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Are you a Jew, or something?:”Our Moscow correspondent on the nationality question


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Baku and Moscow

“Are you a Jew, or something?”

Mar 1st 2007

From Economist.com

Our Moscow correspondent on the nationality question

Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday


A FRIEND of mine has just “come out.” Not as a homosexual, though my friend, who is indeed gay, said the feeling was oddly similar. He had been taking part in an online forum and, for the first time in Moscow, he admitted it publicly: he is Jewish.

I am, too, and although I like to consider myself hardened to it, Russia’s pervasive anti-Semitism can still upset me. It isn’t so much the lost young neo-Nazis who vandalise cemeteries, nor the unhappy Orthodox nationalists with their faux-Romanov beards and images of the dead tsar and vile banners.

What grates is more the automatic, proverbial prejudice that, outside the refectories of certain public schools, scarcely exists in Britain. It is written into the language. Russian has two words for “Russian”, the more important of which is the ethnically charged “russki”. Though his family has lived in Russia for 500 years, no Jew can ever be russki.

One of my first bouts of it came when I went on a day trip to an army base outside Moscow. The other journalists were not Russian, in fact, but (perhaps vindicating Borat) mostly Kazakh.

On the way there our government escort had a minor crash, then a punch-up with the other driver as a traffic policeman looked on. The soldiers entertained us with zany manoeuvres in their ancient tanks.


He had the wrong surname

On our way back the conversation progressed from Britain, to Chelsea football club, to its owner Roman Abramovich, and thence to the uses and foibles of Jews in general. I was grateful that my Russian was still rudimentary.

Not long ago I went to a bureau de change that, in one of the quirks thrown up by the wild privatisation rush, was hidden inside a Moscow circus. I was a little anxious about the cash I was carrying, so rather than taking the metro I flagged down a car (almost every vehicle in Moscow manufactured before 1995 is a taxi waiting to happen). Its occupant was soon denouncing the global Jewish-Masonic conspiracy.

My friend had a similar experience the other day. His driver was pressing him as to which football team he supported. My friend confessed that he didn’t really follow football. “What are you”, the driver asked, incredulously, “a Jew or something?”

So although I’ve recently finished a book (called “The Earl of Petticoat Lane”) that is partly about my family’s origins in what was then the Russian Pale of Settlement, I rarely mention those origins to casual acquaintances.

Still, there are two bits of good news, sort of, for Russia’s Jews. One is that, though many Russians still see Jews as devious interlopers, they dislike other minorities (Caucasians, Chinese, a few forlorn Africans) even more. The other is that the situation is better than in Soviet times, when worship was often impossible, and a Semitic surname could be enough to keep you out of the top universities and professions.

The conversation progressed from Britain, to Chelsea football club, to its owner Roman Abramovich, and thence to the uses and foibles of Jews in general

That warped history has bequeathed a Jewish community that does not always fit the expectations shaped by my parochial upbringing in Jewish north London.

I went one Yom Kippur―or Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar―to the beautiful choral synagogue in the city centre, no longer monitored by KGB informers. Since hardly anyone could read Hebrew, the rabbi declaimed key passages for the worshippers to repeat―rather movingly, I thought, even if some of the worshippers were talking on their mobile phones.

There was another unfamiliar interlude (though I later discovered it was once normal in the impoverished synagogues of the Pale). This was an auction.

The prizes were mitzvot―meaning, in this context, the right to perform one of the small ritual roles assigned to lay people during the service. The auctioneer was the chief rabbi of Russia, and the proceeds went towards the building’s restoration.

The top mitzva sold for around $20,000. The second was claimed, for a little less, by a man with a shaven head, a leather coat and a heavily bandaged right fist.

Interesting story. Russia still appears to have gone to crap, though the russki do not seem to mind.

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