments from two WWII-era Ukrainian nationalists and telling an emotional story about the murder of a Jewish family, Putin suggested that the current government in Kiev endorse Holocaust denial (“We’re talking about the Holocaust. How can you deny that?”) and reiterated that Zelenskyy used his Jewish origins to “cover these neo-Nazi freaks.”

Putin’s heinous smear rests on a grain of truth: Modern Ukraine has a complicated relationship with the chaotic history of Ukrainian nationalism during World War II, when militant Ukrainian groups seeking liberation from the Soviet regime sometimes collaborated with the Wehrmacht.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his speech at the SPIEF 2023 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum June 16, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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This alliance was by no means easy. Stepan Bandera, the head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), worked with German military intelligence before the German invasion of the USSR in July 1941, but was later arrested and held in a concentration camp until September 1944, when the Germans tried to recruit them his aid as you face looming defeat on the Eastern Front. The OUN’s military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, formally opposed both Soviet and German rule and was banned by the German occupation authorities, but viewed the Soviets as their main enemy and largely coexisted with the Germans in an informal truce.

The extent of complicity in the Holocaust by these nationalist forces is hotly debated. Putin’s claim that massacres of Jews in Ukraine were carried out primarily by “Banderovites” is false; However, according to Israeli journalist Sam Sokol, most historians agree that the OUN/UPA was “responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews” during the war. (They also carried out the brutal ethnic cleansing of Poles in western Ukraine on a much larger scale.)

It’s also true that in post-Soviet Ukraine, political forces striving for independence from Russia tended to view Bandera — who lived in West Germany after World War II and was assassinated by the KGB in 1959 — as a heroic martyr of the Ukrainian people’s cause. The historian Timothy Snyder wrote about this paradox more than a decade ago; While he was horrified by the pro-democracy Ukrainians’ romance with Bandera, he also noted that it was basically about “rejection.”[ing] any claim by Moscow to power over Ukraine.”

Given that actual far-right forces in modern Ukraine are marginal and their dominant political aspirations are pro-Western and liberal, this odd romance also involves a mythology that blurs the more repulsive aspects of Bandera and the “Banderovites”.

Ukrainian authors writing in this vein have sometimes singled out the files to emphasize that the OUN/UPA had Jewish members and sometimes rescued Jews. (Most of these cases involved doctors or other valuable specialists who were given a chance to survive in exchange for their services.)

Such historical whitewashing is certainly not benign and is a problem that a free and democratic Ukraine must grapple with. However, it does not include Holocaust denial. One need look no further than last January, when Zelenskyy attended a service to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Babyn Yar – the site where nearly 34,000 Jews were shot by the Nazis in September 1941.

Putin’s lie also covers the fact that a pernicious form of Holocaust denial –de facto Eradication of the Nazis’ targeted extermination of the Jews was state policy under the Soviet regime, whose legacy is repeatedly glossed over in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. In the Soviet report on Nazi crimes at Auschwitz, issued after the liberation of the concentration camp, Jews and the victims described were not identified as “citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and other countries.” mentioned .”

The “Black Book,” which documents German atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory and was compiled by the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1946, was struck down by Joseph Stalin’s censors for “serious political errors”; Two years later the committee was dissolved and most of its leaders were either killed or sent to the Gulag.

Even during the liberalization after Stalin’s death, the silence about the Jewish Holocaust continued. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem “Babi Yar” (the Russian name for Babyn Yar), which explicitly identified the victims of the massacre as Jews and pointed to the larger context of anti-Semitic violence, was denounced as divisive; The editor who gave the green light to publication in a literary weekly was fired, and Yevtushenko himself was “cancelled” for several years.

Incidentally, the opening line of the poem – “There is no monument over Babi Yar” – remained valid until the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial was established in September 2016 under Zelenskyi’s predecessor, President Petro Poroshenko, more than two years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity that ousted an anti-democratic, pro-Putin Ukrainian president whom Kremlin propaganda described as Neo treated -Nazi coup. The newest memorial installation at the site, the Crystal Wall of Crying by performance artist Marina Abramovic, was unveiled by Zelenskyy in October 2021 – less than five months before the Russian invasion.

In March 2022, a Russian projectile hit the Babyn Yar site, killing five people. Zelensky’s tweet at the time invoked the history of the Holocaust:

It is fully apparent that Putin’s diatribe was pre-written with moderator Dmitry Simes, a Russian-American political scientist known for his pro-Russian sympathies. But like much of what Putin is doing these days, this attempt to validate the Kremlin’s narrative of Zelenskyy as the figurehead of a “Nazi” regime failed.

Instead, it is Putin who looks like a man launching a bigoted attack on a Jewish leader – and, in classic anti-Semitic fashion, uses his “Jewish friends” as a cover for this smear.

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