By Paul Goble
Xenophobia in Russia today, a leader of the Federation of Jewish Organizations of Russia (FEOR) says, does not rest on a solid ideological foundation but rather reflects the dissatisfaction of Russians with their lives, a pattern that makes it both less and more dangerous than might otherwise be the case.
In an interview given to a French journal on the occasion of Hanukah that, having been translated into Russian, is now receiving widespread attention, Borukh Gorin, the head of FEOR’s public liaison department, discusses this and a variety of other issues affecting not only the Jewish community but others as well (www.aen.ru/?page=brief&article_id=59284).
Asked by his interlocutor whether “a dialogue of Jewish culture and Russian culture is possible or not,” Gorin says that the two are forced by circumstances to communicate with each other, something that can make a positive contribution or that can have the most negative consequences.
The problems with such exchanges begin “when those who talk about ‘dialogue’ with representatives of other religions” do so on the assumption that “the other has a certain fraction of the truth.” That is called “tolerance” and is assumed to be “a necessary element of a healthy society.”
But Gorin says that he disagrees. “A healthy society,” he argues, “is a society where people with the most varied opinions meet and have the right to remain in categorical disagreement with each other.” Those who want a society “where Jews accept as ‘real’ Christian or Muslim dogmas … [are dreaming] of a utopia.”
As far as the Russian government is concerned, Gorin continues, its policy is “populist.” That is, “the powers that be do what the people expect from them.” Unfortunately, it often happens that “the people want evil things. The majority always wants to steal from the weak and punish the alien.”
One should recognize, the FEOR leader says, that “Russian politicians today are much less inclined to engage in xenophobic rhetoric than they were.” Now, he points out, “xenophobic rhetoric has given way to the rhetoric of [Russia as] as great power,” again something that is a mixed blessing.
While official encouragement for xenophobia has declined, the Russian “powers that be are convincing the population that its interests are less important than the interests of the state. [And] Russia is ever more often standing on imperialist positions,” a view that is “widely supported” among the people and “what is especially sad, among the ruling elites.”
“I consider that this is very bad for the world in general,” Gorin concludes, “and for Russia in particular.”
According to Gorin, the reason that imperial rhetoric is so popular is that “people want a strong and effective state, and here they deceive themselves. For the majority of Russians, ‘national humiliation’ is when Russia is not involved in taking decisions of anywhere in the world.”
But the FEOR leader says that in his view, “’national humiliation’ is when old people search in trash heaps in order to earn three kopecks or when there is no money for children who are ill with leukemia.” “I would be proud of my country even if it did not make decisions about Burkina-Faso,” if in exchange “the elderly didn’t have to stand in line for an hour and a half to see a doctor.”
“Must people be proud, for example, of ‘the great construction projects’ of the past and future which cost millions of human lives?” Gorin asks rhetorically, and he notes that Russian “society says ‘yes,’ but “I say ‘no.’” And he adds for good measure, “no modernization is worth the life of a child.”
“People who are in despair,” as many Russians now are, “search for enemies. And they easily find them in the face of outsiders, the poorly dressed or those who cannot express themselves well in Russian.” Thus, Gorin insists, “Russian xenophobia expresses a general dissatisfaction with life,” rather than any specific ideological program.
Consequently, what one is seeing in Russia today is not “the struggle against any particular people but a struggle against a dog’s life. Indicative of that,” Gorin says, “is that in the majority of Russian neo-Nazi groupings there are many people of various nationalities, not just ethnic Russians.”
One group that is unlikely to be the focus of attack now, Gorin suggests, consists of the Jews. Despite the history of official anti-Semitism, he argues, “today the slogan ‘Beat the Kikes and Save Russia!” isn’t on the agenda. The majority of Russian people in practive have few acquaintances who are Jews.”
Consequently, Russian xenophobic attitudes will focus on “enemies” among immigrants, terrorists, and foreigners rather than the less than one percent of the Russian population because “in reality, it would be difficult to explain to people for what reason the Jews of the entire world want bad things for Russians.”
Asked about the rapprochement between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state, Gorin says that “today it is obvious that the Orthodox Church is broadening its influence in government structures,” a trend that he suggests “represents a danger and in the first instance, for the Orthodox Church itself.”
“For any religious organization,” he continues, “integration with the state is a mortal danger.” And he points to the situation in Israel, where as a result of the state functions rabbis play, “anti-religious attitudes in Israeli society are felt more strongly than in any other Jewish community in the world.”
“The Russian Orthodox Church is not distancing itself from the state because it wants to strengthen its positions. The state in turn is not distancing itself from the Church since it is trying to use as much as possible the ideological potential of the Church.” Under the circumstances, that may not be an entirely bad thing, Gorin says.
“What kind of ideology could we have in Russia today?” he asks. “Faith in Gazprom? In the empire? In xenophobia?” The Russian powers that be have a lot of choices, and settling on “’renewed Orthodoxy’ would not be “the worst” of all of them, despite the obvious risks it would entail for all concerned.