New York Times News Service, August 3rd, 1998:
In Russia, suggestions of a cultural change for the better
By William Safire
MOSCOW - I am not Yevgeny Primakov's favorite columnist. In a recent interview with my New York Times colleagues, Russia's foreign minister brandished a piece I wrote about his scheme to sell missiles to Cyprus - thereby to ignite a war between Greece and Turkey - and characterized it as "glupo." Although his interpreter gentled that down to "unwise," the Russian word means "stupid."
The underlying reason for his irritation is probably a biographical aside I filed last year about his name: Primakov is the Ukrainian word for "stepson." He adopted that name because the one he was born with - Finkelstein - was hardly useful to a KGB espionage agent under cover as a Pravda correspondent in the Arab Middle East.
Curiously, the sensitivity of many other Russian politicians to their Jewish parentage is changing. This was dramatized in the last presidential campaign when the reformer Grigory Yavlinsky pointed to the nutty nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and said, "Both of us are half Jewish, but I'm the one who admits it."
The architect of the IMF bailout, Anatoly Chubais, is listed in the "Jewish Encyclopedia of Russia." So is his archrival, Boris Berezovsky, the equally unpopular auto-and-oil tycoon who took Israeli citizenship five years ago and has since been appointed to powerful Russian posts. Berezovsky warned Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic reformer elected to be governor of Nizhny Novgorod, not to run for president because he has "a purely genetic problem."
Nemtsov shrugs this off. "In the first stage of your entry into politics," he told me the other day in his Moscow White House office, "they look at your biography. But after you've been on TV a hundred times, they forget."
Not yet 40, Nemtsov was brought to Moscow by Boris Yeltsin and now tries to bring reform to the energy sector as deputy prime minister. His popularity in national polls has dipped with the state of the shaky economy, but is little affected by the public's knowledge that he is a Jew.
When asked as far back as January by Yeltsin's chief of staff to put down five names as choices for a replacement to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin (who did not know his head was on the block), Nemtsov included in his list Sergei Kiriyenko, an energetic executive in his mid-30s who had worked with him in Nizhny, who comes from a Jewish family.
Although Chernomyrdin had earlier thought Kiriyenko to be too young to be a deputy minister of oil and gas, Nemtsov saw him as "smart, honest, liberal." Yeltsin, looking for a shaker-upper with no political base, stunned the world by making Kiriyenko his prime minister. Criticism centered on his youth and political inexperience, and on Yeltsin's seeming impulsiveness, but not on the new man's ethnicity.
What does this mean? Nobody can claim that Russia, home of the pogrom and the Pale and Stalin's "anti-cosmopolitanism" campaign, has suddenly lost its deep-rooted prejudices, or that nearly a million Jews were glupo to abandon Russia in this decade for security and opportunity in Israel and America.
When a bomb exploded two months ago at Moscow's Marina Roshche synagogue, a Communist member of the Duma said ominously: "For some reason, priority is bestowed on one nationality - Jews. Unfortunately, I do not rule out that there may be more explosions."
But the Communists are in decline and the more opportunistic exploit bigotry against Muslims, usually darker-skinned Russians from the Caucasus. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a nationalist presidential hopeful who is trying to drain off Communist voters, put on a skullcap and attended synagogue services to make Moscow's 300,000 Jews (few religious) feel more secure.
Resentment is directed at manipulative oligarchs like Berezovsky who dominate the economy; few of them assert their Jewishness, though media mogul Vladimir Gosinsky leads Russia's Jewish Congress.
In tough economic times, this general acceptance of Jews in the full glare of Russian politics suggests a cultural change for the better. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could tell her counterpart Primakov, revelation of a Jewish background is no handicap and should be no cause for embarrassment. That augurs well for the beleaguered Russian people.