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Putin’s Jews


by Konstanty Gebert

Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, a retired teacher of German, could be forgiven for feeling surprised when one of her former students invited her for tea after almost half a century. Berliner, now 94, hadn’t seen him since she made aliyah to Israel from the USSR in 1973. But in 2005, the former student came to Israel to visit—an official visit, no less, the first ever made by a Soviet or Russian leader.

Vladimir Putin had progressed from a 15-year-old schoolboy who played hooky to go to wrestling practice to become president of his country. But he had not forgotten his Jewish teacher from High School #281 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). During the visit, Berliner, a widow, mentioned that she lived in a run-down apartment in Tel Aviv’s Florentine district.  By the time Putin departed Israel, she was in possession of a new apartment in the heart of pricey downtown Tel Aviv, courtesy of her former student.

I heard this story often when I visited Moscow this fall. It was one of many anecdotes people told me to illustrate the Russian president’s benevolence toward individual Jews and toward the Jewish community as a whole during his first term as prime minister (1999 to 2000), two consecutive terms as president (2000 to 2008), a second term as prime minister (2008 to 2012) and his current term as president (2012 to 2018). Other anecdotes featured Putin weeping at last year’s funeral of his Jewish wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, whom he has called a father figure, and his affection for the family of poor religious Jews who lived in his Leningrad apartment block and took care of him in the humble years of his youth. In his 2000 autobiography, First Person, the Russian leader mentions this family, describing them as “observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long. Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”

And of course, Muscovites reminded me repeatedly of Putin’s lifelong Jewish friends, more than a few of them now billionaire “oligarchs.” Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg, brothers worth about $2 billion each, were Putin’s judo sparring partners in their youth, when all three were streetwise toughs training under Coach Rakhlin. (The brothers made their fortunes by sticking close to their judo buddy: construction connected to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics alone gave them 20 contracts worth $5.5 billion.)

I was also regaled with tales of Putin‘s Jewish circle today, which encompasses prominent community leaders such as Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is commonly referred to as “Putin’s rabbi.” The long list also includes oligarch Moshe Kantor (personal net worth $2.3 billion), whose Acron Group is a world leader in fertilizers, and diamond mogul Lev Leviev (personal net worth $1.5 billion). Both hold powerful positions in the international Jewish community. Kantor has twice been reelected president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), an umbrella organization of European Jewry, and Leviev is chairman of the Federation of the Jewish Communities of the Confederation of Independent States (CIS)—a Russia-dominated loose conglomeration of Jewish communities in most of the former Soviet republics. Oil and aluminum czar Roman Abramovich (worth $9.1 billion and known for his ownership of the Chelsea soccer team and a 533-foot “superyacht”) along with industrial tycoon Victor Vekselberg (worth $13.6 billion) are trusted confidants. Abramovich has served as governor of Chukotka, a province in the Russian Far East, and is very active in Jewish organizations. Vekselberg collects Fabergé eggs, the fabulous tsarist-era Russian heirlooms worth millions each and scattered around the world since the Russian Revolution. His attempts to return them to their homeland have endeared him to Putin.

In fact, with the partial exception of his immediate predecessor, the hapless Boris Yeltsin, Putin is the only leader in modern Russian history who seems to have no apparent problem with Jews being Jews and Russians simultaneously. While Yeltsin publicly condemned anti-Semitism, he also supported known anti-Semites such as Boris Mironov, his press minister. And even though the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, made the historic decision to allow Jews to emigrate, ending decades of oppression, he refused to speak out against anti-Semitism and allowed only very limited expressions of Jewish identity.

Gorbachev’s policies were, in turn, a huge improvement over the tyranny of his Soviet predecessors. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, denounced anti-Semitism, but he just as strongly opposed Zionism, seeing both as expressions of politically reactionary bourgeois nationalism. Before him, the tsars had uniformly oppressed the Jews, whom they inherited in large numbers after the Russian empire annexed a vast swath of Poland in the 18th century. Earlier, an edict of Ivan the Terrible had in the 16th century banned Jews from entering Muscovy.

Given all that baggage, a Russian president who is friendly to Jews—even a fierce Russian nationalist and authoritarian—is an extremely welcome development. “Putin himself is visibly not anti-Semitic,” says Anton Nossik, an Internet start-up pioneer who returned to Russia from Israel in 1997. “Not only has he surrounded himself with Jews, but he donated a month of his presidential salary to the Jewish Museum in Moscow, and his name is prominently marked on the list of funders on the Museum wall. This is as clear a signal of official policy as can be.” However, Nossik, who owns a leading Russian online media company and runs a blog critical of the government, adds: “But if someone is Jewish and gets in Putin’s way, he will be crushed without second thoughts.” Nossik is one of the few Jews living in Russia I spoke with who was willing to have his name published, a striking change from early post-Soviet years, when pundits tripped over each other to report the latest insider political comment and Kremlin gossip.

But Masha Gessen, author of the 2013 biography, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, vehemently disagrees with the notion that Putin’s much-lauded loyalty to Jews means that the Russian president is completely impervious to anti-Semitism. “Putin has all the Soviet anti-Semitic reflexes,” she says. Gessen left Russia in 2013 because of fears that Russian authorities might, under a new law, take away her children because she is openly gay. “He recognizes Jews by their noses. When we met, he stressed my education—a sure Soviet-era identifier of Jewishness. In the classic way, he is fond of ‘his own’ Jews: the Rotenberg brothers, Rakhlin. Yet neither his sympathies nor his reflexes limit his choice of policies.”

Putin’s meteoric rise from poverty to the apex of Russian power has been chronicled repeatedly. Child of a factory worker and a navy conscript, he grew up in one of Leningrad’s toughest neighborhoods. He joined the KGB in 1975, but Nossik says he did not absorb the anti-Semitic elements of the security agency’s culture. “KGB repression was directed at Jewish activities, religion and learning, which were not sanctioned by the state, but not at Jews just for being Jews,” he says. “A KGB department was in charge of controlling and limiting the employment of Jews in Soviet institutions. But Putin did not work there; he was in foreign intelligence, which itself was markedly Jewish.”

When the USSR began to crumble in 1989, Putin was a mid-level agent stationed in East Germany. He returned home and threw himself into the maelstrom of post-Soviet Russian politics in St. Petersburg, and later in Moscow. Over the next decade, he held various positions, among them director of the FSB (the renamed KGB) and leader of various agencies that oversaw the transfer of Soviet assets to the new Russian state. In 2000, he was handpicked by Yeltsin to succeed him as president. Alexy Levinson, a sociologist with the Levada Center in Moscow, believes that it was the post-collapse period, not his KGB years, that ultimately defined Putin’s official attitude toward Jews. “At that time, not only was anti-Semitism unacceptable, but even identifying Jews as Jews was,” he says. “And Putin stressed his close personal relationship to Jews, such as his judo trainer, though he was under no obligation to do so.”

Unlike Masha Gessen, Nossik believes that Putin is genuinely immune to anti-Semitic stereotypes. “Boris Nemtsov once told me the following story,” says Nossik, referring to the former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin who went on to become a vocal opponent of Putin and was gunned down last February outside the Kremlin. During Putin’s first state visit in 2007 to Belarus, he was shocked by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s anti-Semitic comments. Upon his return to Moscow, Putin went to see Nemtsov and said: “Can you imagine the idiot? He kept telling me my government is full of Jews, and that I should get rid of them! He even said you are Jewish, and that I should get rid of you, too.” Nemtsov told Nossik that this was the first time Putin had ever mentioned Jews to him in their many years of working together.

Nemtsov’s murder, one of a string of assassinations of Putin’s critics and opponents, remains unsolved. Some suspect Putin, but many observers believe Nemtsov was not nearly a big enough menace to merit a bullet from the Kremlin boss. Yet Jewish or not, people with the clout to be a threat have learned the hard way the price of opposing Putin.

Boris Berezovsky was the éminence grise at Boris Yeltsin’s presidential court and the person who suggested to Yeltsin that he choose Putin as his successor.  But Berezovsky, who owned Russia’s most-watched television channel, ran afoul of the new president with his coverage of Putin’s mishandling of the accidental sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, which killed all 118 on board. It was his ORT TV that aired the new president’s belated meeting with the victims’ families, in which he appeared insensitive to their pain. Putin did not take kindly to this, and soon after, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, said: “Generally, I don’t think that the state and the oligarchs are irreconcilable enemies. Rather, I think that the state is holding a big club in its hands, which it will use only once, to deliver a crushing blow on the head. We haven’t yet resorted to that club. We just picked it up—and that was enough to attract public attention. But if we get really angry, we will not hesitate to use it.”

Berezovsky, who was abroad at the time, decided not to return and face the club. He became a bitter foe of his ex-protégé, funding an ultimately futile campaign to remove him from power. By the time of his death in 2013, ruled a suicide, he was a defeated man. After his passing, Putin revealed he had received two letters from the oligarch, begging for forgiveness and for permission to return. Putin did agree to allow his adversary to be buried in Russia—though Berezovsky was ultimately laid to rest in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps the best-known deposed Jewish oligarch is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Yukos Oil, who was worth an estimated $15 billion in 2004. When he fell into disfavor, he refused to flee or seek forgiveness, ultimately spending eight years in jail for opposing the Russian president. He is now in exile outside Zurich, with only a fraction of his fortune left. His deputy at Yukos, Leonid Nevzlin, was estimated to be worth $2 billion when he left Russia for Israel in 2003.

Then there was media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky. The once-powerful oligarch (worth $1 billion-plus in 2000), owner of the then-independent NTV channel, was the first Jewish oligarch to experience President Putin’s wrath. Putin was displeased with NTV’s coverage of Russia’s war with Chechnya, the breakaway Muslim republic in the Caucasus that won its autonomy in a war in the mid-1990s.  This rupture had major ramifications within the Russian Jewish community because Gusinsky was the founder of the Russian Jewish Congress (REK), a non-Orthodox umbrella organization established in 1996 to bring together Jewish groups in Russia and to promote Jewish culture, education and welfare.

Putin wanted a Jewish organization that was loyal to him and did a masterful end-run around Gusinsky, who, according to a Jewish insider who did not want to be named, had “set up the Russian Jewish Congress for his own protection, to be able to claim anti-Semitism if he was attacked by the authorities.” In order to deprive him of this protection, the insider says, Putin set up an alternative Kremlin-affiliated Jewish structure called the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities. “This worked,” he says.  In quick succession in 1999, Putin’s buddy Leviev established the new organization, which was chaired by Putin pal Abramovich. Gusinsky was arrested in 2000, stripped of most of his assets and forced into exile in the United Kingdom, where he now lives quietly.

Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, an American citizen and a native of Milan, Italy with no political ambitions, was quickly granted Russian citizenship and appointed chief rabbi of the new federation. “It seems to me that Putin made pragmatic calculations,” says Zvi Gitelman, a University of Michigan professor of political science and Jewish studies and a leading observer of Jewish life in Russia. “When he purged the oligarchs, it turned out that so many were Jewish that he exposed himself to being suspected of anti-Semitism, like some of his predecessors. Therefore, he found the perfect cover or fig leaf for his actions: Embrace the most ‘visibly Jewish’ Jews, those with beards, side-curls and a long tradition of cooperating with whoever was in power, and make them the ‘court Jews.’”

Berel Lazar, who declined to be interviewed for this story, first visited Moscow as a rabbinical student in 1987. Himself a child of Chabad emissaries—known as shlichim—he returned to the USSR in 1990 as one of 15 Chabad shlichim after receiving his rabbinical certification. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Jews were moving in the other direction in search of the safety and prosperity of Israel and the West. The liberalization that made their emigration possible also made possible the re-establishment of Jewish communal life, including the arrival of many foreign Jews. They came to fill the chasm left by three generations of forced Soviet assimilation and official atheism, but most found the task too hard. Lazar, who became rabbi of the synagogue in the Marina Roscha neighborhood in northern Moscow, was one of those who stayed and set to work, bringing Judaism—specifically the Chabad brand—to Russia.

It is not known exactly when Putin and Lazar first met, but Putin, who is said to be impressed by Lazar’s strict religious observance, has showered Lazar with his appreciation. First and foremost among these privileges was his blessing of Lazar as chief rabbi of the Federation. This was not as simple as it may sound, since Gusinsky’s Russian Jewish Congress already had a chief rabbi—the Siberian-born Adolf Shayevich, the spiritual leader of the Russian capital’s prestigious Moscow Choral Synagogue. Shayevich refused to step down and has alleged that Leviev offered him $240,000 to resign. To this day, there are two chief rabbis of Russia and a deep enmity between the two men. Earlier this year, Shayevich called Lazar “an agent of the Kremlin” on Russian TV. 

But Putin has found plenty of ways to express his preference for Lazar. He invited Lazar, not Shayevich, to his first State of the Nation speech in June 2000; the following year, he removed Shayevich from the government’s religious affairs council and appointed Lazar in his place. Lazar reciprocated by assuring the public that Putin’s actions against the likes of Gusinsky and Berezovsky had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and that Russia at large was free of that scourge. In the face of growing Russian anti-Semitism in the middle of the first decade of the century, Lazar has toned down the latter point. He condemned a 2005 open letter signed by 500 nationalists, including members of the Russian Parliament, that called on Putin to ban all Jewish organizations. He also spoke out against violent attacks on Jews, including one on a Chabad rabbi in Moscow.

Lazar has consistently followed Putin’s lead. “Challenging the government is not the Jewish way,” Lazar has said. As a result of the Putin-Lazar bond, Chabad has become the dominant Jewish force in Russia, with synagogues, schools, festivals, extensive programming and representatives in nearly 50 cities across the country. It is reported to have a $60 million annual budget, much of it supplied by Putin’s Jewish allies, eclipsing all other Jewish denominations. In 2012, Lazar received what can only be considered the jewel in the crown: Putin gave him supervision of Moscow’s $50 million Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance, which was largely funded by  Jewish oligarchs Abramovich and Vekselberg. The Lazar-Putin relationship is so tight that during the 2014 Olympics, Putin gave the 50-year-old rabbi special dispensation to enter the stadium on Shabbat without passing through the electronic gate. Again, Lazar returned the favor: A month later, he attended the victory speech Putin gave at the Kremlin after the occupation of Crimea. He was the only Jewish leader present.

Even the secularly oriented Russian Jewish Congress, which has an annual budget of $12 million and 37 local chapters, rarely strays far from Kremlin policy. Investor Mikhail Fridman (net worth $15.6 billion), founder of Alfa Group—one of Russia’s largest privately held investment groups—and another of Putin’s Jewish oligarchs, sits on its board. The group is particularly proud of its flagship Memorial Synagogue, erected in 1998 in a huge park on Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora, which is dedicated to the Soviet victory in World War II and to those who perished in it. The park is a reminder of the breakup of the Soviet Union into independent nations, an event that remains a gaping hole in the Russian psyche, especially Putin’s. The synagogue’s presence in Poklonnaya Gora is both a testament to the Jewish contribution to the war and an expression of allegiance to the Russian state. “Of course we support the political authorities that exist,” Russian Jewish Congress president Yuri Kanner tells me. “This is halacha.” He adds: “The most important thing is that the authorities do not hinder our efforts to rebuild Jewish life.”

Author Masha Gessen says that with respect to religion—all religions—Putin is simply continuing the policies adopted under Stalin. “Religion is to be a subordinate part of the state,” she says. “Conflict, if there is any, is between independent clergy and their religious institution, but not between that institution and the state. And in the case of the war of the rabbis, from Putin’s perspective, both Shayevich and Lazar are subordinate to the state. Their personal rivalry might be intense, but it’s politically insignificant.”

The price of Putin’s favor can be high, and the president’s strong feelings about the Chabad library and archives of Rabbi Yossef Yitzhak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, have placed Lazar in an uncomfortable position vis-à-vis the international Chabad movement. The library is a contentious subject within the Hasidic sect, which fled Russia in the years following the 1917 Revolution and eventually established a new spiritual capital at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn under the auspices of the sixth rebbe’s son-in-law, the seventh and last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The story begins in 1927, when Yossef Yitzhak Schneerson was deported from the Soviet Union to Latvia and forced to leave behind his 12,000-volume library. A separate collection of some 25,000 Chabad documents was seized in Latvia during World War II by the German army and later fell into the hands of the victorious Soviet Army. Ever since then, Chabad has been trying to reclaim these historical troves and move them to Brooklyn. A Soviet court initially recognized its claims in 1991 just before the Soviet Union’s demise rendered this decision moot. Having exhausted all recourse in Russia, Chabad turned to the U.S. legal system in 2004, suing Russia and winning in 2010. But Moscow considered the suit “absolutely unlawful and provocative” and refused to abide by its ruling. Moscow even forbade national museums to lend works of art to American institutions out of concern they might be seized. 

Putin has steadfastly refused Chabad’s efforts—illegally, says a U.S. court, which in September fined the Russian Federation $43.7 million for ignoring the 2010 federal court order to return the collection of Jewish religious texts to Chabad. Then, in January 2013, the foreign ministry of Russia issued a statement saying that it considers the collections “a national treasure of the Russian people.”

A year later, Putin had the collection moved to the Jewish


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