During this year’s Passover season, it is especially poignant to remember what danger authoritarian nationalist regimes pose to people who do not fit onto their Procrustean bed – especially the Jews.
In 2003, having spent 10 months living in Moscow, I became convinced that Russia stood on the verge of a nationalist explosion. To be sure, back then, in the early years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, there was still hope that Russia could be a democratic, modern nation. The country was a lot more open than in the Soviet era, when my family emigrated from Moscow.
Its people were enjoying the freedom to travel and to speak their mind, and cultural life was rich, varied and uncensored. But underneath it all there seethed the anger and resentment of a defeated nation.
When I came back to New York, I went to work for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish charity which since its inception in 1881 had been saving Jews who fled Czarist pogroms in Russia, Nazi genocide across Europe and anti-Semitism elsewhere. In the 1970s, HIAS was instrumental in forcing the Soviet government to let its Jewish people go, and it helped hundreds of thousands of us to resettle in the United States.
I felt that the Russian-speaking community needed to organize and stand ready in case Jews still living in Russia – some 200,000 of them by official count – had to be urgently assisted. For a time, my apprehension seemed groundless. While in the 1990s Russians felt impoverished because Soviet-era industry had disintegrated and ruble savings had been decimated by inflation, in the early years of this century the situation turned completely around. The price of oil, Russia’s principal export, went from $30 per barrel in 2003 to a high of $147 just before the 2008 financial crisis. Now, oil prices are still high, at around $100. Russia was suddenly awash in petrodollars and some of the oil wealth trickled down to ordinary citizens. A new urban middle class began to emerge and even pensioners and low-paid government employees such as doctors and teachers began to see their standards of living rise.
But the newfound material well-being not only failed to placate the rising sense of nationalist resentment but, in a strange way, exacerbated it. Many Russians pined for the Soviet imperial span and for what they saw as national greatness, blaming the West – and especially Americans – for keeping Russia down.
Putin’s government has long been playing the Soviet nostalgia card. As long ago as 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” State-controlled media – and soon there was no other kind – looked at the Soviet past through rose-colored lenses, glossing over vile aspects of the communist regime and exonerating leaders such as Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. In numerous television shows the Soviet past was made to seem glorious – it was when the country was huge, powerful and feared by the entire world.
The success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, in which Russia won most gold medals, and the annexation of Crimea were the catalysts thrusting this Soviet hysteria into the open. Many writers and politicians now openly call for the revival of the Soviet Union and threaten to put Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, on trial for allowing its breakup.
The pining for the Soviet past has not had a significant anti-Semitic component – at least not yet. There are many Jews among Russian business elites, and even some in Putin’s inner circle. Plenty of Jews were on the list of over 500 cultural and artistic figures who signed a letter supporting Putin’s course of action in Crimea.
But Russia is playing a dangerous game. Even though Hitler ranted against “Jewish bankers” whom he blamed for Germany’s problems, Jews were also inimical to the kind of insular, homogenous and retrograde nation-state he was trying to create. Educated, urban Jews were the living embodiment of the complex modern world: international in outlook, skeptical of received opinion, self-deprecating in their humor and forever questioning all authority and simplistic solutions.
Stalin, who defeated Hitler and whose soldiers liberated Auschwitz, began a campaign against “rootless cosmopolites” almost immediately after the end of the war. His Soviet Union was swept by Soviet nationalism and leader worship, and in that environment even loyal Jews among Soviet intelligentsia promptly became the enemy.
Members of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were rounded up, and their leader, actor Samuel Mikhoels, was murdered in a staged traffic accident. On a single night in August 1952, more than a dozen Yiddish writers were executed by Stalin’s secret police.
Prominent Jewish medical professionals were arrested on trumped-up charges in a case known as the Doctors’ Plot. When Stalin died, plans had been laid for collective punishment for all Soviet Jews. They were to be deported to the Far East.
Unabashed Jew-haters already appear on Russia’s state-owned television, such as writer Alexander Prokhanov.
The Jewish origins of some vocal members of the domestic opposition and political leaders in Ukraine have been deliberately pointed out in a series of political exposes. If Putin’s Russia continues on the same nationalistic, xenophobic, insular and imperial course – in other words, moving away from the 21st century and back to the 19th – it will inevitably end up accusing Jews of disloyalty and perfidy.
The author is a New York-based economist and writer. He is a regular columnist for Moscow Times, Russia’s independent English-language daily, and RBK, a business newspaper. In 2004-08 he worked as a consultant, Russian-speaking community development, for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. His detective novel, Murder at the Dacha, set in Moscow in the 1960s, was published by Russian Life Publishers in 2013.