President Vladimir Putin was that rarest of things: a Russian strongman who proudly boasted of his positive relationship with the Jewish community after centuries of pogroms and anti-Semitism that devastated both imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.
Putin became the first Russian leader to visit Israel in 2005, where he staged an emotional reunion with a former high school teacher. He elevated his Jewish childhood friends Arkady and Boris Rotenberg to the pinnacle of oligarchic power and was careful to rein in allies who used anti-Semitic phrases.
That reputation was shattered on the world stage last weekend as riotous anti-Semitic gangs roamed Russian cities looking for Jews to attack, while the Kremlin – which rarely turns a blind eye to street protests or dissent – remained resolutely silent.
The unrest began on Saturday when mobs carrying Palestinian flags attacked the Flamingo Hotel in the city of Khasavyurt in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, demanding that Jewish people not be allowed to stay. The hotel management joined the gang and put a sign on the door that read: “Entry for Jews is strictly forbidden.”
“To us it looks like the beginning of a new Holocaust in Russia.”
The Kremlin did nothing. The following day, the Jewish Cultural Center in Nalchik, the capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in southern Russia, was set on fire amid a rising wave of anti-Semitism. The attackers left clumsily written graffiti on the wall that read: “Death to Yahuds.” [an Arabic word for Jews].”
Still, Putin remained silent, and the rampaging mob felt emboldened. By Sunday evening, a crowd of more than 1,500 people stormed Dagestan’s Makhachkala airport to meet a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.
A local lawmaker in St. Petersburg, Boris Vishnevsky, told The Daily Beast he was outraged by Moscow’s impotence. “There are not many words that the Russian language has given to the world; the word “pogrom” is one of them. Today, the community of about 150,000 Russian Jews cannot feel safe, there is no one to defend us,” Vishnevsky told The Daily Beast. “The Kremlin is silent… Criminal cases must be opened and investigations into this nationalist hatred must be opened.” What is it? Who allows this? Who is responsible?”
Putin’s rhetoric toward the Jewish community has taken a drastic turn in recent months, perhaps out of desperation – because his own power base is at risk – perhaps out of his fascination with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewishness.
The Ukrainian leader is destroying Putin’s legacy by leading a vigorous defense of his nation against Russian invasion, and his faith has ridiculed Putin’s claims to rid Ukraine of neo-Nazis.
This summer, Putin tried to square the circle by claiming that his old Jewish friends had told him that Zelensky was a disgrace to the Jewish people. (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s attempt was even more ridiculous, This suggests that Adolf Hitler himself had Jewish blood.)
But Putin now appears to have slipped even further to the dark side, as his propagandists spread the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the US installed a Jewish president in Ukraine to cover up the Nazi takeover in Ukraine.
When he finally addressed the anti-Semitic uprising in the Caucasus on Monday, the Russian president again delved into conspiracy theories and blamed the United States for the marauding gangs.
In September, Putin himself openly mocked the Jewish community. Referring to a former confidant who fled to Israel after the audacious invasion of Ukraine, Putin said: “He is no longer Anatoly Borisovich Chubais, but now a certain Moshe Israelevich.”
“Why is he doing this?” he asked rhetorically, bringing up the age-old anti-Semitic claim that Jews are motivated only by money.
The Kremlin’s top ideologues, Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanovhave I have never shied away from their anti-Semitism. But anti-Jewish propaganda has reached even greater proportions since Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on October 7, with many officials siding with the Palestinians and ignoring Israel’s rights.
Putin refused to condemn Hamas for the massacre and hosted a Hamas delegation in Moscow last week. A prominent Russian Jewish expert claimed there were many anti-Semites in the ranks of Russian government officials who were “more alive” after the attack. Before he could be fired from his television station, Yevgeny Satanovsky said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was “a hard-drinking bitch who doesn’t like Jews and can’t stand Israel.”
In this climate, radicals believed that the weekend’s events in Dagestan and the Caucasus would be tolerated. The Jewish minority community in the region is shaken.
“This is caveman anti-Semitism. If the attackers had found Jews on the plane, they would have torn them to pieces. “I was shocked and horrified when I saw the videos of the Jewish hunt,” Georgia-based journalist Misha Dzhinzhikashvili told The Daily Beast. “We met Dagestan’s mountain Jews in Azerbaijan and in Tbilisi, where many mountain Jews moved in different years and where we have two synagogues. We Jews in the Caucasus have always led a peaceful life; even in the worst years of pogroms in Ukraine or Moldova, no one attacked us.”
She said the threat is greater today than ever before. “The hatred boiled over and showed its face, it is ugly, wild,” Dzhinzhikashvili said.
A Moscow family of Jewish engineers, Alla and Grigory, who asked not to use their middle names for security reasons, watched the anti-Semitic riots with horror. “To us, it looks like the beginning of a new Holocaust in Russia, something we never thought we would see long enough,” Alla told The Daily Beast. “Just recently I took my little granddaughter to a Jewish kindergarten, but today I would be afraid to take her there – it’s too dangerous.”
Hatred drove more than two million Jews from the USSR – the post-World War II emigration was one of the largest in history – and their families fled to Israel and Germany. and the United States. Alla and Grigory are living witnesses of several decades of state anti-Semitism. “Soviet Jews could not attend universities, state institutions did not employ Jews, and there were very few professional opportunities for us. Both state and everyday anti-Semitism were overwhelming; When I gave birth to my daughter in a Moscow hospital, a nurse told me I was fat because I was Jewish,” Alla told The Daily Beast. “Many of our friends emigrated, but we stayed to see a change for the better and visit the Kremlin with the Russian-Jewish Congress.”
In the 1990s, the situation changed dramatically for the better: Jewish businessmen and politicians founded the Russian-Jewish Congress and oligarchs donated millions of dollars to synagogues and Jewish centers across the country. For decades, Putin personally supported Russian Jews, particularly the Chabad-affiliated community that was loyal to him. Russia ranked better than countries like Hungary and Ukraine on the global anti-Semitism index. In 2019, Putin stood on stage outside the Jewish Museum in Moscow between Victor Vekselberg, a Jewish oligarch and donor to local synagogues, and Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar.
Now concerns about violent anti-Semitism have returned. “We fear anti-Semitic pogroms by Tatar and Bashkir Muslims even more than by Muslims in the North Caucasus, since these republics are much closer to Moscow and are very rich,” Grigory told The Daily Beast.
Down in the Caucasus, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, sometimes known as “Putin’s soldier,” has loudly promoted his support for the Palestinians and even claimed he would send Russian troops to help them.
“We support Palestine. The West and Europe are joining forces to destroy Palestine, and what do we do? We will define who is right and who is wrong. Where are you, Muslims?” Kadyrov wrote on social media. He regularly flaunts his faith to demonstrate his authority before Russia’s 15 million-strong Muslim community.
In Dagestan, locals believe the lack of Muslim leaders contributed to the escalation over the weekend. They assume that more responsive officials would have diverted the flight from Tel Aviv when Telegram threats of a raid on the airport began circulating. “We Muslims of Dagestan accuse our authorities of appointing Russian officials to our republic. They have no sense of reality, they allow a plane from Israel to land here when our people are on the side of Palestine. It’s the authorities’ fault, no one else’s,” Magomed Shamilov, a retired police officer and human rights defender from Dagestan, told The Daily Beast.
The Muslim-majority Republic of Dagestan counts more than 33 ethnic groups, including a community of Mountain Jews – Jews of Persian descent – made up of just a few hundred people who live quietly in the 5,000-year-old city of Derbent, near the border with Azerbaijan. Derbent’s Rabbi Ovadyu Isakov was shot in the chest by Islamist militants in 2013.
“Kadyrov candidly says that Jews are ‘the biggest enemies of Islam,'” a 27-year-old Muslim resident of Khasavyurt, Idris, told The Daily Beast. “Of course, Kadyrov would never defend the passengers who flew from Israel when Palestine is being bombed and destroyed. He knows that Muslims should not allow this.”
Whether the plane had been diverted to avoid the mob or not, hundreds of Russians already posed a terrible threat to the safety of the Jews.
Sergei Babinets, a defense attorney whose anti-torture team provides legal support to victims of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, said Putin missed the issue emerging in Dagestan by distancing himself, just as his law enforcement agencies overlooked anti-torture efforts. Last year there were Ukrainian war protests in Dagestan.
After the authorities finally made an effort to end the unrest on Sunday evening, numerous arrests were made. Babinets said it was in everyone’s interest to ensure troublemakers were treated well given the current tensions in the region. “After the attack on the airport, over 80 protesters are in prison, I hope they are not tortured,” he said. “Because Jews would be blamed for it too – Jews could even be blamed for the bad weather these days.”