There has been a great deal of outrage among many in the Western media pointing to the irony of Vladimir Putin’s use of the term “denazification” as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine. Many journalists (as well as expert commentators) have pointed to the irony of this argument because President Volodymr Zelensky is himself Jewish, and that Russian forces have damaged the memorial site for the Jewish victims of Nazi oppression during their occupation of the country, Baba Yar. How can this be “Denazification” if some of the most prominent targets of the Russian invasion are Jewish?
I think part of the problem with this interpretation is that there is an assumption that “fascism” and “Nazism” and the legacy of the second World War mean the same things to the West and to Russia.
For the West, Nazism is associated with the holocaust, and especially the 6 million Jews who were killed by Hitler’s regime. For Russians Nazism is associated with Hitler’s brutal invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and not the Holocaust (in fact anti-Semitism has long been a part of Russian history, including the use of violent anti-Jewish pogroms by the imperial state, and rampant anti-Semitism during Soviet times). Nazism is associated with a mortal enemy, the enemy that caused the Soviet Union to lose lost around 27 million people during the war, including 8.7 million military casualties and 19 million civilians.
For Putin, then, denazification means the removal of enemies that represent an existential threat to the Russian nation. The claim that the illegitimate state in Kyiv (illegitimate because it is based on the “illegal” overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime in 2014) is an existential threat to Russia, is not directed at the outside world, but rather at the Russian population. It conjures up memories about the Second World War, and the costs suffered by the Russian people. It also suggests that Russia should expect and be willing to suffer as much as it did in the Second World War in its renewed struggle against “Nazism” . It also justifies that war without limits (Bec Predel) in Ukraine is the only way to defend Russia from this existential threat. Hence Putin’s continued use of the term “denazification”