Changes Sweeping Soviet Union Hold Promise and Peril for Jews
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Changes Sweeping Soviet Union Hold Promise and Peril for Jews

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The changes sweeping the Soviet Union in the wake of the collapse last week of the attempted coup by hard-liners are bound to accelerate liberal reforms from which the Soviet Jewish community can only benefit.

But Soviet experts and observers fear that dangers lurk for Jews once the euphoria over the victory of the democratic forces dissipates.

Instability looms if the reforms fail to produce swift improvements in the economy, and ethnic strife may force Jews to take sides in contests between conflicting nationalities vying for power in the breakaway republics.

Soviet Jews exhibited remarkable courage when the military coup struck Aug. 19 with strong signs that it might succeed.

Leaders of the Vaad, the umbrella body of Soviet Jewish organizations, immediately announced their support of the constitutional process forcefully upheld by Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic, who is the only Soviet official ever elected by popular vote.

The top officials of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry wrote to Yeltsin in Moscow last Thursday, expressing their “admiration and deepest respect” for his “courageous leadership, which led the forces of democracy in opposition to the reactionary forces who, in desperation, sought to turn back the clock of time.”

Shoshana Cardin, the group’s chairman, and Martin Wenick, its executive director, pledged their continued support of the Russian president’s efforts.


A further statement by Cardin was prompted on learning that one of the three young men killed Aug. 20 resisting tanks and becoming instant martyrs for democracy was Jewish.

He was Ilya Krichevsky, 28, shot in the head as he tried to rush a tank advancing on the Russian parliament building.

Yeltsin eulogized the three men Saturday, as a crowd of 100,000 gathered in the newly named Square of Free Russia for their funerals, which were televised nationally.

Relatives of the Jewish victim agreed to bury him with the other two, even though Jewish religious law forbids burials on the Sabbath. Krichevsky’s coffin was draped with both a Russian flag and a white Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit.

“We join the mourners for him and the two other heroic men who were prepared to fight to defend democratic principles,” Cardin said in her statement.

In an interview, Wenick, a former U.S. State Department specialist on the Soviet Union, spoke of the prospects of instability as the Soviet people try to cope with the most dramatic changes in their country since the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

What worried him was “the morning after, when the euphoria wears off.”

Right now, the country is “being run more by committee than by law,” he said. There is “inefficiency, centralism.”

Wenick asked pointedly, “What’s the map of the Soviet Union going to be? What are the relations of the parts to the whole? There you’re getting into questions about the rights and role of ethnic minorities.”

Asked if growing intolerance of minorities was possible, he replied, “There’s clearly the potential for a certain amount of anarchy. We know what’s broken down. But what is in place to replace it?”

“There’s some concern about Jews getting caught in the middle of ethnic problems,” Wenick said. The most dangerous areas are the Ukraine and Moldavia, “one of the areas where historically anti-Semitism has had a fairly deep hold.”

Asked about Yeltsin’s reported ties to some ultranationalist groups, Wenick said Yeltsin met with a group from the anti-Semitic Pamyat movement in 1987, but that their conversation was about the preservation of Soviet monuments.

“I have seen nothing subsequent to that to indicate that he has harbored anti-Semitic views,” he said.

In addition, people close to Yeltsin kept in close contact with the Jewish community during the coup.

According to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York, at the height of the failed putsch last week, a 24-hour direct telephone line was opened between the office of the Soviet chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevitch, and Yeltsin’s cohorts holding out in the Russian parliament building.

Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said, “There have been problems with Yeltsin before he became president, but since his election, he has surrounded himself with very, very fine cadres of advisers, including some who were political prisoners. We have not seen any anti-Semitism emerge.”


As for the Cabinet reshuffle following collapse of the coup, Wenick said he had met with the new head of the KGB, Vadim Bakatin, when he was a national security adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“He struck one as being staunchly in favor of democratic reforms and certainly did not seem to be inclined to impede emigration,” Wenick said.

“He promised to look into any problems that might result in bureaucratic delays,” he added.

According to Wenick, the Soviet Foreign Ministry is “in somewhat of a cloud” because at least some of the people there were in contact with the coup plotters.

Gorbachev fired Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, who at least appeared to have fence-straddled during the coup, waiting to see which side would prevail.

Bessmertnykh was the first Soviet foreign minister ever to visit Israel and had “been part of the process in terms of improving relations with Israel,” Wenick said.

But he doubted that Bessmertnykh’s replacement would have “any impact on the Jewish question,” though it “raises some questions on how the Foreign Ministry will operate.”

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