Population & Society

What Shifts in the Perception of Jews in Post-Soviet Russia Say About Russian Nationalism

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The shifts in the perception of Jews in Russia, including within the community itself, from the anti-semitic USSR regime to a more nuanced view in the era of Vladimir Putin highlight the overriding force of nationalism and its hyper-intensification in post-Soviet Russian society, borne out most recently by Moscow’s war in Ukraine, writes historian Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend.

What Shifts in the Perception of Jews in Post-Soviet Russia Say About Russian Nationalism

Russian nationalism in Israel: Pro-Russia, pro-Putin rally outside Moscow's embassy in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2023 (Credit: Igal Vaisman / Shutterstock.com)

The tensions between Russia and the West, which have boiled over due to the conflict in Ukraine, are in part due to changes in Russian society – the intensification of nationalism or chauvinism, for example – that might have been unthinkable generations ago. Consider the shifts in the image and position of Jews in the post-Soviet period, which demonstrates the danger of entrenching stereotypes, in this case that Jews are proponents of liberal ideology and that non-Jews must be either on their side (philosemite) or against them (anti-semite).

Jews in the Soviet era

Jews, as an ethnic group, had lived in the territory of Russia and then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for thousands of years. But most of them did not become subjects of Russian rulers until after the division of Poland in the 18th Century. Jews were then regarded as a religious community and were confined to what was called the “Pale of Settlement” (which included all of what today is Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, much of Ukraine and east-central Poland, and small parts of Latvia, as well as the western Russian Federation), discriminated against by the regime. Since the late 19th century, they were regularly targeted in mob pogroms (massacres).

It was not surprising, therefore, that Jews became members of all the opposition parties. They were well represented among the Bolsheviks and, upon their victory in 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin occupied all branches of the government, including the secret police. By the 1930s, the Jews were finally regarded as an ethnic group, defined by racial and cultural factors.

While in the beginning of the Soviet regime, Jews were fully on the side of the new rulers, the situation changed after World War II. At that point, the position of Jews position in society had changed for a variety of reasons. The immigration to Israel had provided additional rationale for perceiving Jews as an alien “fifth column”. Still, the popular image of anti-Semitic authorities and hapless helpless Jews as two confronting forces within the Soviet Union was simplistic.

Monument to Lev Gumilev in Kazan, Russia: A public intellectual, he believed that Jews, upon being uprooted, emerged as "parasites" who could live at the expense of others such as Russians (Credit: Kirill Skorobogatko / Shutterstock.com)

Monument to Lev Gumilev in Kazan, Russia: A public intellectual, he believed that Jews, upon being uprooted, emerged as "parasites" who could live at the expense of others such as Russians (Credit: Kirill Skorobogatko / Shutterstock.com)

Soviet authorities, while discriminating against Jews, issued official statements that the government and society at large differentiated between “good” Soviet Jews and those unfortunate souls who were “seduced” by Zionist or Western propaganda. The intellectual opposition to the regime was also not monolithic in its members’ approach to Jews. Westernized intellectuals were usually on their side, seeing them as natural allies against the regime. The situation was more complicated with Russian nationalists. There were visible groups of Russian nationalists, using the term broadly, who shared the latent anti-semitism of the authorities. Igor Shafarevich, the well-known mathematician, was openly anti-semitic.

The same label is usually attached to Lev Gumilev, the son of two great Russian poets. But Gumilev’s attitude towards Jews was more complicated. Gumilev, who lived a tragic life – his father was shot, his mother harassed by authorities, and he himself spent time in the Gulag and fought during World War II – was a rather marginal figure during the Soviet era due to his unorthodox views. He did not publish much during most of his lifetime. Still, by the end of the USSR, his works became extremely, and he was regarded as a real classic character – a revered public intellectual – by the end of his life, though he was generally perceived as anti-semitic.

Gumilev regarded each nation or ethnos as organically connected with their national landscape, which made possible its wholesome development. The ancient Jews who lived in Israel were benign people, or at least they were not very different from others. But upon being uprooted, Gumilev believed, they emerged as “parasites” who could live at the expense of others such as Russians. Even as they acquired territory, outside of their historical land, they continued to be a predatory force, according to the Gumilev narrative. This was the case with Khazariia, the medieval state in the territory of present-day Russia, he argued. Khazars were Turkic people whose elite professed Judaism. Gumilev transformed Khazars into ethnic Jews and explained the Khazar war with Slavs as a manifestation of post-Biblical predatory nature of Jews.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Literature Prize laureate, best known for his monumental book The Gulag Archipelago, was also often regarded as being anti-semitic. His views on Jews are also complicated. On one hand, Solzhenitsyn was suspicious of Jewish intellectuals in pre-revolutionary Russia. In his view, Jews, uprooted and secularized, became susceptible to dangerous doctrines, such as Marxism. The problem was that Marxism ignored reality, and its proponents wanted to install a regime based on theories. Real people resisted these policies, which led to the horrors of terror, as fanatics or true believers in Marxism could not stand this.

Solzhenitsyn had nothing against traditional religious Jews, those who resisted Marxist ideological temptations. To support his view, he would later pen the book Two Hundred Years Together, which focused on Jews living in the territory of the Russian empire/the USSR. He was sympathetic to those Jews who decided to emigrate to Israel.

Dugin at a conference in Mashhad, Iran: He differentiated Jews between those from the “Atlantic” and “Eurasian” civilizations (Credit: Tasnim News Agency)

Dugin at a conference in Mashhad, Iran: He differentiated Jews between those from the “Atlantic” and “Eurasian” civilizations (Credit: Tasnim News Agency)

Jews in post-Soviet Russia

With the collapse of the USSR, official discrimination against Russian Jews ended. Many of them took advantage of the changes. Quite a few became super-rich almost overnight even amidst the general poverty in Russia during this period. As a result, grassroots anti-semitism increased and fed into the views of the opposition to Boris Yeltsin, the post-Soviet leader of the Russian Federation, whom his enemies called “Red to Brown”, implying an alliance between communists and hardcore nationalists. The views of these groups on the position of Jews in society were also complex and could not be easily placed into convenient boxes.

Alexander Dugin, one of the most original intellectuals in post-Soviet Russia, is an example. Erudite and extremely prolific, he clearly gravitated to “Red to Brown” during the Yeltsin era – at least at the beginning. Dugin promoted the concept of “Eurasianism” during the early part of the post-Soviet era. In his writings, he dismissed Gumilev and his nationalism despite those views gaining popularity in the 1990s.

There were many reasons for the apparent discord between the two figures – their approach to Jews was among them. For Gumilev, Jews, upon being uprooted from their native soil, became dangerous parasites who lived at the expense of the indigenous people of Eurasia, or Russia. Everyone else lived in happy “symbiosis”. For his part, Dugin reckoned that Jews were divided between “Atlantic” and “Eurasian” civilizations. And while the residents of Eurasia represented the noble “ideocrats”, those who lived for sublime goals which transcended individual wellbeing, the residents of the “Atlantic” civilizations were a mercantile, cynical people. They thought only about filthy lucre and, in general, were bereft of any noble feelings. “Eurasian” Jews, together with other Eurasian “ideocrats” built the mighty USSR, which Dugin regarded positively in the early 1990s.

The “ideocratic” Eurasian Jews were structurally similar to the noble Jews of early Israel, which to Dugin was akin to Nazi Germany. These similarities were not liabilities but praiseworthy attributes, from Dugin’s perspective. Nazis, he believed, were noble “ideocrats” whose brutality was conveniently ignored. In Dugin’s view, Israel later started to lose its original “ideocratic” idealism and started to degenerate into a corrupt, cynical Western capitalist arrangement.

Later in his intellectual development, Dugin became a “traditionalist” and proceeded to divide Jews into groups. In his framework, the “traditionalist” Jews were those who followed the sacred tradition of their forefathers and whose culture has lived for eternity. The story, he argued, was absolutely different from the Jews of capitalist modernity, cynical individuals who lived for lucre and fame and who also promoted assimilation. These Jews are inimical to the Jewish people as members of one of the world’s great religions and cultures; they are the “fifth column” of Jews. At the same time, conservative orthodox Jews have no issue with equally “traditionalist” Muslims and orthodox Christians, who are nothing if only their “class brothers”, to use Marxist parlance.

Jews divide Jews

Even quite a few Russian nationalists were not totally anti-Semitic; they distinguished between “bad” Jews and “good” ones, those who possessed nobility, true religiosity, attachment to tradition and readiness to live and die for high causes. Jews, in their own perception of their community, often divided themselves the same way. While some Russian nationalists sound quite philosemitic, some Jews could sound quite anti-semitic.

The most philosemitic ruler in Russian history: On his June 2012 visit to Israel, Putin joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem (Credit: President of Russia)

The most philosemitic ruler in Russian history: On his June 2012 visit to Israel, Putin joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem (Credit: President of Russia)

This differentiation could be seen among Israeli Jews. Ariel Sharon, the late Israeli prime minister, clearly distinguished Jews of the West from most Israelis. Israeli Jews understand the Hobbesian nature of existence. They are brave, ready to die and, if needed, to be cruel, whereas Western Jews could be “spineless”. Many Russian/Soviet Jews apparently shared similar feelings, as indicated by the popularity of Meir Kahane among post-Soviet Jews in Israel. Kahane was a US-born Israeli rabbi who advocated “transfer”, the forced relocation of Arabs from Israel on the grounds that the Arabs’ deep hatred for Jews prevented them from living together. Kahane implicitly despised American Jews as egotistical weaklings. Kahane was implicitly supported by a considerable segment of Russian/Soviet Jewish Israelis. Kahane-inspired leaflets in Russian circulated in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

Avigdor Liberman, an Israeli politician from Moldova, the founder and leader of the secular nationalist Israel Our Home party, shared Kahane’s perspective. Mikhail Agursky, the Russian Jewish Israeli and well-known Russian dissident, who died in 1991, also supported this vision, which implied the division of Jews into “good” and “bad”. Agursky, following Dugin and even Gumilev in a way, blasted American Jews as cynical people who, despite their formal religiosity, actually had betrayed their Jewishness, whereas Israeli Jews, or any Jew who comes to Israel, are noble people, true Jews ready to fight and die for their ancestral homeland.

Jews in Putin’s Russia

Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia at the turn of the century. His approach to Jews broke old stereotypes. Putin is authoritarian, Machiavellian, a man who has, by many accounts, engaged in murder of his opponents. He has emerged, however, as the most philosemitic ruler in Russian history. He built a museum of tolerance, dedicated to Jews, introduced rabbis to the Russian army, and enjoys a warm relationship with Israel.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and a previous Putin prime minister, blasted Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish Ukrainian president, as a traitor to the Jewish people, for his political cavorting with Ukrainian nationalists. The war with Ukraine is presented in official Russian discourse as the country’s liberation from Nazis, who persecuted Russians and Jews.

At the same time, Dugin, who is said to be close to Putin, has compared Orthodox Russians with Jews who were openly harassed and persecuted because of their ethnicity and culture. It is clear that images of philosemites and related images of Jews as a unified body are simplistic and do not relate to the complicated reality. What is also clear is that the old Soviet trope about Jews versus the state no longer applies – and that the overriding ideological narrative in Russia in the post-USSR period is about hyper-nationalism – that anyone who speaks Russian or is culturally Russian is Russian – and not ethnic or religious division. Moscow’s war on Ukraine is a manifestation of this.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Dmitry Shlapentokh

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Indiana University South Bend

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. Born in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He teaches world and Russian/Soviet and Post-Soviet history. He has been at IU South Bend since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

Recent Articles
Recent Articles