Russia's 'Jewish Question'

Surrounded by new enemies, post-Soviet nationalists look for old scapegoats

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been accompanied by the emergence of enemies that Russians have never faced before or supposedly had dealt with centuries ago - Slavs ripe for NATO in Eastern and Central Europe, peoples of the Caucasus now symbolizing decimation of Russian forces, Turks having to be reckoned with as in the days of Catherine the Great.

The Russian public, especially the political elite, has been left in confusion. Some look for old "dependable" enemies, whose existence can explain the cataclysmic events that have befallen the country in the last few years.

This is why the "Jewish question," which has never been completely eradicated from the Russian mind, might play an important role with the appointment of Boris Berezovsky, a Jew, to the position of deputy national security chief. No Russian Jew has occupied such a powerful position since the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Jews, viewed mainly as an ethnic group, have always been a special minority in Russia, a political symbol of sorts. Jews were active participants in the Bolshevik Revolution and civil wars, and their inclusion in the Communist Party was regarded as an indication of the benevolent nature - the brotherhood of all people - of the revolutionary regime. By the post-World War II era, however, they started to symbolize quite an opposite force: the West and capitalism. Their supposed capitalistic and pro-Western orientation was the ideological justification for the government-sponsored anti-Semitism that marked Russian life from the end of World War II to the end of the Soviet regime. Their mass emigration to Israel and the United States was seen as proof of their antirevolutionary leanings.

Short-lived optimism

The situation changed at the beginning of the post-Soviet era, when Russian citizens were full of optimism about the market economy and the good-naturedness of the West. Yet, with increasingly harsh economic conditions and dashed expectations about the West, the image of Jews once again has been tarnished in the eyes of a considerable portion of Russian politicians and the general populace.

The emerging "red-to-brown" opposition, a loose coalition of nationalistic Communists and out-and-out nationalists, has begun to characterize President Boris Yeltsin's government as "Jewish." It is the Jewishness of Mr. Yeltsin's regime, its essential foreignness to Russia, that explains the plummeting economy, the brazen corruption and enrichment of the few, and (at least as the "red-to-brown" perceives it) Russia's subservient position to the West.

As a matter of fact, anti-Semitism became one of the most important ingredients of the opposition to Yeltsin in the fall of 1993. I was in Moscow right after the shelling of parliament and personally saw anti-Semitic graffiti on the wall of the stadium where, according to prevailing rumors, Yeltsin's troops shot the supporters of the rebellious parliament.

Yeltsin has sensed the danger of being perceived as pro-Western, and implicitly pro-Jewish, and this was one of the major reasons he struck an alliance with Alexander Lebed, who emphasized not only his craving for order but also his Russian nationalism. With Lebed's departure from government, Yeltsin and those close to him have tried to coin their own nationalist slogans, yet without Lebed the regime can hardly play the nationalist card. And here Berezovsky has an important meaning in the political struggle behind the recently dehospitalized Yeltsin.

Why would Berezovsky accept such a position? It is possible he just wants it to satisfy personal ambition? Or perhaps he needs the position for pragmatic considerations. In today's Russia no one can engage in business without having what Russians call "roof" - that is, without a bureaucratic and/or criminal sponsor. By assuming the powerful security position, Berezovsky becomes his own "roof."

Regardless of his personal intentions, his appointment has important political meaning. For the liberals - those who stand for continuation of the status quo - his appointment is a sign that Yeltsin's regime is unflinchingly Western in its stance. According to them, there is no reason why a Russian Jew cannot hold an important position in the government as in any Western country. For those on the opposite side, Berezovsky represents all the anti-Semitic clichs - greed, cynicism, and absolute disregard for the country of their birth.

Anti-Semitism, Russian-style

In the unique Russian interpretation, Jews are a symbol and agent of the West. Israel, regardless of location, belongs to the West. And, as the West is increasingly viewed as responsible for Russia's miseries, Berezovsky can be regarded, in the context of demonological and conspiracy theories, as a pawn of the West.

Such ideas have begun to circulate even among liberals, who cannot comprehend why reforms that were launched to raise the country's international prestige have led to disaster. Izvestia, the leading liberal newspaper, called attention to rumors that Berezovsky has both Israeli and Russian citizenship. He accused the newspaper of being anti-Semitic and even threatened to sue. The point here is that his Jewishness is important in political discourse.

Most Russian Jews, with their strong pro-Western sympathies, hailed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a few took advantage of economic opportunities to become engaged in business activities. Many even believed that the changes had made them just like any other citizen of the new Russia. Yet the economic and political upheaval, the bewilderment of Russians in regard to unexpected foes along Russian borders, have destroyed this illusion. The multitude of enemies and the apparent inability of Yeltsin's regime to marry reforms to nationalism have induced both pro- and anti-Yeltsin forces to drag up the "Jewish question." Berezovsky's ethnicity becomes important as an indicator of the increasing tension between pro-Western and anti-Western forces.

Of course, one cannot predict for sure in which direction the country is heading at the end of the century, but in the case of a nationalistic shake-up, it is unlikely that most Russian Jews will be able to adjust as easily as classic author Dostoyevsky once wrote they would on the eve of Russia's violent upheaval at the beginning of the century.

*Dmitry Shlapentokh, a professor in the history department at Indiana University, South Bend, is the author of "French Revolution and Antidemocratic Tradition in Russia" (Transaction).

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