Betsy Gidwitx Reports
A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow
October 20-29, 1998

9. Maimonides Academy is a state-supported undergraduate institution offering a five-year undergraduate degree in modern Hebrew.[17] Many students also learn Yiddish, and enroll in courses in Jewish history, Jewish tradition, and related subjects. The writer spoke with Mikhail (Micha) Chlenov at the Academy, where he teaches Hebrew and other courses. An anthropologist by education and outlook, Dr. Chlenov also is President of the Russian Va'ad.

Dr. Chlenov said that Maimonides Academy currently enrolls 120 students. 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.
The economic crisis has already affected the Academy. Citing financial pressure, the Russian Ministry of Education has reduced its planned allocation to the institution. Maimonides also receives funding from the Russian Jewish Congress and has been given one grant from the Pincus Fund of the Jewish Agency.

Dr. Chlenov believes that the economic crisis afflicting Russia will generate increased emigration -- "unquestionably" -- especially from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major cities from which emigration heretofore had been relatively low. The crisis has affected smaller cities much less seriously because conditions always have been deplorable outside the largest urban areas. Jews who emigrate from Moscow probably will prefer to go to the United States or Germany, but many will move to Israel anyway due to limitations on immigration in the United States.

Dr. Chlenov estimated unemployment to be about 15 percent of the workforce, disproportionately affecting the small middle class. The stress level among Jews is high because many Jews are in those [middle class] professions most seriously damaged in the crisis.

Dr. Chlenov believes that the Russian Jewish Congress (Российский Еврейский Конгресс, known as REK) will survive the crisis, but will operate on a more modest level as its revenues decline.[18]  Its political influence also has weakened.[19]  It probably will lose all authority in certain regions as it had only one or two supporters in some outlying areas and these individuals have lost great fortunes in the current crisis. REK will become increasingly dependent upon Vladimir Gousinsky, as he has survived the crisis in good form. Dr. Chlenov believes that REK will remain staunchly non-Zionist as it continues to perceive the departure of Jews as threatening its own power base.

The Va'ad, said Dr. Chlenov, is less seriously affected by the economic crisis as its financial resources have always been very limited. It will continue to identify with Zionism.

KEROOR (Конгресса Еврейских Религиозных Общин и Организаций России; Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia) is gradually expanding its influence in Russia, observed Dr. Chlenov. At the same time, its dependence upon subsidy from REK is growing. REK continues to embrace both Orthodox and Reform Judaism; however, its inclusion of Reform communities has alienated the Chabad movement in Moscow, which remains strongly opposed to cooperation with non-Orthodox Jewish institutions.

The Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut), said Dr. Chlenov, remains the "toughest" institution in Moscow, having created a wall around itself for security reasons. Dr. Chlenov believes that Sochnut should enter into cooperative agreements with local organizations and involve more local individuals in its operations.[20]

Dr. Chlenov expressed the view that most synagogues in the post-Soviet successor states are similar to churches, i.e., that only "believers" (верующие) are comfortable within their walls; he thinks that synagogues should operate as communal centers, welcoming every Jew, whether or not a person "believes" in Judaism. Dr. Chlenov pointed out that Jewish identity is an ethnic expression in the post-Soviet states rather than a religious or spiritual expression. Perhaps, he said, a new Jewish identity will emerge in the successor states, one that combines a non-Orthodox religious particularity alongside an ethnic affirmation.

To be successful in reaching Jews in large Russian urban areas, Dr. Chlenov continued, Reform (Progressive) and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis must be local intellectuals who use the same "mental language" as the sophisticated urban Jewish population. Individuals from smaller Russian cities and towns will be unable to "relate" to people from the larger cities.[21]  Only those individuals educated in post-Soviet institutions will understand that the intellectual roots of many in the Jewish intelligentsia are in the philosophy of Berdyaev and other Russian Christian philosophers.[22]  Dr. Chlenov also commented that the Reform movement in Russia is too defensive, too concerned with being "not less Jewish than the Orthodox".

Dr. Chlenov affirmed the view of the writer that many Muscovites of middle age seem unperturbed by the current economic crisis. "Yes, there is a crisis, but it is not so bad. We will overcome." He offered several interpretations. First, the failure of people to recognize the gravity of the situation means that people are not ready to effect the rapid and substantive changes in society that are required. Second, the quick end to the panic that followed the ruble devaluation of August 17 means that society has the strength to resist a total collapse. Third, in common with Latin American society, post-Soviet [and earlier Russian] society is unable to confront its own weaknesses; instead, it is chronically unstable, seeks to blame 'dark forces' for all difficulties, pursues spiritual explanations when mundane and pragmatic responses may be more appropriate, and prefers strong authority figures as leaders.

10. Vladimir Shapiro is a sociologist at the Jewish Research Center (also called the Jewish Scientific Center) at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was interviewed at his office. [23]

In discussing the economic crisis, Dr. Shapiro said that its impact has been "close to catastrophic". It is especially severe (тяжелый) for young adults because many had entered private-sector careers in banking services, marketing, and advertising. Sixty to seventy percent of such professionals are now unemployed or have been told that they are "on indefinite leave" without pay. Many firms that had employed 200 people have reduced their staffs to 20 or 30. The situation is a psychological disaster for the young because they were accustomed to a high standard of living (good apartments, automobiles, foreign vacations, computers, mobile telephones). The crisis is easier for blue-collar workers, such as tailors and firemen, because conditions always have been difficult for them.

Many young people, said Dr. Shapiro, are seeking work abroad. Some hope to emigrate, others are eager for contracts of several years duration. Up to 90 percent of the graduating class in some institutes are leaving Russia. Specialists in the prime of their careers are also departing; they are working in American and European research laboratories.

Dr. Shapiro also noted the potential for food shortages. The local agricultural base has been destroyed (разрушено). Agricultural reforms have been cosmetic, not substantive. About 70 to 80 percent of all food on sale in Moscow and other big cities is imported from abroad. The devaluation of the ruble will create major difficulties in the food supply.

Similarly, local industry produces very little. Clothing, appliances, and automobiles are all imported. The "system" is so bureaucratic and so corrupt that it cannot absorb new technology. Good engineers and other specialists have no effect on industry.

According to Dr. Shapiro, individuals associated with the Academy of Sciences are receiving their salaries three to five months late. (He received his June salary in October.) Pension payments also are three to five months late. The situation for factory workers is even worse; their salaries are paid six months late. Dr. Shapiro noted that physicians who work for emergency ambulance services are on strike because they have not been paid in months.

The work ethic has declined significantly; no discipline exists. As in Soviet times, people feel that their work has no value and they leave their jobs in the middle of the day to take care of private matters.

Dr. Shapiro said that about one percent of the Russian population can be characterized as wealthy, about eight to ten percent as middle class, and 90 percent as lower class. The middle class, which is closely related to the "new economy", has lost everything. The lower class includes pensioners, workers, teachers, professors, and physicians.

Regarding Jewish emigration, Dr. Shapiro quoted from a yet unpublished study that he completed this year before the ruble devaluation. Responding to questions asked in May and June 1998, 50 percent of younger Jews in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg said that they would emigrate if some sort of crisis occurred.

17. 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.
18. Dr. Chlenov is a member of the Governing Board of the Russian Jewish Congress.
19. It is generally accepted that the political influence of Jews associated with REK has declined due to: (1) their diminished financial capacity; (2) the apparent enfeeblement of Boris Yeltsin, whose re-election campaign many REK leaders had bankrolled and the likelihood that REK leaders will be unable to unite in support of a single candidate in future elections; and (3) increasing antisemitism, which has caused many prominent Jews to adopt a lower profile.
20. Dr. Chlenov has long believed that Sochnut should sub-contract many of its operations, such as its numerous summer camps, to local groups, e.g., the Vaad.
21. The latter comment is an implicit criticism of the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies, the Kyiv-based two-year program of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which enrolls a disproportionately large number of students from small cities and towns.
22.The central theme of the philosophy of Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) was that the free creative human personality expresses the true meaning of the Christian doctrine of man as the image of G-d. Berdyaev also interpreted Russian history as a series of totalitarian paradigms.
23.Also present was Patrick, Dr. Shapiro's 13-month old black labrador retriever. Dr. Shapiro commented that Patrick was more effective than a lock on the door.

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