Oligarchs and olim: Russian Jews today

The JC essay


By Lawrence Joffe, March 2, 2012
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Peering from behind bars, his hair shorn to prison regulation length, Mikhail Khodorkovsky maintains a quiet dignity. Once the richest man in Russia and head of the Yukos oil conglomerate, he has become Russia's most famous political prisoner and a thorn in Vladimir Putin's side. His case highlights Russia's ingrained authoritarianism, an issue that has leapt back to life, sparking unprecedented protests after last year's legislative elections, and now gathering pace again before Sunday's presidential poll. More widely, his plight invites consideration of the position of Jews in post-communist Russia and why so many left.

Among the restrictions lifted along with the iron curtain were two taboos: money and religion. As ordinary Russians found themselves able to make money and build private enterprise, they were also allowed to express the religions they had suppressed under communism. Many took advantage of the new freedom to emigrate, while those who stayed were able to benefit from the radical domestic reforms.

Khodorkovsky studied chemistry, following in the footsteps of his Jewish father and Christian mother. With his right-hand man, Leonid Nevzlin, fully Jewish and now in exile in Israel, in 1987, "Misha" Khodorkovsky founded Menatep, Russia's first private investment bank, with the approval of Gorbachev's liberalising Kremlin. He had already shown entrepreneurial nous by setting up a firm to import badly needed computers from abroad. The big breakthrough came in late 1995 when he acquired Yukos, Russia's second biggest oil producing company, from Boris Berezovsky. Even then, the line between politics and business was hard to draw.

In 2001, Khodorkovsky founded the Open Russia foundation to encourage liberal values and broader education; he also turned Yukos into a transparent, western-style conglomerate. This won increased loyalty from foreign investors and shares soared, but the Kremlin inner circle saw it as a threat to their power. Misha publicly stated that the Kremlin had problems with corruption; a furious Putin retorted that Yukos should be investigated for possible tax evasion.

The evidence would suggest that it is easier to take the Jews out of Russia than it is to take Russia out of the Jews

The Yukos acquisition saw Menatep assuming $2 billion in debt. In 2001, the bank was declared broke. Worse followed when the state arrested Khodorkovsky's deputy, Platon Lebedev. Misha was arrested in Siberia in 2003. After an 11-month trial for tax evasion, he was sentenced to 15 years. After a second trial, this time on charges of money laundering, embezzlement and the alleged theft of 300m barrels of his own oil - an "impossible amount that would fill a train encircling the earth three times", Khodorkovsky said - he was sentenced to a further 14 years. He is due for release in 2016.

During the build up to the collapse of communism, there was a growing awareness among Soviet authorities that they would need a Russian elite that could acquire state assets and keep them on Russian soil. Screeds have been written about the Jewish preponderance in this. One theory suggests that, because Jews were traditionally excluded from the centres of Communist Party power, they developed skills on the unofficial peripheral market. However, most oligarchs were not cunning black-marketeers in the Soviet days but often clerks, scientists and technicians - even professors - who operated quietly within the system. As it was virtually impossible for Jews to enter high-profile Moscow universities, many studied at less prestigious establishments, like the Institute of Oil and Gas, where they were, later, ideally placed to develop Russia's lucrative oil trade. By the early 1990s, six out of seven of Russia's richest tycoons were Jewish or part-Jewish.

Of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, who enjoyed particularly close relations with the government, few have managed either to retain their fortunes or stay in Russia. Years in the KGB gave Putin a mistrust of the individual, and his rule has seen the restoration of state authority over the once all-powerful magnates. Roman Abramovich, formerly favoured by the Kremlin, was forced to sell 72 per cent of his assets to the state before finding a bolt-hole in the UK, also the haven for Boris Berezovsky. Unlike his fellow oligarchs, Khodorkovsky chose to stand his ground and use his inordinate wealth to help shape the free and democratic Russia in which he wanted to live.

Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said that "in every case, the prosecution has been focused on the Jewish oligarchs". Antisemitism in Russia has always been institutionalised, popular and cultural. Until 1917, Jews were barred from the major cities. Many reasons are offered to explain Russian antisemitism: fears of the Khazars who converted to Judaism and once threatened the embryonic Russian state; Russian Orthodox interpretations of the New Testament which saw Jews as "Christ killers"; a fear of the Jews as a possible fifth column.

A vicious circle was established when the Pale of Settlement was set up in the late 18th century, sharing what once was Polish between Russia and Prussia. Until that point, few Russians would ever have met a Jew but the acquisition of the Pale meant that the Russian Empire's Jewish population doubled overnight. Of all the cities, only Odessa was open to Jews. The harshness of living conditions in the Pale and the informal use of Jews as tax collectors nurtured a peasant hatred of the Jews. Pogroms became a common expression of resentment.

With the 1917 revolution, the Pale was abolished, but assimilating into the infrastructure of city life exposed Jews to a new front of antisemitism. They were regarded as a nationality, though religion was universally suppressed, and a special Jewish section in the Communist party worked assiduously to shut down synagogues and cheders until it, too, was closed in 1929. During the Second World War, Jews were caught in a lethal pincer as the Nazis collaborated with Soviet subjects in slaughtering them in their hundreds of thousands.

Later, Stalin's anti-Jewish programme reached its zenith with the 1952 night of the poets' murders and the doctors' plot, confirming the place of antisemitism at the heart of state policy. Even Khruschchev, perceived to be moderate by comparison with Stalin, shut down four out of five remaining synagogues. And though the USSR initially backed the formation of Israel at the UN, official Soviet policy soon swung towards militant anti -Zionism, with Jews suspected of dual loyalties and bourgeois nationalist affiliations. By the 1960s, Jews were accused increasingly of "economic sabotage", hinting, perhaps, of yet another prejudice - that they were crypto-capitalists. Israel's Six-Day War victory in 1967 revived a languishing Jewish identity and gave birth to the refusenik movement. Refuseniks suffered discrimination, persecution and, as in the most famous case, Natan Sharansky, exile to the Gulag.

Given the history of anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia, it is perhaps unsurprising that Khodorkovsky's imprisonment should sound alarm bells; as Naftalin observed, quoting Elie Wiesel: "Not every Jew is a victim, but every victim is a Jew." The memory of the Refuseniks is fresh enough that this story holds grim resonances. Khodorkovsky is clearly a political prisoner, but the wider context, in Jewish eyes, ties him to the narrative of Jewish persecution in Russia. This narrative is why so many Russian Jews chose to leave for Israel.

T he Russian aliyah was the largest ever; some 1.3 million since 1989, making up nearly 20 per cent of the population. Their demographic, social and cultural impact has been profound. Not particularly Zionist, not always even Jewish, they are often considered outsiders. In an Israel that cherishes the idea of being a Jewish melting pot, they seem an indissoluble minority. At the time, the redemption of Russian Jewry was hailed as a modern miracle, but now Israeli commentators feel secure enough to target the mores of their Russian-born brethren. In the wake of a welter of anti-democratic laws that the party of the former Soviet, Avigdor Lieberman, has seen pass before the Knesset, Ari Shavit recently wrote: "Contrary to the heritage of Menachem Begin, the Knesset has begun passing laws like those of Russia's Duma. Contrary to everything Theodor Herzl believed in, Israel has begun to resemble Vladimir Putin's Russia." Shavit's call is not unique. In 2007, Lisa Goldman entitled an article on the Israel-based Russian magnate Arcady Gaydamak: Shady Oligarchs and the Politics of Pork. In 2010, Bill Clinton said Israel's Russian immigrants were "an obstacle to peace".

The evidence would suggest that it is easier to take the Jews out of Russia than to take Russia out of the Jews. By and large, the refuseniks of the 1970s and '80s were passionate Zionists and democrats. Those who came after the 1990s were often motivated by other principles and a natural desire for security. There were also opportunists and economic migrants. Alarmingly for Israelis who cared about the Jewish nature of their state, a large proportion were not really Jewish but claimed entry by having one Jewish grandparent, or a Jewish spouse.

Generally speaking, Russian Jews are not in the front row of Peace Now demonstrations. Many view negotiations with scepticism. As Ahron Bregman argued in his book, Elusive Peace, Russian Jews come from the largest nation on earth, so they wonder why a nation as small as Israel should give up land for a hoped-for resolution.

L ieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), with its anti-democratic policies, has come to represent the Russian voice. The name, some have noted, is not so different from "Russia Our Home", founded in 1995 by the then Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Arguably, the Russian vote swung the last three, or even five elections, although sectarian interest can often trump natural ideological inclinations: in the 1992 election they voted against Shamir, partly to punish the latter for annoying the US and thereby losing the $10 billion loan guarantee that the US Treasury was to earmark for resettling Soviet migrants

The plight of Sharansky, sentenced to nine years in the Gulag on grounds of "espionage" after his application for an exit visa to Israel was refused, became emblematic during the Cold War. It was a face-off between western freedom in the face of totalitarianism with biblical echoes of the Exodus story thrown in.

The plight of the Jew imprisoned in Siberia was a cause that united Jews around the world. Cheders around the world had Jewish children writing letters of appeal to Soviet leaders. Tales of their hardship at the hands of a modern-day Pharaoh arguably inflamed a diaspora sense of continued persecution while chiming with the Jewish foundational myth of the journey from slavery to freedom. When Wiesel and other prominent Jewish figures campaign for Khodorkovsky, they refer back to a time when the plight of Soviet Jews, imprisoned and persecuted, was an irresistible echo of the Exodus story and a powerful call for diaspora unity.

Today, the power lines in Jewish, post-Soviet Russia remain uncertain. There is a tremendous tussle going on between the more secular-orientated, Russian Jewish Congress, established in 1996; and the more religious Federation of Jewish Communities, founded in late 1998. Local Jewish businessmen in Ukraine and Kazakhstan set up Jewish bodies in these newly independent former Soviet states. But, outside the Jewish world, the political arena is perceived as off-limits: the Khodorkovsky pantomime has effectively sounded a warning shot to those in the Jewish world with grander aspirations.

Those who enter politics do so as Russians rather than as Jews. As for Khodorkovsky, in the tradition of the political prisoner, like Sharansky, he has become a symbol of the Putin era in a way that may ultimately make him a far greater threat. His prison writings and insistence upon ideals of democracy and transparency have transformed him from oligarch to icon.

This is an edited version of an article that appears in the cultural magazine, The Jewish Quarterly. Read the full version of this essay 'From Oligarch to Icon' in the latest issue on sale now. www.jewishquarterly.org.

Last updated: 11:10am, March 2 2012