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Traces of Trotsky, Remnants of a Rebbe: A Hunt for Icons

Democracy took a half-step forward in Kazakhstan when the September 19 parliamentary elections resulted in victory for Otan, the party that supports President Nursultan Nazarbayev and is expected to take seven of the 10 seats in the lower house. True, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared that the election “fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections,” citing media hostility toward the opposition, pressure on voters and other irregularities. But, noting that no media outlets were shut down during the vote, the OSCE refrained from calling the election fraudulent and said that Kazakhstan had improved its profile as a democracy. In the post-Communist era, in the largest former Soviet republic after Russia, this is progress.

Nazarbayev has pursued aggressive privatization and economic reforms, and here, too, progress is apparent. Kazakh oil resources have attracted investors from South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and agriculture — from fruit to grass-fed lamb to fish caught in the Caspian Sea — is booming. Prosperity is increasingly evident.

Changes have also arrived for Kazakhstan’s Jewish community. Joining Nazarbayev at the opening ceremony for the largest synagogue in Central Asia on September 7 in Astana — the country’s new, purpose-built capital — were Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, and other international Jewish leaders. Together with the synagogue in Almaty — Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital — it will become the major outpost of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union.

An estimated 7,000 Jews live among 15 million others in the country. Kazakhstan never had an indigenous Jewish population — unlike neighboring Uzbekistan, original home of the Bukharan Jews, who now number some 70,000 in the Queens and Brooklyn sections of New York. But under Joseph Stalin, Kazakhstan became a dumping ground for those deemed undesirable or dangerous for the regime, including Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Leon Trotsky was sent with his family to Almaty after losing his competition with Stalin for leadership in Moscow. Isaac Deutscher, whose three-volume biography of the Red Army’s creator, “The Prophet Armed/Unarmed/Outcast,” has just been reissued by Verso, noted that the Trotskys resided at 75 Krasin Street. No physical trace of his presence seems identifiable at present, although a Kazakh journalist who served as my guide in the country, Talgat Diarbekov, said that locals remember the stay.

Trotsky’s classic autobiography, “My Life,” shares a title and nothing else with a similar volume by Bill Clinton. Turning to a chapter describing the Red Army commander’s banishment to Almaty, one finds unexpected expressions of pleasure and even nostalgia for the town, which, 76 years ago, was an isolated Asian outpost of the Soviet

state, with no paved roads, no electric lights and no running water. There were, however, endemic diseases. The Almaty reminiscences of Trotsky’s wife, Natalya Sedova, are included verbatim in the book, and conjure up natural pleasures still available to the traveler today. Sedova described with delight the clean, dry snow of the local winter, which gave way in springtime to carpets of red poppies covering the steppe and the ripe apples for which Almaty is still known; its former Soviet name, Alma-Ata, means “father of apples.”

Notwithstanding isolation, malaria, floods, earthquakes and police harassment, the Trotskys “spent a good summer” in Almaty, Sedova averred. They rented a house from a peasant living at the foot of the Tien-Shan mountains and harvested fruit. “The orchard was fragrant with the ripe apples and pears,” Trotsky’s wife recalled. For the tourist who leaves summertime Almaty for the nearby mountains today, the idyllic scene is identical. The Tien-Shans’ permanent glaciers are easily visible, and the green slopes are irresistible for walkers. Hike long enough, and you will reach the border of Kyrgyzstan; climb high enough, and you will see China from its backyard entrance.

But Trotsky was not alone in leaving a surprising legacy in Kazakhstan. I was informed by Rabbi Betzalel Lifshitz, a native of Cincinnati and public affairs liaison of the chief rabbinate of Kazakhstan, that Almaty’s precincts also include the tomb of the pioneer of Chabad activities in the country. This was none other than “the distinguished rabbi and Kabbalist,” as Lifshitz described him, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson of Dnepropetrovsk, father of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The elder Schneerson was arrested, tortured and shipped to Kazakhstan in 1939, at the age of 61, during the Stalin-Hitler pact. His Kabbalistic writings were confiscated by the Soviet authorities, as was the correspondence of Trotsky. The rabbi led an underground community of “exiles, deportees, convicts, and refugees” and died in Almaty in 1944. September’s opening of the new synagogue in Astana marked the 60th anniversary of his death, although it bears the name Beit Rachel-Chabad Lubavitch, in memory of the mother of the president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan, a successful businessman named Alexander Machkevitch.

The grave of the rebbe’s father was neglected until the arrival of Yeshaya Cohen, the country’s chief rabbi and top Chabad organizer, a decade ago. Even today, reaching the tomb, which now has a proper marker and roof, requires passage through overgrown foliage, but the Lubavitchers maintain a path through the underbrush. Visitors write requests to the soul of the rebbe’s father and leave them at the base of his gravestone, which is covered with candles.

Kumyss — a traditional Kazakh drink made from fermented mare’s milk — is not kosher, and the Jews of Kazakhstan, unlike the Bukharans, show little influence of the Muslim culture of their neighbors. They are entirely Ashkenazi, and predominantly nonreligious. But relations between the religious communities are excellent in Kazakhstan. Almaty hosted a conference in 2003 at which Cohen signed a declaration with Absattar Derbisali, chief Islamic mufti of Kazakhstan, establishing a new organization, Imams and Rabbis for Peace. Lifshitz and others call Kazakhstan a model of Jewish-Muslim amity. One of the first acts of the republic’s independent government was to hand back Schneerson’s Kabbalistic writings; meanwhile, the massive Schneerson collection of books and texts seized by the Soviets has yet to be returned to Chabad by the Russians, after many promises.

For their part, Kazakh Muslims also visit the graves of saintly men, a practice forbidden by the stern Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. Half a million Central Asian Muslims annually visit the gigantic tomb, located in southern Kazakhstan, of Shaykh Ahmed Yasawi, who introduced Sufism to the Turkic peoples in the 12th century and systematized the network of mystical orders or brotherhoods among Sufis throughout the Islamic world. I rode by car 300 miles in heavy windstorms and across empty steppes to reach his resting place, passing on the way the birthplace of Alfarabi, the ninth century Islamic philosopher who was the subject of commentaries by the now-controversial Leo Strauss.

There is no trace of Trotsky left in Almaty, and the town in which Alfarabi was born is a mere memory, its outlines barely visible in the dust. Yet the righteous descendants of Abraham and Isaac pray at the gravestone of the rebbe’s father, and the spiritual heirs of Abraham and Ishmael do the same under the blue dome of Shaykh Yasawi’s resting place. The Chabad-Lubavitch publicity for the new synagogue in Astana notes, “The construction of this synagogue confirms the correctness of Rabbi Schneerson’s way; his fight for religious freedom has today borne fruit to his descendants.”

Here as elsewhere in the world, history is fickle — but apples, and the rewards of faith, remain sweet.

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