The Rabbi Writes: Moscow/1989

The Jewish Humanist, January 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 6

MOSCOW/1989 

I went to Moscow last October, right after Yom Kippur.  I was on my way to attend the Board meeting of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem.  Now Moscow is not exactly on the direct route between Detroit and Jerusalem.  But I had received word from Jerusalem that there were leaders in the newly organized Jewish communities who were interested in Humanistic Judaism.  The time seemed right for making contact. 

I had been to the Soviet Union three times before.  My first trip in 1970, in the heyday of the Brezhnev regime, encompassed European Russia.  My second trip, in 1986 involved a dialogue in Moscow between leaders of North American humanism.  During all three visits I was very much aware of the repressive nature of the Communist regime and the insidious nature of Communist antisemitism. 

Soviet antisemitism was not Nazi antisemitism.  It was neither overt nor violent.  Its primary purpose was to limit the participation of Jews in the political, intellectual and cultural life of the Soviet Union.  Its secondary purpose was to limit the contact of Jews with the majority of their co-ethnics outside the country, especially those in America and Israel.  Its roots lay in historic Russian antisemitism, the paranoiac fear of ‘cosmopolitan’ people with outside connections, the foreign policy goal of winning the support of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. The resentment of Jewish intellectuality and sheer envy. 

Communist antisemitism was rarely overt.  It never openly denounced Jews.  It preferred to condemn Zionists and Zionism.  It pretended to favor Jewish national identity and Jewish national rights.  It always found ‘patriotic’ Jews to support its Jewish policies.  If you were a successful Jewish professional who was not interested in doing anything about your Jewish identity and who never aspired to the highest positions of political and cultural life, then you could live your discreet life without harassment.  While the communist antisemites seemed to encourage assimilation, their antisemitism also prevented it.  Most Jews remained Jews without any positive Jewish content to their lives. 

My trip to Moscow filled me with excitement.  I knew that the Gorbachev reforms had undermined Communist antisemitism and released a tremendous new energy of Jewish assertiveness and creativity.  Jewish cultural and educational associations were emerging spontaneously all over the Soviet Union.  Jewish emigration was also growing with thousands queuing up at the American Embassy to secure their visa applications.  With the knowledge of all these new developments I was excited to discover what was really happening.  Would enough Soviet Jews remain to make Soviet Jewry a viable cultural community? 

From the moment of my arrival in Moscow I was aware of the ‘revolution’ that had taken place in Russia. Six Orthodox rabbis with books and videos were standing in the airport.  The customs officials were uninterested in my baggage.  The hotel floor spies no longer existed.  Citizens openly talked about politics, often complaining bitterly about the Government and writing foreigners to enter the fray.  Newspapers were filled with provocative articles about official corruption and the need for ending the supremacy of the Communist Party.  Street demonstrations against the Party were held with no police interference.  Religious ceremonies were being held inside the Kremlin.  And even pedestrians now had the courage to cross the streets against the red light. 

Ensconced in my favorite hotel, the National, directly across from the Kremlin, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with about 35 people who were leaders in the Russian Jewish community.  I also traveled around Moscow to visit new Jewish groups and to experience the new home of the Jewish Theater Group in Taganskaya Square. 

From the very beginning it was obvious to me that, despite the new freedom of glasnost, the Jewish community was in deep trouble.  Its new energy and creativity was matched by grave social dangers. 

The first was economic hardship.  While glasnost (the dismantling of repression) is working well, perestroika (economic reform) is doing badly.  Despite the Gorbachev promises of more consumer goods and higher standards of living, shortages are everywhere.  Sugar is rationed.  Soap and meat are unavailable.  Long lines continue for available shoddy goods.  The infrastructure is crumbling.  Shabbiness is everywhere. 

The reasons for this continuing disaster are obvious.  The heavy economic hand of centralized planning has not been lifted.  Very little entrepreneurial spirit remains after 70 years of Communist rule.  And what does survive is deeply resented by many.  Deficits and technological backwardness hold back development and make change difficult.  As long as the Party is involved with the economy, the disaster persists. 

Emigration for many Jews is a better alternative than poverty and economic struggle.  Since they have little hope that the Communist Party can change anything for the better, they want to get out before an economic collapse will usher in other chaos or fascistic repression. 

The second social danger is violent antisemitism.  While glasnost has liberated democrats to speak their opinions, it has also freed bigots to speak theirs.  Overt fascistic antisemitism has reappeared.  This variety is not benign, like the Communistic version.  It is open and straightforward, and aimed at the destruction of the Jews.  A new political organization Ramyat, intensely anti-Communist and nostalgic for the old Russia, accuses the Jews of inventing Communism and imposing it on the Russian people.  And now they say that Communism has failed, the Jews have decided ‘to flee the country like rats fleeing a sinking ship’.  Ramyatniks hold rallies,, publish journals and speak freely in loud voices, in public subways.  Last June a rumor swept the Soviet Union that a mass pogrom was imminent. 

Needless to say, Jews are terrified.  With the collapse of Communism, a nationalistic fascism is as much a possibility as liberal democracy.  Hundreds of thousands of assimilated Jews, who had no thought of leaving the Soviet Union are now thinking of emigration.  When it is all over two-thirds of the two million Soviet Jews may choose to leave.  It will certainly happen if the economy continues to deteriorate and the Jews are held responsible for the decline. 

In the midst of this turmoil the Jewish community is divided by the competition of rival factions.  The Orthodox, reinforced by American and Israeli mercenaries, are aggressively trying to win the hearts of Russian Jewry!  Reform and Conservative agencies are trying to carve out their own niche.  Anti-government groups are zealously intimidating Jewish groups that are willing to cooperate with the Gorbachev regime and Party apparatchiks.  Amidst the free-for-all, there are personal rivalries and a widespread skepticism that in a few years, there will be any significant Soviet Jewish community around to organize. 

Secular Jews are very vulnerable.  Deprived of Jewish culture, and not understanding the alternative ways to be Jewish, they are easy victims of aggressive Orthodox missionaries.  Right now they need literature and videos about Secular Humanistic Judaism.  The many secular Jewish academicians and leaders I spoke to say that the first need is to enable secular Jews to feel secular and legitimately Jewish.  Existing literature needs to be translated and disseminated among confused people.  Since the hated former regime is associated with dogmatic secularity, the words ‘humanism’ and ‘humanistic’ are more attractive labels. 

At the end of December, a congress of Jewish cultural associations from over 75 cities of the Soviet Union met in Moscow to establish a national federation.  Mike Chlenn, a 49 year old ethnographer from Moscow (with whom I spent a memorable evening) was the organizer of the conference and became its leader.  As he said to me:  ‘I do not know whether we are the Gevra Kadesha (burial society) of Russian Jewry or the dawn of a new cultural renaissance.  Only time will tell.’