Memes have been part of internet culture virtually since its conception, and have, one way or the other, always reflected events of the material world. From the election of Donald Trump to the Coronavirus pandemic in 2019, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is no exception to being the subject of many memes since February 24th. Both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian memes contain consistent themes and references that, while on their own provide commentary about the events they parody, also reflect the beliefs and behaviors of those who make them. In some sense, while the physical war is fought with tanks and bullets, the bodiless war is fought with speed, wit, and good photo editing skills. It is interesting to examine how memes during this war have targeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself, and how the far-right has virtually splintered over internal disagreements on whether to side with Russia or Ukraine in this war.
A controversial heritage
Ukraine’s history with its Jewish community has always been tense. Historically, pogroms and antisemitism were commonplace, and Jews who were victimized by it – plentiful. However, the election of Volodymir Zelenskyy as the President of Ukraine in 2019 marked a change in this historical trend. While for Ukrainian Jews and many Jews worldwide Zelenskyy’s victory was celebrated as a symbol of leaving the past behind, for pro-Russians, and especially those pro-Russians with antisemitic views, his victory cemented long held conspiracy theories about Jewish involvement in the Ukrainian politics and the larger Jewish-backed effort to ‘destroy’ or ‘humiliate Russia’ through Ukraine. In this case, Russia is viewed as the last standing Christian, white, and traditionalist force – even if actual statistics confirm the country’s large ethnic diversity and a growing irreligiosity.
It should be pointed out that much of the suspicion toward Zelenskyy was initially fueled not just on 4Chan – an imageboard website – but also on websites like Twitter. For example, on April 5, 2022, an account named @MUBreaking published a tweet stating that Zelenskyy and Soros are related, sourcing a Pentagon official. The Pentagon denied ever making this claim, but by connecting Soros – a disliked figure among the far right and a frequent target of many conspiracy theories – it makes for an awfully convenient argument that Zelenskyy, as a president and policymaker, is up to no good.
Many memes regarding Zelenskyy readily point to his Jewish heritage, specifically making it a negative point and relating to larger antisemitic themes, such as the ‘International Jewish Conspiracy, which stems from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a fabricated antisemitic text which posits that posits that a group of malicious Jews conspired to dominate the world. The conspiracy theory has become flexible enough whereby largely any mention of Jews in politics garners negative suspicion that the Jews must be out to commit evil to advance the goal of a Jewish global domination.
Thus, Zelenskyy naturally became yet another subject of these memes. In one image, taken from a video of Zelenskyy making a political speech, he is photoshopped to look like a malicious figure, with a Kipa and Payos drawn on him. This image first appeared on 4Chan by a user identified by their IP address as hailing from Russia. The photoshops reeks of similarities with a movie poster of Der Ewige Jude, a Nazi pseudo-documentary propaganda film which made crude characterizations of both eastern and western Jews in Europe.
It is interesting to observe specifically how these memes photoshop Zelenskyy’s image. Even if the president lacks these visibly stereotypical Jewish features, much like cartoons of satirists, his image is edited to virtually make him what he is not. The objective is simple: to make him look like an omen. A Star of David is pasted on top of a Ukrainian flag on his shirt, turning the clothing that symbolizes the Ukrainian army and war effort into something menacing. Zelenskyy is turned into an agent of malicious Jewish forces, rather than a leader of his country looking out for the good of his people.
Clearly this sentiment is visible and widespread among many users in the archived threads of 4Chan, where countless users remark that the president’s actions are not independently made or reasonable. Instead they originate from a historical hatred.
Sometimes the modern content references older memes themselves. For example, this half traced meme of Zelenskyy references “Le Happy Merchant”, a meme more than a decade old originating from 4Chan. In the original meme, a derogatory image of a smirking Jew – portrayed with stereotypical derogatory features – is seen rubbing his hands, generally understood to be the character expressing excitement toward committing some covetous act. Similarly, this revamped 4Chan version of Zelenskyy portrays his intentions as president to be negative.
The writing at the bottom of the image is also telling on its own. The text reads:
“I will not give up, I will fight until the last Ukrainian, and by “Ukrainian” I mean only Slavic men, women and migrants can leave”
Early in the war, the government of Ukraine announced it would be enforcing martial law, and forbade men aged between 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Instead of interpreting this ruling as an expected or even an honorary choice – giving some a chance to escape while the able and strong stayed and fought for their country – the meme reinterprets that decision as an attempt to erase the Ukrainian people by eliminating its men; if Ukrainian men are wiped out but women are left behind, then there are only foreign (or ‘undesirable’) men left to reproduce with, and thus the Ukrainian nation will be decimated ethnically and culturally.
Splinter within the far right
There is also an irony that should be pointed out: the different interpretation of the war and the far right’s role within it, and how Zelenskyy’s heritage ‘fuels the fire’. While among many left wingers, support of Ukraine is unacceptable because of the Azov Battalion and its integration into the Ukrainian army, the far-right has found itself just as split up on whether to back Ukraine or Russia. For many internet right-wingers Zelenskyy is viewed as an exploitative figure of not just the Azov Battalion, but of white Ukrainians in general.
In my personally conducted interview with the brother of an Azov soldier, the far right split over Russia’s role in the conflict was explained as consisting of several points, mainly religious, antisemitic, and racial. Speaking about these primary lines of discourse, he identified several examples:
“Infographic memes spreading “proving” Putin’s Jewish heritage for example, are used against those who decry Zelenskyy’s Jewishness. Also, Putin using “brown, Muslim” invaders (the Chechens) under the pretense of “raping and breeding out white Ukrainians.” Additionally, racist caricatures of Russians as Mongol-descendants terrorizing white Ukrainians proliferate, showing a fracture along these lines amongst far-righters.”
At this point, it is expected that on the far-right sectors of 4Chan, Zelenskyy as a Jew would be the one to take a blame for the war; however, for all of the ‘anti-Nazi’ crusade Russia and its supporters seem to be waging, both agree that his Jewish origins play a major role in the unfolding of the war. For example, when Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, faced major backlash over him comparing Zelenskyy to Hitler through the ‘Jewish blood’ trope, the foreign minister doubled down on his statement, stating: “For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”
However, this disagreement is in part explained (and emboldened) by the fact that WWII and its consequences are viewed differently by the modern far right and the Russian government. As Professor of Philosophy at Yale University Jacob Urowsky writes:
“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.”
This anomaly places two right-wing forces in this war seemingly at odds with one another: to the far right supporters of Russia, Zelenskyy is a Jew responsible for killing white people and pitting whites against one another to advance some ominous goal. To the far-right Russian government, he isn’t killing white people but is a western-backed Nazi that has split the otherwise brotherly nations. In her article for the UnHerd, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, author of Far Out: Encounters with Extremists, writes that:
“the conflict has also exposed the shallowness and fluidity of extreme belief. If we examine activity in far-Right channels today, we see neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and conspiracy groups mobilising both for the Russian President and recruiting for Ukrainian militia,” she adds “The far-right’s contradictions over Ukraine demonstrate that extreme recruitment is not about ideology, but opportunism; it exploits individual human experience, rather than beliefs.”
What we end up with is a different way in which the far right operates in the current situation: the interaction of internet users with antisemitic memes regarding the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine displays not so much a pro-Russian viewpoint as an anti-Zelenskyy viewpoint. The far right ends up united only in their hatred for Zelenskyy because of his heritage, while bickering on other matters in relation to the war.
Ekaterina Shengeliya is a senior student at the George Washington University and a student research assistant at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.