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Around the Jewish World Embattled Russian Jewish Group Hopes New Head Can Kindle Spark

December 20, 2001
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The Russian Jewish Congress has a new leader — but whether he is the right man to invigorate the embattled organization is unclear.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, a businessman with a doctorate in Middle East politics, was elected president of the Russian Jewish Congress earlier this month, replacing Leonid Nevzlin, who recently was made a member of the upper house of Russia’s Parliament.

Satanovsky, 42, faces a tough task in trying to re-energize the RJC.

The group has lost its status as the driving force behind the Russian Jewish renaissance, according to most Russian watchers. In part it’s because of a Kremlin-backed campaign that drove the RJC’s founder, Vladimir Goussinsky, into exile earlier this year; in part it’s due to the fact that a competing group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has deeper pockets, more energy and stronger Kremlin ties.

Nevzlin, Goussinsky’s successor, served for less than a year as RJC president before resigning. For many Jewish activists, including some RJC officials, the latest reshuffle came as a disappointing surprise.

“Nevzlin is quitting at a time of crisis. The RJC is at an impasse in some respects,” said Vladimir Shapiro, a leading Jewish sociologist and a member of the group’s governing council.

Some RJC officials say Nevzlin began to turn the organization around financially, but the annual budget approved earlier this month was $4.7 million, 30 percent lower than 2000.

Critics say the RJC has lost focus — by contrast, the federation, which is closely associated with the Lubavitch movement, has the ear of the Kremlin and a finger on the pulse of Russian Jewry.

Nevzlin was elected to replace Goussinsky because he was seen as a person who could improve relations between the RJC and the Kremlin. Ties had suffered as the Kremlin pursued embezzlement charges against Goussinsky, a media mogul who had been harshly critical of Russia’s war in Chechnya.

But neither Satanovsky’s personality nor his views are considered moderate. He is energetic, outspoken and even occasionally intemperate — which might explain the mixed reaction to his appointment among Jewish activists.

“Satanovsky, with his personal dislike of some Lubavitch leaders, will bring about, I am afraid, a total war between the RJC and the federation,” said Mikhail Turovsky, a Jewish studies professor in Moscow.

The two groups have often locked horns during the past year in an internecine turf battle.

Satanovsky says he does not want to exacerbate the conflict between the RJC and the federation, but that Jewish groups should try to stay away from those in power — the opposite of the federation’s strategy.

Some insiders worry that Satanovsky’s views will cause problems.

“His views on the Middle East problem, for example, are too right-extremist, which may damage RJC s relations with some public bodies in Russia, in Israel and with U.S. Jewry,” said one RJC official who wished to remain anonymous.

But the representative of one U.S.-based group, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, welcomed the development.

“It is an excellent choice. No one is more dedicated to the rebuilding of Jewish life than Yevgeny Satanovsky,” said the head of the JDC’s Moscow office, Joel Golovensky. “He is truly a Renaissance man. He excels in business, in academia and in philanthropy,”

Satanovsky says his goals are threefold — to rebuild the finances of the RJC, integrate the Russian Jewish community into world Jewry and become active in Israel.

Even his detractors would admit he has several factors in his favor.

Long active in the Jewish community, Satanovsky knows the world of Russian Jewry from the inside — unlike Goussinsky and Nevzlin, who made huge fortunes during the regime of former President Boris Yeltsin and only later decided to become active in the Jewish community.

Satanovsky, who is married with two teen-aged children, became a Jewish activist in 1983 after reading underground lectures on Jewish history.

“Jewish activities became part and parcel of my life. Jews and Israel are in fact the only things that really interest me,” he told JTA.

He claims that the late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, blessed his business ideas and gave him a one- dollar bill to invest in steel engineering. Armed with these two things, he said, he managed to make millions of dollars.

Much of his firm’s profits go to Jewish projects, he says. One project was a Jewish university in Moscow, another an institute for Israel and Middle East studies.

The situation in Israel also has become part of Satanovsky’s life. He believes Israel should take a harder line toward the Palestinians. In fact, like many Russian Jews, he believes Israel should be prepared to launch an onslaught similar to the one Russia has carried out against Muslim separatists in Chechnya.

But Satanovksy says he will be cautious in expressing such views in his new position.

After the election, Satanovsky announced he is quitting business to work full-time at the RJC.

“One can disagree with some of his personal attitudes and aptitudes, but one thing is clear: He is a bright guy,” said Tanya Levkova, an economist and Jewish activist in Moscow. “What is still more important, he is committed and motivated. And it is not going to be boring now in the RJC .”

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