Russian opposition aide reflects on path to religious Jewish observance

“Chief Rabbi Lazar is the only religious leader who didn’t support the war,” Russian politician Leonid Volkov said of his Jewish community role model.

 Leonid Volkov, Russian political aide (photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
Leonid Volkov, Russian political aide
(photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)

The former chief-of-staff of Russia’s strongest opposition to President Vladimir Putin was interviewed this week, and spoke about being an orthodox Jew and why he only once traveled on Shabbat since becoming observant.

Leonid Volkov, a Russian politician known for serving as chief-of-staff to opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s campaign for the 2018 presidential election, said in an interview with Irina Shikhman, an independent Russian journalist, that he doesn’t envy Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar one bit. He said of Lazar, who has been known for his close relationship with Putin, that he has “invested in and built relationships with the government and believed that this was his way to protect the Jews of Russia, his community, from antisemitism.”
He said that Lazar is a “Western” man, and “a person who is smart.” Volkov stressed that Lazar is still “the only notable Russian religious leader who didn’t say a word of support of the war, not even a little bit.” Volkov added that the Chief Rabbi is “in a very difficult situation and position that I would not like to be in.”

He said he understands that not every leader can speak out against Putin and his regime. “Not everyone has to be a hero,” he said. “Not all people of Russia are Alexei Navalny.”

Volkov disclosed that he doesn’t know Lazar personally. “I don’t consider myself a part of this organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia,” he said.

 Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from a penal colony in the Vladimir Region during a hearing at the Basmanny district court in Moscow, Russia April 26, 2023 (credit: REUTERS/Yulia Morozova) Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from a penal colony in the Vladimir Region during a hearing at the Basmanny district court in Moscow, Russia April 26, 2023 (credit: REUTERS/Yulia Morozova)

Lazar hinted towards the war in January and said that “we are ready to do everything [needed] to find peaceful solutions,” Lazar said. He continued: “We, as a Jewish community, not only in Russia, but all over the world, are ready to do everything [needed] in order to find peaceful solutions.” He concluded by stating that “maybe our people understand more than anyone what suffering is, so we are ready to do everything so that there really is only peace in the world, and people live a good life.” These statements were considered to be brave on Lazar’s behalf, as a senior leader of a religious minority in Russia.

Navalny was sent to prison for nine years after being found guilty of embezzlement and contempt of court. Volkov also served as chairman of the Anti-Corruption Foundation until 2023.

Volkov's path to religious Jewish life

Shikhman said at the beginning of the interview that she wanted to originally interview Volkov on Friday, but that he answered “sorry, I can’t [do the interview] on Shabbat.”

Shikhman asked him when he became so religious, or “orthodox?” Volkov responded that “I always had a Jewish identity,” but added that he was very secular and an atheist.

He said that Judaism is a “system of beliefs and values,” and shared that in 2015 he asked his wife if she’d like to go to a Moscow synagogue because it was the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, “to buy donuts,” since it is customary to eat sweet food during this holiday. They went to the Marina Grove synagogue in Moscow and that is where they began getting closer to Judaism; his wife Anna converting after three years of study and immersing herself in Judaism as well as Jewish life.

He added that his wife was the force that caused them to get closer to Judaism and to religion.

Volkov spoke of what he loves about religious Jewish life, such as the observance of Shabbat, “you need to always arrange [ahead of time] that on Friday afternoon you will be able to fly home, wherever you are and then on Sunday you can fly again,” Volkov said explaining that this type of behavior makes you “understand what children see and know, that no matter where dad or mom were doing during the week, they will be guaranteed 25 hours together with the entire family; when everyone is without cell phones and when no one is busy.”

Asked if he doesn’t turn on lights or electricity on Shabbat, Volkov said that he is “far from perfect,” regarding his observance, “but we try to comply as much as we can.”

He said that Anna and him remarried in a Jewish wedding ceremony after her conversion was complete.

Volkov added that they keep Kosher and that it may be “very difficult,” at times to find suitable food in “European countries where there are almost no Jews and no Jewish infrastructure,” or Kosher restaurants.

He said that they identify as modern orthodox and explained that a Jewish woman is expected to cover her hair after getting married.

Volkov shared that the only time since becoming religious that he traveled on Shabbat was on August 22, 2020, then he joined his boss, Navalny, who was poisoned and in a coma and traveled to Germany, in order to receive medical help.

He said that he consulted with his rabbis before doing so. “I called my rabbis and said I think that in these situations I can not keep Shabbat because of what is considered pikuach nefesh, saving the life of a human. [In Judaism] it is not only possible [to not keep Shabbat in this situation] but also necessary to violate the Shabbat,” in these circumstances. Navalny, who was then in a coma, was able to recover.

Putin's Jewish opposition

Volkov isn’t the only Russian opposition figure who is Jewish. On Friday, a prominent Russian theater director was remanded in custody for two months after being accused of justifying terrorism with an award-winning play about Russian women who married Islamic State fighters, the state news agency TASS reported. Investigators opened a case this week against Yevgenia (Zhenya) Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, alleging that Petriychuk’s “Finist, the Brave Falcon”, which premiered in 2020 under Berkovich’s direction, had broken the law. Berkovich, as her name suggests, is Jewish.

In addition, Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, also a Jew, was convicted of treason by a Moscow court in April and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“Putin’s case against Vladimir Kara-Murza is a case against democracy, human rights and civil society in Russia,” former Prisoner of Zion and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky tweeted as a response to his sentence.

Another person of Jewish descent who was arrested is Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin who was sentenced in court to eight-and-a-half years in prison in December on charges of spreading “false information” about the army.

Before Passover, former Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt tweeted that advocating for the release of American Jewish journalist Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal “was a worthy endeavor.” Gershkovich has been charged with espionage, in a move that human rights organizations are decrying and the Biden administration is fighting. Goldschmidt added: “however, Evan is not the only political prisoner in Russia and Belarus. Thousands of people are being held in prisons in Russia and Belarus, among them Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara Murza, Ilya Yashin and others, many [who] are of Jewish descent.”

Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.