Ex-Soviet sees declining anti-Semitism, rising racism

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Former Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov, who spent 10 years doing hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, says anti-Semitism has declined in his country since 1995.

"There is not so much anti-Semitism in Russia," Orlov said in a talk last week to faculty and students in U.C. Berkeley's Slavic studies department.

"Then again, there are not that many Jews in Russia anymore."

The 75-year-old scientist, who is not Jewish, is now a Cornell physics professor, married to a Jewish American faculty member. He emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1986 as part of a Soviet-American prisoners exchange. Previous to his imprisonment, Orlov helped found Helsinki Watch, an international human rights organization.

In a departure from the past, Orlov said, Jews are not the primary targets of discrimination in the country. For the most part, he said, Russian hate is directed at dark-skinned minorities — especially those from southern provinces such as Chechnya and Dagestan, where Russia is now fighting a bloody civil war.

In Moscow, he said, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov rounded up hundreds of people of color simply because of their race after Muslim militants took responsibility for an apartment bombing in the city that killed 300.

"They stop [people from the Caucasus] or Asians on the streets and basically try to detain them. In Moscow, it's on a mass scale. It's very bad." By contrast, Orlov said, Jews are seldom arrested for their religious faith or ethnicity.

Orlov said practitioners of Judaism, Islam and Buddhism are less discriminated against for their religious practices than those whose faiths pose a more direct challenge to the Russian Orthodox Church.

As far as non-Christian faiths, he said, "It's bad but not terribly bad." On the other hand, "competitors to the Russian Orthodox Church inside [the] Christian branches have trouble."

Orlov said after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church went to the government and won the right to place curbs on rival Christian religions like Catholicism and Lutheranism.

Because the Communist Revolution had destroyed the Russian Orthodox Church back in the 1920s, the church insisted that the non-communist regime had an obligation to aid its restoration efforts.

The one thing that could re-ignite anti-Semitism in Russia, Orlov said, is next year's presidential elections.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin has "fought for principles and human rights" and against communism and fascism, Orlov said.

However, Orlov is not as optimistic about Yeltsin's possible successors. He calls former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov "a politician who will blow in the wind and not oppose fascists, communists, or nationalists if they oppose human rights."

He has even stronger words for Moscow's mayor and his Fatherland Party.

"Luzhkov is a monster," he said. "But he is a pragmatic monster. So he probably won't be terribly bad."

Still, Orlov said Russia watchers can take heart in one arena. "The Community Party has lost power every year since 1995. I don't think they will come to power any time in the near future."

Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, took issue with some of Orlov's remarks.

While she agreed that "now in particular, dark-skinned people are definitely being persecuted and they're suffering because of the renewed fighting that's going on in the Northern Caucasus and Chechnya…anti-Semitism has not disappeared," she said earlier this week.

In southern Russia, in such regions as Krasnodar, "there continue to be unrepentant and unashamed anti-Semites."

She also added that while there are certainly Russians who are not personally touched by anti-Semitism, "it would be dangerous to conclude that anti-Semitism doesn't directly threaten other Jews." A recent televison poll on St. Petersburg's main television channel posed the question, "'Do we need pograms in St. Petersburg?' An overwhelming majority answered yes," she said.

Discussing freedom of religious practice, Levermore said, "There are positive signs in parts of Russia, where the Jews are able to exercise their tradition peacefully, but there is not a sense of security that that will last, particularly when the prevalence of fascism and nationalism is on the rise."