Putin, Explained

It couldn’t be simpler. Putin is a despotic tyrant without conscience, who seized upon perceived Western weakness to enlarge his empire. All true – but there is much more than that. As the saying goes: it’s complicated. Choosing to ignore those complications means proceeding at your own peril. Here is some analysis that may help, taken from two recent articles.

To begin to understand, writes Giles Fraser, you have to back up a bit. Over a thousand years, to be accurate, to the conversion (out of political and personal convenience) of Vladimir the Rus in the year 988. By taking the city of Kyiv to a mass conversion, the Russian Orthodox Church was founded:

It was from here that Christianity would spread out and merge with the Russian love of the motherland, to create a powerful brew of nationalism and spirituality.

Along comes the current Vladimir (born of a secular father and devout Christian mother), bent on continuing that toxic mixture, to which have been added the sting and shame of the dissolution of the Russian empire. The breakup of the old USSR with the fall of communism was to Putin what Versailles was to Germany. Add to this the irredentist urge to return Kyiv – the heartland of the old Russia – to its proper place. The first Vladimir was sainted for his role; Putin might see a halo when he looks in the mirror, rather than Satan’s trident.

Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin said. That’s what this is all about, “spiritual space” — a terrifying phrase steeped in over a thousand years of Russian religious history.

The West, which has lost the ability to relate to people who take such constructs seriously, prefers to think of Putin as a madman. Furthermore, Europe in particular – having been the home court for wars of both religious and nationalistic fervor, is inclined to see nationalism as the mother of all evils. (This is why it is so counterproductive to argue to Europeans and globalists, as so many of us do, that Jews deserve their own country no less than any other people. True, sneer the Europeans. No people deserve their own country. Nationalism is evil.)

We will have to wait a bit to learn how the West will emerge from the current debacle. Will it, in time, see Putin’s urge to redeem Mother Russia as further evidence that all nationalistic leanings are evil and dangerous? Or will it come to realize that the need for people who share a common language, history and culture to forge a strong common identity is so deeply a part of human nature that it will not disappear by simply smirking at it? Will it instead come to accept a sanitized, kosher nationalism, such as that conceived of by Israeli thinkers like Fania Oz-Salzberger and (my shul-mate) Yarom Hazony?

Many in our community find themselves conflicted about the Ukraine. They react with disgust at the cruelty of Russian adventurism, and fully empathize with the pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocents. (For that matter, I will state that I take no satisfaction in viewing photos of dead Russian soldiers. For the most part, they are clueless 19-year-olds, whose terms of service to their military was changed in mid-course, and were dispatched, ill-equipped and ill-prepared, to untimely deaths by people in comfortable dachas. They did not need to die, and their mothers did not need to bear the pain of their loss.) Yet, it is difficult to emotionally disengage from so many memories, recent and vintage. Bogdan Chmielnicki (a national hero in the Ukraine, who was also responsible for its unification with Russia) and his Cossacks massacred a larger percentage of Jews of the region than did Hitler in all of Europe. According to Professor Shaul Stampfer (a shul-mate at a different minyan), 18,000–20,000 Jews were killed out of a population of 40,000 Jews. More recently there were the pogroms in the first decade of the 20th century, followed a few decades later by Babi-Yar, the participation therein of enthusiastic Ukrainian volunteers was symptomatic of the savagery and cruelty of some Ukrainians that, in popular memory, outdid that of the Germans.

It is confusing, because clearly things have changed. Much intense anti-Semitism remains in the Ukraine, but a country that is thoroughly suffused with Jew-hatred does not elect a Jewish president. By a landslide, no less. At what point do we say that, two generations later, enough people there have changed that the word “Ukrainian” no longer sticks in our throats?

Fraser’s article adds another important piece of evidence of change – of a transformation that came once the Ukrainians had drunk deeply from the wells of freedom and independence. The alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church with the other Orthodox (i.e. not part of the Roman, or Western, Church) churches came to end because

In 2019, the Ukrainian arm of the family of Orthodox churches declared its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church — and the nominal head of the Orthodox family, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, supported it.

The Russian Church then broke with all the other churches under Bartholomew, breaking up a “family” that had survived for many centuries. This move by the Ukrainians presaged the fierce determination we are seeing as they battle the Russians in the streets.

We move on to another enigma. The NY Jewish Week’s editor interviewed Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley concerning Putin’s curious insistence that his goal was the “denazification” of the Ukraine. Has Putin lost it? Putin overruns a democratic country led by a Jew whose forebears were Holocaust survivors, and the Ukrainians are the Nazis?

Stanley is the author of How Propaganda Works, and How Fascism Works. He was able to offer explanations from both of those areas of interest.

What de-Nazification means here is that he is going to go into Ukraine, kill or imprison the democratic leaders of Ukraine and all who support them and replace them with a puppet he can control. The reason that he does this is because he can, he can lean on the history of Russia and the history of World War II, in which the Germans are always the enemies, and he is the one representing the West and democracy against the fascists and the Nazis.

So there you have it. If you are an impediment to regaining the grandiose empire of Mother Russia, you are a Nazi. Even if you are Jewish. Fascists never tell you that they are fascists. They all think that they are righteous ennoblers of mankind. Or at least the parts of it that count.

Still, this claim seems so bizarre that we will still have to ask if Putin believes it himself, and if not, whether he expects others to believe it. Professor Stanley weighs in once more:

He [Hitler] also clearly states in Mein Kampf that you should use the Allies’ propaganda against them. You should reverse it, you know, “You’re the fascist…” And I don’t think he’s trying to convince anyone. I think he’s trying to mock the language of the Holocaust. It’s Eastern European antisemitism. Eastern European antisemitism takes the form of saying that we Jews stole the victimhood narrative. He’s mocking Jews. He saying, “The real victims are Christian Russians in eastern Ukraine. Those are the victims of genocide.”

Now, where have we seen this technique before, deliberately accusing the other side of the polar opposite of what they are? Apparently, we’ve given too much credit to the Palestinians for the clever but audacious campaign to stick the “apartheid” label on Israel. They simply stole it from Mein Kampf!

Having learned this much about the workings of Putin’s mind, we have to be taken aback by the chasdei Hashem in having kept this diabolical leader genuinely well-disposed to his Jewish citizens for decades. May Hashem now turn that chesed into protection and relief for the Jews of the Ukraine, alongside their peaceful neighbors. And may Jews throughout the Golah come a bit closer to realizing that there is no place like home.

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45 Responses

  1. Keep in mind says:

    The following teachings of our sages should be studied and kept in mind.

    לב מלכים אין חקר – משלי כה:ג, ראה שם

    ואמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב אם יהיו כל הימים דיו ואגמים קולמוסים ושמים יריעות וכל בני אדם לבלרין אין מספיקים לכתוב חללה של רשות – שבת יא:א, ע”ע שם

    They teach us that matters of state and heads of state are exceedingly complex. Pundits can opine away, but we must realize that our knowledge is limited, even now.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Rav Adlerstein, a very credible look into the mind of Putin. As I would preach in my working days, you cannot deal with an opponent until you can articulate their point of view more cogently than they themselves. Demonizing Putin, as opposed to understanding his position will make eventual resolution harder.

    Another factor is the world’s Inability to inflict the ultimate pain by crippling the Russian oil industry, Russia’s primary source of income. IMHO, Biden’s woke opposition to US energy, shutting down Keystone while allowing Nord 2, is what emboldened Putin.

    what replaces understanding Putin are claims that he is off his rocker.

  3. joel rich says:

    And may Jews throughout the Golah come a bit closer to realizing that there is no place like home.
    And remember, we’re all coming home in some manner, the question as put by both Dirty Harry (Are you feeling lucky?) and by Rabbi Yehoshua ): If they do not repent, they will not be redeemed?! Rather, the Holy One, may He be blessed, will appoint a king over them who decrees will be as harsh as those of Haman. And the Jewish people will repent. And in this way, [God] will bring them back to the right path.

    • dr. bill says:

      The book of Esther has numerous interpretations. Of a more modern vintage, (see Da’at Mikre) is the strong connection to Jews sitting in Shushan as opposed to Yerushalayim. Calling Shushan, Birah, a word that refers most often to the Beit HaMikdash, and the 70 days of danger, are but 2. my hope to spend 2 months a year in Israel is one small step

      • mycroft says:

        If there is a book of Tanach centered in Galut it is Esther. Esther and Mordechai are in Shushan not Israel. Miracle is a world wide miracle, threat against Jews is worldwide. Certainly names of 2 heroes show non Hebrew connections. Shouldn’t be that strange to us-many of us including even some RIETS RY are known by non Hebrew names. Esther ends with satisfactory Galut ending for the heroes nothing about Eretz Israel.

  4. Lawrence Reisman says:

    I must argue with the assertion that Bogdan Chmielnicki . . . and his Cossacks massacred a larger percentage of Jews of the region than did Hitler in all of Europe. From what he writes, Chmielnicki killed at most 50% of the Jews in the region. Hitler killed 60-66% of the Jews in Europe. In the areas where Chmielnick rampages, the percentage of Jews killed was more like 80-90%.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    Now, where have we seen this technique before, deliberately accusing the other side of the polar opposite of what they are?

    Try the previous occupant of the White House.

    And now Putin blasts Babi Yar.

    Where are all of the stalwart defenders of Israel and the Jewish people? This is evil.

    • Raymond says:

      Actually, it is the current occupant in the White house who has deliberately accused the other side of the polar opposite of what we are. As for President Trump, the Left has never stopped throwing false accusations against him the moment he declared himself to not be an Intolerant Leftist. What is evil is using voter fraud to get rid of the most pro-Israel President (Donald Trump) that this nation ever had.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    In the here and now, no military aggression was aimed against Russia but much was and is aimed by Russia. Putin is a very bad guy no matter what history or mythology is his excuse to act out. He has reached the stage where no country, including his own, benefits from his presence—except that he’s a reminder to Israel and Jews in general to get our spiritual house in order.

  7. Raymond says:

    Of course Vladimir Putin is wrong to invade the Ukraine. Yes, the two countries may be culturally indistinguishable from one another, but that did not make it right for nazi Germany to invade Austria nor would it make it right for, say, Mexico to invade the rest of Central America. Having said that, however, I am not sure that I should lose any sleep over this. After all, the Ukrainians with their Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews with even greater enthusiasm than did the nazis themselves, resulting in the Ukrainians murdering 1,500,000 Jews. Meanwhile, from what I have read, Vladimir Putin is a philosemite in a way that strongly resembles the philosemitism of former President Donald J Trump. Yes, it is true, the Ukraine has made a Jew be their political leader, but I am not sure this makes up for them murdering so many innocent Jewish people.

    Whatever the case, the whole thing is one great mess that would have never occurred had the 2020 Presidential elections not been stolen. Even a dictator like Vladimir Putin was smart enough to not make his move into the Ukraine as long as Donald Trump was in the White House. He knew that President Trump simply would not put up with this nonsense.

    The bottom line for me in all this is the status of our Jewish people. I have heard that there are 200,000 Jews currently living in the Ukraine. Just as Israel rescued so many Jews feeling the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Yemen, and the Middle East in general, so should every effort be made to rescue every single Jew living in the Ukraine….including Mr Zelensky himself. Have them all be put on a permanent, one-way flight to Israel, where they would at least be safer than they are in the war-torn Ukraine. Thanks to the incapacitated Joe Biden, conditions will only get worse in the Ukraine before they get better, and so these rescue efforts should be done with the utmost urgency.

    • Bbb Miller says:

      If Putin doesn’t get his way in Ukraine, I expect him to blame us, because that’s what people do. Likewise if he does seize Ukraine but Europe trashes his economy. Biden is his faithful employee since Russia outbid Ukraine.

  8. D K says:

    Amazing. Was waiting for a clear Cross Currents article to address the situation in a calm, level headed, thought out manner. This is that article. Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    Putin is obliterating all of Ukraine including its Jewish communities and historic Jewish sites (including Uman).

    Coming up on Purim.

    Putin is Amalek–hitting entire civilian populations and areas in brutal fashion, from all directions.

    Zelensky is essentially a male version of Esther–heroic in all senses.

    Israel thinks it can be Switzerland here–yet even Switzerland has joined in on the sanctions.

    Those in Israel who use the Holocaust as a sledgehammer now have no case–so-called neutrality only helps the oppressor.

    Israel was already on the wrong side of history when prostrating before Trump.

    It’s not doing much better here with Putin. Don’t give me the baloney about fearing Russia in Syria when Finland and Norway (which actually border Russia) have chosen a side, as has neutral Sweden and pacifist Germany.

    • Bob Miller says:

      “Wrong side of history” should be banished to the bin of tired leftist phrases. We do what we need to do and HaShem decides the immediate, short-term and long-term outcomes.

    • D K says:

      wow! very extreme comment.
      putin is amalek? amalek is atheism, not brutality.
      how is Zelensky like Esther? Esther was not a hero in the non-Jewish fighter sense but in that she was willing to listen to Mordechai and risk her life to save her nation.
      Israel is a nation among 70 wolves. it doesnt have the same situation as switzerland, finland, or any other lands… they must play it safe, especially when dealing with madmen.
      trump, even if you hold he was evil, was a great friend of israel and hardly had them “prostrated before him” but worked with them as partners.
      other then those things, the comment was right on.

      • Reb Yid says:

        I guess I was too kind in calling Putin Amalek in that it davka snuck up from behind in attacking the most vulnerable.

        Putin is destroying everything, including his own country. We must indeed remember with Zachor, however, what Putin is trying to do here so that he and his ilk can be blotted out from our planet’s existence.

    • mycroft says:

      t’s not doing much better here with Putin. Don’t give me the baloney about fearing Russia in Syria

      Not baloney at all. Russian planes are patrolling area.Israel cant antagonize only superpower in the area.
      Why of course Aeroflot continues to fly to Israel-per flight aware they keep away from Ukraine fly over Caspian Sea between TLV-Moscow

    • mycroft says:

      t’s not doing much better here with Putin. Don’t give me the baloney about fearing Russia in Syria

      Not baloney at all. Russian planes are patrolling area.Israel cant antagonize only superpower in the area.
      Why of course Aeroflot continues to fly to Israel-per flight aware they keep away from Ukraine fly over Caspian Sea between TLV-Moscow.

  10. cohen Y says:

    The conservative editorial outlet the Federalist noted
    a large percentage of right-leaning Americans have greater disgust from the oligarchic elite of their own country than they have of Putin or at least to bother with him.
    The British spy Chief could State last week the signal difference between Russia and the present West is promotion of LGBTQ

    Putin came step by step to the conclusion the so-called West is a bunch of wimpish feminine run rainbow pushing forces going forward
    Putin has chose his moment ..
    He may be dangerous, but he’s doing normal standards of aggressive ambitious dictatorial leaders
    The epithets being thrown around on Jewish sites are over the top

    In the past decade or so what about the interventions going on the rest of the world? It’s okay all the sudden to be racist because it’s white on white or is it something else

    Would the world be reacting all this if Putin would instead be promoting the rainbow ***? Guaranteed answer

    Where has the UN been for all the Chinese persecutions of the uigyhers?

    • Raymond says:

      I happen to think that both China and Iran threaten world peace far, far more than does Vladimir Putin

  11. cohen NB says:

    It is of worth noting in parts of Ukraine there reportedly still is a festive day where local ukrainians dress an effigy as a religious Jew, then stab it and burn it

    • Bob Miller says:

      Not impossible, but what does “reportedly” mean after the grisly death of most responsible news reporting?

    • Reb Yid says:

      The depths of insanity people will go to in defending either Trump or Putin.

      And to the author of this post–Israel’s behavior here is just one more item why so many American Jews (including a growing proportion of active, observant and Jewishly educated ones) have been so disappointed in it in recent decades. Israel did not align itself with dictators and right wing authoritarians to the extent that it now does.

      For Yad Vashem to be asking that Abramovich receive “special treatment” in avoiding sanctions is insulting to its mission and to the state that it represents.

      Never again. Don’t just talk the talk–walk the walk.

      • Steven Brizel says:

        The American woke world is crying crocodile tears for the Ukraine Without banning Putin’s oil exports all other sanctions are worthless. It is important to realize that Putin is Biden’s Shadchan with the Iranians as Biden is willing and desperate to sign a treaty with Iran that is worse than the Obama brokered deal and which thanks to Biden’s Arabist and woke advisors wound be disastrous for Israel and the US

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    The Marxist dominated woke world views Israel as illegitimate and Biden’s advisors are willing to sell Israel out to sign a terrible treaty with Iran that will be the worst piece of paper signed by an American government Trump recognized the Iranians and their ideology as enablers of terror not potential friends Unfortunately our communal leadership had been woefully silent on this issue

  13. Steven Brizel says:

    Read this https://melaniephillips.substack.com/p/perfidy-in-vienna?s=r and you will understand very well why Biden is all talk but no action with respect to Putin and why Putin is his shadchan with the Iranians. A conservative president would have ordered an airlift, have kept pipelines open, allowed for more exploration of oil rich portions of our country, declared a freeze on Russian oil, walked away from the Iran deal and have been on the hotline telling Putin of the consequences of his aggression in the Ukraine,.

  14. Shimshon says:

    Denazify is the correct term and appropriately used.

    Thanks to Nato and EU policy, Ukraine is thick with actual state-supported and/or approved Nazi military groups like the Azov Battalion, with sketchy connections to Jewish oligarchs (aka gangsters) like Igor Kolomoiski.

    It doesn’t matter if the news media you imbibe is Fox or CNN. The problem is the mainstream news media, period.


    • Reb Yid says:

      Ukraine is a democracy. Individual freedom is valued there. Zelensky was elected in this manner. He is a puppet of no-one.

      This is why the regimes that are authoritarian or right wing are either staying neutral or in a handful of cases defending Putin while most of the rest of the world is actively supporting Putin and sanctioning Russia.

      Hitler was on the wrong side of history. So is Putin. It’s really that simple at this point. Even those in Russia get it.

      • Raymond says:

        Actually, it is the Authoritarian-loving Leftists who are defending the equally authoritarian Vladimir Putin. The Donald-hating Leftists are on the wrong side of history. So is Reb Marx. It is really that simple at this point. Even Alan Dershowitz gets it.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    In somebody’s dream world Putin is the Jews’ buddy, but in the real world…
    Putin’s Russian employees — as we speak!—are managing Biden’s shameful “negotiation” of the US surrender to Iran:

    It wasn’t enough for Biden to give advanced US armaments to the Taliban. Evidently, he “needs” to give $ billions to Iran to finance its terror, while bypassing lawful review by Congress, and to commit the US to preventing Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. This goes beyond senile. It’s more like sinister.


    It must be noted that Putin is the only world leader who has castigated the US for trying to exports its LGBT/degenerate/gender insanity agenda to the world and Putin said he does not want that in his country. I don’t blame him. He is a murderer but he is giving the mussar few are brave enough to express.

    • Raymond says:

      lol I agree with you in content, but I am not sure that this is time to express it. Yes, I also oppose all that LGBTQRXT nonsense, but even worse are all the people so tragically dying as a result of the mental instability of Vladimir Putin

  17. Steven Brizel says:

    What we are seeing on the news is how Russian leaders have always fought wars-the willingness to send masses of troops who may be poorly led to sustain heavy losses and inflict grievous losses on their opponents. That is how Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Czars who turned back Napoleon and Stalin all operated. Putin operates the same way and will continue to move this way unless the vacumn that the woke world in America created is reversed. You can be sure that a conservative president would not have the US in its current lack of military preparedness, preoccupied with the false claims of systemic racism, gender fluidity and climate change and appeasing the alliance of China, Russia and iran.

    • Bob Miller says:

      If a policy yields one defeat and humiliation afrer another, as current US policy does—everywhere!—assume that the guilty parties mean to do just that. They don’t just flip a coin. The formerly scorned leftist lunatics are now in charge.

  18. Tal S. Benschar says:

    Given that both Russia and the Ukraine had a long history of anti-semitism, it is hard to use this as a basis to determine current attitudes about the conflict.

    Under current circumstances, if Russia prevails, that would be a much greater threat to the world, including Jews, than if Ukraine did. Russia clearly has ambitions outside the Ukraine, including in the Middle East.
    It is working closely with Iran, who, let us not forget, has vowed to wipe Israel off the map.

    Ukraine, on the other hand, is too weak to do much outside its own borders. And within its borders, at least lately, Jews seem to be doing as well as they could in such a country. It’s president is a Jew, albeit an intermarried one, but to the anti-semites that means little.

    So Jews should hope Ukraine prevails, not for any love of Ukraine, but because of the consequences.

  19. Steven Brizel says:

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-says-wont-back-iran-nuke-deal-without-us-guarantees-over-ukraine-sanctions/ If the Mamchurian President walked out or Afganistan and his sanctions are meaningless, it is reasonable to expect that Biden, who is desperate for a deal even if it means throwing Israel under the bus, would cave in on this demand as well

  20. Steven Brizel says:

    The bottom line is that all of us individually and communally must do as much as possible to Acheinu Bnei Yisrael who are leaving their Hines with the clothes on their backs to escape from Putin’s onslaught

  21. Steven Brizel says:

    I urge all readers to listen to this riveting shiur on what should be our priorities in light of the invasion of the Ukrainehttp://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/1027430/rabbi-shay-schachter/humanitarian-crisis-in-ukraine-staying-within-our-boundaries/

    We now see that Biden wants to import oil from such despotic regimes as Venezuela and Iran while throwing Israel under the bus with a deal negotiated by Putin and refuses to allow pipelines to run and drilling for oil because he is a captive or willing accomplice of the radical environmental left that is green on the outside, red on the inside, and also proponents of another scientifically unproven notion called Zero Population Growth ( which was created by Malthus and championed by Paul Ehrlich) poses a grave danger to our national security. Our communities will feel the pinch of these terrible polices at the pumps where our vans which we need for such necessities of life as car pools and our sizeable families will eat away at our ability to support our communal institutions. But, then again, that is part of one of the critical ideological goals of Marxism-destroying the traditional family and its values

  22. Bob Miller says:

    FYI, the cities we know as Brisk, Lvov (Lemberg), Munkacs, and Ungvar, now in western Belarus and Ukraine, were not part of the pre-1939 USSR. Then, the first two were in Poland and the other two were in Czechoslovakia. Before WW1, all were in the Russian Empire or Austro-Hungarian Empire. Borders kept changing, depending on who won the most recent war.

  23. Shades of Gray says:

    “Having learned this much about the workings of Putin’s mind, we have to be taken aback by the chasdei Hashem”

    Someone quoted above לב מלכים אין חקר from Mishlei. I thought of another pasuk in Mishlei (21:1) Lev melech b’Yad Hashem.

    While the US intelligence community has made evaluating Putin’s state of mind a top priority, officials also say that they may never have an answer, according to a CNN article. Some intelligence officials said that Putin’s decision-making in Ukraine has been out of character — perhaps due to his protracted isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Video footage showed Putin seated dozens of feet away from his senior military advisers during meetings and gleefully dressing down one of his spy chiefs on television.

    Giles Fraser, referenced in the post, has a background to write about religion as both a journalist and an English Anglican priest whose  father was Jewish. I first came across him through his article “Jonathan Sacks spoke to us all”  where he describes eating a Shabbos meal with his young children at Rabbi Sacks’ home(he also spoke on the UK  Jewish News podcast  tribute to R. Sacks last year and has interviewed R. Sacks on his own podcast).

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