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Farber cut an incongruous figure, even in cosmopolitan Moscow. Wearing a bright-blue flowing shirt, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, he looked more as though he just stepped from the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre than from a prison cell. Farber’s mother is Russian, his father is Jewish. If his last name is not enough to give away the paternal half of his identity, then his patronymic, “Isaakovich,” is the clincher.
Ulyana Skoibeda, a journalist who made headlines last year for lamenting that the Nazis did not make lampshades out of the forefathers of today’s Russian “liberals” — a codeword for Jews — flicked at Farber’s Jewish roots in a January 10 column.
Writing in the mass market daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Skoibeda savaged Farber for theatrically stepping on a pile of five-pointed gold stars when he was released from prison. Farber said the stars were supposed to represent the judicial system that had imprisoned him. But Skoibeda and many others saw this act as an insult to service people and war veterans — people whose service these “Farbers don’t understand.”
Although the incident with the stars diminished sympathy for Farber, Skoibeda’s thinly veiled anti-Semitic column was an outlier. Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the not-for-profit Sova Center, which monitors racism and xenophobia in Russia, said that Skoibeda could only hint at Farber’s Jewish heritage, because openly anti-Semitic statements are not tolerated in the mainstream media. “Since the early 1990s, anti-Semitic discourse has been seen as less and less appropriate,” Verkhovsky said. “Anti-Semitic tones in official language are strictly prohibited.”
Just one generation after Jews fled Russia in the hundreds of thousands, those who remain feel relatively secure. Verkhovsky said that physical attacks on Jews, and vandalism of Jewish sites, are today increasingly rare. In 2012, just two Jews were injured in anti-Semitic assaults across the country, according to Sova Center figures.
That same year, seven people were killed and 35 were injured in attacks on migrants from Central Asia; four people were killed and four were injured in attacks on people from the Caucasus. Indeed, in today’s Russia, Asians, gay people and Jehovah’s Witnesses are more likely to be attacked than Jews.
Sam Kliger, a Russia expert with the American Jewish Committee, said there is “a street-level anti-Semitism” that has always existed in Russia. “And there are, of course, some right-wing nationalistic neo-Nazi groups, though marginal, that also express anti-Semitic views.” But anti-Semitism in Russia is “at the same low level as it was 10 years ago.”
According to Moscow’s small, disparate Jewish community — even according to Farber himself — the Farber trial is not perceived as being particularly motivated by anti-Semitism.