Russian Jews fear return of pogroms

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE the outrage had it happened, say, in Western Europe: the head of a territory about the size of Scotland, with three international airports and a capital bigger than Liverpool, is addressing local youngsters.

Far from giving harmless career advice, he launches into a diatribe in which he makes 61 brazenly anti-Semitic remarks. He talks of "yids" and "cosmopolitans" - the Stalinist slur against Jews.

He accuses Jews of inventing homosexuality, of starting the Chechen war, and of plotting to destroy Russia, his country. "They have penetrated the Russian family," he raves. "A Jewish girl would seduce a Russian boy so that the children would belong to them". Anti-Semitism is depressingly common in Russia, but this was of a different order.

The speaker, Nikolai Kondratenko, was no lesser figure than governor of Krasnodar, one of Russia's top 10 best-performing regions. Five million people live under his rule on a sweep of farmland on the north-eastern edge of the Black Sea. He is closely allied to the Communists and nationalists who dominate the Russian parliament under Gennady Zyuganov. And he is an out-and-out racist.

Such was the outrage among Russia's Jews when his speech was reported on the front page of Izvestia on Wednesday that top Jewish organisations are now considering taking the governor to court, using a clause in the new Criminal Code that outlaws inciting racial hatred.

If they go ahead, it will be a landmark, a measure of the distance Russian Jews have come since the Communist years which brought Stalin's purges, religious persecution, official discrimination, and finally, as the system fell apart, mass emigration.

No leading official has ever been sued for anti-Semitic conduct in Boris Yeltsin's Russia. "The Communist Party is still the umbrella for these kind of guys," said Dr Michael Chlenov, head of the Jewish Federation of Russia.

When the article appeared Dr Chlenov was inundated with angry phone calls; he is now awaiting a transcript which will be used to determine whether to resort to the courts.

For Russia's 1 million Jews, the governor's speech was a nasty backward glimpse after a decade which has seen their fortunes rise.

Moscow now has seven Jewish schools, and four higher education institutions. There are Sunday schools, kindergartens and more than 20 welfare organisations. "Ten years ago there was simply nothing, apart from semi-legal circles of refuseniks," said Dr Chlenov.

Religious traditions have begun to blossom anew. So, too, has culture. In January, The Diary of Anne Frank was performed in Moscow for the first time since the Khrushchev thaw. It was part of a festival held in memory of the renowned Jewish actor and theatre director, Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered by Stalin's secret police.

Since his election in 1996, Mr Kondratenko - backed by and assortment of Cossacks and nationalists - has adopted a charter declaring his region a "place of residence of Russian people". The US-based Centre for Human Rights Advocacy claims he has a force of 300,000 Cossack troops which set up road-blocks and raid homes in a reign of terror aimed at driving out non-ethnic Russians.

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