WARSAW — Just before the sun set over Auschwitz on January 27, ending the international ceremonies that marked the 60th anniversary of the notorious death camp’s liberation, President Vladimir Putin of Russia stepped forward to receive a medal from Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of the two men who claims the title of chief rabbi of Russia.
Lazar, a Lubavitch Hasid known for his close ties to Putin’s Kremlin, awarded Putin the so-called Salvation medal as a symbol of “the Jewish people’s gratitude” to Russia for liberating the camp. Lazar told a Moscow press conference beforehand that the medal would be given in the future “to people who saved and hid Jews during the war.” A similar medal was given to the president of Poland, Aleksandr Kwasniewski, for hosting the ceremony.
In the days since, as Israeli and Jewish leaders have scrambled to distance themselves from the medal, Lazar’s gesture has come to symbolize in some eyes the growing international debate over Putin’s real intentions. Putin is under fire for growing signs of autocracy at home, warming toward radical regimes in Syria and Iran and a slow response to mounting Russian antisemitism.
At the Auschwitz commemoration, which drew leaders from 40 nations, Putin spoke passionately of the Nazis’ “atrocities” and openly admitted for the first time that antisemitism was on the rise in his own country. “No one can remain indifferent towards the acts of antisemitism, xenophobia and racial intolerance,” Putin told a forum in Krakow, before the ceremony at the death camp itself. He added, “Even in our country we sometimes, unfortunately, see manifestations of this problem, and I, too, am ashamed of that.”
In the last week, however, Putin has come under fire for a series of actions — and omissions — that critics say belie his words. Eastern European leaders complained that he failed at Auschwitz to acknowledge the Soviet tyranny that replaced the Nazis. Numerous observers noted tartly that he was the only speaker at the camp to omit any explicit mention of Jews. Critics at home complain that he has failed to speak out directly against a recent antisemitic statement by a group of Russian politicians, leaving it to other government ministries to respond.
Meanwhile, Israel and its allies are voicing alarm over an apparent shift in Moscow’s Middle East policy. Putin confirmed to reporters in Krakow that Russia intended to proceed with a planned missile sale to Syria, despite Israeli protests. This week Iran and Russia reached an agreement on disposal of spent nuclear fuel, clearing the way for Russia to fire up Iran’s first nuclear power plant.
Israeli and Western analysts have been watching Putin’s foreign policy with mounting distress for the last year or so. Partly as a result of the expansion of Nato and the European Union into Eastern Europe, Russia has been growing increasingly defensive and suspicious toward the West. Moreover, analysts say, the Iraq war has driven a wedge between the Putin and Bush administrations and spurred Russia to seek its own Middle East alliances.
Putin’s appearance at Auschwitz did little to ease suspicions. Omitting mention of Jews, he focused on Russia’s wartime suffering and on the role of the Red Army in liberating Eastern Europe from the Nazis.
The remarks caused widespread unhappiness in Eastern Europe. “Russia is celebrating the liberation,” Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council for Foreign Relations, told the International Herald Tribune. “But it was the beginning of a new tyranny in Eastern Europe and some parts of Western Europe.”
Jewish community leaders took a cautious approach, praising Putin for attending the ceremony at all. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the president of Russia has attended such an event,” said Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich. “This is a crucial first step in including Russia in those countries that actively remember the Holocaust.” Still, he voiced disappointment at Putin’s failure to speak of Jewish suffering.
At home, meanwhile, Putin “does just enough to keep the Jewish community and the international community off his back,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “What is missing is the will of his government to use the instruments of law and order to show these antisemitic incidents are unacceptable.”
Lazar, the Moscow Lubavitcher, was named chief rabbi of Russia in May 2000 at a gathering of Russian Lubavitch representatives, who do not recognize the long-serving chief rabbi chosen in the 1980s, Adolph Shayevich, a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Since then Lazar and his allies have grown increasingly close to Putin’s circle, while Shayevich and his allies are often identified with Putin’s democratic opponents.
Speaking through an aide, Lazar told the Forward that he had decided to honor Putin in order to recognizing the Soviet army’s role in liberating Auschwitz.
Lazar told a press conference that he would be presenting the Salvation award at Auschwitz together with the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav. But a Katsav political adviser, Avi Granot, said the Israeli leader had no knowledge of it and would not be a “partner to it.”
The dismissive Israeli response was typical of those interviewed about the award. “Rabbi Lazar represents Chabad of Russia, not the Jews of Russia and certainly not European Jewry or world Jewry,” one prominent European rabbi told the Forward, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Many people were surprised by this, as this was not on the official program the day before the event,” Schudrich said. “While I certainly understand the desire to say ‘thank you’ to world leaders, the choice of place and time was simply not appropriate. This time and place was to remember and mourn and not to give out awards.”