Putin’s Chosen People
What’s behind the Russian president’s close relationship with an Orthodox Jewish sect?
Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is an impressive place. Original artifacts, film clips, and interactive displays take visitors on a tour through centuries of Judaism’s rich but tragic history in Russia, from the Middle Ages to the czarist-era pogroms to the Holocaust to the repression of the Stalin era to the mass emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Then it just sort of ends.
There’s a panel featuring photos of Vladimir Putin with Jewish leaders, a small display on the Russian Jewish diaspora featuring Little Failure author Gary Shteyngart as an example of a “successful, integrated Russian Jew,” and that’s about it. An exhibit on post-perestroika Jewish life is planned for some time in the future, but for now, the museum gives the impression that Judaism in Russia is a subject of historical interest rather than an ongoing story.
Technically speaking, there are four “official” religions in Russia: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. But given that almost 70 percent of Russians identify as adherents to the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s pretty apparent that one religion is more “official” than others.
The smallest of the four is Judaism. There are fewer than 200,000 self-identified Jews in Russia today—less than the number of pagans—though the number of Russians from Jewish backgrounds who no longer identify with the religion is likely much higher. They are what remains after a mass exodus that saw more than 2 million Jews leave the countries of the former Soviet Union shortly before and after its collapse, mainly for the United States and Israel. Given that most Russians with Jewish backgrounds range from casual observers to entirely indifferent to their religion, it’s a bit unexpected that their official representatives hail from one of the more doctrinaire sects of Orthodox Judaism. You may be surprised to learn, too, that those representatives are quite close with President Vladimir Putin.
Regardless, it’s quite clear that we are not at a high point of Russian Jewish culture. You could argue, though, that for the Jews who are left, things aren’t that bad. Recent years have seen a great deal of government-supported synagogue construction, and a small but growing number of Jews are attending services.
And while there were fears after the fall of the Soviet Union that rising Russian nationalism would lead to an upsurge in anti-Semitism, that never really materialized. “After the collapse of the USSR, the number of cases of anti-Semitism have been steadily dropping on an annual basis over the last 10 years,” says Yury Kanner, head of the country’s largest secular Jewish organization, the Russian Jewish Congress.
There is certainly anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia, but the country is far from an outlier in that regard. Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in a number of European countries, including France, Germany, and Italy. Much of this is related to tension between Jewish and Muslim communities and criticism of Israel, which isn’t a particularly salient issue in Russia. Anti-Semitic far-right parties have also made troubling election gains in countries like Greece and Hungary. Ultra-nationalism is an issue in Russia as well—a controversial far-right rally was held in Moscow on Nov. 4—but when this manifests itself as racism or xenophobia, it’s more typically directed against the predominantly Muslim migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, perhaps because they’re far more numerous than Jews.
Whatever his many other sins, even Vladimir Putin’s harshest critics concede that he’s not an anti-Semite. As the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe notes, a number of his closest confidants, as well as the Judo teacher who served as a mentor and surrogate father, are Jews. He has personally intervened in cases of state anti-Semitism, such as an incident last year in which a teacher was charged with corruption and the prosecution used his Jewish last name as evidence. Putin labeled that “egregious,” and the conviction was overturned soon after.
Putin’s has also generally been supportive of Jewish institutions—one Jewish institution in particular. One of the more intriguing aspects of contemporary Russian Jewish life is the close relationship between the Kremlin and Chabad, also known as Lubavitch, the Hasidic sect known in the United States for its street-corner proselytizing to fellow Jews and reverence for the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Founded in Western Russia in the 18th century, the Lubavitchers decamped to the United States in 1940, setting up their new headquarters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. The Orthodox Jewish movement has dispatched hundreds of emissaries throughout the world to promote the faith. Just after the fall of Communism and just prior to his own death, Schneerson sent Rabbi Berel Lazar to represent Chabad in Russia.
Today, Lazar, who was born in Italy and educated in the United States, is Russia’s chief rabbi. He appears frequently at Putin’s side at public events, and is the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities (known by its Russian acronym FEOR), the country’s most important Jewish organization. But the title of Russia’s most important rabbi is not an uncontested one.
Adolf Shayevech, a prominent figure in the community since the late Soviet period, was considered chief rabbi until 2000, and still claims the title. Kanner’s group, the Russian Jewish Congress, also recognizes Shayevech. But since Putin came to power in 2000, he has preferred to work with FEOR. Lazar, who is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Rabbi,” now sits on the country’s public chamber, a government-appointed oversight committee. Lazar has been nothing but appreciative, praising Putin publicly as a friend of the Jews and calling Russia “one of the safest places for Jews in Europe.”