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“They were observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long,” Putin wrote. “Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”
Another influential Jewish figure for Putin was his wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, who sparked the young Putin’s interest in sports and got him off the rough streets of Leningrad, where Putin would get into fights while his parents worked. At Rakhlin’s funeral last year, Putin, reportedly overcome by emotion, ditched his security detail and went on a short, solitary walk.
Bronfman calls Putin’s childhood accounts “a smokescreen” and likens them to the Russian leader’s friendly gestures toward Israel, which he last visited in 2012.
Putin, who already led Russia to sign a visa waiver program with Israel in 2008, said during his visit to Israel that he “would not let a million Russians live under threat,” referring sympathetically to the regional dangers facing Israel and its Russian-speaking immigrant population. But at the same time Russia has criticized European sanctions on Iran, a major Russian trading partner, and negotiated the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Syria.
“It’s all pragmatic with Putin,” Bronfman said. “He says he regards the million Russian speakers living in Israel as a bridge connecting Russia to Israel, but when it comes to Russian interests in Syria or Iran, this friendship counts for very little.”
In Israel, Putin received a guided tour of the Western Wall from Lazar, who joined Putin’s entourage — vividly illustrating the president’s close ties to the Russian branch of the Chabad movement.
Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan who studies the relationship between ethnicity and politics in the former Soviet Union, said the relationship between Putin and the Chabad organization in Russia is one of mutual convenience.
Shortly after taking office, the Putin government clashed with several prominent Jewish business moguls, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, both of whom went into self-imposed exile.