As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on, it continues to act in the West as a kind of Rorschach test of general political attitudes. Broadly speaking, the Center and Left have adopted a strong pro-Ukrainian position, while elements of the hard or alternative Right have attempted to find common ground with Putin’s Russia, often using anti-Wokism and antipathy towards globalism and NATO as the preferred conduit for ideological solidarity. My own personal opinion is that it is difficult for Westerners to form valid opinions on the moral merits of each cause, since both causes (Ukrainian nationalist and Russian separatist) bear some validity. This is the harsh reality of multiethnic states where the population is divided on self-assertion and self-determination. Beyond one’s basic position on the right of one nation to wage war on another, most Western commentary on the conflict thus remains a Rorschach, divulging infinitely more about the politics of the commentator than the true nature of events on the ground. With this caveat, and since this website has dedicated much work to the question of Jews and their influence, the following essay offers not so much another ‘explanation’ of, or apologetic for, the ongoing war, but instead a spotlight on one of its stranger, but no less important, aspects: Vladimir Putin’s adoption, promotion, and use of the Holocaust narrative in pursuit of geopolitical goals.
The Rise and Fall of Russian Holocaust Propaganda
Russia was an integral part of the creation of the Holocaust industry from the very beginning. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it was in Soviet interests to utterly delegitimize the governments and peoples of those Eastern European countries selected for absorption into the Communist mega-state. Accusing the peoples of Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine of being complicit in genocide or “crimes against humanity,” for example, was an easy way of both demoralizing them and suppressing anti-Soviet nationalism. The first Holocaust propagandists were of course Russian Jewish photojournalists like Samary Gurary, Mark Markov-Grinberg, Max Alpert, Semen Fridlyand, Mikhail Trakhman, and Georgy Zelma, who published posed and curated images that historian David Shneer has described as comprising a new “atrocity genre” of photojournalism. While their work proved incendiary in the Soviet Union, the Western response to Russian atrocity reports was initially muted and cautious, changing only thanks to the repeated efforts of Western Jewish journalists and the increasingly lurid nature of Soviet accounts. When the Los Angeles Times printed some Russian photos from Majdanek, for example, it warned its readers that the material it was publishing might be “propaganda.” In Britain, Jewish BBC journalist Alexander Werth later recalled that he was at first “continually frustrated by his editor’s unwillingness to run his stories of horror and atrocities.”
Buoyed by the prolific activities of Soviet Jewish propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, the Holocaust narrative was initially pushed internationally as part of a funding drive, with key figures like Solomon Mikhoels (Chairman of the Soviet Union’s official Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee) and journalist Vasily Grossman tasked with developing propaganda to raise money for the Soviet war effort. Grossman, author of the well-known novel Life and Fate (reviewed by Spencer J. Quinn) was the creator of some of the first outrageous stories from Treblinka, for example, including a report on a camp guard of superhuman strength who was said to have ripped apart babies with his bare hands. Mikhoels, meanwhile was specifically instructed to appeal to the national sentiments of Jews and was sent to the United States in 1943 to fundraise.
After the war, the Soviet need for a Holocaust narrative disappeared overnight. While it was soon adopted in the West as a methodology for the advance of multiculturalism and White guilt, in the Soviet Union Jewish atrocity propaganda, as a discourse, was more or less eliminated. By 1948, Grossman, the author of lurid tales, was marginalized and his works were suppressed. In January 1948, Mikhoels was invited to Minsk to judge a play for the Stalin Prize and was killed in a country house under the supervision of the chief of the Soviet Belarusian state police. His body was crushed by a truck and left in a street, fulfilling Stalin’s request that his death be attributed to a “car accident.” In November 1948, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was formally dissolved.
The Soviet Union’s antipathy to the Holocaust narrative was directly related to the need to spread the message to new satellite states that the Russian nation had struggled and suffered like no other. International Jewry, at one time useful for funds and other forms of influence, could not be tolerated as a competitor. Stalin’s mood towards Jews declined further after the creation of Israel in 1947. He was personally shocked by public displays of Jewish identity in Moscow, including mass gatherings for Jewish high holidays and fawning affection for Golda Meir. The “nation within a nation” had made itself too obvious. In January 1949 Pravda published its famous article condemning “rootless cosmopolitans,” and by March the newspaper was purged of Jews. Jewish officers in the Red Army were then dismissed. Jewish activists were removed from the leadership of the communist party. Hundreds of Jewish writers were arrested, and, if they wrote under Russian pseudonyms, they suddenly found their real names appearing in parentheses. In August 1952, 13 Jews were tried, convicted, and executed for anti-Soviet espionage.
By the summer of 1949, the Holocaust narrative once again emerged as a matter of political contention, this time in Poland. The Soviet ambassador wrote to Moscow in July complaining that 37% of Polish Ministry of Public Security officers were Jewish in a country where Jews comprised less than 1% of the population. Jakub Berman, one of the Jewish leaders of the country and a former associate of Holocaust propagandist Solomon Mikhoels, hastily attempted to defuse the situation by offering a strange bargain — the assertion that six million people had died in “the Holocaust” but that this total involved three million Jews and three million non-Jews. With this gambit, offering a shared reward from Jewish propaganda efforts, Berman bought himself some time and managed to avoid the more severe anti-Jewish purges associated with the “Doctor’s Plot,” Stalin’s last attempt to curb Jewish influence in the Soviet Union. The Holocaust narrative, as a tale of special Jewish victimhood, then fell dormant in Russia for half a century.
Putin Revives “The Holocaust”
As indicated by his long speech announcing a “special military action” in Ukraine, Putin is a keen student of history and is highly sensitive to the way in which understandings of history, or rather the politics of history, influence culture, national identity, geopolitics, and even military goals. It’s therefore not all that surprising that he should reach into the past in order to secure a more dominant grip over neighboring nations. Putin’s intense utilization of the Holocaust narrative is of special interest because he has revived one of its original intentions: as a weapon against anti-Russian nationalism in what are now the former Soviet satellite states. Whether Putin is a “true believer” in the Holocaust story, or whether he is employing it purely for tactical reasons, is besides the point. The Holocaust narrative is critical to Putin’s ideological war in Eastern Europe and to his ongoing ambition to forge stronger links with Israel. One of the results is that Putin has emerged as one of the foremost promoters of the Holocaust narrative globally.
Writing in Putin’s Russia and The Falsification of History (2020), Anton Weiss-Wendt writes:
Within an international setting, Putin referred to the Holocaust for the first time during the official visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Russia in November 2003. Putin stressed the importance of building bridges to the Russian diaspora in Israel, and at one point proposed organising a Holocaust exhibition at the Victory Museum in Moscow. … Beginning in 2005, in the run-up to the sixtieth anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, formal references to the Holocaust proliferated. Since then, the Putin regime has firmly incorporated the Holocaust into its foreign policy, making it essentially an instrument of soft power. The Holocaust is now part of Russian history politics, coordinated at the highest government level.
If Putin is keen to revive the Holocaust narrative in Russia and to export it worldwide, we should be clear about which Holocaust narrative Putin prefers. Putin has adopted what we might call the “Berman model,” named after the Jakub Berman, described above, who tried to appease Stalin with his less ambitious death estimates shared equally among Jews and Soviets. In other words, Putin is interested in the Holocaust narrative only to the extent that it can be politically useful to the Russian state.
In April 2005, Putin visited Israel and said that “Jewish people, like people of our country, incurred massive losses during the Second World War.” He complained about former Soviet states erecting statues that glorified “anti-Semites,” “Nazis” and “the German Waffen SS.” It should be a point of common ground, argued Putin, that “Jews and Russians have the same [low] status” in nationalist, post-Soviet countries. The bottom line then, is that Jews and Russians should be seen as brothers in suffering. The more Putin can boost the alleged historical sufferings of the Jews, the more he can share in the resulting propaganda benefits, especially since one of the more potent side-effects of such a narrative is that the nationalisms of smaller, surrounding states can be disparaged, tarnished, and declared illegitimate. But sharing in these benefits, as we will see, is both crucial and contentious.
There is a hurried and ill-conceived quality to Russian promotion of the Holocaust, perhaps best illustrated by the Kremlin’s comical donation of a Holocaust monument to Israel in 2005. By all accounts, the Russian government had commissioned the piece at short notice to Zurab Tsereteli, president of the Russian Academy of Arts. The speed of the commission is suggested by the fact Tsereteli appears to have reused models from an earlier statue now sitting in Moscow, resulting in Israelis puzzling over a monument supposedly depicting naked Jewish Holocaust victims, none of whom appear to be circumcised.
This hasty approach to Holocaust promotion doesn’t diminish its import. Russia has engaged in a “comprehensive Holocaust remembrance program.” In 2012, Putin intensified his approaches to Jews internationally using the Holocaust narrative as a vehicle for dialogue. Weiss-Wendt comments that during a visit to Israel in June 2012,
Putin raised [the Holocaust] nearly every time he met with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both Russia and Israel are sensitive to a biased interpretation of history, he said. … Netanyahu was happy to oblige, having on various occasions over the years emphasised that Russia and Israel see eye to eye on issues of history.
That same year, Putin established more formal relations with Russia’s Chabad movement, with Weiss-Wendt suggesting that “the Kremlin may not know how much their affiliation with Chabad is worth, but it is courting them on account of their international connections nevertheless, in the belief of the strength of international Jewry.” Also in the same year, Moscow witnessed the opening of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. Putin was a major supporter of the project from the beginning, symbolically donating one month’s salary toward the construction costs. The FSB, successor to the KGB, supplied the center with a number of historical documents, a move illustrative of a much broader relationship between the Russian government and the organized Jewish community in Russia, since the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia has a special department dedicated to ongoing privileged co-operation with the ministry of defense and law-enforcement agencies.
Putin’s “Berman model” remains a sticking point with Jews, however. While Russia’s two most prominent rabbis “stressed the tolerance aspect” of the new museum, Putin made sure that Russian interests can continue to hitch a ride on Jewish atrocity propaganda. In a public speech Putin suggested that the museum be renamed the Russian Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. “It’s located in Russia, right? And we made it happen together.” His comments were reminiscent of a 2012 incident in which Russian authorities replaced a memorial plaque in Rostov-on-Don that had claimed 27,000 Jews were killed in a nearby gorge (even Yad Vashem suggest such a figure is a gross exaggeration) with a plaque stating only that “Soviet citizens” had been killed in the area.
The Russian ADL
As well as investing in Holocaust memorials, the Kremlin has also worked to develop and promote its own version of the ADL. One of the central figures of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia is the Ukraine-born Jewish oligarch Boris Spiegel, founder and former chairman of World Without Nazism, and former president of the World Congress of Russian Jews. World Without Nazism is styled as an “international human rights NGO” and closely follows the ADL playbook. The organization’s stated objectives include “consolidation of anti-fascist forces, mobilisation of world public opinion in annunciating the significance of the Nuremberg judgment, promoting “denazification” of countries of Eastern and Central Europe, opposing the glorification of Nazism, safeguarding minority rights, and countering Holocaust denial.” Spiegel was a harsh critic of “extremism and neo-Nazism” in Ukraine, and World Without Nazism endorsed the Russian annexation of Crimea. Putin’s own claims to be presently engaged in the “denazification” of Ukraine illustrate some of the influence of this kind of rhetoric, even if tactical rather than sincere.
Anton Weiss-Wendt describes an increasingly integrated Russian-Jewish effort to promote the Holocaust narrative, and Russian-friendly historical interpretations of it, globally:
Since 2009, Russian Jewish organizations have been increasingly incorporated into Moscow’s designs. On January 27, 2009, the foreign ministry, in collaboration with the UN Committee on information, organized a panel, “Lessons of the Holocaust and Modernity,” in New York. According to a Russian diplomat, the event featured “leading Russian and American nonprofit organizations,” Moscow Human Rights Bureau, and the American branch of the World Congress of Russian Jews. In December 2009 in Berlin, the latter organization—in cooperation with unspecified Jewish and antifascist entities from Europe and CIS—held a conference with a modified title. “Lessons of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” Next, the foreign ministry deployed big guns, the government proxy World Without Nazism. On February 10, 2011, at the UN headquarters, the World Congress of Russian Jews and World Without Nazism (both headed by Speigel) put together a roundtable, “World Without Nazism: The Global Goal of Mankind Today and the Sixty-Fifth Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial.” The roundtable proclaimed the Nuremberg judgment to be the ultimate truth, condemned the “glorification of Nazism,” and decried an attempted falsification of history. To spread the truth about the Second World War, the roundtable participants proposed carrying out educational and “media propaganda” campaigns.
Spiegel has had other lasting influences in Russia. In Spring 2013 he introduced a draft in the Duma of what would eventually become the Law Against the Glorification of Fascism. The world Holocaust is used 53 times in the draft, and explicitly mentions “Holocaust denial” as a form of “propaganda of Nazism.” Putin’s insistence on the “Berman model” remained strong however. No mention of Jewish deaths occurs anywhere in the final, enacted legislation. Spiegel eventually outlasted his usefulness to Putin. He was imprisoned last year, and there are rumors that his Big Pharma business has been taken over by the FSB.
Despite its pursuit of a “Berman model” that is only halfway useful to Jews, Russia has increasingly presented itself as a “natural ally” of Jews against antisemitism and Holocaust denial. In January 2016, Putin met with leaders of the European Jewish Congress and told them they were Russia’s “natural ally” in “fighting antisemitism, safeguarding the memory of the Second World War, and consistently standing up against ‘glorification of Nazism’.” Putin was thanked for his remarks by Moshe Kantor, presently one of the only major Russian Jewish oligarchs to have escaped Western sanctions, who suggested that the situation of Russian Jews was the best in all of Europe. Putin, beaming with delight, suggested that any Jews wishing to leave Western Europe should “come here, to Russia. We are ready to accept them.”
Culture and Education
Russia has also invested in promoting the Holocaust narrative culturally, most notably in the 2018 release of the big budget motion picture Sobibor. The film, which trades graphically in the usual lurid tropes (one review describes it as including the death throes of hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber, a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions), was the brainchild of the Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky, whose ministry financed its production. According to Times of Israel, Sobibor “made a huge splash in Russia thanks to a government-led commemoration campaign that culminated this year.” The Kremlin put a viewing of the film on the agenda of President Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Moscow summit in January 2018. In April, Valentina Matvienko, chair of the Duma’s Federation Council, organized a joint screening and discussion via videobridge with her counterpart at the Israeli Knesset. Special screenings of the film were arranged around the world, encouraging a Holocaust binge not seen since Schindler’s List.
Mikhail Ponomarev, of Russia’s Federation Council, has proposed a state policy on history that would be coordinated at the federal level. Among a package of legislation, he includes laws against “the revival of Nazism,” laws promoting organizations that monitor manifestations of neo-Nazism, calls for intensive lobbying of the Council of Europe for “a joint curriculum on the history of the Second World War and, specifically, the Holocaust,” and offers sponsorship to any scholarship “on Nazi mass crimes, especially the mass murder of Jews.” The Russian Historical Society was suggested as a useful vehicle for countering “anti-Russian” historical narratives such as the Holodomor famine in Ukraine, 1932–3. Russian multiculturalism, meanwhile, was to be enforced through the Ministry of Culture, with demands that all presentations of the history of Russia’s many ethnic groups would have to “aim at reducing interethnic tensions” and build nationwide solidarity.
The primary rationale for promotion of the Holocaust narrative by the Russian state appears to be an attempt at negative soft power targeting former Soviet satellite states. While Ukraine is the most well-known target of current Russian “denazification” efforts, the incorporation of the Holocaust narrative into Russian foreign policy has resulted in very similar accusations and rhetorical attacks in recent years against Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. History politics, especially those linked to the Holocaust narrative, have become an integral part of Russia’s diplomatic and political technology.
In 2019, Putin lashed out at Poland after the European Parliament passed a resolution in September identifying the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as the immediate cause of World War II and accusing Russia of whitewashing Stalin’s crimes. Putin, by way of response, “blamed Poland for interwar antisemitism” and pointed to its destruction of Soviet monuments to the Red Army which has “liberated the European countries from Nazism.” Backed into a corner in terms of its historical interpretation, Russia in Global Affairs, a Kremlin-linked foreign policy journal,
divided the world into friends and foes. The only international ally on the battlefields of history Russia has is Israel, due to the Holocaust. … Russia should be reaching out to the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the United States, suggest Dmitry Efremenko, of the Academy of Sciences. Perhaps to Jews generally, adds Alexander Philippov, professor at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.
The journal suggested that Russia should focus a soft power attack on Poland as the main adversary, based heavily on accusations of antisemitism, and seek allies “in the countries of South Europe with a historically strong left, such as Spain and Greece.”
Strange as it sounds, a Kremlin notion of Russians and Jews bound together by history and surrounded by Nazis has become entrenched in Moscow. In 2015, when Putin was ‘accidentally’ not invited to attend a ceremony at Auschwitz, he went to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow instead. There, he
spoke in one breath of antisemitism and Russophobia, nationalism and terrorism. Of the different ethnicities that fought within the Red Army ranks he mentioned just two — Russians and Jews. In the opposite camp he put Bandera followers in Ukraine and Baltic Nazis. … Putin craftily linked this ‘lesson in history’ to the ‘coldblooded destruction of the peaceful population of Donbass.’ … The point Putin is making is hard to miss: bound by the tragic experience, Jews should join Russians in pushing back violent nationalism of the Ukrainian and Baltic kind.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister and now a household name thanks to the war in Ukraine, has spent much of the last ten years pushing the UN for resolutions designed to stop or condemn Baltic states from erecting statues to nationalists, some of whom fought in German divisions during World War II. In this effort he has worked closely with the World Jewish Congress and (Moshe Kantor’s) European Jewish Congress. Both organizations were only too keen to add vocal support to Lavrov’s General Assembly Resolution 67/154, which attempted to smear Latvia’s annual march of former Waffen SS soldiers by “collectively implicating all Waffen SS members in war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The United States voted against the resolution, and EU countries abstained. Much to the anger of the Kremlin, Ukraine voted with the United States and opposed the measure.
As well as introducing measures designed to vilify nationalist statues and commemorations, Russia has “never failed to air any new episode in history or politics playing out between Russia and its East European neighbors in connection with the Holocaust.” When a monument to the Soviet soldier was vandalized in Tallinn, Estonia, in May 2006, for example, Russia’s foreign ministry complained to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that this “extremist incident” goes “against the grain of raising awareness about the tragedy of the Second World War and the Holocaust.” Anton Weiss-Wendt concludes that “Russia’s modus operandi is molding the Holocaust to fit any new twist in regional memory politics it regards as adversarial.”
Much like an earlier essay I wrote on “Jewish subtexts in Ukraine,” what is offered here is not an ‘explanation’ of the Russia-Ukraine war but a clarification of some of its stranger and muddier edges. Try as I might, I find it difficult to find much in either side, Ukrainian or Russian, that I can give firm backing to. Both sides are a morass of corruption, subversion, and layers of interests that are impossible for outsiders to untangle.
Who benefits from Putin’s Holocaust obsession? Jews, but only to an extent. Massive investment from Russia in the promotion of the idea of the Holocaust will do something to revive the narrative at a time when its historicization is beginning to gather pace. There’s no question that Jews will benefit more greatly from legislative proposals ancillary to the promotion of the narrative itself, especially when Putin seems keen only on a “Berman model” of the narrative that deprives Jews of its foremost benefit — the concept of Jews as unique victims. In other words, Russia’s worldwide lobbying for mandatory education programs and criminalization of Holocaust denial will be infinitely more useful to Jews than nausea-inducing showings of Sobibor.
Will Russia benefit from its adopted role as world-wide promoter of the Holocaust? This remains to be seen, though it strikes me as utterly foolhardy and contemptible. Russia’s approach to Jews has had middling, even poor, results thus far. Jewish oligarchs have been jumping ship since they started feeling the pinch of Western sanctions, prompting Putin to lash out at a “fifth column” of “scum and traitors” who will be spat out “like a gnat that accidentally flew into our mouths.” Will Putin have his “Stalin moment”? I doubt it, because Putin has gone “all in” with his pro-Jewish strategy despite its lack of benefits. Israel, always seeking to have its cake and eat it too, is currently pursuing an awkward neutrality between the US and Russia. Russia’s claims to be fighting Nazism in Ukraine haven’t provoked the slightest response from the international Jewish community, while missile strikes on Kyiv, resulting in damage to Jewish memorials, have prompted outrage. The world has more or less rejected Russia’s Holocaust narrative or, even worse for Putin, simply doesn’t care about it.
This is perhaps the most scathing criticism that can made about Putin’s Holocaust obsession — that out of desperation for moral legitimacy and soft power in the Eastern sphere he has hitched Russian foreign policy to something that should have been left to die with Mikhoels and the other propagandists after World War II. What a strange and lonely hill to die on.
 Anton Weiss-Wendt, Putin’s Russia and The Falsification of History: Reasserting Control Over the Past (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020).
 D. Shneer, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 164.
 See T. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
 Weiss-Wendt, Putin’s Russia and the Falsification of History.
 Weiss-Wendt, Putin’s Russia and the Falsification of History.