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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Painful Issue of Rights

One after another, the Russian speakers pointed out that lurid anti-semitism, even charges of ritual murder which appeared in Pravda, has again become a common currency of Russian politics. It is used to oppose President Boris Yeltsin, part of "the struggle against the reform program" and popular with "the lumpen class", said a member of the Supreme Soviet.

An adviser to Mr. Yeltsin, an ethnographer who happens to be Jewish, said quite calmly, "It's natural that Russian nationalists are anti-semitic. The Armenians have Azeris to attack, others have their enemies. Who do the Russian have to blame -- nobody but Jews".

He took it so much for granted that I asked him why he stayed. "This is a very interesting country", he said, "and I'm in no big danger. If the danger gets big that I might be killed, or my wife or my son, I'd go to Israel or the United States".

The occasion was a special conference, sponsored by the Council of Europe and the European Jewish Congress with the human rights committee of the Supreme Soviet, on "Combating racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism". That's no small order in Russia now.

Boris Tumanov, a journalist whose grandfather russified the family name but who is totally of Armenian ancestry, told me that "Russia can only fall under a new totalitarianism. Russians have never lived under a rule of law, less than ever today, and people who don't respect the law can't be free".

He is outspoken and caustic, almost enthusiastic in his gloomy predictions about demagogic exploitation of "people's refusal to take responsibility for what kind of country we have, the insistence that somebody else is the cause of all our troubles, the Tatars, the West, the Jews".

He confirmed, as did many others in a position to know, that one of the worst extremists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is himself Jewish, and nobody makes anything of it. "Russian anti-semitism is so irrational", he said, "that people will applaud any Jew who cries death to the Jews".

There are laws, but application is Kafkaesque. A long, tedious trial is going on now in the Moscow suburb of Cheryomushki. The ultra-nationalist organization Pamyat is suing the Jewish Gazette, Russia's largest Jewish newspaper, for libel because its editor called Pamyat anti-semitic for republishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an old, bloody-minded tsarist forgery.

A parade of experts has been called to define anti-semitism and the accuracy of the "Protocols", which are in effect being tried. Archbishop Johan of St. Petersburg has written that it doesn't matter whether the text was a fraud to begin with because it is right about the threat of Jews to Russia now.

There have been other, similar trials in the provinces. Pamyat has won several cases.

The atmosphere is surrealistic. The Gazette's editor, Tancred Golenpolsky, stood up at the conference to argue against shutting up Pamyat on the grounds of free speech.

What he wants is to prove in court that the charges are wrong, and that democratic laws can be made to work.

At the great Manezh exhibition hall, just off Red Square, the current show is devoted to the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. It is respectful and nostalgic. People gaze quietly and intently at old photographs and portraits of a dashing young man and his pretty children.

The last time I visited the Manezh, the exhibit was about the glory and suffering of the heroic Red Army in Afghanistan. It takes some kind of official sponsorship to mount a show there.

There is a real sense of watershed for the country, of both opportunity and great risk. Nobody pretends to know where it is going, certainly not back to communism as it was but the possibilities are various and the mood at once frightened and defiant.

This is the Russia that the West is setting out to try to help through its historic ordeal, bumbling, disappointingly to those who had vast illusory expectations, but aware of how much is at stake for the rest of us as well as for the Russians in a world we must share.

We must not count on quick results. The human problems are at least as daunting as the economic and physical problems.

But we must continue to watch closely. It's a mistake to be inhibited by complaints that we don't really understand, that Russians must be left to look after themselves their way without criticism or selective support.

Democracy may be hard to define, but there are recognizable universals of decency and freedom and what others say does matter to them.

Foreign Minister Alexei Kozyrev told the conference that the Council of Europe must not let down its standards on human rights in assessing Russia's wish to join. "That would be bad for all", he said.

He spoke of the problem of Russian minorities in other states, especially Estonia and Latvia, and it is reasonable to expect the West to support no less fair treatment for them as for other minorities.

Especially, though, the West must show it continues to have a serious interest in human rights in Russia, that it wasn't just anti-communist but consistently for the values it preaches. Scrutiny encourages Russian democrats. It too is a vital form of aid.

They aren't losing heart, but they know what they're up against.

Flora Lewis 1993