Spoken by anyone else, Alexander Belov’s words would have been unremarkable.
“As far as I know, and I can trace my descendants several centuries back, I have nothing to do with Jews,” he said, adding, “which is neither positive or negative.”
But Belov is far from a simple man on the street. The charismatic and media savvy leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, or DPNI, heads what is by many accounts the most powerful ultranationalist movement operating in Russia today.
His Jewish-neutral comments to JTA almost certainly represent a calculated consideration. What that calculation by Belov and others on the ultra-right represents, though, is revolutionary.
Anti-Semitism, once at the forefront of Russian nationalism and electoral politics, has ceased to be a viable political tool and virtually has disappeared from the national stage.
“Not too long ago, the Duma was not willing to condemn anti-Semitism because it was politically expedient not to,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was in Moscow earlier this month for meetings with the Putin government.
“That’s changed. You have an election now which, for the first time in recent history, there are no issues about who’s a Jew or who’s supported by a Jew.”
Russians will go to the polls Dec. 2 to elect a new legislature. Next year they are slated to vote for a new president.
Post-Soviet politics is rife with attempts to manipulate deeply entrenched anti-Semitism for electoral gains. During the tumultuous decade following the collapse of the USSR, numerous political parties ran and made significant gains by employing crass anti-Semitic imagery. Indeed, the first major grassroots movement of the post-Soviet era, Pamyat, was heavily anti-Semitic.
In 1993 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, although himself part Jewish, was a member of Pamyat and won 23 percent of the seats in the Russian Duma.
“Political anti-Semitism was much, much more vocal than today,” said the chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt.
Even as recently as January 2005, when 19 Duma deputies introduced a bill proposing to ban Judaism as “satanic,” accusing Jews of engaging in ritualistic murder, anti-Semitism remained at least a nominally acceptable tool among both the mainstream and fringe.
It is not clear whether the situation has changed due to changing public perception or genuine contrition.
Experts cite the personal involvement of President Vladimir Putin and his commitment to combat anti-Semitism as one factor in the decline of popular anti-Semitism. But many believe the real reason is that the political center and ultra-right have found a more palatable enemy: westerners and immigrants, many of them Muslims from the Caucasus.
“Maybe because of the Chechen wars, maybe because of some other changes,” nationalists “are more focused on practical enemies,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, executive director of the Sova Center, which monitors hate crimes in Russia.
Jews are not needed in this scenario, he said, “because it’s difficult to put a finger on them. People don’t understand what’s the practical harm.”
As is often the case, however, political trends do not always mirror reality on the street.
Although reliable statistics from the 1990s are difficult to come by, Verkhovsky believes that the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the last seven years have remained relatively static, despite a small bump this year.
And while anti-Semitism may have mostly disappeared from the television set, Duma floor and even the public meetings held by the ultra-right, it remains at the core of neo-fascist ideology.
Verkhovsky said that some years ago, he tried to find Russian nationalists who avoided anti-Semitism entirely. He said he “found several of them who really tried, but it was nearly impossible because the core idea of a secret plot against Russia” has to include “some participants of this plot.”
Belov himself, despite his pronouncements of religious tolerance to JTA, seems to understand its potency as well as anyone.
Born Alexander Potkin, he changed his name to Belov, taken from the Russian word for ‘”white,”‘ after breaking with Pamyat some years ago. Since then he has been unable to shake the rumor that he is Jewish. Many Russian Jewish surnames end in “kin,” and the question has sparked Internet chatter that still persists.
A recent search on Stormfront.org, a worldwide neo-Nazi chat board, revealed pages of commentary and speculation in both English and Russian as to Belov/Potkin’s ancestry, and whether it disqualified him from leading the Russian ultranationalists.
“I wouldn’t be linking to videos of the DPNI,” wrote a user calling himself Paladin89. “It’s leader is a Jew, Potkin, who changed his name to Belov which means white/of white! The sad thing is that many Russians on this board know this yet they still follow a chosenite!”
Belov continues to maintain he is not Jewish.
Still, anti-Semitism remains too tempting to pass up in certain cases, even for those with mainstream political aspirations like Belov. Verkhovsky described anti-Semitism as being central to the identity of the Russian ultra-right.
Some weeks after his conversation with JTA, during this year’s “Russian March,” a large annual demonstration uniting groups as seemingly disparate as the National Socialist Party and his DPNI, Belov made anti-Semitic remarks to much applause.
“We came here to say simple words: We are sick and tired of the power of occupants, of conquerors, and now it’s enough,” Belov was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “We are the real power, not those who are hiding in this Torah!”
In a follow-up interview, Belov insisted that the DPNI is not anti-Semitic, attributing the spontaneous chants of “Death to the Jews” that were reported by AP as the work of fringe elements in the crowd.
“At the event, after every orator, every speech, people were shouting ‘Death to the Jews’ — also during my own speech,” he said. “I didn’t mention Jews or anything to do with them. As concerns this factor in any society, even in Israel, there are people who behave too extravagantly.”