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How to revive Judaism in a closed city?


Rabbi Benni Vagner stands in front of his future syangogue in Krasnoyarsk. (Adam Ellick)

Rabbi Benni Vagner stands in front of his future syangogue in Krasnoyarsk. (Adam Ellick)

KRASNOYARSK, Russia (JTA) — During Soviet times, residents of closed nuclear cities lived above national income levels. They enjoyed access to Western imports that were but fantasies for regular Russians, thus earning the closed city of Zheleznogorosk the nickname “lemon country” and its citizens the sobriquet “chocolate eaters.” “It was like America with gates and barbed wire,” Luisa Constantinova, a 44-year-old with sunglasses propped atop her head, says with a smirk. She recalls the Soviet glory days, when spotless streets were lined with green shrubbery and pristine shops offered every variation of caviar, top quality meat for cheap prices and posh clothing that earned stares when worn in regular cities. All buildings stood at least five stories high, and no one dared to lock their doors because, at least officially, there was no crime. And there was no shortage of theaters, cultural sites and libraries. “It was the real communism,” says Anatoly Feldman, a Jewish leader in Ozersk, another closed nuclear city. Feldman used his perks to keep in touch with family members who had emigrated to Israel. About once a month he traveled by bus to Chelyabinsk, where he visited an old lady who secretly received his mail in exchange for meat and clothes. But state support faded with the advent of perestroika in the mid-1980s, and the early 1990s produced a reversal: Today, even the most prestigious residents suffer from harsh poverty. Some don’t get paid at their jobs for months — though that’s still an improvement from the early 1990s, when they were paid in meat rather than cash. While some closed cities welcome foreign investment and international aid with their eyes on a commercial metamorphosis, most remain strictly sealed and — with their quantities of dangerous chemicals — are nothing but a lingering headache for Moscow. Krasnoyarsk Rabbi Benni Vagner, of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities, also is fed up. Three times he failed to receive approval to visit Zheleznogorosk after submitting the necessary steps for admittance: a statement describing the purpose of his visit to three offices, and an invitation from an inside organization with exact dates and proof of accommodation. “And there are other stages, which depend on which officials you bump into. And once I’m in, I’ll be followed the whole time,” says Vagner, who plans to enter Zheleznogorosk this year and locate a young Jewish leader willing to be the local federation representative. Constantinova, who quit her job as an art teacher last year when “the call of my ancestors” motivated her to join the staff of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Krasnoyarsk, isn’t so optimistic. “It’s more likely Jewish life will be closed in Krasnoyarsk than opened in closed cities,” she says. “These people still disguise their origin because they think they’ll lose their jobs. They’re not ready for this help right now.” Her son Alexei, 23, seems to reflect the prevailing apathy. Asked several religion-related questions, he just shrugs. “There’s no importance given to ethnicity here. No one cares,” he says. “The only thing I’m interested in is art, history, humanities and so on.”