Behind the Headlines: Jews and Russian Cossacks Alike Make Presence Felt at Congress
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Behind the Headlines: Jews and Russian Cossacks Alike Make Presence Felt at Congress

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Among the 987 lawmakers who showed up in subzero temperatures here last week for the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies were more than a dozen Jewish delegates.

According to the Russian Gazette, the official organ of the gathering, Jews are the fourth largest ethnic group represented at the Congress, which has turned into a major showdown between Boris Yeltsin’s reformist government and opposition forces.

The largest of the ethnic groups represented, of course, is the Russians, with 828 deputies. After them comes ethnic Ukrainians, with 48; Tatars, with 28; and Jews, with 16, or about 1.5 percent of the total. By comparison, Jews make up 0.5 percent of the population in the republics of the former Soviet Union, according to official statistics.

But statistics aren’t everything. Many of the main players in the drama at the Congress are Jewish, at least according to Jewish law, though most are assimilated into Russian culture and not observant.

Chief among them is Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, whose mother is Jewish, as was his mother’s mother.

On the other side of the political fence is Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a leader in the centrist opposition Civic Union, whose mother also was Jewish. Rutskoi made no secret of that on his visit to Israel last spring.

The other main Civic Union leader, Arkady Volsky, is believed by many Jews here to be Jewish, although he has made no statements about it.

Also in the anti-Yeltsin camp are Yuri Gekht, leader of the Union of Producers, an industrial faction, and Vasili Lipitsky, leader of the People’s Party of Free Russia, both probably having some Jewish parentage, judging by their names.

Among pro-Yeltsin deputies are Mikhail Schneider, a leader in the Democratic Russia movement, and Anatoly Shabad, a deputy from Moscow who is a leader in the Radical Democrat faction.

Also on the side of reform is Konstantin Natanovich Borovoi, one of Russia’s best-known businessmen, who heads the Party of Economic Freedom.

And finally there is Galina Starovoitova, a prominent pro-Yeltsinite whose husband is Jewish and who has strongly supported measures against anti- Semitism.

Yeltsin himself appears to be 100 percent Russian. But then again, the Russian president’s wife, Nina Yosefovna, has a name that is typically Jewish.

There is no doubt, though, that Yeltsin’s archrival, Congress Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, is not Jewish because he is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus. The Chechens are a Moslem people.

Israel surfaced in the debate on Russia’s future when Speaker Khasbulatov contrasted the American free enterprise model with the more regulated economic model of Scandinavia and, yes, Israel. Khasbulatov favored the latter.

Prime Minister Gaidar, addressing the Congress on its second day, derided Khasbulatov’s approach as simplistic, saying that Russia’s problems can’t be solved by picking abstract models from foreign countries.

“The problems are much more complex,” said Gaidar.

But he went on to say that Russia’s foreign economic policy should move away from barter deals toward arrangements with countries that can pay hard currency for Russian goods, such as America, Europe, Japan, Korea and, yes, Israel.

By the third day of the Congress, the Cossacks were back. The fierce warriors from the southern Russian steppe, famous for pogroms against the Jews during Czarist times, were all over the Kremlin, smoking, chatting and even helping to guard the palace.

How they got into the Kremlin was not clear, and not everyone was happy to see them. One deputy marched up to three uniformed Cossacks and demanded: “Is this a real uniform?”

When the Cossacks kept silent, the deputy said, “You’re just ordinary citizens. You have no right to come in here and turn this into a parade.”

A huge, black-bearded Cossack in traditional wool cap and long coat, with bullet belts across the chest, was seen at the main entrance to the Great Kremlin Palace.

“What’s he doing here?” one of the real security guards was asked. “He’s helping us,” said the guard, smiling. How? “He keeps us awake,” came the answer.

“I’m not afraid of Cossacks in the Kremlin, but I’m not sure I’d want to meet one on the street,” said Shabad of the Radical Democrat faction.

As it turned out, Shabad had more to fear from his fellow deputies. When a fight broke out after an argument over whether a pivotal vote on amendments to the constitution should be secret, Shabad got shoved and almost lost his glasses.

Russian television shots of the scuffle were transmitted to the Western media and flashed around the world, making the Jewish Moscow deputy instantly famous.

Apart from the fight, the other highlight of the third day was a furor that erupted after political cartoons lambasting the far-right appeared in the vestibule outside the Congress hall.

One showed Sergei Baburin dancing in women’s clothes before a seated Saddam Hussein, a reference to the right-wing Russian Unity faction leader’s recent visit to Iraq. Many right-wingers were red-faced, but Baburin, who claimed he did not see the cartoon, took it in stride.

“I hope the copy wasn’t worse than the original,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Baburin added that his visit to Iraq does not mean he is against good relations between Russia and Israel. “I’m for good relations with all the countries of the Arab world,” he said.

When the Congress turned its attention last week to debating key resolutions on economic reform and constitutional amendments, one deputy complained about the demonstrators loitering near the hotel where he and many out-of-town lawmakers were staying.

“I’m tired of being called `prostitute,’ `kike’ and so on,” he said.

The demonstrators, mostly hard-line Communists who want to turn back the clock, were forbidden from gathering around the Kremlin itself by order of the Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

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