For Vladimir Putin’s more than two-decade rule, he has promoted himself as a friend and protector of the Jewish community, and he launched an invasion last year with the ostensible goal to “denazify” Ukraine.
But the scenes of violence in Makhachkala, Dagestan, this week, as well as images of local people searching out Israeli passport holders in a hotel in the city of Khasavyurt, recalled darker moments in Russian history, when Cossacks rampaged through Jewish communities as local authorities looked on.
For some Russian Jewish leaders, the Kremlin’s recent geopolitical shift away from Israel – which has launched a ground invasion in Gaza – as well as nods toward antisemitism, played a direct role in last week’s events in Dagestan.
“By meeting Hamas last week and not condemning the massacres, the Kremlin might have given the green light to some elements in the Caucasus that the hunting season [against Jews] is on,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a former chief rabbi of Moscow, who left in 2022 after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
This week, Putin sought to show he was in control, convening his security council over the rioting and quickly shifting the blame for the attacks abroad. Others asked how a country with such top-down control could allow the riot to take place.
“I think that considering in Russia everything is tightly controlled by the government, it is inconceivable that these riots were not instigated or directed by governmental structure,” said Goldschmidt. “This is my belief and I am not the only one.”
Yet Dagestan, a poor region with striking mountain ranges on the southern tip of Russia, has consistently proved a challenge for the Kremlin to manage. Moscow spent decades attempting to quell an Islamic insurgency there, where more than 90% of the population identify as Muslim, and still struggles to find a solution for poverty and high unemployment.
The area has served as a focus for political protest. It hosted some of the country’s largest anti-mobilisation demonstrations last year, when Putin called up hundreds of thousands of troops for his invasion of Ukraine, and in 2020 had attracted conspiracy-tinged protests against coronavirus quarantines.
A still from video footage shows protesters waving a Palestinian flag invading the runway of Makhachkala airport after a flight landed from Tel Aviv. Photograph: Telegram/@askrasul/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this summer, spontaneous protests broke out after electricity and water was cut off for more than a week to the city of Izberbash. Later, residents from Makhachkala protested, saying they had lost power for days or weeks at a time. The patternwas repeated in other cities.
“Dagestan is a territory with enormous problems, big infrastructure problems, and when the events in Gaza began, some of the local channels began to share two photographs: Gaza without electricity and [Dagestani city] Khasavyurt without electricity,” said Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior researcher at the Centre for Caucasus Studies and Regional Security at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Of course people are in solidarity with Gaza, with the Palestinians. They’re both Muslim. But the true reasons for these events are in Dagestan’s own internal problems.”
The war in Gaza has unleashed a wave of anger among Russian Muslims, in particular in the poorer North Caucasus. Ziyatdin Uvaisov, an activist and head of Patient Monitor, an NGO in Dagestan that advocates for medics and patients’ rights, said 95% of Dagestanis were “truly angry over the Israeli crimes taking place in Palestine” but that local authorities had prevented them from holding demonstrations.
“If there’d been some ordinary rally, it’s possible people would have calmed down, acted rationally, seen that there are limits … When it’s not approved within the bounds of the law, then you end up with a riot,” he said.
He said that he had not gone to Makhachkala airport because: “I understand that anything can happen with this mass gathering of disorganised people, that they could maybe do something wrong … people were getting really wound up.”
He argued that most people in Dagestan held anti-Israeli views not because they were antisemitic but because of the war, saying there was no violence against the region’s well-established Jewish community, which is largely based in the southern city of Derbent.
Yet vivid images of young Dagestani men chasing airport travellers they believed had arrived from Israel shocked the world, and members of the local Jewish community quickly voiced fears that they could be next.
As the attack unfolded, Ovadya Isakov, a prominent Jewish rabbi from the region and spokesperson for the Dagestani Jewish community, told the Russian news site Podyom that all 700 to 800 families, the last of Dagestan’s mountain Jewish community that traces its origins to the seventh century, may have to leave for other parts of Russia. But, he added: “Is it even worth leaving, since Russia is not our saviour, there have also been pogroms in Russia?”
Grigory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, a news website covering the region that recently published a timeline of attacks on local rabbis in Dagestan, said: “Antisemitism was always there.”
He added: “It is not something new. A lot of people, whole generations of Jews left, I know some people from the community and they’re saying that they always felt that antisemitism. We don’t still, thank God, have any stories about attacks against the local communities. Because that could happen any second.
“The most serious threat right now are not moods and actions connected to visitors from Israel,” he said, referring to events at Makhachkala airport. “The real threat is in a change of target from anti-Israel, to antisemitic. Both the national and regional security services would not be able to protect individual Jews from attacks.”
Rabbi Isakov knows this better than most. He barely survived an assassination attempt in 2013, when a gunman shot him in Derbent. And his house had also been vandalised in 2007.
As officials in Dagestan and Moscow sought to project an air of calm this week, Isakov disappeared from public. Calls to his office this week went unreturned.
Earlier he had said: “I don’t feel safe, although the synagogue is guarded.” He recalled how a local police officer had suggested to one of the rabbi’s congregants that she was complicit in the deaths of children in Palestine. “And at any time you can expect something worse.”
Researchers say they have seen a decline in antisemitism across Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, with recorded attacks against Jewish people and places in Russia in single digits each year. But Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Centre, an independent polling organisation, a “dormant antisemitism that also, especially in disenfranchised groups, can be activated when people are extremely agitated”.
In the Tsarist era, widespread antisemitism propelled pogroms, or anti-Jewish riots, against Jewish communities in cities such as Chișinău, Odesa and Białystok as authorities did little, or participated in the looting and killing.
There was official antisemitism during the Soviet era under Joseph Stalin and his successors, such as Leonid Brezhnev. The atmosphere sometimes reflected Soviet relations with Israel, becoming harsher when Moscow broke off diplomatic relations after the 1967 six-day war.
Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist based in the US, said casual antisemitism was “everyday life” in her childhood in the 1960s. Russians in the Moscow trams and shops would refer to her and her sister as zhidovochki, a pejorative term for Jewish girls, and schoolmates would snatch away the red “pioneer” scarves worn by the communist youth movement, telling them: “You Jews can’t be pioneers.”
Since the 7 October Hamas raid into Israel, she said she had seen a broad propaganda campaign on television of antisemitic content that she believed was meant to curry favour with Iran and other countries critical of Israel and the US.
“[Putin] is always trying to establish some sort of anti-American unity, just the way there was during the cold war,” she said. “Putin wants to become a leader of the global south. They decided that’s the right moment, the world is once again about to divide into two parts. That’s what drives Russian propaganda.”
As a child, the story goes, Putin had a friendly rapport with neighbours who were Orthodox Jews, and he has generally avoided antisemitic jokes. But that has changed in the past few years. When Anatoly Chubais, his former economic adviser, was rumoured to have received Israeli citizenship, he mockingly called him “some Moshe Israeilevich”.
“I think there is a direct relationship between such jokes and high-level officials and the perception of permissiveness as far as attacks against Jews are concerned,” said Tanya Lokshina, an associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.
Russian officials have allowed themselves far more aggressive rhetoric about Jews, with the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying last year that, “I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood,” as he brushed aside a question about the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Jewish background. “Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews,” he added.
Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova centre in Moscow, a non-governmental group that monitors extremism, said: “The authorities used to clamp down on antisemitic rhetoric, but we have seen a change since the war in Ukraine. We saw a similar jump in antisemitism in 2014 during the Donbas fighting. When state propaganda becomes more aggressive, antisemitism rises.”
Several days before the riots at Makhachkala airport, anonymous Telegram channels published the addresses of synagogues in Stavropol, Krasnodar, Sochi, Nalchik and Derbent, as well as photos of the rabbis, including Isakov.
Yet authorities still appeared to be taken by surprise when, days later, some of the same Telegram channels began to call on Dagestanis to intercept the arriving flight from Tel Aviv at the Makhachkala airport, setting the stage for the riots.
“The authorities were not ready. They have all the instruments to fight the religious dissidents, political dissidents, the foreign agents … but they are not prepared to fight against direct action,” said Shvedov, the Caucasian Knot editor. “I think for officials it is an absolute mistake in their work, this came out of the blue for them.”
Lokshina drew a parallel to the coup launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner leader, whose troops managed to seize the city of Rostov and begin a march on Moscow under the nose of the Russian military.
“It’s like little fires everywhere,” Lokshina said. “And where is the next fire going to be?”