Jewish studies program mints new Russian scholars

At Moscow State University, where students once earned degrees in Marxism-Leninism, there’s a new major listed in the catalog: Jewish Studies/Jewish Civilization.

Professor Arkady Kovelman heads the department at the university’s Institute of Asian and African Studies. It’s a position he never would have imagined only a few years ago. Being Jewish and not being a member of the Communist Party would have meant banishment to academic Siberia back in the U.S.S.R. But that was then. Recently, Kovelman saw his first class of graduates earn master’s degrees in the new discipline. At least 50 percent of the students enrolled in Jewish studies were themselves Jewish.

These newly minted scholars will go on to careers as diplomats, historians, interpreters, translators and Jewish educators. As an alumnus of the 250-year-old university, Kovelman is justifiably proud of such progress, though he knows the specter of anti-Semitism still haunts Russian society.

“In political terms, anti-Semitism is very strong,” said Kovelman during a recent visit to the Bay Area courtesy of Edwin Epstein, a friend and professor at U.C. Berkeley.

At a recent faculty colloquium sponsored by U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish studies program, the Center for Slavic and East European Studies and the Graduate Theological Union, Kovelman spoke about the status of Jewish studies in Russia today.

“Every nationalist party, including the Communist Party, is anti-Semitic,” he said during an interview Friday, Aug. 20. “But there is no state anti-Semitism. Nobody is explicit or open about it.”

Still, Kovelman believes these are auspicious times for Russian Jews. In business, media, the arts and other fields, Jews have thrived. In Kovelman’s view, anti-Semitic factions are so busy pursuing political power, they haven’t paid attention to the flowering of Jewish culture in Russia. Jewish Community Centers, synagogues and Jewish theaters have sprung up everywhere. Considering the history of Russian Jewry since the 1917 revolution, this is remarkable.

Kovelman’s own grandfather was the shammes at a shtetl synagogue, but after Lenin took Moscow, he, like most Jews, migrated to the big city. Subsequent generations lost nearly all their Jewish heritage.

Persecution of Soviet Jewry is a well-established travesty of the 20th century, but since the fall of communism, says Kovelman, it’s a new day in Russia.

“Putin is believed to be philo-Semitic,” he said. “In education, he is pro-Jewish, and his prime minister is half-Jewish. The government is laissez-faire when it comes to Jews.”

That gave Kovelman an opening. A classicist by training, he mastered Latin and Greek at the university, but studied Hebrew and Aramaic on his own. With former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” Kovelman laid the groundwork for his Jewish Studies program.

In his high-profile post, Kovelman travels the world, attending conferences and lecturing. He enjoys coming to the United States, where his daughter, Ioulia, attends a graduate program at Dartmouth.

But he reserves a special place in his heart for Israel. Of his first visit to the Jewish state, Kovelman said, “It was like finding I do have a home. I love that country. I love that soil under my feet. It was intoxicating.”

In the coming years, he hopes to begin conferring doctorates in the field of Jewish studies and keep Judaism strong in Russia. “This is a way of Jewish self-identification,” he said. “I hope there will be more Jewish studies departments in the academy.”

And as for that lingering anti-Semitism, Kovelman is one Russian Jew who tends to shrug it off.

“My theory,” he said with a laugh, “is that everyone hates their neighbors. Why should they stop hating the Jews?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.