Vladimir Putin, Chabad: What’s behind the Russian president’s close relationship with an Orthodox Jewish sect?

What’s Behind Vladimir Putin’s Close Relationship With an Orthodox Jewish Sect?

What’s Behind Vladimir Putin’s Close Relationship With an Orthodox Jewish Sect?

Events beyond our borders.
Nov. 28 2014 12:11 PM

Putin’s Chosen People

What’s behind the Russian president’s close relationship with an Orthodox Jewish sect?

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin (center) speaks with chief rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar (left) and head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia Alexander Boroda (right) in Moscow on April 14, 2014.

Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is an impressive place. Original artifacts, film clips, and interactive displays take visitors on a tour through centuries of Judaism’s rich but tragic history in Russia, from the Middle Ages to the czarist-era pogroms to the Holocaust to the repression of the Stalin era to the mass emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Then it just sort of ends.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

There’s a panel featuring photos of Vladimir Putin with Jewish leaders, a small display on the Russian Jewish diaspora featuring Little Failure author Gary Shteyngart as an example of a “successful, integrated Russian Jew,” and that’s about it. An exhibit on post-perestroika Jewish life is planned for some time in the future, but for now, the museum gives the impression that Judaism in Russia is a subject of historical interest rather than an ongoing story.

Technically speaking, there are four “official” religions in Russia: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. But given that almost 70 percent of Russians identify as adherents to the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s pretty apparent that one religion is more “official” than others.

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The smallest of the four is Judaism. There are fewer than 200,000 self-identified Jews in Russia today—less than the number of pagans—though the number of Russians from Jewish backgrounds who no longer identify with the religion is likely much higher. They are what remains after a mass exodus that saw more than 2 million Jews leave the countries of the former Soviet Union shortly before and after its collapse, mainly for the United States and Israel. Given that most Russians with Jewish backgrounds range from casual observers to entirely indifferent to their religion, it’s a bit unexpected that their official representatives hail from one of the more doctrinaire sects of Orthodox Judaism. You may be surprised to learn, too, that those representatives are quite close with President Vladimir Putin.

Regardless, it’s quite clear that we are not at a high point of Russian Jewish culture. You could argue, though, that for the Jews who are left, things aren’t that bad. Recent years have seen a great deal of government-supported synagogue construction, and a small but growing number of Jews are attending services.

And while there were fears after the fall of the Soviet Union that rising Russian nationalism would lead to an upsurge in anti-Semitism, that never really materialized. “After the collapse of the USSR, the number of cases of anti-Semitism have been steadily dropping on an annual basis over the last 10 years,” says Yury Kanner, head of the country’s largest secular Jewish organization, the Russian Jewish Congress.

There is certainly anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia, but the country is far from an outlier in that regard. Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in a number of European countries, including France, Germany, and Italy. Much of this is related to tension between Jewish and Muslim communities and criticism of Israel, which isn’t a particularly salient issue in Russia. Anti-Semitic far-right parties have also made troubling election gains in countries like Greece and Hungary. Ultra-nationalism is an issue in Russia as well—a controversial far-right rally was held in Moscow on Nov. 4—but when this manifests itself as racism or xenophobia, it’s more typically directed against the predominantly Muslim migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, perhaps because they’re far more numerous than Jews.

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Whatever his many other sins, even Vladimir Putin’s harshest critics concede that he’s not an anti-Semite. As the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe notes, a number of his closest confidants, as well as the Judo teacher who served as a mentor and surrogate father, are Jews. He has personally intervened in cases of state anti-Semitism, such as an incident last year in which a teacher was charged with corruption and the prosecution used his Jewish last name as evidence. Putin labeled that “egregious,” and the conviction was overturned soon after.

Putin’s has also generally been supportive of Jewish institutions—one Jewish institution in particular. One of the more intriguing aspects of contemporary Russian Jewish life is the close relationship between the Kremlin and Chabad, also known as Lubavitch, the Hasidic sect known in the United States for its street-corner proselytizing to fellow Jews and reverence for the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Founded in Western Russia in the 18th century, the Lubavitchers decamped to the United States in 1940, setting up their new headquarters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. The Orthodox Jewish movement has dispatched hundreds of emissaries throughout the world to promote the faith. Just after the fall of Communism and just prior to his own death, Schneerson sent Rabbi Berel Lazar to represent Chabad in Russia.

Today, Lazar, who was born in Italy and educated in the United States, is Russia’s chief rabbi. He appears frequently at Putin’s side at public events, and is the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities (known by its Russian acronym FEOR), the country’s most important Jewish organization. But the title of Russia’s most important rabbi is not an uncontested one.

Adolf Shayevech, a prominent figure in the community since the late Soviet period, was considered chief rabbi until 2000, and still claims the title. Kanner’s group, the Russian Jewish Congress, also recognizes Shayevech. But since Putin came to power in 2000, he has preferred to work with FEOR. Lazar, who is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Rabbi,” now sits on the country’s public chamber, a government-appointed oversight committee. Lazar has been nothing but appreciative, praising Putin publicly as a friend of the Jews and calling Russia “one of the safest places for Jews in Europe.”

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In a story that seemed tailor-made to demonstrate the rabbi’s devotion to both his faith and his patron in the Kremlin, it was reported in June 2013 that Lazar had agreed, at Putin’s request, to attend a World War II memorial event hours away from Moscow on a Friday afternoon. When his plane was delayed and arrived back in Moscow just 10 minutes before sundown, Lazar made an eight-hour, 19-mile walk home rather than break the Sabbath. Sources close to the rabbi told the Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva that his willingness to make the difficult journey was an “example of the special connection between Rabbi Lazar and Russia's president.”

Government support has been good for FEOR, which has restored dozens of synagogues and built Jewish community centers throughout the country. It has also gotten funding to develop the Jewish Museum, which opened in 2012 just around the corner from the organization’s Moscow headquarters.

Chabad members—a small fraction of a small religious community—have become the dominant force in Russian Jewish life. “Eighty percent of all synagogues, the rabbis are Chabad,” Rabbi Alexander Boroda, the organization’s chief spokesman, told me in an interview. “But the people who come, many are just young people who want to come and learn something about Judaism.”

Boroda dismissed the notion that there was anything improper about his organization’s close relationship with the Kremlin. “The chief rabbi is the representative of the Jewish tradition,” he says. “It’s the Russian tradition, it’s not like America.” Indeed, a number of other Eastern European countries have chief rabbis, and in Ukraine, as in Russia, it’s a disputed position.

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How exactly has Chabad reached its position of influence? For one thing, it has some influential backers. The Uzbek–Israeli billionaire diamond magnate Lev Leviev was an early and enthusiastic backer of FEOR. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire investor, governor, and owner of the Chelsea soccer team, has also been a backer, donating $5 million to build the Marina Roscha Synagogue.

Chabad, which unlike many other Jewish groups is a centrally organized hierarchical organization, also likely looks familiar to the Kremlin. Chabad “replicates in a way the structure of the Orthodox Church,” says Kanner. “There is a center that sends its ambassadors into the communities.”

David Shneer, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Denver who was studied the Lubavitchers’ role in Russia, says it also helps that Chabad is a “movement that cultivates ties with political leadership as part of a broader strategy to make a home wherever they happen to be.” He compares this to the medieval practice of shtadlanut, in which European Jews lobbied local rulers for rights.

Even though most Russian Jews aren’t Orthodox, Shneer says it shouldn’t be surprising that the Orthodox Chabad has taken on a leadership role in Russian Jewish life. “Chabad is evangelical Judaism,” he says. “They bring Judaism to people at whatever level they’re at. If they want to light candles, they’ll show them how to light candles. If they want to keep kosher, they’ll show them how to keep kosher. They know that 95 percent of people who attend Chabad events are not at all religiously observant. But their point is to bring a certain kind of Judaism to as many Jews as possible.”

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FEOR’s Boroda argues that the approach has brought results. “More people have started going to synagogue,” he says. “We’re seeing a renaissance in Jewish life.”

Of course, with nationalist sentiment running high right now, there are always fears that this could once against manifest itself in hostility to Jews.

A recent report from Kanner’s organization, which often works with the government to combat cases of discrimination, also noted an uptick in anti-Semitic statements from politicians and on state-run media outlets. A recent Russian television documentary about Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told viewers that “one must take into consideration his Jewish origin.” Other media hatchet jobs of foreign leaders or opposition figures have also noted their Jewish roots. There have also been a number of instances in the past year of vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries. Blatantly anti-Semitic comments from low-level politicians are fairly common. A legislator from the ruling United Russia party, for instance, remarked during a debate at the regional parliament in Kaliningrad that Jews “destroyed our country in 1917 and … destroyed our country in 1991.”

Even so, a spokesman for the Russian Jewish Congress told the news agency Interfax that “the role of anti-Semitism in modern Russia has obviously become less noticeable than in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was the principal essence of nationalistic propaganda.”

But even if life is relatively comfortable for Jews, in contrast to other minorities, that doesn’t mean the community is due for a resurgence. Right now the biggest threat to Russian Judaism may be apathy, not bigotry.

Shneer feels that Chabad’s dominance, and the lack of reform or progressive alternatives, is “terrible for the future of pluralistic Judaism in Russia.” Russia is full of people with Jewish or partially Jewish family roots, but after decades of repression and immigration, many have little connection to the religion. On one level it seems unlikely that a branch of Judaism based in part on a rejection of modern society will be the one to bring doubters back into the fold.

Kanner, though, says the relative lack of interest in reform or liberal branches of Judaism shouldn’t be surprising, and is rooted in the community’s troubled history. “In Soviet times, we were Jews based on our blood. It was a nationality not a religion,” he says. “The main principle of reformism is that you can be a Jew while also being French or German or whatever. That’s why there was no basis for reformism. In Russia, you are first a Jew, then you are anything else.”

Times may have changed and the situation may have improved, but the idea that you can at once be a Jew and a Russian will still take time to take hold.

Joshua Keating recently traveled to Russia thanks to a religion reporting fellowship from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.