Speaking to Russian state television, Putin made an absurd and anti-semitic attack on President Zelenskyy’s ethnicity. “Western curators”, he said, “have put a person at the head of modern Ukraine – an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, with Jewish origins” in order to assist with “covering up the glorification of Nazism”. His words are as absurd as they are ignorant. However, they show the real nature of the Russian regime.
Ukraine is home to different ethnic and religious groups. We have indigenous peoples, we have minorities that live compactly on a certain territory or are scattered all over the country. Our country unites more than a hundred different ethnic groups. But our strength is that ethnicity and heritage have never really been a subject of discussion or debate.
Did people know about Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots before the war? Most likely yes; he’s discussed it in an interview. But before the 2019 presidential election, during it, or after, you won’t find a single public statement from the President emphasising his roots, nor political opponents attacking him for them. Why would he? Why would they? Ukraine is a tolerant nation that does not judge people by their ethnic origins.
Just look at the recent political appointments. Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar, Qirimli, a Muslim, is now Ukraine’s Minister of Defence. How can a Muslim be a minister in a country run by “Nazis”? How could an Afro-Ukrainian become one of the most prominent and respected members of our presidential faction in parliament? Putin’s words are pure absurdity.
But they also show the dark direction his country is heading in. While Ukraine was building a political nation where all ethnic groups are an integral part of the whole, Russia was developing ethnic nationalism. Knowing Russia’s history well, it is not hard to guess where it will lead to.
At its core, modern Russia is still an aggressive chauvinist neo-empire. And with his imperial narrative, Putin is reopening Pandora’s box, with the same homegrown anti-Semitism, chauvinism and xenophobia we’ve seen before. One can recall the Soviet period, when Jews were considered “enemies of the people” and were advised not to be hired anywhere in high-level posts. Or more recently, in the 1990s, when the term “natsmen” (nation minority member) was popularized in Russia, a derogatory term used to stigmatize all non-ethnic Russians in the country.
Instead of building a tolerant modern democratic state, Putin is setting Russia several centuries back. In his imagination his country is powerful, but in reality it’s a failed state, the country of the Black Hundreds – far-Right chauvinists who organised pogroms. In a sense, if Putin is already allowing himself such petty statements, Russia has already slipped into the dark ages of its history.
Ukraine stands in stark contrast as a country where indigenous languages are supported at the state level, where people do not hide their origin and moreover can be proud of it. This country, where the chief mufti goes to the front and the chief rabbi goes on humanitarian missions and meets with the commander-in-chief, is described as neo-Nazi by the Russians. At the same time the same Russians indulge in anti-Semitic rhetoric even as the government targets ethnic minorities from the poorest regions of the country to bear the brunt of casualties in the war. This absurdity would be ridiculous if we did not know what tragedies usually follow.
Dmytro Natalukha is a member of the Ukrainian parliament and head of the Economic Affairs Committee