Russians cynically call their homeland "a country with an unpredictable past" due to the dramatic changes that frequent its official history.
As "unpredictable" as the past is, however, the future is even more unpredictable and regrettably, the Jews will, to all accounts, be the first victims of this "unpredictability".
At present, however, the lives and wellbeing of Russian Jews are stable and thriving, but that will continue only as long as the Russian political volcano’s crater is dormant.
Equal among equals
After the mass Exodus in the 90’s, the Jewish population of Russia decreased by two-thirds; there are now only about 230,000 Jews in the country. They belong to the middle class – businessmen, engineers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, representatives of bohemia – and are concentrated mostly in the big cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.
The percentage of Jews is extremely high among the Russian breed of tycoons, commonly called "oligarchs", including Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Fridman, Viktor Vekselberg, Leonid Mikhelson and Mikhail Prokhorov.
According to the leading Russian news portal Lenta.ru, only 89 of the country's 200 billionaire oligarchs are ethnic Russians. Many of the "ethnically non-Russian" ones are Jews, although Jews comprise only 0.11% of the general population.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that this is a most favorable time for Russian Jews. This is the first time Jews feel free after suffering more than 200 years of the Tzars' Pale of Settlement, massacres and libels, and after the discrimination and humiliation they underwent in the Soviet Union. All doors and career opportunities are open to them and they are not afraid to preserve and observe a Jewish lifestyle.
In February of this year, at the Congress of Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) 2015, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar said that the Jewish community has been significantly strengthened during the past 15 years, to say the least.
The relative prosperity of Russia in Putin’s era has moderated domestic anti-Semitism, and the Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia have replaced the Jews as the main threat in Russian collective consciousness.
Stereotypic, unlikable Jews – greedy nouveaux riches and unscrupulous lawyers, who dominated the Russian cinema in the 90s – were replaced by “respectable” Jews who are professors and doctors.
Russian Jews are in a better position than their counterparts in Western Europe who live in fear of rising anti-Semitism and violence. Moreover, Russian Jews actually maintain rather friendly relations with the Muslim community – the Tatars, Tajiks and Caucasians. Unlike in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden or Norway, the Jews in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are not asked to conceal Jewish symbols.
"This is an unprecedented Phenomenon"
"None of the former Russian or Soviet leaders ever did as much as Vladimir Putin has done for the Jews. It is felt in every aspect of life. This is an unprecedented phenomenon,” Rabbi Lazar said. “Many mayors, regional governors and ministers in modern Russia are Jews. It is the norm."
This is not an expression of loyalty to the ruler, so typical of Russia. It is the truth. Putin can be accused of many things, perhaps, but not of anti-Semitism.
In his heartfelt speech to the Jewish leaders at the FJCR, the rabbi called for a "revival of religious, spiritual and cultural traditions of Russian Jews."
That appeal, trivial in the West, was unthinkable until now in Russia, whose past leaders deliberately showed their indifference and even contempt towards the Jews. Putin’s decision to transfer his monthly salary to the construction of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in Moscow, in November 2012, was an example of the change in mindset.
Russian Jews and Israel: Zero Political Correctness
Jewish leaders in Russia, unlike Jews in the West, don’t hide their strong support for Israel.
In October, a delegation that included 50 rabbis, headed by Rabbi Lazar, as well as community leaders and businessmen from Russia, visited Israel.
Lazar publicly condemned Arab terror without any politically correct equivocations about the "peace process" and "ending the occupation"; the delegation visited Rachel's tomb and Gush Etzion.
It wasn’t the first example of open solidarity with Israel, in contrast to the ambiguity, distancing, confusion and timidity of Western Jewry.
In October 2015, Dr. Yuri Kanner, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said that the PA provoked the current wave of terror in Israel because of their fear of losing European donations, explaining forthrightly that “compassionate Europeans switched to other miserable people [refugees], and functionaries of Fatah decided to regain the monopoly, using Palestinian suffering.”
The paradox is that the approach of pro-Israeli community leaders does not fit well with the official policy of Moscow, which has a "special relationship" with the PA and a “flirtation” with Hamas, organizations whose leaders are honored guests at the Kremlin. This is a phenomenon of the Putin era; he plays a rather enigmatic role in both arenas.
The Emperor and His Jews
Putin despises liberal democracy. In his spirit, he is an adherent of enlightened absolutism, as was Frederick the Great. Like Frederick, he believes that only tough centralized power can restrain the decay of the state and civil strife. He relies on national aspirations and traditions, believes in the destiny of Russia and desires to make history by returning and reuniting Russian lands.
Nonetheless, like Frederick, he is a stranger to xenophobia and irrational hatred. On the contrary, he seeks to present himself as the patron of the sciences, arts and minorities.
Just as the German Protestant King favored Jews, Muslims and Catholics, demanding loyalty in return, the new Russian Orthodox "Tsar" favors other minorities in return for respect to him. Anti-Semitism is damaging his reputation as the fair ruler of an empire.
Jews are allowed to show sympathy to Israel, just as Muslims are allowed to sympathize with the Islamic world, as long as all of them are obedient to him. Russian Jews supported the Kremlin on key issues. Only recently, Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a Chabad senior aide to Berel Lazar, welcomed the action of the Russian Air Force in Syria.
There is another point to be considered with regard to Putin: Jews played an important and positive role in his life. He was very grateful to his German teacher, a Jewess named Mina Yuditskaya, and was always open about it. As soon as he became president, he purchased an apartment for her in Tel-Aviv.
His Judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin (also Jewish), played an important role in his life. Putin’s best friends in his Judo club, and later his partners in business, were Jews named Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.
For Putin, who cultivates courage and honor, the image of a Jew is not associated with fraud or intellectualism, but with fighters, and this attitude extends to Israel.
Putin respects Israel and its leaders for their persistence and strength, while considering Western countries and leaders faint-hearted, naive and mercantile. He deliberately humiliates Western leaders by systematically arriving late for meetings with them (more than 4 hours with Angela Merkel, 3 hours – with John Kerry and 40 minutes – with Barak Obama), but acts as an equal with Netanyahu, whose military past has impressed him.
In an interview with Russian journalists, Netanyahu repeatedly talked about “strong chemistry” with the Russian leader, and that there is a "hotline" between Putin and himself (the only other one is between Israel and the US).
After the much-publicized affair of the Russian feminist punk protest rock group Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral, Putin justified the harsh reaction of the authorities in a very interesting way: "Had they desecrated something in Israel – you probably know – that the strong guys there would make them pay!"(August 2012).
Obviously, Putin doesn’t stress out about Israel, but at same time he isn’t biased by ideological clichés, like Obama and other Western leaders. Although he is surrounded with an abundance of anti-Semites, as an absolute ruler he doesn’t indulge them.
The question is, what will happen “after Putin?"
Clouds on the Horizon
According to the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Alexander Boroda, Putin’s departure from the political arena would pose a serious threat to the Jews.
Chaos or a new ruler with traditional anti-Semitic prejudices will put an end to the "golden era" of Russian Jewry.
Traditionally, Russia has always been rife with anti-Semitism. There are many fables in its people’s collective consciousness about "Judeo-Masonic Conspiracies" and any serious crisis can revive old phobias.
The Russian Internet is obsessed with anti-Semitism. Numerous sites abound which list Jewish names hiding under Russian pseudonyms, "fake numbers of Jews" in the government; claims that Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin are actually "undercover Jews," that the October Revolution of 1917 was the result of a “Khazar Khaganate” conspiracy which Stalin tried to resist.
On these sites, the reader can discover that the Jews have intoxicated and corrupted the Russian people, and that the "Elders of Zion" have manipulated the Soviet rulers through their wives. Renowned liberal cultural figures who criticize the Kremlin are immediately branded “Jews.”
Boruch Gorin accused the country’s Communist Party of “vulgar and primitive anti-Semitism.” The Orthodox Church feeds these chimeras as well.
Patriotic hysteria coupled with a deteriorating economic situation always frightens Jews, who begin to consider aliya. In 2014, the wave of Jewish immigrants from Russia doubled and it continues to grow.
The "Golden Age" of Russian Jewry is currently intact, thanks to Putin's leadership, but it's probably only a matter of time.