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Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Journalists Navigate Mines As They Work in Ex-communist Lands

March 14, 2003
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It’s not easy being a Jewish journalist in the former Soviet Union.

State censorship isn’t a problem, but there are other issues, some not altogether different from what Jewish journalists face in North America.

“If I had something in my newspaper that would bring to light the not-always-nice relations between various Jewish organizations, this will blemish the reputation of the entire Jewish community, and will eventually make the relations inside the community even tenser,” said Boris Komsky, editor of Shofar, a monthly publication in the Ukrainian city of Lvov.

Diana Gantseva, editor of the Menorah newspaper in Yekaterinburg, a city in Russia’s Ural Mountains, agreed.

“It’s all about self-censorship,” she said.

Jewish journalists in the former Soviet Union say their situation has become especially complicated in recent years, as Jewish life has become more polarized than ever due to organizational rivalry.

“There is virtually no independent Jewish media in today’s Russia,” says Nickolai Propirniy, who at 32 is one of the veterans of Russian Jewish journalism.

There are more than 500 Jewish periodicals in the vast region from the Baltics to Russia’s Pacific coast.

Most are newsletters that belong to various Jewish institutions and organizations. Most call themselves newspapers, perhaps for lack of a more appropriate Russian equivalent of “newsletter.”

But even those publications that reach out to a larger regional or national audience often talk the language of their parent organizations.

As with most other services related to the Jewish community in this part of the world, Jewish periodicals are usually distributed free.

Sales of paid advertisements can hardly support most of the papers, whose readership base — most often elderly people who receive services from Jewish organizations — doesn’t appeal to prospective advertisers.

The fear of being labeled as Jewish among some businessmen also deters advertising sales.

“What I often hear from those whom I approach to sell advertising is: ‘Here is your $1,000, and please don’t mention my name in your newspaper,’ ” said Tankred Golenpolsky, founder and editor of the International Jewish Gazette, which was launched in 1989 and pioneered the field.

Editors of the few papers that have paid subscriptions acknowledge that sales cover just a small fraction of their expenses, and that they couldn’t survive without money from sponsors.

“All Jewish papers — even those who don’t list any of the national or international Jewish organizations among their founders — depend on the funds they are getting from these organizations. This puts a clear-cut stamp on what they publish,” said Propirniy, who is editor in chief of The Jewish News, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper published by the Russian Jewish Congress.

The group’s main rival, the Federation of the Jewish Communities, has its own major weekly publication, The Jewish Word.

“Neither of the newspapers is going to write about what the other organization is doing,” says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the federation. “In order to have a full picture, you need to read both.”

Some 40 community leaders and journalists representing dozens of Jewish newspapers from across the former Soviet Union spoke in panel discussions and in the corridors of the Second Annual Conference of Jewish Journalists, held in Moscow earlier this month under the aegis of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, a New York-based group.

Some participants learned of a development that seemed to illustrate the dependent status of Jewish journalists.

Inessa Brusilovskaya, an editor from the Russian city of Ufa, described to colleagues how a local Chasidic rabbi effectively shut down her community’s only Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Soul, after she published an article on the city’s Reform congregation.

However, the rabbi, Dan Krichevsky, the only resident rabbi in his community, said he had been unhappy with the newspaper’s general quality and that his decision to stop the publication last year came before the story on Reform Jews appeared.

Some Jewish journalists say the Jewish media should be fulfilling tasks other than playing up situations that reflect organizational loyalties and may divide the community.

“This situation we have, when the Jewish media is serving sometimes conflicting interests of various groups that work with the community, it isn’t so terrible at all. We have to take it as is,” Propirniy argued.

“What matters is how the journalists feel connected to the goals and objectives of the Jewish community in general.”

Shofar’s Komsky added: “If for no other reason, I feel myself obliged to continue doing what I’m doing to be able to tell people the truth about Israel. There are three dozen local newspapers in Lvov, but in no other newspaper would readers learn what is going on in the Middle East.”

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