Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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Remembering Vladimir Putin as a boy

Mina Moiseevna Yuditskaya, Putin's former German teacher, recounts her experiences with the most powerful man in Russia.

In the late 1960s, Mina Moiseevna Yuditskaya was working at a secondary school in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, where she taught a “sporty”, soft-spoken teenage boy “with a shy smile” and tousled blond hair. Four decades later, the then 84-year-old resident of central Tel Aviv met her former pupil again, this time in Jerusalem: she a retired employee of the Israeli air force, he the most powerful man in Russia.

It was at the end of the 1990s, watching TV in her living room, that Yuditskaya first caught a glimpse of a boy she once knew. “I saw [President] Yeltsin,” she told me recently, speaking in her native Russian, “and to the side of him was Putin. I ran up to the television to get a closer look.”

Yuditskaya began following the progress of her former student, to whom she had taught German, as he rose through the ranks, becoming prime minister and president of Russia twice over. One morning, she noticed an article in the newspaper about a forthcoming visit to Israel.

“I took the newspaper and went to the [Russian] embassy. The consul asked me: ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to see him, from a distance. Only from a distance.’”

Instead, a car whisked her to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. There, amid a crowd of Soviet war heroes, the Russian president approached Yuditskaya and invited her to tea. “He told me: ‘Mina Moiseevna, I’m now bald,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes, I see that.’ I started asking him about the past. He asked me about the future.

“‘How do you remember me?’ I said, expecting him to say fifochka, the Russian word for a young woman who takes great care of her appearance and clothes. Instead, after a pause, he replied: ‘Honest, fair, kind.’ He said those three words. I was very moved.”

Putin introduced his former teacher to the then Israeli president, Moshe Katsav. “Katsav asked me what Putin was like in school,” Yuditskaya told me. “I gave him a thumbs-up to say that he was excellent.”

Some weeks after their encounter, a representative from the Russian embassy visited Yuditskaya, announcing that the president had decided to buy her a flat. “‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I already have one.’” She was shown two properties in Tel Aviv, and chose the smaller of the two, where our interview took place. It’s a cosy, one-bedroom apartment, with pink and orange walls, decorated with souvenirs from her extensive travels. There are glamorous black-and-white portraits of Yuditskaya, now 93, as a young woman.

“I told him that all I need is to be close to the bus stop, the doctor and the market,” she explained in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet.

She said she no longer misses St Petersburg. “At first, I felt a great nostalgia. I would stand on my balcony and look in the direction of Leningrad. But now, all I feel is sadness.”

Yuditskaya, who was born in Ukraine and left the USSR for Israel in the 1970s, insisted that she does not follow Russian politics but said she listens to all of Putin’s speeches on TV. “Molodets, molodets!” she said, praising him, noting that he has an excellent memory. “He doesn’t read his speeches like Medvedev,” she joked.

And yet, for all her gains, she said that ultimately the meeting provoked a feeling of melancholy in her. “It was so sad to look at him,” she said. “I thought, ‘He was just a boy . . . and I was a young woman. And now the boy is grown up and I’m so old.’ I didn’t feel happiness or pride. I drifted back into the past.” 

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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The rise of anti-Semitism in Donald Trump's America

On Monday, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated. 

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in America. Since January alone, there have been 67 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centres in around 27 states around the country. On Monday, a Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri was desecrated, with over 100 headstones overturned. There has been a large increase in online anti-Semitic threats and hate speechSwastikas have been spray painted on the streets of New York.

Trump's poorly-executed "Muslim Ban" has closed the United States to people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. But the divisive "them" and "us" rhetoric of the White House has had repercussions for other groups as well. 

Jewish people have not explicitly been the focus of any kind of executive order (after complaints about his lack of action, Trump called anti-Semitism "horrible"). Nevertheless, the new administrations appears to be implicitly pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment.

Take, for example, the official White House tribute issued on Holocaust Memorial Day in January. It failed to directly mention Jewish people at all. Jewish groups, including those representing Republicans, criticised the omission. Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus defended the statement, saying: "I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people.”

Superficially, one could attribute this to ignorance. But how politicians phrase their words matters. It is a common tendency of anti-Semites to play down, ignore or reject the idea that the Holocaust was targeted at Jews. It is hard to believe that no one within the White House would have been aware of the kind of dog whistle this omission sent to the extreme right. 

That White House staff includes Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart, viewed widely as the online news outlet of the "alt right".

Timing also matters. The decision to shut US doors to Syrian and and Iraqi refugees was announced on Holocaust Memorial Day. The irony of an order singling people out for their faith wasn't lost on Jewish groups, who know all too well how many German Jews fleeing the Nazis were turned away from other shores. 

Trump's response time sent a message too. When a Hasidic Jewish reporter asked Trump about the growing anti-Semitism at his press conference on 16 February, he responded as if it was a personal attack, calling the question "very insulting" and telling him to sit down. Despite tweeting vociferously about Saturday Night Live and his daughter’s clothing line being dropped by a department store, Trump only managed to issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism on Tuesday.

David Samuels is a prominent Jewish writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He told me: "American Jews are threatened by rising anti-Semitism on both the right and left, which FBI statistics show to be more serious and more deadly than any animus directed towards Muslims or any other religious group.

"I feel sad that this is now my country, not because I am Jewish but because anti-Semitism is a degenerative thought-virus that makes people crazy by promising to explain everything that happens in the world with reference to a single prime mover - the Jews.

"Because anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and not a form of social prejudice, it is fatal to rational thinking, in a way that simple racial or religious prejudice - including prejudice against Jews - is not."

Whatever the intentions of the Trump administration, the reaction in the country at large shows it is playing with fire. Americans must hope that Trump, who has three Jewish grandchildren, will come to his senses and rid his support base of any who seek to use the presidency to infect the country with their diabolical ideology. 

Lola Adesioye is a British writer based in New York. Follow her @LolaAdesioye.