Donate to RNS

How will history judge Vladimir Putin?

In his hunger for Ukraine, Putin walks in the path of Hitler.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a Cabinet meeting in Moscow on Dec. 26, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Those were the words of the immortal Samuel Clemens — otherwise known as Mark Twain.

This morning, the world awakened to the sound of history rhyming.

We heard the rhymes of 1956 — the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and 1968, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

Could you fault anyone for hearing the rhyme of 1939, as well?

Just last evening, I found myself rereading the opening chapters of Timothy Snyder’s book ”Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.” Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University, and is also the author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” and one of my favorite books, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.”

Snyder teaches that the Holocaust began as a perverse idea in Adolf Hitler’s mind, fueled by antisemitism, scientific racism, a perverted reading of biology and a pseudo-religious ideology.

But, that idea might have only amounted to ideological fulminations.

It was not enough for Hitler to imagine away peoples. In order to do so, he had to imagine away entire states. For the Jews of Europe to be murdered, the states destroyed had to be the ones where Jews were citizens. The vast majority of Jews lived east of Germany, in Poland and beyond.

“Beyond” meant Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, whose people Josef Stalin had already destroyed through forced famines. There, Jews perished — many at the hands of the paramilitary death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, otherwise known as the “Holocaust by bullets,” before the “Final Solution” decreed the use of extermination camps.

For Hitler, the reason for the destruction of Ukraine — as it was for Poland and the USSR — was simple.

“The Slavs are born as a slavish mass,” Hitler wrote.

More than that: Aryan racial thinking viewed Slavs not as white, but as Black. This was an importation part of German racist policies, which had failed in Africa but which would now find a new, fresh landscape.

RELATED: How should Jews think about Ukraine?

As Snyder writes:

Since racism was an asserted hierarchy of rights to the planet, it could be applied to Europeans who lived east of Germany. Africa was a place was “lost,” but “Africa” as a form of thinking could be universalized. The experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbors could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to eastern Europe than to Africa.

Ukrainians knew what was happening. A Ukrainian woman recorded in her diary: “We are like slaves. Often the book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ comes to mind. Once we shed tears over those Negroes (sic) now obviously we ourselves are experiencing the same thing.”

To be clear: Russian President Vladimir Putin does not base the invasion of Ukraine on race. The Ukrainians are fellow Slavs.

But he does walk in the mythical boots of his predecessor, Stalin.

And, in his hunger for Ukraine, he walks in the path of Hitler.

That is not a good look.

As for me, I pray for peace. I pray, as well, for the Jews of Ukraine — about 100,00 of them, many of whom are elderly Holocaust survivors who have maintained and even resurrected their spiritual, communal and educational institutions.

The cities in which they live — Kyiv, Kharkiv (Kharkov), Lviv (Lvov, or as the Germans had named it, Lemberg), Odesa — are the cities from where many of our own great-grandparents had emigrated.

Had they stayed there, we, too, would be there.

As I wrote the other day, Ukraine provided the soil that nourished the growth of Hasidism, perhaps the greatest movement of spiritual renewal in Jewish history.

Like many Hasidic teachers, Reb Nachman of Breslov was from Ukraine. His burial site in Uman is a site of pilgrimage.

Here is his prayer for peace, which I have edited slightly for language:

תפילה לשלום

Prayer for peace

“Lord of Peace, Divine Ruler, to whom peace belongs. Master of Peace, Creator of all things:

אדון השלוםמלך שהשלום שלו עושה שלום ובורא את הכל:

“May it be Your will to put an end to war and bloodshed on earth, and to spread a great and wonderful peace over the whole world, ‘so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:4)

יהי רצון מלפניךשתבטל מלחמות ושפיכות דמים מן העולם ותמשיך שלום גדול ונפלא בעולם ולא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה“:

“Help us and save us all, and let us cling tightly to the virtue of peace. Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow, and between husband and wife, and let there be no discord between any people even in their hearts.

עזרנו והושיענו כולנו שניזכה תמיד לאחוז במידת השלוםויהיה שלום גדול באמת בין כל אדם לחברוובין איש לאשתו ולא יהיה שום מחלוקת אפילו בלב בין כל בני אדם:

“And may it be that all people love peace and pursue peace, always in truth and with wholeheartedness, without holding on to any disputes ever again which would divide us against each other.

ויהיה כל אדם אוהב שלום ורודף שלום תמיד באמת ובלב שלםולא נחזיק במחלוקת כלל לעולם ואפילו נגד החולקים עלינו:

“Let us never shame any person on earth, great or small. May it be granted unto us to fulfill Your Commandment to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ (Leviticus 19:18) with all our hearts and souls and bodies and possessions.

ולא נבייש שום אדם בעולם מקטן ועד גדול ונזכה לקיים באמת מצוות ואהבת לרעך כמוך“, בכל לב וגוף ונפש וממון:

“And let it come to pass in our time as it is written, ‘And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid. I will drive the wild beasts from the land, and neither shall the sword go through your land.’ (Leviticus 26:6)

ויקוים בנו מקרא שכתוב ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ וחרב לא תעבור בארצכם:

יי שלוםברכנו בשלום

“Adonai who is peace, bless us with peace!”


Reb Nachman taught one more thing.

All strife is identical. The friction within a family is a counterpart of the wars between nations. Each person in a household is the counterpart of a world power, and their quarrels are the wars between those powers. The traits of each nation are also reflected in these individuals. Some nations are known for anger, others for bloodthirstiness. Each one has its particular trait. The counterparts of these traits are found in each household. (Sichot HaRan 77)

May we seek and find peace, and may we start by seeking and finding it within our own sacred places of the heart.

RELATED: Next year in Kyiv?


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!