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Is There a 'Jewish Question' in Russia?

by Professor Yakov Etinger, Ph.D. (History)
member of seven foreign academics

Is there a 'Jewish question,' connected as it is more often than not to anti-Semitism, in today's Russia? I want to stress from the very beginning that there is no more state-sponsored, government-sponsored anti-Semitism that had existed in the Soviet Union for decades. But manifestations of anti-Semitism in everyday life persist. State-sponsored anti-Semitism of the USSR had been marked - especially in Stalin's epoch - by major anti-Semitic actions and carried the threat of a total deportation of the Jewry from the European USSR to remote parts of Siberia and the Far East.

Although Stalin's death had thwarted such plans, state-sponsored anti-Semitism had continued to exist in the USSR until the late 1980s. Anti-Semitic propaganda was rabid under the slogan of 'combating Zionism' and 'opposing Israel's aggressive policy;' Jews were being sacked from ministries and agencies and were denied the right to enroll in 'prestigious' educational establishments, e.g. the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations and some others. Jews found it difficult to enroll in post-graduate courses, they were seldom promoted, etc.

These deplorable phenomena have been done away with lately; Jews' standing has radically improved. Jews have been allowed to emigrate to Israel, the USA and other countries. Millions of Jews from Russia and other CIS states have moved to Israel in the past ten years and emigration is likely to continue, judging by all.

One is apt to ask the question: if there is no state-sponsored anti-Semitism, why do many Jews emigrate from Russia? There are several reasons. One is the activity of nationalist organizations of all feather - they number more than 150 today, and the publication of anti-Semitic papers and works of literature. Another is the economic hardships, many-year political instability in society, growing anti-Semitism in everyday life, whose manifestations are many, the fear parents have that their sons, once drafted to the ranks, would be involved in domestic armed conflicts, and anti-Semitic pronouncements by General Albert Makashov and some other prominent figures in the Communist Party of Russia whom this party's leaders have not condemned.

As to anti-Semitism in everyday life, there has long been - both before and after 1917 - a certain anti-Semitic tradition. There is no doubt that the bulk of the Russian population reject anti-Semitism tradition. There is no doubt that the bulk of the Russian population reject anti-Semitism. Polls conducted in the past few years indicate that no more than 5-8% of Russia's population share everyday anti-Semitic sentiments.

What is the reason behind such sentiments? It looks like, apart from the tradition, there are two factors. First, Jewish intellectuals have played a noticeable part at the initial stage of the perestroika processes, which regrettably spelled poverty for the bulk of the population. The other factor is more important for everyday manifestations of anti-Semitism: Jews are many among the oligarchs who control numerous key sectors of the economy, joint ventures and banks. Their profits are enormously higher than the revenues of the bulk of the population. The names of oligarchs - Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky, Smolensky, Fridman, Abramovich and Mamut - are known to effectively all Russians, since many of them are trying to play a political role in the country and making ill-considered statements on the most topical domestic affairs that trigger a negative reaction in society. Although there are many Armenians, Azeris and Tatars among big businessmen, a part of the Russian population focus primarily on Jews.

There used to be brilliant democratically minded intellectuals in Czarist Russia - writers, academics, lawyers, physicians who decisively rejected anti-Semitism. Many of these Russian intellectuals were either exterminated or expelled from Russia after the 1917 revolution. The everyday, social anti-Semitism that exists in Russia today does not have a strong, equally social counter-balance among research and artistic intellectuals. Moreover, some of the, e.g. writers and publicists rallied behind the few anti-Semitic papers and magazines, are ideologists of anti-Semitism and exert some influence on the public opinion and thus boost everyday anti-Semitism.

The Russian government is notably against anti-Semitism, just like other monstrous manifestations of xenophobia and racial and national hatred. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has on more than one occasion spoken lately and decisively against all manifestations of anti-Semitism. He expressed regret that many Jews are leaving their native land and stressed that 'everything must be done to prevent Jewish emigration from Russia...' There is no doubt that more decisive actions of the authorities against all manifestations of anti-Semitism and its conductors could help do away with the phenomenon.

It is worth stressing in this connection that the attempts by leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress to picture the arrest of Media-Most holding company's president Vladimir Gusinsky, who is also the RJC president, as an action directed against Jews, holds no water: such pronouncements sound in unison with analogous statements by anti-Semitic circles and only serve to incite anti-Semitic sentiments in Russia.

Russian Information Agency Novosti, Washington Bureau

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