There was a surprise waiting for hundreds of Moscow Jews who attended High Holiday services last week at the Chorale Synagogue: live greetings from a member of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s administration.
The chairman of the Russian president’s Commission on Citizenship, Abdullah Mikitayev, told the assembled, “The Jewish community of Russia is making a considerable contribution to the development of Russia’s economy and culture.”
He stressed that “Jews, Muslims and Christians all are represented by the government and play a role in the democratic process.”
The short speech from the bimah represented the first occasion that a member of the Yeltsin administration has publicly addressed the Jewish community at a religious event and may be a sign that the Jewish community of Russia is gaining more recognition from the government.
But, in an election year, Mikitayev’s remarks were not seen as entirely apolitical. The presidential envoy, whose commission is responsible for a legal amendment allowing Russians dual citizenship with other countries, is the chairman of the Inter-Ethnic Union, a minority bloc seeking seats in the parliamentary elections set for December.
In an interview, Mikitayev said the situation for Jews in Russia differs from that of other minority groups such as Greeks and Koreans.
Despite their small numbers compared to the general population, he said, “Russian Jews enjoy a far greater economic and cultural potential than other minorities.”
This potential, he said, “might inspire ethnic hatred toward the Jews.” Countering anti-Semitism is one of the Inter-Ethnic Union’s objectives, along with defending minority rights in the Russian Federation.
Mikitayev was not alone in using the High Holidays as an occasion to address Russia’s Jewish community. Russia’s Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who chairs the government’s Our House is Russia party, is also courting the minority vote. The prime minister this month sent out a public High Holiday greeting to the Jewish community.
“This talented people has suffered different fates throughout the centuries, but it has always been tightly linked with the fate of Russia, with the development of our history, science, culture and art,” Chernomyrdin said.