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:

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