President Vladimir Putin is recreating the Soviet Union as he thinks it should have been,’ says Natan Sharansky’s former Hebrew teacher, ‘without the anti-Semitism.’
For the Jews, it’s a miracle’

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MOSCOW —
There are no giant government billboards displaying Vladimir Putin’s balding, smooth-cheeked, cold-eyed visage on the streets of Moscow.
No colossal statues, ripe for toppling come the day.
No murals covering the entire sides of buildings. In 2014, the president doesn’t need to promote the cult of personality in the style of Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein, or dare one say Joseph Stalin.

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He’s all over the Internet,
the papers, the TV — a 5 foot, 7 inch dynamo running the largest country in the world, apparently single-handedly, taking on a superpower-in-retreat and laughing all the way to a revived Russian empire.
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In Red Square,
at the Resurrection Gate, a pair of Lenin and Stalin impersonators pose for hours with groups of passing domestic tourists (there are very few foreigners among the crowds), taking a small fee, thank you very much, for each snap.

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A briefcase-carrying Putin l
ookalike also puts in an appearance every now and then — briskly shaking hands, looking preoccupied — but then disappears again. Even pretend Putins, it seems, have no time for frivolity.

Chabad’s chief rabbi

The Jewish leader closest to Putin
is Chabad’s Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, a Milan-born, New York-ordained emissary, who first came here in the late 1980s on several trips to teach Judaism to refuseniks and was then appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to help revive and strengthen the Jewish community as the Soviet Union entered its death throes in 1990.

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A father of 12 aged 49,
with a graying beard and the trademark Chabad warmth — he immediately invites me for Shabbat dinner when we meet — Lazar works from a book-lined sixth-floor office in the Moscow Jewish Community Center building that houses his now-thriving Maryina Roshcha District synagogue.

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When he arrived, Lazar recalls,
there was “an underground” of people leading a return to Judaism. By 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev had granted “unofficial permission to open a school and a yeshiva.” And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most everyone whose Judaism was important to them was leaving. “The place was emptying out. The Israeli embassy was sure there’d be no Jews left,” says Lazar. “They laughed at us as we tried to fix up synagogues. It was a conveyor belt: come to shul, learn Hebrew, go to Israel. No one thought there’d be a future here.”

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So, formally,
the Lazars came for a year. “But the Rebbe told us to stay, to invest in education, Jewish community. From 1994 to 1996 the place was empty. The old synagogue had burned down” — firebombed by unknown attackers in 1993. “We only had a minyan [prayer quorum] once a week, on Shabbat. Sometimes we had to stand in the street to find a Jew for a minyan. All that was left were old people who couldn’t leave and disconnected youth. Whoever had a real Jewish connection had left. But, it turns out, there were Jews in the closet who had remained. And nowadays, every day, more come out.”

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Indeed, in the shul downstairs,
at mid-morning on a Friday, several dozen young men are praying, studying and milling around. Across town, in the Choral Synagogue — Russia’s main shul, which stayed open through the Soviet period — the congregation on Friday evening is also overwhelmingly young, men in their late teens and 20s.

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If, in the mid-90s,
there were basically no self-identified Jews left, official estimates today put Russia’s Jewish population at almost half a million. But the rabbi believes the true figure may be a million or more.

‘For the Jews in Russia, things have changed drastically. It’s nothing short of a miracle. And that’s why Jews have come out [to acknowledge their faith]‘ — Rabbi Berel Lazar

Why the boom?
“It’s in, cool, to be Jewish,” he says. “It’s more accepted. It’s not dangerous. In the past the shul was burned down, there were attacks at cemeteries. Today, thank God, things are quiet. The Jewish issue is not an issue anymore. People will tell you that there are enemies [of the community], but the fact is that people come up to us sometimes and say, We love you.”

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“Just last night on TV
there was a reality show about Pessah. It was very positive. It talked about matzah, about the story of Pessah. The Jews were presented as friends and as good for Russia. It’s almost surreal. This is on prime-time state TV in Russia.”

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) leaves the Kremlin after announcing his early resignation as head of state and the temporary transfer of his powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left), December 31, 1999. (Photograph:  ITAR-TASS/Wikipedia)

And where does Putin fit in to all this?
“I believe he brought a lot of change [for the Jewish community and its well-being]. Gorbachev and [first Russian Federation president Boris] Yeltsin changed a lot, but Putin really came out and tackled anti-Semitism. Under Yeltsin [1991-99], if there were anti-Semitic incidents, he said, Ignore it, it will go away. Putin confronted it, head-on. His message is, Don’t harm the Jews. You’ll be arrested and punished. A young boy came into the shul with a knife. He was 17-18. He was jailed for sixteen years.

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“A non-Jewish lady
saw a sign by the side of the road that said ‘Death to the Jews.’ She went to take it down and it exploded in her face. There were nails in it. We flew her to Israel because the doctors here said they couldn’t save her eyesight. In Israel, the doctors made miracles and she came back with her eyesight restored. Putin called her in and thanked her for her heroism.”

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He sends a message of not tolerating anti-Semitism.
That he meets with us sends a strong message to the people. For the Jews in Russia, things have changed drastically. It’s nothing short of a miracle. And that’s why Jews have come out [to acknowledge their faith]. Every day, hundreds come.”

Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar and Israeli President Shimon Peres read from a Torah scroll at an opening ceremony of Russia’s Jewish Museum in Moscow, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.  (photo credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

I ask Lazar about concerns
that he’s too close to Putin — that he offers a kind of Jewish certification for Putin’s activities. “That’s ridiculous,” he says quietly but firmly. “People think I pick up the phone and just speak to him.” He shakes his head at the absurdity of the notion. “There are four main religions in the Russian tradition: the Russian Orthodox church, the Muslims, the Buddhists and the Jews. I can’t say we’re his favorites. We’re similar to the way he treats any of the religions.”

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“He’s done a lot for Russia and for the Jews,
” the rabbi goes on. “We respect him and thank him for that. What he thinks of me, I don’t know. We don’t go out to dinner or play golf. When the Russian government wants to talk to the Jewish community, it talks to the rabbi. It’s the same with all religions. They talk to the religious leaders. With the Jews, it’s not the Federation or the rich Jews. So yes, they speak to me.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on November 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)

Nonetheless,
Lazar is unapologetic in his enthusiasm for the president, though wary about patriotism metamorphosing into a dangerous nationalistic drive. Asked where Putin is taking Russia, he replies: “He’s a strong Russian patriot. Without him, geopolitically, I don’t know where Russia would be. Before he came around, Russia was battered. Russian Jews were ashamed to say they were Russian. Today there’s a new pride. I’m not saying it’s all good. He’s very popular. He broadcasts this message: Don’t tangle with Russia. What we in the Jewish community care for is that it not turn into a nationalistic feeling. Today we’re comfortable. But we’re watching. We watch out for [anti-Semitic] rhetoric. People sometimes say things on TV and we sometimes go out strongly against it.”

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Such as?
The populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky “made a [troubling] speech in the Duma. It turned out his father was Jewish. We found his father’s grave in Israel. He came and asked his forgiveness. There was a lady on TV hinting at Holocaust denial, saying that the Jews are exaggerating. The TV clarified the next day. This is Russia and you don’t know how things can shift. I’m not saying Russians are anti-Semites, but it only takes a small spark to ignite nationalistic feelings.”

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Hasn’t Putin ignited nationalistic feelings?
“I think he’s a Russian patriot. There’s a small divide between patriotism and nationalistic sentiment. You have to be very careful everywhere, especially in Russia. When you see it expressed ‘just’ against foreigners, against Asians, there are those who say, ‘Look they’re busy with them. You’re safe.’ No, any nationalistic sentiment is not good.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to the head of the Russian army's main department of combat preparation, Ivan Buvaltsev (R), while observing military exercises at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region, Monday, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP)

I ask the rabbi whether Russia is a democracy.
“Through American eyes, one wouldn’t say so. A lot of institutions are not democratic by American standards. Is it ready for full-fledged democracy? I’m not sure. As we saw in some Arab countries, people aren’t always ready. After 78 years of communism, a lot of people here aren’t ready for democracy. In Yeltsin’s time, there was a feeling that Russia was entering full democracy, but it was like the Wild West. Jews were being killed once a week. Not because they were Jewish, but because it was a jungle. There was anti-Semitism, extortion — we felt insecure. Putin restored order. He used a strong hand; some would say too strong. There’s still a lot of corruption, there are a lot of human rights issues, but there is more order and people feel more secure. I believe he will bring more democracy. The Internet is open. (*See bottom of this article.) The young generation was born under freedom and they are open. You can’t brainwash them. Eighty percent of the country feels things have gotten better. But there are still things that are so backward — in medicine, in the courts, police corruption, other levels.”

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Is he concerned Putin might ever turn against the Jews?
“You never know, but I don’t think so. He appreciates what Jews stand for — our values, our contribution to the country. A few months after becoming president, he came to the opening of our synagogue. That was not popular. It didn’t gain him any votes, but this was one of his first events and he said that day, Of course Jews had left [Russia] when they could. Look at how they were treated. He said we have to do everything to make Jews feel comfortable — whether it’s in education, community centers, fighting anti-Semitism. They have to have a feeling of belonging.

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“I got a call last week that he wants to see me on the 15th of April. I explained that I couldn’t, because it was a Jewish holiday” — the first day of Passover. “So they moved around his calendar and asked me on the 14th at 6 p.m. instead. I had to explain it wouldn’t work because it would be too late for me to get back before the start of the festival that evening. His days were packed. But they moved everything around again and he met me at 5 p.m. The point is they went out of their way, and it was just to wish a happy Passover.”

Smoking city

To a complete outsider like myself, Moscow is a curious city. It is strikingly quiet, bar the constant hum of traffic — no horns blaring, little music seeping out from cars or homes. In the center of the capital, its people are extremely well-dressed, and it boasts shopping centers filled with top-end stores. The GUM department store in Red Square — now a collection of leading-brand boutiques — is eye-wateringly expensive and there’s almost nobody buying. Remoter neighborhoods are crammed with palpably poor, dense housing projects.

Slavyansky Bulvar, Moscow metro station (photo credit: Van Elsing.16/Wikipedia)

Moscow’s Metro,
which dates from the 1930s, is an evolving architectural masterpiece — magnificent station entrances leading deep, deep down to glittering platforms and marbled corridors, some boasting statuary, others stained-glass installations. It is clearly signed, even for the Cyrillicly challenged; Wi-Fi connected — everybody’s reading iPads on the long escalator journeys down; clean, and brightly lit — barely a single dead light among the thousands of bulbs in fittings that include outrageously ornate chandeliers. It is also spectacularly efficient, carrying more passengers than the Tube in London and the NYC subway combined. Nobody runs for a train, because they know the next one is bound to be along in a minute.

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Very few people speak any English, though some seem to labor under the delusion that speaking Russian louder might boost comprehension

Almost everybody in Moscow seems to smoke,
almost everywhere, most certainly including restaurants (though not the Metro). And most everybody looks unhappy — glum, even on unexpectedly sunny days in April.

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The language barrier
is sky-high. Very few people speak any English, though some seem to labor under the delusion that speaking Russian louder might boost comprehension.

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I go to a gig by a Beatles tribute band
— the Cavern Beatles. I assume it’ll be in a grimy club in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it’s at Moscow’s International House of Music, an elegant 1,700-seat concert hall packed with Muscovites of all ages in their finery — men in suits, women bejeweled. Every song is warmly applauded. Only a handful of people dance. The “Beatles” play “Back in the USSR”; nobody cheers or otherwise demonstrably acknowledges the locational relevance. (Evidently, they don’t know how lucky they are.) When the concert ends, the audience spills out in pin-drop silence, as though emerging from a funeral.

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I go to Red Square.
The line to see embalmed Lenin is not signposted and turns out to begin several hundred yards away from his mausoleum. The ticket office to enter the Kremlin, with its Armory and cathedrals, is even further afield. The ticket booths are covered in darkened glass. It is impossible to know if anyone is inside. The ticket windows are tiny apertures via which it would be difficult to conduct any kind of conversation even if one did know the language. A body-less voice at one of these windows repeatedly barks out the single word “Bank!” in response to my polite but increasingly plaintive inquiries.

A view across Red Square (photo credit: Christophe Meneboeuf)

It’s 12:30
and I ultimately establish that I cannot go see the Armory, with its collection of Faberge eggs and other glories, until 2:30. And I can’t buy the ticket to enter the Armory at 2:30 until 1:45. And no, I cannot tour the rest of the distant Kremlin first, and buy the ticket at the Armory itself closer to the time, so that I don’t have to wait pointlessly here or schlep back here. I am saved by an English-speaking tour guide named Alexandra — “easy to remember, like Alexandra the Great,” she chirps — who tells me, “Of course you can buy the ticket at the Armory. There’s a little ticket office there that nobody tells you about. You’re in Russia remember? There’s the legal way, and the illegal way.”

For a moment, I feel almost at home.

 

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