Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

22 Adar 5759 - March 10, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







In Rural Russia, Anti-Jewish Sentiment Runs High

by S. Yisraeli

Eduard Alexeyev flipped through the latest batch of anonymous hate mail that turned up at his apartment.

"Get your stinking family out of Russia," one letter read. "Streets will be washed with Jewish blood," read another. "Every Friday there will be a pogrom."

Such messages are routine these days for Alexeyev, 29, leader of the tiny Jewish community of Borovichi, a provincial factory town of 80,000, 240 miles north of Moscow. The town has become a center of the new wave of antisemitism sweeping rural Russia.

In the kitchen, a burly man in his 40s assessed the distance to his own apartment balcony, 150 yards across the courtyard. This was Alexei Finkelshtein, Alexeyev's friend and unofficial "security chief" and an avid collector of firearms.

"If anyone tries a pogrom, give me a call and I'll fire a few rounds above their heads," Finkelshtein said, only half joking. "That'll calm them down."

Tensions in this town have risen sharply in recent weeks, since the neo-fascist group, Russian National Unity, known as RNE in Russia, became active here. RNE's swastika-wearing followers preach a message of hatred, blaming Jews and other "foreign people" for Russia's recent economic problems and calling for the establishment of "Russian order." Posters and stickers with antisemitic slogans and pictures have gone up at bus stops and on sign posts and store windows. Jewish graves were vandalized at the local cemetery. Someone painted a red Star of David on a Jewish family's door and set fire to it.

Every Sunday, RNE men in their trademark black shirts and red swastika arm bands gather in Borovichi's center to distribute antisemitic material and enlist young recruits.

Officially, Russia is nothing like the openly antisemitic regimes of the Soviet Union or the Czarist empire. Russia has a law against inciting ethnic hatred. But in Borovichi, where there are about 500 Jews, and other rural areas, Jews worry that authorities are doing too little to implement it.

Alexeyev has appealed to local authorities for help. But Borovichi's prosecutor last week refused to bring charges against RNE, claiming that the party itself is not illegal and that the swastikas that its members wear do not incite ethnic hatred. The local legislature has tried to ban RNE from displaying fascist logos. Meanwhile, the posters and stickers keep appearing

Alexeyev, who is married with two small children, says he is not afraid. But he is cautious about criticizing Borovichi. He does not want to harm his relationship with its mayor, Vladimir Ogontsov.

Two years ago, when another neo-fascist group ran television ads telling Christians to take up arms and "kill a Jew a week," Ogontsov had the ads stopped.

During Chanukkah, Borovichi officials helped put on four sellout concerts of Jewish music. Officials also have offered Alexeyev a building, for the price of $2,000, for a new synagogue to replace the one destroyed by the Soviet authorities in 1937.

Alexeyev knows it could be worse. In Vladimir, a gritty provincial center 120 miles east of Moscow, the governor still flies the red Soviet flag and the regional legislature apparently thinks antisemitism and Russian patriotism are the same thing.

"We are tolerated here as long as we keep quiet," said Natalya Itelson, 33, of Vladimir's 700-member Jewish community. She spoke from the Tractory Factory club there, one of the two buildings in town where "Jews feel safe about getting together."

"We will not live to see the day when Jews in Vladimir are seen as ordinary Russian citizens," Itelson said.

She became convinced of this after the past fall's barrage of bluntly antisemitic outbursts in Moscow by leaders of the Communist Party, which dominates the federal parliament.

Prominent Communist lawmaker Viktor Ilyukhin in November accused Jews of waging "genocide" on Russians, and argued that the country's population was falling because President Boris N. Yeltsin's government was made up "exclusively of one group, the Jews." (Yeltsin's governments have included some Jews and other minorities.)

Another lawmaker proposed quotas for Jews in government, and Vladimir's local legislature voted 34-2 to support the idea.

Then in December, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said he had nothing against Jews but that what he called Zionists were plotting to rule the world. Russian Jews, he said, had to choose which group they belonged to.

The outbursts were shocking but familiar.

"Why have they brought this up now? Elections are coming" this December, "and the Communists need an enemy," said Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Moscow- based Russian Jewish Congress. "Whenever that happens in Russia, the first candidate is the Jews."

Is antisemitism an effective electoral strategy in Russia? The voters are certainly out there. In a recent survey of 3,000 listeners by Ekho Moskvy radio, 34 percent said "yes" to the question: "Would Russia be a better place if all the Jews left?"

Sociologist Lev Gudkov, who studies antisemitism in Russia, says both the Communists and ultranationalist groups such as RNE are vying for similar voters: the estimated 20 to 25 percent of Russians who harbor antisemitic attitudes.

Jews generally report less tension in Moscow and St. Petersburg, home to most of Russia's Jewish population. Few Jewish organizational leaders in Moscow think a return to state-sponsored antisemitism is imminent. But there is a different view in the regions where Communists and their nationalist allies constitute the main political force and Moscow's laws carry little weight.

In Krasnodar Territory in southern Russia, RNE last month put up posters calling on citizens to burn down Jews' houses. Krasnodar's governor, Nikolai Kondratenko, frequently demands the ouster of so-called Zionists from his region. Recently, Kondratenko has introduced a textbook for Krasnodar schools that blames Russia's problems in the 20th century on a Jewish conspiracy.

In nearby Stavropol, a large RNE poster welcomes visitors with an appeal for help in defending "Russian order." When RNE wanted to hold a congress here, they were given the main exhibition hall. Black-shirted gangs harass Jews and warn of reprisals.

"Sometimes it's frightening to go out on the street," said Fima Fainer, head of Stavropol's small Jewish community. "People are starting to worry."

Although that worry has translated into only a slight increase in Jewish emigration from Russia, Osovtsov of the Russian Jewish Congress said, the number of Jews who want to know what they need to do to leave has doubled.

"When Jews leave, it is not a Jewish problem, it is a threat to the idea of a democratic Russian state," Osovtsov said.

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