In his speech at Yad Vashem during last week’s Holocaust-commemoration activities, Vladimir Putin spoke of the millions of Soviet Jews murdered by Germany and, naturally, of the role of the Red Army in defeating the Third Reich. He then made a point of mentioning the collaboration of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Ukrainians with the Nazis. To Izabella Taborovsky, this was not a good-faith effort to draw attention to historical truths that some have been eager to cover up, but an attempt to use the past as a cudgel against Putin’s enemies. Citing other recent rhetoric from the Kremlin as well, Tabarovksy identifies a message that should be worrisome to Jews:
The truth is that ethnic Russians also collaborated with the Nazis. . . . And millions of ethnic Ukrainians fought the Nazis as part of the Red Army. The countries that Putin likes to cast as collaborators also had people who saved Jews. Meanwhile, the Soviet regime massacred tens of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn as part of its occupation of Poland—a war crime, and an unhealed wound for Poles.
Putin’s divisions into “us”—the Russians who fought the Nazis and were the Nazis’ victims—and “them”—all the others who collaborated—is a crude and self-serving simplification, despite the fact that Lithuania, Ukraine, and other governments have recently engaged in unforgivable glorification of wartime Nazi collaborators and Holocaust distortion, making themselves easy marks for Putin’s propaganda.
Perhaps even worse, while Putin presents himself as a fighter for historical truth, no other country has done more in the postwar period to prevent the world from learning the truth about the Holocaust than the Soviet Union. According to the Israeli Holocaust historian Kiril Feferman, Russia’s KGB archives contain rich amounts of information about the Holocaust that have yet to come to light. But they remain sealed.
There are troubling signs that Russia will continue to use the Holocaust and the rise in anti-Semitism to advance its foreign-policy interests—and to instrumentalize Jews in this effort. At a recent roundtable in Moscow which brought together a group of prominent Russian historians and foreign-policy analysts to discuss how Russia could best use history to improve its image, the speakers zeroed in on the Jews—specifically Israelis, “world Jewry” and the “Jewish lobby in Washington”—as potential allies.