Russian and Jewish Identity

Extract from: 2006 JPPPI Annual Assessment
(download the full report on world Jewry)

According to various estimates, between 60 and 63 percent of Jews of the former Soviet Union (235,000) reside in Russia, making it Europe’s third largest Jewish community. In recent years, antisemitism in Russia has been a part of the nation’s general xenophobia, although it also has certain distinctive features.

Jewish Population for FSU Regions

 1970 2006  2020 (projected)
 FSU 2,151,000 366,000 173,000
 Russia 808,000 228,000 130,000
 Ukraine 777,000 80,000 25,000
 Rest of FSU Europe 312,000 38,000 15,000
 Rest of FSU Asia 254,000 20,000 3,000

Acts of violence against peoples of the Caucasus region — blacks, Chinese and others — have recently been intensifying, to the extent that several Russian papers have defined the phenomenon as a “racial war waged in the streets of major cities”, and many Russians have expressed the fear that within a few years Moscow, the symbol of historical Russia, could become a non- Russian city. Anti-Jewish expressions should be considered in this light.

Beatings of Jews in certain cities (e.g. Moscow, Orenburg, Kostruma and Omsk), damage to synagogues (in Moscow, Ryazan and Samara), desecration of Jewish cemeteries, swastika graffiti, antisemitic slogans, etc. have become common and growing phenomena. In this respect, Communist, Fascist and neo-Nazi groups share a common language in the name of Russian “patriotism”. These groups enjoy certain sympathy in various establishment circles, such as the military, security services, bureaucracy and parts of the judiciary system. The central government regards these forces as both a major mainstay of a viable centralist regime in Russia on the one hand, and as a means for preserving its position as one of the central actors in the international arena on the other.

The violent groups are not very large, estimated at only several tens of thousands of people throughout the country. These are mostly young people, consumed with hatred for anything that is not authentically Russian by their standards. Despite the gaping contrasts between the worldviews of the different groups — from radical Bolsheviks to neo-Nazis — they are united in their hostility towards foreigners in general and towards the Jews, who are well integrated into the Russian intelligentsia and business sector, in particular.

Over the last three years (2002–2005), the activity of these groups has broadened in a host of Russian towns (e.g. Perm, Kaliningrad). At demonstrations they attack not only foreigners, but also the central government, including President Putin himself. In some demonstrations they called Putin’s regime Zhidokratia (“government of Jews”). The situation escalated to the point that in April 2002 the authorities were forced to deploy ten thousand security agents in the streets of Moscow in order to prevent pogroms against Central Asians, blacks and Jews. Under the circumstances, the Duma (parliament, which de facto is totally controlled by the president) ratified a bill against extremist groups (added to existing legislature against ethnic and racist incitement), but the bill did not significantly change the situation; considerable segments of the bureaucracy, especially in the periphery, sympathize at least partially with many of these groups’ slogans.

One of the features uniting all these groups is their hostility towards the West, and especially the United States, with the Jews perceived as a fifth column. Spearheading the fight against Westernization of Russians is the Russian Pravoslavic Church, as declared by Patriarch Alexei the Second, who in December 2000 said that “the West is waging a bloodless but carefully planned war against our nation with the aim of annihilating it”. These groups allude to Jewish capitalists (“Oligarchs”) who are “looting” Russia’s wealth and transferring its capital to the West.

The central government’s campaign against the Jewish oligarchs improved the President’s rating in Russian public opinion, even though this persecution stemmed not from ethnic hostility, but from the wish to break the power of capitalists who criticize or oppose the President’s policies. Vladimir Putin is not an antisemite, and he makes an effort to demonstrate this in visits to synagogues and his tolerance towards capitalists, including certain Jews who keep out of general politics and refrain from criticizing the government, but among certain strata of the Russian people, the echo of the fight against Jewish oligarchs enhances the stereotype of the capitalist Jew, a subversive and destructive element.

In a demonstration held in Moscow in September 2002, bringing together radical Communists and neo-Nazis, slogans such as “Liquidate the Zhids’ Mafia”, “Jews Out” and “Chechnyans to Auschwitz” were heard, and tens of thousands of fake 10 ruble notes inscribed with “Jew-free Russia” were circulated throughout the city. The slogan “Jews to Israel” is often heard — echoing the familiar slogan “Jews to Palestine”, used by antisemitic movements in Poland on the eve of World War II.

Unlike the hostility towards the peoples of central Asia, national groups often raise charges against the Jews, saying that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was in fact a Mason-Jewish plot and that the Jews are responsible for the “genocide of the Russian people”, killing millions of Russians during Soviet rule. In view of the demographic decline of the Russian people in recent years as a result of the decrease in life expectancy, low birth rate, alcoholism, AIDS and the collapse of the health care system, these groups have recently claimed that there is a Jewish-Western plot to continue “the genocide of the Russian people” by new ways and means. These accusations by violent groups are also made by broad circles of the Russian Pravoslavic Church, lending them a religious dimension. An artistic film entitled Ruskaia Golgofa (“The Russian Golgotha”) was recently released which emphasized that the murder of the last Czar had been a ritual killing performed by Jews and the Free Masons. Russia and the Russian people are conceived as a sort of Jesus whom the Jews keep abusing and crucifying. In this atmosphere, it is easy to understand how several parliament members applied to the Attorney General demanding a criminal investigation to be held against the publisher of the abridged Shulhan Aruch because it allegedly contains racial incitement, which is against the law. In early 2005, a petition signed by 500 “patriotically-oriented” people associated with the Russian Pravoslavic Church demanded a ban on the activity of all Jewish organizations. Among the signatories were notables such as former chess champion Boris Spassky, writer Vasily Belov and mathematician Igor Shafarevich, a member of the Science Academy, who in his anti-Jewish book Russophobia, published in the 1980’s, argued that Jews and democrats were destroying the sociocultural fabric of Russia.

The extremist groups and their associated circles publish papers, leaflets and books which discuss, among other things, the universal Jewish conspiracy to enslave Russia. The Jews are portrayed in these publications as a people, whose ultimate value is money, being by nature business people, in direct contrast with the Russian people, who are characterized by generosity, hospitality and exalted moral qualities. This portrait of the Jews goes hand in hand with the hostility of broad strata of the Russian people towards the oligarchs, of which the Jews comprise a relatively large group. Religious publications of this type often stress that the Jews are the murderers of God. Most of these publications, which are printed in relatively small editions, are being sold publicly while the authorities refrain from acting resolutely to stop them, although there have been some sporadic cases where certain antisemitic publications were banned.

There is great ideological affinity between the nationalistic and violent groups and the “patriotic” political parties in terms of their attitude to Jews. Both regard the Jews as one of the forces sabotaging Russia’s economical, cultural and spiritual underpinnings. The exploitation of the xenophobic current against foreigners in general and Jews in particular increases in pre-election times, under the assumption that these slogans attract voters, even if this is not always reflected in the actual results.

Hostility towards Jews in the general population is on the increase, as several studies indicate. For example, in a poll conducted in 2002, between 15 and 18 percent of the respondents expressed negative attitudes towards Jews, and in 2005 the percentage rose to 25 (hostility to Moslems rose to 46 percent), and 42 percent of Russians argued that the influence of Jews in government bodies, politics, business and educational institutions should be curtailed.

The media regularly refers to the acts of violent groups as the actions of “skinheads”, “hooligans”, etc. in order to stress that these are extremist youth from the margins of society, almost totally ignoring the transformation taking place in wider strata of Russian society. The question is therefore raised whether these are tiny groups of lunatic youngsters and “mad” politicians who have no substantial support in the general public, or merely the tip of an extremist, violent iceberg of fundamental shifts in the consciousness and identity of the Russian people.

Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the identity of the majority of Russians was based on three major tenets: a) A deep-rooted sense that the entire Soviet Union, regardless of its division into republics and the widespread propaganda about “the Soviet People” is, in fact, Russia. Indeed, Russians who settled in the Baltic States or Moslem territories of the Soviet Union have felt quite at home there. b) The dominant language in these regions, especially among the administrative circles and parts of the local intelligentsia, was Russian, and c) the Russian culture was perceived as superior to all others. This identity, which some call “imperial”, practically collapsed with the downfall of the Soviet Union. The rapid and largely chaotic changes in the economic, governmental and social arena during the first decade after the USSR’s downfall were not conducive to consolidating a new identity for the Russian people.

However, early manifestations of the debate over the new Russian identity were already evident by the mid 90s. Some publications stressed the distinctive character of the Russian state, which should not copy the forms of government of Western liberal democracy, but instead should follow its own unique path, while others of the intelligentsia, including many Jews, called for “Europization”. Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was difficult for large segments of the population to come to terms psychologically and mentally with the fact that Russia had ceased to be a superpower. While certain intellectuals felt that Russia was no longer a superpower in political and economic terms, they insisted that it was still a cultural and spiritual superpower, and that extending Western influence into these areas was nothing short of surrender and enslavement to the West. The tendency towards the consolidation of a new Russian identity gained momentum with the election to the presidency of Vladimir Putin, whose inauguration ceremony in May 2000 bore certain elements of a coronation in the Russian tradition. Indeed, in an international scientific conference held in Moscow in January 2001, a researcher from the Institute of Philosophy at the Science Academy lectured on the transformative processes taking place in the consciousness and self-identity of the Russian people. The speaker emphasized that 80 percent of the country’s population were Russian, part of the Eastern European civilization of a distinctly Pravoslavic-Byzantine character. He attempted to characterize the main features of the new Russian identity and social groupings of its members: part of the Russian people, especially the “new paupers”, “construct their [spiritual] values and world view primarily around the distinctiveness of the Pravoslav-Byzantine character”. Those who uphold this identity, said the lecturer, were previously called Slavophiles, and now they are labeled nationalist or nationalistic. Like modern-day nationalists, the Slavophiles of the past regarded the Jews as a foreign body, and some of them even regarded them as a cancerous tumor in Russia’s body.

At the other extreme are those with a Russian identity that is based on cultural-spiritual values that unite the Russians with pan-European culture. This thin stratum, the speaker contended, was comprised of media figures and business and government elites. As in the 19th century, this segment is referred to as “Westerners” or “radical liberals”. Between these two poles is a third element, which tries to merge the distinct Russian identity of Pravoslav-Byzantine character with pan-European values. This group was labeled by the speaker as “traditional” or “Eastern European liberals”. Reservation or even hostility towards “Westerners” is shared by both the “nationalists” and the “traditionalists”. If we accept this division in principle, then the centralistic regime and the Pravoslavic denomi-nation are an essential component of the new self-identity of the first and third strata. Indeed, large-scale surveys indicate that most Russians define themselves as Pravoslav, although they do not go to church and have no connection whatsoever with religion.

It can therefore be said that the term “Pravoslavic” has become a sort of synonym for “member of the Russian People”. The Pravoslavic denomination is an increasingly dominant and essential component of the new Russian identity. It is manifested in the emphasis on religious ceremonies, icons and symbols in the framework of the state. President Putin demonstrates his Pravoslavic allegiance at every opportunity, whether as a result of his deeply rooted religious belief or for political ends and in response to public sentiments. The emphasis on religion is also expressed in practical measures such as the appointment of priests in army units and the introduction of Pravoslavic religious studies into the school curriculum. One can therefore safely conclude that in recent years there has been rapprochement between increasingly larger segments of the “traditional” population and the “nationalistic” elements. This is not to say, however, that the “traditionalists” endorse acts of violence by the extremist groups, nor does the central government. Still, this group serves to a large extent as public backing for at least some of the ideas upheld by the extremist groups.

The new Russian identity, as it is being consolidated in recent years, puts the Jews in Russia in a delicate and complicated situation. The number of people identifying themselves as Jews — primarily older people — is rapidly declining. The majority of the “Jewish” population is the product of mixed marriages, roughly divided into three groups: (a.) people who define themselves as Russians but society regards as Jews; (b.) people who claim to have a double identity (i.e. Russian-Jewish; and (c.) people who claim to have a universal, pan-human identity, without any specific ethnic belonging. All three groups would have difficulties integrating into the new Russian identity and the surrounding society will go on regarding them as “the other”. Moreover, a significant number of Jews residing in the larger cities are part of the intelligentsia, upholding Western worldviews and shunning autocratic tendencies. As the pressure against such tendencies increases, the Jews will increasingly bear the brunt. Early signs of such distress are already apparent, but they are sure to intensify as the new identity of the Russians takes deeper roots.

In conclusion, it could be said that the roots of antisemitism in Russia are different from those in the majority of Western countries, where antisemitic expressions are linked with the growth of the Moslem population and directly and/or indirectly associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Russia, however, hostility towards the Jews in Russia stems from different sources.

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