After nearly 75 years of repressive communism and barely a pulse of Jewish life, Russian Jewry has been revived over the past decade with a vibrancy that has surprised locals and visitors alike.
Now, all that progress may be in jeopardy.
Two recent controversies have thrust Russia’s Jews nervously into the national spotlight — and the repercussions may be dire.
On June 13 came the stunning arrest of the Jewish community’s president, Vladimir Goussinsky, reportedly for one of several shady deals that helped propel what may be a billion-dollar media and banking empire.
Then there is the unseemly squabble between rival rabbis for the country’s Chief Rabbinate — and for supremacy of the third largest Jewish community in the world after the United States and Israel, estimated at 600,000.
Local observers pin some of the blame for this turmoil on self-interested Jewish religious and business leaders.
But Jewish leaders have also spoken out against what they see as the meddling of dark forces within or behind the Kremlin — not excluding Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin — who may be manipulating the situation to achieve their own political or economic agenda.
This meddling, observers note, underscores just how far Russia remains from resembling a true democracy — even as the outspokenness of Jewish leaders illustrates just how self-confident the community has become.
However, more ominous for the average Russian Jew is how the state-controlled media has grabbed hold of these two stories and fueled all sorts of nasty, age- old stereotypes of Jews and their perceived proclivity for power, greed and disloyalty.
When state television reports on the Goussinsky affair, for example, it repeatedly emphasizes — often within the first few sentences of a news report — Goussinsky’s dual Russian and Israeli citizenships. They also emphasize his business dealings within Israel or his ties with world Jewry and allegedly to Washington and Tel Aviv as well.
A state television reporter also said that if the Pandora’s Box of the “Jewish Question” were opened, it “may be difficult to close it.”
All this in a society notorious for its tradition of anti-Semitism and appetite for Jewish conspiracy theories.
With that in mind, some Jewish observers in Moscow say all sides, including Jewish leaders, deserve some criticism.
“It’d be one thing if this situation happened in New York, London, Paris or any other Western democracy,” said one observer, who asked not to be identified.
“But this is Russia. They’re playing with fire. I’m not saying there is any coherent thinking in the Kremlin like, ‘What do we do with the Jews?’ But we have to be vigilant. There’s a history here that we have to be aware of.”
Figuring out how Russian Jewry found itself in this crisis is a dizzying task, with a large dose of palace intrigue and backroom dealing mixed with naivete and political clumsiness.
But Goussinsky is clearly the common thread.
For most of the 20th century, Russian Jews often associated their Jewishness with persecution and misery.
During the post-Communist era, however, Goussinsky has done more than any other individual to spur this “golden era” of Russian Jewry and give Jews reason to be proud, say his supporters.
He was the first high-profile figure in Russian society to step forward and proclaim his Jewishness. In 1995 he formed the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella group that claims to encompass religious Jewry — from Reform to modern Orthodox to the Chabad-Lubavitch — as well as the unaffiliated, who may constitute upward of 90 percent of all Russian Jews.
In an instant, the theater director-turned-billionaire had boosted the Jewish community’s image, in the eyes of both Jews and the Russian public. Perhaps more important, his vast wealth also gave Russian Jews what they desperately wanted — the self-respect that comes with increasing financial independence from world Jewry.
Goussinsky introduced the notion of philanthropy to his community, and is said to have given tens of millions of dollars to various Jewish causes, such as building or restoring synagogues. Following his lead, numerous other wealthy Jewish businessmen have helped fund the RJC.
However, Goussinsky’s critics charge that his motives were hardly altruistic. Rather, he may have seen it as a shrewd tactic — some described it as an “insurance policy” — to shield him from either investigation or criticism, meaning that Goussinsky could denounce any probe as anti-Jewish. Indeed, since his arrest and detention earlier this month on charges of fraud and embezzlement, Goussinsky has repeatedly suggested that his Jewishness has played a significant role.
Serving as community president has also enabled him to make splendid contacts with American Jewish and Israeli investors. And over the past few years, he has teamed up with both.
Goussinsky’s RJC colleagues seem nonplused by the business benefits he seems to reap from his international Jewish contacts.
“Anyone who gives as much as he has to the community can also take something in return,” said the chief rabbi of Russia, Adolph Shayevich.
“I think it’s normal, no? That’s why some of his rivals are envious, because they didn’t think to make that investment first.”
However, some analysts say Goussinsky’s intertwined business and Jewish activities may be connected with his recent three-day detention.
The conventional wisdom about Goussinsky’s arrest posits that he was targeted in an effort to clamp down on his media holdings, which include a national television network, newspapers and magazine.
These media are highly critical of Putin and outspoken in defense of civil liberties and human rights. In particular, they have assailed as brutal Putin’s campaign in Chechnya.
Or his imprisonment may simply have been the work of Boris Berezovsky, an “oligarch” — the term Russians use to describe the handful of men who control vast chunks of Russia’s economy — and an archrival of Goussinsky who is said to be the real power broker behind the Kremlin.
“The goal is to remove Goussinsky’s media empire from a position of influence,” said Andrei Zolotov, a reporter covering the story for The Moscow Times, an English-language daily newspaper.
“But because so many of his activities are also Jewish, it was inevitable that the community would also become involved.”
Indeed, Zolotov and others suggest that for Putin and his circle, muzzling Goussinsky may actually have had a Jewish dimension.
Over the past several years, the RJC has kept its Western allies apprised of the Kremlin’s unresponsiveness to various violent attacks against Jews and synagogues, and to the rise to prominence of assorted anti-Semites.
How a country treats its Jews is often considered to be an accurate barometer of how democratic and tolerant that country is. Thus, local Jews can often make or break a country’s international image.
In the case of Russia, some suspect that with Goussinsky’s possible removal from the scene, Putin seeks a more loyal Jewish leadership to give any reform he touts a Jewish “stamp of approval.”
This suspicion leads to the second controversy that has enveloped Russian Jewry, the election earlier this month of a second chief rabbi by the Chabad- dominated Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia.
Chabad, whose presence in the region dates back some 250 years, was founded in the Pale of Settlement, the only area in which Jews were legally allowed to live.
Today, Chabad is roundly credited for breathing Jewish life back into many far- flung corners of Russia, such as Siberia.
“Jews here are so far from Judaism, the issue is to remind them what it means to be Jewish,” said Berel Lazar, the top Chabad rabbi in the country.
The federation, known as FEOR, elected Lazar as its chief rabbi of Russia on June 13, in direct challenge to Shayevich, especially after he was officially recognized by Russia’s Ministry of Culture.
The young are “the last generation we can save, because some remember that perhaps their grandparents were religious,” said the 36-year-old Lazar, who has lived in Russia for 10 years.
“If we don’t give them a reason to feel good to be a Jew, they’ll forget it. Once they feel good, we’ve achieved our goal.”
However, many Russian Jewish leaders are uneasy that Jews in the provinces, unlike their counterparts in Moscow, generally only have one brand of Judaism to choose from — the one provided by a fervently Orthodox group like Chabad.
Not only are Russian Jews predominantly assimilated and uneducated about Judaism, but half or more are involved in mixed marriages.
While Chabad has the backing of many lay leaders in the provinces, and has so far been open to Jews of all stripes in the many cultural and holiday events it organizes, the sect also adheres strictly to halachah, or Jewish law.
Some Jewish leaders therefore fear that in the future, if Chabad gains control of the community, a large number of interfaith Jews will be excluded from such things as Jewish burials or marriage unless they convert halachically.
Indeed, Lazar said that while he and his Chabad colleagues appreciate the uniqueness of the Russian Jewish environment, ultimately they won’t compromise their adherence to halachah.
Which is one reason why many RJC leaders are outraged by the recent actions of Lazar and FEOR. They say the Italian-born Lazar does not reflect the face of Russian Jewry. The Russian-born Shayevich, who was installed during the Soviet era, has been reaffirmed as chief rabbi several times in the past five years by Russia’s secular Jewish leaders.
Moreover, the timing of Lazar’s election — just hours before Goussinsky was arrested — did little to dispel allegations by some of a Faustian deal between FEOR and the Kremlin.
Since FEOR was officially founded last November, Putin and the Kremlin have enthusiastically supported the federation.
One reason, say observers, may be that Lazar and the federation contend that anti-Semitism is not nearly as rampant as the RJC suggests.
A second reason, they say, may be that FEOR, like the RJC, has a Jewish oligarch bankrolling much of its activities.
Lev Levayev, a wealthy Israeli diamond merchant born in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, reportedly gives $10 million to $15 million each year for Chabad activities in Russia.
He, too, has a vested interest in maintaining excellent ties with the Kremlin, to maintain access to Russia’s diamond mines.
“Russian czars have always had their loyal Jews,” said Yevgenia Albats, a journalist, author and the only woman on the RJC’s 40-member presidium.
“That’s what makes me so angry, that Lazar has allowed himself to be drawn into this game. You can’t play such games where Jewish lives have historically been so hard and painful.”
Lazar responds that the RJC’s ineffectiveness and its antagonism of the government prompted FEOR members to push for his election.
He also says he’ll be no patsy for the Kremlin. Indeed, within hours of Goussinsky’s arrest, Lazar issued a statement denouncing the state’s actions and pleading for his release.
“Let’s see over the next year, five years or 10 years how much of a `stamp of approval’ I’ll give the government,” said Lazar.
At this point, observers are still unclear about the meanings of the Goussinsky arrest and Lazar election, whether it was aimed at undermining Goussinsky and the RJC, an attempt to “divide and conquer” the Jewish community — or was unrelated all together.
Then there’s the question of how the RJC — which is backed by the American Jewish leadership — will survive in the future.
The odds may be against it, as Putin and the Kremlin continue to take steps to elevate Lazar and FEOR into the official voices of Russian Jewry.
For now, though, two concerns seem to dominate Jewish conversations — whether attempts to prosecute Goussinsky and dismantle his empire will affect the Jewish community’s financial autonomy, and whether the steady stream of Jewish- related stories will further inflame anti-Semitism.
Since Goussinsky’s arrest, Gazprom, Russia’s state natural-gas monopoly, has threatened to collect its $200 million loan to the magnate, a potentially devastating blow to his empire.
As for the latter, both local and foreign observers are on the lookout.
“We expect a lot of work ahead of us,” said Lev Krichevsky, director of the newly established Moscow office of the Anti-Defamation League.
“From here on, any scenario is possible for the Russian Jewish community,” he said.
“The Jewish revival is so new and shaky, it depends on how the state views human rights and religious freedom. Progress can be reversed like that.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.