Russian Jewish Lawmakers Forge a Common Cause

There are no Russian-speaking members of the German parliament, but the miniature red, black and gold flag was still perched on the edge of the conference table.

All questions on Germany were directed to Sergey Lagodinsky, a de facto member of the Parliamentary Club of the World Congress of Russian Jewry.

“I am as close as they get,” Lagodinsky said.

But if the club accomplishes its goal of adding to its ranks of Russian-speaking national lawmakers around the globe, that won’t be the case for long.

Members of parliaments from Israel, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia converged on Moscow last week for the club’s second gathering. They sought out common policies and traded ideas for working with a largely aging Russian Jewish population across national borders.

At the Soviet-era Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s center, the club members mingled in a ballroom of shimmering gold and crushed velvet toasting their common causes: maintaining Russian language and culture, pension relief for elderly immigrants and the election of Russian-speaking Jews to every level of government.

The 20 legislators and politicians at the meeting represented about half of the group’s membership.

Of the total membership, the largest contingent is the 17 Russian-speaking members of the Israeli Knesset, followed by legislators from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The World Congress of Russian Jewry belongs to a network of often-overlapping Jewish congresses in Russia.

Under the leadership of Boris Shpigel, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the World Congress has staked its claim to the Russian expatriate community, especially in Israel, the United States and Germany.

The congress is built on the belief that Russian-speaking Jews harbor a distinct mix of cultural, religious and ethnic identity that sets them apart from the Jewish communities where they land after leaving the former Soviet Union.

Maintaining that identity also meshes with an initiative of the Russian government led by a Kremlin insider close to Shpigel. But the club members say they did not join to press the Russian government’s agenda abroad.

“The identity of Russian Jews in New York or Australia is closer than the Jewish guy who lives next door to him on the street,” said Motya Chlenov, the executive director of the World Congress.

With this shared identity in mind, the lawmakers in Moscow said similarities extend to challenges that Russian-speaking Jewish communities face in their home countries. Pension problems and maintaining cultural identity frustrate leaders from Brighton Beach to Tel Aviv.

The parliamentary group met for the first time in March in Kiev for an introductory session. Last week’s session was described as an effort to shore up its agenda.

Several points of agreement did emerge in a summary meeting on July 11, when the lawmakers talked at length about maintaining Russian pensions for older emigres and securing educational benefits for younger Russian speakers.

For his part, Lagodinsky represents a new set of Russian-speaking Jewish political aspirants in Germany and the United States.

Born in 1975 in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, Lagodinsky’s family left for Germany in 1993. He attended university there and at Harvard for post-graduate studies.

Lagodinsky worked as a representative for the American Jewish Committee in Berlin but now serves in an advisory capacity.

A year-and-a-half ago he founded a caucus within Germany’s Social Democratic Party — the opposition faction in the parliamentary government — to press for the interests of the German Jewish community. That community numbers some 110,000, 90 percent of whom are of Russian descent, Lagodinsky said.

“They’re dispersed all over Germany and it makes them weak,” he said.

On support for Israel and America or on pension issues, the Social Democrats had moved away from the interests of the Jewish population, he said.

While Lagodinsky can’t say if he intends to make a bid for that first Russian Jewish seat in Germany’s parliament, he hopes to create a network uniting that disparate population.

Lagodinsky, a secular Jew, said the fastest way to unite Russian-German Jews is through cultural and linguistic heritage. Efforts at religious revival should be left open, he said.

But a fine line remains between maintaining cultural heritage and pressing Russia’s cultural case as a proxy abroad.

One guest seated to the right of Shpigel at a dinner July 10 dispenses millions of dollars to do just that.

Vyacheslav Nikonov is a Kremlin insider and the head of the Russki Mir foundation, a nongovernmental organization with a $20 million budget to promote Russian language and culture abroad.

Toast after toast rang out through the hall, including Nikonov’s, to a shared hope that the World Congress and the foundation could maintain the Russian language and culture together in their efforts.

The two organizations have similar goals and advantageous political positions — the World Congress began six years ago under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities, a Chabad-led group with close ties to the Kremlin. But the lawmakers said they came to Moscow not for marching orders but to establish a common cause.

“I think this is exactly the water line,” said Yuli Edelstein, the deputy speaker of the Knesset. “As long as the efforts are toward cultural cooperation, promoting the Russian language, definitely we are there. If we are talking about organizations dealing with bringing Russian politics or uniting Russians around Russia, definitely we are not there.”

The club met with representatives of the Russian pension fund, the Moscow city government and legislators including Alexander Torshin, the vice chairman of Russia’s upper house of parliament.

With Torshin they brought up concerns that a Russian Internet provider was hosting a Web site for a Hamas militant group, Az-Adin Al-Qassam.

In a conference summing up the group’s meeting, the lawmakers touched on quotas for Russian-speaking students at Israeli universities and extending Russian state pension benefits for those living abroad.

The World Congress keeps close tabs on Russian Jews moving up through the electoral ranks. In the United States, that means people like Kirill Reznik, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates originally from Ukraine, and Alec Brook-Krasny, a New York state assemblyman representing Coney Island in Brooklyn.

Though they were separated by an ocean, both Brook-Krasny and Edelstein said they were battling for health benefits for survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Brook-Krasny recently secured state funding to provide cancer screening for victims.

Though he couldn’t participate in this gathering of the club, Brook-Krasny said the concerns of Russian Jews are similar across the world. In his district, he said, an aging population has been motivated to vote in a bloc — a process that will lead to more Russian-speaking legislators in the future.

In a phone interview from New York, Brook-Krasny told JTA, “The future elected Russian-speaking officials will be people who feel comfortable in both worlds.”

NEXT STORY