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Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999


The following report attempts to assess the development of Jewish life in Moscow during a visit to that city in October 1999. An effort was made to confer with most of the individuals interviewed during a comparable journey one year previously, in late October of 1998. Similarly, the current report follows the format of the 1998 report.1

Coincidentally, the writer’s first full day in Moscow coincided with the second day of a two-day visit to the Russian capital by a small joint delegation of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the American Jewish Committee. The writer attended several meetings in the company of this mission. 2

Discussion among native-born and foreign residents in Moscow during the writer’s late 1998 visit was dominated by the dire economic impact of the collapse of the Russian ruble on August 17 of that year. One year later, conversation focused on (1) the forthcoming Russian Duma elections and later Presidential voting, and (2) hostilities between Russia and its southern territory of Chechnya. The economic situation was a critical element in many discussions on Russian elections; among Jews, many directed worried attention to the many Jews among Russian oligarchs, expressing concern that the disproportionately large number of super-wealthy Russians of Jewish origin would redound to the disadvantage of Jews. Particular concern was expressed about the political prominence of Boris Berezovsky and his lieutenant, Roman Abramovich; both were perceived as repugnant individuals, too conspicuous in their financial activity and, in the case of Berezovsky, too visible in the media.3 Each had announced his candidacy for seats in the Russian Duma. It was not yet time, said many Jews, for Jews to enter the political arena.

Apart from concern over antisemitism deriving from the disproportionately large role played by Jews in Russian economic and political life, most Moscow Jews were troubled by the continuing Russian national economic decline. Several cited acquaintances who were experiencing difficulties due to non-payment of salaries, need to purchase expensive medications, death of a wage-earning spouse, or other factors. Most were aware that emigration of Jews from Russia had increased during the past year, correctly attributing elevated departures to economic distress, political instability, family reuni-fication, and antisemitism.4

Notwithstanding the severity of the economic situation, Moscow seemed livlier than one year previously. Construction activity, which had almost ceased after the ruble crisis of August 1998, was once again visible.

Sign of the times: This advertisement for Vedomosty (Bulletin; a Russian newspaper containing articles from The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times of London) is posted in various areas of Moscow. The slogan reads: “Any oligarch is able to buy our newspaper. In a kiosk. Vedomosty. A business newspaper.”

(Photo: the author)


Russian armed forces were engaged in a new offensive in Chechnya while the writer was in Moscow. Russian media contained numerous reports about the hostilities, albeit some in a style redolent of Soviet agitprop (agitation and propaganda). Many individuals appeared to accept the popular view that Chechens were responsible for the September bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk that killed approximately 300 individuals. Support for the Russian attacks on Chechnya was high, in contrast to the first Chechnya war in 1996 (in which the Russian armed forces performed badly). Ashkenazi Jews interviewed by the writer were aware that some Jews from the Caucasus had been harassed by Moscow police as Moscow authorities exer-cised excessive zeal in attempting to rid the city of “terrorists.”5

Discussion with Deputy Chairman of Duma

1. Together with members of the joint NCSJ-AJC delegation, the writer conferred with Dr. Artur Nikolayevich Chilingarov, Deputy Chairman of the Duma. Designated Hero of the Soviet Union during the Soviet period for his exploits as an explorer in the Russian Arctic, Dr. Chilingarov currently occupies a large office filled with photographs and other artifacts from his days in the service of Soviet science and defense. His district in the Duma is a vast region stretching across the Russian Far North from the Barents Sea in the West to the Bering Sea in the East. In addition to his responsibilities as Deputy Chairman of the Duma, Dr. Chilingarov heads the Duma Committee on Defense and Security and also is active on issues concerning the environment. He identified his political philosophy as that of the “Primakov-Luzhkov camp,” i.e., as opposing President Yeltsin.

Dr. Chilingarov informed the delegation that he was born and raised in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. His mother was Russian and his stepfather was Jewish. When he was eight years old, said Dr. Chilingarov, he father, an Armenian, had died.6

In a rambling soliloquy that often was discursive and confusing, Dr. Chilingarov declared that two factors generate antisemitism in contemporary Russia. First, he said, Russia is a multinational country. Historically, antisemitism existed throughout much of the tsarist epoch and survived the 1917 revolutions into the Soviet era and then into contemporary Russia.7 Second, he continued, Jews themselves (евреи самые) are responsible for antisemitism today. Because of their innate capacity (способность) for commerce, he said, Jews have gained disproportionately from privatization of the Soviet economy. Jewish dominance of the economy, continued Dr. Chilingarov, was accepted in post-Soviet society for a limited period of time, but an antisemitic reaction developed when Jews moved from banking, property ownership and development, and oil into Russian politics. He mentioned Vladimir Gusinsky and Roman Abramovich as examples of Jews who moved from “acceptable” spheres of Russian life into those that were inappropriate for Jews. He later qualified his remarks about Gusinsky, noting that he was no longer so visible in politics.8

All people are not equal in Russia, as they are in the United States, continued Dr. Chilingarov. Russian democracy still requires significant development. Jews occupy almost all important positions as senior advisors to Yeltsin, said Dr. Chilingarov. Of course (конечно), the Russian people (народ, a word describing a specific national or ethnic group) resent this Jewish domination of Russian life. Jews [are able to] have dual citizenship, said Dr. Chilingarov. Many carry Israeli passports. This is very important (очень важно). Maybe Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Russia. Russians resent this [loyalty to Israel]. Almost all advisors to Yeltsin are Jewish, declared Dr. Chilingarov, and Jews also control the mass media and many banks. It is true that Makashov is very crude, but his views are understandable.9 Even Jewish writers, such as Edward Topol, understand the reasons for increased antisemitism in Russia.10 Jews should not enter into politics; it is enough that they are so prominent in Russian banks, the Russian, media, etc.

When Dr. Chilingarov paused, Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of European Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, commented that antisemites cause antisemitism, not Jews. Therefore, said Rabbi Baker, it is necessary to deal with antisemites.

Dr. Chilingarov continued that Jews in politics do not want to provoke antisemitism. General Makashov has always been an antisemite; however, he analyzes the situation and speaks up. His immoderate rhetoric generates even more antisemitism. Deputies to the Duma are popularly elected, said Dr. Chilingarov, and are responsible only to the voters in their districts. Antisemitism is non-existent in his own northern district because no Jews live in the Russian Far North, declared Dr. Chilingarov.



1. See the author’s A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow, October 20-29, 1998. See also her previous report Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow, November 24 to December 4, 1997.
2. The joint delegation included: Mark Levin, Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry; Terry Fisher and Harold Lux, vice-presidents of NCSJ; Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of European Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; and Nathaniel Schmelzer, President of the San Francisco chapter of the American Jewish Committee. This delegation of five individuals also visited Minsk and Kyiv. (The writer is a member of the Executive Committee of NCSJ and a vice president of the Chicago chapter of American Jewish Committee.)
3. An oligarch is understood to be a member of a small group that exercises control, usually for corrupt or selfish purposes, in a government. Boris Berezovsky controls several major media outlets as does Vladimir Gusinsky, the founder and first President of the Russian Jewish Congress. Most of Mr. Berezovsky’s publications and television programs had abandoned all pretense of journalistic impartiality and integrity, and were serving as publicity organs for political candidates favored by President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At the same time, they were attacking the interests of Mr. Gusinsky. See the writer’s “The Role of Politics in Contemporary Russian Antisemitism,” The Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, #414 (September 15, 1999), passim.
4. See Eli Leshem, Pre-Flight Survey (Jerusalem: Jewish Agency for Israel, October 1999), pp. 2
5. Police harassment of Chechens and other people from the Caucasus has been an ongoing element of Moscow life, preceding the September bombings. Many individuals from the Cauca-sus area are darker-skinned than most Russians.
6. Dr. Chilingarov used the word погиб (perished or fell) to describe his father’s death, a verb often interpreted as a death related to World War II when used regarding the 1941-1945 period. However, Dr. Chilingarov did not clarify this issue.
7. Jewish ancestry in Russia and in the Soviet Union is viewed more as an ethnic, i.e., national, heritage than a religious heritage.
8. Abramovich is Boris Berezovsky’s leading lieutenant and is said to be responsible for managing Berezovsky’s considerable oil interests, arranging major financial and industrial positions in the Russian cabinet, and serving as cashier to the Yeltsin family.
9. The reference is to Albert Makashov, the leader in the Duma of the extreme nationalist faction of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Mr. Makashov, a retired general, has denounced Jews in flamboyant rhetoric from a podium in the Duma, blaming Jews for Russian economic difficulties and favoring a quota on the number of Jews permitted to live in Russia.
10. Edward Topol, an émigré now living in New York, wrote an open letter to four Jewish oligarchs, blaming them for Russian economic difficulties and imploring them to contribute large sums of money to help Russia. The letter, which was written in inflammatory language, appeared in the popular Russian periodical Arguments and Facts (Аргументы и факты) in September, 1998. It suggested a conspiracy among Jewish oligarchs to control Russia and implied that Jewish prominence in Russia could lead to pogroms or to another Holocaust.

 
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