Jun 7, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 36 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
LAST YEAR I WAS PART OF A DELEGATION sponsored by the International Republican Institute to monitor parliamentary elections in Ukraine. I chose to be an observer in the city of Zhitomir because my parents, who came from Ukraine in the early 1900s, used to talk a great deal about this city as the place they always looked forward to visiting. Kolki, the shtetl my father migrated from, was a three-hour drive from Zhitomir over bad roads. I had always longed to visit and see this place and talk to Jewish inhabitants about what Kolki was like before the two world wars.
Before making the travel arrangements I inquired whether there might be a local rabbi to shepherd me around Kolki. I got my answer: No. Kolki was "fudenrein," the Nazi word for a town or city free of Jews. Between Ukrainian programs at the end of World War I and Nazi special extermination squads during World War II, Ukrainian Jews in Kolki had disappeared.
The story is much the same throughout the former Soviet Union. Despite occasional words of condemnation by President Yeltsin, anti-Semitism in Russia is at peak levels-so much so that it won't take a lot for all of Russia, with a Jewish population of barely 450,000 (.3 percent of the population) to become Fudenrein. Even on the streets of Moscow, swastikas are being flaunted. And what is anti-Semitism like outside of the metropolitan centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg? Here's what it's like in a small town.
Borovichi is a provincial Russian town of 70,000 people some 250 miles northwest of Moscow. An openly fascist group calling itself Russian National Unity has announced that if the city's tiny Jewish community of about 400 doesn't leave of its own free will, it should be expelled. (There is ample Russian precedent for such a recommendation, starting with Ivan the Terrible.) Until the expulsion occurs, the group's spokesman, appearing on a local television station earlier this year, urged Borovichians to kill one Jew a day.
Eduard Alekseev of Borovichi, 30-year-old head of the small Jewish community and an economist by profession, has enlisted the help of International Solidarity with Workers in Russia to sound the alarm. This is an organization set up to support the democratic, antiracist sections of the Russian labor movement. Already one Jewish family was lucky to escape with their lives when their home was firebombed, according to Alekseev. And Borovichi Jews receive messages regularly threatening death if they do not leave.
Meanwhile local police reportedly have told the Jews that it will do them no good to make an issue of this massive increase in anti-Semitic activity. Neither the governor of the province nor the police consider the Russian National Unity activities illegal. The RNU party is now actively recruiting youth for military training. The local prosecutor has denied that the swastikas worn by RNU members on their uniforms incite ethnic hatred. And RNU members claim that the swastika is really an old emblem of the Russian Orthodox Church and has nothing to do with Nazism. All this in a city where 10,000 men joined the Red Army in World War II to fight the Nazis, and 4,000 never returned.
The handful of Jews in Borovichi and their leader Alekseev, the father of two young boys, have requested that people write to the mayor and provincial governor expressing their concern at this dangerous situation.
With emigration relatively free, though, and the Jewish population aging; with a politically stagnant Kremlin unable or unwilling to deal with the fascist camarillas who roam city streets peddling racism; with a Duma that recently voted to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, to its base near the old KGB headquarters--self-exile seems to be the only course left to Russian and Ukrainian Jews. Their bags, I'm sure, are already packed.
Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.