Putin’s neo-Nazi smear springs from Soviet version of history

He hoped to persuade his own people that the invasion of Ukraine is a liberation of Russians who were the victims


Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the National Space Centre construction site in Moscow on February 27, 2022. (Photo by Sergei GUNEYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GUNEYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

When President Vladimir Putin set out his reasons for launching an invasion of Ukraine, they were as contradictory and confused as his grasp of history. On the one hand, he aimed to show Ukraine “real de-communisation”. On the other, he said he was embarking upon a project of “de-nazification”. Why did he seize upon this language to justify his war of aggression? First, it is necessary to understand how Russia has used the Great Patriotic War as the lynchpin of its identity.

To be clear about the facts, Putin’s allegation that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis is absurd. Ukraine’s Jewish community experienced successive waves of antisemitic violence in the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Tsarist Pogroms in Odessa to the Holocaust, and thereafter Stalin’s hostility towards Jews. Modern Ukraine by contrast is a pluralistic democracy. President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, elected on 72.3 per cent of the vote in the second round of the 2019 election. Alongside Ukraine’s vibrant Jewish community, tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews go on annual pilgrimage to the city of Uman where Rabbi Nachman is buried.

The “evidence” of neo-Nazism that pervades Russian propaganda about Ukraine concerns the Azov movement, an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian political party with a military wing. This movement contains neo-Nazis. Furthermore, during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the organisers were clear about the need for unity in the face of the threat from Russia and therefore did not challenge some of the less savoury groups who joined their cause. Despite this, Azov remains a minority movement in Ukraine.

Its prominence is in no small part a result of Russia’s amplification of its activities and pronouncements. And that is the irony of Putin’s promise of “de-nazification”. The Kremlin funds and promotes extreme-right wing nationalism at home and abroad.

To understand why Putin used this language, it is necessary to appreciate that Nazism has quite different connotations in Russia than in the West. In 1945, the Soviet Union emerged from four years of brutal fighting, in which 27 million Soviet citizens had been killed. But for the Russian state to vilify Nazi Germany for its use of concentration camps would have been politically complicated at a time when the Gulag population was swelling rapidly with liberated Soviet prisoners of war. For Stalin, those who surrendered were traitors, and so hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers found themselves sent to penal colonies.

Over the following two decades, a deep and widespread cynicism developed about communism inside the Soviet Union. But for all Soviet citizens, there was nevertheless pride in their defeat of the invaders. The Great Patriotic War therefore became the centrepiece of late Soviet ideology as a unifying experience about which communist or cynic could agree that their cause was righteous.

The case of Soviet author Vasily Grossman — the son of a Jewish Ukrainian family — is instructive. A journalist who reported from Stalingrad and later interviewed Nazi camp officials from Treblinka, Grossman worked after the war to document Nazi crimes against Jews, only to have his labours censored by the authorities. At the time, the Communist Party suppressed the notion that the Nazis specifically targeted Jews rather than Soviet citizens in general.

In Grossman’s magnum opus, Life And Fate, communism and Nazism were presented as ultimately similar ideologies. These intermingled reference points of the 20th century are relevant today because they culminate in a Russian population which associates Nazism less with the Holocaust than with the trauma of a war of aggression that sought to exterminate the Russian people.

It was this sense of being attacked to which Putin was appealing. By over-emphasising Azov as representative of Kyiv’s government, and endlessly telling stories of a “genocide” against the ethnic Russians of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, Putin hoped to persuade his own people that the invasion is a liberation of Russians who were the victims.

The promise of de-communisation was rather more personal for Putin. While he admired the power of the Soviet empire, he and many other intelligence officers who had lived in the West harboured little respect for communist ideology. Indeed, for Putin, Lenin’s revolution was not a triumph, but the infiltration of Russia by a German-sponsored agent who had destroyed the Russian Empire. Now facing the threat of contagion from a revolutionary democratic government in Kyiv, the threat of de-communisation speaks to a pervasive fear of subversion through “colour revolution”.

The challenge for Putin is that his assessment of Ukrainian society proved inaccurate. The Ukrainians did not fold and he has entered a protracted and bloody war.
In drawing on the rhetoric of the Great Patriotic War, many Russians are reeling from the realisation that this time, it is their government that has set out to destroy a people, deny their identity, and their culture.

Dr Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

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