It likely wasn’t a coincidence that the U.S. State Department published a report on Russian antisemitism directly ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
That date marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp by the Red Army.
“Vladimir Putin loves using this specific occasion to talk about the glorious deeds of the Red Army and the fact that the USSR ended the Holocaust, and therefore was a friend of the Jews,” Izabella Tabarovsky, a Jewish American expert on Soviet and contemporary left antisemitism, told JNS, referring to Russia’s president.
“He used to make this point to the Israelis, and there were discussions a few years back among his propagandists about using this highly circumscribed set of facts to turn the global Jewish community to Russia’s side,” she said. “The State Department’s report is a nasty present to him in this regard.”
The special report from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center—called “More Than a Century of Antisemitism: How Successive Occupants of the Kremlin Have Used Antisemitism to Spread Disinformation and Propaganda”—ties together more than 100 years of Tsarist, Soviet and Russian antisemitism. And now, Moscow has weaponized it to “discredit, divide and weaken their perceived adversaries at home and abroad.”
The report notes that much of the Kremlin’s antisemitic propaganda currently targets Ukraine and its Jewish leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has referenced Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s alleged Jewish heritage.
“The Kremlin falsely portrays Ukraine and its supporters as Nazis, antisemites and Russophobes, demonizes Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, accuses Jews of being the worst Nazis and manipulates the history of the Holocaust for political purposes,” the State Department report reads.
“Today, Kremlin officials and Russia’s state-run or state-controlled media spread conspiracy theories, fueling antisemitism intended to deceive the world about its war against Ukraine. These tactics build on a long tradition of exploiting antisemitism to create division and discontent,” the report adds.
‘Misuse of the Holocaust idea’
Tabarovsky, a Kennan Institute Senior Advisor on Regional Partnerships and Programming at the Wilson Center, says Moscow’s antisemitic aims at Kyiv ballooned during its first invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia has been calling Ukrainians Nazis since 2014,” she said, dating the targeting to Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea. “Already then, Russian propaganda was talking about a need to de-Nazify Ukraine. But it really exploded in 2022, and this misuse of the Holocaust idea.”
She said the Kremlin takes the attitude that “we’ve liberated the Jews, and we have been on Jews’ side. It’s a complete lie, but they feel like it sort of gives them carte blanche.”
Tabarovsky estimates the demonization was tied partly to the Kremlin’s aim to “speak to and motivate some of their patriotic constituencies at home, that they were relying on to fight against Ukraine.”
She points to the collective sense of Russian identity built around the Red Army’s World War II victory over the Nazis.
The victory “wasn’t just Russia’s, but they have appropriated that victory completely for themselves as though nobody else participated in it,” Tabarovsky said. “And they often use it to position themselves as proponents of the Jewish people—as though this whole entire history of Russian and Soviet antisemitism doesn’t exist.”
While the State Department report itself doesn’t mention Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, Tabarovsky points to the aftermath of that event as another example of Russia’s antisemitic propaganda war being fought against Israel.
The report touches heavily on the Kremlin’s historical Zionist conspiracy theories and its lifting of the Zionism-is-racism mantle.
Moscow has been heavily critical of Israel’s response to Oct. 7 and has been reticent to condemn Hamas’s actions. The Kremlin is increasingly intertwined with Iran, Hamas’s financial and ideological benefactor.
Just this weekend, former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested some pro-Hamas protesters in America are connected to Russia, and that some of the protesters’ financing “should be investigated,” by the FBI.
Tabarovsky said the State Department report “possibly unintentionally,” can be “useful in this kind of massive disinformation effort that’s going on right now that’s directed against Israel.”