Nationalists Obsess Over Medvedev's Roots

Russia if the heavily favored front-runner in the presidential election, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wins as expected on March 2.

With Medvedev in power, Russia's natural resources will be plundered by foreign investors, Moscow will alienate its traditional Arab allies, and tens of thousands of Israelis will become managers at key Russian institutions, "including the police, army and secret services," Bondarik said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

The reason for Bondarik's alarm: He is firmly convinced that Medvedev is Jewish.

"We are categorically against him because he is an ethnic Jew and does not conceal his sympathies toward Judaism," said Bondarik, leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Party, an unregistered nationalist organization.

The conspiracy theory that Jews are plotting to seize power has always enjoyed an illustrious place in the history of Russian nationalism -- and it surfaced again when Medvedev, a candidate whose perceived Western leanings are distasteful to many nationalists, became the prohibitive favorite to succeed President Vladimir Putin.

There is no hard evidence that Medvedev has Jewish roots, and a spokeswoman for his campaign declined to answer a question about the subject.

Medvedev himself told Itogi magazine this week that he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at age 23. He has never made any public comments about whether or not he has ethnically Jewish ancestors.

As many would also argue, a candidate's ethnic background should not really be an issue.

Still, nationalist web sites are rife with speculation that Medvedev might be Jewish, largely based on his mother's maiden name and patronymic, which could indicate either Russian or Jewish roots.

In December, the month Putin backed Medvedev as his successor, the Yandex search engine got 4,699 queries on "Medvedev Jew" after receiving only six in November. On the Russian version of Google, the top 10 queries beginning with "Medvedev" include "Medvedev Jew" and "Medvedev Visited Synagogue."

Many "patriots" -- as Russian nationalists call themselves -- do not share the view that Medvedev is Jewish, said Alexander Prokhanov, editor of the nationalist newspaper Zavtra.

"I regard these as attempts to demonize Medvedev among the anti-Semitic elements of the patriotic movement," Prokhanov said. "Many patriots are not anti-Semites."

Nationalists often accuse politicians they dislike of being Jewish, whether or not there is any basis to it, said Nikolai Propirny, executive vice president of the Russian-Jewish Congress, one of Russia's two Jewish umbrella groups.

Medvedev is simply the latest in a string of post-Soviet leaders to be labeled Jewish, following similar accusations against Putin and Boris Yeltsin in extremist publications, Propirny said.

"In his choice of clothing and his manner of speaking, he creates the impression of a Westernizer -- or, as [nationalists] put it, a democrat," Propirny said. "This arouses their antipathy and, naturally, leads to accusations that he is Jewish."

In the Soviet era, there were rumors that Vladimir Lenin and Yury Andropov had Jewish roots. The theory that a Jewish conspiracy stands behind attempts to reform Russia dates back to at least 1903, when the newspaper Znamya published "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a document later proved to be a forgery produced by the tsarist secret police.

Today's visitors to nationalist web sites target Medvedev's perceived liberal politics as much as his possible Jewishness.

"Whether he is a Jew or not, one thing is clear: He will be even worse than Putin," one visitor wrote on the web site of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, a nationalist group best known by its Russian initials, DPNI.

"This was immediately clear from his comments about giving non-Russians access to our oil, gas and metals and putting them on the free market ... which received a standing ovation from the West," the DPNI visitor said.

Bondarik, the St. Petersburg nationalist, echoed the same arguments but said it was "common knowledge" that Medvedev's mother was identified as ethnically Jewish on her Soviet passport. He has tried to organize anti-Medvedev street protests three times since December, but the city government would not give him permission, he said.

In the 1990s, Bondarik was convicted of assault and served a five-year prison sentence. He claims that the charges were fabricated.

Medvedev has aroused suspicion from nationalists like Bondarik by publicly meeting with Jewish leaders. In December, during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, Medvedev met with Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar and criticized xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Lazar is considered the country's head rabbi by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, which competes with the Russian-Jewish Congress for the title of being Russia's main Jewish umbrella organization. The RJC recognizes Adolf Shayevich as chief rabbi.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the federation's executive director, said Medvedev had friendly relations with Jewish leaders and stressed that his ethnic background was irrelevant.

"It is up to Mr. Medvedev himself to define his own nationality and his own religious faith, which I think he does," Berkowitz said. "The most important thing for us is that he protects all national minorities and all religious faiths."

Many experts believe that a Jewish candidate would have trouble getting elected to the post of president, even though anti-Semitism has been declining gradually. When Mikhail Fradkov was appointed prime minister in 2004, he was widely seen as an unlikely successor to Putin in part because of his Jewish background.

That may be behind Medvedev's reluctance to comment on the rumor that he is Jewish, since even a denial would provoke further speculation, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

"If he reacts to it, then everybody will print that information, including major media outlets," Pribylovsky said.

There is no hard evidence that Medvedev has any Jewish background, and all the speculation seemed to be guesswork based on names, said Pribylovsky, who maintains a database of information about Russian politicians.

As Medvedev told Itogi this week, his mother's maiden name was Shaposhnikova and his maternal grandfather was named Veniamin Shaposhnikov, while his maternal grandmother's surname was Kovalyov. Both the Shaposhnikovs and Kovalyovs came from villages in the Belgorod region, in southern Russia.

Shaposhnikov, derived from the Russian word for "hat maker," and Kovalyov, derived from the Ukrainian word for "blacksmith," were surnames among both Russians and Jews during the tsarist era.

While some nationalists have pointed out that "Veniamin," the Russian version of "Benjamin," is a common Jewish name, it was also once popular among Russian peasants.

In the Itogi interview, which was paid for by Medvedev's campaign, the candidate did not say whether any of his mother's relations were ethnically Jewish or Russian.

He did reveal, however, that his great-grandfather, Vasily Kovalyov, was a blacksmith who bore a resemblance to Tsar Nicholas II, and Itogi provided an old photograph of the Kovalyov family with Vasily standing in the center.

Medvedev also confirmed that his grandfather, Veniamin Shaposhnikov, was, indeed, a hat maker.