Betsy Gidwitx Reports
A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow
October 20-29, 1998
Prompted by the devaluation of the ruble in August 1998 and press reports of subsequent crises in the economic and social fabric of Russia and neighboring republics, the author visited various Jewish institutions in Moscow in late October of 1998. Attempts were made to confer with most of those individuals interviewed during a similar journey less than one year previously, in late November and early December of 1997 [1].

To the visitor returning to Moscow after an absence of some eleven months, the city seemed somewhat subdued. Traffic was less congested, new construction less evident, and luxury hotels less bustling. Numerous advertising billboards and kiosks were empty of messages, except for image001 notices, ample indication that marketing efforts had been curtailed.

Foreigners residing in Moscow observed that supermarkets and grocery stores were carrying significantly fewer imported products than six months previously, a matter of some significance as 70 to 80 percent of all food consumed in the city is imported from other countries. On a walk through one of the more desirable parts of the Russian capital during business hours, several shops featuring foreign luxury goods appeared either closed or empty of customers. The new underground shopping mall at Manege Square near the Kremlin was thronged with visitors on a weekend afternoon, but many more people were congregating in its passageways than in its upscale stores.Discussions with various Muscovites of middle age revealed a moderate level of concern about the economy and society in general, but the panic that was reported to have followed the ruble devaluation in mid-August had abated. Russia, they said, had survived numerous crises over the centuries and had always prevailed. It would overcome the current difficulties as well, although traditionally vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly, would suffer. Concern about the economy far surpassed anxiety about the political situation. The recent installation of former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov as Prime Minister was seen to have defused the political crisis, although no individual with whom the writer spoke expressed any confidence in the ability of Mr. Primakov or his colleagues to turn the economy around. The problems were too numerous, too severe.

Discussions with younger people (and about young people) yielded a more despairing view. Several observers referred to individuals between the ages of 20 and 40 (or 18 and 35) as a "lost generation" (потерянное поколение). Many young people had invested their futures in the "new economy" -- in small to mid-size businesses, banking services, advertising, marketing, sales, etc. Some had left jobs in engineering and the sciences to become entrepreneurs. Unemployment in this sector is now 60 to 70 percent, and many who had been such eager participants in new economic ventures appear to have lost all hope.

The Memorial Synagogue at Poklonnaya Gora
1. Poklonnaya Gora is the point at which German forces were halted on their march to Moscow in 1941-42 by the Red Army. Oversized tank barriers and a monument had marked the location for some years, but as the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War approached 2, a large memorial complex was created to commemorate the war dead. A museum is at the center of the site, flanked by a Russian Orthodox church, a mosque, and a synagogue.

The synagogue was the last of the four major buildings to be constructed, its late debut due to the emergence of a funding source only when the Russian Jewish Congress (see below) was established in 1996. The cost of the structure is reported in publications of the Russian Jewish Congress (REK) at $8,502,591, although others estimate its cost at between $10 million and $17 million. Most of the funding is said to have been provided by Vladimir Gousinsky, a high-profile media magnate and President of REK.

Dedication of the synagogue in September attracted a large number of foreign dignitaries. Of greater interest to many Russian Jews was the participation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.

A modern structure developed by Moshe Zarhi, a noted Israeli architect, with interior and exterior design work by Frank Meissler, the synagogue includes a sanctuary, display cases on upper floors surround-ing the image002 synagogue in which various archival materials and artifacts of Russian Jewish history are display-ed, and a museum on the lower floor. A large menorah stands outside the building.

The synagogue is intended to be transdenominational within the Jewish community, its availability assigned to different streams of Judaism according to a schedule yet to be developed. In reality, its location far from major residential areas is likely to preclude Shabbat use by Orthodox Jews and to limit its appeal to other streams on a regular basis. It may be that its use for purposes of prayer will be confined to memorial days.

The basement level of the structure is devoted to a museum that is divided into two display sections of approximately equal size. One focuses on the Holocaust, concentrating on its development in Soviet-controlled territory and neighboring areas of Poland. Displays include copies of Nazi extermination orders, photographs of Jews in ghettoes and of massacre sites, and various artifacts. The other section concentrates on Jewish combatants during the Great Patriotic War, both those in conventional Soviet military forces and those in irregular partisan units. Photographs and artifacts are featured. Materials in both sections are professionally displayed in modern formats using display cases and wall-mounted exhibits.

Together, the two sections surround a six-sided theater with a drop-down screen on each side. A locally-produced film, which is shown simultaneously on all six screens, describes the Holocaust. Some of the film segments have been shown previously in the West, but others (apparently from archives) are new to the writer.

The writer was escorted through the synagogue and museum by Ilya Altman, one of the very few specialists on the Holocaust in Russia and the other successor states. Dr. Altman has been a major figure in organization of the museum.

Some criticism has been expressed by foreigners about the large sum of money expended in development of such a structure at a time when both welfare and Jewish renewal needs of the Russian Jewish population are so acute. Although such needs are indeed immense, the desire of local Jews for acknowledgment of their twentieth-century heritage is also great. In the four decades of Soviet power following the Holocaust and the Great Patriotic War, Soviet authorities assiduously suppressed knowledge of the former and recognition of Jewish participation in the latter. Few local Jews in middle and older age groups have escaped the sting of widely believed charges that the disproportionately large number of Jewish soldiers honored with the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” purchased their medals in the bazaars of Tashkent. The museum assists Jews in reclaiming their dignity by attesting to the unique and tragic Jewish history of the war years.

Further development of the museum is required so that displays can be expanded and educational programs developed. Both funders and organizers of the museum have expressed the hope that plans encouraging visits by non-Jews are implemented.

Jewish Day Schools

The writer visited four of the seven Jewish day schools in Moscow. Interested readers may wish to read accounts of her visits to these schools in November and December of 1997, as recorded in the trip report cited earlier.

2. Achey Tmimin and Beit Rivka are the boys’ and girls’ schools respectively of the Chabad movement in Moscow. The two schools operate separate classes in the same building, enrolling 300 youngsters (compared to 250 last year) in grades one through eleven. About 30 children are enrolled in a separate kindergarten program. Achey Tmimim and Beit Rivka are often referred to collectively by the name of the boys’ school or as “the Kuravsky school”, the latter in reference to its principal Zev Kuravsky.

In response to a question, Mr. Kuravsky said that the economic crisis has had a serious impact on his school, which enrolls many youngsters from lower-middle and lower class homes. Salaries in many areas of the economy have decreased, causing additional hardships for many pupil families. Some hard-hit banks have refused to release money held in savings accounts by these families. Food for the school kitchen is more than twice as expensive as it was last year.

1. See the author’s Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow, November 24 to December 4, 1997.
2.Soviet histories of World War II refer to the conflict as the Great Patriotic War, emphasizing the massive Soviet component of the war and largely excluding other battle arenas, especially the war in North Africa and in the Pacific Ocean.

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