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Russia's Jews Find Acceptance

How did the fortunes of Russia’s Jews change over the past two centuries?

October 23, 2002

How did the fortunes of Russia's Jews change over the past two centuries?

Moscow. I recently went to a concert at the "Russia" concert hall. It is located next to the Kremlin and, at the time of the old Soviet Union, it was the prestigious venue of "official" performances.

But what I went to see was not the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Red Army. Nor was it a gala honoring some heroic milkmaids over-fulfilling their production quotas.

Rather, it was a sober occasion — the 50th anniversary of the secret execution by firing squad of 25 leading Jewish writers and former members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in August 1952.

When I lived in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, such an event would have been unthinkable. All Jewish subjects were off limits — not to mention direct references to the Soviet persecution of the Jews.

Nor could you ever hope to see emigré cantors or an Israeli folk dance troupe perform on what was deemed an official stage.

Now, however, all of this could be seen and heard not only at a very prestigious venue, but the event was even staged under the auspices of the President of the Russian Federation. There was very visible police presence, to provide protection for Israeli performers.

The long and troubled history of Jews in Russia is full of such reversals of fortune. Jews have lived on territory of the Russian Empire since the Middle Ages. There was, of course, the so-called "Pale of Settlement," in the region of today's Poland and the Ukraine.

This region was established under Czar Elizabeth II in 1791. At that time, Russia — with few Jews in its own borders — absorbed a portion of Poland with a large Jewish population.

The purpose of the "Pale of Settlement" was to keep these new, unwelcome subjects of the czar out of Russia proper. For many years, Jews were officially banned from many major cities and many regions.

There were also nasty pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most American Jews are descendents of Jewish refugees from the Russian Empire.

On the other hand, writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian nationalist, recently wrote a major historical work about Jewish-Russian relations titled Two Hundred Years Together.

His motivation was, in his own words, to find "all points of mutual understanding and all possible ways of moving on to the future, cleansed of the bitterness of the past."

The 20th century added a strange twist to relations between the Russians and Jews. After the Bolshevik Revolution, residency restrictions on the Jews were abolished — and thousands moved from the old Pale to Moscow. Many had successful careers in the Soviet government.

But after World War II, Stalin's policies turned sharply anti-semitic. Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee got to sense that reversal of fortunes in a brutal fashion.

They had been crucial in rallying international public opinion behind the Soviet war effort against Hitler.

And yet, in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, they were among many prominent Soviet Jews to be imprisoned or shot.

For the rest of its existence, until 1991, the Soviet government regarded all Jews with considerable suspicion.

While nothing approached the intensity of Hitler's — or even Stalin's — persecution, the Soviet regime nonetheless maintained anti-semitic policies. Jews could not get into prestigious universities and were rarely promoted.

As a result, hundreds of thousands were driven to immigrate to Israel, Canada, Australia and the United States.

For a while, especially when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was struck by a severe economic and political crisis, it seemed that Jews would simply disappear from Russia.

In fact, their number has more than halved since the early 1970s — largely due to emigration.

Yet, completely unexpectedly, post-Soviet Russia has been going through something of a Jewish Renaissance. Jews are prominent in the field of business. Five of the seven oligarchs who made their fortune in the mid-1990s, at the early stages of market reforms were Jewish.

But while the oligarchs are the most visible — and sometimes the most odious — face of Russia that is known in the West, there are a large number of Russian Jews achieving success and attaining popularity in the arts, sciences, the professions and politics.

While most Jews are active in the Russian mainstream, several specifically Jewish theaters, performance groups, periodicals and cultural centers have sprung up in recent years. As far as the Jewish culture is concerned, Moscow today even bears echoes of Vienna, Budapest or Prague — before the arrival of the Nazis.

After nearly a century of atheist propaganda and extermination of churches and priests, Russia remains essentially a secular country. But, along with the revival of the Russian Orthodox faith, there has been a rise of interest in Judaism as well.

New synagogues have been built — and the two old ones have been beautifully restored. In my neighborhood of Moscow, there is a Jewish daycare center and an orphanage. You can bump into people in Hassidic garb on Moscow streets. At Hanukkah last year, I saw a celebratory parade of a few dozen cars.

Interestingly, Communist and right-wing nationalist politicians — who have drawn close together in post-Communist Russia — have tried to stir popular anti-semitism.

They have claimed that the oligarchs steal Russia's national wealth and have sold the country out to the international Jewish capital.

Yet, several orchestrated attacks notwithstanding —such as the firebombing of a Moscow synagogue a few years ago — the Russians remain remarkably tolerant of the Jews.

Unlike the Soviet era, complaints about the Jews are no longer heard from ordinary Russians on public transportation or in stores.

Does this mean that Russia is becoming more open to outsiders? Not exactly. Now, racist remarks, previously reserved for the Jews, are heaped on another group of outsiders — immigrants from the Caucasus.

The Caucasus — the mountain range linking the Black and the Caspian Seas that serves as the border between Europe and Asia — has been continuously at war since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Chechens and other ethnic groups from that region have been flocking to Russia in order to escape the killing and the economic devastation back home.

All too often, they meet with bureaucratic indifference, demands for bribes and police corruption. Russians, especially in Moscow, greet them with open hostility. This turn of events represents another ironic twist — Stalin, after all, was an ethnic Georgian.

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