Many anecdotes circulate in Russia to illustrate President Vladimir Putin’s positive attitude toward individual Jews and toward the Jewish community generally. There is the story about the retired teacher who Putin called on during an official visit to Israel in 2005. She had not seen him since she made aliyah to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1973. But before Putin left Israel, he ensured that his former teacher was living comfortably in a new apartment in the best part of Tel Aviv.

Putin is said to have wept at the funeral of his Jewish wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, whom he regarded as a father figure. Then there is the story of his affection for a family of poor religious Jews who lived in his Leningrad apartment block and who took care of him when he was growing up. Among Putin’s lifelong Jewish friends, many of them now billionaire “oligarchs”2, are Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg, Putin’s judo sparring partners in their youth, when all three were streetwise toughs.

Puttin-Rabbis

President Vladimir Putin with a meeting of
prominent Rabbis

Today, Putin’s Jewish circle includes community leaders such as Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is com­monly known as ‘Putin’s Rabbi’. Indeed, the list of Putin’s Jewish acquaintances is long and includes oligarch Moshe Kantor, owner of Acron Group, a world leader in fertilizers, and diamond mogul Lev Leviev. Both hold powerful positions in the inter­national Jewish community, such as the European Jewish Congress and the Federation of the Jewish Communities of the Confederation of Independent States. Putin’s other Jewish associates include oil and aluminium magnate Roman Abramovich and industrial tycoon Victor Vekselberg.

Putin, it seems, has no apparent problem with Jews being both Jews and Russians, which is ex­ceptional for a Russian leader. Both Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev did improve conditions for Jews, but were ambivalent about anti-Semitism. Prior to Gorbachev, while most communist leaders officially denounced anti-Semitism, they opposed Zionism and expressions of Jewish identity. This was particularly the case when Stalin was in power. Under the tsars, of course, the Jews were uniformly oppressed. Thus, a Russian president who is friendly to Jews is an extremely welcome development for Russian Jews.

Anton Nossik, an Internet start-up pioneer who returned to Russia from Israel in 1997, says that Putin himself is not visibly anti-Semitic. He has, says Nossik, surrounded himself with Jews. He even donated a month of his presidential salary to the Jewish Museum in Moscow, where his name is listed as a supporter on the Museum wall. However, Nossik acknowledges that “if someone is Jewish and gets in Putin’s way, he will be crushed without second thoughts.”

And a few unfortunate Jews have got in Putin’s way. Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky was the first Jewish oligarch to be crushed by Putin. He fell into disfavour because of his television station’s cover­age of Russia’s war with Chechnya, the breakaway Muslim republic in the Caucasus. Gusinsky was arrested in 2000, stripped of most of his assets, and now lives quietly as an exile in Britain.

Boris Berezovsky is another example. He sug­gested to the then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, that he choose Putin as his successor. As Putin successfully strengthened his position and power base, Berezovsky became a bitter enemy and funded a campaign in an attempt to remove Putin from power. The attempt failed and Berezovsky, who had earlier fled Russia, died in exile in Britain in 2013.

Then there is the celebrated case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Yukos Oil, who was worth an estimated 15 billion US dollars in 2004. He fell into disfavour, but refused to flee or ask for forgiveness and spent eight years in prison for opposing the Russian president. Stripped of most of his assets and currently in exile in Switzerland, Khodorkovsky has since been accused of murder by the Russian authorities. Leonid Nevzlin, his deputy at Yukos, left Russia for Israel when he had the opportunity in 2003.

Nor is Putin above using the Jews to justify his actions, even in international relations. When Russia annexed Crimea, Putin’s supporters in the Russian Jewish community drew attention to al­leged anti-Semitism in Ukraine, which cast Putin in the role of protector of the Jews. Ukraine has a long history of anti-Semitism which culminated in the country’s slaughter of Jews during the Nazi occupation. The present government of Ukraine is portrayed by Putin as fascist and heir to the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi nationalists of World War 2.

But all this notwithstanding, it appears that it has never been easier or safer to be Jewish in Russia than under Putin’s rule. Moreover, as recently as January 2016, Putin invited Europe’s Jews to move to Russia to escape persecution in the West.3

And yet we know that Gog, the autocrat of Russia, will fulfil the role assigned him in Ezekiel 38 and Daniel 11: the invasion and devastation of the Jewish people living comfortably and confidently in the Land of Israel in the latter days (Ezek 38:8). Israel’s true saviour and protector is their rejected Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, not President Putin of Russia. It is Christ who will overthrow Gog and his confederacy, and gather the Jews back to their land “from the land of the North, and from all lands whither [God] had driven them” (Jer 16:15).

Footnotes

  1. The main sources for this article: Konstanty Gebert, “Putin’s Jews”, Moment Magazine 5 November 2015 [Online] URL: http://www.momentmag.com/putins-jews/ Marsha Gessen, The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin, London: Granta Books, 2012.
  2. “Oligarch” is the popular term used in Russia to describe the entrepreneurs who became extremely wealthy by investing in state assets following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the oligarchs are Jews.
  3. Claire Bigg, “Putin’s invitation to European Jews sparks mixed reactions”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty January 20, 2016. [Online] URL: http://www.rferl.org/content/putin-invitation-european-jews-reaction-mockery/27499866.html