Even Vladimir Putin’s staunchest opponents generally concede that whatever else the Russian president may be, he’s not an anti-Semite. Some of Putin’s closest confidants have been Jews, including his judo coach and surrogate father, and his childhood friends the Rotenberg brothers—now, not coincidentally, two of Russia’s richest men. He has supported Jewish institutions, including personally donating to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. He has also personally intervened in cases of anti-Semitic discrimination. This may seem like a low bar, but given Russia’s history, these are welcome gestures.
So it was jarring to hear the president seem to lapse into old-fashioned anti-Semitism in an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly. Asked about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Putin said of the perpetrators, “Maybe they’re not even Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked.” This seemingly implies not only that Jews may have been behind the meddling, but that Russian citizens who are Jews (or Ukrainians or Tatars—a long marginalized Muslim minority group) are not really Russian.
It’s possible, as some writers have suggested, that the comment was a dog whistle to Putin’s nationalist base, with Russia’s own presidential elections just a week away. (There’s no chance of Putin losing, but he’d like turnout and excitement to be high anyway.) Anti-Semitic statements are certainly nothing new from members of the president’s political party or his supporters. Last year, an Orthodox bishop who is often referred to as Putin’s personal confessor announced that he was setting up a commission to investigate whether the 1918 killing of Czar Nicholas II was a “ritual murder”—an old anti-Semitic theory. The pro-Kremlin website Russia Insider recently published a lengthy op-ed arguing that it was “time to drop the Jew taboo,” claiming that “hostility to Putin’s Russia is largely a Jewish phenomenon” and vowing to investigate Jewish power in media and politics.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that Putin made the remark not in the Russian media, but in an interview with an American outlet. Given that evidence that Russia has sought to exploit ethnic and racial divisions in the United States and other countries, Putin’s comments may have been directed less at his own base than at Donald Trump’s.