Russia Hate on Rise — But Not Against Jews

Bigotry and Violence Aimed at Gay Men and Central Asians

New Targets: A gay rights activist is seen after clashes with anti-gay demonstrators in St. Petersburg in 2013.
New Targets: A gay rights activist is seen after clashes with anti-gay demonstrators in St. Petersburg in 2013.

By Paul Berger

Published February 10, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
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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.

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.

Farber was accused of accepting a bribe worth 132,600 rubles (slightly less than $4,000) for repairs to a cultural center in a village called Moshenka, about 250 miles northwest of Moscow.

“The Farber case is mostly not about Jewishness but about the bad situation in the regions,” Verkhovsky said. “It’s about very poor institutionalized relationships in business, about informal business relationships that can always be interpreted as crime.” He compared the charges against Farber with those against the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who was accused in 2012 of embezzling money from a timber firm. “Every second businessman can be accused,” Verkhovsky said.

Farber’s case transfixed Russia not because of the alleged anti-Semitic undertones of his trial, but because it spoke to the inequalities of contemporary Russian life. Even Vladimir Putin, when asked to comment on the case last year, called the sentence “egregious.”

Each year, across Russia, people like Farber — people without power and influence — are given harsh custodial sentences for minor crimes, while more serious criminals, accused of stealing millions of dollars, or even of murder, evade justice. As if to underline the inequality, one week after Farber was released from jail, Gennady Zhigaryov, a former official in Irkutsk, appeared for sentencing for stabbing and killing a 74-year-old journalist. The journalist, Alexander Khodzinsky, had written stories accusing Zhigaryov of corruption. Zhigaryov was sentenced to 22 months probation because of what the court described as his “state of affectation” at the time of the killing.

If Jews have largely escaped persecution in Russia today, other groups — migrant workers from Central Asia and the north Caucasus, homosexuals, liberals and human rights activists — have become the country’s central objects of suspicion and fear. Hate is on the rise in Russia. But Jews are not the principal or even the secondary target.

“Today’s Russia is not about anti-Semitism as much as it’s full of generic multipurpose xenophobia,” said Anton Nossik, a prominent Internet entrepreneur. “Hate is a new ideology here, and Jews cannot satisfy the general need of the population in objects of hatred because there are so few Jews left.”

Nossik sat in a kosher cafe at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in Moscow in late 2012. As usual, he wore a yarmulke, which he never seeks to hide in public.

Nossik traces the rise of xenophobia in Russia to the December 2011 protests that greeted then-prime minister Putin’s decision to switch roles with the president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev.

Nossik says that the Russian authorities, who were taken by surprise by the protests, have been searching for years for an ideology to unite society. But their attempts at positive imagery almost routinely fail.

“There’s one thing they are good at spreading, and that’s hatred,” Nossik said. “The authorities have been sowing the seeds nationwide against the migrants, against the NGOs, against sexual minorities, against foreigners, against Muscovites, against intellectuals. Every day, we hear incitement in state-sponsored media, some sort of incitement of hatred. And it’s never about Jews.”

It may be overly simplistic to date Russia’s xenophobic turn to December 2011; tensions between ethnic Russians and migrant workers from the North Caucasus and Central Asia have been bubbling away for years. And the Russian Orthodox Church, with its traditionalist and nationalist views, has been ascendant for more than a decade.

Even so, the past couple of years have seen a surge in activity targeting liberals and minorities.

Verkhovsky spoke of an open anti-migrant campaign in state-controlled mass media since the beginning of 2013. In St. Petersburg last winter, police organized a mass inspection of street vendors that swept up hundreds of migrants. Instead of the detainees being transported to the police station on buses, they were marched through the streets in columns.

“It’s like the TV [is showing] these people are enemies we defeated,” Verkhovsky said, explaining that the television footage would have evoked for many Russians the images of German prisoners of war who were marched through Russian cities during the closing months of World War II. “It’s a very strong symbolic message.”

Xenophobia is now also a hallmark of the Duma. In the summer of 2012, Russia’s lower House of Parliament passed a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” A separate law banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans.

But of all the currents of fear coursing through contemporary Russia, what has most caught the West’s attention is the country’s turn against gay people. The government insists that a law passed last year banning so-called promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors does not criminalize homosexuality. The statute, top officials say, is intended only to protect minors from being indoctrinated into — or as they would see it, turned toward — a gay lifestyle. Activists say that the effect has been a steep rise in homophobic assaults, which now appear to have the tacit approval of the authorities.

The law, which first surfaced as local statutes in several Russian regions, is broadly popular across the country. While anti-Semitic statements in the media are generally considered verboten, homophobic speech is broadly tolerated, if not welcomed.

Last year, on the state-owned television station Rossiya 1, Arkady Mamontov, the host of “Special Correspondent,” said that a meteorite that exploded over Russia earlier that year was punishment for the country’s tolerance of “sodomites” and that the West was using the gay rights movement to destroy Russia. The previous year, on the same station, another host, Dmitry Kiselyov — who was recently appointed head of a new state-run international news agency, Rossiya Segodnya — said gay people should not be allowed to donate blood or sperm and that, in the case of car accidents, their hearts should be buried or burned “because they are unsuitable for a continuation of life.”

At the end of last year, Ivan Okhlobystin, a well-known actor, made headlines by saying that gay people should be burned alive in ovens. Activists called for Okhlobystin to be fired from his job as creative director of Evroset, a mobile phone company. But the owner of Evroset, Alexander Malis, refused.

Malis, an Orthodox Jew, said that while he did not agree with Okhlobystin, the actor had a right to his own point of view. But shortly afterwards Okhlobystin resigned.

“People are completely caught by propaganda of the first and second TV channels,” said Leonid Volkov, who managed Navalny’s failed bid for the Moscow mayoralty last year. “And these TV channels, from early morning to late evening, make propaganda: America and Europe are going to conquer us, and they are all gays and going to convert our children to gays, and that’s why we must protect ourselves.”

David Remnick, the Russian-speaking editor of The New Yorker, noted recently that Russia’s “leadership invokes an anti-gay rhetoric reminiscent of the way Soviet leaders used to denounce Jews as ‘internal enemies,’ the agents of foreign capital and spy services.”

Rather than standing up to this rhetoric, Russia’s small, organized Jewish community has been noticeably silent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because of his conservative religious views, Berel Lazar, the Lubavitch chief rabbi of Russia, says he supports the gay propaganda law. Lazar, who enjoys good relations with the Kremlin, says the law does not discriminate against gay people. Instead, he interprets the law as prohibiting public protests or marches, as well as the dissemination of gay literature to minors.

“Our statement has always been, ‘If you want a certain way of life, it’s a private issue,’” Lazar said.

In practice, the vaguely worded statute has been interpreted more broadly. On January 31, the founder of an online lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group in Russia was charged with violating the law for posting stories from LGBT teens.

The Russian Jewish Congress, which supported the campaign to free Farber, said that it does not want to get involved in the gay rights debate. “As [with] the whole society, Russian Jews are bitterly divided between liberals and conservatives,” said Matvey Chlenov, deputy executive director of the RJC. “Some prominent members of the RJC publicly take opposite stands on this, therefore we refrain from any involvement in order to keep shalom bayit among the Jews.”

Even the support the RJC gave to Farber has become a matter of dispute.

According to Farber, his son Pyotr Farber approached the RJC in 2011 to ask for help. But Yuri Kanner, the RJC’s president, refused. Kanner told Pyotr that because Ilya Farber’s mother is an ethnic Russian, Farber is not Jewish and the RJC was unable to help.

Kanner vehemently disputes this. In an article posted to the website of a liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, Kanner pointed out if he was to exclude people with only a Jewish father from the Jewish community, then he would have to exclude his own children and the children of most of the leaders of the RJC, all of whom have non-Jewish Russian wives. Some leaders of the RJC are the sons of non-Jewish Russian women, he added. But they all feel a part of the Jewish nation.

If Ilya Farber did not feel a part of the Jewish community, that was his own “personal choice,” Kanner wrote.

When I met Kanner in New York recently, he told me it was not important whether Farber was halachically Jewish or even whether Farber self-identified as Jewish. Instead, the RJC helped Farber because his Jewishness became an issue at trial.

Kanner said that because there was an appearance that Farber was “picked on as a Jew,” it was important to the RJC that the Jewish community was seen to be fighting back. “Otherwise, Russian society will see us as weak,” said Kanner, whose organization raised 1.35 million rubles — almost $40,000 — from 700 donors to help Farber’s family and to pay for his defense.

Both Kanner and Farber represent a particular kind of Jewish identity that is common in Russia today. According to the most recent Russian census, there are only about 150,000 Jews in Russia out of a total population of about 143 million. (Russian Jewish leaders estimate the number to be several times larger.)

Decades of enforced atheism and the mass exodus of Jews following the fall of the Soviet Union have left a community in which intermarriage, or having a single Jewish parent or grandparent, is the norm.

Farber told me: “At school I understood that I don’t have a nationality because in Russia, whoever has a Jewish father and a Russian mother doesn’t have a nationality. Jews say you are not Jewish, and Russians say that if your father is called Isaak Farber, you can’t be Russian.”

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.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdbe rger


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