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Conspiracy theories have long been a part of Russian propaganda narratives: from historical fakes about Ukrainian state symbols to manipulatively explaining political events by special services’ wars — the Kremlin uses conspiracy theories to justify its crimes and shift responsibility for committing them. After the renewal of the Israel and Palestine war, Russians began spreading another conspiracy theory in Ukrainian social networks — about the alleged planned resettlement of Jews to the territory of Ukraine to create a new state, the "New Jerusalem". How is Russian propaganda using this theory, why is it beneficial to the Kremlin, where did it come from, and why is it popular despite its obvious absurdity?

Before the full-scale invasion, the most infamous Russian conspiracy claims circulated mainly in the conventional "bottom" of Russian propaganda discourse: among the yellow press and marginal "alternative historians" unknown to the online communities’ general public. Although this ideological "sediment" played a role in supporting the grassroots activity of the "West" and the "world behind the scenes" opponents, it rarely rose to the official statements of the Putin regime’s highest representatives. A full-scale invasion changed that, and the propaganda discourse began to use its ugliest creations. For a long time, "bio laboratories" and "war mosquitoes" were quite seriously presented as one of the main reasons for the invasion of Ukraine at the level of the Russian Ministry of Defense and UN representative Vasily Nebenzya’s statements.

Russians have started using anti-Semitism. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suddenly spoke about Hitler's Jewish origin, and Putin himself "ironically" called his former associate and one of the creators of modern Russia, Anatoly Chubais, "Moshe Israelevich", who "for some reason" fled to Israel after February 24, 2022.

On October 7, 2023, militants of the Palestinian movement Hamas launched an attack on the military and civilians of Israel, thus starting a new war in the Middle East. These events were at the center of media attention, in particular, Russian propaganda resources, which tried to highlight the situation, tying it to favorable narratives and using both islamophobia and anti-Semitism. One of the anti-Semitic narratives directed not only against Jews but also against Ukraine was the conspiracy theory about the "New Jerusalem" or "New Khazaria".

What is the "New Jerusalem" and who is actually "building" it

The main idea of this conspiracy theory is that a specific international secret body allegedly has planned the mass resettlement of Jews to the territory of Ukraine (most often mentioned are Crimea and other southern regions, as well as Uman). A new Jewish state is to be organized on these territories, which (in various versions) will either replace the current Israel or support it as a "backup state" and a military base with nuclear missiles. To prepare the territory for resettlement, it should allegedly be "cleansed" of the local population. According to conspiracy theorists, the full-scale invasion of Russia is part of a general plan to "cleanse" the territories and prepare for resettlement. The new war between Israel and Hamas in Palestine will activate the processes of the "New Jerusalem" formation, creating a flow of Jewish refugees who will be fleeing to new territories.

In October-November 2023, short videos circulated on Ukrainian Instagram and Tiktok social networks, in which various people, little-known to the general public, read entire fragments of the "plan for the "New Jerusalem" formation, were almost sincerely horrified and urged the audience to "think about who benefits from it." These videos quickly got into the recommendations of users generally interested in political content; some reposted and sent them to their friends. Thus, conspiracy theories became quite widespread. Among the "official" Russian propagandists, Ilya Kiva also spoke about the resettlement of Jews to Ukraine, and the theory also received a portion of attention in major Russian Telegram channels. However, despite its "new birth", the "New Jerusalem" theory is not new. Some speakers from the Instagram and TikTok videos are quite familiar, even if slightly forgotten.

The conspiracy theory about the "relocation of Jews to Ukraine" has been circulating on the Internet since 2014, although it has appeared even earlier. First, it spread among separatist militants in the captured territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. "New Jerusalem" is mentioned in the "letter of Brigadier General Alexey Mozgovoi" (the Luhansk commander of the illegal armed group "Ghost", which is now fighting as part of the Russian army). The letter’s authenticity and its authorship have not been confirmed, but this does not prevent pro-Russian users from posting it in the comments to the video about the "New Jerusalem". In turn, the former Ukrainian "politician" Ihor Berkut, who since 2014 has been one of the leading "frontmen" of the theory about the resettlement of Jews to Ukraine, most often appears in these videos.

Ihor Berkut (in some sources, his birth name is Ihor Gekko, Ігор Гекко) entered Ukrainian politics in the second half of the 2000s. At that time, he positioned himself as a veteran of the Afghan war, a writer, a "strong" man in military uniform, and the head of the "extremely left party Great Ukraine" (an especially interesting name for an "extremely left" party — DM). Berkut promoted his brand, and its billboards were seen even in the Kyiv metro. He also expressed ideas such as "disbanding the Ukrainian army" (2011), declaring that Russia "will not enter its troops into Ukraine under any circumstances" (February 18, 2014, 9 days before the beginning of Crimea’s occupation). However, after 2014, he significantly changed his image and began calling himself the "executive director of the New Jerusalem project". In numerous videos, mainly on the YouTube channel "Rassvet", Ihor Berkut (in the videos, he often appears as "Harry Ber-Kut" or "Ihal Ber-Kut") talks about "tasks completion progress" and "arrangements" with Ukrainian and Russian leadership, shows maps of planned resettlement, and possible nuclear strikes from the territory of "New Jerusalem" against Israel's enemies (it is also a popular part of the conspiracy theory). In some videos, "Ber Kut" is accompanied by an assistant "Sarah" (Сара), a young girl in revealing clothes and with a tattoo of a giant Star of David on her thigh.

Such "performances" may seem like part of humorous programs, but the idea of the "New Jerusalem" was also promoted on more serious propaganda levels. For example, the Russian politician Sergey Glazyev, during his tenure as an adviser to the President of Russia in 2019, discussed the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the President of Ukraine: "I do not rule out, for example, the possibility of mass migration to the lands of the South-East of Ukraine that have been "cleaned" of the Russian population by people tired of permanent wars in the Middle East of the inhabitants of the Promised Land - as well as Christians fleeing from Islamized Europe." Glazyev's words caused a sharp reaction, in particular, in Russia itself; Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was forced to comment on Glazyev's statements, calling them "exclusively his own opinion, possibly incorrect statements of Glazyev's adviser".

The Kremlin’s need for the "New Jerusalem"

At first glance, it is difficult to understand the connection between Russian propaganda’s standard narratives and the currents of absurdity regarding the "resettlement of Jews in territories liberated from Ukrainians" idea. But the very time this theory’s emergence and the beginning of its spread are not accidental. In 2014, Russia attacked Ukraine—occupied Crimea, and invaded the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Because of this, several issues became critical for the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus. One was the shifting and blurring of responsibility for the invasion and occupation. Another one was the intimidation and demoralization of Ukrainians, which would encourage them to stop resisting the aggressor. The conspiracy theory about the "New Jerusalem" serves both of these tasks, which, after the full-scale invasion of 2022, have become much more urgent for the Kremlin.

The shifting of responsibility, in this case, occurs because, according to the propagandists, all the main decisions regarding the war were made not in the Kremlin and not by Putin personally, but by certain mysterious bodies "behind the scenes". These bodies also allegedly planned the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, and a full-scale invasion. The Russian leadership here is not even an actor but only a puppet, almost a "victim", the same as the real victims of Russia's aggression.

Russians use a standard conspiracy effect when facts caused by someone's actions are explained by vague and extensive "secret plans". In this way, they attempt to blur the responsibility of particular persons and bodies and transfer it somewhere far away, to the imaginary "global government" or, in the worst case, to the fictional "Jews", who, according to the conspiracy theorists of the 19th century, is responsible for almost everything horrific that happened in the world.

Demoralizing Ukrainians, in turn, is carried out by trying to assure them [Ukrainian citizens] that there is no point in resisting the aggressor and participating in the war because, in reality, it is all aimed only at the population’s physical extermination. One of the main points of the "New Jerusalem" theory is the participation in this "plan" of the political leadership of Ukraine, which allegedly deliberately sends Ukrainians to their deaths and "provokes" war. By doing so, Russia’s task of discrediting the Ukrainian state is accomplished, and responsibility is removed from Russian leadership. They are trying to convince Ukrainians that they are giving their lives and health not for protection against aggression from Russia but by a "premeditated and agreed upon plan" that provides for their extermination.

Moreover, with the help of such conspiracy narratives, Russians are trying to intimidate Ukrainians, incite xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments in society, achieve its split, and shift negative emotions from the Russian leadership and the military to someone else/other bodies.

Tsyganovy as a mirror of Russian conspiracy theory

An example of how the transfer of responsibility works in practice was demonstrated in an interview by Russian blogger Yuriy Dud’ with the married couple Vika and Vadim Tsyganovy, who are supporters of the "New Jerusalem" theory. Tsyganovy are not ordinary consumers of Russian propaganda; they are the cogs in the Kremlin propaganda machine. Vika Tsyganova is an actress and singer who was popular in the 90s and 2000s, and in recent years, has sung about the terrorist organization within the Russian army, "Wagner", and supported Russia's attack on Ukraine. Vadim Tsyganov is the producer and author of most of his wife's songs, including the one about "Wagner". The fact that they are wholehearted supporters of the conspiracy theory about Jewish resettlement is further evidence of how widespread the theory is in the relevant circles.

Vadim Tsyganov's presentation shows all the most popular theses from the "New Jerusalem" theory. He mentions the resettlement to "the most fertile lands in the world", "clearing the territory", and "a deal maker behind the scenes of the world". Tsyganov develops a particular theory and claims that Zelenskyy can allegedly move freely through the front-line territories because he is also the executor of the "general plan". The interviewer asks several times what the role of the leading participant and initiator of the war, Vladimir Putin, is in this picture of the world. Is he also an "agent of the Jews"? But Tsyganov constantly avoids answering this question and does not even want to talk about Putin's role because, in the conspiratorial imagination of Russian propaganda, it simply disappears in cases when it is necessary to talk about something wrongful. Instead, he mentions the fatalistic global plans. "At the moment, the role of the individual in the world process does not have any purpose and meaning. It [such role] is not decisive. We have already entered such times when the Lord and Satan are working simultaneously", says Tsyganov (vocabulary preserved by DM). Putin, along with all other war criminals directly responsible for the horrors of war, in such an "apocalyptic scheme" stays in the background, becomes just another "pawn" who "needs repentance".

Indeed, it does not invalidate the support for a real war, although Tsyganov says he is generally "against war." Thanks to conspiratorial thinking, a part of which is the "New Jerusalem" theory, it is possible to say that "Putin was deceived", "it should have started earlier", and, in general, "it was unnecessary to start [the war] now". But right away, one can use logical thinking and say that all this has no meaning since "there was no choice" because everything is going according to the plan of the "world government" or according to "God's providence", and now it remains only to support the "Holy Military Operation". In the end, "the Lord will return to Russia", and everything will be mystically resolved.

In Tsyganov's presentation, one can see how conspiracy theories work and their power. They are highly adaptable and can be applied to explain any event or phenomenon. If, according to ordinary logic, these explanations should contradict each other, they can exist and agree with each other within the framework of conspiracy theories. Thus, the statement "Russians and Ukrainians are brotherly peoples who destroy each other to free the territory for the Jews" can exist next to the statement "Putin started a war, and we must support him because this war is sacred."

Conspiracy theories are ideal for using "opposite version" tactics. It is possible, firstly, because such theories are not based on facts but only use them to create a convenient general narrative, so the logical connections between the facts and their explanations can be very flexible. Secondly, a significant part of the explanations is hidden in the sphere of vague "secret knowledge", which one can not talk about, but only point to. One can also only speculate, arbitrarily inventing and adding the elements required by the circumstances.

Thus, conspiracy theories can satisfy a person's need for an accessible explanation of phenomena that either do not fit into their usual world picture or are too complicated. That is why even the most absurd theories that have no evidence, such as the "New Jerusalem" theory, can be surprisingly popular and convenient for various propagandists to cover their actions and goals. For example, theories about the resettlement of Jews were used by the Argentine junta in 1976–1982 (such as the "Andinia Plan"). Sometimes, a conspiracy theory can become so popular that it gets out of propagandists’ control. It was the case when the anti-vaccination narratives spread by Russian "troll factories" in the West suddenly returned to Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of local mass refusals to get vaccinated by "Sputnik."

It seems that it happens even now when the "export" ideas about the resettlement of Jews "ricocheted" again and turned into a mess at the airport in Makhachkala and other attempts of the local population to find Jews who were supposed to move to the Caucasus. Conspiracy theories in propaganda are similar to imaginary biological weapons. They are relatively easy to use, deadly, and spread quickly, but one can also get infected themselves. Yet, it remains to be seen who will suffer more from it after all.

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