State Anti-Semitism As a Tradition of the Kremlin's Masters
By Dmytro Levus, foreign policy expert
The state policy of restricting the rights of Jews in the Russian Empire has its symbol, the Pale of Settlement. Jews had no right to live outside of it. The Pale of Settlement was formed by the government of Empress Catherine II in the late 18th century after the annexation of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Latvian, and Lithuanian lands to the empire as a result of the Second and Third Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. There were numerous Jewish communities there. The Russian government added the Northern Black Sea region conquered from the Ottoman Empire and virtually all Ukrainian lands to the Pale of Settlement.
The reason for creating such a restriction on places of residence, in addition to the obvious negative attitude of the Russian authorities toward the Jewish religion and the general lack of freedom in the Russian Empire, which made it difficult for almost all segments of the population to move, was the fear of creating competition for Russian merchants.
There were permits to live in cities, even within the settlement zone itself. However, permits to live outside the Pale of Settlement for certain categories of Jews, such as large merchants, certain artisans, doctors, and people with higher education, appeared several decades later and were also adopted by force, given the need to revitalize the economic development of the part of the empire with its Russian population.
A horrific practice of the Russian Empire's policy toward the Jewish population in the nineteenth century was recruitment into the imperial army. In addition to the fact that Jewish communities were subject to a higher percentage of recruits than Christians, the practice of recruiting Jewish children into the so-called cantonists was widely used. In a way, one may compare it to the "blood tax" in the Ottoman Empire, when children were taken from the Christian population to fill the Janissary army.
Jewish children were recruited into the cantonists from the age of 12. In reality, this age could be lower. The period of stay in the cantonists until the age of majority was not counted as service. Some Jewish cantonists learned crafts. There was a high mortality rate among Jewish cantonists who were uprooted from their families. They were constantly pressured to convert to Orthodoxy. However, it should be noted that some of them were able to preserve their Jewish confession and even create communities in remote parts of the empire where they served.
There were also Russian officer dynasties whose founders were descended from baptized and assimilated Jewish cantons. The recruitment of cantonists ended after the Eastern (Crimean) War of 1856. The settlement line was finally abolished only after the February Revolution of 1917. Naturally, this set of restrictions led to dissatisfaction among the Jewish population. It resulted either in emigration from the Russian Empire (from a certain time) or in participation in revolutionary and terrorist movements, both all-Russian and purely Jewish, such as the Bund, leftist ideology. The imperial authorities reacted in the only way possible for them-suppression and repression. But not only that.
Pogrom As a Tool of the Empire
The lack of freedom in the Russian Empire, the rigid bureaucracy, the overregulation of all spheres of life, and national pressure made living in it uncomfortable for everyone. There was constant dissatisfaction with the material situation of different nationalities. It was difficult to solve the problems, so the Russian power vertical was well-versed in the science of putting out a fire with a counter-fire.
Jews, given the prejudice against them among the Christian population, were a very tempting and convenient target for redirecting discontent. Jewish pogroms in the provinces of the Russian Empire's Pale of Settlement were provoked by "patriotic newspapers" that claimed that Jews were involved in actions against the government (such as the assassination of Emperor Alexander I in 1881) or the deterioration of the economic situation.
Under the conditions of strict censorship in Russia at the time, it is clear that such publications were made possible with the tacit approval of the censors and the authorities. Investigations and reactions to the pogroms, even if initially they were meant to be impartial, inevitably boiled down to the declaration of Jewish guilt.
Later, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the so-called Black Hundred movement (various Russian nationalist organizations such as the Union of Michael the Archangel and the Union of the Russian People) took shape, which was pro-government and aimed, among other things, to combat the "dominance of Jews." "The Black Hundred took an active part in the pogroms. However, something else is significant. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was no secret that pogroms were made possible with the active assistance of local authorities and police, who didn’t prevent pogroms and suppress riots. They even actively acted against Jewish self-defense units.
There is another dimension to this story. Accusing Ukrainians as the exclusive perpetrators of pogroms on the territory of Ukraine is not entirely fair in these circumstances. Ukrainians were tools in the hands of the Russian authorities. Moreover, Ukrainians were also the object of assimilation by the Russian Empire, which aimed to transform them into "real Russians." This was the goal of the Black Hundred in Ukraine. Ukrainians were subjected to pressure from the empire, and their blind discontent allied with a direction favorable to the authorities. The responsibility for the pogroms of that time lies with the authorities of the empire.
Equality Without Equality
The Bolshevik government, which finally gained a foothold in most of the Russian Empire after a series of wars with newly emerging states and Russian opponents of Bolshevism, created the illusion of "equality of nations." Jews left the ghetto and entered the government. In 1934, Stalin created the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East, a simulacrum of a Jewish state, which attracted Jewish supporters of communism even from other countries.
However, after World War II, it became clear that the policy of the state included anti-Semitism, which had been developed during the Tsarist era. It had not disappeared and remained in the armament of Russia, now in the Red Army. It was a set of actions. The political assassination of Solomon Michoels, an actor and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. There was also the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. This organization was created by the USSR during the war with Nazi Germany in 1942 to create a positive image of a country fighting the evil of Nazism and to accumulate aid.
However, after the war, the very existence of an organization with strong ties to the world in a totalitarian country that was shutting itself off from free countries caused anger and concern among the communist leadership. The organization was liquidated as a "nationalist" organization, which meant a higher degree of hostility, and its members were repressed (13 people were shot). Following the EAC case, a wave of repression intensified over four years, resulting in the liquidation of other Jewish institutions, theaters, a newspaper and publishing house, and the last Yiddish-language schools.
Hundreds of Jewish cultural figures, Jewish autonomy leaders, and activists were shot and convicted. Unofficially, Jewish culture and identity were being "abolished" within the USSR. Then there was the case of the doctors in 1953. According to the well-worn cliché of the Russian Empire, "Jewish doctors conspired to assassinate Comrade Stalin." In other words, the anger of the USSR population was directed at the Jews in a controlled manner. Jews were fired from their jobs. Preparations were probably underway for deportation. Stalin's death stopped this process. However, it’s worth noting that the policy of state anti-Semitism always remained in the armamentarium of the USSR leadership.
There were also hidden restrictions on the profession and the refusal to restore Jewish culture, which had been damaged by the Nazi genocide and postwar repressive campaigns. Promoting assimilation. Opposition to Israel and Zionism, which is why any activity in terms of preserving Jewish identity was subject to scrutiny by the KGB. Even the inability to emphasize the fact that Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union's enemy in World War II, committed genocide against Jews in the occupied territories. These victims were depersonalized.
Putin's Whip of Anti-Semitism
The "eternal" president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, being a native of the KGB system, has an almost complete set of thought patterns of an average officer in this structure. Therefore, his attitude toward the "Jewish question" is similar to that of KGB officers of the 1980s. State anti-Semitism is part of his worldview. At the same time, Putin's entourage has always included several people of Jewish descent, such as the oligarchs Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, or the now-defunct operator of the private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is generally known as Putin's "cook."
Putin's Russia has built a system of favorable relations with Israel. As far as we can tell, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in constant contact with the Kremlin's master. However, none of this can be an argument for the alleged absence of anti-Semitic beliefs in Putin and the Russian establishment. The ideology of the "Russian world" presupposes complete loyalty to the Russian past as officially interpreted and the perception of oneself as a Russian in the first place. Without this, there will be no success.
Formally declared ethnicity is needed by Russian propaganda for loud claims of friendship between peoples and the success of the Russian Federation as a multinational state. If national identities in modern Russia acquire real meaning, they are perceived as a front for the Kremlin. The vast majority of Jewish surname bearers in Putin's entourage are purely formal Jews or have adopted the identity of the "Russian world" altogether.
They are quite calm about the Kremlin's anti-Semitic attitudes and policies. The situation is in some ways similar to the situation during the tsarist era. Back then, there were also influential millionaire Jews who had access to the tsars. But in those days, they unequivocally identified themselves with the Jewish people and were able to make real attempts to change the situation. Now everything has come down to formalism.
Concerning Israel, Putin is forced to restrain himself and does not risk appearing as an anti-Semite. This is solely due to the fear of losing the benefits brought by relations with Tel Aviv and losing popularity among some Israelis who came from the USSR. In addition, Israel is a state that has proven to be successful. The manifestations of outright anti-Semitism are dangerous for retaliation. However, "nature takes its course,” especially in crisis conditions, such as the war against Ukraine.
Even at the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to negotiate with Russia on the absurd "denazification of Ukraine" and drew the world's attention to the fact that he is of Jewish descent. In an interview at the end of April last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was so irritated that he compared Zelensky to German dictator Adolf Hitler and noted that "Hitler also had Jewish blood, and the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews."
That was the beginning of Russia's diplomatic scandal with Israel. This fall, Putin called Zelenskyy "a Jewish president appointed by the West to cover up the Nazi character of Ukraine." Many such examples demonstrate the real attitude of Russia's leaders toward Jews. Nevertheless, the situation is significantly worse. After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, it became clear that anti-Semitism is a state policy of the Russian Federation and is actively used by its intelligence services.
The Russian nationalist writer Vladimir Krupin, reacting to the events in Israel, wrote that in the 1930s, Jews allegedly seized and colonized land in the Far East and exterminated the local population to create the Jewish Autonomous Region. The statement was absurd from the historical point of view and illegal, as it aroused hatred for a separate nation. There was no official reaction from the authorities. There were several other similar statements. The authorities tacitly tolerated them.
In Russia's North Caucasus, a predominantly Muslim region, events developed differently. In the capital of Karachay-Cherkessia, Cherkessk, a rather large-scale rally was held with posters against the possible arrival of Jews fleeing Israel and in support of Muslims in Palestine. Officials and security forces took a positive and neutral view of it. In Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, some rallies ended with the burning of the Jewish Center, which had been developing for several years. The multinational Dagestan was feverish for several days. Given the presence of an international airport in Makhachkala, rumors of the possible arrival of fugitive Israelis seemed plausible to the extremely uncritical and uneducated.
"Activists" searched hotels in search of Israeli Jews. A few days later, a huge crowd seized the Makhachkala airport and staged a pogrom in search of Jews from Israel. All of this could not have happened without the assistance of the authorities. The North Caucasus is a region with a strict police regime. It is impossible to hold protest events there without a harsh reaction from the police and special services. This is exactly what happened last fall during the protests against mobilization in Dagestan. Now the security forces have withdrawn. And this is all in a region where a local counterterrorism operation is regularly introduced.
The reaction of the authorities, who say that the protesters "were on the verge of breaking the law" and some of them were arrested for several days, is also indicative given the background of 300 million Russian rubles in damages. That’s the country where an anti-war poster can result in a real prison sentence. As expected, Russian military commanders of Dagestani origin started calling on protesters not to break the law but to go to fight in Ukraine.
The protest took place due to the inaction of the police and special services. Given that the North Caucasus has many problems, such as high unemployment, lack of education in native languages, Moscow's distrust of some Islamic movements in the region, and high birth rates, this all leads to social tension and discontent. Moscow was channeling a potential protest in this way. Just as it was done in the Russian Empire, the authorities identified the enemy - "Zionist Jews from Israel" - and defiantly allowed them to attack it.
In addition, compromising materials were obtained from the most active protesters. Some of them were forced to join the ranks of Russian troops in Ukraine to earn "forgiveness from the authorities." However, this is also a miscalculation by the Russian authorities. Anti-Semitism has never been widespread in the Caucasus. By provoking these protests, the Russian authorities included Russian Muslims in the global Islamic context and gave them a sense of power.
This is a mistake that may lead to a weakening of Moscow's position. Further actions of the Russian authorities also demonstrated an interesting observation regarding the level of government control over the lives of Jews and Muslims, and the formality and imitative nature of Jewish life in the Russian Federation. In Volgograd, on the initiative of the local department of internal affairs, a meeting of Jewish, Jewish, Dagestani, and Muslim organizations of the region was held to demonstrate the "friendship of peoples" and the fact that after the Makhachkala pogrom Jews and Dagestani have no claims against each other. To reaffirm their friendship, they decided to hold a joint clean-up day to cut down dry trees and clean up the park near the Volgograd synagogue.
And the point here is not even that the Sabbath in Russian culture is a legacy of the communist era, as a day of free, formally voluntary work outside of working hours. The point is that none of the representatives of Jewish and Jewish organizations noticed the absurdity. They did not mention the sanctity of the Sabbath for Jews and the impossibility of working on this day...
Pursuing a policy of state anti-Semitism, the Kremlin controls the life of Jewish communities in Russia. In the aforementioned Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the number of Jews has long been less than one percent. The Russian Federation is consolidating its regions and the Komi Permian Autonomous Okrug, where about half of the population used to be Komi. It has been reduced. The Koryatsky District in Kamchatka, where the peoples of the North made up a quarter, has been reduced. However, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East remains a monument to Stalin's national policy, symbolizing the "absence" of anti-Semitism in Russia.