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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Anti-Semitism

Every year in the week before Hitler's birthday on April 20, the Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg is desecrated.


"It has been going on for the last three years, so we have kind of gotten used to it," a policeman at St. Petersburg's police precinct No. 32 told me.


"Everyone knows that Hitler hated the Jews, so they invented this way of wishing him a happy birthday. We try to prevent it, but the cemetery is too large and part of it is not even fenced in."


This year was no different. Right before Hitler's birthday, a group of unidentified persons entered the cemetery during the night and turned several tombstones upside down, desecrating the graves.


Two suspects, both 15 years old, were arrested within the week, but they were soon released because of the lack of evidence against them.


The people who tend and run the cemetery, most of them Jews, tried to minimize the incident.


"We have already repaired the damage," Samuil, a cemetery worker, told me. "I think this incident got so much publicity just because we take such good care of our cemetery. If you go to a regular Russian cemetery, you will see dozens of tombstones lying on the ground and nobody seems to care."


Samuil was surprised to see television reporters coming to his peaceful cemetery to cover the incident. It is very rare these days for anti-Semitism to get any attention at all, let alone a public condemnation.


All kinds of outrageous anti-Semitic statements are made publicly these days, even at press conferences and art events, by all sorts of people including mainstream politicians and celebrities.


The archbishop of St. Petersburg, Ioann, a close friend of Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the influential communist faction in the State Duma, quotes the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in his latest book, "Be Faithful Unto Death." The "Protocols" are the so-called "plans" of Jewish leaders to destroy the Christian world, recognized by all international bodies to be fabrications by the Russian tsar's secret police.


Ioann calls the Jews "impostors who are trying to claim world leadership," who in the "Protocols" reveal "the Satanic sources of their immeasurable ambition."


It is no wonder that desecrations of cemeteries continue in a city which has such an archbishop and a sizeable Jewish minority.


The most worrisome development, however, is the fact that almost no one challenges these statements. The shestidesyatniki or "people of the '60s" are slowly leaving the stage, and with them goes the spirit of resistance to anti-Semitism and racism in general. The new generation of journalists and politicians seems to be very tolerant of these traits.


"To all anti-Semites I am a Jew, and that is what makes me truly Russian," proclaimed Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of the leading poets of the shestidesyatnik generation. He wrote these words 20 years ago; a young person making such a statement today would, at best, be ridiculed as an idealist or, at worst, looked upon as a "potential Jew" by his peers.


In 1990, when the extremist nationalist group Pamyat staged a scandal in the House of Writers, yelling anti-Semitic slogans into microphones and loudspeakers, our "democratic society" was outraged and demanded a speedy trial for Konstantin Ostashvili, the leader of the hooligans.


Ostashvili was convicted and jailed. Now no one seems to notice much more outrageous rallies on Red Square and there is no question of putting their organizers on trial.


Strangely enough, the Jewish community seems to have adopted a similarly indulgent stand.


"I don't want to believe that our cemetery was desecrated because of anti-Semitism," said Mark Grubarg, a leader of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg. "Right after the desecration of our cemetery, about 400 Russian graves were also desecrated at other cemetaries."


It is possible to understand Grubarg's feelings; he does not want to believe the worst. Jewish life is being reborn all over Russia, including in St. Petersburg. Grubarg is the director of the Jewish Orthodox school, which has 160 students aged between 6 and 17. Children study Hebrew and wear traditional Jewish skull caps. All of last year's graduates entered institutes and universities in Russia. The emigration of students to Israel and the United States, which has been a problem at school over the last two years, has virtually stopped now.


St. Petersburg's mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, recently signed a decree making the buildings of the synagogue and its school the property of the Jewish community: They formerly belonged to the city.


With all of this going on, Grubarg -- like many other Jewish leaders -- does not want to believe in anti-Semitism at the top rungs of government, and he wants Russia to be strong again.


"I even support Archbishop Ioann in his demands of a strong statehood for Russia," he says.


"Are the parents of the children afraid, that the kids wear skull caps and everyone can see that they are Jews?" I asked Grubarg.


"No, they are not," he answered. "We even have some Russian families who want their children to study in our school because we have good teachers and we provide free meals and bus shuttles. Parents want their children to get a religious education to be certain that they have good morals, even if this religious education is Jewish."


I want to believe Grubarg. I want to believe that his are not just empty words. And together with him, I do not want to believe people like Archbishop Ioann and Alexander Prokhanov, the editor-in-chief of the extremist weekly Zavtra, which openly praises the Waffen SS, will ever turn their theories into practice.


But in this world words have a dangerous tendency to become facts, and Russia is no exception.





Dmitry Babich is a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.