Just three weeks before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, two dozen Russian reporters, photographers and cameramen squeezed into the spartan first-floor office of the Independent Press Center in Moscow, a five-minute walk from the capital’s main Orthodox church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
The journalists were there to see Ilya Farber, an artist and schoolteacher whose early release from a seven-year prison sentence had earned him a place alongside oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot and the crew of Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise, as a symbol of political and judicial abuse in Russia.
Commentators could not help but note that although each was released for a different reason — a pardon, an amnesty, a judicial review — they all walked free in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, which began on February 7.
I had come to see Farber for a slightly different reason: because Western Jewish media perceived Farber’s case as the latest in a long line of outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Russia, stretching back through the persecution of Soviet Jews like Natan Sharansky, the blood libel trial of Menachem Mendel Beilis, czarist pogroms and beyond. This newspaper, to take just one example, reported Farber’s imminent release under the headline “Russian Jew Ilya Farber Ordered Freed — Corruption Trial Tainted by Anti-Semitism.”
But what I found instead was a more complex picture. Unlike Sharansky and Beilis, Farber — as is typical of many people with Jewish backgrounds in Russia today — has only one Jewish parent. He did not have a strong connection to his Jewish identity. Nor did he or other members of the Russian Jewish community view his case as being motivated particularly by anti-Semitism.
Indeed, Russian Jews, while not dismissing the fear out of hand, did not seem overly concerned by anti-Semitism at all. This, at a time when hatred of other minorities, notably against migrant workers from Central Asia, gay men and lesbians, is on the rise.
In the Farber case, the charge of anti-Semitism was based on a single statement made by the prosecutor during Farber’s corruption trial: “Could someone with a surname like ‘Farber’ help a village for free?”
Yet during his two-hour press conference, Farber’s Jewish roots and the prosecutor’s alleged anti-Semitic comment never came up. Instead, Farber, speaking softly and slowly, discussed Russia’s judicial system and prison conditions, issues related to human rights and whether he might one day emigrate from Russia.