The Oxford Press
Rise in attacks against Russian Jews sparks worries
By SABRA AYRES
Cox News Service
Friday, February 25, 2005
MOSCOW – A rise in anti-Jewish rhetoric from politicians and a recent wave
of violent attacks on Jews has the Jewish community and human rights groups
worried about a resurgence of Russian anti-Semitism, xenophobia and
In January, two rabbis and two young Jewish boys were attacked by a group of
thugs in an underground passage in a central Moscow neighborhood. One of the
rabbis, Alexander Lakshin, was kicked and beaten with a bottle. The attack
put him in the hospital for two days.
SABRA AYRES/Cox News Service
Rabbi Alexander Lakshin stands in the hall of the Moscow Jewish Community
The same night, the bottle-wielding skinheads chased down a young Jewish
couple. They escaped unharmed, but frightened for their lives.
A few days later, 20 lawmakers joined in an appeal to the government to ban
all Jewish organizations, saying the groups were inciting ethnic hatred.
One of the signers of the letter, Communist Party deputy Albert Makashov,
appeared on a popular television talk show that weekend to defend the
letter’s intent. Famous for his unabashed anti-Semitic speeches, Makashov
has said he favors reinstatement of the Pale of Settlement, the territory in
which Jews were restricted to live during the 19th century.
On the program, Makashov blamed Russia’s Jews for the country’s economic and
social problems. About 52,000 viewers, or just over half of the program’s
home audience, called in to say they agreed with him.
The recent wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric is “more alarming because it seems
certain politicians may be testing the water to see how far they can use
anti-Semitism in their campaigns during the next election,” said Lakshin,
Monitoring agencies have reported significant increases in anti-Semitic
incidents in France, Germany and Britain, but a recent U.S. State Department
report picked out Russia as a “problem area.”
“Russia’s form of anti-Semitism, compared to Western Europe, is more
primitive and therefore more dangerous,” said Dr. Margo Light, a specialist
on Russia and the former Soviet Union at the London School of Economics. “In
Western Europe, we have social norms that tell us that it is inappropriate
to express what you might feel. But in Russia, they don’t have that.”
Publicly, President Vladimir Putin has supported promoting religious freedom
in Russia, where 70 years of communism promoted atheism as the state
religion. The letter’s timing was an embarrassment for Putin, who was
scheduled to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of
the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet soldiers just days after it surfaced.
The Kremlin was quick to distance itself. “Even in Russia, which did more
than anybody else to crush fascism and liberate the Jewish people, we often
see symptoms of this disease today,” Putin said in Poland during the
ceremony. “And we feel ashamed about this.”
Putin’s remarks reflect that the days of state-sponsored anti-Semitism has
ended. In Soviet times, Jews’ passports were stamped “Jewish” while other
Soviet citizens were identified by nationality, such as Ukrainian or
Armenian, and Jews could be fired for attending a synagogue.
The religion is now seeing a surge in new worshipers, with an estimated
500,000 practicing Jews in Moscow. Many shop at the kosher supermarket,
which opened near the capital’s Jewish Community Center.
But Lakshin and others feel the Kremlin should do more to censor outspoken,
anti-Semitic political rhetoric.
They also point to Rodina, or Motherland, a political party formed under the
guidance of the Kremlin during the 2003 parliamentary elections. The party
has campaigned on promoting nationalistic values and won a small percentage
of seats in the parliament, the Duma. Some of Rodina’s members signed the
letter calling for the ban on Jewish groups.
“Nationalism is on the rise in Russia, and Rodina unleashed something to
worry about,” Light of the London School of Economics said. “It’s more
dangerous because it is more intellectual than the usual rants and theatrics
of (the ultra-nationalist lawmaker Vladimir) Zhironovsky.”
Other racial groups have also become victims of violent crimes, including a
9-year-old Tajik girl who was killed last year in St. Petersburg and a
medical student from Guinea-Bissau who was stabbed to death in the southern
town of Voronezh.
Dark-skinned and dark-eyed Russians from the Russia’s North Caucasus region
are subjected to unfair treatment and frequent harassment from Moscow
police, watchdog groups said.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Moscow Bureau of Human rights attribute
many of the violent attacks to an increase in Russian nationalistic skinhead
groups, which are estimated to have as many as 55,000 members.
But nationalist and anti-Jewish newspapers are readily available at kiosks
“So far, we haven’t seen Russian society show that they won’t tolerate
anti-Semitic crimes,” said Lakshin.
Russia has a hate-based crime law, but it is rarely enforced and convictions
are hard to obtain. This month, Moscow Police Chief Vladimir Pronin was
quoted in the Russian media as saying the capital “does not have any