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Around the Jewish World: Russian Communal Initiatives Spearheaded by Wealthy Jews


For a group of prominent Russian Jewish bankers and businessmen, Russian Jewry has been the poor stepchild of the West for far too long.

Armed with the fortunes they amassed – sometimes in the billions – during the privatization of the Russian economy in the wake of the fall of communism, these businessmen have agreed to devote a portion of their wealth to the needs of their fellow Russian Jews.

For many of them, it was an entirely new step: They previously had little or no involvement with existing Russian Jewish institutions.

But that was to change, given a new credo they had adopted – that Jewish life in Russia should be based upon their active financial support.

that credo prompted them to meet last fall with the goal of forming a new organization that would include all facets of Russian Jewish life.

Out of that meeting grew the Russian Jewish Congress, which held its first convention Jan. 10 at Moscow’s Raddison-Slavyanskaya Hotel.

Deemed the most significant development in Russian Jewish life since 1989, when Jewish life in the then-Soviet Union assumed a public, organized shape as a result of the opening of Soviet society under perestroika, the RJC convention attracted participants representing all segments of the Russian Jewish community.

Russia’s Jewish community has been estimated at between 500,000 to 2 million.

Among those who attended were representatives of educational and charitable institutions from across Russia, longtime activists who had worked underground during the Communist era and religious leaders.

“We managed to attract all major Jewish leaders and activists,” said Boris Usherenko, executive director of the RJC.

He noted that the convention brought together such disparate groups as the Orthodox Chabad movement and the Va’ad, the Jewish Confederation of Russia, whose focus has generally been on cultural and political concerns.

Bringing such unlikely partners together under one roof was possible, said Usherenko, because of the promise of “a new perspective for the Jewish community” that would emerge from the newly born Russian Jewish Congress.

The RJC owed its existence to the bankrolling of the prominent Russian Jewish bankers and businessmen who organized the new movement, Jewish activists agreed.

“Without these people, the congress would become another organization of Jewish enthusiasts who depend solely upon foreign donations to realize their projects,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, a member of the RJC convention’s planning committee.

“It should be understood that those people who sponsored the even were not just donors who helped their fellow Jews to organize, but active participants in the created organization,” Satanovsky added.

Satanovsky himself is one of the new breed of Russian businessmen who helped create the RJC. A former leader of the Va’ad, he is the founder and president of Ariel, a major financial and industrial concern.

The other leaders and underwriters of the RJC include some of the most prominent representatives of Russia’s new financial elite.

They include RJC President Vladimir Goussinsky, 45, the founder of Moscow’s Most Bank, and RJC’s array of vice presidents: Mikhail Fidman, chairman of the board of directors of the Alfa Bank; Boris Khait, executive director of the Most group of companies; and Vitaly Malkin, president of the Russian Credit Bank.

All of them were on a list of the 20 wealthiest Russians that was published by a Moscow daily newspaper last spring.

According to Goussinsky, he and a few other bankers and businessmen have already raised $2.5 million for the immediate needs of the RJC.

Another source claimed that these key RJC figures have agreed that each of them would donate at least $500,000 annually to the organization.

Goussinsky, as the leader of the RJC, would make an even larger annual contribution, the source said.

While these people have never hidden their Jewishness, until now they had rarely given any support to the Jewish community.

But there are also reports that Goussinsky and the other Jewish financiers have occasionally used their influence to quietly defend the interests of Russian Jewry.

For example, according to Sergey Zverev, vice president of the Most Bank, Goussinsky helped finance the 1993 election campaign of Russia’s Choice, the party of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.

But, said Zverev, Goussinsky gave his support on the condition that one of Russia’s Choice leading figures – Mikhail Poltoranin, the then-chairman of the State Committee on Mass Media who was known for his anti-Semitic statements – would not be recommended for any promotion in the event of the party’s success.

Goussinsky has some other powerful friends in high places.

He is a known close friend and political ally of the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.

Moreover, the president of the RJC is a tennis partner of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Despite the victory of the Communists in Russia’s parliamentary elections in December, Russian Jewish financial figures believe that Russia will continue on the road to democracy.

As Satanovsky put it, “The economy is ignoring the election returns.”

According to Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the RJC, the Jewish bankers and businessmen who are behind the creation of the organization have come to believe that an organized and influential Jewish community could become a guarantor of the country’s continued march toward democracy with a normally functioning economy.

Osovtsov added that Russian Jews fully appreciate the support that was given them in them past by American, Israeli and European organizations.

But, he added, “any further progress would be only possible if the country’s Jewry has significant support from inside Russia.”

a considerable portion of the foreign donations the Russian Jewish organizations used to rely on were channeled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

But the JDC, adhering to the credo it employs in all of the countries where it operates, had hoped that its help would someday enable Russian Jewish organizations to become self-sufficient.

“What we always intended to do was help Jewish organizations here so that they wouldn’t need us anymore. JDC does not want to stay in Russia forever in its present capacity,” the JDC’s Moscow director, Michael Steiner, said in an interview.

“After the forming of the Russian Jewish Congress, we can be equal partners working on equal terms,” he added, nothing that times have changed for Russian Jewry.

“The Jews of Russia are still often treated as poor people who need to be rescued immediately. The image of being on the edge of failing has nothing to do with the future of the Jewish community in Russia.”

Steiner said that the RJC could demonstrate to the world the potential of Russian Jewry, which now wants to be more self-sufficient.

“It’s about time that the whole world should treat Russian Jews as they deserve to be treated,” he said.

Now, with its historic first convention behind it, the RJC has to begin spelling out its first practical goals.

Osovtsov, the RJC’s executive vice president, says that the organization will sponsor projects on both a local and national level.

Among the national projects, there are plans to support the construction of Russia’s first Holocaust memorial, slated to be built on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, the site of a new World War II memorial inaugurated last May.

The RJC also plans to be engaged in Jewish religious life in Russia.

Members of the RJC have already formed an affiliated rabbinical council, comprised of Orthodox and Chasidic rabbis who will have the right to control any RJC decision having to do with religious matters.

There are a wealth of projects the RJC would like to promote, but it will take some time until the group’s presidium can approve a concrete program, said Usherenko, the RJC’s executive director.

“Some months are needed so that our initial plans can take shape,” he said.

The RJC has already begun funding several Jewish institutions in Russia, including the Jewish University in Moscow and the charitable organization Chama.

The RJC is also planning to launch a program to support existing Russian Jewish day schools and day care centers, dozens of which are currently supported by foreign charitable institutions.

The RJC also has plans to seek the restitution of property – particularly synagogues – formerly belonging to local Jewish communities.

In addition to their other programs, leaders of the RJC are planning to launch an anti-defamation campaign – a step Satanovsky called “purely pragmatic.”

Although special legislation was enacted last spring to prevent the dissemination of fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda, the number of such publications appears not to have decreased since that time.

With the creation of the RJC, Satanovsky said, “now we will be able to make existing laws more effective.”

RJC officials point out that the connections Goussinsky has among Yeltsin administration officials and in Moscow City Hall could be used efficiently to help prevent the spread of anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist literature.

The ambitious scope of the RJC’s programs will include looking after the needs not only of the Jews in Russia, but also those of the more than half a million Jewish emigres who have settled in Israel in recent years.

In mapping out the group’s goals, Satanovsky said that the RJC should be seen by Russian Jews – both those in Russia and in Israel – as an institution to which they could appeal to represent their interests.

“A Russian Jew, wherever he lives, should have moral support from the Russian community,” he said.

“His interests must be represented on the national and international levels.”

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