From Inside Russia

    June 1999         
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Opinion & Society

What is Happening inside Russia?

By Dr. Tankred Golenpolsky

Apparently, we should rejoice that our government has finally come to realize the threat of extremism. Mind you, the ordinary citizens of Russia have been apprehensive of it for a long time. And yet the man-in-the-street in this land of defaulted dreams, duped and robbed so many times, still feels insecure. "Why all of a sudden? Could there be something else behind it all?" reflects the average citizen suspiciously. For he is more used to the fact that clear-cut definitions are not the strong point of those in authority today and the law is traditionally manipulated in the interests of the strong and not the right.

Perhaps that is why, our citizen is troubled deep down by the nagging sensation so laconically expressed by the great theater director Stanislavsky: "I'm not convinced!" The sophisticated citizen, however, is already reasoning along the following lines: "If only yesterday the existence of Mironov's 'Russian Patriotic Party', Korchagin's 'Russkiye Vedomosti', Vasiliev's 'Pamyat' and Barkashov's 'Russian National Unity' served somebody's purpose, what's happened today? Who finds them an impediment ?"

Be that as it may, the government has given the go-ahead signal and those who just the other day maintained that the Russian National Unity's stylized swastika was just a pagan symbol and their arms raised in salute were an age-old Slavic gesture, are today hastily declaring that all that is none other than Hitler symbols and should be prohibited. Immediately, both the Jew-baiter and monarchist Dmitry Vasiliev of "Pamyat", who voted for the incumbent President and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, the President's untiring opponent, publicly condemned Russian National Socialism and Alexander Barkashov, its leader.

Sad as it may be we have to agree that our officials turned out to be so cowardly when dealing with ethnic problems that they could not admit the obvious till they were told to do so. What is worse, I feel that there are among them those who share chauvinist views but are today obliged to play along with the democratic mood of their superiors. Perhaps both the former and latter presumptions are correct and that is abominable.

Such is the situation today and it is both difficult and simple to understand it. Looking at it, one cannot agree with those who propose to explain the eruption of nationalist extremism today only with historically-formed anti-Semitism in Russia. Though I have absolutely no illusions on that score. There always was, is and always will be anti-Semitism in this country even if all the Jews should leave. On the other hand, that is true not only for Russia but for any nation with poorly-developed or faltering democratic traditions.

In my opinion, the reason is sooner a politically-formed and periodically incited xenophobia, a product of a "frontier nation" mentality typical of a country with what may seem endless borders with foreign countries that throughout history were a threat to Russia. That is where the centuries-old Slavophile idealization of isolationism cultivated by nationalistically oriented intellectuals stems from. And the roots are not hard to find: for centuries Russia's troubles came from all four parts of the world - the invasions of the Teutonic knights, the Poles and the Swedes, the Turkish Janizaries, the Mongol hordes. Hence, the mistrust and often even hostility for everything alien. The "l' etranger complex" as Albert Camus would put it. Besides, it is always easier to blame strangers than to admit one's own mistakes. And now multiply all the above by lack of tolerance for people of other religious confessions: the Old Believers, the Khlysty, the Dukhobors and, certainly, Catholics and Protestants, to say nothing of Jews and Moslems. Regrettably, the latter stereotypes often received the support of the clergy in the past and still do today.

Having stated all the above it would be incorrect to overlook another fact, namely, the existence of a strongly expressed diaspora mentality among the Jewish population of Russia, a mentality far more profound than in Jews from any other country. That sometimes arouses irritation among certain representatives of the indigenous population programmed by the competitive national economic and political elite.

A diaspora mentality is when a people, that for some reason or another do not have their own territory (or live outside it), feel completely at home where they have taken root many years ago and hence behave accordingly. Neither the Pale, nor pogroms or bans on professions have eradicated their profound civic and spiritual affiliations with Russia even when they were forced to leave the country.

It may well be that the reason for it is that the Jews who, for centuries had experienced discrimination, pressure of all sorts and, what is psychologically important, the prohibition for those who lived in villages to own land in pre-Soviet times, who suffered double oppression as working people and as Jews, identified themselves with centuries of suffering that the people of Russia had gone through. A keen sense of justice and millennia of merciless natural and "unnatural" selection shaped a people that are flexible and often charismatic, who feel it their duty to be where barricades in the name of a just cause are going up. It is precisely for the sake of what each of them called justice that they opposed one another, rebelled against their fathers and brothers, and by doing so overturned the cheap myths of "a conspiracy of the Elders of Zion" invented by ill-wishers. After the gunpowder smoke is blown away from over the barricades not only the ones with charisma but one and all are accused of mercenary motives, ideological fanaticism, and all the mortal sins. While the accusers deliberately diverted attention from their own Russian leaders unjustly likening their own people to a herd of obedient sheep at the beck and call of a handful of "aliens" who allegedly intended to do the Russian people damage. This happened after the 1917 revolution. And it is repeated today.

If we add xenophobia to the above that is adroitly manipulated for political and economic ends, we can still only wonder at the patience of the Russian people (outside the seething area within Moscow's Garden Ring road) irrespective of their ethnic or religious affiliations.

To all appearances, accelerating attempts to arouse chauvinism in the country have been unsuccessful so far, partly because of the inborn tolerance of the Russians, partly because of the country's foreign debts and partly because elections are round the corner. Even the Russian Communist Party's "second in command" was obliged to state that the Party was critical of MP Albert Makashov's rhetoric in Novocherkask (Rostov Region) who stated at a meeting with his electorate in Novocherkask on February 20, that the Movement in Support of the Army (the Russian abbreviation for which is DPA ) could well be spelled DPJ, which he deciphered as the Movement Against Jews. "On the one hand, we are a party of internationalists; on the other, Makashov's personal stand differs from that of the Central Committee and for us that is a great problem," pointed out V.Kuptsov, branding Makashov's stand as being absolutely incorrect.

Well, the obvious thing to do would be to expel the general from party ranks for repeated nonconformity with the Party line. But, nothing doing. Sociologists have calculated that opposing anti-Semitism within Party ranks (Makashov has publicly proclaimed he is an anti-Semite) may cost the Party 10% of its electorate. So there is the dilemma - either "purity of Party ranks", or loss of votes.

If we add to all that has been said an unprospective economic situation that has led to a sharp decline in the wellbeing of the people, we can only wonder that the neo-Nazis merely stroll along Moscow streets. Yet, from seemingly innocent strolling, we see them gradually passing on to action, challenging the resolute decisions of the Moscow administration which they are not afraid of, because they are aware of overt and covert support in thcorridors of power and courts of justice.

Another reason they are not afraid of marching in the streets is that they know perfectly well that all the good intentions of the government of Russia will be blocked in the Duma with its "internationalist" majority led by all those Ilyukhins, Makashovs and their like. Only recently the State Duma refused to censure Albert Makashov, the Communist deputy, for making anti-Semitic remarks. And not for the first time either.

Alexander Barkashov, the Fuehrer of the neo-Nazis, writes in their friendly newspaper "Zavtra": "It is in our clubs that youngsters from 14 to 16 years of age learn to march and shoot. The rest have done enough shooting in other places and at different times. Leaving the marching to the boy scouts, we engage in practical political work. We have a huge quantity of propaganda material which we are distributing untiringly throughout Russia".

In his turn, Alexander Prokhanov, editor-in-chief of "Zavtra", the "nightingale of General Staff" as he was nicknamed after Afghanistan, writes: "Barkashov's stalwart fellows walked through Moscow over the crunchy Russian snow arousing the sympathies of the citizens".

At almost the same time Communist Party leader Zyuganov, though being at least verbally an antagonist of National Socialism in his turn, calls the same 'Zavtra" "the mainstay of national-patriotic opposition". So what do we have in the end? Gennady Zyuganov condemns Barkashov and his neo-Nazis and hails the nationalistic paper "Zavtra". Prokhanov, its editor, poetizes the neo-Nazis. On a par with this, Zyuganov writes (perhaps for the foreign ear): "Anti-Semitism is a vulgar, distorted and pathological form of racial hostility and racial rejection" (see WWW. KPRF.RU), while his party colleague, general Makashov, standing under a portrait of the mysteriously murdered General Rokhlin, a Jew, salutes the memory of Rokhlin and calls on the Cossacks to organize a "Movement Against Jews". "Right!" shout the Cossacks, either oblivious or ignorant of the role Bolsheviks played in the annihilation of the Cossacks in the Civil War. A lunatic asylum we are in, no less!

There exists the myth that Jews the world over are always on the side of leftwing forces. The opinion is erroneous and hence fallacious since Jews, like other people, profess diametrically opposite political and philosophic views. That goes for Russian history as well. The Jewish poor and those who came of this class were leftwing in the Russian revolution, though very often they belonged to different leftwing parties: the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, the Anarchists all enemies of the Bolsheviks. Quite a number of Jews belonged to the "exploiter class" as it was then called and were hostile to the leftwingers.

In a word, all generalizations like "Russians drink", "Georgians sing", "the Jews are everywhere" are fallacious because an entire people cannot be all the same. When the vices or merits of an individual are pinned on a people as a whole, problems in society begin to take shape and, sooner or later, these problems lead to extremism.

With a certain stretch of the imagination the situation in Russia today is more and more frequently compared to that in the Weimar Republic after WWI. And particularly because people are prone to forget that, yes, Hitler made use of bands of thugs, but he rose to power within the letter, if not the spirit of the law, with popular support and through the German Parliament. That is something that should be borne in mind particularly on the eve of the coming elections in Russia. As for Mr.Barkashov and his fellows, I would advise him to do some research on the fate of Ernst Rem and his stormtroopers after Hitler came to power. It may prove to be an interesting parallel.

Frankly, it is not the Makashovs or the Barkashovs that worry me under the circumstances. They will disappear together with my generation or a day later. I am seriously concerned about the fair-haired teenagers, some of them orphans who lost their fathers in Chechnya or in gang fights, others from pauperized or fatherless families that today are lured by the neo-Nazis into their ranks.

Can it be that almost 30 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in combat, were tortured to death in prisons, died of hunger and cold so that Nazism with an angelic face of a fair-haired teenager should triumph in the land of their great grandsons in the 21st century?

the civilized world today will not allow another six million Jews to end their lives in Russian Dachaus, Auschwitzes and Treblinkas. Am I still naive enough to hope that humanity does learn its lessons from the bitter past, otherwise it would have perished a long time ago. Things happening in Yugoslavia and over it do not speak in favor of my hopes for a civilized world.

The author is founder and publisher of the International Jewish Gazette, a Russian language weekly, that has recently marked its tenth anniversary.

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