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Russia and the Jews

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer writes: "As to Jewishness and Bolshevism it is true that the Old Bolsheviks were disproportionately Jewish, and this added to the divisiveness of the revolution. The resistance to Bolshevism by the Whites had religious overtones for many of the participants. But after Lenin s death the regime itself took a decidedly anti-Semitic turn (and Stalin pretty much killed off the Old Bolsheviks) which survived through the end of the Gorbachev period. The story is significant in any case, because Russia still has the second biggest Jewish community in the world, second only to that of the United States.

Nowadays Jews are immeasurably better off than they were under Communism, and in fact there is a stream of immigrants returning from Israel back to Russia. Most of the so-called oligarchs (the really big capitalists created during the 90) are Jews. The political establishment, Yeltsin in his time, now Putin, and the powerful mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov, take great pains to maintain dialogue with the Jewish community, frequently appearing, for example, in front of the press, in yarmulkes in synagogues. The Orthodox Christian and Jewish hierarchies in Russia are in excellent relations and the Patriarch has been an effective promoter of Christian-Jewish relations. This is all a striking and pleasant contrast to the situation in Soviet times, when there was widespread, open, and official discrimination against Jews, for everything from managerial jobs to places in prestigious universities. Official discrimination was ended root and branch by the Yeltsin government in 1992. Today, even non-Jewish Muscovites often cite the official discrimination against Jews as evidence of the barbarity of the Soviet regime.

There is still a great deal of residual anti-Semitism in Russia, however it is an ancient tradition. Some of this is relatively benign kind of non-politically-correct. All Russians tell jokes about Jews, but most of these are benign and in fact the classical genre of Jewish joke involves various interactions between a Jew named Abram (sometimes with his wife Sarah) and some Russian peasant, and the Russian peasant is usually the butt of the joke (Russian humor is often self-deprecating in this way). Russian Jews tell Jewish jokes which are nastier I wonder whether the famous Jewish tendency to self-deprecation comes from Russians, who also have this cultural trait?

Some Russian anti-Semitism is more virulent, and there is some real nastiness from time to time (bombings of synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, beatings), but nothing like the pogroms of old and really nothing different from what you see in Western Europe. There was an incident just a couple of weeks ago which may be illustrative. Some skinhead set up a boobytrapped sign along the road in a rural area which said Death to Yids . A Russian Christian woman stopped her car in disgust, and tore down the sign, setting off a bomb which injured her. The Jewish community paid for her medical care, and she was lionized in the newspapers as a true Christian. The incident set off a storm of Jewish-Christian good feeling.

How do Russians see the old connection between Bolsheviks and Jews? That is an interesting question. There is a tiny (but noisy!) fascist, Slavophilic minority who hate both Communism and Jews, and harp on the connection; there are skinheads associated with these whose creed and behavior more or less tracks that of skinheads in the rest of Europe. There are other fascists who mix fascism with Communism (there is even, imagine this, a party called the National Bolsheviks whose flag blends the Nazi swastika with the old Soviet flag) with various degrees of anti-Semitism mixed in.

Bolshevism and Communism are fairly widely hated in Russia today (not universally, but widely), and most people consider that Russia's relative backwardness come from this political experiment performed on them against their will (this phrase of Yeltsin s still resonates). The murder by the Bolsheviks of the Tsar (the protector of Orthodoxy in Russia, and presently being canonized by the Russian Church) no doubt has religious overtones for many people. Russian peasants will tell you even today, with tears in their eyes, that all their troubles came from God as a result of the murder of their Protector. I have not heard this told with overtly anti-Semitic overtones anywhere among average people. But then I spend most of my time in the Moscow, which is a truly cosmopolitan metropolis with corresponding attitudes. In the provinces, attitudes might be different.

My comment: This valuable report raises several questions. Some of the Jewish oligarchs have gone into exile in places like Spain to avoid prosecution. When I was in Nazi Germany, the corresponding group was a primary target of propaganda. The American Communist Party was largely Jewish, like the Soviet party. When Stalin turned on the Jews, people like my friends Bert and Ella Wolfe moved to the other extreme of the political spectrum. Bert in particular was vehement in his denunciations of even mild leftists. Cameron speaks of he good relations between the Orthodox Church and the Jews. At the same time the Orthodox Church has notoriously bad relations with the Roman Catholic Church. What is brewing in the countryside? Stalin was not a Russian. Here the gift of prophecy might help; a rational projection of developments is too fuzzy. Unfortunately that gift is rare.

Ronald Hilton - 6/27/02