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I had invited Farber to meet me in the lobby of my hotel, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya. It was one day after his performance at the Independent Press Center, and exactly one week since he had been released from prison.
When it opened in the 1950s, the Stalinist skyscraper was billed as the city’s most luxurious hotel. The lobby’s marble columns soar up to a gold-plated ceiling decorated with three enormous three-tiered chandeliers.
Today the hotel remains popular with Western and Russian businessmen and women. And Farber spent his hour and a half with me constantly swiveling his head, following the people walking by and the sound of a band warming up upstairs.
Farber apologized for constantly looking around. In prison, he explained, music and singing were banned. Women were separated from men. There were no clocks on the wall, and prisoners were not allowed to know the time.
Farber declined offers of food and drink, even a glass of water. In prison, he said, guards controlled when people were allowed to go to the toilet. They could use it as a weapon against prisoners, so Farber learned to go long stretches without sustenance. “I can go a very long time, 24 hours or 48 hours without anything,” he said.
Farber’s paternal grandfather, Anatoly Isaakovich Farber, was a Russian language and literature teacher. Farber says that at school in Krasnogorsk, a small city on the outskirts of Moscow, his grandfather told him to hide his Jewishness. “My grandfather said, ‘They can beat you up.’ So I told everyone about it. It was interesting to see who would want to fight me.”
Farber said that he had no interest in Jewish culture or tradition in his youth. “I wanted to ride horses and shoot a bow and to do acrobatics,” he recalled. When he turned 16, in 1990, Farber had the choice of putting either “Jewish” or “Russian” on his passport. He chose Russian, he said, because his name already symbolized his Jewishness, so he wanted something to identify his mother’s Russian background. He said that his friends thought he was crazy to pass up on the chance of immigrating to Israel easily.
“People called me a fool,” Farber said. “I did it on purpose, to show that I am not looking to use it so that it would be easier for me.”
Farber’s grandfather, meanwhile, immigrated to Israel during the 1990s. He became a teacher of Hebrew language and literature at an ulpan in Rehovot, where he died in 2003. Farber says that now that he is older — he is 39 — he would like to learn more about his Jewish identity. He is even flirting with the idea of immigrating to Israel after his experience in Moshenka. But he is vague on details.
Farber says he moved to Moshenka, a village of about 200 people, from Krasnogorsk because he wanted to get away from city pollution. He started teaching there in 2010, and soon after that he also landed a job as director of the local cultural club. According to media reports, villagers did not warm to the outsider with a Jewish surname. But Farber insisted that the villagers appreciated him.
He was arrested in 2011, accused of signing off on repairs to the cultural club before they were complete, and of accepting the bribe. Farber denies that he did anything wrong, and says that the contractor set him up.
He said that the agent from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who interrogated him, reminded him of his Jewishness during questioning. Farber added that the prosecutor’s allusion to his Jewish surname during his trial, and the fact that the judge never queried it, was also anti-Semitic. But he refuses to label his persecution as anti-Semitic. Rather, he sees it as a form of foolishness, “like hating someone for having ginger hair.”
At the end of the day, Farber says, he was not put in prison because he was Jewish; he was put in prison because of unscrupulous businessmen and a system in which the weak are expected to roll over, plead guilty and serve their time. His experience has taught him about the prejudices of the judicial system and the terrible conditions in Russian jails. Both are issues that he wants to highlight in the future. But he says he will not do it as a Jew, or even as a human rights activist.
“I don’t want a label,” Farber said. “I am just Ilya Farber, doing what I have to do.”