Why the Anti-jewish Riots in the North Caucasus?

The pogrom at Makhachkala airport in Dagestan (southern Russia) took the world by surprise. How should we interpret this event? Was it spontaneous, or did the Russian authorities manipulate it to send messages to the West and Israel? And how is the Russian Jewish community reacting, caught between Putin’s regime and its sympathy for Israel, home to several hundred thousand Russian Jews who have chosen to become Israelis? The grey areas surrounding these events are worth noting.

After the October 7 massacre, the Russian regime and its propagandists sided with Hamas, a long-standing “ally” that Russia has always refused to call a terrorist organization. This attitude was bluntly expressed by United Russia’s Duma deputy, General Andrei Gurulyov: “I’ll try [to say it] in a military way, a little, perhaps cynically […] Whose ally is Israel? The United States’! Whose ally is Iran and the surrounding Muslim world? Ours! We have our own goals and objectives”.

And he was not alone. The Hamas attack was applauded by Russian propaganda. Not least by the turbo-patriotic Z channels, which mocked with wicked glee Israel’s “weakness”, American “impotence and incompetence”, and the Russian Jews who had “sold out” by moving to Israel. These channels went so far as to cheerfully salute the ignominy perpetrated by Islamists in Israel. Some Z bloggers even wished they had been able to take part in the massacre.

For those Jews who had previously been pro-Putin, it was a rude awakening. As in the Stalinist era, which practiced “anti-Zionism” and condemned “Jewish cosmopolitanism”, they now had to choose between Putin’s homeland and their ethnic, cultural and religious identity. One of the regime’s worst propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, who used to boast about his Jewish origins while cursing the “Ukronazis”, had to set the record straight by distancing himself from any support for Israel or even compassion for Israelis: “I’d like to make it clear that I’m Jewish, but not Israeli. In other words, I have no favorites except my homeland. My homeland is Russia. So when people ask me which side I’m on, I don’t understand that question at all.” He seemed to want to provide a “guideline” for Russia’s Jews, if they did not want to be perceived as hostile elements.

But this thinly veiled warning did not have the desired effect. For example, Orientalist Evgeny Satanovsky, one of the permanent guests on Vladimir Solovyov’s flagship talk show, criticized harshly on air one of the key figures of the Russian political establishment, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, claiming that she “doesn’t particularly like either Jews or Israel” and calling her a “drunken slut.” Shocked by the Israeli tragedy and the Russian government’s pro-Hamas stance, Satanovsky even insulted former president Dmitry Medvedev on the same program, calling him a “weak little shit.” Similarly, a Russian regular on Solovyov’s show, Yakov Kedmi, who purports to be an Israeli expert on security issues, but who has always ardently supported Putin’s policies and reviled the West, also completely changed course after October 7. Needless to say, they are no longer guests of Solovyov, who has also had to apologize to Zakharova.

Solovyov’s line was then somewhat formalized by Putin himself. On October 21, he convened a meeting of the Russian Federation’s religious leaders to discuss the situation in Gaza. First, he got them all on board with his war against Ukraine, thanking them for their support for the Russian armed forces, before explaining that Russia’s main task was to “stop the bloodshed and violence”, again without condemning Hamas, while “certain forces are trying to provoke a new escalation, to draw as many countries and peoples as possible into the conflict, to use them for their own selfish interests, to cause chaos and mutual hatred not only in the Middle East, but far beyond.” Bluntly speaking, he was pointing to the West, which would try to inflict “a strategic defeat” on Russia, and which “needs the Middle East and all the other religious and national conflicts in the world to be directly or indirectly linked, in one way or another, to Russia or, more precisely, to hit Russia, our society!” To oppose them, Putin stressed, we need to understand that we are “one people with one Homeland. And we share responsibility for its security and prosperity.”

However, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, while paying tribute to Putin for his policy of so-called peaceful religious coexistence in Russia, suddenly hardened his tone and dared to contradict the official Russian line:

“Like all religions, we pray for peace, so that there will be no more wars. That is why, as we mourn the hundreds of innocent victims killed by terrorists on October 7, as we pray for the rescue of over 200 hostages […], we know that there can be no negotiations with terrorists, and above all no compromises. Any terrorist organization must be isolated and destroyed.”

We can assume that the anti-Jewish riots in the North Caucasus were “sponsored” on the sly by the regime, as were demonstrations in support of terrorists in Chechnya and other Muslim-majority regions of Russia in the past. This was particularly the case after the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo and the assassination of the French school teacher Samuel Paty. The antisemitic riots in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus have in any case sounded a fresh warning to the Russian Jewish community. In a country under heavy police surveillance, is it possible that “spontaneous” and violent demonstrations are spreading like wildfire: in Khasavyurt , in Cherkessk, in Nalchik, and finally at Makhachkala airport, where the confrontation with the forces of law and order, very late in the day, resulted in dozens of injuries? These were not just calls to prevent the arrival of Israelis, but a stated intention to “cleanse” the North Caucasus of any Jewish presence. It is certainly possible that these violent actions exceeded the expectations of those pulling the strings, and official Russian discourse was quick to attribute them to Ukrainian “scheming” and the Western masters of the “Ukronazis.”

Although it is important for the Russian regime to “contain” the reactions of Russia’s Jews, a still influential community that includes leading figures from the worlds of culture, science and business, the Makhachkala pogrom and other antisemitic acts are above all a warning to the government of Israel, the message being in essence: you have hostages not only in the hands of Hamas, but also here at home. Remember the anti-Armenian pogroms of the late 1980s. As the ever-popular Russian slogan goes: “We can always do it again!”

Meanwhile, the official Russian position has removed even further any inhibitions antisemites of all stripes in Russia may have had. Here is how the YouTube channel Ya tak i znal (“I knew it”), just one of many Russian fascist sites, talks about Satanovsky, Kedmi and Solovyov, making no distinction between them: “The overrepresentation in the Russian Federation’s information field of people from a single Semitic tribe, the ability of these people to imitate a particular nationality or culture, is simply astounding. And then, when they get important positions, they begin to eat away at this society from the inside. Such is the case with Solovyov, his right-hand man Satanovsky and the traitor Kedmi, who went from being a grieving Jew suffering for his people to being a Nazi”. This kind of language has become commonplace.

Purges and pogroms threaten more than just Jews. On public television channel Rossiïa-1, General Andrei Gurulyov proposed to “destroy” Russians who do not trust Putin. According to him, “the level of cohesion” in society is reflected in the 80% of citizens who trust the head of state, while the remaining 20%, “all that rot”, should be, if not isolated, at least destroyed one way or another.

But there is an even broader question to be asked. The pogrom at Makhachkala airport could be a warning to Western governments, first and foremost the United States, with this message: do not support Israel, because this will unleash a wave of Muslim antisemitism on a global scale. So far, we have ve managed to contain the anger and arrest activists, but the pot is boiling.

Russian power likes to see itself as the master of complicated games, and one of these manipulations is probably taking place before our very eyes.

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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