Vladimir Putin vowed to “de-Nazify” Ukraine when his troops invaded last year. Now Russia’s president is under pressure to respond to the worst antisemitic violence to sweep his country in more than a century.
The violent scenes across the North Caucasus last weekend, when an angry mob stormed an airport in Dagestan in search of Israeli passengers, were reminiscent of tsarist-era persecution of Jews. They also indicate the dangers for Russia of stoking antisemitic sentiment amid its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and repercussions from the Israel-Hamas war.
“When we read about the pogroms in Chișinău and Odesa” — where hundreds of Jews were killed in the 19th and early 20th centuries — “that’s what it looked like”, said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s former chief rabbi, who left the country last year after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Crowds also over-ran a hotel in Dagestan on Saturday night, searching for Israelis, according to local media coverage. Kommersant reported that a Jewish centre under construction in Nalchik, the capital of the nearby Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, was also set on fire.
The Kremlin has blamed the events in Dagestan on “external interference” by Ukraine and the west, which Putin accused of seeking to split Russian society ahead of a major holiday.
Putin used a Monday-night emergency meeting on the riots to point the finger at Kyiv and the governments that support it for inspiring the unrest. He claimed that western security services used social media to provoke the violence. “Psychological and informational attacks” were intended to “destabilise” Russia, he said.
Putin also escalated his criticism of Israel’s military actions in Gaza. “The terrifying events happening right now in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of totally innocent people are being killed without differentiation, unable to flee, cannot be justified in any way,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we see that instead of punishment of the criminals and terrorists,” Putin said, referring to Hamas militants who attacked Israel on October 7, “revenge is being taken on the principle of collective responsibility.” More than 1,400 people were killed in the attacks according to Israeli authorities.Police march past protesters at an airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan, on Sunday © Telegram/@askrasul/AFP/Getty Images
But the causes of the riots lie closer to home, analysts say. In majority-Muslim Dagestan, where the worst violence played out over the weekend, long-simmering social resentment mixed with public outrage over Israel’s bombing of Gaza to create a toxic brew authorities could no longer control.
“You see that state propaganda is going against Jews and Israelis, you see there is injustice going on, that it’s inflicted on you . . . so you retaliate against a softer target,” said Emil Aslan, a Caucasus specialist and security studies professor at Charles University in Prague.
Russia’s foreign ministry hosted a prominent Hamas delegation last week, while Putin during a meeting with religious leaders pointedly failed to condemn the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 attacks.
“This might have given a signal to interested parties that ‘hunting season’ has started,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby criticised Putin for not condemning the riots in Dagestan. “Some people have compared it to the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century and I think that’s probably an apt description,” he said.
While Putin had convened his security officials, he had not condemned the attacks or called for them to stop, Kirby said. “We’ve heard crickets from the Kremlin,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes.”
Kirby dismissed Putin’s claims about who had triggered the weekend’s events as “classic Russian rhetoric” and said: “The west had nothing to do with this.”
Dagestan, a mountainous region on the Caspian Sea conquered by the tsars during 19th century imperial wars, proved fertile ground for the toxic mix of antisemitism, resentment of authority and mistrust that fuelled the riots, analysts say.
“We see footage of what’s happening in Gaza and Palestine every day,” said Maryam Aliyeva, a Dagestani human rights activist. “People are very emotionally fragile, and that fragility got the better of them. And people in the Caucasus fall easily for stories about evil enemies, especially if they’re Jews or Americans.”
A large share of the 20 per cent of Russians who say they sympathise with the Palestinians live in Muslim-majority areas such as Dagestan, where religion is the main factor uniting its dozens of different ethnic groups across 14 official languages, said Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.
Support for the Palestinians and anger at Israel’s military action are overlaid on to a “disadvantaged region, where protest moods have repeatedly erupted over the past few years”, Volkov said. “We can see that there’s social tension, unemployment, primarily among young people . . . So it’s no accident.”Military vehicles outside Makhachkala airport in Dagestan on Monday © AFP/Getty Images
Locals in Dagestan repeatedly clashed with police after Putin called up Russia’s reserves last year to support the war effort in Ukraine.
“When people feel discriminated against, they don’t want to go to Ukraine and sacrifice themselves for the sake of the [ethnic] Russian world,” said Charles University’s Aslan.
Dagestan is one of Russia’s poorest regions and suffered through an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s and 2000s. It is still ruled with an iron fist even by the standards of today’s Russia, where almost no dissent is allowed under wartime censorship laws.
Sergei Melikov, Dagestan’s governor, is a former head of Russia’s national guard and local security forces are notorious for targeting activists.
The stifling atmosphere in the region had left many locals struggling to find peaceful ways to express their support for Palestinians, Aliyeva said. Police arrested pro-Palestinian protesters to stop them from creating “unnecessary upheaval and tensions”, with some reportedly forcing drivers to take Palestinian flags off their cars.
Aliyeva argued that if they had been allowed to take part in demonstrations, people would have had the chance “to get their aggression out of them. They would have gone to that protest, shouted, waved flags and gone home. But they didn’t let them,” she said. “And then everyone’s emotions got the better of them.”Anti-Jewish riots took place in Chişinău in 1903 and in 1905 © Apic/Bridgeman/Getty Images
The resentment in Dagestan grew as Russia stoked antisemitic sentiment to fuel hatred of Ukraine, according to Arkady Mil-Man, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow.
Putin has likened the invasion to the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazi Germany in the second world war and claimed that Ukraine is under the grip of a Nazi regime hell-bent on destroying Russia — even though its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish.
That contradiction has forced Putin and other senior Russian officials into having to resort to rhetorical twists.
Putin apologised to Israel last year after his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, falsely claimed “Hitler also had Jewish blood” and, to justify calling Zelenskyy a Nazi, said that “the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews”.
Last month, Russia’s president appeared to deflect blame from the Nazi forces who ordered the capture and extermination of the Jewish population in Ukraine. “He is rewriting the narrative of the Holocaust,” Mil-Man said.
Critics say Putin’s comments have given rise to a wave of virulent coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict on state television that has helped fuel even more lurid posts on social media in Dagestan.
In the first days after the Hamas attacks, false rumours began to spread on Russian social media that refugees from Israel were planning to settle in the North Caucasus, according to Alexandra Arkhipova, a sociologist who studies conspiracy theories.
“In Dagestan [and] the North Caucasus in general, it’s very easy to go from a conspiracy story to doing something in real life,” Arkhipova said. During the Covid-19 pandemic, protesters in the region tried to burn down 5G towers, egged on by false rumours that they spread the disease.
When Russia mobilised its reserves last year, Dagestanis protested more than in any other region — showing that “grassroots mobilisation is very strong. And people are willing to be galvanised by it.”
The Russian state’s normalisation and justification of violence during the war in Ukraine, meanwhile, may have encouraged the protesters to take matters into their own hands, she added.
“Evil can’t be put back into Pandora’s box, never to be seen again,” Arkhipova said. “Going forward, this situation becomes uncontrollable, because all sorts of groups feel that if others are violent, they can use that violence too.”