(JTA) — Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that other Jews think Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is not Jewish, despite his having “Jewish blood.”
“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin said on Friday at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “They say that Zelensky is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”
According to the Times of Israel, which quoted the TASS Russian News Agency, Putin also said that Zelensky has “Jewish blood” but puts “neo-Nazis, Hitler’s disciples” on “a pedestal as heroes of Ukraine.”
Putin has continually said that Russia’s war in Ukraine is in part an effort to stem the rise of rampant neo-Nazism there, a claim that scholars and analysts around the world have roundly rejected as propaganda.
Zelensky does not speak often about his Jewish heritage, but he has said he had an “ordinary Soviet Jewish upbringing,” adding that his family was not religious because “religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.” He lost family in the Holocaust and has invoked the genocide in both public rebukes of Russia and in appeals to Israel for aid in the war effort.
“When Russians are telling about neo-Nazis and they turn to me,” he said shortly after the start of the war, “I just reply that I have lost my entire family in the war because all of them were exterminated during World War II.”
Natan Sharansky, the prominent human rights activist who spent nine years in Russian prison in the 1970s and 80s, issued a statement in response to Putin’s comments.
“Zelensky unites the Ukrainian people against barbaric aggression, and we Jews can be proud that a representative of our people plays a historic and significant role in uniting the whole world for the sake of protecting our future,” he said.
Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “even Hitler had Jewish origins” and “the biggest antisemites are Jewish themselves,” comments that drew condemnation from Israeli politicians.
As many as 354,000 soldiers have been killed or injured since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.