Why the Kremlin Needs Pogroms and Anti-Semites

Rather than condemn anti-Semitic acts, Moscow utilises them to further strategies in both domestic and international arenas 

7 November 2023

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vladimir Putin, his regime and the Russian security forces all make use of the rising anti-Semitism in Russia to detract from governmental failures, create illusionary narratives about a sympathetic Moscow and for strategic purposes to win over the Global South.

The storming of the airport in the capital of Dagestan, Machachkala, to search for Israelis and Jews among the passengers on a plane arriving from Tel Aviv, the anti-Semitic rally in Khasavyurt, the destruction of a building housing the Jewish centre in the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, Nalchik, was seen by many observers as the Russian republics of the North Caucasus “joining” the Muslim communities around the world to protest against Israel’s operation in Gaza.

However, those following the political processes in Russia may ask the logical question: why did the people of the Caucasus republics not protest when Grozny or Aleppo were bombed? Why did they not support those Muslims who defended Chechen and Syrian children?

Growth of police states

One cannot fail to be impressed by the cautious response of the Russian authorities. Vladimir Putin held a closed meeting with security forces and regional leaders after the storming of Machachkala airport.

The Russian president’s speech, however, was primarily devoted to condemning the United States rather than extremists and radicals. Many Russian officials accused Ukraine of organising the unrest in the North Caucasus, and the leader of Dagestan, Sergei Melykov, practically stood in solidarity with the protesters, condemning only the methods they chose to express their views. And by the way, Melykov invited the detained participants of the attack at the airport to become volunteers and go to war.

Yet, It is not the words that matter, but the actions. Or rather, what matters is the passivity of the security forces.

After two wars in the North Caucasus, Dagestan, like other national republics in the region, has been transformed into an actual police state. Society here is under the strict control of the secret services.

Therefore, the organisation of any rallies (like the storming of the airport) could have been stopped at the preparatory stage, especially as there were open calls for potential participants in Telegram channels and other social networks. However, the authorities did not prevent people from gathering and did not rush into action even after the airport had been seized. Although a company of the Russian Guard can immediately arrive at any picket line in Machachkala or Nalchik.

Utilising old, anti-Semitic tropes

Such a mild response, as well as a reluctance to oppose the organisation of anti-Semitic actions, suggests that the Russian special services not only do not regard the participants as opponents of the authorities but also provoke – and perhaps participate in the preparation of – rallies and attacks. And this support for the anti-Semitic wave has political causes.

Against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with the West, Vladimir Putin is clearly trying to show that he is prepared to become a defender of the interests of the Global South as events in the Middle East cause new fractures in relations between the US and Muslim countries.

But it is not enough for the Russian president to invite a Hamas delegation to Moscow. It is also essential for him to show that Russia is somehow a natural part of the Global South. It is no coincidence that one of the state television presenters, Dmitry Kiselev, spoke of Russia as a “traditionally Muslim” state and that Islam is characterised by a “culture of anti-Semitism”.

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Another important reason to keep calm about anti-Semitic actions is domestic politics. The North Caucasus is one of Russia’s most disadvantaged regions. Who is to blame for the total control of the security services, unemployment, corruption, lack of prospects for young people and the marginalisation of national languages and cultures? The answer can be found in an old political ploy known since the days of the Russian Empire – the Jews are to blame.

But in the calm approach to a potential pogrom, there is, paradoxically, also a signal to the West. Putin’s favourite signal. A signal showing that even a monster like the Russian President is a far more suitable and reasonable partner than his compatriots. That is, if there is no Putin, some Russians will start looking for Jews on planes, in the streets or their homes. Therefore, the emphasis should not be on fighting the Kremlin regime but on reaching agreements with it – while there still is a chance, of course.

Stirring up anti-Semitic sentiment, therefore, helps the Russian president to solve several problems at once.

Reminding the West of its now-forgotten reputation as a “relevant partner”, showing the Global South that Russia is not only an ally but also a part of the world that opposes the West and diverting the attention of its fellow citizens from their real problems to fighting Israel and the Jews.

And this reminds us once again that Putin is not inventing anything new in Russian politics but merely resurrecting the most disgusting practices from its imperial and Soviet past.


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

The featured image includes Fred Schaerli, Makhachkala airport 1, Hue, filter, crop by VI Team, CC BY-SA 3.0 as well as the president of Russia’s website which states: All materials from the Russian President’s website may be reproduced in any media outlets, on Internet servers or on any other information supports without restriction on the amount of material or time of publication; it can be found here http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/trips/72505/photos.
Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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