Jewish in Moscow

Yoram Gorlizki

For all of glasnost’s successes in pushing back the bounds of the permissible and in opening up new ways of speaking, there are some matters that seem automatically to elicit the vaguest, most arcane terminology. The ‘Jewish Question’ is one of them, and as soon as the subject is raised one hears talk of ‘qualities’ and ‘essences’, of a person’s ‘spirit’ and a nation’s ‘soul’. That this should be so is often attributed to the supposedly religious roots of Russian and, later, Soviet perceptions of the Jews. In short, it is said that in Russia, unlike most Western European countries, the notion that Jewry is essentially antagonistic to Christendom was carried on into modern times, and despite assuming secular forms, still shapes the ways in which Jews are talked about. Andrei Sakharov intimated as much when he remarked, on the occasion of the Sharansky trial, that in the Soviet Union ‘anti-semitism has been raised to the level of a state religion in a godless state.’

It is also possible to see this tendency to fuzziness and mystification as the result of an almost complete ignorance of Jewish affairs among the Russian population, even, and indeed especially, among Russian Jews: an ignorance brought about by the Soviet state’s consistent denial of the existence of a distinct Jewish culture. And yet Jews are very much aware of themselves as Jews. For the past four months I have been staying in Moscow on a scholarship, engaged in research into the possibility of the rule of law in the Soviet Union. Officially I am attached to the University. By accident rather than design, I have landed up in some Jewish circles and have acquired a number of Jewish friends. Not being an observant Jew nor one, in England, who is exceptionally conscious of his Jewishness, I have been struck here by how much more often the subject of my being Jewish appears to come up in conversation. There seems to be a greater awareness of who is Jewish and who is not Jewish, and the subject (in jokes, stories, asides) is treated far more explicitly than it is in England. Whether it is a symptom or a cause, a not unrelated fact is that although the majority of my Jewish friends are culturally highly assimilated, they seem to have retained a strong sense of being different from the rest of the population. My impression is that most of them are very nervous about the future, but perhaps that could be said of the population as a whole.

Official anti-semitism has been in decline in the Gorbachev years: there is less of the systematic discrimination against Jews in higher education that was so evident in the Seventies; there are fewer generalised attacks on ‘Zionism’ in the press (and fewer caricatures of Jews with hooked noses and crinkly hair); and Jews have once more begun to take up the high-visibility positions in politics and public affairs from which they had been largely excluded since the Thirties.

In its place, however, a new breed of unofficial anti-semitism has emerged, which gives full play to the projection of Jewish ‘qualities’. One relatively refined example was Igor Shafarevich’s ‘Russophobia’, an article which caused a minor stir when it appeared in the June and November issues of the conservative journal Nash Sovremennik. It was, for instance, posted on the wall of the section of the main university lobby known as ‘Gaid Park’. Shafarevich discerns two discrete currents or mentalities in Russian history which have pervaded all forms of its social and political life. The first, that of the ‘majority’ (bolshoi narod), is associated with all that is Russian, and is set against that of the ‘small group’, which is in turn characterised by antipathy towards the large group, a reluctance to look at things from the Russian point of view, and an inclination to whine and wail:

And so, WHOSE national feelings are we talking about here? For him who is acquainted with the life of our country, the answer, I think, will cause no surprise. There is only one nation about whose cares and worries we hear almost every day. Jewish national emotions have put the country and the whole world into a fever pitch. They influence arms negotiations, trade agreements and international scientific contacts, they bring about demonstrations and sit-down strikes, and they surface in almost every conversation. The ‘Jewish Question’ has acquired incomprehensible power over our minds ... [while] the existence of a ‘Russian Question’ is hardly ever recognised.

Shafarevich’s nationalism is both an attempt to raise dwindling Russian self-esteem (as the patently faltering economy further belies the regime’s claims to socialism and to relative economic advancement) and a specific, intellectual response to the ‘cult’ of Jewish emigration, the ‘apotheosis of flight’, the tendency, as he sees it, to weaken the country at the time of its greatest vulnerability.

A coarser, more populist kind of anti-semitism is that displayed by informal organisations such as Pamyat and Otechestvo. This has two dominant forms. The first is to be found in areas with relatively high concentrations of Jews, where anti-semitism has been tolerated or even discreetly assisted by the local authorities and/or by leading factions of the indigenous national movement. Such, apparently, has been the case in Leningrad and certain parts of Belorussia. The second type of organised anti-semitism is the so-called ‘mystical anti-semitism’, which exists in regions where there are only a handful of Jews or even no Jews at all, and which is almost wholly dependent on quasi-religious legacies and projected fantasies of Jewish influence. There is evidence of this (vandalism in Jewish cemeteries, circulation of anti-semitic pamphlets) in cities along the Volga such as Cheboksary and in various towns in Siberia like Irkutsk and Barnaul.

Past disinformation and present uncertainty have clouded both Soviet perceptions of the Jews and Jewish perceptions of anti-semitism. Data on the extent of support for anti-semitic groups in the population as a whole are scarce, although ‘popularity indices’ in the papers and the election results from last March do suggest that levels have not exceeded the present Western European ‘limit’ of 10 per cent. Apart from their vagueness, however, these figures are further devalued by the fact that electoral support is as yet not directly translatable into political power. Instead, people still look to ‘signs’ from above to indicate whether the balance of forces favours the Jews or not. Some Jews I have spoken to were alarmed that permission, necessarily from high up, was given for a large Pamyat demonstration on Red Square at the beginning of December.

Interpretations of anti-semitism among Jews here seem largely dependent on temperament. There are, however, two external factors which seem to instil a general anxiety. The first is that the present situation is widely seen as one of crisis, and this naturally arouses extreme apprehension about the future. A common fear is that as the legitimacy of the one-party state declines, and the peripheral republics continue to give vent to anti-Russian sentiments, Russian nationalism will remain the only force with enough cohesion to mobilise the Russians in support of their regime.

A second factor is the fear, more prevalent among the older generation, of a recurrence of the anti-semitic violence that characterised the early years of the century. In June 1988, and again in August 1989, Moscow was rife with rumours of an imminent pogrom, to the extent that the Central Committee was contacted and local security put on alert. ‘Whatever their substance,’ I was told by a Jewish intellectual in Moscow, ‘rumours of pogroms are now a fact of political life. Violence may break out at any moment, and in such an event we cannot rely on the Police to protect us.’

Equally hard to predict is the future course of Jewish emigration – another issue which carries a heavy emotional charge. Here, too, there has been a general relaxation of policy in recent years, with a marked escalation in the number of Jews allowed to leave the country. From a low point of approximately a thousand per annum in the mid-Eighties, the figure shot up to eight thousand in 1987 and nineteen thousand in 1988. The total estimate for 1989, of about 65,000, is said to have stretched the limit of the available transport facilities and the capacity of the bureaucracies involved to handle applications. It also cuts deeply into the overall Soviet Jewish population, which, according to the so far unpublished 1989 census figures, is put at no more than 1.45 million. Meanwhile, the number of ‘refuseniks’ (those whose applications to leave have been rejected) has fallen from about eleven thousand in 1986 to about one and a half thousand in 1989, most of whom have had their aspirations denied for over ten years.

Although the overwhelming majority of recent Jewish emigrants have preferred to settle in the US rather than Israel, new American rules introduced last October will force most of the Jewish emigrants to go to Israel. The fact that Soviet attitudes to Israel have been so heavily distorted by past propaganda is one reason why future rates of emigration are extremely unpredictable. Another is the analytically highly intractable sense of foreboding which is the major cause of the exodus. Meanwhile, although the concept of emigration has become socially more acceptable, negative images of Jewish emigration persist, ranging from Shafarevich’s, that it is one more sign of Jewry’s collective betrayal of Russia, to the view that in being one of the very few major groups allowed to emigrate, the ‘pushy Jew’ has once again been able to have it his own way.

Among individual Soviet Jews the rediscovery of their Jewish background, in the past year or two, has been almost comically sudden. People I know seem to have ‘found’ their Jewishness within a matter of weeks. It was only a week after first showing an interest in his Jewishness that one boy decided to join the Jewish school which had just opened in his neighbourhood, and barely another before he resolved to be circumcised.

The institutional expression of this self-discovery has been the rapid growth of Jewish cultural associations over the last year. Although partly indebted to the Jewish underground of the Seventies, this movement seems to have been sparked off by the resolution at the 19th Party Conference in July 1988 to permit the establishment of national-cultural centres for the non-indigenous nationalities. By the beginning of 1989 these groups were sprouting up across the country almost weekly, raising memorials to Jewish Holocaust victims, teaching Jewish history and the Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish), and organising Jewish literary and theatrical events.

There is a strong political element in all this, and it wasn’t long before there were moves to set up an all-Union organisation to defend Jewish interests on a national basis. A coordinating council for a national congress was launched at a ‘round table’ held in Riga last May and in December the First All-Union Congress of Jewish Associations and Communities opened in Moscow. In all, 414 delegates from 198 Jewish associations in 77 Soviet cities were present.

It would be difficult to claim that the Congress was representative of all Soviet Jews. Most of the cultural organisations comprise only a fraction of the local Jewish population: the 95 members who voted for the delegate from Berdichev in the Ukraine, for example accounted for little more than 1 per cent of the six thousand Jews in that town. With two exceptions, however, there were delegates at the Congress from every Jewish organisation in the Soviet Union, and as such it could at least be said to have fully spanned the active element of Soviet Jewry. Of particular note in this respect was that the Congress for the first time afforded some of the provincial Jewish organisations a national and international audience. In its final session the Congress voted in a Confederational Council and this in turn elected a Presidium. From now on, a body exists which can legitimately represent the needs of nationally-minded Jews, thus overshadowing the puppet committees appointed by the state and the numerous international organisations which have stood on behalf of Jews in the USSR.

Unlike the official Jewish section of the Communist Party in the Twenties and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee of the Forties, both of which existed only to serve the self-limiting ends prescribed for them by the state, the Congress possesses a substantial degree of autonomy. In a manner slightly reminiscent of some of the Eastern European opposition groups, speaker after speaker made the point that the Congress would be uncorrupted by official links with the state. In addition, the Congress’s links with prominent refuseniks from the beginning of the decade were openly flaunted. Particularly poignant in this respect was a speech by Iosif Begun (the former ‘Prisoner of Zion’, who had flown in from Israel), in which he sought his own and his colleagues’ full legal rehabilitation. It could be said that the Congress represented the coming out into the open of the Jewish underground of the Seventies.

The radicalism of the Congress is evident, not only in its relations with the state, but in its internal organisation as well. The centre, it was decided, would have no powers whatsoever over local organisations: the Council’s duties are only to represent the Congress at home and abroad, and to manage the flow of information between the centre and the localities. It was also made clear that the Congress would have no political platform of any divisive potential within Jewish politics, thus preserving the pluralism considered central to the Congress. This recognition of pluralism is on one level a simple reflection of the diversity of Soviet Jews, within whose ranks stand Hebraists and Yiddishists, religious and secular Jews, Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, and a whole multiplicity of local groups pursuing local aims. It is in equal measure, however, a pragmatic manoeuvre to contain marginal groups. Not that this stopped one of the Zionist groups splitting off from the Congress in disgust at what it regarded as the waste and presumptuousness of trying to build an illusion of normal Jewish life within the Soviet Union.

Despite this, there undoubtedly was a general consensus at the Congress which was reflected in the passing of resolutions and the setting-up of working groups to strive for widely-approved goals. One resolution, on general support for the local non-Jewish national-democratic movements, was especially significant, since some of the peripheral republics are inclined to suspect the Jews in their midst of being ‘agents of the centre’. In addition, a variety of working groups – on anti-semitism, political prisoners, Jewish education, cultural autonomy, etc – were set up; and a legal seminar on emigration has been resurrected.

A related development was the opening in October of a Jewish Scientific Centre, comprising forty scholars, with the intention of analysing Soviet Jewry in a calmer, more sober light. Its first major scheme was to conduct a survey of delegates at the Congress, providing a rare if partial statistical source for the perceptions of active Soviet Jews still resident in the USSR. More than a hundred delegates responded, and of these 51 per cent, believe an outbreak of anti-Jewish violence to be possible in the near-future, while 25 per cent consider it impossible. Forty-nine per cent of respondents think that the situation of Soviet Jews has improved under perestroika, while only 25 per cent think it has got worse.

There has in the past been a tendency among Western publicists and campaigners to present Soviet Jewry as the modern ‘frontier’ of Jewish life, today’s example of Biblical, un-emancipated Jewry, a nation behind bars. As the Congress showed, both in its social composition and in the range of its demands, Soviet Jewry is far more complex and varied than that. In the opinion of Mikhail Chlenov, the moving spirit behind the Congress, the Western public knows very little about Sovie Jews. Which stereotypes in particular need to be overcome? ‘First, contrary to the view popular in the West, only a small minority of Jews in the Soviet Union are religious ... And second, important as the refusenik problem still is, it would be a serious mistake to think that all Soviet Jews are refuseniks.’