Moscow mayor backs Jewish community Outspoken nationalist departs from agenda for peace in capital

July 22, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Yuri Luzhkov, the burly and outspoken mayor of Moscow, is one of those people who believe in Russia for the Russians. He also believes in Ukraine for the Russians, and Latvia for the Russians, among other places.

He's a nationalist -- crude, energetic, loud and, above all, Russian, in a land where most minority religions are not considered Russian.

But there he was at the recent rededication of Moscow's Marina Rosha Synagogue, wearing a yarmulke and giving a speech -- or shouting one, actually -- about how much Russia and Moscow owe the Jews.

This in the land that invented the word pogrom. Where nationalism and anti-Semitism always have been in league with each other. Where Jewish emigration to Israel became a river after the old restrictions were torn down. And where the Marina Rosha Synagogue was being rededicated because someone tried to blow it up May 13, causing some structural damage but no injuries.

"He's very, very close to the Jewish people," said Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Italian-born and Brooklyn-educated leader of the synagogue. "He feels the Jews are giving so much to this country, and should stay here to contribute what they can to building this country as a democracy."

And Luzhkov isn't timid about it.

"As for the Jewish nationality," he declared at the synagogue before 4,000 people, practically thumping the lectern, "we all should treat the Jews of our Russia and of our Moscow with the utmost respect, because they are talented people, we should understand this, and because they are patriotic people. These are people who want the country to be happy and prosperous."

He denounced the "scoundrels" of chauvinism and their "black deeds."

And in case anyone hasn't caught his meaning over the years, he has made two trips to Jerusalem, in the sort of pilgrimage that plenty of U.S. politicians could understand.

His detractors scoff that the mayor is nothing more than an opportunist with no principles of his own, and would be happy to turn against the Jews if he thought that would advance his career.

"Luzhkov can wear a yarmulke today, tomorrow appear with the imams -- for him it's of no importance," said Maxim Shevchenko, the religion editor of the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, referring to Muslim leaders.

Luzhkov and Russia's other leaders, he said, act as though they can take the Jews, the Tatars, the Chechens, the Russians, and lump them altogether in one big multinational "virtual reality," that ignores the consequences of deeply rooted historical grievances.

And they have no feel for their own traditions, said Shevchenko, who is a devout Russian Orthodox believer.

But stirring up ethnic hatred, particularly against the Jews, might not be the most appealing alternative.

Nikolai Petrov, scholar in residence at the Moscow Carnegie Institute, is not as critical as Shevchenko, though he agrees that Luzhkov is probably not driven by principles in his embrace of Moscow's Jewish community.

What the mayor wants, Petrov believes, is ethnic peace in the city, an image for residents of a very strong state and an image abroad of tolerance and progress. All this could stand him in good stead if he makes a bid for the presidency in 2000.

"It's more an element of his political strategy than his personal views," Petrov said.

In fact, he said, despite the periodic police sweeps of Azerbaijani traders off Moscow's streets, Luzhkov has shown support as well for the city's Islamic leaders.

"The task of the authorities," Luzhkov said at Marina Rosha Synagogue, "is to ensure that every nationality which lives and wants to continue to live here in the capital of Russia feels that it lives in its own home.

"And I say -- I always say this because this is the way I think -- that only national unity, national patience and national concord can save and ensure continuity of our common motherland -- Russia."

Petrov reduces that to a more practical, political formula: "Muslims are very numerous. Jews are very influential."

Luzhkov has appointed Jews to positions in his administration (as has President Boris N. Yeltsin), a significant change from the Soviet era, when Jews were excluded from important posts. And it hasn't cost him politically, though perhaps only a politician like Luzhkov can get away with wearing a yarmulke here.

"He's so Russian in his essence and appearance," Petrov said, "that it won't hurt him to demonstrate anything like this."

Lazar rejected the suggestion that the mayor's tough-Russian image might be inconsistent with good Jewish relations. He believes a mayor such as Luzhkov, "who can put his foot down," is the best ally Jews here could have against the sort of anti-Semitic youth groups probably responsible for the two arson and bomb attacks against the synagogue since 1994.

"If anybody can fight them," the rabbi said, "Luzhkov can."

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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