Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lost in an Ideological Wilderness

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

One day in February, Maxim Kononenko's satirical web site ran a story about General Albert Makashov, a Communist State Duma deputy who had acquired notoriety for his anti-Jewish comments. In the story, President Vladimir Putin and his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov are watching Makashov expounding his ideas on television. Makashov's greatest fear, explains Surkov, is to be accosted by a gang of skinheads. Is he Jewish, asks Vladimir Vladimirovich in surprise. Of course, confirms Surkov, he is a "mason." How does he know? Why, because of the general's first name, Albert.

With characteristic brilliance, Kononenko put his finger on two basic things about Jews in Russia. First, although in real life Makashov is probably not Jewish, his first name is unusual enough for an ethnic Russian, and many people in Russia -- mostly Jews and anti-Semites -- watch for such signs. Second, while anti-Semitism is a strange phenomenon everywhere, in today's Russia it takes particularly twisted forms.

It wasn't always like that. In tsarist Russia anti-Semitism was straightforward: the Pale of Settlement, the Black Hundred and periodic pogroms. The fall of the Russian Empire was seen by many Jews not only as liberation but also as an opportunity to assimilate. The atheism and internationalism of the communist creed raised hopes that Jews could seamlessly merge into the Soviet people.

The Donskoi Cemetery in Moscow is a memorial to that first stab at Jewish assimilation and its subsequent failure. In the Soviet days, it was the city's crematorium and unofficial Jewish cemetery. Of those buried there, an extraordinary number --including my grandparents and some three dozen of their relatives and friends -- hail from the Pale and from Yiddish-speaking, observant households. Yet, you would need a keen eye to identify them as Jews, since many Russified their Jewish-sounding names. Fortunately, Russian headstones are highly informative, supplying not just first and last names, patronymics and pictures, but sometimes even a brief summary of accomplishments. As Kononenko's vignette implies, if you are practiced in this kind of detection, you can always tell who is a Jew.

Stalin's Soviet Union was a repressive place, and plenty of Jews perished in the massive purges of the 1930s. However, as University of California at Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine asserts in his recent book "The Jewish Century," they were persecuted for political reasons, not as Jews. Although anti-Semitism existed in the streets, it could be dismissed as a leftover from the tsarist past.

It all changed in the late 1940s, when Jews began to be regularly accused of double loyalty and cosmopolitanism. Stalin died in the midst of the Doctors' Plot trials, before his murderous plans for Soviet Jewry could be carried out. However, state anti-Semitism never really went away. Jews remained an alien presence, viewed by the authorities with intense suspicion as the Fifth Column of the Cold War.

When in the twilight years of communism, Jews were allowed to emigrate, hundreds of thousands availed themselves of the opportunity. Today, many headstones at Donskoi are neglected. A chatty caretaker would readily tell you whose widow has recently visited from Tel Aviv, whose daughter has been back from Sydney and whose grandchildren have not been heard from since moving to Brooklyn.

Nevertheless, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was still a surprising number of Jews left in Russia. Ironically, they welcomed the fall of communism just as they had its establishment some 75 years earlier. Jews became successful in business once private enterprise was permitted, not only as highly visible oligarchs but also in small and medium-size operations. Jews quickly rose to prominence in the professions and the arts in the first post-Soviet decade. In 2002, I attended a series of cultural and artistic events showcasing Jewish artists and highlighting the life of the Jewish community. Hopefully, and a little ominously, Moscow began to look like the heir to early 20th-century Vienna, Berlin, Budapest and Prague. The once shambolic Moscow Synagogue became a place of wealth and social prominence.

The Soviet about-face on the Jews confused Russian anti-Semites. Or rather, it made it possible to espouse anti-Semitic views regardless of one's ideological hue. If you want, you can blame the Jews for the Bolshevik coup and hold them accountable for all the crimes the Soviet regime committed against Russia's national, religious and cultural heritage. Alternatively, you can accuse the Jews of destroying the Soviet Union on orders from global Zionism and imperialism.

Today, the varieties of Russian anti-Semitism run the gamut from the now-banned National Bolshevik Party to the fascist Russian National Unity organization. Between those extremes are found the four established parties in the current State Duma, all of which are strongly, moderately or somewhat anti-Semitic. At one end of the ideological spectrum, Putin is accused of perpetuating a Jewish stranglehold on Mother Russia. At the other, he is hailed as a patriot standing up to greedy Jewish oligarchs.

You might think that anti-Semitism in Russia is the only sphere of national life where genuine pluralism has been achieved. However, on closer inspection, anti-Jewish ideologies left and right share a common foundation. They believe in Russia's special place in history and particular destiny. They differ greatly on what this destiny should be -- the Orthodox faith and monarchy, communism, or the vertical of power and state-controlled economy -- but they certainly do not want Russia to emulate the West. On the contrary, they see the outside world as a whole, and the West in particular, as an enemy bent on subjugating Russia and taking control of its rich natural resources.

Russian Jews are not a true religious minority. Few belong to a temple, observe religious laws and give their kids a Jewish upbringing. Their Russian names are no longer indicative of an urge to assimilate but are usually the result of mixed marriages.

Indeed, Jews for today's anti-Semites are a symbol, just as they were for Stalin and Brezhnev. Jews still stand for modernity, democracy and openness to the West. By virtue of being outsiders, they are a living embodiment of a modern, inclusive Russia --Rossiyania, as some nationalist movements dismissively call it -- rather than "a Russia for the Russians" or an ethnocentric empire. In this regard, Russian Jews are no different from other assimilated minorities, be they Georgians, Armenians or Tatars. Or, for that matter, from educated ethnic Russians. Not surprisingly, in the Soviet Union leading dissidents were often portrayed as Jews. Alexander Solzhenitsin's real name, it was comically asserted, was Solzhenitzer, and physicist Andrei Sakharov's was Zuckerman. Or else, the father of the Russian hydrogen bomb was represented as a political naive controlled by his Jewish wife.

This is why the anti-Semitic outburst in Putin's Russia is frightening not just to Russian Jews but also to other ethnic groups in the country and, even more so, to the Westernized Russian intelligentsia. It should also be a cause for serious concern for the rest of the world. It is indicative of a much larger strategic shift within post-communist Russia. It is a litmus test for the direction in which the Putin administration is taking the county -- to the community of nations or back to communist-era isolation.

Alexei Bayer, a regular contributor to Vedomosti, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.