The Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted an event this week about Nazis and fascism with a focus on claims that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian government and its people are Nazis. The event, titled “Where Are the Nazis? Memory and Myth in Russia and the United States,” was a discussion about the history of Russia and Ukraine, language and how the claims arose.
Guest speaker Ben Rifkin, a professor of Russian at Fairleigh Dickinson, structured the event as a lecture interspersed with moments of audience interaction for the attendees in Friends Hall on Monday. He began by speaking about his background as an Ashkenazi Jew. As sociolinguistics is a focus of his studies, he also addressed how the way we frame words can tie into how people or situations are portrayed.
“They don’t call it a war and you could get arrested for calling it a war. So, they call it a ‘special military conflict,’” Rifkin said, referring to the way the Russian Federation frames the war in Ukraine.
He gave an example of the term “welfare queen” in America, which Reagan popularized during one of his presidential campaigns. The term is a strawman used to excuse cutting social services by portraying those who depend on them as entitled Black women who use welfare checks to afford luxurious items.
“It’s fodder for racism, racism, racism, it goes back more than 400 years… And we have embedded in this myth of the welfare queen the ideas of laziness and sexual promiscuity,” Rifkin said.
He connected this discussion to the word “Russian” in order to explain who the Russian people are, the war with Ukraine and accusations of fascism.
During the ninth century, Russia used to be part of a massive state known as Kievan Rus’. Russia gets its name from Rus’, the area near Sweden where the descendants of what became the Slavic people came from.
Rifkin also discussed the unity among people in Kievan Rus’ during the late 10th century. United under Vladimir the Great (this is who Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy are named after), people were “neither Ukrainian nor Russian.”
He also explained how the Jews settled in what became Poland.
“In 1343, the king of Poland, Cazimir the Great, saw that the Jews in what was the Holy Roman Empire… were being persecuted and had this idea that the Jews are a learned and thrifty people and if we invite them, they will help the Polish economy,” Rifkin said.
This area of Poland where the Jews settled eventually became part of Ukraine during World War II. As for Ukrainians, Russia took an aggressive approach during the time of the Soviet Union to “Russify” them.
“Ukrainians themselves came to believe their own language was second-class… I have lots of friends from Ukraine who talk about intellectual topics in Russian but family, food and illness in Ukrainian,” Rifkin said.
What about the claims of fascism and Nazis in Ukraine? Rifkin said the Russian government spread this claim, framing the war as a fight against “the rampant anti-Semitism and fascists in Ukraine.” This false claim comes from how some Ukrainians had, at first, mistakenly saw Germany as an ally and assisted them during the German occupation of Ukraine.
“The Russian government is saying the Nazis are in Ukraine… The Nazis are in Russia,” Rifkin said. He illustrated his point of fascism existing in Russia by playing a clip from an interview where a Russian journalist discusses killing Ukrainians in ways that parallel how the Nazis would kill Jews.
To end the discussion, Rifkin clarified what he means by the word “Russian.” According to him, the word is translated from two different meanings, one referring to Russian ethnicity and other referring to citizens of the Russian Federation. Rifkin believes the second definition applies to his discussion as his final words were the answer to his question: Where are the Nazis?
“They’re not in Ukraine. They’re in Russia. They’re here in the States.”
Photo by Matthew Wikfors.