The strange decline of antisemitism in Russia

It will surprise no one that attacks on Jews occur in Russia. After all, this is the country that gave us the word pogrom. Yet it might surprise you to hear that the level of antisemitic violence in Russia, by all accounts, is quite low compared to Western Europe. Given the political climate in later years, shouldn’t we expect otherwise? Patriotic rallying, attacks against “foreign agents” and internal “fifth columnists”, rampant and officially sanctioned homophobia, a fortress mentality in which one in four say the country is “surrounded by enemies on all sides” — isn’t this fertile soil for a reinvigorated antisemitism?

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 11.43.23
On VKontakte, the group “RaHoWa Today” (RaHoWa is short for Racial Holy War) celebrates news of an antisemitic attack.

At midnight on 7 January, just as Orthodox Christmas set in, someone set fire to the car of Ilia Raskin, head of the Jewish community in Murmansk. As Raskin noted on his Facebook page, the deed was repeated three days later. This time the perpetrator(s) also broke the windows and torched the interior. We don’t know who did it, but extreme-right social media accounts are reporting the incident with glee. The car’s owner feels certain it was “an act of national hatred”. But note this: He also says he’s never encountered direct threats against himself or the Jewish community before. This neatly illustrates what I found in a report published last year, entitled “Antisemitic Violence in Europe, 2005-2015: Exposure and Perpetrators in France, UK, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Russia”: while incidents of violent antisemitism do occur in today’s Russia, they appear to be quite rare compared to the situation in Western Europe.

Let’s take a look at available incident data. As I write in the report:

Russia clearly stands out with a very low number of registered incidents of antisemitic violence in proportion to its large Jewish population (approximately 190,000). Only 33 incidents were found for the period 2005–2015. We must assume that a number of incidents have occurred without being reported in the media and thus not registered in the SOVA Center’s database, but according to Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Center, the level of antisemitism-related violence in Russia is clearly far lower than in Western European countries.

Another way to gauge the antisemitic threat level in a country is to see if Jews say they’re afraid or avoid displaying their identity in public. It’s easy to find reports to this effect when looking at Western European countries. But when looking at Russia, I could find very little such evidence. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to come across several reports to the contrary. Consider, for instance, this statement by Elena Nosenko-Shtein, specialist in Jewish affairs and head researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences (my translation):

For the past ten to fifteen years, we have been witnessing the birth of what I would call “the New Jew”, that is, a Jew who has straightened his back, who is proud of his Jewishness. For instance, one of my former students, a girl I interviewed, told me that now it has become fashionable to be Jewish, it has become cool, because this means that you’re successful, you’re well-off, you’re smart. And I have heard similar statements time and again not only in Moscow, but also in several regions where I conducted my research.

Here’s another observer, the executive director of the Russian Jewish Congress:

Strange as it sounds, it’s become fashionable to be a Jew. People look for their Jewish roots. It would seem that to some extent we now attained the results which many Jewish organizations have been working to achieve.

Other reports say more or less the same thing, and a 2016 opinion poll suggests antisemitic attitudes have gone down, with a “quietly respectful” attitude towards Jews now prevailing in Russian society. While observers also note that things may change, especially if the government decides to pick up antisemitism from the political toolbox, there are not many signs of this happening — so far. As Leon Aron put it: “In modern European history, Vladimir Putin is the first classically reactionary and even revanchist leader who is not, or at least not yet, an anti-Semite.”

For the time being, then, despite the recent attack in Murmansk, it seems Jews in Russia live a relatively secure life compared to many of their brethren in Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, or Malmö.

So what explains this observation? My report on antisemitic violence looked at perpetrators, and I think an important part of the answer can be found here. As the figure below indicates, the typical perpetrator of antisemitic violence in Western Europe has a Muslim background. Perhaps surprisingly, the extreme right accounts for a minority of perceived perpetrators in both France, Sweden, and the UK. (These data are taken from a EU-funded 2013 survey; a follow-up is currently in the making.)

Capture

Russia wasn’t part of the survey that produced these data, but when we look at the 33 registered incidents of antisemitic violence in Russia for the period 2005-2015, the perpetrator, when identified, was always a right-wing extremist. In no case was a Muslim background reported, even though Russia has Europe’s largest Muslim population. So why isn’t Muslim antisemitism a problem in Russia? Most likely, country of origin explains a lot: while Russian Muslims are Tatars or hail from Central Asian countries and the Caucasus, where Israel isn’t a major topic and Jew-hatred isn’t pronounced, Muslims in Western Europe more often come from the Arab world, where antisemitism is extremely widespread.

Despite low antisemitism, however, an increasing number of Russian Jews have been emigrating in recent years. In 2014, Israel registered about 4,700 newcomers from Russia; in 2017 the figure was 5,661. Obviously, the ongoing economic downturn and the regime’s descent into authoritarianism are powerful push factors.

3 thoughts on “The strange decline of antisemitism in Russia

  1. There’s a simpler explanation for the alleged decrease in anti-semitism in Russia in recent years: most Russian Jews have emigrated, to wit: “Between 1989 and 2006, about 1.6 million Soviet Jews and their non-Jewish relatives and spouses, as defined by the Law of Return, emigrated from the former Soviet Union. About 979,000, or 61%, migrated to Israel. Another 325,000 migrated to the United States, and 219,000 migrated to Germany.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990s_Post-Soviet_aliyah) The current Jewish population of the Russian Federation is 186,000. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_population_by_country) And yet I still hear anti-semitic sentiments voiced by Russians quite frequently. It’s just that there are relatively far fewer Jews in the country, so anti-Semitism is much less of an overt problem. But not Islamophobia, migrantophobia, xenophobia, and racism. They are practically pillars of the new moral outlook in the Putinist era. That this is the case is backed by mountains of empirical evidence including the “league tables” that Alexander Verkhovsky and his SOVA Center have published on incidents of assaults and murders of (Central Asian) migrant workers, foreign students, and antifascists. These figures went through the roof, especially in Petersburg and Moscow, during the period roughly between 2004 and 2009. The perpetrators were hardcore neo-Nazis and white supremacists. So the targets of ethnic Russian chauvinism have changed, but the sentiments remain, and if you look at the racist discourse itself you’ll find many of the same tropes and images that were prevalent in Russian anti-semitism during its salad days.

    • Thanks for your comment. The point about a decreasing Jewish population is well taken, yet I don’t think there’s a neat correlation between the size of a Jewish community in a country and the seriousness of antisemitism. Jews make up just 0.11% of Danes, for instance, but antisemitism is experienced as a real problem there.

      As for other kinds of xenophobic and racist sentiment in Russia, of course you are right, and the post-Soviet Russian record of extreme-right violence is exceptional and unsurpassed in Europe and the US. I’m currently in the middle of a research project dealing with this very topic, and will be posting more about it in the future.

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