Russia Renders the Word "Nazi" Meaningless
Why May 9 matters in Russian propaganda
Anti-Semitism is not widespread in Russia. According to a 2015 Levada Center poll, about eight percent of Russians held negative attitudes towards Jews, not a meaningfully different percentage than the United States.
That's why it might have seemed unusual for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to dabble in rank anti-Semitism this past week. Lavrov was asked how Russia could "de-Nazify" Ukraine given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. He answered, "I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. The wise Jewish people said that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews." There's no evidence that Hitler was part Jewish.
His comments caused a diplomatic row with Israel, which was one of the few countries to remain neutral at the outset of the war, although it has begun to send Ukraine weapons. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the comments were “lies,” “racist,” and “oozing anti-Semitism." The diplomatic furor, however, appears to have died down for the time being. According to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office, Putin apologized and "[Bennett] thanked him for clarifying his attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust." The Russian statement said the two discussed the Holocaust but did not mention an apology.
The episode illustrates how illogical Russia's propaganda has become during its war with Ukraine. Putin has said that Ukraine's democratically-elected government in Kyiv is run by "neo-Nazis." To square the circle of a Jew leading a "neo-Nazi" government, Lavrov has to say, well, Nazis were Jews too. The Russian government uses the word "Nazi" to mean anyone who opposes its policies, particularly if they're Ukrainian. Zelensky can be a "Nazi," despite having relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Russia defeated Nazi Germany in 1945. The Russian state commemorates the win each year on Victory Day on May 9. Putin's propaganda reduces World War II to defeating the Nazis, because that victory made Russia into one of the two superpowers, along with the United States. Putin is making Russia great again by fighting "Nazis" in Ukraine.
According to Russian propaganda, if Moscow is ridding Ukrainians from "Nazis," then it cannot be guilty of mass killings in the Kyiv suburbs such as Bucha. Those genocidal acts had to have been done by Ukrainian "Nazis" because that's what German Nazis did. The Russian government has engaged in victim-blaming with Ukraine, similar to what Lavrov said about the Holocaust -- grossly implying that the Jews did it to themselves. Bennett's office said that "such lies are meant to blame the Jews themselves" and thus free Nazis "from their responsibility."
The Ukraine war is not the Holocaust -- it is its own tragedy. But the way the Russian government is using the word "Nazi" is part of a totalitarian playbook to render language meaningless and eliminate our shared understanding of reality -- including the reality of Russian war crimes.
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