In the long history of Jews in Russia, the government has rarely been an ally, and often been the source of persecution. Current Russian president Vladimir Putin, however, is a powerful exception, with Jews playing a significant role in his personal history and his inner circle. With the Russian army a major player in the potentially explosive multi-national puzzle unfolding in Syria, this personal element could become an important, perhaps decisive, factor in how the conflict unfolds.
At the International Assembly of Chabad Representatives in 2007, Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Berel Lazar, often referred to as “Putin’s Rabbi”, told a remarkable story about the Russian leader, which he heard from Putin himself.
“When he was a young child, he grew up in a very poor family. His parents were always out at work. He was fortunate that the next door neighbor was a Hasidic Jewish family, and they always made sure to invite him over,” Lazar explained. “They were extremely kind to him, and he realized that not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t theirs, not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t Jewish, but they were kind to a child in a time and place when it was dangerous to do that.”
“Thirty years later, because of the gratitude he felt for that family, and for the respect he felt for the Jewish people as a whole, as deputy mayor of the city of Leningrad, he granted official permission to open the first Jewish school in the city.”
The family in Lazar’s story was that of Anatoly Rakhlin, Putin’s high-school wrestling coach, a man he considered to be a father-figure and at whose funeral he cried. Putin described the family in his autobiography, First Person.
“(They were) observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays, and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long,” he wrote. “Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”
Putin’s Jewish connection was not an anomaly limited to his childhood memories. In 2005, when Putin made an official visit to Israel, he visited his high-school teacher, Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, who lived in Tel Aviv. He even bought her an apartment in the city when he heard she was living in poor conditions.
Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg were his judo sparring partners under Coach Rakhlin, and remain his close friends to this day. The Rotenberg’s are billionaire contractors, and the relationship is mutually beneficial, with the Rotenberg brothers getting government contracts worth many billions of dollars.
In fact, Putin has surrounded himself with rich and successful Jews, such as Moshe Kantor (net worth $2.3 billion), Lev Leviev (net worth $1.5 billion), Roman Abramovich (net worth $9.1 billion) and Victor Vekselberg (net worth $13.6 billion). They are all close friends and confidantes of the Russian president, and they are all quite openly Jewish.
On the Jewish New Year, celebrated in September, Putin sent a holiday greeting to Rabbi Lazar, wishing the Russian Jewish community a “sweet and happy New Year.”
“For centuries, Jewish values inspired lofty ideals,” Putin wrote. He said that these values enhanced “relations among different peoples…through charity and education, all in the interest of the public good.” In a direct manner, he pledged “fierce opposition to any manifestation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”
Putin puts his money where his mouth is and donated a month of his salary as president to the Jewish Museum in Moscow. His name is proudly listed on the museum wall as a donor.
Perhaps due to his connection with Jews on a personal level, Putin can be said to view Russian Jews as first and foremost good Russian citizens. This has already had international repercussions. When Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September to discuss the developing situation in Syria, the meeting produced positive results, with Putin expressing his strong connection with Israel.
“We never forget that in the State of Israel reside many former Soviet citizens, and that has a special implication on the relationship between our two states,” Putin stated. “Every Russian action in the area has always been very responsible. We are aware of the artillery against Israel and we condemn it. “
In 2011, at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in Moscow, Putin said, “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It’s apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.”
In 2014, Putin was one of the few political leaders who supported Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, saying at a meeting with representatives of the Rabbinical Center of Europe to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia, “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.”
Putin is a powerful player in the explosive situation in the Middle East. There are clearly political and military considerations that cause him to look upon Israel as an ally, but it might be the personal connection he has with Jews that has led him to be the most pro-Israel Russian leader the world has seen in a long time.