Russian failures generate outburst of anti-Semitism Uproar over remarks suggests many blame Jews for misfortunes

November 16, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- After three months of economic collapse and do-nothing government, the political frustrations and resentments here have found a focus at last, and it's the age-old one. Russians call it the Jewish Question.

The virulently anti-Semitic remarks of Albert Makashov, a Communist member of parliament, have driven wedges between allies, set factions against each other, and launched an overtly political struggle between the Communist Party and what it regards as the rich man's press.

The scandal dominated the newspapers and television all last week and shows no signs of going away, as prosecutors in the coming days will seek to strip Makashov of his parliamentary immunity.

It began with comments that would be unthinkable in the West. But it has become more than a simple controversy over the attacks by Makashov, a retired general, on the "yids." It has become the pretext for the first serious political fight here since the installation of the new government after the financial avalanche of August and September.

"In fact this wave of discussion has only the slightest connection to Jews," said Vladimir N. Oivin of the Glasnost Public Foundation. "It is a very convenient moment to show the real face of current Russian Communists."

In a series of speeches last month, Makashov called for Jews to be rounded up and thrown in prison. He defined the "zhid" -- the derogatory word in Russian for Jew -- as "the ravager, the bloodsucker feeding on the misfortunes of other people."

"I am a Russian general," he said. "When I see what the cosmopolitans are doing with my Motherland it makes my blood boil. The little devils 'got me' with their threats in connection with the events of October 1993 [when Makashov helped lead bloody and unsuccessful parliamentary uprising against President Boris N. Yeltsin]. I said that even after I died I would take at least a dozen yids with me to the great beyond. An eye for an eye!"

Even while tapping into a long Russian and Soviet tradition of anti-Semitism, Makashov was giving voice to an ever-growing anger about what has happened to Russia this decade and about the so-called financial oligarchs -- only some of whom are Jewish -- who appear to have enriched themselves at others' expense.

The liberals in parliament paid him little heed at first. But two deputies -- the ardently nationalist filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin and the Jewish crooner with reputed criminal ties, Iosif Kobzon -- stepped forward and asked the parliament to censure Makashov.

On Nov. 4, Communists in the lower house of parliament, or Duma, defeated the motion, even though two leading members of the party, speaker Gennady Seleznyov and Deputy Prime Minister Yuri D. Maslyukov, were critical of Makashov.

Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the Russian-nationalist son of a Jewish father, took Makashov's side. "He doesn't go to the Canary Islands for his vacations and the Jews do," Zhirinovsky said. "They're rich. So they have good compensation for their suffering. The Jewish people are very talented, but it's necessary to approach this talent with caution, because it can be used against us."

The Duma vote set the wheels spinning, and when an unrepentant Makashov reiterated his remarks four days later at an observance of the 81st anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the uproar was ready to take shape.

While declaring that his party supports a multi-ethnic Russia, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has not criticized Makashov. This has given the liberals in parliament the opportunity to denounce Communists as anti-Semites at every turn. A new motion to censure Makashov, put up this time by liberals, narrowly failed on Friday.

The press has blasted away. Communists have pointed out that two of the three television networks are controlled by Jews -- Boris A. Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. When the party called for a government board to oversee the networks and a greater number of ethnic Russian newscasters, the attacks were stepped up.

The editor of the extremist newspaper Zavtra, Alexander Prochanov, was quoted in the Russian daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda Friday as saying that the attacks on the Communists were attempts at revenge by the liberals, after their fall from power in August.

At first glance, the Communists would seem to be in a weak position over this issue.

"If Zyuganov had distanced himself immediately, it would be forgotten already," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an analyst with the Center for Strategic Studies. "But the problem is not Makashov, the problem is the Communist Party and the fights within the Communist Party."

The party is already in agony over its inability to capitalize on the economic downfall -- because it has been too closely tied to the government of Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov. And as much as Zyuganov would like to present himself to the world as a modern socialist politician, he would rather brazen this one out, Piontkovsky said, than risk a total rupture over Makashov.

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