The History and Future of Russian Jews

Russia has a rocky relationship with Judaism. Things may be better than they ever have been, but a dark and unfortunate history weighs heavily on the present. Plagued by anti-Semitism and, at times, direct confrontation, Russian-Israeli relations seem tense at best. Despite this though I sometimes question how solid the American-Israeli alliance is; is it plausible to argue that Israel’s posture may change? Answering this question requires a brief look at the history of Russia, Russian Jews, and the state of Israel. I apologize for doing another fairly general post this time but I have been entertaining ideas of a Russia-Israel partnership all week and I need to get it out of my system.

Russia and Its Jews

A while ago a man called Lenin apparently said that Russia was the “prison house of nations.”

Russia has housed a large Jewish population for much of its history, but this did little to dampen discrimination. For much of Russian history the operative word in Russian-Jewish relations was “pogrom.” The term refers to a sudden violent uprising motivated by ethnic or religious hatred. Jews were often the default victims of such violence. Pogroms occurred throughout Russian history well into the modern era. The regimes in power proved to be enablers, or perhaps accomplices; Tsars simply refused to quell such riots. Radzinsky writes in the Last Tsar that pogroms were regarded as useful by Tsars since they deflected anger away from the regime.

One would think that with the arrival of Communism, anti-Semitism would have fallen by the way side. Was not anti-Semitism just another wedge used to drive apart the working masses? Sartre argued this point in his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew, and it is likely that doctrinaire Marxists in the decades prior would have thought along similar lines. While the Bolshevik Revolution may have claimed lofty internationalist goals aimed at doing away with the past order, it did little overall to remedy the tension between Russians and Russian-Jews. Even if the political order changes, history and national culture remain.

The survival of anti-Semitism may also be attributed to Stalin who seems to have harboured a deep mistrust of Jews. Such feelings may have manifested in his persecution of prominent Russian-Jewish revolutionary and rival, Leon Trotsky. Such prejudice reached an apex in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, which saw Stalin’s paranoia reach new heights. There were open campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitanism” (read: Judaism) at a time when the Cold War was beginning to coalesce. In his memoirs, Khrushchev loves to point out Stalin’s anti-Semitism, perhaps to detract from his own prejudice. He recounts a story of how Stalin’s paranoia led him to exile Molotov’s Jewish wife. Perhaps the most heinous epitome of Stalin’s racism though came at the very end of his life when he accused the Jewish doctors in the Kremlin of being traitors. These accusations, comprising the so-called “Doctor’s Plot,” were thankfully cut short by the death of Stalin in 1953 before they turned into another purge.

The Modern Era: Russia and Israel

For all his prejudices Stalin did have a few things to offer to Jews. The USSR did of course defeat Nazi Germany, and the Red Army liberated most concentration camps and saved countless Jews from potential slaughter. Stalin, who we must remember used to be the Commissar of Nationalities, also oversaw the creation of a Jewish autonomous region in the USSR (it was around Korea), and when Israel hit the international scene the Soviets were the first to grant it official recognition. It may be that Stalin was just trying to push Jews away or encourage emigration, although such decisions seem to be in line with his overall stance on handling the sordid nationalities of the USSR (ironically the USSR would fall apart along national lines, but that is another post).

Regardless of why Stalin may have granted Israel recognition, he must have been disappointed to see that Israel chose the American camp in the Cold War. This would lead to  tensions throughout the Cold War, with the Soviets frequently backing Arab/Palestinian claims (such as in the Suez Crisis) and threatening to enter into several Arab-Israeli conflicts (such as the Six Day War). Israel has long complicated the Soviets ability to play politics in the Middle East. A key example of this can be found in Soviet-Egyptian relations, which started warmly but were eventually cut off once Egypt and Israel brokered peace.

The creation of Israel also created problem within the Soviet Union that would soon become a foreign policy liability. Israel welcomes Jews from all over the world, and many Russian-Jews sought to leave persecution and hostility behind forever by emigrating. The Soviets generally opposed this trend and limited the amount of Jews who could leave, which attracted fierce international criticism. Indeed, this attempt to restrict freedom of movement was one of the main contentions that American conservatives had with detente, and strong American support for Russian-Jews would come to be embodied in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which hampered trade agreements between the USA and USSR so long as emigration was discouraged. Eventually restrictions lifted, and Jews left in droves, but bitter memories remain.

A Russian-Israeli Axis?

With such a contested history is it even feasible to talk of a Russian-Israeli partnership? Despite hundreds of years of animosity, I believe that it is not impossible. Putin has been generally very positive towards Jews. He framed his meddling in Ukraine in terms of anti-fascism and language, hinting that Russia has an obligation to protect both Jews and Russian speakers. With a massive population from the Russian-Jewish diaspora, Israel is home to many Russian speakers. Could Putin feasibly extend a doctrine of linguistic based protection to cover Israel? Netanyahu, in a recent meeting with Putin, also expressed support for Russia’s involvement in Syria, and the two countries have been working together in this regard.

Russia and Israel may also be increasingly drawn together over feelings of marginalization by the West. Russian-Western relations are obviously strained, but Israel is also experiencing some difficulty with the West over its treatment of Palestinians, particularly in its colonization of the West Bank. Countries like France are increasingly supportive of Palestine over Israel, and at every turn Israel seems to be losing ground in the hearts and minds of its allies. With growing friction from the West, Israel and Russia may turn to each other to reinforce their mutual and individual interests.

But nothing is so simple, and there is still a great deal of contention. Russia’s providing of technology to Iran is unlikely to gain points with Israel. The Russians also continue to provide support to Palestinians, perhaps merely as token resistance to a perceived American stronghold. They gave arms and other support to the PLO and enjoyed generally cool relations. Arafat even attended Brezhnev’s funeral in 1982. Russia may continue to lend support to Palestine or, seeing opportunity, may make a shift towards Israel.

I do not believe that a shift of this magnitude would be very likely however, at least not without Russia dramatically shifting its perspectives on terrorism. Terrorism is an intensely politicized issue, with varying countries distinguishing between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist” simply on the basis of national interest. Russia, for example, does not acknowledge Hezbollah as a terror group while Israel and many in the West do. The reason is obvious: Hezbollah acts as a thorn in the side of one of the United States’ most valuable allies. The same applies to Palestine: Russia is unwilling to criticize Palestine, even if Israel and the United States are wary of increasingly frequent attacks by disgruntled Palestinians. Russia can alter its terror designations at any time, but once again history and political culture remain difficult to change.

Any chance of a Russia-Israel alliance forming is unlikely to occur unless Israel and America get a divorce. Israel’s treatment of Palestine is coming under increasing skepticism in the States, but most Washington politicians remain firmly committed to the alliance and the Israel lobby remains exceptionally powerful and influence. Since both Trump and Clinton have spoken out in support of Israel I think we can count on continued American-Israeli cooperation. Ironically Bernie, himself a Jew, has offered criticism of Israel, but I doubt even he could change our posture. If I know anything about Russian foreign policy I would daresay that it may be more strategically sound for Russia to continue to support Palestine and simply use the USA’s support of Israel as a wedge between America and her allies.

Ultimately a Russian-Israeli pact is unlikely, although there is a conceivable chain of events that may bring it about. It’s still fascinating to theorize on, and the fact that a case can be made for this point stands in sharp contrast to the bitter, bloody history of Russia and its Jews. Politics can still make strange bedfellows.



Chess and Russia

Perhaps it is the fact that the game originated nearby in Persia and India. Maybe its intellectual nature just meshes well with the Russian psyche. We could also explain the obsession in terms of politics, with the Soviets actively creating an environment for the sport to develop. Regardless, we cannot understand Russia without talking about chess at some point.

I learned to play chess from my father when very young and continue to remain interested in it. Every so often I lapse into intense periods of play and study; my current binge session started late in January of this year and is still going strong. My play and understanding of the game has blossomed as of late, with bolder tactics, more experimental play, and a more concerted effort to develop opening lines and endgame reflexes. So why not make a blog post while I am currently hooked?

While chess is only confined to a board of 64 squares, it is a truly massive game in terms of depth, perhaps even larger than Russia itself. For this reason it would probably be best to stick to some of the basics.

Chess is a game with a vast lexicon, but even the most basic translations are interesting to note. The Russians refer to chess as Шахматы (Shakhmaty), which roughly translates to Checkmate. The word is clearly inspired by the original Persian if you didn’t notice the “shah.” More Persian influence is revealed in the Russian name for the queen, Ферзь (Ferz’), which is roughly borrowed from Vizier. Some translations also reveal Indian influence as well, with the Russians referring to the bishop as the слон (slon), or elephant. Still, another aspect of the game have been thoroughly Russified. In English, the term rook (“the castle shaped piece”) is borrowed from the Persian word for chariot. Yet the Russians instead use the term ладья (ladya) instead. A ladya is a Russian boat that looks like something Leif Erikson would have used to reach the new world. The appearance of such vessels is a testament to the Viking heritage of the Russians, with Kiev originally being a Viking trading post. The use of the term ladya in lieu of rook may also indicate how cultural diffusion was assisted by localizing certain aspects of the game, a clear indication of chess’ flexibility in migrating to other cultures. The Persian loan words and existence of the “elephant” seems to lend some credence to the idea that chess hit it big in Russia in part due to Russia’s proximity to the game’s birthplace.

Chess seems to have long had a foothold over Russian minds-Ivan the Terrible apparently died while playing the game-but the Immortal Game by David Shenk argues that chess came to the forefront of Russian society under the Soviet Union. This seems odd, especially in a country that took its revolutionary goals seriously and had little patience for diversions as shown by the national adoption of Socialist Realism. Yet chess somehow was pushed as a national pastime, likely due to its theoretical nature. Shenk dedicates a few pages to chronicling the rise of chess in the Soviet Union, with it reaching its logical apex during the Cold War where it could be used to show the superiority of the Soviet intellect. Shenk explains that part of the success of the Soviet Union in chess stems from a collectivist approach to the games, with Soviet grandmasters often discussing and working to solve games together during intermissions at tournaments. Regardless of whatever method they may have used, the Soviets produced some exceptional players. Among my favorites are Tigran Petrosian (a master of defense) and the dynamic Boris Spassky.

Chess is an evolving game, and as theories develop and new lines emerge grandmasters continuously get better and better. It is impossible to compare grandmasters of different eras, since the newest ones benefit from having access to games and theory that didn’t previously exist, but it may be safe to crown Garry Kasparov as the best. A Russian grandmaster hailing from the Azerbaijan SSR, Kasparov enjoyed a long tenure as world champion. He is also remembered for his fated games against the Chess computer Deep Blue. Today, Kasparov is retired from chess and spends his days as an ardent critic of Putin. He uses his popularity to build a platform for Westernization and liberalism, and he has become a champion of the Other Russia and various civil society causes. Elite status is no guarantee of safety for critics of the Kremlin, and for that reason Kasparov currently lives in exile. I have an immense respect for Kasparov, but I find his political viewpoints to be a tad radical. You can see a video of him on Bill Maher below. His views remind me of those of a conservative American. While I may disagree with him in the realm of politics I will freely admit that he is far closer to the action and may be more correct in his assessment of Putin than I am. Kasparov is very brave and active in calling for Russian democracy and I wonder if chess may have played a role in forming his opinions. Western viewpoints may have been developed during his years spent abroad as an international champion. In his book How Life Imitates Chess Kasparov recalls a few stories of being abroad as a young man and being exposed to Western culture. Ironically a product of the Brezhnevite Soviet chess machine may have unintentionally been raised to be a fierce critic of the neo-Brezhnevite Putin regime.

Chess’ popularity in Russia makes it a good source of political metaphor. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a key adviser to the Reagan administration, has a memorable quote to this effect: “Russia is playing chess, while we are playing Monopoly. The only question is whether they will checkmate us before we bankrupt them.” While an apt Cold War metaphor, I fail to see how the Soviets were ever in a position to checkmate us. Similarly it could be said that the Russians were bankrupting themselves better than we ever could. Regardless the imagery is striking, and the board game references add a veneer of legitimacy and credibility. We still see chess terms thrown around in modern political discourse, most often to describe Putin’s geopolitical strategies. I think that real life is too complex to reduce into a game like chess, but we have to admit that there are uncanny similarities. Chess is a game about managing material, position, space, and time, not unlike geopolitics. It may be more than a little fitting therefore as a descriptor of Russian foreign policy (position and space especially have been critical assets to Russia, and Russia’s ability to control and project force across land is a prime concern of their foreign policy and will likely remain so).

I apologize for presenting a scattered and unfocused post, but chess is too broad of a field to effectively condense in such a brief space. At the very least I hope that I might have cast some light until chess’ historical, cultural, and political place in the Russian soul.