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Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia instils grave concern

Colin Shindler
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Published: 30 November 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

COLIN SHINDLER: The great hope that followed the demise of communism has dissolved, and a growing band of unhappy Jews watch as Russia goes from bad to worse

THIRTY YEARS AGO, the Soviet Union passed into history. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, a new Russia was born and a plethora of new republics came into existence. The abrupt end of 74 years of Lenin's experiment gave birth to chaos and collapse. Oligarchs emerged from the subterranean depths. Diehard commissars became diehard capitalists overnight.

While many made fortunes, the safety net of state provision for ordinary people was removed at one blow. The West subsequently failed to nourish the seeds of democracy and the rule of law during the 1990s. It paved the way for former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin to offer a crude nationalism and an unapologetic authoritarianism as a potent substitute for economic instability. Putin now has the possibility to remain in power until 2036, when he will be 84.

Within weeks of attaining power in May 2000, Putin moved against the oligarchs — a disproportionate number of whom were Jewish. Some complied, some rebelled and others embraced emigration.  Under communism, ideology provided the bedrock upon which power operated. Today's regime is defined by the accumulation of great wealth without any pretence at upholding legal norms.

Questions about Putin's personal wealth and the machinations of the oligarchs that surround him clearly unnerve the Kremlin. Putin's People, the recent book from the investigative journalist,Catherine Belton, formerly the head of the Financial Times' Moscow Bureau, attempted to shine a spotlight on many a shady corner — and earned five lawsuits from billionaires including Israeli citizens, Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman.

Last week, a preliminary judgement was given in a British courtroom. The judge said Belton’s account of recent events in Russia, as argued by her lawyers in relation to meaning, was “in my view, the right one”. But the judge also said specific sections of the book conveyed a defamatory meaning against Roman Abramovich, including a claim that he had bought Chelsea football club on Vladimir Putin’s orders.

Independence of thought is not a characteristic that  is welcomed in today's Russia. Neither are journalists — many such as Anna Politkovskaya have paid with their lives for their fidelity to their calling. The number of murdered journalists in Russia now runs into hundreds. The BBC's long time Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, was expelled last summer. For Putin, the sword is mightier than the pen.

One hundred years ago, communists allied themselves with the intelligentsia to oppose the capitalists. Today in Putin's Russia, their spiritual heirs ally themselves with the capitalists to oppose the intelligentsia.

<br><br>Rabbis at a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews sit-in (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)


Rabbis at a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews sit-in (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

Putin, however, has kept the beast of traditional Russian antisemitism chained in its lair. He may well be genuine in his opposition to antisemitism, but he has also learned from the Soviet experience that it had a corrosive effect on the regime's standing. He also knows that Israel and Russia must cooperate over Syrian skies to prevent an unexpected clash.

Even so, it is the regime's kneejerk reaction to crush anyone who proclaims the principle of being different that induces a profound historical resonance for many Jews.

It is not a coincidence that many of the leading refuseniks such as Edward Kuznetsov, Vladimir Slepak and Natan Sharansky — leaders of the Jewish emigration movement after 1967 — began life as dissident opponents of the regime before embracing the cause of Zion. Many continued to support figures such as Andrei Sakharov, who courageously defended human rights in the USSR.

It is significant that the challenge to injustice in Russia today still attracts Jews. In September 2013, Alexei Navalny stood in the election for mayor of Moscow and gained over a quarter of the vote. His use of social networks was engineered by two Moscow Jews, Maksim Kats and Leonid Volkov. Kats had returned from years in Israel and earned part of his salary as a teacher of Hebrew.

Volkov, who coordinated recent Russia-wide protests in support of Navalny is a “ba'al tshuva” - a returnee to Jewishness and Judaism. He has invited Navalny and his wife to a Friday night Shabbat meal on more than one occasion.

Today, Navalny is reputedly a target by his fellow prisoners in the IK-2 camp at Pokrov — egged on by the camp's commandant in order to break him. Putin has instigated new laws to suppress Navalny's supporters and there are hints of new trials and further charges. Volkov and others have sought safety in exile and left Russia.

Putin clearly exhibits a penchant for foreign operations, directed against those in the intelligence services who have stood up to him. Aleksandr Litvinenko was murdered in London by agents who slipped the isotope Polonium 210 into his cup of tea.

Navalny in Siberia and the Skripals in Salisbury were famously poisoned by Novichok — the weapon of choice of an assassination squad of military intelligence agents, responsible to Colonel Stanislav Makshakov and General Vladimir Bogdanov. They were identified by the remarkable investigative journalism website, Bellingcat. Others who dared to raise their voices — Vera Kuzakova, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Dmitri Bykov — have all suffered a similar fate in recent years.

<br><br><br>A protest in February 2021 in support of opposition leader Navalany (EPA)



A protest in February 2021 in support of opposition leader Navalany (EPA)

Several years ago, Putin gave a passionate address to celebrate the founding of the intelligence services in the USSR. He read out a rollcall of legendary Soviet agents. The first name on the list was Yakov Isakovich Serebryansky, an agent who infiltrated the early Zionist immigration to Palestine and lived there for several years. In 1926, he moved to Paris where he led a secret group of Communist sympathisers which carried out assassinations and kidnappings.

“Uncle Yasha’s group” possessed its own laboratory and utilised chemical weapons in its struggle against the anti-Soviet opposition in Europe. Many Jews then believed passionately in the Soviet future and thereby justified throwing morality to the wind.

As with the Soviet predilection for poisons, Putin has followed his predecessors in the USSR for spreading disinformation — “fake news” — to create division in democracies. In 1959, General Ivan Agayants, who headed the KGB's disinformation department, initiated an antisemitic graffiti campaign in West Germany to discredit Konrad Adenauer's rule and implicitly compare it to the blemish-free Communist East Germany.

The challenge to injustice in Russia today still attracts Jews. Alexei Navalny's use of social networks was engineered by two Moscow Jews, Maksim Kats and Leonid Volkov.

Under KGB supervision, swastikas were painted on headstones in Jewish cemeteries, antisemitic slogans written on synagogue walls and Jewish-owned shops, hate mail sent to rabbis and threatening telephone calls made to Jewish leaders. The unspoken suggestion was that not too much had changed in West Germany since 1945.

Today there have been repeated Russian attempts to stir the fires of populism and racism in an outreach to the European far Right — to figures in the British National Party, the Hungarian Jobbik and the French Front National.

And then there is the manufactured crisis of hapless refugees sandwiched between Belarus and Poland. For Jews, it brings to mind the time in 1938 when stateless Polish Jews, expelled from Nazi Germany, were located in the limbo of Zbąszyń on the Polish-German border. Close to 10,000 Jews were marooned in deteriorating, insanitary conditions while both Poles and Germans refused to budge.

Russian actions continue to worry the West — and especially its attitude towards former states of the USSR that are now members of the European Union and NATO. The refusal of the German Energy regulator to currently approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, completed in September at a cost of £8 billion, which bypasses the Ukraine and Belarus, is a measure of the fear that Putin will utilise the energy crisis to tread on the West's windpipe.

All this takes place at a time when debate continues to rage as to whether Russia would have been better off if the Soviet Union had survived. Some have argued that communism — despite Gorbachev's willingness to promote glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) — was incapable of reform.

For millions of Jews who carry with them the memory of liberation from the oppression of the Tsars and their Marxist-Leninist successors, injustice in Russia remains a matter of interest — and for some, a question that cannot be quietly interred. A growing band of unhappy Jews watch from the sidelines as the situation in Russia goes from bad to worse.  

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