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Vladimir Putin—An Enigma

May 11, 2022

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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At the writing of this article, war rages in Ukraine, and Europe is witnessing atrocities unlike anything we have seen since World War II. Many fear we are teetering on the brink of World War III. All eyes are fixed on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s enigmatic leader, wondering what his next move might be and praying for peace that only seems likely through divine intervention. His picture adorns nearly every magazine, newspaper and news site, while headlines like the recent “Is Vlad Mad or Bad” abound.

It’s a question that many take very seriously. Is Putin actually suffering from mental illness, an aggressive narcissist, madness perhaps brought about by COVID-19? Or is he just plain evil, a victim of inner demons that won’t let him stop until he has subdued the world? Or is it something else? Another headline suggests we have his past to blame: “How Vladimir Putin’s Childhood is Affecting Us All.” The article suggests that Putin is a victim of the effects of poverty and abuse in his early years that continue to inform his decisions today. Like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu before him, all brutalized as children, the pain of his past has so poisoned him that he likely will continue a campaign of brutality and violence throughout his life.

Tough Beginnings

There is no doubt that Putin had a very difficult childhood. He was born in 1952 in post-war Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, only eight years after the brutal siege of the city by the German army, which killed more than a million of its people. Though both of his parents survived the war, they were emotionally and physically traumatized by the time Vladimir came along. His father had been severely injured in battle and was unable to find gainful employment, while his mother had nearly died of starvation. His two older brothers were both dead, one of diphtheria in infancy during the war and the other of starvation shortly after. There was no joy in the Putin household. From birth, Vladimir knew nothing but hunger, grief, sadness and violence.

In his autobiography, he wrote of the ramshackle apartment with no hot water, bathtub or decent toilet facilities that the Putins shared with two other families and hordes of rats. He was small for his age and constantly bullied and humiliated by drunken thugs that were his neighbors. Eventually he studied martial arts and took up judo to defend himself. He learned early that fights were inevitable and winning was all that mattered.

By his own admission, however, there were some bright spots in his otherwise dismal existence. An Orthodox Jewish family who lived in the neighborhood extended much kindness to the young Russian, offering food when they could and a glimpse of a different kind of life. And there were other Jewish people who influenced him as well: his math teacher, with whom he maintained contact throughout the rest of her life, even after she had made aliyah (immigrated to Israel); his judo instructor; and two of his best friends who were his training partners as he studied martial arts. Putin would never forget these relationships and the moments of sunshine they brought into his very dark life. These people were different than any others he had known, and Putin recognized it was because they were Jewish.

Old Ties Remembered

Thanks to the support of that sixth grade math teacher, Putin began to realize his intellectual potential. With her ongoing encouragement, he excelled in high school, went on to become an officer in the KGB, and later held several high-level positions under then-President Boris Yeltsin. He would follow Yeltsin as the president of Russia, a society in which anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained.

At the end of World War II, Stalin had thrown open the doors of the Soviet Union and invited Jews fleeing Europe to find a home in his empire. Thousands did. However, with the rebirth of the nation of Israel and the onset of the Cold War, anti-Semitic tropes found their way into the narrative again and Soviet leadership began to view the Jewish population as a threat. Jews were viewed as a diaspora population loyal to a foreign state. Stalin’s infamous purges were often openly anti-Jewish, and thousands of Jews were assassinated or imprisoned.

Putin, however, believed that Stalin’s discrimination against Jews and the mass exodus of over a million Jews after the fall of communism, ultimately hurt Russia. Today, under Putin’s leadership, Russia is intolerant of homosexuals and Muslims, quashes any kind of political dissent and controls the media with an iron hand. Yet even his harshest critics are forced to admit that, unlike generations of leaders before him, Putin is not an anti-Semite.

Rabbi Baruch Gorin, a senior figure in Russia’s Chabad community, says Putin is interested in a strong Russian Jewish community as a matter of Russian pride. Anti-Semitism is significantly less prevalent in today’s Russia, largely due to the firm stand Russia’s judiciary—under Putin’s direction—has taken against the anti-Semitic intimidation that was once business as usual.

His affection for Israel and the Jewish people is apparent despite the complex geopolitical reality that exists between the two countries. He speaks of Israel as an extension of Russia, supporting and visiting “his” Jews who have emigrated. On more than one occasion, he has stated that Israel will never fall into the hands of an enemy “on his watch.” After a visit with Putin, Nathan Sharansky, an Israeli politician who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, was impressed with Putin’s sympathy for Israel, his distaste for anti-Semitism and his sincere fondness for Jews in Russia and in Israel.

After immigrating to Israel in 1973, Putin’s former math teacher, Mina Berliner, kept in touch, and Putin even met with her when he visited the country in 2005. Shortly after that meeting, gifts began to arrive from her former pupil, and an employee of the Russian embassy appeared on her doorstep to take her apartment shopping. Putin purchased an apartment for her, where she lived until her death. A representative of the Russian embassy attended her funeral, and Russia covered all of the costs of her funeral and burial. Before her death, Mina commented in an interview that Putin’s loyalty to her made her cry. “He is a very grateful and decent person,” Mina said, “a mensch [someone with honor and integrity].

Obviously, Israel’s relationship with Russia is critical and complex. Currently, the Jewish state finds itself forced to walk a very fine line between the US on one side and Russia on the other. But as the bombs fall, thousands flee Ukraine seeking safety elsewhere, and the evidence of war crimes mounts, it’s hard for the rest of the world to view Putin through the same lens as Berliner did. And even though Gorin maintains, “Whatever his many other sins, he’s just not an anti-Semite. He actually cares about us,” it seems increasingly likely that history will remember Putin as a barbaric, murderous dictator—not as Berliner’s mensch.

Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru/commons.wikimedia.org

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