When Russian President Vladimir Putin held a pro-war rally in a Moscow arena last week, a banner blared above the podium: “For a world without Nazism. For Russia.”
Much of Russia’s justification for war is based on this claim. Putin has portrayed the Ukrainian government as ‘a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis’, as ‘little Nazis’ and ‘openly neo-Nazi’. The Kremlin vows to “de-nazify” Ukraine by force The Kremlin’s messages have been remarkably consistent on this point.
The point is also clearly incorrect: Ukraine’s democratic government has one of the few Jewish leaders on the world stage. In contrast, it is Russia’s increasingly autocratic government that is distorting reality to justify its neighbors’ invasion.
In a Sunday interview with CNN host Fareed Zakaria, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke at length about the false accusation of Nazism, bringing up his family history in the fight against the Nazis and accusing the Kremlin of employing Nazi-like military tactics. .
“There are rare occasions when I smile, when I laugh. And for me, to hear it, it’s like [it’s] something that looks like a joke,” Zelensky said of the absurdity of the charge, speaking through an interpreter.
He then paused, bringing up a darker thought: What if Putin believes this?
“I think Putin is in an information bubble right now. I think this is” [an] information bunker, and if it’s so powerful, this information bunker, that he really thinks Ukrainians are neo-Nazis – this is a laughable statement to me – then a fear attack resurfaces,” Zelensky said.
“Then a lot of questions come up about what else he can do for the sake of his ambitions,” he said. “So this is what gives rise to a feeling that is not very pleasant and that is very frightening, very dangerous. It could be an information bubble that will continue to exert pressure.”
Zelensky recalled his own family history during World War II. He described how his grandfather and his grandfather’s four brothers all went to war against the Nazis, who had invaded the Soviet Union with the greatest military might in history. Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, was completely occupied.
“My grandfather graduated from military school at that time and all his brothers went to war,” Zelensky said. “They had to fight against fascism. So they went to war. All the brothers died. And my grandfather survived the whole war. His father and his mother died in a terrible fire. The Nazis set fire to the entire village where they lived and my grandfather was born,” he added, praising his grandfather’s medals for heroism and bravery.
Zelensky asked if all the Russians who call him a Nazi could say the same about their own family history.
“When some politicians in the Russian Federation bring up this topic of neo-Nazis and fascism in relation to me… my biography is open. Everyone is well aware of my biography. You can find facts about my family in open sources. But what about the relatives of Russians?” he said.
He also accused the Russian military of using tactics reminiscent of Nazi Germany, which infamously blocked the Soviet city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). About 1.5 million people died during the years of siege. Putin was born there and his ancestors suffered at the hands of the Wehrmacht.
In their current war, the Russians have blocked the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol, which is experiencing a humanitarian crisis with little food or water left. Bunkers where civilians live have been bombed. Hope among the survivors is quickly running out.
“Russians are currently behaving in the same way as neo-Nazis,” Zelensky lamented. “If you look at history … you can just look at what the Nazis did. They blocked Kiev. They blocked other cities from preventing the supply of water and food. This is what the Russians are doing now. This is what they are doing in Mariupol.
“Everyone knows how many people died during the blockade of Leningrad,” he added. “The people did not have enough food and water. This is exactly what is happening in Ukraine. So who is the Nazi?”