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JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE IN CENTRAL SIBERIA

 

Observations on a Visit

 

May 18-27, 2009

 

 

The writer visited four cities in central Siberia between May 18 and May 27, 2009.  Although she also was in Moscow before and after going to Siberia, interviews from the Moscow segment are not included in this report because they were few in number and therefore not illustrative of Jewish life in the Russian capital.

 

 

Map: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/cia99/russia_sm99.jpg.  Retrieved July 5, 2009.

 

The writer traveled from Moscow to Omsk on a commercial flight and later went from Omsk to Novosibirsk by overnight train (Trans-Siberian Railway; Транссибирская магистраль).  From Novosibirsk, she traveled by car to and from Tomsk, which is located about 128 miles (207 kilometers) north of Novosibirsk, by road.  She then traveled by overnight train from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk, another link on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  She returned to Moscow from Krasnoyarsk on a commercial flight.

 

The mood throughout Russia was generally grim, with much attention directed at the economic crisis, known simply as <the crisis (крисис)>, and believed by all to be in its initial stages.  Unemployment was perceived as being significantly higher than the officially reported nine to ten percent.  Joblessness is concealed to some extent by such measures as part-time work and prolonged leaves of absence without pay.  Many who are still working are receiving lower compensation.  The magnitude of the crisis, said one Muscovite, is further masked by the extensive “black economy”[1] and, therefore, is not as visible on the surface as its scope would indicate.  However, it is clear even to casual observers that new construction has almost ceased in Moscow and that many individuals and families have curbed spending.

 

Corruption continues to plague daily life across Russia, spurred by a significant increase in bureaucracy.  Bribes are routine in law enforcement, construction, health care, and education.  Government officials monitoring fire safety, health, and other matters arrive at various institutions at odd intervals for surprise inspections; extortionate fees must be paid to guarantee positive reports.  Human dignity is assaulted daily as bribes must be offered for routine services.[2]

 

Although lacking a specific antisemitic dimension, Russian nationalism continues to increase.  Fed by a “Great Russia” ideology advanced, among others, by Vladimir Putin, and a resurgent Russian Orthodox church, contemporary Russian nationalism targets blacks, Asians, and people from the Caucasus for primary abuse.[3]  Moslem resentment also is growing.[4]

 

Longtime observers, both indigenous and foreign, expressed pessimism about the development of democracy and a modern economy in Russia.  Several said that they had been optimistic during perestroika in the late 1980’s and had perceived the chaotic 1990’s as a necessary evolutionary period for a new Russia.  The first decade of the 21st century, they hoped, would lead to industrial and commercial development, a civil society, and a Russia at ease with itself and its neighbors.  Instead, the economy had regressed “from bleak to disastrous.”  Russia remains dependent on commodity exports; its industrial capacity is weak.  It manufactures weapons that it “recklessly” exports to the likes of Iran and Syria, despaired a Moscow intellectual, but it is forced to import food, clothing, medicine, cars, and airplanes.  Its legal system is corrupt, its media subject to government intimidation, its bureaucracy is stifling, and much of its leadership too easily resorts to nationalism.  Tolerance and goodwill remain elusive in society as a whole. 

 

 

Siberia

 

Siberia usually is defined as the region of Russia extending eastward from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and southward from the Arctic Ocean to a hilly area in north central Kazakhstan and the national borders of Mongolia and China.  It is pierced by three legendary rivers – the Ob, the Yenesei, and the Lena – all of which flow northward into the Arctic Ocean.  The totality of Siberia constitutes more than one-half of all Russian territory and one-fifth of the entire land mass of the earth.  In its dimensions, climatic conditions, and population density, Siberia bears greatest resemblance to Canada.

 

As in Canada, the majority of the population resides in the southern, more temperate zones, and the north is more sparsely settled with vast areas empty of human habitation. The largest Siberian urban centers lie along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which wends its way from Moscow across southern Siberia to the port city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.   Novosibirsk, with an estimated 2009 population of 1,380,638, is the third largest city in Russia, surpassed only by Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Omsk ranks seventh, with an estimated 2009 population of 1,120,973, and Krasnoyarsk is 14th with 929,136.  Tomsk, which is north of the Trans-Siberian Railway, is significantly smaller; its estimated 2009 population is 491,238.[5]

 

Although Novosibirsk is the administrative center of the Siberian Federal District[6] and its largest city, it has actually lost stature in recent years to other, more dynamic Siberian population centers, such as Tyumen (an oil and gas administrative center close to the Ural Mountains), Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, and Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East.  Development of Siberia since it came under control of Russia in the late 16th century always has been associated with exploitation of its abundant natural resources; initially, the Siberian economy was dominated by the fur trade, but extraction and processing of oil, gas, timber, and various metals have dominated its 20th and 21st centuries.

 

At the same time that Siberia has been defined by its enormous expanse and its natural resources, some of its energy resources are approaching depletion.  Further, inadequate investment in infrastructure has dimmed prospects for economic development.  Profits from its fuel and energy sectors go to Gazprom[7] in Moscow and St. Petersburg, rather than to the advancement of Siberian well-being.

 

The Gazprom website shows a gas processing installation at an unidenti-fied Siberian location.

 

Photo: www.gazprom.com/about/today/.

Retrieved July 15, 2009.

 

 

As is the case throughout the post-Soviet states, the size of the Jewish population in Central Siberia cannot be determined with precision.  Irina Lotman, who directs Jewish Agency for Israel operations from a regional office in Novosibirsk, assesses the total Jewish population of the area at 34,000 to 35,000.  The largest Jewish population center, said Ms. Lotman, is Novosibirsk, which probably has 11,000 Jews as defined according to the Israel Law of Return.  Omsk and Krasnoyarsk each have Jewish populations of about 8,000, she continued, followed by Kemerovo, Tomsk, Novokuznetsk, Norilsk, and Barnaul.  A number of other cities have fewer than 500 Jewish residents each.  In common with the Jewish population in other regions of the post-Soviet states, the Jewish population of central Siberia is declining due to emigration, a low birth rate, a high mortality rate, intermarriage, and assimilation.  Citing a lack of economic opportunity, the migration rate of Jewish young adults out of Siberia appears to very high; some emigrate abroad and others attempt to build new lives in Moscow.[8]

 

 
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