It’s all very topical for Easter Sunday with Tsarist aggression in the East back in the news—albeit updated with KGB tactics (though even there the basics were passed on by the Okhrana)—and the Jews are one of the main areas of the media war. Since Vladimir Putin’s “deniable” forces annexed the Crimea, they have moved on to stirring up trouble in the east of Ukraine proper: storming regional parliament buildings, orchestrating violent clashes between Ukraine’s security forces and “separatists,” one of whom forgot to take off his Russian Air Force t-shirt; that kind of thing.
The main justification Putin has offered for his aggression—phrased as preparing to do something, since he denies to this day that his forces are even in annexed Crimea—is that it is to protect the Russian-speaking and other minorities in Ukraine (note the similarity to Syria, where the dictator claims to be the minorities’ shield.) The Jews, claims Putin, are at risk from fascist putschists in Kiev. No matter that most Russian speakers don’t want this: in Donetsk, the area most in Russia’s orbit, almost two-thirds of Russian-speakers wish to remain in Ukraine without even “federalism”—the guise Putin has tried to get his partition and annexation of eastern Ukraine without having to fight for it. No matter that groups like Right Sector played only a minor role in the Maidan uprising—there isn’t a single identified neo-Nazi among the 100 people killed as the Yanukovych government collapsed. No matter either that Jewish leaders in Ukraine have denounced this cynical tactic. “It seems you have confused Ukraine with Russia,” the leaders of Ukraine’s Jews said in a full-page ad in the New York Times. It is in Russia where incidents of antisemitic violence are on the rise. “We have a great mutual understanding with the new government,” they noted, concluding: “We decisively call for you not to intervene in internal Ukrainian affairs, to return the Russian armed forces to their normal fixed peacetime location, and to stop encouraging pro-Russian separatism.”
These tactics were turned back on the Russian dictator in mid-week when a leaflet was distributed in Donetsk, ostensibly by the “separatist government” in Donetsk, demanding that Jews register as Jews with the local administration, pay a fine for supporting the “coup” in Kiev, and were threatened with deportation if they refused. This left one feeling that all that was missing was the demand that Jews affix a yellow star to themselves, but it was not intrinsically unbelievable. The new chauvinist, Orthodox regime in Moscow has made a habit of picking on minorities to incite a majority in its favour. The legal persecution of Russia’s homosexuals as part of Moscow’s effort to distance itself from the West is now common knowledge. The marking of the doors of Crimean Tatars with “X”s—a lethal echo of Stalin’s deportation of the entire Tatar nation in 1944 during which about half died—and the violence against Tatars since the Russian take-over of the peninsula is perhaps less well-known. But the leaflet in Donetsk turned out not to be genuine. It was either a quick-witted piece of agitprop, from the desperate authorities in Kiev or a rival “separatist” group; or it was a part of a racketeering operation from some of the gangs now roving in the east. But before it was discredited it was picked up by John Kerry, who condemned the leaflet and implicitly Putin too.
The treatment of Jews in the “Pale of Settlement” was notoriously bad, and this was especially true at Easter. It is important here to note that antisemitism is not like other forms of prejudice or racialism, which is often based on stereotype and somewhat sexualised complaints about cleanliness, certain types of cooking, overbreeding and so on. Antisemitism is different from this low, vulgar hatred of “The Other,” which is why it is actually possible to hate Jews and not be antisemitic—hating other groups is what we do as humans; that is “normal”. The assigning of cosmic evil is what differentiates antisemitism from these other forms of prejudice, and it is what makes it so dangerous. In its initial Christian form it posits the Jews as the murderers of god (which is why the violence concentrates on Easter); in the late 19th century it became racialised (while drawing on this Christian heritage); and now it hinges on Israel and its supporters, apparently the source of all the trouble in the Middle East. Antisemitism is basically a conspiracy theory, which is why it appeals so much to pseudo-intellectuals. It speaks of secret documents and gold and covert mechanisms of power over the media and the government that really direct the world—with the Jews having made only the minor mistake of writing it all down and losing the manuscript.
After a wave of pogroms swept the Russian Empire—concentrated on what is now Poland and Ukraine—in the 1880s, there came probably the most infamous pogrom in April 1903 in Kishinev, modern day Chișinău, capital of Moldova. Fliers were distributed, addressed to, “Fellow Christians,” which said: “[T]he vile Jews are not content with having shed the blood of our Savior … [e]very year they shed the innocent blood of Christians … and use it in their religious rites.” This is what is known as the “blood libel”: that Jews murder Christians—often children—and use their blood to make the Passover matzos. When the dust settled at least one hundred Jews had been murdered and several hundred injured. It confirmed to a certain Hungarian Jew, Theodor Herzl, that the Jews had no place in Europe. Herzl had begun his advocacy of Zionism—the aspiration for a Jewish homeland—after the Dreyfus affair; this was the final proof of its necessity. It was also noted by President Theodore Roosevelt as the kind of event that would trigger American intervention in Central and Southern America.
For Jews, the Russian Civil War brought a new kind of hell. The Bolsheviks were ostensibly committed to internationalism and thus would not attack the Jews but there were cases where the Great Russian chauvinism of the peasants got the better of their Bolshevism. Their opponents however partially organised their campaign of re-conquest around antisemitism, beginning the long canard that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot. In Ukraine, there were almost weekly pogroms in areas controlled by the White Army and Generals Kornilov, Denikin, and Wrangel. Even Winston Churchill, the orchestrator of the Allied intervention against Bolshevism, which he wanted “strangled in its cradle,” going through his most fascist-sympathising, non-philo-semitic stage—if only because the fascists were so anti-Communist—wrote to Britain’s commander in the field and told him to demand of Gen. Denikin that he “do everything in his power to prevent a massacre of the Jews in the liberated districts [and issue] a proclamation against anti-Semitism.” And the main opponents of the Whites in this area, before the Reds were able to move in after securing Moscow, was the “Black Army,” the ostensibly anarchist force of Nestor Makhno, which did not treat the Jews well, and the Ukrainian nationalists led by Symon Petliura, whose anti-Jewish conduct was so unmerciful that a descendent of his victims assassinated him in revenge after the war. In the east of the country it was not just the Jews who drew the short straw: this was the zone of Admiral Kolchak. The leader of the U.S. intervention forces, based in this area, wrote in his memoir: “I doubt if history will show any country … where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak.” Not coincidentally this was the era of mass-emigration of Russia’s Jews.
The Soviet Empire was not much better for Jews. Joseph Stalin was a paranoid and one form this took was antisemitism. Stalin had orchestrated a bloody purge of Jews from among the Soviet satraps in Eastern Europe and only his death averted a hysterical, sanguinary repetition against doctors inside the U.S.S.R. Jews were also refused the ability to travel to Israel after the restoration of Jewish sovereignty until the late 1980s.
As blatant Russian imperialism makes its return to the world stage, it has again the Orthodox Church in its corner. This bigoted, reactionary institution—which never broke with Stalin, let it be remembered, and put itself at his service after the Nazi invasion—has been at the head of the anti-homosexual incitement and has blessed Putin’s aggression in Ukraine as restoring the unity of “holy Russia“. Putin claims to have put a truce in force over Easter, though it looks doubtful. Even if true it is only a minor pause in hostilities. If all-out warfare returns to the haunted landscape of the Ukraine—scene of some terrible massacres during the Second World War and some of its most intense battles on the Eastern Front—the chances that lethal antisemitism is not one of the forms this war will take seem very low. Russian Orthodox chauvinism has never been good news for the Jews and, while the extent has been exaggerated by the Kremlin, there really are heirs to Stepan Bandera in Ukraine.
Update (April 20, 2014): The ceasefire is decisively dead this Easter Sunday. In Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast, gunmen opened fire on Moscow’s proxies at a checkpoint and killed Serhiy Rudenko, a local school bus driver. Moscow’s armed proxies insist that this was done by the fascistic “Right Sector”; perhaps it was. But that only re-states the problem: at least some of these Ukrainian ultra-nationalist groups are penetrated by Moscow’s intelligence services, and this behaviour is to Moscow’s benefit, driving the Russian-speakers into its arms for protection, and starting chaos that could spin out of control that it can then quell with a direct invasion that will end in occupation and partition. It’s called provokatsiya, incidentally, and it has already played out with the Kremlin’s help in Syria.