Visit to Russia reveals rampant anti-Semitism

Jewish and pro-Jewish politicians have been assassinated. Fascist citizen groups are forming. Hate speech is erupting from the populace, and a synagogue has been bombed.

A virulent wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping like wildfire across the former Soviet Union, according to Pnina Levermore, director of the S.F.-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

She knows this firsthand, having just returned on Tuesday of last week from an eight-day mission to the region. The visit, she said, left her shaken by the hostility that is aimed at the 2 million Jews there.

"My friends tell me they can see it on my face and hear it in my voice," said Levermore, who went on the trip with two board members and another BACJRR staffer. "I believe them because I feel it."

Even the visiting group itself felt the sting of ethnic hate during a cab ride taken by Michael Shapiro, one of the board members.

Mired in heavy traffic in St. Petersburg, the cabbie used nearly every back-up as an opportunity to curse Jews. Levermore, who heard the story from Shapiro, said the cabbie kept saying "Those dirty Yids, those nasty yids" each time he got stuck.

Levermore met Shapiro at the end of the ride and said he was as "white as a ghost" upon getting out of the car. Along the way, he told Levermore, he saw street vendors peddling copies of Mein Kampf in all languages.

Shapiro, a Refusenik who immigrated 20 years ago, said the ride convinced him never to return to his native country, according to Levermore.

The foursome visited four Russian cities in an effort to investigate and quash the worst of the anti-Semitic flare-ups.

The anti-Semitic upsurge followed the August overthrow of democratic leadership in the Duma and a simultaneous collapse of the Russian economy.

"Analysts are comparing this period [with its vacuum of leadership] to the Weimar Republic of Germany," Levermore said, referring to the regime which preceded the Third Reich.

"There was a coldness in the air," she added. "I felt the chill in my bones."

Further aggravating the upheaval, Communist lawmaker Albert Makashov has been hurling anti-Semitic invective, blaming the economic downturn on Jews in the government, the banking industry and the media.

"Whoever reads Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Gogol or Shevchenko knows no other word to designate the ravager, the bloodsucker feeding on the misfortunes of other people. They are destroying industry and agriculture," Makashov was quoted as saying in the Russian newspaper Zavtra.

A retired military general and the grandson of a Cossack leader, Makashov has become the ringleader for every stripe of ultranationalist — Communist, fascist and fringe extremist.

Believing his epithets also incite the masses, Levermore met with the U.S. ambassador in Moscow as well as two Duma members. She pleaded her case to push for censure of the renegade deputy.

The officials promised to deliver letters of protest written by Bay Area residents to Communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov.

The BACJRR delegation made a stop in the northwestern town of Borovichy to investigate reports of Jewish harassment by a fascist group of Barkashovites, so named for their anti-Semitic leader, Aleksandr Barkashov. The group has recruited members nationally. Its followers distinguish themselves with black uniforms and swastika armbands.

Several carloads of Barkashovites travelled recently to Borovichy to threaten its Jewish community with violence. They called on town residents to kill one Jew a day, and on one occasion stopped every individual on the street looking for Jews.

After the ruffians left Borovichy, some remained to pass out propaganda, recruit youth and seek an alliance with Cossack revivalists in the town.

The Barkashovites are just one of many ultranationalist citizen groups springing up throughout the country, Levermore said.

During her visit, she met and counseled Edward Alexeev, a Borovichy Jew, and enlisted democratic lawmakers to confront the situation with the town's authorities.

Alexeev had been specifically targeted by anti-Semites in the form of a letter he received last month. The letter begins, "Stinking Jews, get out of our town!"

Later on, it says, "You are not human beings, you are beasts. If you will not get out, we will make a bonfire of the Inquisition to melt all of you with your abhorrent children…

"Pogroms will be here and we will wash streets by your blood, if you will not get out of our town."

Levermore set up Alexeev with a computer and modem to stay in touch with BACJRR as well as Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, the sister synagogue of the Borovichy Jews.

In St. Petersburg, she learned of a group of parents and faculty at a Russian school who were unhappy with their new principal. The administrator had banned the literature of Jewish writers as well as the hiring of staff who appeared to be Jewish.

Staff at the BACJRR's Harold Light Center in St. Petersburg connected the concerned parents and faculty with democratic representatives. Levermore's group sat in on the meeting. The representatives contacted the head of Russia's department of education, who then fired the principal.

In events that transpired during Levermore's visit, Barkashovites claimed responsiblity for the recent bombing of a Moscow synagogue and a democratic lawmaker who had pushed for Makashov's censure from the Duma was shot dead in the stairwell of her apartment building.

It was the sixth political assassination of a Jewish or pro-Jewish Duma member since 1994, Levermore said.

Coincidentally, the Duma murder took place as democratic reformers and human rights activists, including the BACJRR delegation, were gathering in St. Petersburg for a conference. Organizers held an impromptu memorial service the day after the assassination in one of the city's great halls.

Four democratic leaders at the gathering proclaimed that only a return to power of democratic reformers would eradicate the reign of terror and lawlessness that had gripped the country. The leaders pledged to unite all the democratic reform parties in order to gain a toehold in the Duma. Elections were slated to take place today.

"Whether or not the democrats will prevail [today] will tell a lot about which way the country will go," Levermore said.

In the meantime, she and other activists for Soviet Jewry will continue their offensive against Russian anti-Semitism on three fronts:

*They will continue outreach to Jews through St. Petersburg's Harold Light Center, which provides counseling, emigration information and access to legal defense. The center also provides reports of anti-Semitic activity to the U.S. State Department and maintains ties with Russian officials.

*On a national scale, the BACJRR is lobbying U.S. officials to exert pressure on the Communists.

*Locally, Levermore is promoting the BACJRR's Yad L' Yad program, which pairs Bay Area synagogues with Jewish communities throughout the former Soviet Union.

The program "is extremeley important because it maintains a window to what is going on in Russia," she said, and provides American Jewish support for the embattled Jews there.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.