Teaching cultural diversity in Russia not an easy task

Though cultural diversity and tolerance have become Bay Area buzzwords, halfway around the world in St. Petersburg, those concepts are far from familiar.

A group of Jews in the Russian city, however, is doing its best to cement those concepts in the collective consciousness.

It's not an easy task in an atmosphere of growing nationalistic and anti-Semitic activity, said Leonid Lebov, director of St. Petersburg's Harold Light Jewish Center for Human Rights. "Those unpleasant developments led us to consider ways to counter these negative tendencies," he said through a translator.

Lebov made those comments last week during a visit to the United States. He was in San Francisco to check in with the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, a sponsor of the Harold Light Center.

Lebov, a gray-haired man dressed in a striped shirt and navy blazer, spoke of the center's attempts to promote understanding between the St. Petersburg region's many minority groups.

Among those methods is a leaflet presenting statements by prominent scientists, philosophers and writers promoting tolerance of varying points of view.

The leaflet, titled "Only Quotations," is distributed to citizens of St. Petersburg and to residents of the surrounding provinces. These are areas, Lebov said, where minorities have been shown to be more vulnerable to racism and where newspapers generally reflect nationalistic points of view.

"There's a widely accepted attitude that Russians are a special nationality, that they are better than the rest," said Lebov, who began his work at the center as a volunteer in 1993 and became director the following year. "We have an opportunity to show that not all Russians think that way."

The leaflet, for example, includes segments of a sermon by a Russian bishop. "People only concerned with like-minded people aren't true followers of God," the bishop said. "A real Christian is someone who has respect for people of all faiths."

The bishop's sentiments, Lebov said, "are in sharp contrast to the Russian Orthodox Church, which stands in concert with voices of Russian nationalism."

Voices of tolerance and moderation are hard to find, he added.

"Unfortunately, many of those voices of reason we find only in writings of an earlier period," he said. "In today's society, it's difficult to find current people of note who come out against chauvinistic tendencies."

Chauvinism, he explained, refers to a cornucopia of — aggressive nationalism, fascism and anti-Semitism, as well as xenophobia.

In attempting to curb those tendencies, the Harold Light Center sponsors another program, Climate of Trust. Through it, members of St. Petersburg's 70 minority groups — Jews are the second largest, behind Ukrainians — explore such topics as the relationship between intolerance and glasnost and the political future of Russia.

The primary goal of the meetings, Lebov said, is building lasting activist alliances bent on finding answers to the question: "How do we defend the average person on the street from chauvinism?"

Lebov, an engineer who specializes in earthquake-resistant construction, has experienced his share of chauvinism during his lifetime. He frequently found himself working for underqualified bosses who were appointed because of political connections.

"My work included a struggle for my own self-respect and dignity," he said.

Lebov got into Jewish work following a renewed interest in Judaism sparked by his son Alexandr. Also an engineer, Alexandr several years ago began studying Jewish history and tradition in depth. This led him to begin living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Now 41, he was circumcised at age 36.

The elder Lebov, for his part, feels relieved to be free of the barriers that plagued his former professional life. His past experience, however, helps fuel his dedication to human rights work.

In that vein, the Harold Light Center is currently investigating a group of officials in Moscow who are allegedly questioning prospective Jewish emigres in a manner akin to interrogation.

People travel to Moscow from miles away for the requisite interview, Lebov said, then find themselves put on the defensive about their Judaism. Their emigration is then delayed for no apparent reason. The center has received numerous such complaints.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.