Putin’s Despicable Attack on Zelensky’s Jewish Identity

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters
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A year and three months into the brutal war in Ukraine, one might think there was no lower for Vladimir Putin to sink. But Putin’s remarks a few days ago at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, in an answer to the moderator’s question about how the Kremlin’s claims about a Nazi regime in Kyiv could be reconciled with the fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, managed to reach a new level of deplorable.

Putin said: “I’ve had a lot of Jewish friends since childhood. They say, ‘Zelensky is not a Jew, he’s a disgrace to the Jewish people.’ And this isn’t a joke, it’s not irony, you understand?...

Today, Ukraine elevates neo-Nazis, Hitler’s leavings, to the pedestal of honored heroes. Six million Jews were destroyed in the Holocaust, a million and a half died in Ukraine, first and foremost at the hands of the Banderovites [Ukrainian nationalists].”

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Putin added that he expected such a question and had asked his assistant to prepare some materials. After reading exterminationist antisemitic comments from two World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist figures and telling an emotional story about the murder of a Jewish family, Putin suggested that the current government in Kyiv endorsed Holocaust denial (“We’re talking about the Holocaust. How is it possible to deny that?”) and reiterated that Zelensky was using his Jewish background to “give cover to these neo-Nazi freaks.”’

Putin’s vile slander relies on a grain of truth: modern Ukraine has a complicated relationship with the messy history of Ukrainian nationalism during World War II, when militant Ukrainian groups seeking liberation from the Soviet regime sometimes collaborated with the Wehrmacht.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his speech at the SPIEF 2023 St.Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Contributor/Getty Images</div>

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

Contributor/Getty Images

This alliance was by no means straightforward. 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 his help while facing imminent defeat on the Eastern front. The OUN’s military arm, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), formally opposed both Soviet and German rule and was outlawed by German occupation authorities, but regarded the Soviets as its main enemy and mostly coexisted with the Germans in an informal truce.

The extent to which these nationalist forces were complicit in the Holocaust is hotly disputed. Putin’s claim that massacres of Jews in Ukraine were carried out primarily by “Banderovites” is false; but most historians agree, according to Israeli journalist Sam Sokol, that the OUN/UPA “were 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.)

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It is also true that in post-Soviet Ukraine, the political forces seeking independence from Russia have tended to embrace Bandera—who lived in West Germany after World War II and was assassinated by the KGB in 1959—as a heroic martyr to the Ukrainian national cause. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote about this paradox more than a decade ago; while he was appalled by the pro-democracy Ukrainians’ romance with Bandera, he also noted that it was fundamentally about “reject[ing] any pretension from Moscow to power over Ukraine.”

Given that actual far-right forces in modern Ukraine are marginal, and its dominant political aspirations are pro-Western and liberal, this strange romance also involves a mythology that scrubs away the more repellent aspects of Bandera and the “Banderovites.”

Ukrainian authors writing in this vein have sometimes cherry-picked the record to point that the OUN/UPA had Jewish members and sometimes rescued Jews. (More often than not, these cases involved physicians or other valuable specialists given a chance at survival in exchange for their services.)

Such historical whitewashing is certainly not harmless, and it’s an issue with which a free and democratic Ukraine will have to reckon. It does not, however, include Holocaust denial. One need not look further than last January, when Zelensky attended a service at Babyn Yar—the location where nearly 34,000 Jews were shot by the Nazis in September 1941—to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Putin’s lie also papers over the fact that a pernicious form of Holocaust denial—de facto erasure of the Nazis’ targeted extermination of Jews—was state policy under the Soviet regime, whose legacy is consistently whitewashed in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. The Soviet report on Nazi crimes in Auschwitz issued after the liberation of the concentration camp did not mention Jews and the described victims as “citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania and other countries.”

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The “Black Book” documenting German atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory, compiled by the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee in 1946, was axed by Joseph Stalin’s censors for “grave political errors;” two years later, the Committee was disbanded, and most of its leaders were either killed or sent to the gulag.

Even during the liberalization following Stalin’s death, the silence around 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 invoked the larger context of antisemitic violence, was denounced as divisive; the editor who greenlit its publication in a literary weekly was fired, and Yevtushenko himself was “canceled” for several years.

Incidentally, the poem’s opening line—“No monument stands over Babi Yar”—remained true until the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was created in September 2016 under Zelensky’s predecessor President Petro Poroshenko, more than two years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which forced from power an anti-democratic pro-Putin Ukrainian president and which Kremlin propaganda treats as a neo-Nazi coup. The latest memorial installation on the site, the Crystal Wall of Crying by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, was unveiled by Zelensky in October 2021—less than five months before the Russian invasion.

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

It’s blindingly obvious that Putin’s diatribe was scripted in advance with moderator Dmitry Simes, a Russian-American political scientist known for pro-Russian sympathies. But like much of what Putin does these days, this attempt to validate the Kremlin narrative of Zelensky as a figurehead for a “Nazi” regime backfired.

Instead, it’s Putin who looks like a man launching a bigoted attack on a Jewish leader—and, in classic antisemite fashion, using his “Jewish friends” as cover for this smear.

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