VLADIVOSTOK, Russia It is a muggy Wednesday afternoon in the nation’s largest Pacific seaport, and as people meander home, a handful of men and boys position themselves around the central square, an asphalt plaza decorated with a monument to the communist revolutionaries who conquered the Far East.
The group’s members wear black — boots, jeans, shirts and berets — everything except the armbands, which are red and white and decorated with a bladed swastika: a “Slavic swastika,” they will tell you.
They begin distributing a newspaper called Our Fatherland, which leads with a story on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newly appointed regional representatives, who oversee the region’s governors. Six of the seven are Jews, the paper states in a story headlined “The Shadow of Putin’s Yid ‘Menorah’ Lies Upon Russia.”
“Here, show it to your friends,” a 16-year-old member tells a passerby.
The members of the group are recruiters from Russian National Unity, a fascist party so extreme that even this region’s strongman governor, who himself has been known to utter anti-Semitic sneers in public, was prevailed upon to ban it from participating part in local elections. In an interview, RNU members urged the lynching of the nation’s political leaders and expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler (a curious sentiment, since Hitler regarded Russians and other Slavs as subhuman).
But what is disturbing is not simply that anti-Semitism exists in Russia — extremists can be found in any country, from Japan to Jamaica — but that it has found supporters in parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In recent years, anti-Semitism has been nurtured under the onion domes of many churches, critics say. To be sure, the hierarchy officially condemns attacks on Jews, even to the extent of denouncing several synagogue bombings in Moscow last year. But the church has reportedly looked the other way as some clergy have worked hand in hand with hate groups.
“The Russian Orthodox Church leadership does nothing to punish bishops, monks or priests who promote anti-Semitism, even though as a strictly hierarchical organization, the church leadership does have means at its disposal to bring its people into line,” said Nikolai Butkevich, research and advocacy director for the Washington-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
The council has documented a long list of cases in which local churches encouraged anti-Semitism. Among them:
* The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported in 1998 that the RNU has close ties to the Kaluga diocese in central Russia, providing guards for local churches, security for Orthodox festivals and workers for local church restoration projects.
* The church newspaper Pravoslavny Yaroslavl, in the town of Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, regularly prints anti-Semitic articles, announcements and advertisements from the RNU and other extremist parties.
* Vladimir Osipov, the Orthodox head of the Union of Christian Rebirth, cochairs the Organizational Committee of Russian Orthodox Forces, which calls for “the unmasking of the Talmudic conspiracy against Russia” and “Chasidic and satanic sects” that practice “ritual murder.” When the group was formed in Tula Oblast, near Moscow, deputies from the regional and federal parliaments attended, along with the editors of the local anti-Semitic newspaper, Zasechny Rubezh, and the national newspaper Nash Sovremennik.
* In 1998, the leadership of the Orthodox diocese in Voronezh, 600 km south of Moscow, allegedly blessed the swastika banners of the RNU during a regional conference, Butkevich reported. (Reached by phone, a church spokesmen in Voronezh denied that this incident took place.)
* In 1998, over 100 RNU members participated in a religious ceremony at the Diveyevo Monastery, in the Volga River region of Nizhny Novgorod, with the permission of the monastery leadership.
* The headquarters of the RNU’s Volgograd branch, in central Russia, are located in an Orthodox church.
* In the Altai region in Siberia, the Orthodox newspaper Revnitel (Zealot) regularly publishes anti-Semitic articles. Slurs against Masons, as well as Jews, are common in the newspaper.
* The official Russian Orthodox Church newspaper of the Ural region’s Kemerovo diocese, Pravoslavnye Vesti, is publishing the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” in serialization. “Protocols” is a fraudulent text concocted by czarist police in 1903 that purports to be a secret plan by Jews and Masons to rule the world, and it has been used by racists for a century in order to justify hate crimes against Jews.
Church officials deny the existence of anti-Semitism in their ranks. Reached by phone in Moscow, Father Vladimir Divakov, head of the church’s chancellery, or administrative office, said, “This problem doesn’t exist — certainly not in Moscow,” and declined to take further questions.
Other church officials bristle at critics’ characterizations of anti-Semitism. Butkevich says Pravoslavnaya Gazeta, the official church newspaper in the Siberian town of Yekaterinburg, regularly publishes articles by leading anti-Semites. It has included articles by the late Metropolitan of Petersburg, Ladoga Ioann, who expressed his belief in the veracity of the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” It has also included the work of Deacon Andrei Kurayev, who has written elsewhere that “If there is one religion in the world that is based on racism, it is Judaism,” Butkevich said.
When questioned, however, Dmitry Baibakov, diocese press secretary and editor in chief of Pravoslavnaya Gazeta, denied that anything the paper has printed could be construed as anti-Semitic.
“I think that this problem is artificial,” he said. “There is a Jewish community in town. We don’t have much cooperation with them, but there’s no conflict or opposition.”
Critics say that the worst of it is that church officials simply do not recognize the problem.
“This is a big problem, as historically anti-Semitism was characteristic of any Christian church, but now it is distributed in the publicly active part of the [Orthodox] church,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, a political scientist with the Moscow-based Panorama Political Research Center who has studied extremism and anti-Semitism in Russia. “There are no statements on the official level, but individual priests do it all the time.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has often had a dark record when it comes to relations with Jews. In times of trouble, Jews were convenient scapegoats. As radicalism swept across the Russian Empire in the decades before the 1917 Revolution, monarchist bishops attempted to stem the tide by supporting far-right organizations.
In 1905, the year of an aborted revolt against Czar Nicholas II, anti-Semitic attacks by such groups grew in number, according to British historian Robert Service in his book “A History of Twentieth-Century Russia.”
“They hated the Jews, whom they blamed for all the recent disturbances in the empire,” Service writes. “They helped to form gangs, usually known as the Black Hundreds, which carried out bloody pogroms against Jewish communities in the western borderlands. By stirring up a xenophobic hysteria, they aimed to unite the czar and the Russian people.”
Yet after the Revolution, the Orthodox Church, like other religions, suffered in the crucible of Bolshevism as Vladimir Lenin launched state terror against “class enemies.” From the earliest years of the Revolution, Bolsheviks indiscriminately shot Orthodox bishops, clergymen and ordinary believers. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians ended up in slave labor camps. The KGB infiltrated seminaries and bishoprics, and communists co-opted the church under state control.
Emerging from this era, the church gave some early indications that it was willing to take a more tolerant stance than it had in the past. Patriarch Alexy II — the current head of the church, who recently visited Japan — attempted to reach out to Jews during a trip to New York in 1991, Verkhovsky said. The result was a firestorm in Russia.
“He talked about the close ties between Christianity and Judaism, just banal things,” Verkhovsky said. “But there was a big reaction in the Russian church. Some powerful monks stopped mentioning his name during the liturgy. There were no official statements, but not mentioning the patriarch’s name was almost equivalent to a schism or a revolt. The old monks, who do not normally get involved in church politics, are very powerful. So the patriarch never risked giving such a speech again.”
At the same time as extremism has grown in Russia, the Orthodox Church has assumed a leading role in society. In 1997, at the urging of the church, the State Duma, or Parliament, adopted a law restricting the practice of religion in Russia, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.
On the surface, the law permits the practice of Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and other religions that can prove they have been established in Russia for more than 15 years. In practice, there is little guarantee of such protection, and local officials have denied registration to some Jewish, Muslim and Protestant groups, thereby preventing them from legally organizing and collecting funds.
This has encouraged discrimination toward groups long regarded as mainstream in the West, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Indeed, priests in the Primorye region, where Vladivostok is located, launched a smear campaign in the local media against Jehovah’s Witnesses last year, claiming they had encouraged a young man to kill himself; local Witnesses said the youth was not a member of their group and pointed out that the group has never been known for encouraging suicide.)
Even a faith as old as Islam, which has a history in Russia extending back many centuries, has run into trouble. City officials in Vladivostok seized some land that Muslims had consecrated for a mosque, citing Russian Orthodox officials’ objections that the completed mosque would stand on a higher hill than any church in town. And local officials in the city of Bryansk used the law to deny registration to a Reform synagogue for two years.
Orthodoxy has become the de facto state religion in Russia, with priests given free rein to recruit on military bases, participate in public ceremonies and visit the sick in hospitals — benefits not extended to other creeds. In the central Russian city of Vologda, Bishop Maximilian and the federal tax police signed a joint agreement for the “spiritual and patriotic upbringing of citizens,” the business weekly Zolotoi Rog reported in April. Under this agreement, priests hearing confessions have agreed to raise a number of questions for their parishioners’ spiritual health.
“You didn’t lust after your friend’s wife, did you?” priests reportedly ask. “Did you pay taxes? You didn’t hide any profits from the state, did you?”
Sometimes the closeness between church and state manifests itself in strange ways. During a visit in May to Primorye, Alexy II bestowed a medal on Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko, a strongman has cultivated a cult of personality and claims to have received a $1 million award as World Aristocratic Governor of the year. Nazdratenko also once welcomed the autocratic president of Belarus during a 1998 state visit with a sneer about the number of Jews in then President Boris Yeltsin’s administration.
At the local level, Orthodox leaders in Vladivostok say they do not seek conflict with other religions, but that, at the same time, ecumenism is not their goal.
“The Orthodox Church in Russia has taken a position of patriotism,” said Father Innokenty, spokesman for the church. “We put it simply: It is the cultural and state form of religion for Russia. If this cultural and historical tradition is diluted, it jeopardizes the state of Russia.”
Anti-Semitism has emerged in church conflicts over other issues. In Yekaterinburg, former Bishop Nikon was close to the RNU, which guarded his home church, Butkevich said. This seemed to matter little to the church hierarchy, and he was only dismissed last year after being charged with embezzlement and homosexuality. And as soon as Nikon got in trouble, he adopted an age-old strategy for clinging to power: Blame the Jews.
“Two priests who were battling him were Jewish [converts to Orthodoxy],” Verkhovsky said. “Of course, Nikon’s supporters used this as a tool, calling it ‘Yid’s intrigues.’ They said that Jews who had become Orthodox priests are not authentic priests.”
At Nikon’s farewell service, a contingent of RNU members attended in black uniforms emblazoned with red-and-white swastikas, Butkevich said.
In Vladivostok, RNU members in the central square at first attempt to present a reasonable face. They claim they have nothing against Jews per se, notwithstanding their flyers filled with anti-Semitic slurs. But it takes little prodding to get them to rant about Jews (“usually their essence is satanic”), Roman Catholics and Masons, or to explain that wealthy American Jews secretly funded Hitler’s rise to power (another odd charge, from people who admire Hitler).
Like his comrades, RNU leader Vladimir Filippov, a middle-age man with a chest-length beard and the wild gaze of a holy fool, expressed admiration for the Orthodox Church, although Filippov himself is a member of a centuries-old splinter sect called the Old Believers. But he grew enraged at the talk of the current hierarchy, whom he perceives as weak toward other religions.
“(Church spokesman) Vsevolod Chaplin — also not a Slavic name — said there was kindness in the Catholic Church, which I think is a sacrilege and a lie,” Filippov said.
For extremists such as the RNU, Russia is engaged in a holy war, and Jews are among the enemies. The party’s newspaper states, “Everyone who realizes the danger for the existence of Russia’s people and the purity of the Russian Orthodox Church and is not fighting with Judaism or Masonism, can’t even be called a Christian. He is not even a pagan. He is . . . a slave of Satan, and not a worker for Jesus Christ.”
Such talk is dangerous, especially in a nation with a troubled history regarding the Jews. But critics are still waiting for the censure of a priest, monk or bishop who vilifies Jews.
“Nobody is ever punished for anti-Semitism,” Verkhovsky said.
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