Keeping the lid on Russian anti-Semitism
THIS has been a roller-coaster week in relations between Judaism and Russian Orthodoxy. It started when one of the country’s best-known clerics, a man regarded as personally close to President Vladimir Putin, dropped a verbal bombshell while making an announcement about the hitherto mysterious workings of a church panel which is tasked with investigating the apparent remains of the last tsar and his family, killed by firing-squad in July 1918.
“A large share of the church commission members have no doubt that the murder was ritual,” declared Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is chairman of the panel and abbot of a well-known monastery in central Moscow. Having studied at film school and penned a best-selling work on monastic life in the Soviet Union, the bishop is considered a skilled communicator and his public words are mulled carefully. At a time of mounting tension over the limits of cultural freedom in Russia, Bishop Tikhon is also perceived as an influential force on the conservative side.
Although he made no reference to Judaism, any historically-conscious Russian would instantly link the expression “ritual murder” with some of the darkest episodes in Jewish-Christian relations, in Russia and elsewhere, when anti-Semitic pogroms were triggered by absurd rumours that Jews had murdered Christians in order to use their blood for some ritual function. In the Russian empire, such craziness persisted until the very eve of the revolution: in 1913, a Jew called Mendel Beilis was put on trial in Kiev for “ritual murder” against a background of public hysteria whipped up by ultra-nationalist groups. A Catholic priest testified for the prosecution while Orthodox Christian theologians, along with Moscow’s leading rabbis, spoke for the defence. Beilis was acquitted, but the case highlighted Russian anti-Semitism.
As might have been expected, the bishop’s odd use of words prompted strong protests from Jewish groups, in Moscow and beyond. A spokesman for Russia’s Federation of Jewish communities declared: “This [turn of phrase] comes across as absolute barbarism for a whole series of reasons.”
As news of the cleric’s words spread through the Western and Israeli media, Bishop Tikhon indignantly denied that there was anything anti-Semitic about the suggestion that the murder of the tsar and his family was a ritual killing. On the contrary, the slaying of the royals was a ritualistic act from the point of view not of any religion but of atheist, Bolshevik ideology. “The murder of the tsar and his family, putting the final stamp on the existence of the…300-year-old Romanov dynasty was a matter bearing very special, ritualistic. symbolic meaning for many,” as the bishop put it.
Jewish leaders were somewhat reassured by this clarification but they stuck to their view that because of its loaded history, the use of the expression “ritual murder” had been unacceptable.
It is hard to over-state the importance of this episode as a test of the cultural and moral atmosphere in Mr Putin’s Russia. Jewish-Russian Orthodox relations have been in a delicate but broadly improving state since the fall of communism. In 1991 Patriarch Alexy, who was then the newly appointed head of the Russian Orthodox church, made a landmark speech in New York to an audience of rabbis, which was hailed as a sincere effort to exorcise the ghost of anti-Semitism from his church. Beginning with the words “Shalom to you in the name of the God of love and peace”, he stressed all the commonalities between Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, which he described as “two moments in the same divine-human religion”. Although his speech was condemned by traditionalists in Russia and the diaspora, Patriarch Alexy broadly adhered to this line until his death in 2008, and his successor Patriarch Kirill has done likewise. It was partly under Alexy’s influence that the Russian state accorded special recognition to four “traditional” religions, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The result has been a relatively benign phase in the long and troubled history of Jewish life in Russia.
Meanwhile Mr Putin, even while cultivating a Russian nationalist ideology which often has an anti-Semitic edge, has hitherto been very careful to nip in the bud any open resurgence of anti-Jewish feeling. At one point, during recent arguments over the stewardship of St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, advocates of handing the building over to the church began using anti-Semitic taunts against those who favoured keeping it as a state museum. But this line of argument was firmly slapped down by the government after Israeli and Jewish protests.
For at least 48 hours this week, after the bishop came out with his “ritual murder” remarks, it appeared that the taboo on using language offensive to Jews in high public places might have been lifted. His subsequent clarification (albeit unaccompanied by any hint of regret or contrition over the offence caused) helped to alleviate those worries.
But people will continue to watch very carefully what the Russian authorities, wordly and spiritual, do and say in the eight months leading up the 100th anniversary of the royal executions. The style of these commemorations will amount to a hugely important message about how the country’s current rulers view Russia’s past, and consequently about how they see the nation’s future. In the White Russian diaspora which kept the memory of the Romanovs alive, the story of the executions was often told with an anti-Semitic tinge. That helps to explain the startling effect of the bishop’s words.