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Another Pastor Niemöller moment passes in Moscow

Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst and writer
Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst and writer
Another Pastor Niemöller moment passes in Moscow

Perhaps the most searing self-indictment of those who watch the onset of totalitarianism but do not protest because they remain convinced that only someone else will be its targets and its victims was offered in 1946 by German Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller.

Speaking in the rubble of the defeated Third Reich, he said “When the Nazis came for the communists, I did not speak out; As I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I did not speak out; I was not a social democrat …When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; As I was not a Jew.” And then, he continued, “When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

This week in the television studio of Russia’s Channel 1 such a moment came when confronted with the horror of openly expressed anti-Semitism, the participants in a discussion had the chance to make a choice between protesting the shadows of totalitarianism under Vladimir Putin or remaining silent out of the self-delusion that they at least are safe.

In a commentary for today entitled “Crystal Evening,” Vitaly Portnikov describes what happened. Leonid Yarmolnik walked out of the studio after another participant made an anti-Semitic slur about him, but the host ignored him and said he wanted both to remain.

Russian artist Iosif Kobzon (Image:
Russian artist Iosif Kobzon (Image:

Another participant, Iosif Kobzon, also of Jewish background, ignored the whole thing because, as the Kyiv commentator put it, he knows that “his status protects him from anti-Semitic attacks.” The problem, of course, is that many in Russia do not have the same advantage – and many more may not be in the future if such things are remain unchallenged.

Observing all this is very instructive, Portnikov says. “At the time of the Third Reich, there wasn’t any television, and no one could broadcast ‘Kristallnacht’ live, but now there is television and it impartially registers the degeneration of the nation,” a trend that has reached the point that people fight about whether to kill animals but not against hatred toward human groups.

“In this studio,” he continues, “there wasn’t to be found a single person, not a single one who in general understood what Yarmolnik was talking about when he called for expelling the man who slandered him — or if one wants to be completely honest, someone who understood and approved.”

Russian artist Leonid Yarmolnik
Russian artist Leonid Yarmolnik

Even Yarmolnik’s reaction was “also completely within the logic of a resident of the Third Reich.” He subsequently explained that “anti-Semitism didn’t concern him much because all his life he has lived in this country and is a Russian artist.” He simply could not stand the idea that anti-Semitism was being expressed so baldly and openly.

Kobzon in contrast did not demonstrate even that level of civilization, Portnikov says. But Yarmolnik has a background that is also instructive on this point. Not long ago, he spoke in justification of the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas by making reference to the “bestial behavior of Ukrainians” he experienced as “a Muscovite… during his Lviv childhood.”

Since the time of his declarations about Ukraine, Yarmolnik has had to tell himself that “anti-Semitism does not have anything to do with him as a Russian artist.” That may be understandable psychologically for those who want to maintain “the illusion of comfort and security.” But history suggests that it is a dangerous self-deception.

“In the Third Reich,” Portnikov points out, “many successful and confident in themselves and in the right of their country to ‘Lebensraum, also sincerely believed that anti-Semitism didn’t concern them – and subsequently died in the same gas chambers and barracks” with the millions of others.

Yarmolnik “certainly does not now understand that having supported the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and converting his own state into a parody of Hitler’s, he himself has opened the doors” to something potentially equally awful and that “no one is left” to close those doors behind him.

The Russian artist does have one great advantage that the Jews of Hitler’s Germany did not, Portnikov concludes, Israel exists and if things continue as they are, that country will take him in without asking questions “about his political views, his subservience, his love for Putin, and his participation in the formation of a new Reich. They will simply take him in.”

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