Putin's Jewish Anomaly Comes as a Surprise

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Josef Stalin and President Vladimir Putin epitomize the type of leader who is ready to sacrifice the country's interests to maintain his power. Of course, Stalin and Putin used ideologies extensively for propagandistic purposes and for the legitimization of their personal power. But given the fact that they were concerned only about personal power, these two leaders were extremely flexible and open to the idea of changing the country's ideological course in any direction.

Though Putin respects Stalin as a great leader, he has condemned Stalinist repression. For example, many took note of Putin's October visit to Butovo, in the south of Moscow, where more than 20,000 people were killed during the peak years of Stalin's terror in 1937 and 1938.

Another area where Putin differs from Stalin is his policy toward Jews.

If Putin were a dogmatic leader, he would have included anti-Semitism in his public ideology. Anti-Semitism was introduced as official Soviet state ideology during Stalin's reign in the late 1930s. Jews were barred from high positions in virtually all spheres. In the media, literature and films, they were almost never shown in a positive light.

The open propaganda against Jews ran counter to Lenin's heritage and internationalism. For this reason, the Soviet authorities replaced the term "Jews" with "Zionists." Since Zionism was a "legitimate" enemy of socialism, it was easy to carry out an anti-Semitic campaign under the guise of the fight against this movement. Soviet propaganda tended to describe Zionism as a greater evil than the United States, suggesting that U.S. imperialism was merely a tool used by the Jews to conquer the world. The anti-Zionist campaign continued until the last days of the Soviet Union.

Traditional anti-Semitism, honed by Stalin over many years, was seen by his successors as a fundamental element of the Russian psyche. In Nikita Khrushchev's four-volume memoir, "Time, People, Power," he wrote a lot about Stalin's anti-Semitism. He did not, however, risk even indirectly mentioning Stalin's anti-Semitic policy in his public reports to the Party congresses in 1956 and 1961, when he harshly denounced his former boss.

The same was true about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. From the beginning of glasnost to the end of his rule, he was almost never critical of his predecessors' state policy toward Jews. Gorbachev continued to keep his distance from any involvement in the "Jewish question" and did not appoint Jews to any significant position in his administration, continuing the old Party tradition.

When Putin came to power and declared his affinity for certain elements of the Soviet empire and traditions, it was only natural to expect a gradual restoration of state anti-Semitism. During the Soviet period, there was a strong link between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, and Putin started his harsh anti-U.S. campaign in earnest in 2005. Furthermore, Putin's professional background strengthened the pessimistic expectations about the revival of a state anti-Semitic policy; since the late 1930s, the KGB was indeed a bastion of anti-Semitism.

But, contrary to what many expected, Putin has been very supportive of Jewish issues and concerns. Hence, his so-called Jewish anomaly. Taking into account all of Putin's publications, meetings and speeches since 2000, he has said more positive words about Jews than all the Russian leaders before him except Lenin. In his memoir, Putin did something that no other Russian or Soviet leader had done. With a high degree of warmth, he described a Jewish family that shared a communal apartment with his family in Leningrad. He talked about his Jewish wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, as a person who "probably played a crucial role in my life." In a meeting with Russia's chief rabbi in June 2007, he promised to donate a month's salary for the construction of a Jewish museum of tolerance. Speaking in Krakow on Jan. 27, 2005, in connection with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Putin urged other nations to consider the lessons learned from the Holocaust and warned against anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia worldwide.

What's more, he also acknowledged the existence of anti-Semitism in Russia -- a statement that none of the Soviet leaders after Lenin dared to make. No Russian leader after 1945, including Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, even indirectly mentioned the Holocaust. Such a reference was forbidden in Soviet media. Moreover, Putin was also the first Russian leader to visit Israel.

Anti-Semitism in Russia today is lower than it has been in the past seven decades. Jews in Russia are much less inclined to hide their ethnic origin or their interest in Jewish culture and religion. Although Jews in Russia continue to feel some hostility, the government has never treated Jews as well as they treat them today. In fact, state anti-Semitism -- as opposed to popular anti-Semitism -- has almost completely disappeared from the political scene. Jews or so-called half Jews hold a large number of prominent positions in the state apparatus, including the government and leading state corporations.

To be fair, however, Putin has not fully risen to the level of a Western leader on the Jewish question with regard to one issue: Unlike Western leaders, he did not openly take a position against the two most outspoken anti-Semites of our time when he met them -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the end, Putin's refusal to incorporate anti-Semitism into his domestic and foreign policy reveals his inordinate flexibility as a politician, despite his poor record on democracy and human rights and as supporter of several heinous regimes in the world.

At the same time, however, we can only speculate about Putin's motivation on this Jewish issue. Putin's foreign policy combines deep hostility toward the West with a willingness to maintain a bridge with the United States and the European Union. His positive attitude toward Jews represents another part of his dualism. By maintaining the image of a civilized ruler, Putin enhances his connection with the West and keeps many opportunities open for his future career.

If, however, the danger to Putin's elites from Russian nationalists increases, Putin could very well play the Jewish card. In this case, the Kremlin, without any compunction, could deprive its opponents of their powerful weapon, anti-Semitism, and resort to moving the regime even closer to that of Stalin. In any case, the West is dealing with a very flexible and pragmatic Russian leader.

Vladimir Shlapentokh is professor of sociology at Michigan State University.