The Putin Anomaly

tags: Putin

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of, among other works, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life and Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution 1987–1991.

In his edifying and heartfelt essay, “The Prospect for Russia’s Jews,” Maxim Shrayer raises a number of issues that invite further reflection. I’ll touch on a couple of them.

A few years back, at what I was told was a “very closed” meeting in the Kremlin, an unusually expansive Vladimir Putin regaled the gathering with an elaborate anekdot (a joke). The gist, as related to me by a reliable first-hand source, and shorn here of its colorful verbal trimmings, was this: another Great Flood is about to engulf the earth, extinguishing the human race. It will happen within a month, and cannot be forestalled or prevented. To soften the blow, the clergy of every religious denomination have allowed the faithful to break all taboos. Muslims are given leave to drink alcohol, Catholics to indulge every deadly sin from sloth and gluttony to wrath and lust. Rabbis, by contrast, are urging their congregants: “We have a whole month. Jews! We must learn to live under water!”

If it seems to you that this anekdot was meant not just to amuse but to express respect and even admiration for the last-named group, you’re quite correct. Several of the Russian Jewish interlocutors in Shrayer’s report stress the importance of this same element in Vladimir Putin’s personal makeup. The Russian president may be almost certain to pick a fight with NATO on the alliance’s eastern flank, but, rather miraculously, he is also the first classically reactionary and even revanchist leader in modern European history who is not an anti-Semite. Putin’s Russia is the best non-revolutionary Russia that Jews have known since the 1770s, when Catherine the Great acquired them in the first partition of Poland.

“Non-revolutionary” is an important qualifier. Jews, or at least some Jews, have done well in revolutions and their immediate aftermaths. In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell re-admitted Jews to England, from which they had been expelled almost four centuries earlier. In 1791, the French National Assembly granted Jews equal rights. And Russia’s four revolutions fit this pattern as well.

In 1905, the twenty-six-year-old Lev Davidovich Trotsky (né Bronshteyn) became the chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet, or council of workers’ delegates. The February 1917 revolution abolished the Pale of Settlement, and the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, whose leaderships were overwhelmingly Jewish, had by far more deputies in local soviets and in the short-lived Constituent Assembly than did any other party. And, of course, the early Bolshevik Russia, like its contemporary Weimar Germany, saw an advancement of Jews to positions of political influence in numbers unprecedented in modern European history. ...

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