“If I put on glasses and look at myself like the whole rest of the world, I see myself as a monster, as a puppet master, as the master of Zelensky, someone making apocalyptic plans. I can start making this real.”
Ihor Kolomoisky, New York Times, November 2019.
In 2015, a fascinating study in Japan found that not only will rats “desert a sinking ship” in accordance with the ubiquitous maxim, but also engage in highly altruistic behavior toward trapped rats to help them escape. They assist one another and flee as a group. The study came to mind when I read a piece published by the Moscow Times on February 14, describing the simultaneous departure of “at least 20 chartered flights … from Kyiv on Sunday, more than at any other time in the last six years of flight observations.” The private jets carried the majority of Ukraine’s oligarchs, who were evidently privy to concrete indications of impending war at a time when a full-scale Russian invasion was mooted but far from being a matter of fact. The sole exception seems to be Petro Poroshenko, who has appeared in the streets of the capital clutching a rifle. Since their departure, the fleeing oligarchs have vanished from media discussions of what is happening in Ukraine. This is a curious fact given that the very meaning of the term oligarchy implies that these billionaires were extremely influential in the political direction adopted by their country until very recently. Years of speculation on the political influence and intentions of these oligarchs have now suddenly been replaced with simplistic, dueling visions that border on the nonsensical: one of an innocent democratic Ukraine fighting against Russian imperialism/quasi-Fascism; and the other of a Russian “special military operation” designed to “denazify” Ukraine. In the following essay I don’t want to critique or debunk either of these obviously flawed perspectives, but instead to return some of the focus to the oligarchs, and to two Jewish oligarchs in particular: Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Victor Pinchuk.
“We will strive for the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians.” Thus said Putin in what amounts to his declaration of war on Ukraine on February 24. This line, perhaps more than any other in his long, historically-weighted address, has absorbed considerable media attention. The majority of this attention has been devoted to smug portrayals of Putin as deranged or hypocritical. How can Ukraine be a ‘Nazi’ country, goes the logic, when it has a Jewish President in Zelenskyy? To the historiographically literate, it’s obvious that, to Putin and many Russians that share his thinking, the Jewishness of this or that politician or oligarch is irrelevant to the alleged ‘Nazi’ threat facing Russia. Our western-centric background dictates that we view National Socialism and World War II primarily as an action against Jews, and therefore the rhetorical positioning of Nazism and Judaism has a singular, jarring effect. Those media commentators smugly pointing to the Jewishness of Zelenskyy are operating within this paradigm. In the Soviet Union, however, World War II/Fascism was more prominently interpreted as a reactionary capitalist, imperialist, anti-Slavic or anti-Russian affair. Although the slow creep of Holocaust memorials and associated education programs has now reached deep into Eastern Europe, World War II is still primarily remembered for its masses of Slavic, not Jewish, dead. The racial element of National Socialist ideology was acknowledged in early ‘Holocaust’ historiography in the East, but wasn’t foregrounded (even in East Germany) in the way we have become totally absorbed by in the West. When Putin therefore claims he is seeking the de-Nazification of Ukraine, he is speaking, with perfect logic, less of political parties with broad racialist or anti-Jewish ideologies than of a more specific imperialist, militaristic, and anti-Russian movement, and specifically to an incident during the Maidan riots in 2014 when Ukrainian nationalists burned down a building in Odessa, killing 31 Russians who opposed the uprising; this incident was featured in Putin’s post-invasion speech, where he vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. But there can be no doubt that Putin’s main targets are the NATO-leaning, and Western-orientated politicians and those who have supported or ignored violence against Russian-speaking separatists since 2014.
Legitimate or not, Putin’s condemnation of Ukrainian nationalism has unfortunately kicked off the familiar game of ‘You’re the Real Fascists’ in the West. As if we didn’t have enough of “Antifa are the real Fascists” shenanigans muddying our social discourse, in recent days the Western liberal media has engaged in the production of massive numbers of articles reassuring nervous latte liberals that their support Ukraine is perfectly compatible with their woke political sensibilities. In some instances, this has led to some hilarious and extravagant U-turns, most notably in Facebook suddenly reversing its long-held ban on expressing support for Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, a military unit known for its adoption of certain Far Right and National Socialist symbols. The logic, as expressed in The Guardian by the Jewish self-styled expert on Fascism Jason Stanley (see my previous discussion of his work), is that Putin can be identified as the ‘real Nazi’ because he denies the primacy of Jewish suffering. Stanley:
The Russian leader’s pretext for invasion recasts Ukraine’s Jewish president as a Nazi and Russian Christians as true victims of the Holocaust. … The dominant version of antisemitism alive in parts of eastern Europe today is that Jews employ the Holocaust to seize the victimhood narrative from the “real” victims of the Nazis, who are Russian Christians (or other non-Jewish eastern Europeans). Those who embrace Russian Christian nationalist ideology will be especially susceptible to this strain of antisemitism. With this background, we can understand why Putin chose the actions he did, as well as the words he used to justify them. Ukraine has always been the primary target of those who seek to restore “Soviet power in fascist form”. Echoing familiar fascist antisemitic tropes, in a 2021 article, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev denounced Zelenskiy as disgusting, corrupt and faithless. The free democratic election of a Jewish president confirms in the fascist mind that the fascist bogeyman of liberal democracy as a tool for global Jewish domination is real. By claiming that the aim of the invasion is to “denazify” Ukraine, Putin appeals to the myths of contemporary eastern European antisemitism—that a global cabal of Jews were (and are) the real agents of violence against Russian Christians and the real victims of the Nazis were not the Jews, but rather this group. Russian Christians are targets of a conspiracy by a global elite, who, using the vocabulary of liberal democracy and human rights, attack the Christian faith and the Russian nation.
All of which is to say that Prof. Stanley could do with stepping outside and taking some deep, slow breaths of fresh air.
If Putin was in fact looking for a mega-rich, influential cabal-operating Ukrainian Jew guilty of perpetrating violence against Russians, he wouldn’t have to look much further than Ihor Kolomoyskyi. It didn’t surprise me when I read a couple of days ago that the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (Russia’s FBI) has initiated more than 400 criminal cases targeting Ukrainian officials, military servicemen, and volunteer fighters, and that Kolomoyskyi was on the list.
Russia has been trying to get it hands on Kolomoyskyi since 2014. Kolomoyskyi, who owns Ukraine’s biggest bank, plus airlines, huge stakes of Ukrainian media, and other companies, was accused in July 2014 of founding and funding Dnipro-1 Special Tasks Patrol Police Battalion. The unit was held responsible by Amnesty International in December of the same year for blocking food aid, and attempting to starve the Russian-speaking populations of the separatist “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Operating under the mask of Ukrainian patriotism, Kolomoyskyi, who offered bounties of thousands of dollars for Russian separatists, was in fact trying to stem the separatist movement so that it wouldn’t expand to the heartland of his business interests, his home city of Dnipropetrovsk. Together with fellow Jew Hennadiy Korban, who was later investigated for embezzlement and exiled to Israel, the pair “not only made political capital by saving [Dnipropetrovsk] from war, but used this emergence of Dnipropetrovsk as a ‘pro-Ukrainian’ city to protect [Kolomoyskyi’s] business interests.”
Kolomoyskyi’s Ukrainian “patriotism” and anti-Russian attitudes had already been significantly inflamed by the 2014 seizure of his assets in Crimea by the new Russian authorities. In 2016, RT reported that the authorities would sell the assets in order to compensate residents of Crimea who had been exploited by Kolomoyskyi’s PrivatBank:
Twenty businesses formerly owned by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky will be sold by the Crimean authorities. The region’s government is seeking to compensate people who lost money in Ukrainian banks, mostly Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank. Crimea’s Deputy Speaker Konstantin Bakharev says the oligarch’s assets will be sold by year-end for 2 billion rubles (about $30 million). “The money will be transferred to the depositor protection fund for compensation payments to residents of the Crimea, whose deposits in the Ukrainian banks exceeded 700,000 rubles ($10,500),” he said.
When then-President Petro Poroshenko nationalized Kolomoyskyi’s PrivatBank (which was also operated by fellow Jew Gennadiy (Zvi Hirsch) Bogolyubov) in 2016, Kolomoyskyi threw his influence behind fellow Jew and popular actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy, now a hero and darling of the Western media. Zelenskyy’s campaign, strangely enough, began with his appearance on Kolomoyskyi’s media channel as the star of the television series Servant of the People, where he played the role of the president of Ukraine. In the series, Zelenskyy’s character was a high-school history teacher in his 30s who won the presidential election after a viral video showed him ranting against government corruption in Ukraine. In retrospect, the show was a masterwork of social engineering and life imitating art. Reuters later reported:
One of Ukraine’s most popular TV channels 1+1, owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, has given Zelenskiy a powerful platform in recent months during his meteoric rise to the brink of the presidency. On Saturday, a day before Zelenskiy won the first round of the presidential contest and set up a run-off with the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, 1+1 filled its schedule with back-to-back shows by the comedian and actor.
There was initially some unease that the whole thing might be too obvious. “There are legitimate reasons to worry about the future of Ukrainian Jewry,” said Vladislav Davidzon, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Odessa Review. “Having a Jewish president, who is also backed by a picaresque Jewish oligarch might cause any failings to be directed at the Jewish community.” He needn’t have worried. Zelenskyy sky-rocketed to prominence, and one of his earliest measures was to nominate fellow Jew Volodymyr Groysman as Prime Minister and target Poroshenko, setting in motion a sequence of events that would result in the reversal of the nationalization of PrivatBank and the return of the bank to Kolomoyskyi. Although posturing as an anti-corruption populist, Zelenskyy’s links to Kolomoyskyi have continued to dog him, and in October 2021 it was revealed via the Pandora Papers that Zelenskyy, who constantly denied that he was a “puppet” of the Jewish oligarch, and his associates had received $40 million into offshore accounts from funds linked to Kolomoyskyi.
Kolomoyskyi and his creation
Most of this money has been bled from the Ukrainian people. Kolomoyskyi, who acted as President of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, generously shared his wealth with Jews worldwide, and founded the European Jewish Union with Vadim Rabinovich, has been investigated for years by both the FBI and America’s Justice Department, in particular for pursuing a “vast scheme to steal millions of dollars from Ukraine’s largest bank and move the money into the U.S. to buy steel mills and skyscrapers.” In a special investigation, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week that Kolomoyskyi’s efforts to launder stolen Ukrainian money in the United States, via his Jewish associates in South Florida Mordechai “Motti” Korf and Uriel Laber, left a wake of economic devastation:
One of the richest men in Ukraine, the 59-year-old oligarch is accused of setting up shell companies, cleaning the money through U.S. properties and ultimately leaving a trail of boarded-up buildings, failed steel facilities, and millions in unpaid property taxes, court records show. While money was transferred into the country for one of the oligarch’s companies, his operators shut down Warren Steel in Ohio in 2016, owing millions in property taxes, utility bills and supplies. For weeks, workers were left without medical coverage because the insurance premium wasn’t paid, records and interviews show. “A lot of people left here very angry,” said Nancy Waselich, a former IT manager for the factory. “People bled for this place.” Though no one so far has been criminally charged, prosecutors have filed legal actions to seize properties that they allege were bought with money stolen from the Ukraine bank, where Mr. Kolomoisky was a major shareholder.
Fedin Shandor, a professor at Uzhgorod University and adviser to the government on tourist development, has described Kolomoyskyi as “a leech who sucks our blood here and puts it in Switzerland.” This “leech” has also made a game for years of poking Vladimir Putin, stating publicly in 2014 that Putin was “a schizophrenic shorty. He is completely inadequate. He has completely lost his mind. His messianic drive to recreate the Russian empire of 1913 or the USSR of 1991 could plunge the world into catastrophe.”
Less outwardly ebullient than Kolomoyskyi is Victor Pinchuk, founder of both the pro-NATO Victor Pinchuk Foundation and the pro-EU Yalta European Strategy (the lobby group behind all those prominent polls showing massive Ukrainian support for NATO membership and a general tilt to the West). Pinchuk has been highly influential in driving Ukraine in a pro-NATO direction, including his funding of a free concert in 2008 headlined by Paul McCartney that was “shown on giant screens in five cities across the country” and designed to soothe growing splits between West and East Ukraine over Ukraine’s application that year to begin a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Pinchuk’s vision of Ukraine is less explicitly orientated for the protection of business interests, and more towards turning Ukraine into a clone of Western liberal democracies. As well as funding Steven Spielberg to produce a feature-length Ukrainian Holocaust film, Pinchuk describes himself as active in “human rights projects with George Soros.” In 2015, Pinchuk began the drive to further liberalize attitudes to homosexuals, and integrate Ukraine into “GloboHomo,” by inviting Elton John to speak at Yalta European Strategy. The speech was in many respects a typical example of neoliberal propaganda. John remarked:
What has [homosexuality] to do with a conference about the future of politics, security and the economy of the Ukraine? Because critical moments also exist in the lives of societies and nations. The choice of freedom over repression; democracy over totalitarianism; acceptance over hatred. Today there are more critical choices. … I suggest to you that your stance on human rights will also be a defining characteristic of the new Ukraine, and that there is no clearer touchstone on the issue of human rights than the respect and dignity afforded your LGBT citizens. … Being tolerant and inclusive is not only the morally right thing to do, for the new Ukraine; it is the smart thing to do. Basic fairness is an investment in human capital, and human capital is what drives business. … I suggest to you that accepting people regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation is today the measure of an open, tolerant, and democratic society. I ask you to begin this dialogue. … The people in this room are among the most powerful in the Ukraine, and in some cases the most powerful anywhere in the world. You have the power to help bring about this new era.
Russia sanctioned Pinchuk in 2018, as part of a broader approach to anti-Russian figures in Ukraine. Especially noteworthy is Pinchuk’s involvement with the Atlantic Council. A report in The Intercept points out that
The Atlantic Council has also launched “UkraineAlert” which publishes daily pieces on deterring Russia. A recent article, “Survey: Western public backs stronger support for Ukraine against Russia,” notes the survey in question was commissioned by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and Yalta European Strategy, which Pinchuk founded; however, the article does not mention that the foundation is a large contributor to the Atlantic Council, donating $250,000–499,000 a year, or that Pinchuk himself — the second wealthiest man in Ukraine — sits on the international advisory board of the Atlantic Council.
Victor Pinchuk receives an award from Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich
In a 2017 article, EuroMaidanPress made it clear that “The most important goal for oligarchs is money and not Ukraine’s national interests. … The sooner Ukraine pursues a long overdue policy of de-oligarchisation the better — although this will be impossible as long as Ukraine is led by an oligarch.” It’s clear that at least two of the oligarchs sucking on the blood of Ukraine have led them on a collision course with Putin’s Russia.
All of this, of course, is not to say that Putin’s Russia is much, or any, better. I still find it stunning that, when informed of Kolomoyskyi’s comment that he was a “schizophrenic shorty,” Putin didn’t reply that he was a crook for stealing from Ukrainians, Crimeans, or Russians, but that he was a crook who had “scammed Russian [Jewish] oligarch Roman Abramovich for billions of dollars.” In other words, much of what we are seeing here is not just grand geopolitics and clashing nationalisms, but a subtext of oligarchic feuds. In many respects, what we are seeing play out is a kind of perverse morbid rehash of the Middle Ages, when one king, funded and supported by “his Jews,” would wage war on another funded by his own group of Jews. The end result is normally richer Jews and a lot of European dead.
It’s increasingly clear that Putin’s Jewish oligarchs are unhappy with having to bear the brunt of Western sanctions. The Times of Israel reported that two of the three Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the UK on February 22 were Jewish (and related) — Igor and Boris Rotenberg. Boris Rotenberg is co-owner of SGM Group, Russia’s largest construction and infrastructure company. Igor Rotenberg dominates in drilling, infrastructure and real estate. The international Jewish community is also becoming increasingly active in trying to protect sanctioned oligarchs on both sides — primarily because oligarchs are often extremely generous to Jews, in effect facilitating the transfer of large volumes of money (often illegal and laundered) from gentiles to Jews. Anything that weakens the oligarchs will, in the longer term, weaken the Jews as a whole. A report in Haaretz on February 27 comments:
Several billionaire Jewish philanthropists are the focus of concerned attention from Israeli and Jewish organizations who have benefited from their largesse. Topping that list is Roman Abramovich, the dual Russian-Israeli citizen who made a fortune through the privatization of Russia’s oil companies and is now reportedly the second-wealthiest man in Israel. Representatives of several Israeli organizations and institutions, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer and Tel Aviv University, sent a letter asking U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides to refrain from sanctioning Abramovich for “his contribution to the Jewish people.” The letter earlier this month reportedly included the signature of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, asserting that sanctioning Abramovich — who, in addition to his philanthropic donations, has business investments in Israel — would harm Jewish causes.
The United States, for its part, hasn’t been moved by these appeals, and in fact “sent Israel messages warning Jerusalem to make sure that Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the international community can’t hide their money in Israeli banks.” The article continues:
Another group of Russian billionaires — some of whom hold Israeli citizenship — who donate generously to Jewish and Israeli causes have already been hit by sanctions put in place against Russian banks. Mikhail Fridman, a co-founder and trustee of the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Russian Jewish Congress, is the co-founder of Alfa Bank, which is the largest private bank in Russia, and he continues to sit on its board. Forbes listed him as the 11th richest man in Russia in 2020. … The Genesis Philanthropy Group gives to a long list of causes in Israel and across the Jewish world, including Yad Vashem, the Birthright-Taglit organization that provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews, Hillel international and Friends of the IDF.
Can Putin be reined in by ‘his’ Jewish oligarchs if they start to feel a financial pinch? This remains to be seen, but early indications are that they certainly don’t fear him. Haaretz reported on February 28 that “Jewish billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska have become the first Russian oligarchs to publicly express unhappiness with President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.” I think this is extremely telling.
Eight years ago I wrote an essay on “Nationalists, Jews, and the Ukrainian Crisis,” during which I expressed some sympathy with historically-rooted Ukrainian nationalism but also accepted that the origins of the nation are contested and extremely complex. I think it is difficult, if not impossible, for “Westerners” to form valid opinions on the moral merits of each cause, since both (Ukrainian nationalist and Russian separatist) bear some validity — this is the harsh reality of multiethnic states where the population is divided on self-assertion and self-determination. Such a situation is only made all the more complex by the presence of yet another ethnic group that is extremely influential and may seek its own interests to the detriment of the peace and well-being of others. As such, while the Jews discussed here may not have “caused” or “orchestrated” the war in Ukraine, they clearly form an important, but completely ignored, subtext to it. I’m therefore neither in the pro-Ukraine or pro-Putin camp. I am, however, very firmly in favor of ending any conflict in which innocent Europeans are dying needlessly, and of a thorough “de-oligarchisation” of both parties in the current war.