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State of Tel Aviv

Born in the USSR: Former Israeli MK Reflects on Putin’s War

An Attack on Phantom Nazis, Freedoms and Hopes

Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:

Shortly after I had returned from trips to Moldova and Poland in late Marchto assist and learn about the plight of Ukrainian refugees then flooding into these bordering countriesI spoke with Ksenia Svetlova. Unbeknownst to me, she too had been absorbed in the urgency of the crisis but, as I quickly learned, in a much more personal way.

Her anguish reminded me of the conversations I had been having with my cousin, born in Leningrad, who left with his family in the early 70s for Toronto. He has been extremely successful by any measure but has always yearned to return to his home. When the country opened up to the West, he bought an apartment in what was now called St. Petersburg and began spending more and more time there.

When we met in in his childhood hometown a few years ago over the New Year holiday, my cousin was raging about how Russia had become a dangerous place, again. He went on about the extreme and ever-tightening control of media and public discourse.

Since the outbreak of war with Ukraine, he, like Ksenia, has been consumed by this war; by this incomprehensible destruction.

But, for my cousin, and Ksenia, the storm clouds had been gathering in plain view for some time. They were not a bit surprised.

I expect you will find Ksenia’s heart-rending elegy to the Russia that almost was as poignant as I do.

Thanks for reading.


I. War Begins

On the night of February 24, I couldn’t sleep. I checked my phone compulsively for news, refreshed my Twitter feed, prayed that nothing would happen. I hoped to wake up to my normal routine.

But then, at 5:00 am in Russia, President Vladimir Putin made yet another statement, the last one before the war. As always, I couldn’t help but notice the sharp dichotomy between his dull voice—the drone of a bureaucrat who might be announcing a new tender for cleaning services at his ministry—and the menacing content of his words.

Putin didn’t look scary. He didn’t bark orders like the Adolf Hitler. And yet, this man, who spoke in the most pedestrian Russian, utterly devoid of character or expression, had just declared war on another country.

This man, I thought, with his beady, soulless eyes, was the essence of the banality of evil (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt).

Born and raised in Moscow, I have lived in Israel for the last thirty years, much longer than I lived in Russia. For me, news from Russia—and certainly from Ukraine—has long been “foreign affairs.”

That morning, everything changed for me and the millions among the Russian-speaking diaspora. This war became a very personal matter. It was existential.

More than anything else, I wanted to understand: What had gone wrong? Why did this country take such a disastrous turn? How did the Russian belief in “never again” turn into a terrible war in Ukraine?[1]

Shortly after Putin’s speech ended, bombs were dropped on Ukrainian cities. Air-raid sirens and explosions split the quiet of the night.

War was upon us.

II. My Grandmother, WWII, Stalingrad and Gorky Park

Growing up in Moscow in the 1980s, we used to talk about war and peace. A lot. War was unimaginable. Peace seemed permanent.

Of course, there were wars in the 1980s, but they weren’t “real” wars. They were different. They didn’t really count in the Soviet paradigm.

We knew what real war looked, sounded, and felt like. The Great Patriotic War, known as World War II in the West. That. Was a war. [2]

War sounded like the signature deep rich tones of Yuri Levitan, the famous Soviet radio announcer during that war. [3]

War looked like grainy, black-and-white images of rubble where cities once stood, burned villages, refugees cramped in trains.

War—real war—was symbolized by a red flag emblazoned with a black swastika flying over the Reichstag.

When the Great Patriotic War began on June 22, 1941, my grandmother, Victoria, was a military doctor.

In later years, whenever I complained about anything, her response was always the same. “Let it not be war.”

At the outbreak of World War II, she was pregnant with my mother. Instead of preparing for the birth of her first child, she volunteered to go to the front. She gave birth to my mother, Svetlana, in Stalingrad a few months before the epic battle that would mark a turning point in the war. After a brief evacuation and recovery period, Victoria was back on active duty. After all, there was an acute shortage of neurologists.

People did not complain. The War was existential.

Every year on May 9, which was celebrated in the USSR as Victory Day over Nazi Germany, my grandmother would go out to meet friends from that past: doctors and nurses who had survived the war and somehow kept their sanity. She always put on her best dress, wore makeup and looked festive, yet sad and gloomy, at once. For her it was a day to focus on unbearable memories: her family murdered by the Nazis in Rostov; friends who had died in battles or in their homes, bombed by the Germans.

The memory of that war was still fresh when I was growing up. Veterans like my grandmother were everywhere. Each year on May 9, they would pin their war medals on their chests with great pride. Then they would congregate in Moscow’s Gorky Park; large groups of elderly people, some with missing arms or legs, drinking vodka, crying and singing bittersweet songs of the war that always made me cry.

MOSCOW, MAY 09, 2018: Victory Day celebration in Gorky Park.
MOSCOW, MAY 09, 2018: Victory Day celebration in Gorky Park.

In my childhood it was simply understood as an article of faith that there would never be another war like that. After all, real war was impossible. There were no more Nazis left in Germany—or anywhere else, for that matter—because the Soviet Union had triumphed and the Red Army had annihilated them all. Good over evil.

III. Haunted by Nazi Demons

Victory Day is still marked in modern Russia. But in Soviet times it was celebrated. We showed gratitude and respect to our elders for their bravery and sacrifice in defeating the Nazi enemy.

Today, president Putin exploits the day to warn Russians that the enemy is still near. Crowds are stirred at rallies to chant the slogan mojem povtorit (“we can do it again”).

The Nazis, according to the revised official Russian narrative, are not gone after all.

Recent polls confirm that an astonishing 88 percent of Russians believe the state propaganda asserting that neo-Nazi organizations operate in Ukraine. Almost as many are convinced that they pose a security threat to Russia.

Perhaps most surprising is that 70 percent of Russian respondents believe that the Ukrainian government actively supports neo-Nazis.

None of this is surprising. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian state television has hammered this propaganda relentlessly, adhering religiously to four narratives about Ukraine:

i) the Ukrainian government seized power in an illegal coup;

ii) the “junta of Kyiv” was committing genocide;

iii) the majority of Ukrainian civilians opposed the junta and were hostages of the regime; and

iv) the “junta” rulers were, in fact, Nazis.

Nazis.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I understood in my bones how powerful this word was, how deeply it resonated. I also understood the vulnerability of the Russian people to the visceral terror as soon as the specter of the “Nazi” was invoked.

Putin knew exactly what he was doing.

The most well-known contemporary Kremlin propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov, have been arguing for years on media platforms that the West was fueling war by sending weapons to its proxies in Ukraine. They said Ukraine should not exist as an independent state. It was artificial, unlike Russia with its long history, literature and traditions. [4]

In their worldview, Obama was an enemy and Trump a useful idiot. Europeans were weak and divided, and those who wanted to help Russia were prevented from doing so by the cadre of “mighty bosses from Brussels.” They saw an opportunity to recast Russia’s place in the world. It began with a constant assault on the truth at home.

In 2014, Russian state television aired a story about a three-year-old child who was allegedly crucified by Ukrainian militants at Lenin Square in Slavyansk. Russian and foreign correspondents soon established that the story was a fake. Not only were there no witnesses, but there was also no Lenin Square in Slavyansk.

This is just one of many examples of extreme disinformation. After years of conditioning by such coarse propaganda, millions of Russian citizens have come to believe, zealously, that Ukraine is the hub of contemporary neo-Nazism. Accordingly, they accept and support that the attack on Ukraine is just. The country must be destroyed and “denazified.” All for the greater good and glory of Russia.



IV.  Perestroika and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

I left Russia for Israel with my family in 1991 at age 14. I was old enough to understand the optimism of the time; the period that became known as perestroika, meaning “restructuring” in English. Perestroika became associated with the dramatic economic reforms undertaken to transition from the planned, Soviet economy to one that was more open and market-driven.

As a teenager, I was addicted to the news and political talk shows—something of an oddity in the world of dull, state-controlled Soviet media. Even after MTV and Hollywood movies became available, my family continued to watch the news, which was, impossibly, often more exciting than glitzy Western entertainment. The pace of change was dizzying. Every day brought new reforms and dramatic revelations about the past.

And then, there was the concept of freedom of speech.

Imagine the jolt and thrill of walking from a totalitarian to a democratic environment, almost overnight. I worshipped the young journalists who dared to criticize the authorities, to argue about our nation’s complex past, and to imagine a different future for our country. They were intelligent, articulate and energetic. They were unrelenting in their quest for truth, which was non-existent in the USSR.

With all these exciting changes taking place, I decided that when I grew up, I, too, would become a journalist.

But the Soviet empire was crumbling before our eyes, in real time, like a structurally flawed building with a reasonable façade. One day it just collapses in on itself. Russia was collapsing in on itself. Supply chains were disrupted. Grocery shops were empty. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, some Russians began to be openly nostalgic for the discipline and certainty of the communist era.

In the midst of this upheaval, on November 7, 1990, my mother took me to get photos taken for our visa application to Israel. On the way, she suggested we buy some cake. We stood in line for more than an hour. Once at home, we discovered that instead of cream, the bakers had filled the cake with processed cheese, because sugar and cream were in short supply. We laughed hysterically. This cake became a symbol, for us, of everything that had gone wrong in our country.

Today, we know well that those initial years after the collapse of the Russian empire were very difficult. Many people were ruined economically, having lost all their savings. Pensions were woefully inadequate and had not been supplemented to provide a decent standard of living in the new economic reality. Millions lost their jobs as factories shut down. Crime was rampant. During my only visit to Russia during the 1990s, I felt as if I was visiting a foreign country whose language I just happened to know.

But then, in the 2000s, when I was a young journalist, Russia suddenly became relevant for me again. For all the misery and instability of 1990s, Russia in the 2000s represented the flipside, characterized by a flourishing economy and what appeared to be significant opportunity.

It was suddenly fun to travel to Moscow. It looked like Russia but resembled the West. Intellectual life flourished and—despite the growing authoritarian rule of Putin, a former KGB officer who became heir to the ailing President Boris Yeltsin—it seemed that Russia was back on track. Russians were buying cars and apartments, they travelled abroad, and foreigners flocked there to work in the excitement of a burgeoning economy. Western tourists, too, poured in, to see first-hand what had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for decades.

I walked in the streets of my childhood, which I had known like the back of my hand, but could no longer recognize. The capitalist West, so passionately vilified by Soviet propaganda, was now everywhere.

V. The Return of Soviet-Style Propaganda

But there was a dark underbelly, festering. As economic prosperity spread, independent TV channels were quietly commandeered by state authorities. Oligarchs who refused to cooperate with Putin were disgraced and put on trial. Joseph Stalin, who had ordered the murder of my grandfather in 1938—and millions of others during his rule—was enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

These sinister developments, along with the serial reelection of Putin, spoke volumes about the path Russia was on. This dangerous side was not hidden. Among other occasions, in Putin’s ominous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, his worldview was articulated very clearly. He accused the United States of seeking a “unipolar world… in which there is one master, one sovereign.”

Talk about saber rattling.

Yet, people were, for the most part, nonplussed. During my travels to Russia over the last twenty years, I heard many times from old friends, and especially from their parents, that they supported Putin because he was “stable and predictable.” His rule allowed them to accumulate some wealth and live a more or less decent life.

VI. The Complex Identity of Russian-Speakers in Israel

More than one million former-Soviet citizens moved to Israel during the early 1990s. They came from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other Soviet republics, but tended to be lumped together as “Russians.” There are many “Russian” grocery shops in Israel, “Russian” bookstores, even a “Russian” political party—led by Avigdor Lieberman, who was born not in Russia but Moldova.

Eight years ago, Israelis suddenly learned that “Russians” were not a monolith, but that many had, in fact, come from other former-Soviet republics that are independent countries today. And these “Russians,” in particular, tended to fiercely oppose the unprovoked Russian military attack on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014.

And, just like me, many who had been born in the Russian Republic in the former USSR, or whose parents came from there, were also shaken to their core. They felt that this war was their war too. Even those without close ties to the “old country” knew well the names of the cities that were now being obliterated, were appalled by the cynical lies of Putin, and felt compelled to help. To do something.

I could hear my grandma’s voice: “Let it not be war.”

VII. Requiem For Friendships and Nations Destroyed

Former Israeli MK Ksenia Svetlova and her mother
Former Israeli MK Ksenia Svetlova and her mother

When my family first arrived in Israel, we soon realized that the photo albums we had shipped, along with hundreds of books, had vanished. It was as if my past had been erased. (The photo above of me as a baby with my mother in Moscow is one of the few treasures I have.)

My Russia, the one of my childhood and hopeful early adolescence, has now become a monster. Any vestiges of the early hope have been erased, for a second time.

Russia’s intellectual elites are fleeing Moscow and St. Petersburg in droves. In spite of so much optimism, they could not prevent this turn of events, which was unimaginable a short while ago. They had no influence over the majority of Russians who backed the current war and believe that the “Nazi takeover in Ukraine” must be crushed.

For years I dreamed of taking my Israeli-born children to visit Moscow; to walk the beautiful streets, dine in fine restaurants, visit the house where I was born. Today, I feel as if I have left Moscow a second time.

In 1991, we didn’t know whether we would ever be able to come back. In 2022, I know that I will not visit until things change. Russia squandered a rare opportunity to embrace democracy. It wasn’t sudden, but, rather a continuum of descent into autocracy and away from freedom. Such historical windows present rarely.

I dream now of taking my kids to Ukraine instead—to teach them about solidarity, the human spirit and the heroism of ordinary people; to admire its ancient churches (some of them now in ruins) and get lost in its endless blue skies and yellow wheat fields. Yet, I know that without fundamental change in Russia, the war may well continue, and any revival of Ukraine will be delayed.

Throughout the Putin years, many people within Russia and outside were not fooled by the claims that his regime was “stable and predictable.” But so many, including Western leaders, were entranced by new markets and cheap energy. Russians reveled in their new freedoms and material abundance. It was so much easier to just go with the flow.

In my home in Israel, my mother stopped watching and reading Russian media, with the exception of a few independent outlets that have since been shut down.

I often overheard her explaining to her old friends in Moscow that state-controlled media just spewed toxic propaganda. Shortly before she passed away on Yom Kippur in 2020, she severed ties with one of her closest friends, saying that she had been completely “brainwashed” by state-controlled television.

At the time, I thought her reaction was a bit harsh. They had, after all, been close friends for fifty years, with a lifetime of shared passions for classical music, theater and art. Now, Putin stood between them, ruining their ties.

Only after February 24 did I understand why she could no longer maintain such relationships. She refused to participate in the charade.

Perestroika was dead.


Editor's Notes

1) In Soviet culture, the slogan “Never Again” referred to the extensive horror and destruction of WWII, known as the Great Patriotic War. The phrase was shorthand for saying that such a national disaster would never repeat because the Red Army had obliterated Nazism.

In Jewish culture, “Never Again” is used to invoke the Holocaust, which refers to the mass murder of six million Jews in Europe during WWII. It is a pledge to defend the Jewish people and nation.

2) The Great Patriotic War (as WWII was known in the U.S.S.R.) took an unbearable toll on the Soviet Union. Approximately 27 million Soviet citizens died from a pre-war population of 195 million. Estimates of military deaths are nine million, with the rest being civilians. Some of the most intense battles and sieges in military history occurred on the Eastern front between the Soviet and German armies.

3) Yuri Levitan was “discovered” by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin quite by chance. An aspiring actor, Levitan was Jewish and the son of a tailor. He was raised in a city about 100 kilometers from Moscow and was quite determined to escape his humble origins. Levitan’s dream was to become an actor but he was steered to radio. His provincial accent was considered to be inappropriate for film or the Moscow stage. On the night of Levitan’s first radio broadcast, at age 19, Stalin happened to be listening and was captivated by the his voice. From that moment Levitan’s life was transformed.

Stalin’s attention often ended in death or disaster for the object of his focus but in Levitan’s case it was a stroke of luck. For many years he was Stalin’s voice of choice. Understanding well the impact of mass communications in galvanizing a society at war, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler put a bounty on Levitan’s head, referring to him as “Public Enemy Number One.” Levitan passed away in 1983 at age 69.

4) Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov are Russian journalists known to be very friendly with President Putin. Considered by many to be propogandists rather than journalists, Kiselyov is often referred to as “Putin’s mouthpiece.”


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Author image
Ksenia Svetlova was a Member of the Israeli Knesset from 2015-19. She is an expert on Middle Eastern and Russian affairs, with her book "On High Heels in the Middle East" published in 2021.
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