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Contentions Dark Days Ahead for the Jews of Russia?

The ultimate goal of state censorship is self-censorship among the citizenry. If you can get the people to police themselves, and each other, it takes part of the burden off the state and also makes people complicit in their own oppression. And so it’s disturbing to see things take this turn in Putin’s Russia. As the New York Times reports, Moscow bookstores removed from their shelves–voluntarily (sort of)–their copies of Maus, the pathbreaking graphic novel of Nazi crimes against the Jews. It’s the “voluntarily” part of this that stands out, and makes it clear that Putinism has not been, and will not be, good for the Jews of Russia.
The story of Maus’s banishment from booksellers is the classic result of the mixture of fear and confusion. According to the Times:
The government’s plan was simple enough: Rid Moscow of swastikas or any other symbol of Nazism before Victory Day, the celebration of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Germany and the most important political holiday in Russia.
But in the frenzy to comply, bookstores aiming to please the censor found an unlikely victim: “Maus,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel about a Jewish family during the Holocaust. Muscovites discovered this week that the book, which bears a swastika on its cover, had been quietly stripped from the shelves of the largest bookstores across the Russian capital.
The work of the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the novel portrays Jews as mice and Germans as cats in an anti-fascist narrative about the horrors of Nazism and the concentration camps. But with concern over the dangers of fascism in Russia on the rise, the booksellers appeared to decide it was better to be safe than sorry.
Russians unfortunately know the value of “better safe than sorry.” And no matter how many times we point out–correctly–that Putin is not Stalin, I imagine that continues to be cold comfort to Russians who are trying to avoid running afoul of “anti-fascism” laws and the criminal offenses of, as the Times explains, posting symbols that “offend people’s religious feeling or question the national dignity of peoples.”
The murky quality of such laws and the actions they proscribe is a feature, not a bug, of authoritarian rule. It feeds the illusion that people have control over their own decisions. And any infractions are used as justifications for expanding such restrictions on liberty going forward, which are painted as logical reactions to a citizenry obviously unable to govern itself thus necessitating state action. Stalinism without Stalin is much like being a whiter shade of pale, and it was always the aim of Stalinism in the first place. It’s the dictatorial version of sustainability.
The Chinese writer Yu Hua remembers coming up with a laudatory phrase to honor Chairman Mao during his youth: “the people are Chairman Mao, and Chairman Mao is the people,” he’d say. Except it made everyone nervous, because they hadn’t heard that formulation before and therefore didn’t know if it was a specifically approved way of praising Mao. His parents “eyed me warily and told me in a roundabout way that they couldn’t see anything wrong with what I’d said but I still had better not say it again.”
This is the fear that such societies were supposed to have thrown off. Yet now in Moscow an anti-Nazi book is taken off the shelf lest someone get the wrong idea. And here’s Putin’s spokesman on the matter: “I have no exact position on this, but it’s clear that everything needs to be within measure.” Feel better?
Books on the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust being removed from the shelves is only one of the various ways Putinism portends bad days ahead for Russia’s Jews. Putin’s re-marriage of the state and the Orthodox Church, combined with laws outlawing giving religious offense, is another. And so is Putin’s alignment with Israel’s enemies, especially Iran.
Putin’s war on Ukraine scattered the remaining Jewish community in the war zone. His explicitly militaristic nationalism feeds a state-sponsored xenophobia that always has and always will mark Jews as outsiders and a “nation apart.” And of course, “fascist” is in the eye of the beholder; as Paul Goble reported in late March:
Even as Moscow denounces anything it views as a manifestation of fascism abroad and prepares to mark the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, the Russian authorities are hosting tomorrow a meeting of Europe’s neo-Nazis, extreme nationalists, and anti-Semites who share one thing in common – their unqualified support for Vladimir Putin.
Such cultivation and tolerance of hateful anti-Semitic ideologues is par for the course in Putin’s Russia. He isn’t an anti-fascist; he’s merely against the wrong kind of “fascists”–who are often not fascists at all. It’s a catchall term for Putin’s enemies.
And it fools too many people, especially those who want to be fooled. But the Jews of Russia and its near-abroad cannot afford to let themselves be fooled. They probably don’t need to be reminded that the trajectory of Putinist nationalism has an all-too-familiar feel to it. And Putin shows no indication of changing direction.


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