Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Since the inception of Project Judaica, JTS has struggled to find appropriate faculty members willing to work in Moscow alongside local instructors in Hebrew language and other topics. The practice during the past few years has been for regular and/or adjunct JTS faculty members to come to Moscow in one- or two-month rotations, teach in an intensive format, and then return to the United States or Israel. Because few such individuals are able to teach in the Russian language, Project Judaica students are required to learn English. Jewish-subject courses for first- and second-year students often must be taught through an interpreter.

In response to a question, Dr. Kupovetsky said that entrance to Project Judaica is dependent upon satisfactory scores in a general state admissions exam plus English-language skills. The most talented students, he said, generally go into business or law, not humanities. Professional opportunities for graduating students are “a problem,” he acknowledged. Very few work in archives because compensation for such work is very low. Some graduates have gone abroad, some are in graduate school here or abroad, and others are working for the Russian Jewish Congress, JDC, Israeli government representations in Moscow, Jewish day schools, or in positions outside the Jewish organizational world.

Despite their inability to find employment in fields for which they have trained, Project Judaica students have made several notable contributions to Jewish scholarship, asserted Dr. Kupovetsky. They have compiled detailed guides to Jewish materials in Moscow archives as well as research information about Jewish-related archives elsewhere in Russia, in Ukraine, in Belarus, and in the Soviet Army. Project Judaica also has published a Russian-language anthology of Jewish literature.

Some academic observers in Moscow believe that Project Judaica is an intrinsically flawed undertaking, citing several problems inherent in the program. First, as noted, few positions are available in archival work and the low compensation for such positions is a deterrent to filling those vacancies that do exist. Second, Project Judaica students are taught and trained according to American methodology, which does not prepare them for employment in the Russian educational environment. Third, visiting American and/or Israeli instructors lack the influence and associations with colleagues that are necessary to assist graduates in finding appropriate employment in Russia or neighboring countries. Fourth, the English-language teaching culture at Project Judaica actually encourages students to identify with the United States or England and to pursue careers in an English-speaking country.

In response to a question about other Masorti programs, particularly those of a popular outreach nature, in Russia, Dr. Kupovetsky said that both he and Dr. Fishman were concerned about this issue. In reality, he said, the Masorti movement does the least post-Soviet Jewish outreach of the three major streams in Judaism. Chabad, he continued, does the most, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism (Reform) is beginning to implement its own programs. He is pessimistic about Masorti outreach because the Masorti movement itself has not identified post-Soviet Jewish outreach as a priority. Funding for outreach work seems unavailable. The Masorti movement must define itself and its objectives in the post-Soviet states, he said.

9. Maimonides Academy is a tuition-free state-supported undergraduate institution offering a five-year undergraduate degree in modern Hebrew.36 Many students also learn English and/or Yiddish. Language study is complemented by enrollment in courses in Jewish history, Jewish tradition, and related subjects. The writer spoke with Mikhail (Micha) Chlenov, Dean of the Academy and an instructor in Hebrew and other courses. An anthropologist by education and outlook, Dr. Chlenov also is President of the Russian Va'ad.37

Dr. Chlenov said that Maimonides Academy currently enrolls 120 students, 40 percent of whom are Jewish. Graduates teach at Maimonides and in Jewish Agency ulpans, and some work for the Joint Distribution Committee. A few teach Hebrew in Jewish day schools, but the low compensation level at most day schools discourages more graduates from selecting that career path, said Dr. Chlenov.

In addition to his teaching and administrative responsibilities at Maimonides Academy, Dr. Chlenov also teaches at CJSC and at Project Judaica. Multiple teaching assignments are common in Moscow, said Dr. Chlenov, because compensation at one institution is rarely sufficient for support of a family. Circulation of faculty among different institutions is beneficial in that it reduces the likelihood of destructive competition between them, observed Dr. Chlenov.

10. Vladimir Shapiro is a sociologist at the Jewish Research Center (also called the Jewish Scientific Center) at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The writer met with him at his home.

Dr. Shapiro observed that emigration of Jews from Russia has increased and probably will remain at a high level for the foreseeable future. Emigration, he said, is generated by the economic situation, which has not improved since the ruble devaluation of August 1998. The value of most salaries, he continued, has decreased by two or three times. The war in the Caucasus is expensive to sustain, absorbing funds that the government should be investing in productive enterprise. Foreign investment also has declined, a product of the 1998 economic crisis and recent scandals involving money laundering and other forms of corruption. Few people seem optimistic about the future; therefore, many who are able to emigrate do so.38

The Russian government has paid back salaries in most regions and pension arrears in all regions of Russia. The major factor stimulating these payments, especially pensions, is the forthcoming Duma election in December and Presidential election in 2000. A 600,000-member political party consisting entirely of pensioners supports Gennady Zyuganov and his Communist Party of the Russian Federation. A party of veterans also is inclined to the Left, many hoping to re-create the Soviet Union whose superpower status had generated inestimable pride. Dr. Shapiro noted that payment of back salaries and pensions had halted the frequent strikes of unpaid teachers, physicians, and others, thus returning domestic peace to Russia.

Recalling Dr. Shapiro’s remarks one year previously on the absence of a strong work ethic in Russia, the writer asked him to comment on this issue again. Dr. Shapiro responded by saying that, as during the late Soviet period, people feel that their work has no value and, therefore, that they do not work very diligently. Working conditions are unpleasant, bureaucracy is stifling, co-workers often are uncultured, theft and corruption are common, and scandals (компромат or kompromat, i.e., compromising material) erupt with some frequency at all levels. The militia (police) demand bribes for everything. It is as if one is living in a jungle. Relating his observations to the forthcoming elections, Dr. Shapiro said that voters will vote against specific people, as opposed to casting their ballots for a particular candidate.

Yabloko (Apple) seems to be the most popular political party among the intelligentsia and among Jews, said Dr. Shapiro, because it espouses democratic values. As of mid-October, polls showed that it might win 12 percent of the seats in the December Duma elections. The center-left coalition (All Russia/Fatherland led by Evgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov) might win 40 to 50 percent. Almost no Jews support Zuganov or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said Dr. Shapiro. If Presidential elections were held in mid-October, no one candidate would emerge the clear winner in first-round balloting. Evgeny Primakov and Zuganov would each win 40 to 45 percent of the total vote and would then stand again in a run-off.39 It is likely that Primakov would be able to attract more allies from the defeated candidates and would win the second round and become the new President. Russia would then have a Jewish President.40 Acknowledging that many Jews fear that a Jewish Prime Minister might be uncomfortable for the Russian Jewish population, Dr. Shapiro commented that matters of heritage and career (as an Arabist and spy) aside, Primakov is stable, sophisticated, and capable of being very charming.

In response to a question, Dr. Shapiro said that he is more pessimistic than optimistic about the Jewish future in Russia. He does not anticipate calamitous events, such as pogroms, a Russian version of Kristallnacht,41 or the re-emergence of a communist state in Russia. However, antisemitism will continue, sometimes at a consistent level, sometimes rising and then falling. The economy will remain weak. The economic situation, political instability, family members living abroad, demographic factors independent of emigration (i.e., high intermarriage rate, low fertility), and antisemitism are factors in encouraging continuing emigration. Ties with family members abroad serve as a real “pump” (насос) in pulling Jews out of Russia. A study that he conducted in the fall and winter of 1997 shows

                 Russian Jews with:           In Israel        In U.S.
                 first-degree relatives        30%             16%
                 cousins, aunts, uncles        74%             61%
                 close friends                 67%             52%

The 1989 Soviet census enumerated 528,182 Jews in Russia, said Dr. Shapiro. Since that time, about one-third of the Jewish population (170,000 to 175,000 people) has emigrated, according to both the Russian government and the Jewish Agency. Therefore, about 350,000 Jews remain in 1999. By the year 2009, predicted Dr. Shapiro, a maximum of 150,000 Jews in Russia -- and perhaps as few as 100,000 -- will identify themselves as Jews. They will constitute an elderly population with very low fertility.

36. Five years is the normal duration of undergraduate study in the (post-) Soviet Union. High school graduation normally occurs at age 17, i.e., one year earlier than in the United States and some other countries.
37. Dr. Chlenov’s remarks on the Va’ad and other Jewish communal issues are recounted in the section of this report on Jewish communal organizations. See pp.29-30.
38. Dr. Shapiro said that his own 28-year old son emigrated six months ago and is now living in New York, as is Dr. Shapiro’s former wife. Dr. Shapiro, who was born in 1937, expects to remain in Moscow as long as he is able to continue working in his profession. He is in daily contact with his son through e-mail and ICQ telephone.
39.  Note: In November, Russian media controlled by Boris Berezovsky mounted a fierce assault on Primakov and Luzhkov, questioning their fitness for high office. The intent was to malign the coalition leaders so as to boost the Presidential prospects of Vladimir Putin, current Prime Minister and favored candidate of retiring President Boris Yeltsin and the Kremlin “family”. Most observers believe that Mr. Berezovsky’s campaign was effective in limiting the Communist Party share of Duma seats to 24 percent in the December Duma elections, increasing the pro-Kremlin Unity Party’s share to 23 percent, and limiting the Primakov-Luzhkov coalition’s seats to 13 percent. Candidates associated with Yabloko won barely six percent of the Duma votes.
40. Evgeny Primakov was born as Yonah Finkelshtein in 1929 in Kyiv. He does not identify as a Jew.
41Kristallnacht or “Night of the Broken Glass” refers to November 9, 1938, when government-inspired forces rampaged through German cities, attacking Jews, Jewish-owned property, and synagogues. Because many windows were broken, the Aktion became known as Kristallnacht. Thirty-six Jews were reported killed, another 36 severely injured, more than 800 shops and 170 dwellings were destroyed, 76 synagogues were destroyed, and another 191 synagogues were severely damaged.

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