Over the past eight months or so, Western media have carried alarming reports on the resurgence of antisemitism in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia and Ukraine, where most of the region's roughly 1.5 million Jews reside. Russia has seen the worst of it.
Of the men most associated with this flare-up, two figures stand out: Alexander Barkashov, leader of a small band of rabid followers known as the Russian National Unity Party; and former general Albert Makashov, a communist member of the State Duma (the lower house of parliament). Makashov regularly crisscrosses Russia with his rabble-rousing message, liberally drawn from forgeries such as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion--a document compiled by the czar's secret police at turn of the century that describes an international Jewish conspiracy led by rabbis intending to conquer the world.
Another communist, Viktor Ilyukhin, chairman of the parliament's security committee, has charged Russian President Boris Yeltsin with surrounding himself with Jews bent on committing "genocide" against the Russian people. The leader of the Communist Party in and outside the parliament, Gennady Zyuganov, a man singularly adept at projecting either a moderate, or an acidulous attitude toward non-Russian ethnic groups (the first at international gatherings, the other at home with loyal disciples), has never explicitly embraced the views of Ilyukhin and Makashov, and once even criticized the latter for his "intemperance." Nevertheless, he staunchly insists that Jews are "over-represented" in the state's leading bodies.
Emigration of Jews from Russia and Ukraine--in decline for several years--began escalating early this year. At a two-day conference held at Harvard University in March, speakers warned about rising fascism and xenophobia across the former Soviet Union. A colleague of mine, a distinguished historian--himself not Jewish--came back from a recent trip to Russia filled with harrowing stories of hooligans insulting Jews on the streets, kiosks inundated with scurrilous broadsheets and public television offering time to the purveyors of mass hatred.
As a person with scholarly and journalistic experience in East European matters, I was eager to see for myself. So I joined a recent two-week tour of Russia and Ukraine sponsored by the U.S. Jewish Community Development Fund, an organization supporting Jewish cultural and religious activities in the former Soviet Union. While the brief trip confirmed my impressions of antisemitism in the region, it also yielded evidence of good relations between Jews and non-Jews and of a vibrant Jewish life quite at odds with the image of pervasive antisemitism and oppressive fear among Jews.
Ukraine, where our trip began, offered the first set of surprises. Long regarded as a country steeped in brutal antisemitism, Ukraine has been the site of some of history's most hideous massacres of Jews. During World War II, many Ukrainians abetted Hitler's New Order. Like so many generalizations, however, this image of implacable hatred must be treated with circumspection. During the civil war of 1918-1919, for example, thousands of Jews fell victim to pogroms, which have often been attributed to Ukrainians alone. But others, particularly Russians in the White and Bolshevik armies, were no less guilty of these atrocities. Still, it seemed appropriate that many of the "anti-Zionist" screeds that came out in the Soviet Union in the 1960s were published in Ukraine, a few of them under the imprimatur of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.
Given this history, I found it remarkable that so many Jews I met--in Kiev, with 80,000 Jews out of a total 2.25 million people; in Cherkassy, with several thousand Jews; and Smela, with barely 200--regard the past as no longer so relevant. They seem determined, for the time being at least, to stay where they are and go on with their lives.
The most disaffected Ukrainian Jews--about a third of the total population--have left, most of them for Israel, the United States and Germany. The rest, with the help of American and Israeli institutions, maintain several synagogues (though only about 25 percent of Ukrainian and Russian Jews consider themselves religious), community centers and a network of student Hillel organizations. Jewish cultural events take place throughout the country. In Cherkassy, I spent several hours at a public hall where Jewish veterans and others celebrated the anniversary of the victory over Germany in 1945. Several of the participants said that such celebrations refute claims that Jews had tried to avoid service in the armed forces.
There are Sunday schools and kindergartens: At one, in Kiev, I was charmed by 4-year-olds performing Israeli dances, showing off their few sentences of English, and joining with a group of children in a spirited rendition of the gopak, a Ukrainian dance. Some Jews told me of their good relations, even deep friendships, with Ukrainians.
What explains this seeming metamorphosis? For one thing, the Ukrainian dissidents of the 1970s and '80s made a heroic and largely successful effort to resolve Jewish-Ukrainian tensions by cooperating openly with the refuseniks and other Jewish human rights activists. Second, since 1991 the Ukrainian leadership has not only lifted all restrictions on organized Jewish life, but has actively helped and supported the Jews in fashioning their institutions, thus earning the gratitude of many.
There is another factor--the growth of a powerful sense of membership in a Jewish community. In western Ukraine, where antisemitism has historically been more pronounced than in the heavily Russified east, it still is. Several Jewish students in Lviv spoke gloomily about the pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment in their city, where putrid antisemitic newspapers and hateful remarks on the street poison the atmosphere for several thousand Jews. Nevertheless, even there, the support of community organizations such as Hillel counteract the daily indignities. One young woman, in answer to a question by one of my co-travelers, said defiantly that she planned to remain in Lviv, "which is still my city, unless the economic situation becomes altogether unbearable and the Jews are made to pay for it." She added, however, that many of her friends are planning to emigrate.
Leaving Ukraine, I spent a week in Russia, where young people demonstrated the same insouciance as their Ukrainian peers. "It is remarkable," Boris Frezinsky, a well-known literary scholar, told me in St. Petersburg, "to see these young people on the streets in public places veritably flaunting their Jewishness." Frezinsky, 58, is half-Jewish, and he remembers the effect of antisemitic policies on him and his peers as little as 20 years ago. We both recalled the typically furtive behavior of Russian Jews before the rise of the dissident movement, when meeting an American like myself seemed to be fraught with incalculable danger.
In Russia, more than in the Ukraine, klezmer bands proliferate. And nowhere in Ukraine are there Jewish studies courses with enrollments that compare with those in Russia: In Moscow alone, four universities offer Judaica programs leading to the equivalent of a PhD, with roughly 650 students registered.
But the biggest surprise for me was the story of the small town of Borovichi, south of St. Petersburg, with a Jewish population of no more than 100. Some time ago, Barkashov's hooligans took to the streets of Borovichi, shouting obscene anti-Jewish slogans and scattering antisemitic leaflets. The police at first pooh-poohed it as "just a minor nuisance," but when a local 19-year-old woman was murdered, the police, suspecting the "Barkashovites" (though this was never proved), sprang into action. They expelled the nationalists and asked the Jewish community to organize a course for the police on antisemitism, its history and its causes. The Jewish community, somewhat stunned, happily complied.
Do these developments, however encouraging, suggest that the gloomy scenarios mentioned above are merely isolated incidents? To assume so would be to exchange one hyperbole for another. Yes, Russian and Ukrainian Jews are still generally eager to proceed with their lives, in their own homes, where they grew up and hope to raise their children. But the Makashovs and Barkashovs continue to stage rallies--with, I was told, repercussions in Ukraine, as well. The Russian parliament still refuses to take any action against Makashov.
In Moscow, Vladimir Shapiro, an eminent sociologist, told me of a recent survey that found antisemitism rampant in high schools throughout the Russian Federation. He added that the Jewish population of Russia and Ukraine is steadily shrinking, with only one child born for every 10 deaths.
The perseverance of Jews in the region, and their sense of cohesion, are admirable. Their indifference to the propaganda of the Jewish Agency--the Zionist body that pleads with them to go to Israel--is also striking. The situation, then, remains fluid. The fear that Jews, as so often in the past, may again find themselves as scapegoats for their countries' economic ills, cannot be dismissed. Which is to say that what their future holds remains to be seen.
Abraham Brumberg writes frequently on Russian and East European affairs.