Is Vladimir Putin's Embrace of Jews for Real — or Political Show?

News Analysis

Warm Guy: Vladimir Putin, shown touring a Jewish library in Moscow, has displayed much warmth to the Jewish community. Is it for real, or show?
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Warm Guy: Vladimir Putin, shown touring a Jewish library in Moscow, has displayed much warmth to the Jewish community. Is it for real, or show?

By Cnaan Liphshiz and Talia Lavin

Published March 12, 2014.
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Few would dispute that Putin has been friendly to Jewish institutional life in Russia — especially to organizations and leaders that belong to the Chabad Hasidic movement.

Gorin, a Chabad rabbi and chairman of Moscow’s $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, credits Putin personally for providing state funding for the institution, which opened in 2012. Putin also donated a month’s wages to the museum.

“Putin has facilitated the opening of synagogues and Jewish community centers across Russia, at the Jewish community’s request. This has had a profound effect on Jewish life, especially outside Moscow,” Gorin said. “He instituted annual meetings with Jewish community leaders and attends community events. His friendship with the Jewish community has given it much prestige and set the tone for local leaders.”

Putin’s relationship with the Jewish community is consistent with his larger strategy for governing Russia. His brand of Russian nationalism extends beyond just ethnic Russians to include the country’s many minorities. Putin has carefully cultivated relationships with Russia’s many subgroups and regions as a means of projecting his government’s authority.

Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, says Putin’s pro-Jewish tendencies are part of the reason that anti-Semitic incidents are relatively rare in Russia. In 2013, the Russian Jewish Congress documented only 10 anti-Jewish attacks and acts of vandalism, compared to dozens in France. Under Putin, harsh laws have led to a crackdown on ultranationalist groups that once had flourished in Russia. At the same time, anti-extremism legislation has been used as well to prosecute political protesters, including the punk rock collective Pussy Riot.

Some Russian Jews recoil at Putin’s authoritarian tendencies. Freedom of expression has been severely restricted and politically motivated prosecutions remain widespread under Putin, according to Amnesty International’s 2013 report on Russia.

“Putin may be good for Jews, but he’s bad for Russia,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a journalist for the L’chaim Jewish newspaper.

Putin traces his earliest connection to Judaism back to his early childhood in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, when he befriended a Jewish family that lived in his apartment block. In his 2000 autobiography, Putin wrote that the unnamed family loved him and that he used to seek its company.


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