Russian Jews mostly side with Putin
This has turned out to be one of those articles for which more people declined to be interviewed than agreed. The Russian Jewish community numbers about 145 000 people and, as the old joke goes, one Jew, two opinions.
However, it’s worth noting, as an elderly Jewish engineer who lives in Moscow, Eduard Feiman, told me, “Our views are much the same as the general Russian public.”
If he’s correct, this means about 70% of Russian Jews support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Official polls published at the beginning of March, after the Russian military had launched its operation, pointed to just less than three-quarters of Russians approving the military invasion.
While many analysts insist on taking official Russian polls with a pinch of salt, they do nonetheless suggest that most of the Russian population, regardless of the actual percentage, supports Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Certainly, most of the Russian Jews I’ve met so far support him, although aside from Feiman, none wanted their real names to be published. They fear that by publicly supporting Putin, they will be seen to be condoning what’s happening in Ukraine and this isn’t true.
They emphasised that they were heartbroken and anguished by the reports and pictures coming out of Ukraine, but to say this publicly could be interpreted as a refute of their president.
“I have close friends living in Dnepropetrovsk and other cities in Ukraine, and I fear for their safety,” said Feiman, whose wife was yelling in the background for him to get off the phone. It was only after he explained to her that I was a journalist from South Africa that she calmed down. She was afraid he was once again posting videos on Facebook, where he’s received death threats for speaking out in support of Russia.
“The last time I spoke to some of my Ukrainian friends, they were worried that the Nazi Ukrainians who have taken over many cities will open the gates to a dam near where they live and it will flood and destroy their homes.”
Feiman’s wording echoes Putin’s rhetoric. He repeatedly talks of “denazifying” Ukraine and “Western propaganda”. It’s a charge levelled against him and those Russians who share his view – that they think the way they do because of the media blackout in Russia that leaves them exposed only to what the Kremlin is thinking.
“People have a very short memory,” says Feiman, who lost 33 close members of his family in Belarus during the Holocaust.
“People forget that the Ukrainians were among the worst to the Jews. What do you think happened to their children and grandchildren,” he asks. “These are them!”
Maxim* agrees. We met in the elevator of a Moscow hotel where I have been staying, after I returned from inquiring at three banks if they could change dollars into rubles All three had run out of local currency.
That morning, Visa and Mastercard stopped working, and the hotel staff, who are forbidden by law to accept payment in dollars, had locked me out of my room. Thankfully, Maxim had a few rubles he could give me.
A successful businessman, he immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 14 and now divides his time between Israel and Russia. He sees himself as “equally Israeli; equally Russian” and wholeheartedly supports Putin’s operation in Ukraine. He believes most Russians, including Russian Jews, do so too.
“We don’t have any hatred towards the Ukrainian people,” he said. “They are our brother nation; we are the same people. Ukrainians live in Russia, and we are a multinational society that embraces minorities. But, for the past 30 years, Ukraine has been building an identity that’s based on hatred towards Russian people. The Kyiv government is corrupt and undemocratic.
“In 2001, it stopped Russian-speaking media from broadcasting in Ukraine for the first time. It later re-imposed the ban in 2014, and it exists today. People say, ‘Ah Russians, don’t see other media.’ Well, how many know that Ukrainians don’t? And how many people in the West do? People say we’re influenced by Russian propaganda. I say no, you are influenced by Western propaganda. The charge goes both ways.”
For Russians who support Putin’s war, Putin is doing what he needs to do to protect Russia. And the endless stream of media coverage showing the destruction of Ukrainian cities and the killing of civilians?
“A lot of it is fake,” says Misha. “Yes, people are dying, but they aren’t being killed by Russian soldiers. The Ukrainians are using civilians as human shields. They deliberately put people in harm’s way, making it difficult for the Russian army to avoid collateral damage. Israelis, more than anyone, know about this. It doesn’t matter how moral an army is – and I believe the Russian army is moral and trying to avoid civilian deaths – you have thugs on the other side who know that once they’re captured by the Russian army, they face a death sentence. So, they have nothing to lose by killing civilians.”
Misha makes a distinction between the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian National Guard, the latter of which is supported by tens of thousands of Azov and Aidar members. Both are battalions with neo-Nazi leanings.
“The Ukrainian military is conscripted. They aren’t fighting this war from an ideological point of view. The neo-Nazis are. People are asking why the Russian operation is taking so long? Russia could just carpet bomb neighbourhoods, but it doesn’t. It’s trying to avoid civilian deaths. It’s the other side that isn’t.”
But perhaps the real damage is what will come – not just to Ukraine, but to Russia.
Denis* is a married father of a teenage daughter. We met in a coffee shop in Moscow where his mood was so sombre, I was soon feeling down too.
“What future does my daughter have,” he asked sadly. “When the war started, my sister in Paris said, ‘Leave immediately!’ My father in Israel said, ‘Come!’ But my wife isn’t Jewish, and how does running away help? Russians all over the world are being targeted; even in Israel, I’ve heard of Ukrainian Jews attacking Russian Jews.
“My opinion changes by the minute. I think Putin is right, but then I see the destruction in Ukraine and I think maybe he’s wrong. But then I know our history and I know the bigger plan by America is to have Ukraine join Nato [the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]. Why should we, as Russians, accept that threat on our border? But come again tomorrow and ask me then, and maybe I will have changed my mind again,” he says with a sigh.
*Not his real name
- Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.