Lies About “Nazis” in Ukraine

Alexander Vindman / Substack
Lies About “Nazis” in Ukraine President Zelenskyy meeting with Jewish Leaders during Hanukkah. (Photo: AFP)

Info Ops by Putin and MAGA Republicans

The “denazification of Ukraine,'' as Vladimir Putin claims, is one of the primary goals of his unprovoked war of aggression. The word choice is meant to evoke memories of denazification of Germany following World War II – an affront to the historical memory of victory over Nazism. Several subscribers have asked me about this and I wanted to give you a thoughtful response.

The myth of Ukrainian fascism, as defined by Israeli academic Vyacheslav Likhachev, has been perpetrated by Russian propaganda long before Ukraine was invaded in 2022. Its objective is to shift the blame for Eastern Europe’s shared history of antisemitism onto Ukraine. Putin seeks to portray Ukraine as a country where antisemitism is essential to the national character. Thus, in his mind at least, it allows him to distort and discredit Ukraine’s centuries-old movement for self-government and independence. The main pillars of this propaganda are built upon a real history of pogroms in Ukraine and Ukrainian collaborationism during World War II. However, the burden of guilt is not Ukraine’s alone and can in large part be attributed to Russian nationalism.

In the late 19th century, pogroms endorsed by Russian imperial authorities drove populations from Moldova, Ukraine, and Bessarabia into exile including all the way to the United States (think Fiddler on the Roof). Preceding these, the Russian Empire instituted laws implementing the Pale of Settlement. These were discriminatory and restrictive policies which dictated where Jewish populations could settle, study, and work. Segregating Jews was a deliberate attempt to create a scapegoat and to exclude the Jewish minority from full participation in the life of the state. Russian authorities blamed Jews for social ills and during times of public unrest the policy of segregation turned Jewish communities into easy targets.

Exploiting antisemitism for political gain is not new in Russia. In 1911, the Russian Empire was shaken by the infamous Beilis Trial. Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew, was falsely accused of “ritual murder” of a 13-year-old child in an antisemitic smear campaign. The turbulent political environment in the lead-up to and following the Russian Revolution and Civil War only exacerbated the severity of anti-Jewish violence. Subsequent history of antisemitism in the USSR included the "anti-cosmopolitan" campaigns of the 1940s and early 1950s that targeted Jewish intellectuals. The Doctors’ Plot of 1952 was another famous campaign that falsely accused a group of Jewish doctors of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leadership, only for the accused to be posthumously rehabilitated after Stalin’s death in 1953. Systemic antisemitism followed Jews everywhere they went, perpetuated by the famous “nationality” clause in Soviet passports that exposed minorities to discrimination in the workplace and institutions of higher education. Russian imperial policies that endangered Jews and used their persecution to state a political point continued throughout the existence of the USSR and found its place in modern Russia.

Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin has stated that Ukraine’s democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelensky is simultaneously “not Jewish” and a “disgrace to the faith.” The only incumbent Jewish head of state outside of Israel, Zelensky has a family history of persecution during the Holocaust. He first spoke about this publicly when a Russian missile struck Babyn Yar, the memorial site in Kyiv commemorating the victims of the large-scale massacre carried out by Nazi Germany. Zelensky’s presidential campaign did not prompt a wave of antisemitism in Ukrainian society, and his Jewishness did not become a subject of political debate. On the contrary, it became a testament to the way Ukraine has changed. Since Hamas’ terrorist attack of October 7th, 2023, Zelensky has been vocal about Ukraine’s support for Israel defending itself against terrorism. “Let the value of human life and the intolerance of terror be the principles that will finally unite the whole world,” Zelensky said.

A home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, Ukraine welcomes Jewish day schools and religious centers. Even with Russian aggression persisting and missile strikes taking place every day, Ukraine’s holy sites such as Uman still serve as places of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of religious Jews. Exaggerated talk of far-right militant groups and extremist parties in the government fails to paint a fair picture of modern Ukraine. One of Putin’s favorite talking points is the Azov Brigade, a fighter unit of the Ukrainian army, famous for its resistance in Azovstal, Mariupol. Although initially launched as a right-wing militia when Ukraine was first invaded in 2014, Azov attracted non-ideological recruits for its reputation as an effective resistance force while the rest of Ukraine’s military was still getting its bearings. Shortly after, Azov became fully integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Under the supervision of the state, extremist elements in the unit were marginalized and expelled. The brigade’s emblem and leadership were changed, with its new commander Denys Prokopenko being named Hero of Ukraine by President Zelensky. Azov’s reputation as defenders of Mariupol – including the city’s sizeable Jewish community – grew to legendry status. The desire to portray modern-day Azov as the proof of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi leanings falls short of evidence. Moreover, unlike in many major European countries, there are no neofascist or far-right groups elected to the Ukrainian parliament. The idea that Jews face mass persecution from the Ukrainian state or society is simply a myth.

None of this is to suggest that antisemitism does not exist in Ukraine. This pernicious, ancient bigotry unfortunately continues to plague the democratic world, as can be seen in recent spikes of anti-Jewish hate crimes in the United States and Western Europe. However, Ukraine has progressed more than almost any other country in dealing with its troubled legacy, and in many ways serves as a model for reconciliation. I hope that Russia too can someday take similar steps towards progress.

Why It Matters: Putin exploits the Soviet army’s role in defeating Nazi Germany in order to establish a historical parallel between World War II and his invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian patriotism centers the country’s right to self-determination away from Russia and towards democratic values, so it is in Putin’s interest to present Ukraine as antisemitic and hostile to its minorities. As the U.S. State Department’s antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt puts it: “Putin’s continued focus on this topic and ‘denazification’ narrative is clearly intended to distract from Russia’s war of aggression against the Ukrainian people.” Ukraine lit the largest menorah in Europe this Hanukkah, with its first Jewish president in office and many Jewish Ukrainians fighting on the front lines. Ukrainians of every background are showing their willingness to be united in their struggle to survive as a nation.

Note: Narratives around Ukraine filled with Nazis and the corrupt are employed by Ukraine’s opponents to undercut support. I’ll look to publish an article on corruption in the future.

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